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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Kobe Bryant Unplugged

Kobe Bryant returned to action on Friday night, producing 23 points, six assists and four rebounds in a 118-112 Los Angeles Lakers win over the Seattle SuperSonics. The Lakers are now 3-0 after winning their first two games without Bryant as he completed his recovery from offseason knee surgery. It's early, but the Lakers could surprise a lot of people this year--at least those who didn't read my Western Conference Preview, in which I predicted that the Lakers will finish fourth in the conference.

Recently, Fox Sports aired an interview that Chris Myers did with Bryant. Here are some choice excerpts:

>>>Asked his thoughts about last season, Bryant replied: "It was a great season for us. Being a young team, no one expected us to be in the playoffs, let alone make some noise in the playoffs.*"

>>>Bryant shared his thoughts about his relationship with Phil Jackson: "Our relationship is beyond great." Bryant added, "The relationship that we've always had when it came to the game is we knew what we had to do to get the job done, period. Now that relationship has gone beyond just the strategies and schematics of the game of basketball--it's a deeper respect that goes beyond our profession." Jackson wrote some negative things about Bryant in his book The Last Season but Bryant insists that all is forgiven and forgotten: "I didn't need an apology from him--coming back to the Lakers was enough."

Myers asked if it is necessary for a player to like his coach. Bryant answered, "No, I don't think that you necessarily have to like the coach...the relationship that we had previous to him coming back was rocky but we still won three championships. Now our relationship is great, so we look forward to making even more noise."

>>>Bryant said that he neither roots for nor against Shaquille O'Neal because he is focused on what the Lakers are doing. He is not surprised by what the Heat accomplished because Pat Riley put an excellent team together and then the emergence of Dwyane Wade created a powerful duo with Shaq.

>>>Myers asked Bryant if he thought that he should have finished higher than fourth in MVP voting. Bryant said, "I never thought about being an MVP. Coming into the season, I didn't even think about it. The two things that I wanted to accomplish--these were goals of mine--were to improve as a team and to get back to the First Team All-Defense. Those were the things I really focused on. The MVP stuff doesn't mean anything to me. At the end of the day, it's all about championships."

>>>Bryant told Myers that he has always been sociable but that the dynamics of the team were different when he came into the league because he was so much younger than his teammates. Now, he is the "big brother" based on "mileage" but the age difference is not that great. He added that by the time LeBron James came into the league straight out of high school "the playing field had levelled," meaning that the league itself had gotten so much younger that there was not the same generation gap between James and his teammates that there had been between Bryant and his teammates in Bryant's early seasons. Bryant has mixed feelings about the rule that prevents players from jumping straight from high school to the NBA, citing the success that he James, McGrady and others have enjoyed but also acknowledging that many players failed miserably when they tried to make the jump.

>>>Bryant does not believe that it will be possible for someone to duplicate Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point game but cannot rule it out, either. He said that, while he may make scoring look easy, such a feat would be "very difficult" and that a lot of things have to come together at once to produce such a performance. Bryant added that during his 81 point game everything seemed to slow down and he felt like he could see what would happen in advance. Bryant said that he sometimes has a feeling before a game that he could score a lot of points but that he tries to restrain that thought because "if you embrace that feeling too quickly, by the time game time rolls around it's gone."

>>>Myers noted that Bryant was criticized for not scoring more against Dallas (the game when he outscored the Mavericks 62-61 for three quarters and then sat out the fourth) and for scoring too much in his 81 point game versus Toronto. Myers asked Bryant what he thinks about that and Bryant replied, "I just do whatever is required, whatever is necessary." That is similar to the response that Bryant gave to me when I posed that question to him during the 2006 All-Star Weekend: "The object is always to win, so whatever that means for me to do is what I’m going to do.”

>>>Bryant talked about his renowned work ethic: "I'm seeking to improve my level of play. I'm constantly asking questions about the game, trying to learn the game more."

>>>Bryant said, "Winning is the ultimate goal" and "The thing that I'm afraid of is not winning another championship. That really drives me."

>>>After he came to the United States from Italy, Bryant felt that other kids viewed him as soft and he used that as motivation to earn their respect.

>>>Bryant described some of his philanthropic endeavors, including working with the East L.A. Boys and Girls Club and the United Negro College Fund. He is providing the funding for a number of college scholarship winners to travel to Italy; he feels that growing up overseas broadened his horizons and opened his mind to many possibilities and he wants others to have a chance to experience such things. He said, "I've had a pretty good career, but I want to feel like my life has had more purpose besides putting a ball in the basket."

>>>His choice for most enjoyable teammate? A tie between Chucky Atkins and Caron Butler.

