20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Alex English: A True Basketball Artist

When Alex English played, he considered basketball his art and the court was his canvas. The Hall of Famer, eight-time All-Star and 1983 NBA scoring champion (28.4 ppg) is currently an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors. You can read my HoopsHype.com article about him here.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 PM

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Mourning, Payton and Walker are Reliving McAdoo's Experiences

During Game One of the Finals, ABC commentators Mike Breen and Hubie Brown mentioned one of the most intriguing aspects of this series--both teams have players who are used to having much bigger roles than the ones that they currently have. Guys like Miami's Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton and Antoine Walker and Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse and Keith Van Horn have accepted reduced minutes and shot attempts in exchange for an opportunity to win a championship. In Thursday's USA Today, Skip Wood wrote an article about how Heat Assistant Coach Bob McAdoo has helped former All-Stars Mourning, Payton and Walker make this adjustment. McAdoo is uniquely qualified to counsel them about this because he went through a similar transition in his career--the three-time scoring champion and 1975 NBA MVP came off of the bench for two Pat Riley championship teams. I discussed this very subject with McAdoo earlier in the season. There is an interesting "chicken-and-egg" question here: Are these teams successful because they have so many former upper echelon players who accept smaller roles or would these players only agree to take such roles on a team that is a legitimate title contender? In other words, which comes first: does being a legitimate title contender create an environment that makes players more willing to sacrifice or does having players who are more willing to sacrifice create the conditions necessary to be a legitimate title contender?

posted by David Friedman @ 2:19 AM

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"Foul" Shooting Sinks Heat In Game One of the Finals

The Miami Heat set an NBA Finals record for worst team free throw percentage (.368) and lost 90-80 to the Dallas Mavericks. Miami's point total is the fifth lowest in game one of a Finals game in the shot clock era (i.e., since 1954-55). Jason Terry led the victors with 32 points on 13-18 field goal shooting. Dirk Nowitzki shot only 4-14 from the field, finishing with 16 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals. Josh Howard also had a poor shooting night (3-14) but filled up the boxscore with 10 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 28 points, adding six rebounds, six assists and four steals. He also had five turnovers and shot only 5-18 from the field in the last three quarters of the game after hitting 6 of his first 7 shots. Shaquille O'Neal had 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists on 8-11 field goal shooting. Antoine Walker contributed 17 points, six rebounds and four assists. He made some really nice plays but also had six turnovers and shot 7-19 from the field. The blame for the Heat's poor foul shooting lands squarely on the shoulders of their two stars--they accounted for all of the team's free throw attempts, with Wade shooting 6-10 and O'Neal 1-9, not including two misses that were wiped away by lane violations.

Miami came out blazing in the first quarter, shooting .700 from the field (14-20) and taking a 31-23 lead. Wade had 13 points, repeatedly blowing by Adrian Griffin. Late in the quarter, the Mavericks switched Howard on to Wade. More than halfway through the second quarter Miami led 42-36 and Nowitzki and Howard had combined to shoot 3-14 from the field. Dallas then employed a zone defense that seemed to completely befuddle Miami, leading to several turnovers and fueling a 10-2 run to close the quarter. Nowitzki's jump shot at the buzzer gave Dallas a 46-44 lead and it was clear that Miami was in trouble; the Heat had shot the ball well, contained Dallas' best player and kept the pace of the game right where they wanted it and were still trailing. Terry shot 9-11 from the field in the first half and led all scorers with 20 points, making up for Nowitzki only shooting 2-8 and scoring eight points.

Dallas extended the margin to 52-46 early in the third quarter. Then, after only committing three turnovers in the first half the Mavericks had seven in the third quarter alone. Despite his big first half, Terry did not take a shot in the third quarter. Yet, even with these miscues by Dallas, the Heat still trailed 70-68 going into the fourth quarter. Terry hit his first shot of the final period to give Dallas a 72-68 lead and had 12 of Dallas' 20 fourth quarter points, equaling the output of Miami's entire team. His back to back three pointers gave the Mavericks an 82-72 lead with 7:54 remaining but his missed breakaway layup shortly afterward breathed some life into the Heat. Miami went on a 7-0 run after that play but that was as close as the Heat would get.

