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Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Seven Games in 11 Days Blues: The Lakers Lose to the Pistons, 97-83

The NBA regular season is an 82 game grind and when a team plays seven games in 11 days right out of the box it is not likely that the seventh game will be a virtuoso performance. The L.A. Lakers began the season better than a lot of people expected them to but they laid an egg on Friday night versus the Detroit Pistons, losing 97-83. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson did not mince any words in describing how his team played: "That was as bad a performance as I think we've had here in a long time." The Pistons were without the services of All-Star guard Richard Hamilton, who hyperextended his right (shooting) elbow, but Tayshaun Prince and Chauncey Billups more than picked up the slack. Prince tied his career-high with 31 points, while Billups had 21 points and nine assists. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 19 points, 17 of which he scored in the fourth quarter as he tried to singlehandedly lift his lifeless team to victory. Lamar Odom had 16 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

Billups did most of his damage early, scoring 12 points in the first quarter as Detroit took a 27-21 lead. The film of the second quarter will not be appearing at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame any time soon. Detroit did not score until Flip Murray's layup nearly four minutes into the period; the Lakers were hardly burning up the nets, producing four points in that same time span. The Pistons picked up the pace a little down the stretch and led 45-37 at halftime. Bryant shot 1-3 from the field in the first half. On a few occasions he drove to the hoop and attracted double team coverage. He was content to pass to his teammates, none of whom made shots with any regularity; not one Laker managed to score in double figures in the first half. The Pistons outrebounded the Lakers 29-19. After the game, Jackson suggested that the Lakers had tried too hard to force feed the ball to center Andrew Bynum, who finished with six points on 3-4 shooting: "We wanted to go inside to Andrew and that cost us. We lost the ball a number of times trying to do that." Even though Bryant was hardly dominating the ball, Odom did little with his opportunities, scoring just four points, although he did have six rebounds and three assists.

The third quarter was a complete disaster for the Lakers. Prince had 17 of his points in that period, running off nine straight at one point and crossing over Bryant so badly on one play that the Lakers' star actually fell down. The Lakers committed seven turnovers in the third quarter and trailed 70-53 going into the fourth quarter.

Bryant went to the bench with 2:28 remaining in the third quarter and applied a heat wrap to his ailing knee. The treatment must have helped, because when he returned to the game with 8:43 left he suddenly looked like the guy who scored 81 points in a game last year. The Lakers trailed 76-60 and Rasheed Wallace soon made it 79-60 with a three point play. Bryant scored seven points in the next three minutes but the Lakers still trailed 85-68 because they could not get any stops. Bryant decided to do something about that. He read Billups coming off of a baseline screen, jumped into the passing line like Deion Sanders, intercepted the ball and was off to the races. Billups grabbed him from behind and the clear path foul meant that Bryant would get two free throws and the Lakers would retain possession. Bryant made them both to cut the lead to 87-76 and got a good look at a three pointer that could have pulled the Lakers to within eight with more than three minutes left but he missed the shot. Billups then hit a turnaround jumper as the shot clock expired, a real dagger that put Detroit up 89-76. Bryant drove to the hoop aggressively and bagged two free throws to get the Lakers back within 11. A comeback seemed improbable but not impossible until Odom committed his third foul, threw his wristbands in disgust and was ejected after receiving his second technical foul. Billups made all three free throws and Detroit led 92-78.

Bryant was less than impressed with his team's performance: "We played terrible. We kind of ran around like a chicken with our head cut off."

***Notes***

Andrew Bynum is the youngest player in the league, so it is not surprising that he has his ups and downs. NBA Shootaround's Tim Legler likes what he sees overall, though, noting that Bynum "catches the ball cleanly and finishes in traffic." Greg Anthony added that Michael Jordan's championship teams went with a center by committee approach, which is an option for the Lakers when Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm get healthy--but the word out of L.A. is that Mihm will need surgery on his injured ankle and will be out for five to eight months.

ESPN's Jim Gray interviewed Lakers Assistant Coach Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the game and asked him about his protege's progress. Jabbar said that Bynum is "starting to understand how to use his talents in the flow of the game. It's a very difficult thing to understand what to do and when to do it even though mechanically you can do everything." He added, "They threw him in the deep end of the pool" by giving Bynum so many minutes this early in the season--of course, the Lakers had no choice with Brown and Mihm on the shelf.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM

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Phoenix East: Nets Run to 17 Point Lead, Limp to 113-106 Loss Against Miami

The Miami Heat defeated the New Jersey Nets 113-106 on Friday but I felt like I had already seen this game on Thursday--when the Phoenix Suns took an early lead before losing to the Dallas Mavericks. New Jersey led 47-30 with 5:16 remaining in the first half but a combination of injuries, poor execution and outstanding play by Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem resulted in a second half collapse. Wade finished with 34 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and three steals, while Haslem poured in a career-high 28 points. Shaquille O'Neal returned to action after sitting out two games with a bruised left knee and contributed 13 points and six rebounds before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. Vince Carter scored 33 points for the Nets and Jason Kidd narrowly missed a triple-double (12 points, nine assists, nine rebounds). Richard Jefferson had 16 points in only 26 minutes before spraining his right ankle; the Nets said that X-rays were negative but that he will be out indefinitely.

