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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Would You Pay $20 Million for an Old Diesel?

Would you pay $20 million for an old diesel? Perhaps this seems to be a strange question to ask right after Shaquille O'Neal had his best performance of this year's playoffs (28 and 16 versus Detroit to win the Eastern Conference Finals beats 30 and 20 versus Chicago in my book). I could point out that this article was researched and written before the Miami Heat's game six win but the reality is that O'Neal did not do anything to refute my basic premise: unless he leads the Heat to an NBA title, he is overpaid because he is the NBA's highest paid player but is clearly no longer the best player in the league. If Miami wins the championship, then it is certainly justifiable to pay O'Neal more than he would be worth based strictly on his individual numbers. O'Neal's strong performance in eliminating Detroit was very timely and it will be interesting to see if he is able to sustain that level of play throughout the NBA Finals.

Shaquille O’Neal has a lot of nicknames—Shaq Daddy, the Diesel, the Big Aristotle—but unless he and the Miami Heat are able to win an NBA title he is going to earn a new one: "overpaid." O’Neal is the highest paid player in the NBA, taking in $20 million a year. Whether or not any athlete should make that much more money than surgeons, police officers, teachers and others is a separate issue—big time movie stars make much more than athletes do and no one seems to be up in arms about that. The question here is whether or not O’Neal’s production justifies his salary relative to what other NBA players make.

Here are O’Neal’s regular season statistics for the past five seasons:

GP Min FG% FT% RPG APG SPG BPG TPG PF PPG
01-02 LAL 67 36.1 .579 .555 10.7 3.0 .61 2.04 2.55 3.00 27.2
02-03 LAL 67 37.8 .574 .622 11.1 3.1 .57 2.37 2.93 3.40 27.5
03-04 LAL 67 36.8 .584 .490 11.5 2.9 .51 2.48 2.91 3.40 21.5
04-05 MIA 73 34.1 .601 .461 10.4 2.7 .49 2.34 2.78 3.60 22.9
05-06 MIA 59 30.6 .600 .469 9.2 1.9 .39 1.76 2.85 3.90 20.0


Here are his playoff numbers for the same time span:

01-02 LAL 19 40.8 .529 .649 12.6 2.8 .53 2.53 3.26 3.26 28.5
02-03 LAL 12 40.1 .535 .621 14.8 3.7 .58 2.83 2.92 2.83 27.0
03-04 LAL 22 41.7 .593 .429 13.2 2.5 .32 2.77 2.50 4.09 21.5
04-05 MIA 13 33.2 .558 .472 7.8 1.9 .38 1.46 3.23 4.00 19.4
05-06 MIA 16 32.1 .597 .400 9.3 1.3 .50 1.50 3.81 3.56 19.6
(through May 31)


The pattern is very evident: O’Neal’s field goal percentage has increased but his minutes, free throw percentage, rebounding, assists, steals, blocked shots and points are all heading downward. His turnovers and fouls are increasing despite his diminished time on the court. He has gone from being the most dominant player in the game to "just" an All-Star level center, receiving no MVP votes this season after finishing a close second last year. His decline becomes even more apparent when you consider the numbers that he put up in 1999-2000, the year that he won his only regular season MVP and the first of his three championships: 29.7 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 3.03 bpg and 3.8 apg in the regular season and 30.7 ppg, 15.4 rpg, 2.39 bpg and 3.1 apg in the playoffs. Also, he misses between 15 and 23 games a year. O’Neal is more injury prone than ever and has lost a lot of the quickness and athleticism that he had a few years ago. His "breakout" game six in the first round versus Chicago—30 points and 20 rebounds against the likes of Michael Sweetney and Tyson Chandler—would have been a routine playoff outing a few years ago. O’Neal maintains a high field goal percentage because, to his credit, he never takes shots out of his range—dunks, jump hooks and short jumpers. He is no longer quick enough to consistently get good post position without committing offensive fouls, so he is not able to get off enough of those high percentage shots to regularly score 28-30 points like he used to do.