*--This is not entirely true: Before the 2005-06 season began, I wrote that the Lakers would win at least 45 games and make the playoffs.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:49 PM

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Hornets Sting Pacers in Indiana's Home Opener, 100-91

Rasual Butler scored 11 fourth quarter points as the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets ruined the Indiana Pacers' home opener, 100-91. The Pacers brought back five of the franchise's original players to celebrate the team's 40th anniversary but their current players neglected to bring much energy or effort. The Hornets outrebounded the Pacers 53-34 and outscored them in the paint 40-26. David West had 20 points and six rebounds for the Hornets, while Tyson Chandler contributed seven points and a game-high 15 rebounds. Second year point guard Chris Paul had a solid game with 16 points and six assists, including six points in the last 2:08 of the fourth quarter. The Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal scored 25 points on 11-19 field goal shooting, grabbed six rebounds and blocked five shots, the second best single game total in the league in that category so far in the 2006-07 season. Marquis Daniels (3-4 shooting from the field, eight points) was the only other Pacer who made at least half of his shots; starting center Al Harrington (four points) shot 1-9 and starting shooting guard Stephen Jackson (14 points) shot 5-13.

The Hornets never trailed in the first half. West was a beast early in the game, leading both teams with 10 points and five rebounds in the first quarter as the Hornets built a 26-20 lead. The Hornets had eight offensive rebounds and 27 field goal attempts in the period. As Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle noted after the game, the Hornets could have easily had a 12 or 14 point lead if they had not missed some wide open shots.

The Pacers again scored 20 points in the second quarter but did a slightly better job defensively and on the boards, limiting the Hornets to 19 field goal attempts, but the Hornets led 48-40 at halftime. Indiana scored eight straight points in the first three minutes of the third quarter to tie the game but ex-Pacer Peja Stojakovic answered with a three pointer and by the 7:29 mark the Hornets were ahead 57-48, their biggest lead to that point. Then Darrell Armstrong and Stephen Jackson hit back to back three pointers and by the end of the period Indiana led 72-69.

Hornets Coach Byron Scott looked to his bench for salvation and Rasual Butler, who had not scored a point in the first three quarters, delivered, shooting 4-5 from the field, scoring 11 points and snaring four rebounds. The Hornets outscored the Pacers 31-19 in the fourth quarter.

The Pacers overcame a slow start to win their first game on the road versus Charlotte but Carlisle is not at all pleased with how the Pacers have played so far and mentioned more than once in his postgame remarks that a lineup change may be in order. He concluded, "We've played with a lack of force in the first two games. I'll take a hard look at it. Whatever it is, it has to change fast. Maybe it's something we need to address via a lineup change. I've said since training camp started, defense is going to have to be our identity. Talk is cheap. We've got to do it."

On the other hand, Scott is feeling very upbeat about his team: "The bench really helped us out. It was a team effort. This is a good start. We have a young team and we will get better and better. We still need to learn a lot about each other. We never quit and keep playing hard. We're still getting comfortable in our new system."

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Notes From Courtside:

Chubby Checker sang the national anthem and also performed at halftime.

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Membership in Legends at Conseco Fieldhouse includes tickets to 45 Pacers games and 18 Indiana Fever games, plus food and beverages, and is limited to about 600 people. Bright House Networks is the presenting sponsor for the club, which is located high above the baseline closest to the visitors' bench. In a ceremony that took place about 45 minutes before tipoff, five original Indiana Pacers--Oliver Darden, Jerry Harkness, Freddie Lewis, Bob Netolicky and Jimmy Rayl--cut the red ribbon signifying the opening of Legends and the beginning of the Pacers' 40th season. They also mingled with fans and signed autographs. They stood together at midcourt right before the game began and were acknowledged with a standing ovation. I had a chance to speak with Lewis, who helped lead the Pacers to three ABA titles, was selected to four ABA All-Star games (winning the 1975 All-Star MVP) and earned 1972 ABA Playoff MVP honors playing alongside the more heralded Mel Daniels and Roger Brown. Lewis is proud that he was the team's captain during his playing days and that he was voted to the franchise's all-time team after he retired. Inexplicably, he is still waiting for his number to be lifted to the Conseco Fieldhouse rafters alongside those of Brown, Daniels, George McGinnis, Reggie Miller and Coach Slick Leonard.

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Right before the game, Jermaine O'Neal addressed the crowd, thanking the fans for their support and pledging that the players would do their best to represent "Pacer pride, Pacer poise and Pacer dedication."

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Ex-Pacer Stojakovic, who rejected the team's offer and chose to sign with the Hornets, was greeted with boos when his name was announced and was heckled throughout the game. Stephen Jackson, the subject of much offseason controversy, was greeted with a mixture of boos and cheers.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:18 AM

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Satch Sanders Article Reprinted at Legends of Basketball

Legends of Basketball, the official website of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA), has reprinted my article about Satch Sanders. Here is the link:

Unsung Celtic Hero

posted by David Friedman @ 11:55 PM

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Cassell Scores 35, Clippers Beat Nuggets, 96-95

Sam Cassell scored 35 points and added six rebounds and six assists, enabling the L.A. Clippers to defeat the Denver Nuggets, 96-95. The Nuggets enjoyed a 56-38 rebounding advantage, a 14-4 edge in fast break points and a 42-28 lead in points in the paint. They also held Elton Brand to eight points and six rebounds, although Cassell played a part in that too, launching 24 field goal attempts to Brand's eight. To Cassell's credit, he hit a lot of big shots, including the two free throws that provided the final victory margin. Tim Thomas contributed 21 points, including five three pointers. J.R. Smith led Denver with 21 points, shooting 4-11 from three point range while the rest of his teammates combined to go 0-12. Marcus Camby filled up the boxscore with 16 points, 18 rebounds, four blocked shots and four assists. Carmelo Anthony scored 15 points before he was ejected after receiving his second technical foul with 8:22 left in the third quarter.