The Nets have shown that they can match up very well with the Heat for extended stretches but this has yet to translate into many wins. New Jersey took a 1-0 lead versus Miami in last year's playoffs but lost Jefferson to injury and forward Cliff Robinson to suspension and then dropped four straight games. What New Jersey can do that is very difficult for Miami to deal with is play a wide open style, attacking the hoop for layups or kicking out to open jump shooters. The Nets raced to a 20-13 lead in the first quarter, with Carter scoring 10 of the points. Carter was forced to the bench at that point after being called for his second foul but New Jersey kept attacking and led 32-22 at the end of the quarter. The Nets could have been up even more if they had not committed five turnovers. Wade scored nine points.

The teams played evenly for the first few minutes of the second quarter. Carter returned to action at the 7:58 mark and promptly nailed a three pointer to put the Nets up 42-28. Soon the Nets were ahead by 17 and the Heat seemed to be in big trouble. Miami chipped away, though, and a James Posey three pointer with three seconds left in the half trimmed the margin to 53-43. Carter scored 15 points on 6-9 shooting in the first half, including 3-5 from three point range. Wade had 13 points and O'Neal had only seven points and four rebounds, shooting just 3-11 from the field.

New Jersey looked like the gang that couldn't shoot straight at the start of the third quarter, spraying inaccurate attempts from every angle. Meanwhile, Wade hit a sweet reverse layup and a fadeaway and assisted on a couple other shots and the Heat tied the game at 58 with 7:32 remaining. Then things really got bad for New Jersey: Richard Jefferson landed on O'Neal's foot after taking a jump shot, spraining his right ankle. He stayed in to attempt two free throws, making one, and then went to the locker room. He was limping noticeably but returned to action a couple minutes later. It quickly became apparent that he could not play and he left the game. Last year's playoffs demonstrated that the Nets are not the same team versus Miami without a healthy Jefferson. Granted, they had already squandered a lead before he got hurt but with him in the locker room they were soon down by seven points. Then, Carter cut his hand when he fell out of bounds after trying to catch a lob from Kidd. Carter left the game and returned a couple minutes later with a black wrap around his hand. With Jefferson and Carter both out of the game, Kidd looked to score and produced back to back three point plays with spectacular drives after getting defensive rebounds and going coast to coast. Miami led 76-75 at the end of the third quarter.

With Carter back in the lineup, the Nets took an 85-79 lead with 8:05 to go. Antoine Walker answered with a fadeaway and a three pointer and then Wade hit two free throws to put Miami up 86-85. Neither team went ahead by more than three until Gary Payton drilled a three pointer for a 94-90 Miami lead. Wade then stole the ball from Carter and went coast to coast for a dunk. Antoine Wright hit a three pointer to pull the Nets to within three but they could not get any closer than that the rest of the way. New Jersey tried the "Hack a Shaq" with 2:50 remaining but O'Neal hit both free throws. He fouled out on the next defensive possession, so New Jersey did not get a chance to try that strategy again. Miami's last 12 points came on free throws.

Wade is clearly the best player on the team--something that became evident even last year--but it should not be forgotten that the Heat were 42-17 in 2005-06 when O'Neal played and only 10-13 when he was out of the lineup. I like the way that TNT's Kenny Smith used to put it when Shaq and Kobe were on the same team: with Shaq around, Kobe is a great one-on-one player who gets to play one-on-one because Shaq must be doubled, whereas most other great one-on-one players get double teamed; the same is now true of Wade (Bryant showed last year that he could still score and carry a team to the playoffs even without playing alongside a legitimate post threat). O'Neal's presence eases the burden on Wade, which is not to suggest in any way that Wade is not a great player.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:13 AM

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Microfracture Surgery 101, Part II

In a recent post titled Microfracture Surgery 101, I discussed how this procedure was developed and some of the obstacles athletes face during their rehabilitation from it. During Friday's NBA Shootaround, ESPN's Ric Bucher said that we are all going through "microfracture surgery 101" (catchy title). The latest installment in the course is the news that Denver's Kenyon Martin will need surgery on his right knee. This is in the wake of the microfracture surgery that he had on his left knee. Amare Stoudemire went through this as well: players who try to come back too quickly from microfracture surgery are not only placing great stress on the repaired joint but also on the previously healthy one. As I wrote in my first post about this, I strongly believe that doctors and trainers are going to have to adjust the timetables that these athletes are using. Bernard King blazed the trail for athletes to push the envelope in coming back from ACL surgery but this microfracture surgery is an entirely different deal.

posted by David Friedman @ 9:22 PM

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Wilt Chamberlain, Bobby Fischer and Dick Schaap

Wilt Chamberlain, Bobby Fischer and Dick Schaap walk into a room. That may sound like the start of a joke--but it really almost happened. Dick Schaap was a frequent houseguest of Chamberlain's and Schaap mentioned in his autobiography Flashing Before my Eyes that on one occasion Chamberlain called up Fischer and asked him to join them. Schaap had known Fischer for many years and had even taken the young chess champion to some Knicks games, introducing him to Dave DeBusschere. Fischer once said, "I'd compare chess to basketball. Basketball players pass the ball around until they get an opening. Like chess, like the mating attack."

Schaap said that Fischer considered coming to Chamberlain's house but then told Schaap that he wasn't seeing people at the time. What if Fischer had accepted the invitation? I thought about that--and wrote this story:

Wilt and Bobby: Not a Random Encounter

posted by David Friedman @ 6:51 PM

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Western Shootout: Dallas Outguns the Suns in Conference Finals Rematch

Dallas and Phoenix each shot better than .540 from the field in Thursday night's Western Conference Finals rematch but the Mavericks made the crucial shots--and stops--down the stretch in an entertaining 119-112 victory. Dirk Nowitzki scored 35 points and added seven rebounds and four assists. He shot 11-19 from the field and 12-12 from the free throw line. Jason Terry scored 30 points on 9-15 field goal shooting and Jerry Stackhouse had 23 points on 10-16 field goal shooting. Leandro Barbosa (9-15 shooting) led Phoenix with 30 points, Shawn Marion (9-16) had 21 and Steve Nash narrowly missed having a triple double of dubious quality (21 points, nine assists and 10 turnovers). Amare Stoudemire contributed 16 points and eight rebounds in 35 minutes of playing time. The Suns are now 1-5 and have blown leads of at least nine points in each of the losses. This was the Mavericks' first win of the season; the defending Western Conference Champions are 1-4.