Many people are saying that O’Neal looks better than he has in years. Superficially, this is true, but it is important not to let one’s view be swayed by a couple spin moves and a coast-to-coast drive. O’Neal averaged roughly 20 ppg, 9 rpg and 1.8 bpg in the regular season. His numbers overall in this year’s playoffs are virtually identical to that and his statistics in the Eastern Conference Finals are only slightly better. One thing that O’Neal is doing in the playoffs that does not show up in these numbers is "showing"—on screen and rolls, that is. Heat Coach Pat Riley has demanded that when O’Neal is defending screen and roll plays that he leave the paint and “show” so that teams do not get easy shots like they have in the past against O’Neal’s teams. O’Neal has always been reluctant to do this but is now making a concerted effort in this area.

O’Neal made the All-NBA First Team for the eighth time this year but Ben Wallace, the Defensive Player of the Year for the fourth time, has a bigger impact on the defensive end of the court and Yao Ming had overall numbers that were at least as good as O’Neal’s this season: 22.3 ppg (first among centers), 10.2 rpg (third among centers), 1.65 bpg (ninth among centers), .519 field goal shooting and .853 free throw shooting. O’Neal trailed Yao in scoring, rebounding and free throw shooting and had virtually identical shot blocking numbers; his only significant advantage is in field goal percentage. Miami had a much better record than Houston and that no doubt was a major factor in the voting. Both players missed a significant number of games—23 for Shaq, 25 for Yao.

O’Neal calls himself the "LCL"—the last center left. Unlike some big men who fancy themselves to be guards and try to play on the perimeter, O’Neal has always understood that he belongs on the block. His sheer size still commands double-teams at times—not as frequently as when he was in his prime, but enough to create open shots for his teammates. Clearly, Dwyane Wade is the best player on the Miami Heat at this point, but O’Neal still has a definite impact on the team’s won-loss record. It is interesting that O’Neal willingly defers to Wade, something that he refused to do when he played with Kobe Bryant.

Purely based on production there is no question that O’Neal is overpaid—he is receiving the NBA’s top salary but is clearly not the NBA’s best player. However, Miami’s ultimate goal in acquiring him is to win the championship, so the latter part of his career must be looked at in that context. Pat Riley signed O’Neal and then came down from the Heat’s executive offices to coach Wade, O’Neal and the veteran laden roster that he assembled around his two stars. Riley’s reasoning can be summarized by borrowing from a popular advertising campaign: Cost for a future Hall of Fame center? $20 million. Winning an NBA championship? Priceless.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM

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Diesel Powered: Shaquille O'Neal Fuels Miami's First Trip to the NBA Finals

Dwyane Wade had the flu, but Shaquille O'Neal made the Detroit Pistons feel sick. O'Neal shot 12-14 from the field and had 28 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots to lead the Miami Heat to a 95-78 win over the Detroit Pistons in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat will now make the franchise's first appearance in the NBA Finals. Rip Hamilton led Detroit with 33 points but shot only 12-28 from the field. The other Pistons starters combined to shoot 12-40 from the field.

Wade spent most of Saturday getting treatment for a stomach virus and he got off to a slow start in the first quarter, shooting 0-2 from the field and picking up two fouls, although he did have three assists--two of them lob passes to O'Neal for dunks. O'Neal shot 4-5 from the field in the first quarter and the Heat players other than O'Neal and Wade combined to shoot 7-9, including a 4-4 performance by Jason Williams. Yet Miami only led 25-20 at the end of the quarter, mainly because the Heat committed five turnovers and the Pistons did not have any. Wade's first field goal came early in the second quarter and gave Miami a 28-21 lead. Williams' pull up fast break jump shot extended the margin to 38-27 at the 4:11 mark and Miami maintained that distance the rest of the half, leading 47-36 at the break. O'Neal had 19 points on 9-11 field goal shooting, nine rebounds and three blocked shots in the first half. The Pistons made only 11 field goals in the first half. Flip Saunders' "liberation offense" that Pistons players raved about all season looked like it had been locked up in a maximum security prison.