It is important to not read too much into the outcome of one game or the trends that developed within that game. Each game within a series has a different rhythm. Still, there were some interesting things in game one that bear watching:

1) Shaquille O'Neal's primary complaint about playing with Kobe Bryant is that Bryant tried to do too much on his own and did not pass him the ball. O'Neal shot 8-11 from the field in this game and passed for five assists while commmitting two turnovers. Dwyane Wade shot 11-25 from the field and had six assists and five turnovers. Antoine Walker had 19 field goal attempts, including 9 from three point range. The Heat were most effective when the ball was going in to O'Neal on the block, yet Wade and Walker spent most of the second half committing turnovers and jacking up shots. It is one thing for O'Neal to limit his shot attempts while pacing himself during the regular season but now would seem to be the time to get him the ball frequently. Even if he is missing his free throws he still can get the Mavericks in foul trouble and put the Heat in the bonus. Plus, O'Neal is shooting a good percentage from the floor and making excellent passes when he is double-teamed.

2) ESPN's John Saunders said that if the Heat had made their free throws there might have been a different outcome. That is not really true, because Miami would have had to shoot 17-19 just to tie the score, which is not likely with O'Neal attempting so many of the team's free throws. What really killed the Heat was shooting 20-58 from the field in the last three quarters of the game. "Foul" shooting hurt them even more than their poor foul shooting; Dallas outscored Miami 67-49 after the first quarter.

3) The fact that Wade and O'Neal were the only two Heat players to attempt free throws points out an important problem for Miami--no one else on the team can consistently create a shot for himself or draw fouls.

4) Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard will not likely shoot a combined 7-28 from the field again in the series. That is NOT good news for Miami.

5) Miami looked more clueless trying to attack Dallas' zone than Homer Simpson trying to figure out particle physics.

6) Miami's poor perimeter defense and slow defensive rotations made Jason Terry look like Allen Iverson. Detroit and New Jersey's perimeter players should have made a more determined effort to attack Miami in this way.

7) Dallas' superior depth played a key role in the outcome. Only three Miami reserves played--Gary Payton, James Posey and Alonzo Mourning--and they combined to score two points, while five Dallas non-starters totaled 24 points. As the series progresses this will surely become an even more important factor.

The series is not over after one game, even though history tells us that game one winners ultimately take the series more than 70% of the time. However, this game highlighted a lot of Dallas' strengths and Miami's weaknesses. Dallas played a far from perfect game and still won by 10 points. It will be interesting to see what adjustments Pat Riley makes, particularly in terms of getting more touches for O'Neal and containing Terry without letting Nowitzki and Howard go wild.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:59 AM

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Will Cuban Say "Blog This!" to David Stern or Will Shaq Get a Ring for his Middle Finger?

Recently I mused about the possibility of David Stern presenting the championship trophy to Mark Cuban. AP Sports Columnist Tim Dahlberg just wrote about the same subject. If Dallas wins, it certainly will make for an interesting entry at Mark Cuban's blog.

Orlando Sentinel writer Brian Schmitz, noting Shaquille O'Neal's penchant for giving himself nicknames, says that Shaq might call himself The Big I Told You So if the Miami Heat win the title. Usually when players get their fifth title it is called "one for the thumb." This would be Shaq's fourth championship and I wouldn't be surprised if he called it "one for the middle finger." There is no doubt that he would love to flash that digit at Kobe Bryant, the L.A. Lakers' management and anyone else who he feels has disrespected him.

