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Saturday, November 18, 2006

A "Hughes" Loss for Cleveland: Without Larry, Cavs are Defenseless

Cleveland Cavaliers' Assistant Coach Hank Egan has repeatedly said how important Larry Hughes is to the team's success. Exhibit A for anyone who doubts that is the game film from the 111-99 beating that the Washington Wizards administered to the Cavaliers on Saturday night, ending Cleveland's five game winning streak. You may recall that Cleveland defeated this same Wizards team 97-94 on opening night. One big difference: Larry Hughes played in the first game but sat out Saturday's game with a sprained ankle. That led to the second big difference: Gilbert Arenas, guarded mostly by Hughes, shot 2-12 from the field and only scored seven points in the first game; on Saturday, Arenas pumped in 45 points, just two less than his career-high, which he could have easily passed if he had not sat out the last six minutes after the Wizards' lead ballooned to 24. Arenas also had six assists and five rebounds. Usually I hate this saying but in this case it was absolutely true: the game was not as close as the final score indicated. LeBron James led Cleveland with 20 points, but shot just 8-20 from the field and only attempted five free throws. He also had five rebounds and four assists.

Cleveland got off to a quick start and led by as much as 20-12 in the first quarter. Zydrunas Ilgauskas scored eight points in the period (he finished with 16) and the Cavaliers led 29-26. Arenas had only three points in the first quarter but he did distribute five assists. Washington tied the score at 37 with 7:57 remaining in the first half but the Cavaliers rebuilt their advantage to 46-38 barely two minutes later. Arenas scored 10 points in the last 3:37 and the Wizards took a 62-58 halftime lead. He finished with 18 points in the first half, while James had 13. The Wizards had an assist/turnover ratio of 15/0, a strong indicator that the Cavaliers were neither pressuring Washington's ball handlers nor contesting shots. A perfect example of both deficiencies happened on the last play of the half. The Wizards inbounded the ball in their backcourt, DeShawn Stevenson took two dribbles past midcourt and then passed to a wide open Antawn Jamison, who scored an uncontested layup as time expired. This happened in 3.9 seconds, after a timeout; it may have been the worst inbounds defense that I have ever seen. How can a team take the ball out at one baseline and score an uncontested layup at the other end of the court against a defense that has been put in place after a timeout?

Cleveland's offense disappeared in the third quarter (16 points) but that was not because of increased productivity on defense; Washington scored 31 points, taking a 93-74 lead into the fourth quarter. Arenas outscored the Cavaliers by himself with 17 points in the period, including a three pointer at the buzzer. James took his turn guarding Arenas in the fourth quarter--to no avail. Arenas nailed a jumper after faking out James so badly that he tripped and fell. Soon after that he made back to back three pointers over James, putting Washington up 103-79. James answered with a jumper but soon both he and Arenas were on the bench watching the teams' reserves play out the string.

A scary moment happened with 2:31 left when Washington's Jarvis Hayes took a nasty fall while trying to block Shannon Brown's layup. Hayes landed awkwardly on his back and was taken off of the court on a stretcher. He moved his legs and arms but seemed to be in a lot of pain. Several of his teammates crowded around him and Cleveland Coach Mike Brown walked over to express his concern to Washington Coach Eddie Jordan. There was no immediate word on the nature or extent of Hayes' injury.

posted by David Friedman @ 10:33 PM

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Hold Off on the T-Mac Farewell Tour

Tracy McGrady says that TNT misunderstood his remarks about how long he intends to play NBA basketball. In my post about Houston's 101-100 win over the Chicago Bulls, I mentioned that he told TNT that he will retire after his current contract is up in order to spend more time with his family and/or play pro baseball. TNT showed a film clip of T-Mac saying words to that effect but I should have known something was fishy when I didn't actually hear the words "current contract" come out of T-Mac's mouth. It is important to understand that when TNT, ESPN or anyone else shows canned footage of someone talking that those 15 or 30 seconds are grabbed from a much longer interview. Sometimes, things get lost in translation or on the cutting room floor. After hearing about how TNT framed his comments, T-Mac told the Houston Chronicle that he does not even know for sure when his contract expires: "I said I'm playing baseball at the end of my career. I guess he took that as at the end of this contract, that was going to be it. Who knows? What is it, four or five years from now? Who knows? I'm not disputing that I said who knows. But I didn't say I'm done after this contract. I don't know how I'm going to feel four years from now."

