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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Part I of an Interview with Andrew Blauner, Editor of Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference

Andrew Blauner, founder of Blauner Books Literary Agency, is the editor of the anthology Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference. He assembled an all-star team of writers—including Ira Berkow, Buzz Bissinger, Frank Deford, Robert Lipsyte, David Maraniss, John McPhee, George Plimpton and George Vecsey—to not necessarily write stories about great coaches but rather to craft great stories about coaches. The result is 25 disparate and fascinating perspectives on the dynamics of the coach-player relationship. You can find ordering information for Coach here. I recently spoke at length with Blauner about this book and the subject of coaching in general.

Friedman: “What do you think readers would be most surprised to learn from your book Coach?”

Blauner: “Many things. There is an axiom that some of the best sports writing is done by people who are not sportswriters by trade. While Coach has (pieces by) some of the best sportswriters—Frank Deford, Ira Berkow and Robert Lipsyte, among others—maybe one of the surprises is how many contributors who are not sportswriters have written these terrific pieces about athletic coaches: people like Ben Cheever, David Maraniss, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer for the Washington Post, Francine Prose, who is a literary writer and a novelist, Darin Strauss, who I think nobody associates with being a sportswriter, Andrew Soloman—who is probably the most dramatic example; Andrew wrote a book called The Noonday Demon that was a National Book Award winner. I think that this speaks to one of the larger points about the ways in which sports transcend the rest of life and how these coaches, these people in the writers’ lives, transcended the basketball court or baseball field and taught them things and gave them experiences that went way beyond learning the crossover dribble or how to hit a curveball.”

Friedman: “Of the coaches who are featured in the book, which one would you have most liked to play for and why?”

Blauner: “That’s a great question. (long pause) That’s a tough call. The first piece in the book is by George Vecsey of the New York Times and he writes about Casey Stengel. It’s hard to imagine not wanting to have played for Casey--for his wisdom, for his wit, for his experience. That piece in particular is, in a way, an anomaly for the book, because most of the pieces in the book are about coaches who nobody knows about or has heard of because they are not coaches on the professional or college level. (I like) the idea of playing for Casey Stengel or, for that matter, Al McGuire--who is the subject of a Frank Deford piece in the book. One of the little coincidences or ironies about the book is that there is a terrific coach who is written about by Buzz Bissinger; Buzz, of course, is the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August. He writes about his high school coach at Dalton School in Manhattan, a guy named Al Boyers. When I asked Buzz to contribute to the book I had no idea that he had gone to Dalton, which was the rival to the school that I played for, Collegiate. So I played against the coach that he wrote about. Coach Boyers was always the guy on the other side and Buzz really put a face on him and paid a tribute to him that made the idea of playing for him beyond appealing. Unfortunately, Coach Boyers has since died, but it is a very loving tribute that Buzz pays to him. One of the touching things in Buzz’ piece is that he hadn’t had any contact with Coach Boyers in many years and he literally says in the piece that he doesn’t even know if he is still alive. In fact, he isn’t. One of the postscripts, one of the nice things that comes out of the book is that I think Buzz got in contact with Coach Boyers’ widow and I think that there was a reconnection there of some kind. I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to mention that it was my coach—well, I had a series of coaches but it was primarily one coach at Collegiate School, Larry Byrnes--who played an enormous role in my upbringing and in my life and is in my life to this day. He was in many ways one of the inspirations for the book. He coached both basketball and baseball but was also a mentor and to this day I am at his house for Super Bowl Sunday and I would have him at any important event in my life.”

Friedman: “That was going to be my next question. Since you didn’t write a chapter in the book, I was going to ask which coach had the most influence on your life.”

Blauner: “I gave it (writing a chapter) some thought and, obviously, my so-called day job is being a literary agent—this was just a pet project, a labor of love. So, I deal with books all the time and the idea of having an introduction or a foreword or something that I would write doing what you just described was something I thought about but in the end I just thought that I had 25 pieces in this book by wonderful writers, each with a very different voice, and I’ve got Bill Bradley writing the introduction; Bradley’s piece introduces the book and the writers’ pieces speak for themselves and it’s not a book about me, so I am happy to sort of stay in the shadows and have the writing speak for itself—but it’s not because I don’t have a lot to say and a lot of stories to tell or at least feel an enormous debt of gratitude to the coaches that I’ve had.”

Friedman: “That leaves you room to do a sequel or to do another book to address those issues.”

Blauner: “Exactly. I had the idea for the book for many, many years, probably going back to the time when I was sports editor at the school newspaper at Brown University, which was 20 years ago, but it just took a long time for it to sort of come together. When it did, I made an ‘A’ list of all the people who I would most like to have in the book and I figured that, like an Ivy League admissions office, you calculate a yield, but I was shocked in the best sense that almost everybody I asked agreed to do it. So that left a lot of people who could absolutely fill a second or third volume or more. I think this speaks to the coach-player relationship and the profundity of this whole arena, because a lot of these writers have a lot of demands on their time, a lot of pieces, articles or books that they could write, but for all they’ve written a lot of them hadn’t taken the time, given the thought or had the opportunity to really pay homage to these people. I am just grateful to all of them. I didn’t want this to be sort of a saccharine—all sugar and spice and everything nice—valentine to coaches because that is not the reality that is out there. I just wanted it to be something of a tapestry that represents the great variety of coaches and coach-player relationships. The subtitle is ’25 writers reflect on people who made a difference.’ One of the other ironies—I suppose you could call it that—is that even though I grew up in Manhattan I was always a devout Celtics fan and I still am. Yet, when it came time to think about who should write the introduction the first name that came to mind is Bill Bradley. I used to always root against the Knicks but I could never root against Bill Bradley, so I rooted for him and voted for him and I just want to thank him again for his contribution.”

Friedman: “You mentioned that you were the sports editor at Brown. Didn’t Chris Berman of ESPN go to Brown?”

Blauner: “Absolutely. He’s a few years older but yes he absolutely did and if you watch SportsCenter or ESPN a lot—“

Friedman: “I thought that he mentions that. The reason I asked is that I wondered, since you were involved with the sports department, did he ever come back to Brown and interact with people who were doing sportswriting?”