The Suns got off to a blazing start, leading 19-10 barely four and a half minutes into the first quarter--but three minutes later Dallas led 22-19 after Terry's three pointer. Dallas led 34-26 at the end of the first period. Stoudemire made some good plays during the quarter but showed signs of rust, too. His explosiveness seems to be improving but he does not have good balance, which leads to awkward shots, fumbled passes and personal fouls. TNT ran an interesting statistic: in the Suns' first five games they have outscored their opponents by 15 points with Stoudemire out of the game but trail by 30 points when he is in the game.

Phoenix opened the second quarter with a 16-6 run, taking a 43-40 lead on Barbosa's three point play at the 6:46 mark. Then it was the Mavericks' turn--specifically, Nowitzki and Terry, who scored all of Dallas' points in a four minute, 14-2 run that put the Mavericks back on top, 54-45. The Suns hit three straight three pointers in the waning moments of the second quarter and only trailed 60-56 at halftime. Nowitzki poured in 25 points in the first half while Barbosa made all four of his three point shots. Stoudemire scored five points on 2-2 shooting while committing no fouls in his first five minutes but only had two points on 1-4 shooting while being whistled for three fouls in his next 16 minutes. Clearly, fatigue is still a factor as he tries to regain his old form in his comeback from microfracture surgery.

The teams opened the third quarter by trading baskets like two heavyweight boxers trading punches, with Phoenix outscoring Dallas 14-10 in less than four minutes to tie the game at 70. The Mavericks closed the quarter with a 23-15 run. Nowitzki only scored six points, but he passed well out of the double team, collecting two assists. Terry had 12 points and Stackhouse had 11.

Play got a little chippy early in the fourth quarter. Barbosa collided with a driving Terry while trying to block his shot. There was a lot of contact but no foul was called. Instead, Anthony Johnson received a technical foul. Nash's free throw cut the Dallas lead to 95-88. On the ensuing possession Nash nailed a three pointer. Terry committed an offensive foul and then Barbosa scored on a drive to pull Phoenix within two. Dallas called a timeout but was unable to score and Nash's jumper tied the game at the 9:14 mark. The stage seemed to be set for the Suns to ride the energy of their home crowd to victory over the team that eliminated them in last year's playoffs. Neither team went up by more than two until Stackhouse's jumper with 4:46 remaining put Dallas up 107-104. Dallas never trailed again; the Suns made some tough shots--including Stoudemire's dunk off a Barbosa feed to pull the Suns within 109-108 and Nash's left handed jump shot in the lane to tie the score at 112--but simply could not get enough stops. After Stoudemire's dunk, TNT's Doug Collins said, "This could be his epiphany, the moment that he realizes that the knee will hold up." Hopefully that is true, but unless Stoudemire and the Suns improve a lot at the defensive end of the court all the dunks and epiphanies in the world won't mean much; Dallas outscored Phoenix 10-4 in the last 2:17 of the game.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:30 AM

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The Bulls Have no Defense for the Cavs

The Cleveland Cavaliers easily beat the Chicago Bulls 113-94 in the first game of TNT's Thursday night doubleheader. The Bulls have gone 1-3 since their stunning 108-66 opening night win against the NBA Champion Miami Heat. Drew Gooden led the Cavs with 20 points and had a game-high nine rebounds (a total matched by Zydrunas Ilgauskas). LeBron James finished with 19 points, 12 assists, four rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots. Kirk Hinrich had 20 points and 11 assists. Ben Wallace was almost completely invisible--two points, five rebounds, one blocked shot.

P.J. Brown scored the Bulls' first six points of the game and Chicago took an early 9-6 lead. Gooden countered by making three of his first four field goal attempts and Cleveland pulled to within 10-9 at the 6:50 mark. James did not score until his two free throws with 4:33 remaining put Cleveland ahead 17-11. Cleveland led 30-18 by the end of the quarter.

Ilgauskas went to the bench with 7:01 remaining in the second quarter after committing his third foul. Instead of Chicago making a run with big "Z" out of the game the Cavaliers scored seven straight points to lead 42-25. The Cavaliers led 52-39 at halftime. The Cavaliers outrebounded the Bulls 29-16 in the first half and held Ben Gordon, Chicago's leading scorer, to 0-6 shooting from the field (he finished with two points on 1-10 shooting).

Hinrich opened the third quarter scoring with a three pointer but midway through the quarter the Cavaliers led 66-51. Chicago made a mini-run to get within 77-68 but Donyell Marshall hit a three pointer at the buzzer to give Cleveland an 80-68 lead at the end of the quarter.

The Cavaliers stepped on the gas pedal in the fourth quarter and pushed their advantage to 91-70 by the 8:07 mark. Bulls coach Scott Skiles offered this summary of the game: "They pretty much had their way with us. They went right through our defense and we couldn't get anything going. We couldn't stop any part of their lineup."