posted by David Friedman @ 4:41 AM

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Kobe Bryant Becomes the Youngest to Score 17,000 Points

Kobe Bryant had 31 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists on Friday night in a 107-100 L.A. Lakers win over the Toronto Raptors. This was Bryant's first game against the Raptors since his 81 point explosion last year and, while he did not approach those heights, he did set a record, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score 17,000 points. Bryant (28 years, 86 days) ranks ahead of Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal on that list. Of course, barring injury, LeBron James figures to make that mark his own eventually because he not only jumped straight from high school to the NBA (like Bryant) but also immediately became a starter and big time scorer.

Bryant led both teams in scoring, rebounding and assists and shot 10-19 from the field. It would seem that he is getting closer to being 100% after being slowed by offseason knee surgery. The Lakers (6-3) are now tied for second place in the Pacific Division with the Golden State Warriors, just percentage points behind the L.A. Clippers.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:27 AM

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Shaq Diesel Needs Repairs, Will Miss Four to Six Weeks

Shaquille O'Neal's knee injury is more serious than initially thought and he will be out of action for six to eight weeks. He has a tear in the cartilage in his left knee that will require surgery. O'Neal missed 23 regular season games last season and will likely be out at least that many games before he is able to return to the lineup. The Miami Heat got off to a slow start with O'Neal in and out of the lineup and don't figure to post a good record in his absence; as I noted last week, the Heat went 42-17 in 2005-06 when Shaq played but only 10-13 without him. It will be very interesting to see how Dwyane Wade, Coach Pat Riley and the rest of the Heat respond to this challenge; Friday night's performance by the Heat was a solid "F": the New York Knicks waxed them 100-76 in Miami, the Heat's third straight home loss. Miami shot only .363 from the field and got outrebounded 46-40. Wade was solid (20 points, six assists) but hardly dominant.

Miami will have to learn how to survive without Shaq for an extended period and then, in the middle of the season, figure out how to reintegrate him back in the lineup. Meanwhile, this is an opportunity for teams like Cleveland or New Jersey to make a push to secure a commanding lead for the Eastern Conference's number one seed.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:21 AM

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Golden State Outruns, Outguns Sacramento, 117-105

Golden State Warriors' Coach Don Nelson describes Baron Davis as "our most dominant player right now" and Davis certainly lived up to that billing on Thursday with 36 points, 18 assists and eight rebounds in a 117-105 Golden State win over the Sacramento Kings. Davis established a new career-high and tied Jason Kidd for an NBA season-high with his assists total. Mickael Pietrus also had a strong game, scoring 26 points on 12-16 shooting. The Warriors, winners of four straight games, shot .577 from the field and never trailed. They are undefeated this season when they score at least 100 points and have yet to win a game when they are held below 100. Kevin Martin scored 26 points and grabbed nine rebounds for the Kings, while Ron Artest had 20 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and four steals. Artest only shot 7-22 from the field but he was just one of many misfiring Kings on a night when Sacramento shot just .432 from the field.

The Warriors jumped out to a 15-4 advantage and had a 40-28 lead at the end of the first quarter. Davis scored eight points on 3-4 shooting and choreographed Golden State's fast paced attack with 11 assists, which enabled the Warriors to shoot 17-23 from the field. TNT's Steve Kerr wondered if Scott Skiles' single game record of 30 assists might be in jeopardy but, of course, such a pace is very difficult to maintain for a whole game--particularly in a category like assists, which is dependent on the actions of another player.

Davis added eight more points and one assist in the second quarter. He showed off an array of fancy spin moves and was able to get to the front of the rim at will. Kerr said that there is no reason for a player of his ability to have as low a career field goal percentage as Davis does; Davis must stay healthy and in shape throughout the season and continue to go to the hoop. The Warriors had a 65-53 halftime lead; the 40 first quarter points and 65 first half points are both season-highs for Golden State. The Warriors' transition game was fuelled by 13 Sacramento turnovers. Pietrus topped all scorers with 17 points, while Martin had 15 for the Kings.