Blauner: “I don’t think that at the time I was there—which was roughly ’82 to ’86—that he came back at all but he was definitely a subject of conversation and everybody knew that he had gone there. We all knew that Bill Almon, the baseball player, had gone to Brown; he was one of the few pro athletes who had gone to Brown and when he was an active player Chris would always call him Bill 'Toasted' Almon. To this day Chris Berman, when he doesn’t invoke that he went to Brown, he will bring up the Ivy League more than most people.”

Friedman: “Right. That’s what I thought but I wanted to make sure. I know he brings up the Ivy League a lot and I thought that he had mentioned Brown.”

Blauner: “There is more of a Princeton influence in the book than I had ever intended or imagined that there would be: Jonathan Ames writes about his fencing coach from Princeton; Bradley’s piece; I think that Frank Deford is a Princeton grad. So, I’m ever true to Brown but I think that John Edgar Wideman, who has a piece in the book and is now a professor at Brown, is the only Brown element in the book.”

Friedman: “What common thread would you say is shared by successful coaches? Is there a common thread or theme that runs throughout the book?”

Blauner: “I think that it’s something that Senator Bradley touches on in his foreword: people who can take you to places and get you to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do on your own. As simple as that sounds, that is the task and that is the accomplishment and that is the talent (that great coaches have). Then it breaks down to how do you get from here to there, from point ‘A’ to point ‘B,’ how do you get someone to reach his full potential? I guess the thread, if you can even call it that, is, in a way, not having just one way to do that—to look at the team and the players that you have and gauge what’s best. It’s often invoked that coaches are like surrogate parents; somehow, most of us can hear things better from an authority figure who is a coach as opposed to one of our parents. Whether it is manifested in unconditional love and coddling or tough love, these coaches sort of take stock of who the kid is and what will help him to go somewhere that he might not otherwise be able to go on his own. I was talking about our coach to an old high school friend of mine the other day and asked him, ‘What was it about him for you?’ and he said, ‘I just didn’t want to disappoint him.’ A lot of people talk about coaching by intimidation and that probably plays a role at every level in sports, but when this friend of mine said that it reminded me of something that someone said about Tony Dungy of the Colts, calling it coaching by disappointment or not wanting to disappoint your coach. Our coach used to appeal to our pride a lot. We went to a small, private school and when we would go up against a bigger, public school there was always an appeal to prove these guys wrong, that you are not a bunch of spoiled, rich, private school kids. I think that if he were in a different setting then he would have obviously used a different set of tools or techniques to coach. That is sort of a roundabout answer.”

Friedman: “The answer about not disappointing the coach is really striking because I just interviewed Gus Alfieri (the author of Lapchick).“

Blauner: “Sure!”

Friedman: “You know about his book?”

Blauner: “Absolutely. I have it right here.”

Friedman: “My interview with him is posted at 20SecondTimeout. When I interviewed him, that was one of the things that he said about Coach Lapchick. He felt that way and other players he spoke with who played for Coach Lapchick in different eras all said the same thing, that they didn’t want to disappoint him and that that was such a motivating factor. It is striking to me that you mentioned that in your answer because he talked about the exact same thing.”

Blauner: “That’s interesting, because I actually am in touch with Gus. I know the Lapchick story but I didn’t know that there was that element (of not disappointing the coach) there.”

Friedman: “Yeah, a very strong element that he expressed to me. The interview is actually like a mini-book itself, because I talked to him for almost 2 hours and when I transcribed the whole thing it was over 15,000 words. I published it in five parts.”

Blauner: “That’s amazing. Some part of that speaks something. The subject just kind of lends itself to that (lengthy discussion), because it can just go in so many ways. You start talking about one coach or one team or one experience and, because you are not just talking about Xs and Os, it can just very quickly get into all of these tentacles and all of these elements, whether it is about parenting or overcoming adversity. Again, I didn’t know about that element of disappointment with Gus and Lapchick but I certainly had other coaches where there was no element of that but it was based on intimidation or just doing it for yourself or your teammates but not for your coach.”

Friedman: “Another connection between the two books is that Coach Lapchick coached both McGuire brothers, Al and Dick, who both played for the Knicks. Dick McGuire was the better player but I think that Al McGuire is more famous to most modern readers because he became Marquette’s coach and then did some work on TV. Gus mentioned to me that he thought that Lapchick really had an influence on McGuire’s coaching style. Gus said that some coaches are more Xs and Os guys and other coaches work more from the standpoint of inspiring their teams, like we were just talking about: either motivating the players in some way—and you mentioned the ways that your high school coach motivated you—or just making the players feel like they don’t want to disappoint him. You touched on this a little already but from the various chapters in your book and the coaches who are written about there, talk about how much of coaching has to do with imparting technical information of how something has to be done process-wise to be successful versus how much of coaching involves inspiration and motivation.”

Blauner: “That’s interesting. To backtrack briefly for just a second, McGuire was friends with or somehow knew my high school basketball coach, so Al McGuire actually spoke at my high school athletic banquet and just gave one of the best speeches that I’ve ever heard in my life. By that point he was already out of coaching and was a TV commentator, so I just knew him for his bombastic style. You and your readers probably know that Al McGuire had his own way of talking—his own language--that has kind of been co-opted a little bit today. From everything I’ve heard, he was also a great Xs and Os coach. The Frank Deford piece about McGuire in the book isn’t so much about the technical, Xs and Os aspect of the game. My impression is that he had his own way of motivating and that he was sort of emblematic of a lot of coaches just in terms of his work ethic but he was sort of a character unto himself. To go back to the context of the book, with the exception of the McGuire piece and a couple others, most of the pieces are about coaches at junior high and prep school and levels below college and the pros. John Irving has a piece about his wrestling coach but it doesn’t speak exactly about what you are talking about. The lesson or the appeal of that coach and that story is that Irving learned from his wrestling coach, as he put it, ‘the power of the underdog.’ Again, that is more about motivation and challenges. It’s interesting; I hadn’t looked at it through this prism, but there isn’t a lot of emphasis on, for lack of a better word, the Xs and Os element.”