After halftime, it has become customary for sideline reporters to talk to a member of each team's coaching staff. Rarely do any earth shattering revelations come out of these conversations but Jim Gray's recapitulation of what Saunders told him was quite interesting. Gray said that Saunders told him that Detroit had just played its worst half of the playoffs and that he didn't know what to do. Give Saunders credit for being honest, but if he's telling Jim Gray that he doesn't know what to do what did he tell his players? Whatever it was, it didn't help, because Miami outscored Detroit 25-17 in the third quarter. Wade stayed in the locker room during the early part of the quarter to get some more treatment but when he returned he brought his shooting touch with him, making 5 of 6 shots and scoring 10 points.

Hamilton scored 12 quick points in the fourth quarter but Detroit never mounted a serious charge because the Pistons--whose postseason media guide last year was titled "The Defenders"--simply could not get a stop. Miami shot .557 from the field for the game. The Pistons had no answer for O'Neal, made Williams look like an All-Star and did nothing special against Wade after he got his legs under him. Wade finished with 14 points, 10 assists and four rebounds, content to pick apart Detroit's porous defense with his passing. Williams made his first 10 shots from the field and finished 10-12 with 21 points and six assists.

The playoffs have been quite a turnaround story for the Heat. As ESPN's Hubie Brown pointed out, during the regular season Miami had a losing record against plus-.500 teams and went 2-12 against division winners. The Heat looked less than dominant in the first round against Chicago but since then they have gone 8-3 against New Jersey and Detroit, the Eastern Conference's other two division champions--talk about peaking at the right time.

The Detroit Pistons are also quite a turnaround story--but in a bad way. Detroit won a franchise record 64 games and earned home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Pistons felt that if game seven of last year's Finals versus San Antonio had been a home game that they would have defended their title. Game seven against Miami would have been in Detroit but the Pistons failed to make it that far. Only one other team in NBA history, the 68-14 1972-73 Boston Celtics, won more regular season games without capturing the championship; the Celtics lost a tough series to a great New York Knicks team after John Havlicek injured his shoulder. How much blame does Saunders deserve for this? He is the only major change to the core group that made it to two straight NBA Finals and won one championship. The players did not always look energized or focused--but that is part of his job. The great coaches come up with game plans and motivational gimmicks that ensure that the team is concentrating on the task at hand. Saunders is to be commended for how well he responded to the pressure in the regular season but this was not a good playoff run for a veteran team like Detroit. The Pistons' trademark defense was absent for long stretches and the offense misfired like an old jalopy. Joe Dumars handed Saunders the keys to a sleek, championship winning race car and Saunders led most of the laps of the race only to crash with the finish line in sight.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:29 AM

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Friday, June 02, 2006

We Are All Nowitznesses: Dirk's 50 Sinks the Suns

Dirk Nowitzki scored a franchise playoff record 50 points and the Dallas Mavericks held the Phoenix Suns to .456 shooting from the field in a 117-101 game five victory. The Mavericks can advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in team history with a win in Phoenix on Saturday night. Nowitzki had 22 points in the fourth quarter, two more than the entire Suns team. He shot 14-26 from the field and 17-18 from the line and had 12 rebounds, bouncing back from his 11 point, seven rebound performance in game four. Nowitzki joins Billy Cunningham, Bob McAdoo, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone as the only players to have a 50-10 game in the NBA playoffs since 1970. Kobe Bryant is the only other player to score 50 points in a playoff game this year. He also did it against Phoenix, in the Lakers' game six overtime loss.

Josh Howard added 23 points and seven rebounds for the Mavericks, while Tim Thomas led Phoenix with a playoff career-high 26 points, making six of his eight three point attempts. Steve Nash (20 points, 11 assists) and Shawn Marion (20 points, 10 rebounds) each had double-doubles. Raja Bell, who provided such a lift for Phoenix last game, was clearly hobbled by his calf injury and scored only three points on 1-5 field goal shooting.