Denver led 24-18 after the first quarter, forcing several turnovers and closing the period with a 17-6 run. Anthony scored nine points on 4-7 shooting. The Clippers shot only 6-18 from the field, although Brand was 2-2 and center Chris Kaman was 1-1. TNT's Doug Collins virtually pleaded with the Clippers to feed the ball to Brand.

Midway through the second quarter, Cassell scored seven straight points and assisted on a Tim Thomas three pointer that put the Clippers up, 37-32. Collins always emphasizes the importance of closing out quarters well and Denver did so again in the second quarter, using a 10-4 run to cut the Clippers' lead to 49-48 at halftime.

The NBA has a new policy--dubbed by some the "'Sheed rule," for obvious reasons--that calls for quick technical fouls in response to complaining by players or coaches. Anthony received a technical foul early in the third quarter and after being called for his fourth personal foul he threw his headband as he walked to the bench. That led to a second technical foul, which of course results in automatic ejection. After the game, TNT's Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and Kenny Smith argued that the NBA is going too far and is taking all of the emotion out of the game. As a politician might say, I feel strongly both ways about this. On the one hand, the antics of Rasheed Wallace and others are tiresome and unsportsmanlike and if the NBA follows through on this change then Wallace and his overly demonstrative cohorts will either be forced to behave like adults or else watch from the sidelines while donating significant portions of their paychecks to the NBA. On the other hand, it is a bit extreme, to say the least, to issue technicals (which can lead to ejections) for simply shrugging, as happened to Andres Nocioni on Tuesday. Fans pay a lot of money to attend NBA games and it is not a good idea for the league to send a parade of high profile players to the locker room. Of course, players could prevent that by simply restraining themselves but Barkley and the others make a valid point when they say that some reactions are simply a natural and instinctive part of human nature. Kenny Smith put it this way: How many fans could live up to this standard if they were told not to cheer or boo after exciting plays? Hopefully, we will soon reach a happy medium that involves the players acting with more maturity and the referees using some restraint and good judgement.

Denver managed to keep the game close even without Anthony and used another closing surge--this time an 8-0 run--to take a 70-65 lead going into the fourth quarter.

Cassell and Earl Boykins had an entertaining scoring duel in the fourth quarter, with Cassell producing 14 of the Clippers' 31 points and Boykins 10 of the Nuggets' 25. The Clippers had the ball and a 94-93 lead with just 26 seconds remaining. Cassell received the inbounds pass and was tightly covered by Smith. Cassell lost his footing in the backcourt and Smith picked up the loose ball and soared in for a dunk. It was not clear if Cassell simply stumbled or if Smith fouled him; it looked like Cassell was trying so hard to draw a foul that he tripped himself up. The shot clock and game clock were so close at that point that the Nuggets would almost certainly have had to foul, although perhaps they planned to wait to do so until Cassell made it across midcourt. Cassell complained vociferously to referee Steve Javie, who is normally quick to call technical fouls but refrained from doing so this time.

Cassell, being a crafty veteran, took the next inbounds pass and drove to the hoop, all but forcing the referees to call a foul after he pump faked. He then coolly nailed the two free throws to give the Clippers a one point lead. Boykins then missed a jumper as time ran out.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:23 AM

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Spurs Spoil Mavericks' Home Opener, 97-91

There is a lot of talk about NBA rivalries but the best on court grudge match in the league right now is the Texas tussle between Dallas and San Antonio for bragging rights in the Western Conference. San Antonio had the best record in the conference last year but Dallas won the playoff showdown in a thrilling seven game series. On Thursday night, the Spurs rallied from a 10 point deficit to ruin the Mavericks' home opener, 97-91, in the first game of TNT's doubleheader. Tim Duncan had a quiet game (13 points, 10 rebounds, 5-13 field goal shooting) but Tony Parker (19 points), Manu Ginobili (16 points, five assists), Bruce Bowen (12 points, 5-6 shooting from the field) and newly acquired Francisco Elson (12 points, six rebounds) picked up the slack. Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas with 21 points and 11 rebounds and Josh Howard contributed 20 points, six rebounds and four assists.

Dallas led 27-26 after a closely contested first quarter. Nowitzki scored eight points on 4-5 field goal shooting. TNT's Craig Sager reported that the Mavericks originally planned to raise their Western Conference Championship banner on opening night but owner Mark Cuban decided to delay the ceremony until Monday's game against Golden State. Some speculate that Cuban did not want to fire up the Spurs but he insisted that the reason was simply marketing: the Spurs game would sell out no matter what and the banner ceremony would boost attendance for the Warriors' game.