Nothing changed in the second half. Golden State continued to thrive in the open court. Even in the half court, the Warriors easily attacked the Kings' defense. "Speed kills," Kerr said simply after a Pietrus drive gave the Warriors an 86-75 lead late in the third quarter. The Warriors led 92-80 at the end of the period.

The first viable threat by the Kings happened with 6:52 left in the fourth quarter. Davis collected his fifth foul on a Ron Artest drive. Artest made both free throws to bring Sacramento within 97-90 and Nelson faced a decision: remove Davis from the game so he doesn't get his sixth foul or ride things out. Nelson left him in the game and that proved to be a wise choice. Davis scored seven of Golden State's next 15 points and assisted on a Jason Richardson three pointer and the Warriors had a decisive 112-95 edge with 3:02 remaining. Nelson shrewdly shifted the Warriors into a zone defense, protecting Davis from getting another foul and taking advantage of Sacramento's poor outside shooting.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:51 AM

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Rockets Survive Gordon's Second Half Heroics, Escape With 101-100 Win Over Bulls

The Houston Rockets led the Chicago Bulls 74-53 late in the third quarter but when the final buzzer sounded they barely escaped with a 101-100 victory. This comes on the heels of the Rockets' collapse on Tuesday night versus the San Antonio Spurs, when they blew a 19 point lead to lose by eight. Tracy McGrady led the Rockets with 21 points and he also had 11 rebounds and seven assists. Yao Ming, despite some shooting difficulties (7-19 from the field), dominated his matchup with Ben Wallace, producing 20 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Wallace had one point, five rebounds and five steals. Houston outrebounded Chicago 48-35 and did not allow the Bulls to get an offensive rebound until midway through the second quarter. The main reason that the Bulls mounted a comeback is a spectacular second half performance by Ben Gordon, who pumped in 30 of his 37 points after halftime.

The Bulls made six of their first seven shots from the field but then missed six of their next seven shots. They matched their biggest lead of the first quarter when P.J. Brown hit a jumper with a second left to put them up 26-20. Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich each scored seven points in the quarter for the Bulls, while McGrady countered with seven for the Rockets. Yao got off to a slow start. He did not hold his post position strongly against Wallace, allowing him to slip in front and steal several entry passes. Both big men went to the bench at the 3:55 mark. Yao merely needed to catch his wind, while Wallace was escorted to the locker room; it was later reported that he had a minor biceps injury and also needed to have one of his ankles retaped. Wallace returned to the game early in the second quarter.

The Rockets tied the game at 28 with 8:00 remaining when Yao executed a gorgeous spin move and dunked over Wallace. Houston went on an 18-7 run in the next six minutes. Houston led 50-39 at the half. Scott Padgett had 11 points and five rebounds for the Rockets. Yao scored 10 points despite shooting 3-10 from the field and grabbed nine rebounds. McGrady had seven points and five assists, including a nice feed to Yao with .3 seconds left. The Bulls lost their lead when they put their bench players in the game, something that Chicago Coach Scott Skiles acknowledged to TNT's Craig Sager at halftime, but Skiles felt that he had to give Kirk Hinrich and some of his starters some rest.

Houston dominated the third quarter right from the beginning: in less than two minutes, Yao hit a jump hook, Rafer Alston nailed a three pointer and McGrady made a jumper to put the Rockets ahead 57-41. After Alston's three pointer at the 4:21 mark the Rockets were on top 74-53. That would seem to be a big enough cushion but then Gordon started going off, scoring 11 points in the last four minutes of the third quarter in a 16-4 run that cut Houston's lead to 78-69. This was part of a stretch during which the Rockets shot 1-7 from the field and committed seven turnovers.

The Rockets seemed to gather themselves once the fourth quarter began. Yao hit a jump hook over Wallace with 4:32 remaining that put Houston up 90-79 and TNT's Doug Collins said simply, "Just too big"--Yao is too large for Wallace to stop. Houston's lead never dipped below seven until the 1:23 mark. Gordon missed a jumper but the Bulls controlled the rebound and Andres Nocioni hit a big three pointer, slashing the margin to 90-86. Collins would later note that the Rockets could have basically clinched the game by getting a defensive rebound on that possession and retaining a seven point lead. Instead, we saw a furious last 83 seconds of action during which Gordon scored nine points (!) and the Rockets seemed incapable of getting one stop.