There were several remarkable momentum swings before Nowitzki seized control of the game in the fourth quarter. Dallas led 36-20 after the first quarter, forcing the Suns into an unheard of three 24-second violations. The Mavericks executed their game plan to perfection: minimize their turnovers, force Phoenix to turn the ball over, drain the shot clock unless there is a clear advantage. Nowitzki already had 13 points and the Mavericks seemed poised to blow Phoenix out. Of course, it is rarely that easy against Phoenix, because the Suns are a very resilient team that has a lot of offensive weapons. Tim Thomas scored 11 points to key a 32-22 Phoenix second quarter advantage that vaulted the Suns right back into the game. That momentum carried over into the third quarter and with 3:17 remaining in the period Thomas hit a three pointer that extended Phoenix' lead to 74-70. After the game, Nowitzki told TNT's Cheryl Miller that he felt that everything that Dallas had worked so hard for all year was slipping away. He decided that he had to take over, so he scored seven of Dallas' points in a 10-0 run. The Mavericks would not trail again the rest of the way.

Phoenix kept the game close early in the fourth quarter and only trailed 89-85 with 8:55 remaining. Then Bell fouled Howard and compounded matters by receiving a technical foul. Suns' Coach Mike D'Antoni complained so vociferously about those calls that he too was whistled for a technical foul. Nowitzki made both free throws and hit a jump shot; this four point play gave Dallas an eight point lead and Phoenix never got the margin closer than six after that.

The Lakers and Clippers each pushed Phoenix to the brink only to fall short in the seventh game. Dallas will not have that problem. The Mavericks are deeper than either of those teams and much better able to withstand--or even prevent--the Suns' trademark scoring runs. Phoenix will no doubt play with tremendous energy in game six but the Suns will fall just short of forcing their third straight seventh game.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:32 AM

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Not Dead Yet: Pistons Rediscover "Dee-troit Basketball," Force Game Six Versus Heat

When Pat Riley's Showtime Lakers were going for a third straight championship, he trademarked the phrase "Threepeat." Has anyone from the Pistons organization trademarked "If it ain't rough, it ain't right"? Grammarians everywhere will cringe, but someone could generate some real merchandising revenue if the Pistons can come up with a few more performances like Wednesday night's. Down 3-1 to the Miami Heat, with Heat owner Mickey Arison talking about celebrating on Detroit's homecourt to get revenge for the Pistons' game seven win in Miami last year, Detroit defeated Miami 91-78, holding the Heat to their 2006 playoff scoring low. Tayshaun Prince had a playoff career-high 29 points and Chauncey Billups made up for his 3-12 shooting from the field by sinking all 11 of his free throws, totaling 17 points, 10 assists and only one turnover. As usual, Dwyane Wade led the Heat attack with 23 points, four assists, three rebounds and five turnovers while shooting 11-20 from the field--a good night for most players, but his worst game of the series. Shaquille O'Neal had 19 points, six rebounds, three blocked shots and no assists (his fourth straight game without an assist), with 9-15 accuracy from the field and 1-5 (in)accuracy from the free throw line. The rest of the Heat shot 14-42 from the field. The Heat committed 14 turnovers and shot 6-20 on free throws.

It was not artistic--Detroit wins rarely are--but Pistons' fans, who want to believe even more than the X-Files' Fox Mulder, surely appreciated the energy, effort and enthusiasm that the Pistons displayed. The play of the game happened with 8:28 left in the third quarter. Shaquille O'Neal went up for a power dunk but Ben Wallace flew in out of nowhere, stuffing O'Neal's shot and forcing a jump ball. Wallace won the tip and Detroit scored on Prince's lefty runner for a 57-51 lead. Detroit led 73-65 going into the fourth quarter.

The final period will not be appearing on ESPN Classic anytime soon. Wade and O'Neal combined for all 13 of the Heat's points. Antonio McDyess had eight of Detroit's 18 points, capping off an evening in which he shot 5-5 from the field and grabbed six rebounds in only 19 minutes of action. Prince scored five points, including a huge basket with 4:28 left in regulation after O'Neal blocked Rip Hamilton's shot. The ball bounced out to Prince with the shot clock running out and he coolly nailed a three pointer to put Detroit up 82-76.