Friedman: “That actually answers my question, in a sense, because in a roundabout way that is what I was getting at—is the emphasis more on motivation or more on Xs and Os? What you are saying is that, from the perspective of the 25 writers involved your book, their memories of their coaches deal more with how the coach motivated them and the relationship aspect of it; it doesn’t stick out in their minds that the coach showed them how to correctly pivot or—“

Blauner: “Oh, I see what you’re saying. Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. If you take it out of sports for a minute, when we all remember our favorite teachers from school, we don’t remember dates from history class or how to do a calculus problem: it’s more about the relationship and the personality, something that goes beyond (the class work). If I thought about it, I’m sure my old coaches showed me how to reverse pivot and—I played point—how to make a guy go to his left, just an infinite number of things. I’m sure that a lot of the coaches who are written about in the book were terrific tacticians and technicians and knew the game inside out. It’s not to diminish that element of it but when you’ve got a piece by Christine Brennan—the great USA Today writer--about her girls basketball coach in the days before Title IX it is almost absent any element of the technique and the technical parts of the game. It was more about love of the game and about motivation. I’m just looking at the other pieces and, you’re right, that (the motivational/relationship aspect) is what comes out. In Bud Collins’ piece, he talks about his old coach teaching him how to tie a bow tie. Obviously, one of his signatures is his sartorial splendor. Tom Beller has a piece about his basketball coach at Vassar, but, again, you are making me realize that it underscores the point that, in a publicist’s term, the ‘takeaway’ is something that goes way beyond Xs and Os. The second piece in the book is by E.M. Swift—Ed Swift—who is just a fantastic writer for Sports Illustrated and who has written a couple books as well. He writes a piece that is really almost an ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ kind of piece in which his old coach—to make a long, great story short—falls on hard times, goes out of the picture, word goes out to his former players that the old coach is in need and the players band together. I think that are so many people out there who identify with the stories in the book not because of things that they learned specifically about basketball or Xs and Os. I don’t like the expression ‘life lessons’ but something that goes beyond the game, put it that way.”

Friedman: “There is a saying that long after you forget what someone said to you, you’ll remember how they said it. So that would be another way of expressing it as well; you might not remember every single word that a particular coach said but you’ll remember how he spoke to you and what that relationship was like. I also recall that Red Auerbach, the great Celtics coach, was asked at one point—I believe in reference to Bill Russell—how would he handle his players and he immediately answered that you handle animals but you deal with people.”

Blauner: “Right. Perfect. He also said about the great legacy and tradition of the sixth man coming off the bench that it doesn’t matter who starts (the game) but who finishes it.”

posted by David Friedman @ 3:15 AM

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Satch Sanders: Unsung Celtic Hero

Tom "Satch" Sanders entered the NBA nearly a decade before the league began selecting All-Defensive Teams, but he deserves to be considered one of the premier defensive forwards of his time. Here is a link to my HoopsHype.com article about Sanders:

Satch Sanders: Unsung Celtic Hero

posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Philadelphia 76ers Win NBA Europe Live Tour Mini-Tournament

Less than a week ago, the Philadelphia 76ers became one of the few NBA teams to ever lose an exhibition game to a European team. They have rebounded from that setback with two straight victories to win the NBA Europe Live Tour four team mini-tournament in Cologne, Germany. First they beat the Phoenix Suns, who made the Western Conference Finals last year, and on Wednesday they defeated CSKA Moscow, 85-71; earlier in the week, CSKA Moscow routed the L.A. Clippers, 94-75. Allen Iverson led the 76ers with 28 points and center Samuel Dalembert dominated the paint with 15 points, 18 rebounds and five blocked shots. Trajan Langdon led CSKA with 16 points, most of them scored long after the outcome of the game had been decided. After the Sixers lost to FC Barcelona, I read some criticism of Sixers Coach Maurice Cheeks and how he failed to take advantage of his team's athleticism in that game. Doesn't anybody understand that this was the Sixers' first preseason exhibition game, played overseas against an unfamiliar (and talented) opponent and governed by hybrid rules? Cheeks certainly seems to have made some good adjustments during the past few days; whether that will translate into NBA regular season success is of course a different question.

The Sixers took a 6-0 lead to start the game before Langdon hit a three pointer for CSKA. He would miss his next seven field goal attempts, looking more like the player who struggled in the NBA than the Euro League star that he has become. Philadelphia led 8-5 at the 6:54 mark when Theo Papaloukas checked into the game. You may recall that he is the point guard who orchestrated the Greek national team's victory over Team USA in the FIBA World Championships. He is considered the heart and soul of that team and the CSKA squad but is utilized in a sixth man role by CSKA. ESPN commentator Bill Walton compared Papaloukas' court vision to Steve Nash's. Papaloukas only made a cameo appearance in this game, however, before he was sidelined by a hamstring injury. Philadelphia led 20-16 at the end of the first quarter, with both teams shooting poorly from the field. Iverson looked sharp, though, with nine points on 2-3 field goal shooting and 4-4 free throw shooting.

The 76ers started the second quarter by making only one of their first six field goal attempts, enabling CSKA to take their first lead, 24-23. Then Philadelphia clamped down on defense and completely took over the game, going on a 15-0 run, featuring some nice passes by Dalembert to a cutting Iguodala and Webber to Dalembert. The 76ers forced seven turnovers and held CSKA to 3-12 field goal shooting during that stretch. The 76ers led 47-30 at the half, holding CSKA to 33% field goal shooting. Iverson led the way with 15 points on 4-8 field goal shooting and Dalembert already had 11 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots.

To use a phrase that ESPN's Mike Breen employed later in the game, the start of the third quarter looked like a "preseason game extraordinaire." The 76ers missed eight of their first 10 shots and CSKA missed nine of their first 13 shots. Halfway through the period, the score stood at 51-38 and it looked like the first team to 70 might win. The shooting improved in the remainder of the quarter but CSKA was unable to gain any ground and trailed 65-49 going into the final period. Iverson had nine of the Sixers' 18 points in the third quarter.