A key sequence happened when Houston led 92-86 with less than 35 seconds left. McGrady missed a jump shot but Kirk Snyder committed a loose ball foul, sending Gordon to the free throw line. Houston Coach Jeff Van Gundy took Snyder out of the game and TNT's cameras caught him screaming at Snyder, "I just told you not to foul! I just f------ told you!" Collins commented, "That's how you cough a game up when it looks like you've got it in your back pocket." Gordon made both free throws while Van Gundy paced the sidelines, repeatedly screaming out to his team "Poise!" and pointing to his head for emphasis.

Alston only converted one of two free throws on the next Houston possession, while Gordon drove to the hoop, drew a foul and sank both free throws to pull Chicago to within 93-90. McGrady and Battier made four free throws and Gordon hit a bank shot to make the score 97-92 with 20 seconds remaining. Gordon countered with a three pointer at the 15 second mark and it was suddenly a one possession game. Alston appeared to do the Ickey Shuffle on the ensuing inbounds play before calling a timeout but the officials did not call travelling.

Alston and Head made four three throws sandwiched around a missed three pointer by Gordon and the Rockets were up 101-95 with six seconds left. Chicago executed a crisp inbounds play and Nocioni scored a layup with four seconds remaining. Battier then lofted a wounded duck inbounds pass toward midcourt that the Bulls deflected and controlled. Nocioni got the ball and drilled a three pointer as time ran out. He tried to jump into Battier and draw a foul but the officials did not buy it; it is unclear why the usually heady Battier threw such a casual pass and then was even anywhere near Nocioni with Houston up four.

The Rockets made so many mistakes down the stretch that it almost felt like they lost the game even though they won. Will the real Houston Rockets please stand up? This team has a lot of talent--anchored by stars Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady--and is capable of matching up with anybody in the NBA. Their sideline and top of the key pick and roll plays involving Yao and T-Mac almost always lead to an open shot, so it is hard to understand why this team goes through such prolonged scoring droughts.

***Notes***

>TNT ran some interesting graphics during the game. One of them showed the Rockets' record the past three years with Yao and T-Mac in the lineup versus their record without them. Not surprisingly, Houston is 74-41 with their two superstars and only 16-41 without them. Last year, the split was 21-10 versus 13-38; over a full 82 game schedule, that would equal 56-26 with Yao and T-Mac and 21-61 without them. Although TNT did not break these numbers done further, I recall that for most of last year the Rockets had trouble winning even one game without T-Mac playing--even if Yao did play.

>Another graphic showed that Van Gundy's Rockets are 32-3 when scoring at least 100 points at home.

>A third graphic indicated that the Rockets outscored the Bulls by 12 with T-Mac in the game and trailed by three when he was on the bench (the Bulls' flurry of points late in the game cut into that, but even by the end the Rockets were still in the plus territory with him and in the minus territory without him).

>Before the game, TNT's studio crew offered their observations about Yao, who is putting up the best numbers of his career so far. Reggie Miller is reluctant to call Yao the best center in the league and wondered aloud if Houston will be able to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Charles Barkley questioned if Houston will even make the playoffs, but Miller and Kenny Smith vehemently said that the Rockets will qualify for postseason play. Barkley said that Yao is still not as dominant as Shaquille O'Neal because Yao does not draw double teams. Smith added that Yao has always been a scoring center but wondered if he can make the players around him better, pointing out that a lot of players had the best seasons of their careers playing alongside Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon and other great big men.

>McGrady told TNT that he plans to retire in three years when his current contract is up, explaining that he feels like he has already lost a step after 10 years in the league (he is only 27). He admitted that he would miss the game but said that he looks forward to spending time with his wife and two kids. An outstanding high school pitcher, T-Mac works out with Roger Clemens and said that he is seriously considering playing baseball after he retires from hoops.

>T-Mac also indicated that he is perfectly willing to be a playmaker and reduce his scoring now that Yao is scoring so much. That did not go over well with TNT's studio crew or Collins, all of whom insisted that for the Rockets to reach their potential that T-Mac must be the primary guy. The ironies here are delicious. Shaq and Kobe won three titles together despite fussing and feuding all along. The consensus of most analysts was that Kobe should defer to Shaq and let the big man dominate. Now, T-Mac and Yao seem to get along splendidly, the team wins a high percentage of games when both players are healthy and T-Mac is perfectly content to feed the big man. You'd think that his unselfishness would be praised. Instead, we hear Barkley say on the one hand that Yao is not "dominant" enough and on the other hand that T-Mac should shoot more. Now I'm really confused.