Elson played well in his Spurs regular season debut. Fabricio Oberto started at center, but Elson got most of the minutes and he played good defense against Nowitzki, enabling Duncan to avoid foul trouble by guarding one of the Mavericks' offensively challenged centers. That in turn lets Popovich put Bowen on Howard instead of Nowitzki. Elson displayed a variety of post moves and also scored off of a pick and roll play with Ginobili. The Spurs' coaching staff told TNT that Elson is the fastest player on the team other than speed demon Parker.

During the telecast, Steve Kerr talked about Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich's defensive philosophy of forcing players to the baseline. The old defensive mantra that many people heard from their high school coaches was "Don't give up the baseline!" Popovich has a different idea: the on ball defender forces his man to the baseline and he receives help from Duncan, Elson or whichever 7-footers are on the court at the time. Cavaliers Assistant Coach Hank Egan, who previously coached under Popovich, offered this explanation when I interviewed him last season: "I think that it used to be (taught to) not give up the baseline and that is still said sometimes, but (now) it's (taught) more that if you give up the baseline we can come and help you without giving up rebounding (position). If you allow a player to go to the middle and we help, it's going to be away from the basket. So then we are turning them loose on the boards..."

The Mavericks played with tremendous energy during the second quarter, forcing turnovers and getting out on the break, enabling them to launch 13 more field goal attempts than the Spurs in the first half. Dallas led 51-45 at halftime. Nowitzki had 13 points and Parker 10, while Duncan scored only three on 1-6 field goal shooting. DeSagana Diop played excellent defense against Duncan and even blocked two of his shots.

Referee Jess Kersey was hit in the face by a loose ball near the end of the first half, bloodying his chin, affecting some dental work he had earlier in the week and leaving him a little woozy. He did not return to action, so the remainder of the game was called by only two officials. Last week, when the teams renewed acquaintances in the final game of the preseason and the Spurs romped to a 100-79 win, ESPN's Hubie Brown talked about how players could get away with more off the ball contact when there were only two referees instead of three. The game did seem to become a little bit more physical after Kersey's departure but that also might just reflect the nature of this rivalry; Howard received a flagrant foul for pushing Bowen even before Kersey left the game.

Dallas pushed the lead to 58-48 early in the third quarter but was only ahead 63-60 when Nowitzki picked up his fourth foul with 4:17 remaining. He went to the bench and a little over a minute later the Spurs had a 66-65 lead after two Duncan baskets and one by ex-Maverick Michael Finley. Dallas Coach Avery Johnson took a timeout, Dallas' reserves settled down and by the end of the quarter Dallas was back on top, 75-72.

San Antonio's defense forced the Mavericks into two turnovers and 0-6 field goal shooting to start the fourth quarter and the Spurs surged ahead, 80-75. Dallas did not score until Diop made a layup off of a nice Nowitzki feed at the 6:50 mark. Diop was not able to convert the ensuing free throw, so Dallas still trailed by three. The Spurs extended their advantage to 85-79 but five straight Dallas points closed the gap to 85-84 with 2:37 remaining. Bowen nailed a three pointer to put the Spurs up four but Nowitzki countered with a fadeaway jump shot. Then the teams traded missed shots and missed free throws until Duncan's put back of Elson's miss gave the Spurs a four point lead with :50 left. The Spurs closed out the win by making four of six free throws. The Spurs outscored the Mavericks 25-16 in the fourth quarter.

San Antonio took the first round of the heavyweight bout for Western Conference supremacy but this fight figures to go the distance. Or, as Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich put it, "All the games with Dallas will be like this one. One team will lose that just as easily could have won."

posted by David Friedman @ 12:57 AM

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Huge Effort by Hughes Lifts Cavs in Season Opener

When I interviewed Cleveland Cavaliers Assistant Coach Hank Egan last season, he said, "Larry Hughes is a multidimensional player...He is also a calming influence, a very 'Steady Eddie' kind of guy." Hughes demonstrated both of those traits on Wednesday night, producing 27 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals in Cleveland's 97-94 season opening win over the Washington Wizards at Quicken Loans Arena. Hughes shot 11-15 from the field, was largely responsible for holding Gilbert Arenas to 2-12 field goal shooting and did not commit a turnover. LeBron James had 26 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots but missed four of his six free throw attempts and had five turnovers. Drew Gooden had a solid double double for Cleveland (14 points, 11 rebounds). Caron Butler led the Wizards with 23 points, while Antawn Jamison scored 20. Arenas finished with seven points, 11 assists, five rebounds, five fouls and four turnovers.

Washington led 28-26 after the first quarter, largely because of scoring nine points off of eight Cleveland turnovers. The Cavaliers shot .600 (9-15) from the field but the Wizards took advantage of the turnovers and five offensive rebounds to fire off 25 shots.