***Notes***

Before the game, various TNT commentators offered their opinions about the controversy surrounding LeBron James' conduct at the end of the Cavaliers 104-95 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night. As Atlanta advanced the ball up the court during the waning seconds, James slowly walked toward the locker room instead of getting back on defense. Some reports stated that James left the court but, for what it's worth, James maintains that he never actually left the court until time ran out; on the film that I have seen it is not clear if this is the case or not. Steve Kerr said, "It's not a big deal" but added "the spotlight is always going to be on Lebron...it would be wise to not do it again." Charles Barkley, never one to mince words, declared, "I love LeBron but he was wrong" but also suggested that the situation has been "overmagnified," comparing it to all of the attention that has been focused on Terrell Owens' dropped passes (a subject I have touched on in the comments section to my Kobe Bryant Unplugged post). Kenny Smith said that the real issue is that the Cavaliers lost at home to a Hawks team that is not supposed to be very good. Some have said that James' actions indicated that he quit on his team but Smith felt that what James did was actually more disrespectful toward the Hawks--in essence, James was indicating that he could not believe that his team lost to Atlanta.

I think that what James did was wrong--whether or not your team has a realistic chance to win, you shouldn't just walk off of the court. Of course, the situation has indeed been "overmagnified" due to James' status. In the overall scheme of things this is not a big deal and I'm sure that James will not do this again.

On a related subject, I agree with Woody Paige, who hates the way that NFL teams walk off of the field when there is still time remaining on the clock; I've always thought that this looked sloppy. Is it really that difficult to wait 10 or 15 more seconds until the final gun goes off?

One more thing: in the past couple days there have been some overheated comparisons of James and Randy Moss. Moss once left the field instead of sticking around to join the "hands" team to attempt to recover an onside kick. James was wrong to do what he did but he did not compromise his team's chances to win the game; if Moss had recovered the onside kick his team could very well have won the game. Moss has also admitted that he only plays hard when he wants to and does not run his routes aggressively if he is not the primary receiver on the play. I see no validity in comparing James to Moss.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:50 AM

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Dr. J and Pistol Pete on the Same Team

When I interviewed Julius Erving, he told me that Pistol Pete Maravich had taught him the importance of playing one-on-one or two-on-two with your teammates after practice. Erving and Maravich were teammates on the Atlanta Hawks during the 1972 preseason before it was ruled that Erving must return to the ABA's Virginia Squires. I had read descriptions of how Erving mentored rookie George Gervin later in that season by working with him after practice but had never seen an account explaining that Maravich and Erving had done the same thing just months earlier. I wrote an article about this titled "A Little-Known Pairing of Top 50s" that appeared in the October 2004 issue of Basketball Digest. I recently saw a book that lifted some Erving quotes verbatim from that article without attribution*, so I thought that this would be a perfect time to share the complete story of Erving's brief time with the Hawks, exactly as I wrote it two years ago:

The ABA enjoyed a 79-76 edge in exhibition games versus the NBA, but two NBA wins should be marked with an asterisk: Julius Erving, the greatest player in ABA history, led the Atlanta Hawks to a pair of exhibition triumphs over ABA teams.

Wait a minute...Julius Erving was an Atlanta Hawk?

Yes, briefly. Erving signed with the Hawks after his fantastic 1971-72 rookie season (27.3 ppg, 15.7 rpg in the regular season; 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg in 11 playoff games) with the ABA's Virginia Squires. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks selected Erving in the 1972 draft (the NBA prohibited its teams from drafting underclassmen at the time) and the Squires insisted that Erving was still under contract with them. While an armada of attorneys attempted to reach an agreement among three teams in two leagues, Erving joined Pete Maravich and the Hawks as they prepared for the upcoming season.

Erving enjoyed his brief time with Atlanta: "It really was one of the joys of my life to play with Pete, to be in training camp with him. We used to stay after practice and play one-on-one. We would play for dinner after practice. I did the same thing with George Gervin once he became my teammate [in Virginia]--I pretty much learned that from Pete. If this guy is going to be your teammate, you really need to stay after practice and get to understand his game and know his likes and his dislikes--where he likes the ball and that kind of stuff. The best way to do that is to just play--go play each other one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three. Play away from the coaches, away from the whole team practicing in unison."

On September 23, 1972, Erving had 28 points and 18 rebounds in 42 minutes for Atlanta in a 112-99 win over the Kentucky Colonels in Frankfort, Ky. A week later in Raleigh, N.C., he scored 32 points--shooting 14 of 15 from the field--in a 120-106 win over the Carolina Cougars, who were paced by Joe Caldwell's 24 points. Erving says, "I remember those exhibition games. I would just grab a rebound, throw it out to Pete and get on the wing. Pete would always find you. He got his points, but he loved to pass the ball. He could hit you in full stride in a place where you could do something with the ball. That was a measure of his greatness."

The NBA fined Atlanta $25,000 per game for Erving's two Hawks appearances because Milwaukee owned his NBA rights--in a sense, the Hawks had "stolen" Erving from teams in both the ABA and NBA. A three-judge panel ruled that until the case was settled, Erving was contractually bound to the Squires. Erving returned to Virginia and led the ABA in scoring in 1972-73 (31.9 ppg). The following year, the cash-strapped Squires sold him to the New York Nets, leaving Hawks (and Squires) fans to wonder what might have been.