I picked Detroit at the start of the series but after Detroit's lackluster game four I thought that the Pistons were in big trouble. They are not out of the woods yet but, on the other hand, they are now one road win away from forcing a game seven in Auburn Hills; it is safe to say that both teams will be feeling some pressure in the next game. As I mentioned in my post after game four (Misfiring Pistons are on the Brink of Elimination), these teams are flawed compared to some of the champions of years past, so it will be interesting to see how the players--and coaches--respond.

The Pistons have eliminated O'Neal's teams from the playoffs the last two years, so they know how to defend against him without allowing his teammates to go off for big performances. The question is whether the Pistons will have the focus and discipline to author two more games like Wednesday's. They need to stop complaining about their coach and stop barking at the referees and just play ball. ESPN's Chris Berman used to call Detroit Lions Coach Wayne Fontes "Rasputin," because just when it seemed that he was about to get fired the Lions would go on a winning streak and preserve his job. If the Pistons come back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat Miami in this series, call them Detroit's new Rasputin.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:43 PM

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Phoenix Rings Dallas' Bell 106-86, Evens Western Conference Finals at 2-2

Four Phoenix Suns scored more points than Raja Bell's nine in the Suns' 106-86 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night but Bell had a huge impact on the game. His return to the starting lineup provided some much needed fire and grit and strengthened the Suns' bench by enabling Leandro Barbosa (24 points on 10-13 field goal shooting) to return to his role as a non-starter. Steve Nash had 21 points and seven assists and Boris Diaw produced 20 points, nine rebounds, four assists and one "facial" on Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks completely failed to execute their game plan of forcing turnovers, limiting their own turnovers and running the shot clock down. Dallas committed 14 turnovers while only forcing seven and failed to control the pace of the game. Josh Howard led Dallas with 16 points--14 of them in the first half--and nine rebounds, while Nowitzki had a very rough night: 11 points on 3-13 field goal shooting and seven rebounds, ending his streak of six straight playoff games with at least 25 points and 10 rebounds.

It is not necessarily shocking that the Suns won a game on their homecourt but it is surprising that they routed Dallas by 20. The Mavericks' four previous playoff losses this year came by a combined 11 points. Most statistical indicators pointed steadily downward for Phoenix since game one, which the Suns won on a last second shot, but the X-factor for Phoenix is always energy. When the Suns are energetic and aggressive on defense and in pursuit of loose balls that translates into open court opportunities and then it becomes a feeding frenzy. The Suns are 2-0 in this series when Bell plays and 0-2 when he sits out.

This game looked like it could turn out to be a classic case of what Yogi Berra might call "deja vu all over again." The Suns led by as much as 11 in the first half before Dallas trimmed the margin to 51-46 at halftime. In the previous two games, Phoenix had halftime leads but wilted in the second half and the Mavericks won. Dallas did take the lead briefly in the third quarter and with 3:09 remaining in the period the score was tied at 67. The Suns then went on a 25-6 run, ensuring that one of these teams will face elimination in a sixth game in Phoenix.

Speaking of "deja vu all over again," during the second quarter TNT analyst Steve Kerr made an observation that should sound very familiar to 20 Second Timeout readers. He said that Nash's ability to drive baseline and then find cutters flashing to the basket reminds him of Wayne Gretzky. This is what I wrote about Nash and Gretzky almost two months ago (in this post: Kobe Scores 51 but the Lakers Play Like Zeroes):

"Speaking of hockey, the way that Nash dribbles behind the basket on one side and comes out the other to either make a shot or deliver an assist is reminiscent of how Wayne Gretzky operated in his 'office' behind the goalie."

posted by David Friedman @ 12:49 AM

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Misfiring Pistons are on the Brink of Elimination

Detroit's season long quest to avenge last year's loss in the NBA Finals seems like it is about to end. The Miami Heat outscored the Pistons 27-18 in the fourth quarter and their 89-78 win gave them a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. Dwyane Wade had another tremendous game, scoring 31 points on 8-11 field goal shooting and 15-19 free throw accuracy while adding six rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocked shots. He is averaging 30.8 ppg on .695 field goal shooting versus Detroit. Shaquille O'Neal contributed 21 points, nine rebounds and one blocked shot. He had no assists for the third straight game, but shot 8-12 from the field. Look at those numbers again: Wade and O'Neal combined to shoot 16-23 from the field.