CSKA was unable to make a run in the fourth quarter and the Sixers led by as much as 24 (75-51) before coasting to victory. While it certainly would have been interesting to see how CSKA would have fared with a healthy Papaloukas, this was still a nice defensive performance by a Sixers team that had serious shortcomings in that area last year. The 76ers held Phoenix to 4-23 field goal shooting (.174) in the fourth quarter of their come from behind victory and limited CSKA to 27-76 field goal shooting (.355) overall. I'm sure that Sixers fans would like to see that kind of defense for 82 games, but Walton noted that he played on championship caliber teams that did poorly in the preseason and bad teams that did well in the preseason; just as I was reluctant to jump on the "bash Maurice Cheeks" bandwagon after the loss to FC Barcelona I am not sure that these two wins foreshadow great success for the Sixers this year either.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:36 AM

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Phoenix Takes Third Place Game Over Maccabi Tel Aviv, 119-102

The Phoenix Suns captured third place in the NBA Europe Tour Live mini-tournament in Cologne, Germany with a 119-102 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Leandro Barbosa led all scorers with 27 points while also contributing six assists and six steals. Marcus Banks added 21 points and Steve Nash, who did not play in the fourth quarter, had 13 points, seven assists and five rebounds. A good sign for Phoenix is that Amare Stoudemire was able to play in back to back games, meaning that he must not have suffered any serious ill effects from participating in the previous game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Once again he did not start but he finished with 11 points and three rebounds in 24 minutes of play. Americans Will Bynum and Rodney Buford led Maccabi Tel Aviv with 20 and 16 points respectively. Late in the contest Buford launched airball three pointers on consecutive possessions, drawing whistles--the European form of boos--from the crowd.

Maccabi jumped out to an 8-2 lead in the first quarter, taking advantage of some Phoenix turnovers. NBA TV commentator Tim Capstraw noted that Maccabi is considered the best transition team in Europe; Capstraw also suggested that Phoenix was showing signs of "dead, heavy legs of training camp." That did seem to be the case at the time but, if so, either Phoenix discovered a second wind later in the game or Maccabi's legs were even more dead and heavy. Maccabi led 15-8 when Stoudemire first entered the game at the 6:13 mark. His first touch was a lob pass from Nash, which he softly laid into the basket. By the end of the quarter, Maccabi led 33-21, Bynum had 10 points and Phoenix had committed eight turnovers.

During the second quarter, Capstraw noted that the NBA Europe Tour Live games did not employ the NBA's defensive three seconds rule. He suggested that this is the most important rules difference between FIBA and NBA play and the one that NBA players and teams struggle with the most. FIBA teams can play a variety of zone defenses, but NBA defensive rules stipulate that defensive players cannot be in the free throw lane for more than three seconds unless they are double teaming the player who has the ball. So, even though others--including a very gracious Gregg Popovich after his Spurs defeated this same Maccabi team--have said that the NBA Europe Tour Live hybrid rules were more similar to the NBA game than the FIBA game, I agree with Capstraw that perhaps the most important rule did in fact favor the FIBA teams. The one rule that I would say most worked against the FIBA teams was playing four 12 minute quarters instead of four 10 minute quarters. The NBA teams are used to a longer game and have deeper rosters, so theoretically this was advantageous to them, although that factor is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the European teams have already started their seasons while the NBA teams have just started their training camps.

Maccabi still led 44-34 midway through the second quarter but then the Suns made a barrage of three pointers to tie the game at 51 less than three minutes later. Maccabi clung to a 60-57 lead at halftime. The Suns shot 9-20 from three point range in the first half, doing most of the damage in the latter part of the second quarter. Just as importantly, they only committed one second quarter turnover.

Maccabi maintained a small advantage until Raja Bell's three pointer with 8:52 remaining in the third quarter gave the Suns their first lead, 63-62. Stoudemire checked back into the game with the Suns ahead 73-69 at the 3:38 mark. Maccabi retook the lead but Stoudemire's three point play with :46 remaining pulled Phoenix to within one, 79-78, and the Suns led 80-79 by the end of the period.

After leading for most of the game and keeping things close in the third quarter, Maccabi seemed to run out of gas in the fourth period. Stoudemire's emphatic dunk off of a Marcus Banks feed put Phoenix ahead 98-85 with 7:04 left in the game. Maccabi managed to cut the margin to single digits but Stoudemire hit two free throws to extend the lead back to 100-90 and Maccabi never threatened again after Barbosa's steal and layup put Phoenix ahead 104-92.

During his postgame press conference, Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni was asked what he thought of the NBA Europe Live Tour format and if it was beneficial for his team. He replied, "I think it was fun, first of all. Why shouldn't basketball be fun?" D'Antoni added that he would be in favor of participating in such an event in the future.

Steve Nash was asked if he thought that Maccabi Tel Aviv would be a playoff team in the NBA. Trying to be as diplomatic as possible, Nash pointed out that Maccabi has gone through a lot of roster changes and has fielded stronger teams in previous years. He also said Maccabi has a lot of good players and is very well coached but that he thought Maccabi would struggle to make the NBA playoffs, hastening to add that if the games were played under FIBA rules that Maccabi could give some trouble to some of the lesser NBA teams. Pressed to elaborate, Nash smiled awkwardly and said that he did not want to be negative. He then noted that the NBA schedule is 82 games and that Maccabi may not have enough depth to play a season that is so long and arduous. He added that NBA rules favor athleticism and length, which would work for the NBA teams and against Maccabi. Basically, the two-time defending NBA MVP made the same points that I have been making here for the past few months regarding NBA and FIBA basketball: (1) There is no doubt that Europe has some fine coaches and players and that the quality of both has been steadily improving; (2) Which rules these games are played under is very important. It is not an "excuse" to point out that the Olympics and FIBA World Championships are governed by rules that European players compete under all the time, while Team USA tries to take a crash course on them every time there is a big event. Sure, U.S. teams used to dominate under any rules because there was such a disparity of talent, but as that gap narrows it is not realistic to expect such domination to continue.