*--I have since received an apology from one of the authors of Maravich, Wayne Federman, who also assured me that the proper attribution will be added in subsequent editions of the book.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:57 PM

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Phil Hubbard: Playing Within Limits

Phil Hubbard might have become an NBA star if not for a serious knee injury. Instead, he persevered, accepted his limitations and had a solid 10-year NBA career. Here is a link to my HoopsHype.com article about Hubbard:

Phil Hubbard: Playing Within Limits

posted by David Friedman @ 6:22 AM

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Spurs Outexecute Suns Down the Stretch

The season is young but the Phoenix Suns' propensity for blowing big leads is getting old in a hurry for Coach Mike D'Antoni. The San Antonio Spurs overcame a nine point fourth quarter deficit and beat the Suns in overtime, 111-106. The Suns dropped to 1-4 and they have squandered leads of at least nine points in each of their losses. Tony Parker had 29 points and six assists, Tim Duncan produced 26 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots and Fabricio Oberto shot 11-11 from the field, scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, the first double-double of his NBA career. In case you are wondering, the 11-11 field goal shooting is not a record; as ESPN's Mike Breen and Hubie Brown pointed out, the record for most field goals without a miss in one game is 18, by Wilt Chamberlain; the Big Dipper also holds down spots two and three with games of 16-16 and 15-15. Steve Nash and Raja Bell led the Suns with 20 points each. Nash also had 11 assists. Amare Stoudemire was in the starting lineup for the first time this season. He finished with 16 points and six rebounds while shooting 8-11 from the field. Stoudemire had several nice dunks and looked better than he has since his microfracture surgery but he also fouled out after playing only 15 minutes.

Right after the game started, Hubie Brown explained the reasons for the Suns' slow start this year: rebounding, defense and some chemistry issues working new players into Coach D'Antoni's system. Stoudemire made one of the more athletic plays that he has made during his comeback when Nash fed him for a monster two hand dunk that tied the score at 10 early in the first quarter. Stoudemire played aggressively in the early going but also tired quickly, asking out of the game midway through the period. Phoenix led 25-21 at the end of the quarter.

Stoudemire returned to action at the 5:49 mark in the second quarter with the Suns leading 36-32. He hit an off balance turnaround fadeaway over Oberto that Brown described as a "so help me God" shot; Brown suggested that Stoudemire should use his size and strength to go to the basket and not rely on such a low percentage attempt. The next time down the court, Stoudemire faced up Duncan and drove to the basket, but he missed the layup. A couple minutes later, Nash delivered a sweet left handed feed and Stoudemire delivered another monster dunk. Not long after that, Stoudemire committed his second foul while trying to guard Duncan. The Suns led 43-37 at this point and Brown pointed out what he termed an amazing statistic: the Suns had scored 30 of their 43 points in the paint but had yet to attempt a free throw. That soon changed, as Nash fed a trailing Stoudemire, who made a layup and drew a foul; he missed the free throw.

Stoudemire was hit with his third foul at the 1:48 mark but D'Antoni left him in the game. Smartly, the Spurs went right at him and Duncan met very little resistance, scoring easily in the post as Stoudemire ceded ground so as not to be whistled again. Stoudemire countered with a jump shot and then answered a Parker drive with a layup of his own. When D'Antoni took Stoudemire out with less than 30 seconds left he already had 14 points on 7-10 shooting. A late Brent Barry three pointer gave the Spurs a 50-49 halftime lead. Duncan had 13 first half points and Parker had 12, picking up the slack for Manu Ginobili (three points, 1-7 field goal shooting). The Spurs had trailed by as much as eight.

Stoudemire quickly picked up his fourth foul and had to go back to the bench but the Suns ran off nine straight points to take a 58-50 lead barely two minutes into the third quarter. The Spurs trimmed the margin to 71-68 before Stoudemire returned to action. He posted up Oberto and scored but had to go back to the bench at the 1:57 mark after fouling Barry on a drive. Phoenix led 75-70 at the end of the third quarter.

Ginobili scored seven points in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, hitting five straight free throws--including three after he was fouled in the act of shooting a three pointer. Phoenix still clung to an 81-79 lead. After Bell's three pointer at the 8:06 mark put the Suns up 86-79, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich signaled for the Spurs to run "power 5 down." Oberto received the ball at the top of the key, the three perimeter players cleared out the back side and Oberto tossed the ball to Duncan, who promptly wheeled and scored on Kurt Thomas. That sequence seemed to be a pretty good momentum shifter but the Suns kept pushing the ball and with 5:29 to go Nash hit a three pointer to extend the lead to nine, 91-82. Barry immediately answered with a three pointer.

Stoudemire entered the game with 4:56 left but barely half a minute later he fouled out at the end of a bizarre sequence of events. Barry launched a jumper that did not hit the rim but Stoudemire secured the rebound before the shot clock buzzer could go off. Since he had possession, there was no shot clock violation. Parker stripped the ball from Stoudemire, who fouled him. Parker's two free throws cut the Phoenix lead to 93-87 and after a Phoenix miss he hit a teardrop to close the gap to 93-89. The Spurs kept chipping away and with 39.1 seconds left Parker converted a three point play to put the Spurs up 98-97. Leandro Barbosa was then called for a charge, although replays showed that Bruce Bowen had grabbed his arm earlier on the drive. With 10.8 seconds left, the Spurs seemed to put the game on ice when Ginobili passed to Oberto who deftly fed Duncan for a layup and a 101-97 lead. The Suns called timeout and executed a great inbounds play, Bell passing to Shawn Marion who passed right back to Bell for a three pointer from the left baseline. Duncan then missed two free throws. On the Suns' final possession, Bell broke free for a layup, forcing Oberto to foul him with 1.5 seconds left. Bell split the free throws and the game went to overtime after the Spurs missed a half court heave at the buzzer.