>Van Gundy has not put free agent acquisition Bonzi Wells on the court yet because he says that Wells is not in shape. According to TNT, Wells fired back that he signed up to play basketball, not run a marathon. This could be an interesting situation to watch during the season.

>The Bulls have a lot of talented players but the chemistry is just not there yet, particularly with the bench players. Part of that is because Skiles still hasn't decided who his bench players are. Gordon has been a starter and a reserve as Skiles still tries to figure out the best way to utilize the streaky, undersized shooting guard.

>Collins is a big Battier fan: "He's a winner. He's a champion. He's a guy you want on your team. He brings energy and that's why they went out to get him." Collins believes that Battier's energy is particularly important for the Rockets because Yao and T-Mac, the team's two best players, are low energy guys. Collins feels that the team needs a spark, an energy boost if you will, and that Battier is the perfect guy to supply that.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:19 AM

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Have You Noticed a Change in Your Newspaper's NBA Coverage?

There has been a significant change in the NBA this season. No, I'm not talking about the new ball or the "Sheed Rule" or even the fact that the Atlanta Hawks actually have a winning record. The casual fan may not have even noticed the difference--yet. The change is this: in many NBA arenas, the courtside seats that used to be occupied by beat writers have now been sold--for a king's ransom--to fans. This means that a few more individuals get an up close and personal view of NBA action but that reporters--who previously conveyed this perspective to literally millions of fans--are consigned to more distant vantage points. This is not yet the case in all arenas but it has happened in a lot of them and figures to become the norm before long. What does this mean for the fan? Here is an interesting article from veteran NBA scribe Brad Rock:

Seats had a view to remember

posted by David Friedman @ 5:33 AM

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Kings Defeat Grizzlies, 115-111

The Sacramento Kings jumped out to a 15-5 lead over the injury-depleted Memphis Grizzlies and held off a couple furious rallies to win, 115-111. Mike Bibby led Sacramento with a season-high 32 points and also dished out 10 assists. Kevin Martin added 24 points, Shareef Abdur-Rahim had 21 points and 13 rebounds and Ron Artest overcame a bout with back spasms to contribute 19 points on 8-12 field goal shooting. Chucky Atkins led Memphis with 27 points--all of them scored in the second half--on blistering 10-11 field goal shooting.

Ron Artest's back spasms kept him out of the starting lineup and he did not enter the game until the 5:32 mark of the first quarter. The Kings led 18-10 at that point. Artest promptly got his shot blocked, fumbled a defensive rebound, committed a foul and travelled. Nevertheless, the Kings still led 28-20 at the end of the first quarter. Memphis sorely misses All-Star Pau Gasol, who got injured while playing for Spain in this summer's FIBA World Championship and will likely not return to action until January. "When Mike Miller leads your team in rebounding, you know there are some difficulties," ESPN's Bill Walton drolly noted.

Here is some interesting news broken by ESPN's Jim Gray during the game: in an effort to better understand his mercurial forward, new Kings Coach Eric Musselman spent several hours poolside in Las Vegas with Ron Artest learning about rap music; perhaps NBA TV will show some footage of that in a future episode of "Real Training Camp." Musselman did not reveal which artists or tracks he listened to but did say this to ESPN about Artest: "He practices with maximum effort every time...his practice habits are second to none...He wants the ball in clutch situations and he does all this while playing defense."

Memphis chipped away at Sacramento's lead until Mike Miller's three pointer brought the Grizzlies to within 44-41. Sacramento closed the half with a flurry--Artest scored on a drive and then Martin tipped the ensuing inbounds pass to Bibby, who nailed a jumper at the buzzer for a 54-49 lead. Stromile Swift led the Grizzlies with 11 first half points (he ended up with 15 in the game), while Artest finished the half with 10 points on 5-8 shooting. Abdur-Rahim and Bibby also had 10 points each.