Team USA took third place in the FIBA World Championships and third place in the Olympics. I suspect that the best FIBA team would do significantly worse than the equivalent to that if it played an entire NBA season under NBA rules. Some have said that since the U.S. no longer routinely wins gold medals in international competitions that the NBA should no longer say that it crowns a world champion but I don't think that this is a fair statement. NBA players compete under unfamiliar FIBA rules but the FIBA teams do not play under NBA rules. What really needs to happen, particularly since the talent gap has narrowed enough to make this feasible and interesting, is for the NBA and FIBA to agree on one universal set of rules that will apply to all events. Then there can be some kind of championship or tournament involving the best NBA teams and the best teams from around the world to crown a true world champion--and that event should not be held during the NBA preseason.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:56 AM

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

76ers Rally From 22 Point Deficit to Beat Suns

The Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Phoenix Suns 103-100 in an NBA Europe Live Tour game played in Cologne, Germany. The contest was part of a four team mini-tournament; CSKA Moskow beat Maccabi Tel Aviv 90-81 in the other bracket and will face the 76ers in the championship game, while Phoenix will battle Maccabi Tel Aviv for third place honors. Allen Iverson led the 76ers with 29 points and five assists in just 30 minutes of playing time. Kyle Korver added 20 points and seven rebounds, Chris Webber had 17 points and four rebounds and rookie Rodney Carney contributed 14 points, seven rebounds and the game winning three pointer. Shawn Marion topped Phoenix with 25 points and he also had eight rebounds. Leandro Barbosa scored 20 points but shot only 6-17 from the floor, while Steve Nash had 15 points and nine assists. Boris Diaw nearly had a triple double: 10 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists.

NBA TV's recent report that Amare Stoudemire might not see action until January turned out to be about as accurate as the reports that Joe Torre would be fired by George Steinbrenner. Stoudemire did not start but scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in 19 minutes of playing time. He entered the game at the 7:26 mark in the first quarter and travelled the first time he touched the ball. Samuel Dalembert blocked Stoudemire's first shot attempt, an awkward looking layup; Stoudemire took off on the right baseline and probably would have gone for a dunk before his injury but instead flipped the ball toward the hoop. He scored his first points by grabbing an offensive rebound and delivering a two-hand dunk, albeit without his trademark explosiveness. Stoudemire played until the end of the first quarter and then returned to the bench. He made his presence felt during his second, briefer tour of duty near the end of the second quarter with another offensive rebound followed by a stronger, more authoritative one-hand dunk.

Stoudemire returned to the game with 4:46 remaining in the third quarter. Less than a minute later he caught the ball at the free throw line, drove to the hoop, spun and tried an up and under move, missing the shot. He was able to tap the offensive rebound and Phoenix retained possession. Later, Stoudemire grabbed a couple defensive rebounds and committed an offensive foul on another awkward looking drive. He scored his only second half points with a one-hand dunk off of a nice pick and roll play with Raja Bell, by far Stoudemire's strongest and most confident looking move of the game. Each of his previous moves to the hoop looked slow and tentative, but he did seem to get more aggressive and confident as the game went on. Stoudemire finished with five turnovers and four fouls. Granted, not too much should be read into any preseason game, let alone one that marks his first appearance in an NBA game in quite some time, but suffice it to say that Stoudemire appears to be nowhere close to the form that he displayed before he injured his knee.

Iverson did most of his damage early in the game, making six of his first seven shots both from the field and the free throw line and scoring 18 first quarter points. Despite his efforts, Phoenix led 34-28. Iverson finished the first half with 23 points, including a three pointer at the buzzer that trimmed Phoenix' lead to 61-52. Marion led Phoenix with his typically "quiet" 20 points.

Phoenix used a relentless fast break attack to push their advantage to 80-58 midway through the quarter and seemed to have matters well in hand but Philadelphia trimmed the deficit to 89-75 by the end of the period. As Marv Albert might say, they were "showing some signs." Those "signs" were flashing neon bright before long, as Phoenix' offense completely fell apart, producing only 11 fourth quarter points. Korver's two free throws tied the score at 91 with 5:40 left. Nash immediately countered with a long two point jumper and the score remained close for the rest of the game. Carney made his decisive three pointer with 10.5 seconds left, putting Philadelphia up 102-100. Barbosa missed a three pointer on the next possession and Rick Brunson closed out the scoring by making one of two free throws.

****Notes****

**A funny moment occurred at the end of the third quarter. Korver attempted a shot that did not beat the shot clock buzzer, so Phoenix should have gotten the ball with about one second left. The clock showed triple zeroes and the officials went to the scorer's table to straighten things out but after a brief discussion everyone basically gave up trying to reset the clock and decided to move on to the fourth quarter. ESPN2's Mike Breen laughingly noted that this would not happen in a regular season game and the Phoenix coaching staff seemed much more amused than perturbed by the glitch.

**ESPN actually spent the cash to have its commentators at this event, in contrast to the FIBA World Championships, when Jim Durham and Fran Fraschilla did voiceovers from Bristol, Connecticut. Bill Walton and Mike Breen did the typical pre-game standup that is standard fare on most NBA broadcasts but was absent during NBA TV's coverage of NBA Europe Live Tour games; during one of the telecasts, NBA TV's Rick Kamla and Bill Raftery certainly gave the impression that they were in the arena but if so they have become awfully camera shy, since they did not appear on screen once.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:49 AM

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Denver Downs Efes Pilsen, 118-102

When he was interviewed during the Denver Broncos-Baltimore Ravens Monday Night Football Game, Carmelo Anthony said that he didn't know anything about the Nuggets' Tuesday night Turkish opponent. Recently, ignorance has not been bliss for U.S. teams facing strong international teams, but the Nuggets did post a 118-102 win against Efes Pilsen. Anthony led Denver with 21 points and added six rebounds. He did not play in the fourth quarter. Americans Horace Jenkins (who played for William Paterson, a Division III school) and Marcus Haislip (Tennessee) led Efes Pilsen with 26 and 23 points respectively. The Nuggets built a 16 point second quarter lead but were only ahead 55-44 at halftime.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

2006-2007 Western Conference Preview

Last year, my Eastern Conference and Western Conference previews each correctly picked six of the eight playoff teams. I thought that the Spurs would be the best team in the West in 2005-06 but injuries to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili slowed them down and by the time they faced the Dallas Mavericks in the second round I wrote that very little separated the two Texas powerhouses. I predicted that the Spurs would prove to be "thismuch" better but of course Dallas narrowly prevailed. Tim Duncan appears to be in good health entering the 2006-07 season, as do Ginobili and Tony Parker, so I look for the Spurs to not only be the best team in the West but to claim their fourth NBA title of the Duncan era. I recently posted my 2006-2007 Eastern Conference Preview; here is my Western Conference preview:

1) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich. The Spurs have three of the top individual players in the league and one of the game's great coaches. That has proven to be a championship winning formula in the past as long as Duncan is healthy. Reasons to mope: Ginobili is known as "El Contusion" for a reason: his relentless, no holds barred style leads to a lot of bruises. On paper, the Spurs look deep but guys like Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley all have a lot of mileage on their odometers. The Spurs need their big three to stay healthy throughout the season and especially during the playoffs. Bottom line: Tim Duncan has yet to win back to back championships but three titles in the past eight seasons suggest that it might soon be time for the Spurs to hoist another banner.

2) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: Dirk Nowitzki, his disappointing Finals performance notwithstanding, has been a playoff stud throughout his career: his 25.1 ppg, 10.8 rpg and .406 three point shooting in the postseason exceed his excellent career regular season averages. Coach Avery Johnson has set NBA records for being the fastest to reach various win plateaus and he has instilled a hard nosed defensive mentality in a team that some people used to consider to be soft. This team was one decent fourth quarter away from taking a commanding 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals, so the talent to win a championship is obviously there. Reasons to mope: This team was one decent fourth quarter away from taking a commanding 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals--and proceeded to lose that game and the next three contests as well. You don't get seeded into the 2007 NBA Finals based on past performance. Will Dallas' tantalizingly close run to an NBA title fuel the Mavericks' hunger to complete the task this year or will they struggle to sustain the effort and focus that are necessary to survive the 82 game regular season marathon that is a prelude to the playoffs? Bottom line: It would not surprise me if the Mavericks won the 2007 NBA title but they were in a dead heat with the Spurs for most of last season and I think that the Spurs will beat them this year.

3) Phoenix Suns: Reasons for hope: Two-time MVP Steve Nash is choreographing the show and he has an excellent supporting cast, including fellow All-Star Shawn Marion. Reasons to mope: Amare Stoudemire may never completely regain the explosiveness he once had. He provided an inside presence that the Suns have not been able to replace and was a nightmare matchup even for All-NBA Team and All-Defensive Team stalwart Tim Duncan. Bottom line: Phoenix is a fun team to watch and as long as Nash and Marion are healthy they will always be a contending team, but without Amare Stoudemire they just don't have quite enough to win the Western Conference.

4) Los Angeles Lakers: Reasons for hope: Kobe, Kobe, Kobe. With Mr. 81, 35.4 and 24 (his new jersey number), anything is possible. The Lakers took the favored Suns to the brink of elimination last year and now players such as Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Smush Parker will be more comfortable in the triangle offense and better equipped to execute in pressure moments. It sometimes takes players a full season to begin to understand how to run the offense smoothly. Free agent pick ups Vladimir Radmanovic and Shammond Williams will provide three point shooting and point guard depth respectively. Reasons to mope: Lamar Odom shows tantalizing glimpses of what he is capable of doing but he is a career underachiever who has never made the All-Star team because he does not consistently play at a high level. Without Kobe Bryant's productivity and will, this team would have struggled to win 25-30 games last year. Bottom line: Last year I picked the Lakers to win at least 45 games and make the playoffs--and they did just that. Few people think that the Lakers can grab the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round but--if Kobe remains healthy--the Lakers will do just that.

5) Los Angeles Clippers: Reasons for hope: This team really seemed to turn the corner last year after years of making early reservations for the Draft Lottery. They have a bona fide star in Elton Brand, a clutch, veteran point guard in Sam Cassell, several solid veterans and a promising point guard for the future (Shaun Livingston). Reasons to mope: The Clippers have no track record for sustaining greatness--or even viable playoff contending status. Cassell is aging and if he gets injured or has trouble accepting that Livingston's playing time is bound to increase then the Clippers boat will be sunk (again). Bottom line: This is a solid playoff team that is not quite good enough to contend for an NBA title.

6) Houston Rockets: Reasons for hope: When Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are in the lineup together Houston wins about two thirds of its games, which would translate to at least 55 wins in an 82 game season. New addition Shane Battier will help defensively and has the ability to make open three pointers, spacing the court for T-Mac and Yao to operate. Recently signed Bonzi Wells can provide scoring and rebounding. Reasons to mope: The Rockets were simply dreadful last year without T-Mac, even when Yao was healthy; their winning percentage without McGrady may have threatened the 1972-73 Sixers' mark of 9-73 if projected over a full season. McGrady has been plagued by a balky back for quite some time, so the likelihood of him making it through an entire season unscathed seems remote. Bottom line: Wells gives the Rockets a potent third option when the team is at full strength and he should be able to pick up some of the slack if T-Mac has to sit out a few games to rest his back. If T-Mac actually stays healthy for all or most of the season, the Rockets will finish higher than sixth.

7) Denver Nuggets: Reasons for hope: Carmelo had his best season yet in 2005-06, making the All-NBA Third Team. Marcus Camby is a force defensively and on the glass. J.R. Smith may provide the three point shooting that the Nuggets desperately need to take pressure off of Anthony and the team's post up players. Reasons to mope: The 32-8 run to close out the 2004-05 season is a distant memory. The chemistry on this team seems explosive in a number of areas, most notably between Coach George Karl and disgruntled power forward Kenyon Martin; there is also the question of whether or not Anthony will develop the rest of his game to complement his tremendous scoring ability. Bottom line: Karl has led the Nuggets to two playoff appearances and two quick postseason exits. There is no reason to expect anything better this year.

8) Sacramento Kings: Reasons for hope: When he is healthy and focused, Ron Artest is one of the best players in the NBA. Mike Bibby is an excellent point guard. Brad Miller is showing some signs of age but he is still a good high post center. Reasons to mope: The Kings lost free agent Bonzi Wells, a key contributor last season, when he rejected their offer and signed with the Houston Rockets. It is not clear that new coach Eric Musselman can get any more out of this unit than the fired Rick Adelman did. Bottom line: There is enough talent here for this to be a very good team, but putting them in the top eight is my riskiest choice for one reason: Ron Artest--I'd like to put an asterisk by the Kings and not have this selection count against me if he misses more than 20 games for non-basketball reasons such as league or team suspensions or promoting a CD.