Tim Duncan versus Kevin Garnett is a fashionable debate (or at least it used to be--Garnett's supporters seem to be quieter now), but the overtime session provided a prime example of why Duncan is more valuable than Garnett. Scottie Pippen pointed out Garnett's deficiencies in some comments that he made less than a year ago: "He really set the tone for self-destruction. He's very productive but unproductive. He gets you all the stats you want, but at the end of the day his points don't have an impact on [winning] the game. He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, but in the last five minutes of the game he ain't the same player as in the first five." The technical reason for Garnett's lack of production in those situations is that he does not have a great back to the basket, low post game. Duncan, on the other hand, has a face-up game, a driving game and a back to the basket game. He completely dominated the overtime with his ability to post up. When the Suns double teamed him, he passed the ball back out and the quick ball rotation led to a wide open Bruce Bowen jump shot: 103-101 Spurs. Nash and Parker each hit jumpers and on the next possession Duncan was once again doubled on the post; this time he fired a great pass to Oberto, whose layup made the score 107-103 Spurs. Next time, the Suns did not double and Duncan put Kurt Thomas in what Kevin McHale used to call the "torture chamber": fake to the middle, drop step and layup off of the glass--109-103 Spurs. After Nash missed a jumper, Parker used a Duncan screen to get open for a running jumper. Bell hit a three pointer to close out the scoring.

The Suns simply had no answer for Duncan's ability to operate out of the low post--when they single covered him he scored at will and when they doubled him he picked them apart with great passing. This is not a new story; it is not an accident that Duncan's teams have won three titles and are perennially at or near the top of the regular season standings. Much is made of the playoff series two years ago when Stoudemire averaged 37 ppg versus Duncan and the Spurs but Duncan was very productive as well--and his team won the series four games to one.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM

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Microfracture Surgery 101

Less than two weeks ago, the retooled NBA Shootaround looked at microfracture surgery and how it has impacted the careers of several prominent players. On Wednesday, NBA Shootaround delved even further into this subject, getting the perspective of several players and even interviewing Dr. David Altchek, who performed the procedure on Jason Kidd in 2004. Altchek explained that microfracture surgery treats "defects in articular cartilage." He said, "The final and most important part of the procedure is that we make multiple puncture wounds in the surface of the bone." That is why it is called "microfracture"--the surgeon actually punctures (fractures/breaks) the patient's kneecap, with the idea being that this will stimulate the development of scar tissue that will replace the damaged, non-functioning cartilage. Kiki Vandeweghe (who is not a doctor--but his father is) added that microfracture surgery was originally designed with older patients in mind, not young, large athletes.

It used to be that ACL tears ended careers; now guys have reconstructive surgery and come back as good as new (or pretty close). That is not yet the case with microfracture surgery. Making little fractures in someone's kneecap sounds a lot more traumatic even than a knee reconstruction (although the surgeons who developed microfracture say that this is not the case), but I'm sure that with time the procedure will become more and more refined and--more importantly--it will become better understood how these athletes should rehabilitate. I've spoken with many NBA players who injured their knees in the 1970s and back then the importance of active rehabilitation was not understood. With ACL injuries, it is important to build up the surrounding musculature as quickly as possible and to get rid of adhesions in the knee joint. Watching the struggles of so many microfracture patients, though, I wonder if active rehab is being overdone in some cases; perhaps a different approach should be taken. I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but I find it interesting that former microfracture patients Allan Houston and Jason Kidd both suggested that current microfracture patient Amare Stoudemire should not push himself to do too much too fast. Bernard King basically willed himself back from his ACL tear with an incredible workout program but I'm not sure that that approach works with microfracture patients. Of course, vigorous rehab must take place at some point but the question is when should it be done. My understanding is that one of the major possible complications of the microfracture procedure is that the newly formed scar tissue/cartilage can lose its stability or dissolve; it would seem like the newly created tissue needs time to "congeal" before the knee can withstand the rigors of training--and how much time that takes probably varies depending on age and the condition of the rest of the knee.

After the microfracture surgery piece aired, NBA Shootaround showed a graphic of the scoring averages of several players before and after they had the procedure done. Every single player--Jason Kidd (14.8; 13.9), Jamal Mashburn (21.8; 17.9), Allan Houston (17.4; 16.6), Chris Webber (22.2; 19.5) and Penny Hardaway (18.7; 10.0)--saw his average go down. Stoudemire is averaging 7.7 ppg in the handful of games that he has played since he had microfracture surgery--he averaged 37 ppg versus Tim Duncan and the Spurs in his last five games before he was injured. Kidd is the only player in that group who has even come close to returning to the level he played at before the injury.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:55 AM

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Magic Johnson: In My Own Words

Fox Sports recently broadcast "Magic Johnson: In My Own Words," a half hour show during which Magic reflected on subjects ranging from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Chick Hearn to the fateful day when he announced that he would have to retire from the NBA due to testing positive for HIV. There are a lot of obvious reasons that Magic Johnson was a great basketball player: size, ball handling ability, court vision, killer instinct, work ethic. Listening to him talk about his life and career, though, another reason for his success is very evident: his great love for the game of basketball and the sense of joy that he felt and conveyed to others. Magic almost falls out of his chair with excitement when he describes what he learned from Jabbar about focus and preparation and how much he loved passing the ball to Worthy on the fast break. Jabbar was a great player long before Magic entered the NBA but he seemed dour, aloof and devoid of joy. The story is often told that when Jabbar hit the game winning shot in Magic's first NBA game that Magic ran over to him and started hugging him like they had just won the NBA championship. Jabbar coolly responded by saying that there were 81 more games to go--to which Magic replied that if Jabbar did that 81 more times than Magic would hug him each time. There is no doubt that Kareem had a valid point about the necessity of maintaining an even keel during the marathon NBA season but it soon became apparent that Magic's sheer joy had an even greater impact on Jabbar. Who can forget that just a few years after that Jabbar was running up and down the court giving high fives to Magic and the other Lakers? It was like Jabbar had undergone a personality transplant--or found the Fountain of Youth. Jabbar had always been a technically proficient player but Magic reached Jabbar's inner child.