Atkins' layup with 9:57 remaining in the third quarter gave the Grizzlies not only their first lead versus the Kings but their first lead in two games! Abdur-Rahim immediately answered with a jumper on the next possession, but Atkins scored 11 points in the first four and a half minutes of the quarter, propelling Memphis to a 62-58 advantage. Despite Atkins' Isiah Thomas-like scoring explosion--16 points in the quarter--the Kings recovered to lead 76-70 at the 4:00 mark and 84-77 by the end of the period.

The Kings extended their lead to 96-88 with 7:20 left in the game but less than two and a half minutes later Atkins topped off a 10-0 run with a fast break layup, putting Memphis ahead 99-98 with 4:58 remaining; Atkins scored six of the 10 points. Around that time, Walton wondered what the NBA record is for most points in the second half after not scoring a point in the first half. After a timeout, Martin hit a three pointer to put Sacramento back on top and then Atkins committed an offensive foul on the next possession. The Kings led 109-104 after another Martin three pointer at the 1:06 mark but the Grizzlies kept battling: Swift's two free throws made it a one possession game and after Bibby missed a shot with 27 seconds left Memphis had the ball and an opportunity to tie the game with a three pointer. Instead, Damon Stoudamire drove to the hoop and launched a wildly errant shot. Walton felt that he should have kicked the ball to the open Atkins, who waited in vain behind the three point line; the anguished look on Memphis Coach Mike Fratello's face suggests that he agreed with Walton, but ESPN's Jon Barry defended Stoudamire's play, arguing that there was enough time left to go for a quick two, foul and then try to score again. That may be true, but how often does Stoudamire score when he drives from the top of the key all the way to the hoop? He is not a high flyer or strong finisher; his game is spot up jumpers or pull up shots in the lane. Just look at his career statistics to see what kind of game he has; Stoudamire has shot roughly 1000 more three pointers than free throws during his career. When he attempts the shot that he took near the end of the game he usually either misses badly or is rejected by a waiting big man. Sacramento closed out the win by making six straight free throws.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:01 AM

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Houston, We Have a Problem: Rockets Squander 19 Point Lead, Fall to Spurs, 92-84

The Houston Rockets looked like a championship team on Tuesday night--for 34 minutes. Unfortunately for Houston, NBA games last 48 minutes and in the final 14 minutes the Rockets completely fell apart, allowing the San Antonio Spurs to win, 92-84. Tim Duncan had 19 points, 15 rebounds and three blocked shots for the Spurs. Manu Ginobili also scored 19 points, while reserves Francisco Elson (12 points, seven rebounds) and Beno Udrih (11 points) contributed enough to offset an uncharacteristically poor shooting night by Tony Parker (4-13 from the field, eight points). Tracy McGrady led Houston with 26 points and added eight rebounds, six assists and two steals. Yao Ming scored 20 points but shot 7-21 from the field and only had six rebounds.

Rockets' backup center Dikembe Mutombo calls McGrady and Yao Houston's "bus drivers" and they certainly had the Rockets attack in overdrive early in the game. McGrady scored 10 points in the first 6:15 of the game and seemed to be headed for a 50 point night. The Spurs began the game by having Bruce Bowen hedge away from McGrady in order to double team Yao in the post. Yao has been dominant early in the season while McGrady's shooting has been off, so this must have looked like a good plan on paper--but it looked foolish on the court, leaving a two-time scoring champion wide open. The Spurs soon abandoned the "let T-Mac beat us" approach but by that time McGrady was in a groove and he continued to score even when his shots were contested. Houston led 27-23 after the first quarter, with McGrady scoring 14 points.

The Spurs went on a 7-0 run to take a 32-31 lead early in the second quarter but the Rockets immediately countered with a 16-6 run of their own to go ahead 47-38. Houston continued to widen the margin as halftime drew near and then McGrady's three pointer with .01 seconds left made the score 56-43. McGrady had 21 points and six rebounds in the first half, while Yao and Duncan had 10 points each. Houston shot 51% from the field and committed only three turnovers, while San Antonio shot only 38% and turned the ball over seven times; by the end of the game, the shooting numbers would be almost completely reversed. San Antonio continued to turn the ball over, but the Rockets stopped converting those opportunities.

In the third quarter, the Rockets picked up right where they had left off. Houston took a 74-55 lead after Rafer Alston hit a three pointer with 4:57 remaining and the Rockets were still up 75-60 with 2:36 left in the period--but the first signs of trouble for Houston appeared when the Spurs closed the quarter with an 11-0 run, with backup point guard Udrih contributing eight of the points.