Detroit's defensive plan is hard to decipher because the Pistons are failing to contain Wade, O'Neal or the Heat role players, who chipped in with timely baskets. What kind of defense takes nothing away from the opponent? Miami shot .549 from the field and drove the ball to the basket enough to attempt 47 free throws, making 28--not a great percentage but those points add up, particularly in a low scoring game. Paraphrasing a famous lament that I believe originated with former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach John McKay, Detroit's defense was bad, but the Pistons made up for it by shooting .390 from the field and .545 on their free throws. Tayshaun Prince led Detroit with 15 points, 11 of them scored in the first quarter. Chauncey Billups had an awful first half--a recurring theme for him in this year's playoffs--but finished with 14 points and seven assists.

Miami raced out to a 42-28 advantage but Detroit countered with a 29-11 run to take a 57-53 lead midway through the third quarter. After that, Detroit seemed to run out of gas and Miami--particularly Wade--found a second wind. Wade scored 12 fourth quarter points and made a couple spectacular plays. If you didn't see his acrobatic layup with 11:03 remaining in the fourth quarter, don't worry; just turn on your TV to any sports channel and it's probably being replayed right now. During ESPN Radio's broadcast of the game, Jim Durham said that it was the greatest playoff shot ever. Jim, in a word: No. Julius Erving's reverse layup in the 1980 Finals was actually three moves: Dr. J jumped to dunk the ball but when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came over late Doc looked to pass but no one cut to the hoop in time--so Doc simply glided to the other side and flipped in a reverse layup off of the backboard. You have to watch the play in slow motion or see stop action photos of it to really understand what he did. Doc had the ball over his head for the dunk, then he held the ball horizontally over the sideline to throw a pass and then he brought the ball around for the shot--and he did all three things while he was in the air! Anyway, Wade's shot and free throw (Antonio McDyess fouled Wade on the play) put Miami up 63-61 and the Heat never trailed again.

The Pistons like to say "If it ain't rough, it ain't right." Things are plenty rough right now and if they get any rougher the Pistons will be watching the NBA Finals on TV. Perhaps they should resurrect a phrase that once was their mantra: "Play the right way," Larry Brown's exhortation. There is a reason that I picked Detroit to fall off in the Eastern Conference this year (as you can see by reading my 2005-2006 Eastern Conference Preview, Part I)--I was wrong about the regular season, but the misgivings that I had about Flip Saunders' ability to take this team to a championship are proving to be well grounded. I thought that it would be the dynamic offensive attack of New Jersey's Kidd-Carter-Jefferson trio that would be the Pistons' undoing and, following my logic of picking Dallas to win it all since the Mavericks took out the Spurs (my original pick to win the NBA title), I probably should have picked Miami to beat Detroit. Frankly, both teams are flawed when compared to championship contenders from other seasons; Detroit does not bring full intensity and concentration to every game and Miami relies very heavily on the production of Shaq and Wade, both of whom are injury prone--Shaq because of his age and conditioning, Wade because of his pell-mell style of play. Before the season I picked Miami as the best team in the East, almost by default. When New Jersey came on in the second half of the season I thought that the Nets had a great chance to advance to the NBA Finals. Until Miami knocked off the Nets I had been consistent in saying that the Flip Saunders-coached Pistons would not make it to the NBA Finals. Obviously, I should have stuck with that line of reasoning.