Neither team shot well in the second period, but Hughes played all 12 minutes, made all four of his shots and scored nine points in the quarter, helping Cleveland to take a 47-45 halftime lead. Hughes and Butler each had 13 points in the first half, while Arenas missed all five of his field goal attempts. James had 11 points in the first half. Cleveland's starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas only made one shot all game, a backwards tip in with 3:40 remaining in the second quarter. It looked like he was flailing wildly and did not even know that the ball was there, but his hand connected with it and guided it over his head into the hoop.

Hughes scored eight of Cleveland's points in a 21-12 run to open the third quarter. It seemed like the Cavaliers might pull away but Washington called a timeout with 3:42 remaining and on the ensuing possession Arenas made his first field goal. The teams traded baskets for the next couple minutes, with Cleveland's lead bouncing between nine and 11 points, but Washington closed the quarter with a 6-1 run and only trailed 75-69 heading into the fourth quarter.

Cleveland led 84-76 with 6:16 remaining in the game when Hughes went to the locker room with leg cramps. When Hughes returned to action at the 2:59 mark, the score was tied at 89. He had a driving left hand dunk and a key defensive rebound as the Cavaliers outscored the Wizards 8-5 down the stretch. Washington missed two open three point shots in the last 18.2 seconds, one by Jamison and one by Jarvis Hayes.

In his postgame standup, Coach Brown said, "The first thing that I have to mention is the crowd. The crowd was unbelievable and they kept us in the game at times when Washington went on a run or we stalled out a little bit on both ends of the floor. The electricity in the building was unbelievable. They stayed into it the entire ballgame, for 48 minutes, and that's what I need to continue to try to get my team to do. Guys gutted it out and we feel fortunate to get this win."

Brown mentioned three problem areas that cropped up for his team in the preseason: free throw shooting, turnovers and allowing too many fast break points to their opponents. The Cavaliers performed poorly in all three categories against the Wizards, shooting 15-30 from the free throw line, committing 17 turnovers (including 12 in the first half, leading to 15 of the Wizards' 45 points) and getting outscored 19-8 in fast break points. How did the Cavaliers win despite these deficiencies? Cleveland outrebounded Washington 50-33 and shot 8-19 (.421) from three point range compared to Washington's 2-13 (.154) three point shooting. Hughes sank three of his four three point shots and James made two of his four.

Brown praised Hughes' all-around performance: "Larry was terrific. He shot the ball well, he stayed within the offense extremely well and at times when we were a little rattled he kept us going. The thing that I am most impressed with is that here is a guy who is not the thickest guy in the world in terms of girth but he came up with nine rebounds."

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Notes From Courtside:

I wrote on October 25 that the preseason means different things to different teams. That point is reinforced by something that Coach Egan mentioned when I spoke with him prior to the game. He said that last year the Cavaliers approached the preseason really trying to win games because the coaching staff and players were trying to establish the team's identity. This year, coming off of a good playoff run with the team's nucleus intact, the Cavaliers' focus during the preseason was to rest key players and avoid injuries. Consequently, Egan told me that tonight's game would be the coaching staff's first chance to really see how the players will respond to the challenge of being considered a good team. Egan added that the coaching staff has talked to the team about how this year will be different because teams will be coming after them but that regardless of how much this is discussed that the players will only be able to learn how to deal with it by experiencing it for themselves.

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James has repeatedly spoken of the challenge of being a "hunted" team this year as opposed to being an underdog, so during his pregame standup I asked him what he thought of the dismal opening night performance of the defending NBA Champion Miami Heat. James replied, "I think that Miami is hunted, also. They are going to be one of the teams that everyone wants to beat because they are World Champions. I know that was a performance they didn't like--and I didn't like watching it--but I think they will bounce back. They are a veteran team and they know what to do."


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Before James did his post game standup in the locker room, the Cavaliers' training staff put him through an extensive series of stretches focusing on his back and legs. His standup was actually a "sitdown" as James iced some of his aching joints, a fairly common sight in an NBA locker room. Still, James mentioned that he is starting to feel older, so after he was done answering questions one media member good naturedly kidded James that if he feels old now wait until he is 42. James laughed and said that he wanted to clarify that he feels "older," not "old," and that his fans shouldn't panic. He added that by the time he is 42 he will be long gone from the NBA. I told James, "That's what Jordan said when he was your age but then he came back after he was 40 to play with the Wizards." James smiled and replied, "I'm not Jordan."

posted by David Friedman @ 3:15 AM

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lakers Rally from 19 Point Deficit, Beat Suns Without Kobe

The Phoenix Suns looked unbeatable in their season opener versus the L.A. Lakers--for a quarter. Then, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and the Lakers' bench led a comeback that turned a 39-20 deficit into a rousing 114-106 victory. The Lakers accomplished this with Kobe Bryant sitting on the bench in street clothes. Bryant had hoped to play but is still not confident that his knee can completely withstand the rigors of back to back games. So, rather than coming back and then having to sit out, the plan now is for Bryant to wait a little longer so that he can return at full strength. Odom finished with 34 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals. Bynum, making the first regular season start of his young career, had 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists in only 24 minutes; he displayed an array of low post moves, fought on the boards with great tenacity and confidently hit cutters with perfect bounce passes. Leandro Barbosa had 30 points and four assists for the Suns. Steve Nash scored 15 points with 13 assists but shot only 6-15 from the field. Amare Stoudemire returned to action but did not start, only played 12 minutes and finished with six points, one rebound and one blocked shot.