So, whoever wins this year's Finals, someone will be saying--or thinking--"vengeance is sweet."

posted by David Friedman @ 7:58 PM

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

"March Madness" has Nothing on "Win or Go Home"

The NBA Playoffs may never supplant the popularity of the NCAA Tournament, more commonly referred to as "March Madness"--but the NBA's "Win or Go Home" postseason tournament has produced at least as much excitement and higher quality games to boot. During the height of March Madness, I wrote a post comparing the NBA Playoffs to the NCAA Tournament; I noted that this year's Tournament included several games with low scores, low shooting percentages and high turnover totals. I acknowledged that there were some exciting moments but concluded, "I enjoy watching college basketball and look forward to next weekend's Final Four--I just don't accept the premise that NCAA basketball is in any way superior to NBA basketball."

The first three rounds of the 2006 NBA Playoffs are now in the books. We have been treated to four series that went the distance; granted, three of the seventh games were duds but the fourth--Dallas versus San Antonio--was a classic and may very well have decided this year's championship. We have seen LeBron James' breathtaking playoff initiation, eight overtime games--including two that were series clinchers--a pair of 50-point gems by Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki and several dramatic buzzer beating shots. Not all of the games have been close but the overall standard of play has been high and very entertaining to watch.

I correctly predicted the outcome of 9 of the first 12 series and batted .500 in the Conference Finals round. The Spurs were my original pick to win the championship but I said from the start that they were "just thismuch better than Dallas," so when the Mavericks eliminated San Antonio it was only natural for me to pick them to beat Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals. As for the Eastern Conference Finals, I have picked against the Miami Heat the last two rounds and been wrong both times. It is possible that I am focusing too much on the Heat's weaknesses (heavy reliance on Shaq and Wade; defending against perimeter players on dribble drives and in pick and roll plays) and not enough on how well the team has come together recently under the leadership of Pat Riley. Nevertheless, I am picking against Miami in the NBA Finals, too; I expect that Dallas will exploit Miami's weaknesses more effectively than New Jersey and Detroit did.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 AM

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Dallas Versus Miami Preview

NBA Finals

Dallas (60-22) vs. Miami (52-30)

Miami can win if…Shaquille O'Neal averages 25-plus ppg and 12-plus rpg and Dwyane Wade averages 25-plus ppg.

Dallas will win because …Miami has no answer for Dirk Nowitzki or for the Mavericks' depth, which will wear down the Heat as the series progresses.

Other things to consider: Josh Howard is listed as a forward but he can guard 1s, 2s or 3s. He will probably be matched up with Wade at least part of the time and he has enough athleticism and length to cause Wade some problems. Dallas won both regular season meetings, but O'Neal did not play in one of them and the Heat are a much more cohesive unit now than they were when those games were played. Pat Riley is making his ninth Finals appearance as a coach, while Avery Johnson is coaching in his first NBA Finals; each one an NBA championship as a player. Miami will have a difficult time defending against Dallas' versatile offensive attack: Nowitzki is a matchup nightmare, Jason Terry and Devin Harris can create havoc with dribble penetration, Jerry Stackhouse provides bench scoring and Howard is a very good offensive rebounder.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Dwyane Wade's Sunday Conversation with Rachel Nichols

ESPN's Sunday Conversation featured Rachel Nichols' interview with Dwyane Wade. Wade made a couple interesting comments:

1) Asked how many players he would select before himself if he were starting a team today, Wade said that to build a great team you have to take a dominant center first. His choice would be Shaquille O'Neal, despite O'Neal's advancing age. Then he would pick either himself or LeBron James.

2) Wade explained that the reason that he and Shaq get along better than Shaq did with Penny Hardaway or Kobe Bryant is that Shaq is at a different stage of his career now. The young Shaq and the young Penny were both exciting players who wanted to be the main guy on the team and the same conflict took place with Shaq and Kobe. Wade added that now Shaq realizes that he cannot shoot 30 times a game and is happy to defer to a young, unselfish Wade. Wade indicated that he and Shaq have talked about this subject and that what Wade told Nichols reflected what Shaq said to him.