There are some other decent teams in the West that could sneak into the playoffs if teams 6-8 stumble. The Memphis Grizzlies were a playoff team in 2005-06 but Pau Gasol might miss as much as half of the season because of the injury that he suffered in the FIBA World Championships; I think that his absence will be too much for them to overcome, particularly in the Western Conference, where last year's eighth seed won 44 games. Golden State has a lot of talent and it would not be shocking to see Don Nelson guide this team to the last playoff spot, particularly if Baron Davis can stay healthy. The Hornets collapsed down the stretch last year but are a fashionable "sleeper" pick this year. Frankly, I just don't think that they are as good as any of the first eight teams listed above, so--barring Ron Artest going off of the deep end--I don't see them making the playoffs. The Utah Jazz made few changes to a roster that missed the playoffs by only three games. It is certainly not out of the question that they could make the playoffs but I see no reason to believe that they have gotten better than the teams that were ahead of them. Minnesota only won 33 games last year but Randy Foye and Mike James--the team's only significant additions--are supposed to be worth the 10 or so additional wins to make the playoffs? I don't think so. Seattle made no changes worthy of note, so don't expect the Sonics to do much better than last season's 35 wins. As for Portland, the Trail Blazers should lease the Clippers' old seat at the Draft Lottery with an option to buy--the Clippers won't be needing it for a while and Portland figures to be making the cross country trek for the next few years.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:02 AM

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A Glimpse Into How NBA Teams Prepare for Preseason Games Against International Teams

Denver's 13-3 Monday Night Football win over Baltimore raised some puzzling NFL questions: 1) How is it possible for a team to have six yards passing in the first half and still win? 2) How come the entire Cleveland Browns' defensive line has been transplanted to Denver with great success while the Browns continue to be one of the worst teams in the league? Basketball fans, however, will be more interested in this "nugget" from Denver Nuggets' star Carmelo Anthony, who was interviewed by sideline reporter Michele Tafoya. She asked him about Denver's upcoming preseason games and he mentioned that the Nuggets are about to play "some Turkish team that I don't know (anything) about." That "Turkish team" is Efes Pilsen, a squad that reached the Euro League quarterfinals the last two years. I can understand why the Nuggets are not doing in depth scouting for a preseason game against a team that they will not face in the regular season but since Melo is a key member of Team USA one would hope that he and the rest of the team are making some effort to learn about players that they might face in the Olympics in 2008. As a public service for Melo, the Nuggets and anyone else who might be interested, here is some information about that "Turkish team":

Efes Pilsen

posted by David Friedman @ 12:08 AM

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Monday, October 09, 2006

San Antonio Spurs Defeat Maccabi Tel Aviv, 97-84

The San Antonio Spurs built a 24 point second half lead and cruised to a 97-84 victory over perennial Euro League power Maccabi Tel Aviv in an NBA Europe Live Tour game played in Paris, France. Tony Parker enjoyed returning to his native land, leading the Spurs with 27 points on 10-16 field goal shooting and 7-7 free throw accuracy. He added five assists, four rebounds and two steals, showing no ill effects from the broken finger that prevented him from playing for France's national team in the FIBA World Championships. Tim Duncan had 15 points and 11 rebounds. Jaime Arnold led Maccabi with 15 points and Nikola Vujcic added 14.

Maccabi actually started two American players--Will Bynum and Rodney Buford--while the Spurs started three non-Americans--Parker, Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto. The Spurs took command of the game from the opening tip, racing to a 16-4 lead. Duncan had eight of those points and was very active on defense, swatting or altering several shots and then corralling the rebounds. After Maccabi scored to end the Spurs' initial run San Antonio delivered an 8-0 burst to go up 24-6. By the end of the quarter, the Spurs led 34-17, with Duncan scoring 11 points.

The Spurs went to their bench in the second quarter and did not score for five minutes, enabling Maccabi to get within nine, 35-26. Parker's floater at the 6:59 mark began another Spurs run, quickly followed by a Francisco Elson fast break dunk off of a Parker feed and another Parker drive, putting the Spurs up 41-26. The Spurs led 48-32 at halftime, with Parker scoring 17 points.

The Spurs extended their lead to 58-36 early in the third quarter and then Parker provided a moment of (unintentional) levity. He got the ball on a one-on-none fast break and decided to dunk. Unfortunately, his legs did not get the message, providing insufficient lift, and the rim blocked his attempt. Parker atoned for his gaffe on the very next possession by nailing a jumper. NBA TV commentator Chris Carrino noted that he had wondered if Parker can dunk and Jim Sparnarkel quipped, "We still don't know." San Antonio enjoyed a 74-52 lead at the end of the third quarter.

Duncan and Parker sat out the start of the fourth quarter and Maccabi made some inroads. Vujcic put on a mini-highlight show, firing a pass between Elson's legs to hit a cutting Arnold for a layup, delivering a nice interior pass and displaying some nifty post up moves plus the ability to knock down the face up jumper. Duncan and Parker returned midway through the quarter but did not seem to have quite the intensity that they showed at the start of the game. Maccabi made the final score a bit more presentable but the outcome was never in doubt from the opening minutes of the game. San Antonio shot 51% from the field and had commanding advantages in fast break points (17-2) and points in the paint (56-40).

Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich made some interesting comments in the postgame press conference. Asked if he thought that any of the Euro League teams would be good enough to qualify for the NBA playoffs, he said that he had "no idea" and that anything he would say in that regard would be "speculation." He complimented the talented players and coaches on the Euro League teams and said that it is "fantastic" to compete against them. Is the NBA Europe Live Tour a good thing for NBA teams to participate in during training camp? Popovich acknowledged that some teams may not like the rigors of international travel but "I think there is a definite benefit in the sense that it is a great chance for camaraderie and for a team to get to know each other away from home." He added, "I think it pays dividends down the road." What about the NBA and FIBA getting together and devising one set of rules that both would use? Popovich is all for it: "It would be better if everyone understood the rules and was used to them when they played each other." He mentioned that Maccabi has added some players and recently changed coaches and suggested that these factors, plus the hybrid rules employed in the game, gave the Spurs an advantage over Maccabi. He did not explain, nor did anyone ask, why the rules were not advantageous for the 76ers and the Clippers, each of whom lost one game on the Tour, but one could surmise that the answer lies in the fact that those teams do not have the continuity that the Spurs have--or international players of the caliber of Parker and Manu Ginobili.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:21 AM

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

CSKA Moscow Routs the L.A. Clippers, 94-75

CSKA Moscow, the Euro League champion, outscored the L.A. Clippers in each quarter and posted a 94-75 victory in an NBA Europe Live Tour game. Trajan Langdon led CSKA with 17 points and seven rebounds in a game-high 38 minutes. Theo Papaloukas, who was last seen helping Greece's national team destroy Team USA in the FIBA World Championships, performed similar duties for CSKA, not so much with his 10 points but rather with his nine assists against only one turnover; he comes off the bench for CSKA but is their best player and, according to NBA TV, is the highest paid player in the Euro League. In contrast, Shaun Livingston had no assists and seven turnovers for the Clippers; Sam Cassell was not much better in his return to the starting lineup, scoring eight points on 3-11 shooting and committing two turnovers while only having one assist. Chris Kaman topped the Clippers with 15 points and 11 rebounds but struggled on defense, earning a tongue lashing from Cassell at one point. Elton Brand is apparently waiting to bring his "A" game until the results actually count; he finished with eight points and eight rebounds, shooting only 2-7 from the field.

If CSKA's win is considered a triumph of international basketball over U.S. basketball then some kind of asterisk should be applied--three of CSKA's starters are American players: Langdon, J.R. Holden and David Vanterpool. Holden had a forgettable game but Vanterpool (14 point, five rebounds) was one of six CSKA players to score in double figures. The Clippers were one of the top teams in the NBA last year, so it seems strange to see them get blown out by a team with those guys playing heavy minutes. After all, Langdon played in just 119 games in three NBA seasons, shooting well on three pointers and free throws but doing nothing else with distinction in limited playing time. Vanterpool played briefly for the Wizards in 2001 and Holden has not played in the NBA at all. So what in the name of James Naismith is going on here? First, while the NBA Europe Live Tour is a great showcase for the international teams--who have already started their regular seasons--these are the first preseason exhibition games for the NBA teams that are involved. Second, the games use a curious hybrid of NBA and FIBA rules (as I explained in my first post about the Tour). Third, the American players are fully integrated into their teams in roles that maximize their strengths and hide their weaknesses. Consider Langdon, the former Duke star and surely by far the best known of the three Americans. When he played in the NBA he could neither create his shot off of the dribble nor could he play effective one on one defense. What he could always do is make open shots. CSKA plays an assortment of zones and trapping defenses that don't leave him on an island and they provide him open shots off of kick outs from dribble penetration or as the result of a series of screens.

What I'm waiting for is the FIBA America Live Tour, when CSKA and some of these other teams come to the NBA during their offseason and play four games in five nights under NBA rules--actually, I'm being sarcastic. What I'd really like to see is the NBA and FIBA adopt one universal set of rules and then have some NBA and FIBA teams play under those rules when all of the teams are equally prepared. I think that the FIBA teams play a wonderful brand of basketball but the NBA game is great, too, and I think that point is getting lost in the flurry of U.S. losses in FIBA competitions for which Team USA does not properly prepare and glorified exhibition games that the FIBA teams are treating like the seventh game of the NBA Finals. At least Coach Krzyzewski knew what he was signing up for when he went to the FIBA World Championships; I doubt that Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy, 76ers Coach Maurice Cheeks and the rest of the NBA coaches who are on Tour will be sending thank you cards to David Stern. It is great to promote the internationalization of basketball but in my opinion Stern is devaluing his own product by showcasing NBA teams when they have just started their training camps and having them travel halfway around the world to play with unfamiliar rules. The FIBA World Championship was a legitimate challenge for which Team USA must prepare better in future years but there is no way that NBA teams that are just beginning their training camps could be ready for this Tour. It will be interesting to see how the Spurs do on Sunday versus Maccabi Tel Aviv, one of the very best Euro League teams. The Spurs--with top FIBA players such as Ginobili, and Parker--and the Suns--with Coach Mike D'Antoni's familiarity with FIBA play--seem to be better equipped to handle the Tour than the 76ers or Clippers.

Despite the final score, the CSKA-Clippers game started out as a competitive matchup, with CSKA only leading by one at the end of the first period, 21-20. CSKA shot 4-14 on two pointers, 4-4 from the free throw line and 3-9 on three pointers, while the Clippers shot 7-13, 6-7 and 0-2 respectively from those distances. The Clippers took a 24-23 lead early in the second quarter but Langdon started a 6-0 CSKA run by nailing a deep two pointer after coming off of two baseline screens. Then Brand hit two free throws and Cuttino Mobley hit a runner to pull the Clippers to within one, 29-28. Papaloukas countered with a three point play, the beginning of a 23-11 run to close out the quarter. CSKA's 52-39 halftime lead was the product of numerous defensive breakdowns by the Clippers plus poor shot selection, particularly by Cassell and Mobley, who shot one of the wildest three pointers ever captured on film.

A glance at the halftime statistics is very revealing: rebounds were even (21 each), two point field goal shooting was even (14-31 each) and free throw shooting was almost a wash (11-13 for the Clippers, 9-14 for CSKA); the big differences were three point shooting (5-11 for CSKA, 0-5 for the Clippers) and, to a lesser extent, turnovers (11 for the Clippers, 8 for CSKA as both teams were a little sloppy with the ball at times).

CSKA blew the game open early in the third quarter when Langdon hit two consecutive uncontested three pointers, pushing the lead to 61-45. Later, the Clippers made a token 7-0 run to cut the lead to 65-52 but by the end of the third quarter CSKA was up 73-57 and they maintained a double digit lead the rest of the way.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:48 AM

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