During the show, Magic said that he would choose Jabbar to shoot a big fourth quarter shot over any player in basketball history; in case the viewer had looked away or misunderstood, he repeated the statement again, emphasizing that he would take Jabbar over any player, regardless of position, in basketball history. Take that, Michael Jordan! Magic added that Jabbar's Skyhook was the prettiest--and deadliest--shot ever.

Magic said that when he passed the ball to James Worthy he often shook his head because he knew that the defender--whether it was Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen or anybody else--was in trouble. Magic liked how Worthy came up biggest in the biggest games but never sought out credit or publicity.

Magic is a student of the history of the game and enjoyed the long conversations that he had with the legendary announcer Chick Hearn, who regaled Magic with tales of the exploits of Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.

The day that Magic retired from the NBA after testing positive for HIV is both the toughest and the greatest day of his life. He feels tremendous gratitude for the outpouring of support that he received from teammates, fans and Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who paid Magic's salary and made him a part owner of the team.

Magic's favorite moment from his NBA career is clinching the 1985 NBA championship in game six in the Boston Garden. The Lakers recovered from the Celtics' "Memorial Day Massacre" 148-114 win in game one and Jabbar had a performance for the ages in the rest of the series.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:31 AM

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Hank Egan Interview

Hank Egan won a championship in San Antonio as a member of Gregg Popovich's staff. Two decades before that, Popovich was a member of Egan's staff at Air Force. Egan also won two West Coast Conference Coach of the Year awards at San Diego, where one of his players was current Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown. Egan is now an assistant coach on Brown's staff. Last season, I interviewed Egan, and he provided many candid, interesting insights about the NBA. One of the points he made is that it takes one full year and then some time into the second year before a team completely assimilates a coach's complete program, particularly at the defensive end of the court. I spoke with Egan recently and asked him how much progress the Cavaliers have made in that regard. Also, some analysts do not believe that Larry Hughes is the right "Robin" to LeBron James' "Batman" but Egan explains why they are wrong.

Friedman: “Last time when we spoke you described Larry Hughes as a ‘Steady Eddie’ player, someone who really settles everybody down and is very important for the chemistry of the team. Now that you have had a chance to coach him for a full season and are going into a second season coaching him, tell me some more about the impact that he has had on this team and the impact that he can have this season if he stays healthy.”

Egan: “That’s the big key right there—if he stays healthy. We started out very good last year with him (18-10) and then he went down and we hung around until we got Flip Murray—we needed another guy to offset LeBron, so the defense couldn’t just sit on him. He (Hughes) has played very well in the preseason. He’s been one of the best players in the preseason this year. If he can take some of the heat off of LeBron and give us some scoring punch, someplace to go (for points) when LeBron is on the bench, then that will be big for us.”

Friedman: “I’m sure that you are aware that some media people and some critics say that Hughes is not the right type of player to play with LeBron, that LeBron should be surrounded by pure shooters (to spread the court). How would you respond to that kind of comment or that kind of criticism?”

Egan: “Larry is a decent shooter but what he can do is dribble penetrate and pitch to LeBron, because LeBron can shoot the three, too. I don’t think that those people (critics) are right. We need to have somebody who can handle the ball a little bit because we don’t want LeBron to have to carry the whole load. I like having Larry (to do that). When we need shooting, we’ve got Damon Jones who we can put (on the court) with Larry and we’ve got Donyell Marshall, who is a great three point shooter. I think that we’ve got enough shooting.”

Friedman: “Isn’t the defensive versatility that Hughes supplies you with—where Hughes and LeBron can flip flop who they are guarding depending on foul trouble and also can easily switch on pick and rolls—an important aspect of his value as well?”

Egan: “Yes and that helps us with (point guard Eric) Snow, because he is a strong guy, and we can do a lot of switching with him, too, on pick and rolls. Lots of times, we put Larry on the point guard, Eric Snow on the shooting guard and LeBron can play the three. That makes it a lot simpler for us. His (Hughes’) versatility on the defensive end is helpful as well.”

Friedman: “Do you like having Larry on the point guard because of his length and because he gets his hands in the passing lanes?”

Egan: “Yeah and because he has some natural quickness. He’s a quick guy and he has length to him. He can put some pressure on the point guard.”

Friedman: “On the surface it would look like having Snow cover a shooting guard might be a mismatch because of the height difference but I remember that you guys did that last year even against Kobe. Why is it a good matchup for you to have him on a shooting guard even though he is giving up some height?”

Egan: “Because guys like Kobe want to post up and it’s hard to post up Snow because he’s a strong veteran who knows what he is doing. The reason we put him on the shooting guard is that a lot of teams want to post their shooting guards and we want him on that matchup because he will make it hard for them on the post.”

Friedman: “He has a low center of gravity, also, so his lack of height can almost be an advantage in terms of leverage.”

Egan: “That’s right. He’s strong; he’s a very strong guy.”