Miami's flaws are certainly not being exposed in this series. Shaq looks livelier than he has in quite some time and Detroit seems to have no answer for Wade. Flip Saunders is known as an innovative offensive coach, but the only offenses that have looked good in Detroit's 2006 playoff run are those being run by their opponents. His players are publicly criticizing his game plans and his substitution patterns; Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace said that the team's practices focus too much on offense and not enough on defense, which used to be the team's trademark. There are two issues here. One, it is certainly poor form for highly paid athletes to disrespect their boss so openly and brazenly. Two, granting that the conduct of the Pistons' players is deplorable, what does it say about Saunders as a coach that veteran players who have won a championship and been to two NBA Finals apparently think that he has no clue about how to run the team? What if the players are wrong in their actions but right in their assessment of the situation? It will be an interesting offseason for Joe Dumars, one that figures to start a few weeks earlier than he had expected or hoped.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:04 AM

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Slooow Down! Dallas Controls the Pace, Beats Phoenix in Game Three

Dallas outscored Phoenix 48-36 in the second half, winning game three 95-88 and retaking home court advantage in the Western Conference Finals. The 88 points are a 2006 playoff low for the Suns, as are their 13 assists and 0 (!) steals. These numbers reflect Dallas' formula for success against Phoenix: force turnovers, don't commit turnovers and, unless there is a clear advantage in numbers or matchups, drain the 24 second clock down before shooting.

Dirk Nowitzki had another big performance: 28 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots. Josh Howard was slowed a bit in the first half by Shawn Marion's tough defense, but finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Steve Nash led Phoenix with 21 points and seven assists. Marion had 18 rebounds but only 10 points. Boris Diaw had 14 points in the first half but only six points in the second half. Phoenix went on a run late in the first quarter after Nowitzki went to the bench with his second foul and eventually built an 11 point lead. Nowitzki returned in the second quarter and Dallas cut the margin to five by halftime. The Mavericks took the lead at the 9:16 mark in the third quarter and, although Phoenix kept it close, the Suns could neither get the necessary defensive stops nor create offensive opportunities in the open court.

The games in this series will continue to be close--Phoenix is too good of a team to just surrender meekly--but Dallas is the stronger, deeper team. Even when Phoenix gets off to a good start, Dallas is able to eventually wear down the Suns. As TNT's Charles Barkley said simply, "Dallas is just the better team."

posted by David Friedman @ 11:16 PM

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"If It Ain't Rough, It Ain't Right": The Saga Continues

The Detroit Pistons' motto the past few seasons has been "If it ain't rough, it ain't right." In Saturday night's 98-83 game three loss to the Miami Heat, Detroit's play was a lot more "rough" than "right." The Pistons now must win on Monday night to avoid going down 3-1 in the series, a situation that is usually death in the NBA playoffs.

Detroit's trademark defense was missing in action--Miami shot a sizzling .582 from the field--and, other than Chauncey Billups (31 points on 11-17 field goal shooting) and Rip Hamilton (20 points but only 6-15 accuracy from the field), most of the Pistons were AWOL on offense as well. Tayshaun Prince, who has been the Pistons' most consistent player this postseason, scored the team's first three points but did not score for the rest of the game. Ben Wallace did not make a field goal and shot only 2-10 on free throws. Detroit did go on an 11-0 run to start the fourth quarter, cutting Miami's lead to 72-71, but Miami scored the next five points and Detroit never took the lead.

Dwyane Wade had 35 points on 13-17 field goal shooting, with eight rebounds and four assists. Shaquille O'Neal shot 7-10 from the field in the first half, scoring 15 points. He finished the game with 27 points on 11-15 shooting, adding 12 rebounds. O'Neal had no assists or blocked shots but six of his rebounds were on the offensive glass.

Heat Coach Pat Riley again resorted to the "Hack-a-Ben" strategy--and it paid off. Miami led 85-77 with 3:31 left in the game when James Posey intentionally fouled Wallace away from the ball. Wallace missed both free throws and Miami scored on the next possession. The Heat then fouled Wallace again and he made one of two, after which Miami missed a shot, got an offensive rebound and made two free throws, giving the Heat an 11 point lead with 2:27 remaining. Detroit removed Wallace from the game at the next stoppage of play, perhaps to save further embarrassment.

The past 32 times that series have been tied 1-1, the game three winner has taken the series 24 times--but Detroit has come back from 2-1 deficits three times since 2003. That's why the Pistons say, "If it ain't rough, it ain't right."

posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM

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