The Suns made their first nine field goal attempts and seemed poised to run the Lakers right off of the court. When Nash fed Stoudemire for a one hand dunk at the 6:23 mark in the first quarter Phoenix led 23-12. Stoudemire's jump hook off of another Nash pass put Phoenix on top 30-14 with 4:39 remaining. A few minutes later, Barbosa's jumper put the Suns up 39-20 and it seemed like the Lakers were headed for the same kind of blowout loss that the Heat suffered in the first game of TNT's doubleheader. The Lakers closed out the first quarter with a modest 6-2 run to trail 41-26.

The Lakers chipped away at the Suns' lead throughout the second quarter and only trailed 58-53 at the half. Phoenix still has the same problems that it had last year: (1) as quickly as the Suns can build a lead with great offense they can squander it with cold shooting and poor defense; (2) the Suns are extremely vulnerable defensively in the paint. Once the Suns stopped making 100% of their shots and the Lakers began attacking them in the post it was lights out. The Lakers outscored the Suns 66-34 in the paint, continuing the "Inside Man" strategy that they employed so effectively until game seven of last year's playoff series between these teams. They took command of the game early in the third quarter: Maurice Evans hit a pull up jumper, Luke Walton scored on a spin move and then again with a post move and the Lakers led 59-58. The teams traded baskets early in the quarter but then the Lakers went on a 9-0 run, including a gorgeous post move by Bynum and a three pointer by Odom. The Lakers led 87-79 at the end of the third quarter.

Jordan Farmar made a layup, Vladimir Radmanovic hit a jumper and Lamar Odom completed a three point play to push the margin to 94-81 early in the fourth quarter. Leandro Barbosa scored 16 points in the final stanza to keep the Suns at least somewhat in contact but Phoenix simply had no answer for the Lakers' frontline of Odom, Bynum and Walton. Free agent pickup Evans also looks like he will be a valuable contributor for the Lakers this year.

People who don't know a lot about basketball will look at this game and say that it shows how much better the Lakers are without Kobe Bryant. In reality, it shows nothing of the kind. Last year's Lakers looked terrible whenever Bryant was out of the game and lost both games that he missed due to suspension. This year's Lakers are a different and much improved team. Bynum's game has grown by leaps and bounds, free agent signings Evans and Radmanovic have improved the team's depth and Farmar looks like an excellent draft pick. These Lakers are a solid team without Bryant and, when Bryant returns, they have a good shot at finishing in the top four in the West, as I wrote in my Western Conference Preview. Am I reading too much into one game? No, because the things that Bynum did were not unusual or "lucky." He now has a solid post game on offense and demonstrated passing skills that were not at all evident last season. He won't put up 18 and 9 every game but he will be a factor that other teams have to deal with and it will be even tougher to contend with him on the block when Kobe is back on the wing wreaking havoc.

Bynum's development could really bring Bryant's career full circle. A decade ago, Bryant was a young player coming into the NBA straight out of high school and Shaquille O'Neal was a veteran player who felt like he had a lot to prove--namely, that he could take a team to an NBA title. O'Neal and Bryant never seemed to connect off of the court, but Bryant worked hard on his game and the two of them won three titles together. Now, Bryant is a veteran who wants to prove that he can win an NBA title without O'Neal and Bynum is a young player coming into the NBA straight out of high school. So, how will this story end? Will Bryant accept Bynum's inevitable mistakes and growing pains with more patience than O'Neal did with him? Can Bynum develop into a top level player before Bryant's skills begin to decline?

posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM

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Stampede! Chicago Bulls Trample Miami Heat, 108-66

The Miami Heat tipped off the 2006-2007 season on Tuesday night by getting their championship rings--and then they got their bell rung by the Chicago Bulls, 108-66, the worst opening night loss ever by a defending NBA champion. The Bulls outperformed the Heat in every significant statistical category. Kirk Hinrich scored 26 points, Chris Duhon had 20 points on 7-8 field goal shooting in only 17 minutes before reinjuring his foot and free agent acquisition Ben Wallace had five points, 11 rebounds and one blocked shot. In order to completely understand the impact that Wallace had in the paint you have to look beyond Wallace's numbers and consider some of the Heat's statistics: no Miami player had more than six rebounds and the Heat never established an inside game, shooting only 25-65 (.385) from the field. Dwyane Wade led Miami with 25 points, shooting 10-15 from the field, but he also had four turnovers and only three assists and two rebounds. Shaquille O'Neal had just seven points and five rebounds in 24 minutes, shooting 3-10 from the field. He didn't make his first field goal until nearly midway through the second quarter.