Friedman: “Last year we talked about implementing a defensive game plan and having a team become solid defensively. You told me that it takes a full year and then into the second year for the team to really have what you called ‘corporate knowledge’ about how to play defense. I am interested in a progress report of where the Cavs stand now defensively; when we first talked you were really just starting that process."

Egan: “We, as a coaching staff, changed our defensive philosophy as the season went along and we saw the strengths and weaknesses of our ball club.”

Friedman: “In what way did you change?”

Egan: “We were playing a lot of one on one defense and fronting the post to not allow the ball to go in there. Then we went to not fronting the post all the time, mixing our coverages, sometimes doubling and sometimes fronting and just being able to make changes (throughout the game). The reason we did that is because at some positions we are not really very, very athletic, but we have smart guys who have been around for a while. So the way that we have to compensate for not being able to use quickness, jumping ability and all that is using the ability to change defenses on the fly.”

Friedman: “Is center (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) one of those positions that is not athletic?”

Egan (smiles slightly): “Yeah, absolutely, but he’s intelligent and the other guys around him are intelligent. So sometimes we double on the post or we’ll double from different spots or we’ll change the pick and roll coverages. If they are hurting us on one pick and roll coverage then we will change it instead of putting another player out there. Even if they are not hurting us, we’ll change just to keep them off balance because we found that our guys can adapt on the fly. They can adapt during the game, which is a strength that we didn’t know that we had; so we are using that more.”

Friedman: “Last year you had the good playoff run and got so close to the Eastern Conference Finals. Did that almost, in a sense, put you ahead of schedule and put some added pressure on you for this year? People expect that since you went so far last year that you automatically have to go farther this year.”

Egan: “I don’t know about the expectations from the coaching staff but outside expectations and pressure—there is considerably more than there would have been if we hadn’t made the run that we did last year. So we are sitting with that burden right now and we have to respond to that. It will be very important for us early to respond to that—the pressure and also having the understanding that if we want to do as well as we did last year that we have to get better. It won’t happen because of what we did last year; it will happen because of what we learn from last year.”

Friedman: “LeBron talked about you guys being a hunted team and how some of the other teams recognize or believe that the Cavaliers are an elite team and that this season will be different mentally. Is that something that the coaching staff explicitly addresses with the team?”

Egan: “We’ve reminded them of it on more than one occasion. I’ll tell you that for sure. It’s not just us talking about it. I think that it was Charles Barkley who said that we have to prove that we can play with a target on our back.”

Friedman: “Absolutely. He did say that. You’ve had that experience with the Spurs. Is it something that, even though you say that to the team and you realize it, in a certain sense the players will not really understand how much they are being hunted until they get out there and experience it? You can talk about it and understand it at a conceptual level but isn’t it still going to be different when they actually get on the court and go through it?”

Egan: “Absolutely.”

Friedman: “Is it just something they are going to have to go through and you hope that they respond well?”

Egan: “Yeah. Exactly.”

Friedman: “Taking the Cavaliers out of the equation, who would you say are the top three teams in the East?”

Egan: “Miami’s got to be there because of Shaq and Dwyane Wade. The Chicago Bulls have made themselves considerably better. Last night’s performance (Chicago's 108-66 opening night win over Miami) was maybe an anomaly just a little bit because of the ring ceremony. Two things that I am glad of right now are that we are not playing Chicago, because they are playing so well, and I’m glad that we are not playing Miami, because they are going to kill the next team that they play (note: although it wasn't a blowout, the Heat did win their next game, beating the Nets, 91-85). I think Miami, Chicago and then Detroit, because they have been there before and they have Chauncey Billups and a lot of experience.”

Friedman: “Don’t you think that the loss of Ben Wallace is going to really hurt them, particularly in the playoffs?”

Egan: “Yeah, but they are going to have to change their style. It’s going to help them at the offensive end of the floor, because the defense won’t be able to just leave somebody. McDyess can score and do some things. They have been there and been there a lot of times before. They’ve been a good team for a while and they still have a lot of their (key) players and they’re not just going to go away.”

Friedman: “Wallace is not a threat to score, but he does offensive rebound and he’s a good passer, so is he as much of a liability on offense as some people think? The fans always talk about ‘we’re playing four on five when he’s out there’ but I don’t think that is really entirely the case because of his ability to screen, offensive rebound and pass.”

Egan: “I said that they had to compensate for him not being a scorer but they used him the right way—they used him off of the ball and he was such a threat on the offensive glass. Now, they can change the way that they play and go into McDyess (in the post) and that kind of thing. You know, a team that has been very good for a sustained period of time—three, four, five years—that just loses one guy and replaces him with a pretty good player coming out of San Antonio (Nazr Mohammed)—I have to think that they are still going to be there, I really do.”

Friedman: “What do you think of New Jersey?”

Egan: “They would be the next team that I would mention. They have three extremely good guys. Cliff Robinson helps them and their center is emerging. If he comes along—“

Friedman: “Nenad Krstic.”

Egan: “Yeah, Krstic. If he comes along, they’d be another team that is right there.”

Friedman: “Doesn’t the way that some of the rules and points of emphasis have been changed—in terms of preventing defensive contact on the perimeter—really favor them? You have LeBron James and Larry Hughes but they have three guys.”

Egan: “Yeah—it helps these guys (Washington Wizards), too; they are probably one of the few teams that play a pure four ‘out,’ one ‘in’ system, with four perimeter players and one post man in their starting group. They are moving all of the time; they are using a little bit of the same system that New Jersey uses.”

Friedman: “Eddie Jordan was an assistant in New Jersey when Byron Scott was there.”

Egan: “Yes—and they struggled after he left.”

posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 AM

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