This made me wonder three things: 1) How do Magic and Lakers fans feel about this transformation in Shaq's thinking? 2) How much better would the Lakers have been in 2003 and 2004 if Shaq would have dealt with Kobe the way he deals with Wade now? 3) How well would Shaq and Wade get along if Shaq resisted deferring to him the way he refused to defer to Kobe? As C & C Music Factory sang many years ago, these are things that make you go hmm.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:00 AM

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Dallas Wears Down Phoenix, Advances to the NBA Finals

The Phoenix Suns hit the Dallas Mavericks with their best shot and had a 15 point lead midway through the third quarter of game six of the Western Conference Finals--but the Mavericks stayed disciplined, stuck with their game plan and wore down the Suns in a 102-93 win. It was like watching Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in the famous "Rope-a-Dope" fight. Foreman pounded on Ali for the first several rounds until Ali looked at him and said, "Is that all you've got?" Years later, Foreman reflecting back on how stunned he was that anyone could withstand the onslaught, recalled thinking, "Yeah, that's about it." Ali then knocked him out. Dallas watched Phoenix run up and down the court for two and a half quarters and then collectively looked at the Suns and asked if that was all that they had. The scoreboard told the story from that point, as Dallas outscored Phoenix by 24 the rest of the way.

Dallas will meet Miami in a matchup of teams that have never played in the NBA Finals before. Dirk Nowitzki only scored eight points on 2-9 shooting from the field in the first half but he made five straight shots and scored 12 points in the third quarter as Dallas cut Phoenix' lead to 66-62 going into the fourth quarter. Nowitzki had two big three point plays in the period, drawing Leandro Barbosa's fourth foul and then doing the same to Tim Thomas. Nowitzki finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Josh Howard had 20 points and 15 rebounds and Jerry Stackhouse, who played 40 minutes because Jason Terry and Devin Harris got into early foul trouble, contributed 19 points. Boris Diaw scored 30 points and added 11 rebounds for Phoenix and Steve Nash had 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds.

The Mavericks made their first shot of the game and then missed their next eight, shooting only 4-18 from the field in the first quarter. Phoenix bolted out to a 26-10 lead and the score was 29-14 at the end of the period, Dallas' lowest scoring quarter of the 2006 playoffs. Phoenix pushed the lead to 44-26 after Shawn Marion hit a three pointer from the baseline. Nowitzki's three point play with less than three minutes remaining trimmed the margin to 13 and Phoenix led 51-39 at the half. Diaw already had 20 points on 8-11 shooting. During TNT's halftime show, Magic Johnson blasted the Mavericks' performance: "This is not a championship effort. They came out soft." Johnson, who won five championships as a player, should know that it is not how you start that matters but how you finish. Or, as Bjorn Borg might say ("You Gotta Love It": Clippers Force a Seventh Game Versus the Suns), it's the fifth set that matters, not the fourth one. In this game, the second half told the story.

Dallas trailed 53-43 when Diaw went to the bench with his fourth foul, but Barbosa made a three pointer and a fast break layup to push the lead back to 60-45. Then Nowitzki took over, driving to the basket, making two three point plays and setting off a 17-6 Dallas run to end the third quarter. Howard tied the game early in the fourth quarter on his offensive rebound put back and then a DeSagana Diop put back gave the Mavericks a 68-66 lead, the first time they were ahead since Diop made the first basket of the game. Dallas outscored Phoenix 63-42 in the second half, putting the clamps on Phoenix' running game and then pounding the ball inside.

Phoenix battled Dallas very hard throughout this series but Dallas' depth and ability to get defensive stops proved to be too much for the Suns to overcome. The series pretty much went the way that I expected it to go; this is what I wrote in my series preview:

Dallas will win because because…Dirk Nowitzki will have a big series and Dallas has enough athletes to beat the Suns at their own game but has more of a defensive mindset and will be able to get key stops at crucial points during games.

Dallas Coach Avery Johnson has pointed out that his team is capable of playing at a slow or a fast tempo. His Mavericks are very much made in the mold of Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs, who beat the offensive-minded Suns in last year's playoffs and then defeated the defensive-minded Pistons in the NBA Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM

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