Ring ceremony games often have a strange vibe. Athletes are creatures of habit and do not like anything that disrupts their normal routines. Of course, the players and staff members are no doubt thrilled to receive their championship rings but, as Miami Coach Pat Riley said earlier in the week, he would have preferred to get them on the night that the Heat clinched the NBA title (not sure how it would be possible to prepare all the rings that quickly but you get the point). During my Tuesday afternoon appearance on BetUS.comRadio, I said that the Bulls had a great chance to come into Miami on opening night and get a win--not only because of the distraction of the ring ceremony but also because the Bulls, already a good perimeter defensive team, shored up their weakness in the paint by signing Wallace. P.J. Brown and rookie Tyrus Thomas did not put up big numbers but they also did a good job defensively for Chicago.

The first quarter of the game was slow paced, littered with fouls and turnovers by both teams. Wade scored Miami's first six points and denied Luol Deng's breakaway layup with a spectacular blocked shot attempt. Wade was called for a foul, but Deng only made one of two free throws, so his hustle saved a point; the play was reminiscent of similar efforts years ago by Dr. J, who made it an art form, and Michael Jordan. I'll never forget when Jordan, during his comeback with the Wizards, held off a Chicago Bulls rally by hustling back and nullifying Ron Mercer's fast break layup by grabbing it with two hands and pinning it to the backboard. That play was later featured in one of my favorite commercials of all-time, when Jordan narrated over the clip of that play, "Love is playing every game like it is your last."

O'Neal was whistled for his second foul with 7:51 remaining in the first quarter and went to the bench with Chicago up 9-7. A few minutes later Wade received his second foul as well, but Riley left him in the game. TNT's Steve Kerr mentioned that a point of emphasis for NBA referees this year is that if a block/charge call is close that the benefit of doubt will go to the offensive player. The Bulls took advantage of this by repeatedly driving right at O'Neal. It will be interesting to see if the game is officiated this way throughout the season and into the playoffs because if it is then players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade--among others--will be even more unguardable than they were last year. Chicago led 22-16 at the end of the first quarter, largely because of all the fouls they drew and free throws that they made (12-17). The Bulls shot only 5-20 from the field, while Miami shot 6-18. The Heat had seven turnovers and committed nine fouls.

Chicago opened the second quarter with a 10-3 run in less than two minutes and when Riley called timeout at the 9:08 mark the Heat trailed 34-19. During that frantic sequence of plays, Thomas made a tremendous blocked shot on O'Neal. The Bulls' defense was stifling and they converted the Heat's turnovers and errant shots into fast break points. Shortly after the timeout, Thomas had a tip jam that looked like it came straight off of the Stromile Swift highlight reel--a lean, long armed jumping jack exploding into the air; hopefully for the Bulls, Thomas will produce such plays with more consistency than Swift does. The Bulls soon pushed the lead past 20 and a smattering of boos could be heard from the shocked fans in American Airlines Arena. It was not clear if the fans were responding to the Heat's lethargic play or some of the fouls that were called against Miami. TNT's Marv Albert and Steve Kerr seemed surprised that the fans were booing on ring night. After initially acknowledging that it was happening, they almost seemed to go into denial about it, Albert repeatedly saying that the fans were being charitable by not booing when the Heat's play deserved it--kind of a strange thing to say when anyone watching the telecast could clearly hear that at least some fans were in fact booing. Chicago continued to pull away and after Duhon sank back to back three pointers the Bulls led 57-28. Have you ever seen a coach get a technical foul when he was up by that much? Well, Scott Skiles did. It wasn't clear what he said or did or if the call was a result of the NBA's new crackdown on complaining by players/coaches. The Bulls led 59-30 at the half.

TNT's Craig Sager reported that Riley told his players that their effort and energy was unacceptable. One might think that the Heat would make some kind of second half run to at least make the score respectable. The old cliche, oft repeated by Steve Levy on SportsCenter, says, "Everybody makes a run in the NBA." Amazingly, that never happened in this game. Wade made some nice shots but Miami never even got within 20 points before the Bulls built an even bigger lead than they did in the first half. Early in the fourth quarter, Albert announced that we were heading toward extensive "gar-bage time."

***Notes***

* The only down note for Chicago is that Tyrus Thomas broke his nose in the fourth quarter after receiving a James Posey elbow during a scramble for a rebound.

* Bulls' General Manager John Paxson has a clearly defined blueprint for building his team. He has acquired hard working, hard nosed players who come from winning programs. Other, less successful NBA teams bring in so-called stars and top prospects who are unwilling to put in the necessary work to become championship level players. Look at the progession of high priced, big name, underachieving players that have been signed by teams like the Portland Trail Blazers (who are now trying to forge a new path) and the New York Knicks.