San Antonio tied the game at 75 early in the fourth quarter but Shane Battier's three pointer put Houston back on top and the Rockets still led with 7:41 remaining (79-77)--but San Antonio closed the game with a 15-5 run. Houston scored just nine points in the fourth quarter. Here is a stunning statistic: the Rockets shot just 2-27 from the field after Alston's three pointer gave them a 19 point lead!

In the second quarter, color commentator Clyde Drexler said that the game had "almost playoff-like intensity" but the Rockets' huge collapse brought to mind a playoff debacle from six years ago: Portland's blown lead in game seven of the Western Conference Finals, which enabled the L.A. Lakers to escape with an 89-84 win and go on to claim the first title of the Shaq-Kobe era. Portland had seemed to be in complete command of the game when the Trail Blazers simply stopped hitting the same shots that they had made in the first three quarters of the game. The same thing happened to Houston on Tuesday.

The good news for the Rockets, who led the NBA with an 8 ppg point differential coming into the game with the Spurs, is that they have shown that the Yao-McGrady duo can be deadly with wins over Miami and Dallas and a good showing for most of the game against a strong Spurs team. As long as their two superstars stay healthy, Houston will be a serious contender this season. Yao and McGrady seem to have better on-court chemistry than ever, Shane Battier is a good addition to the team because of his tough defense, hustle and three point shooting and the Rockets will have more depth when power forward Chuck Hayes returns from the knee injury that he suffered in a collision with Shaquille O'Neal during the Miami game.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:22 AM

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Bob Knight Strikes Again

On Monday, Texas Tech Coach Bob Knight added a few more frames to his video lowlights collection, which could be titled "Coach Gone Wild." During a timeout, he struck Tech forward Michael Prince in the chin with a closed fist, exhorting the player to maintain eye contact with him. Everything that has happened since that moment is entirely predictable. Knight is unapologetic, insisting that he did nothing wrong. Tech's Athletic Director, Gerald Myers, echoes that sentiment. The player and his parents also say that they have no problem with it. Meanwhile, the film clip has been shown repeatedly and anybody who ever had anything to do with college basketball has appeared on TV or radio to comment about the situation.

Several interesting points were made during Tuesday night's SportsCenter. Doug Gottlieb said that Knight "lost his dream job because, among other things, he couldn't keep his hands off of his players. He couldn't keep his anger under control. This is a guy who preaches and teaches discipline...part of what he teaches kids he can't put into play in his own life." Gottlieb does not think that Knight should be suspended but would like to hear him admit that he was wrong to do this. On the other hand, Jay Bilas said that, while he would not counsel a coach to act this way--particularly one with Knight's well documented history of misconduct--he thinks that the media coverage of this particular situation is unfair and overblown.

Pat Forde said, "In the hierarchy of Bob Knight assaults on people and the game of basketball, this is a misdemeanor. It's not grabbing a player by the throat, it's not throwing a chair across the floor, it's not going after a Puerto Rican policeman, it's not going after Ted Valentine..." Well, you get the idea: Bob Knight hasn't killed anybody and he's done worse things in the past, so what's the big deal?

Dick Vitale spoke with Michael Prince's father, who said, "We are missing discipline in the world today." He has no problem with what Knight did. Vitale added that he would not approve of Knight's action if the player or his family were disturbed by it, but since they are OK with it then he is, too. Knight told Vitale that given the same circumstances he would do the same thing again. Being Bob Knight means never having to say that you are sorry. Since Knight has stated frankly that he would do the same thing again, what will Vitale's reaction be when Knight strikes a kid whose parents do not approve? Or does Knight poll each set of parents in advance?

Digger Phelps made three points: (1) the player accepted what Knight did; (2) the player's family accepted it; (3) Knight said that he did not do anything wrong. Therefore, Phelps concluded that this is much ado about nothing. Hubert Davis agreed with Phelps.

Fran Fraschilla covered the game in question for ESPN and said that his initial reaction was that this is "no big deal" but that he also expected intense media attention to be focused on the situation because it involves Knight. He added that players understand what they are getting into when they sign to play with Knight, comparing it to enlisting with the Marines.