* During TNT's pregame show, Shaquille O'Neal offered this interesting quote: "When I was his age (referring to Dwyane Wade), all I wanted to be was the leading scorer in the league--but that wasn't winning me championships. The day I stopped worrying about that and just (started) playing good, consistent ball--shoot 60% from the field, get 9-10 rebounds a game, stay out of foul trouble--that was the day I started winning." Could this possibly, maybe mean that Penny Hardaway and Kobe Bryant were not 100% at fault in their "feuds" with O'Neal? In any case, I give O'Neal credit for (1) realizing at some point that the way that he was playing was not going to help him win titles or contribute to his legacy and (2) admitting that he changed his approach in order to be a championship player--he is singing a slightly different tune now than his usual line that he always did things the right way but that the "other guy" (first Penny, then Kobe) was not following suit. Perhaps getting older and winning another championship has enabled Shaq to look at his career objectively. He has accomplished a lot and it is much better to hear him speak truthfully about his evolution as opposed to diminishing the contributions that Penny and Kobe made to his previous teams that advanced to the Finals.

* TNT's Charles Barkley said that his sleeper team in the East is the New Jersey Nets, calling Marcus Williams the steal of the draft and saying that Nenad Krstic can be a valuable contributor. Magic Johnson disagreed for two reasons: (1) the Nets do not make key fourth quarter defensive stops; (2) the Nets have no offensive post presence, putting a lot of pressure on their perimeter players to score.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:26 AM

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Celtics Legend Red Auerbach, 89, Passes Away

The phrase "one of a kind" is an overworked cliche but what better way is there to describe Arnold "Red" Auerbach than that? He was actively involved in the NBA from its inception in 1949-50 until his death on Saturday at the age of 89. In fact, his coaching career actually preceded the name "NBA": he coached the Washington Capitols to a 49-11 record in 1946-47 in the Basketball Association of America, which was renamed the National Basketball Association after merging with the National Basketball League three years later. Auerbach coached the Boston Celtics from 1951-1966, winning nine championships in 16 seasons, including a record eight straight from 1959-1966. Phil Jackson is the only other NBA coach to win nine titles but--as Auerbach was quick to point out--Jackson inherited his teams, while Auerbach built his rosters from scratch, acquiring numerous Hall of Famers, the most prominent being Bill Russell. Russell won 11 championships in his 13 years as a Celtic and is the greatest winner in the history of North American professional team sports.

Auerbach retired as pro basketball's all-time winningest coach, a mark that stood for nearly three decades. He was only 48 when he left the bench, but he no longer wanted to deal with the day to day grind of coaching--so he tapped Bill Russell to be the sport's first African-American coach and Russell led the Celtics to two titles in three years before he retired. Meanwhile, Auerbach continued to use his keen eye for talent to acquire the personnel who would lead the Celtics to two titles in the 1970s and three more in the 1980s.

Auerbach's early Celtics teams were not unlike the current Phoenix Suns--offensive juggernauts led by a great point guard, but not strong enough inside or on defense to win a championship. He had the vision to realize that Bill Russell's defense and shotblocking could provide the last piece to Boston's championship puzzle. That may seem obvious in retrospect but at that time the center position in the NBA was generally manned by big, slow giants who were productive scorers. Russell was undersized even in that era but possessed great quickness, tremendous leaping ability and keen intelligence for how to play the game and how to make his teammates better.

Auerbach had a great answer when he was asked once about "handling" his players: "You handle animals; you deal with people." His focus was on winning, not putting on a show. The Celtics only had a handful of plays but the plays had numerous options and he trained his players to run them all with precision. Even Auerbach's trademark victory cigar, which on the surface seemed to be an act of showmanship, had a deeper meaning. Don't you hate it when you see coaches mugging for the camera, screaming and yelling when their teams are up (or down) 20 with two minutes to go? Auerbach did, too, so when the game was out of reach he sat back and smoked a cigar, sending a simple message: My work here is done.

He was a visionary in so many ways. For example, he came up with the idea of the "sixth man," first using Frank Ramsey in that role and then later John Havlicek; Kevin McHale, another Auerbach acquisition, was a brilliant sixth man for years in the 1980s before becoming a starter. Auerbach's idea was to bring a player off of the bench who was at least as good as the starters, if not better. That player would have a tremendous advantage playing either against tired starters on the other team or bench players who were not as talented. Of course, it helps to have a deep team if you are going to employ this philosophy but Auerbach constantly kept the Celtics stocked with talent. Perhaps his greatest coup other than obtaining Russell was drafting Larry Bird. At the time, the NBA had a rule that junior eligibles--juniors whose college classes had graduated--could be drafted and that team would have a year to sign that player. The Celtics had briefly fallen on hard times and some people thought that it was risky to use a first round pick on a player who wouldn't be available for a year (Bird had announced his plans to stay in school for his senior year). Auerbach's reply was that a year was not such a long time to wait for a player of Bird's caliber.

In a March 22, 2002 article titled Seeing Red After All These Years, lifelong Celtics fan and ESPN.com Bill Simmons provides a vivid portrait of Auerbach, including this interesting detail: Auerbach's five favorite non-Celtic players to watch (who were active in 2002) were "Kobe ... Iverson ... Kidd ... Shaq ... and that kid from Minnesota (Garnett). I like Kobe the most."

The Boston Celtics have already announced that they will dedicate the 2006-07 season to their fallen patriarch, a fitting tribute to one of the pioneers who not only built that franchise but did so much to shape the entire history of the game of basketball.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:12 AM

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