So, what do we learn from this (besides the fact that ESPN has a veritable army of college basketball analysts)? Gottlieb hit the nail on the head and expressed what I have thought about Knight for years: he hypocritically preaches discipline and intelligence while at the same time conducting himself unintelligently and without discipline in the way that he relates to other people, ranging from his players to his secretary to police officers. As Forde noted, this is "a misdemeanor" for Knight. Bilas and others are probably correct that if another coach did the same thing there would be less coverage but there was a telling moment when Brian Kenny asked Phelps if Phelps had ever struck a player. Phelps said that he hadn't. Perhaps if some other coach did this in the heat of the moment there would be less coverage, but how many coaches can you really imagine doing this, let alone doing this or worse on as many occasions as Knight has? Knight views himself as an educator but any teacher or professor who did a fraction of what Knight has done would be (1) unemployed and (2) possibly in jail.

Fordes' lengthy listing of things that Knight has done that are worse is an indictment of the NCAA as much as anything else; Knight is at fault for his own conduct but he has certainly been enabled over the years. The parents and the student are wholly dependent on Knight, so they can hardly be expected to criticize the coach unless they have decided that they no longer want Prince to play there.

Saying that the parents accept it or that kids know what they are signing up for when they go to play for Knight misses the point. Knight works at an institution of higher learning and there are (or should be) minimum expected standards of conduct. Yes, a basketball court is a different environment than a classroom but what Knight did was wrong--it was not as wrong as other things that he has done, but it was wrong. Bilas thinks that it is wrong for the media to cover Knight's actions differently than the actions of other coaches are covered but there is a reason that the courts take into account past offenses when handing down sentences. Knight belongs in an anger management class, not as an educator at an institution of higher learning.

Knight is only nine wins away from breaking Dean Smith's Division I career wins record; there is no denying that he is a great coach. Knight's advocates cite his won-loss record and the graduation rates of his players over the years to justify his misconduct--but he is a great coach despite his many deplorable actions over the years, not because of them.

Knight probably would literally have to kill someone to not be given a chance to stay on the bench long enough to achieve the mark. Knight will pass the classy Smith--and that will be a sad day in college basketball.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:47 PM

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Link to Chamberlain/Fischer Short Story at Susan Polgar's Site

Susan Polgar, winner of four Women's World Chess Championships and 10 Olympic medals, has a wonderful website that contains a plethora of information about the royal game. Her motto is "Win with grace, lose with dignity." She has posted a link to my short story about Wilt Chamberlain and Bobby Fischer (originally published at USChess.org):

Wilt and Bobby: Not a Random Encounter

posted by David Friedman @ 4:28 PM

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Yao Dominates Shaq, Rockets Roll Over Heat, 94-72

Shaquille O'Neal just won his fourth NBA title but his claim to the title of most dominant center in the NBA looks increasingly tenuous. Yao Ming put up 34 points and 14 rebounds in a 94-72 Houston win over Miami, while O'Neal managed to contribute just 15 points and 10 rebounds; Yao shot 11-19 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line, while Shaq shot 6-14 and 3-9 respectively from those areas. Tracy McGrady only scored 12 points on 6-18 shooting but he had a game-high eight assists. Most of his assists came in the fourth quarter, when Houston outscored Miami 34-16. Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy liked what he saw from his superstar guard: "When Mac is attacking, he's as good a playmaker as there is in the league. I don't know how he sees what he sees, but I'm sure glad he sees what he sees because I can't see what he sees." Meanwhile, McGrady enjoys no longer having to shoulder the entire scoring load by himself: "Now, I know what it feels like to sit back and watch a great player right before your eyes. Guys I played with in the past got caught up in the moment of just watching something great. That's what I'm doing right now, watching something great." During ESPN's telecast, Greg Anthony reported that McGrady--averaging just 18.5 ppg coming into the contest--does not feel physically up to the task of being a dominant scorer at this stage of the season. McGrady said that it is not a matter of conditioning; it's just that his body is not quite where he wants it to be yet. I'm not sure if I understand the distinction that he is making, but McGrady is moving well and does not seem hindered in any way. As long as Yao can be this productive there is really no need for McGrady to be firing from all angles at all times; he can save that for when the team hits a lull and needs that kind of production from him.

On November 4, Yao had 36 points and six rebounds in a 107-76 win over the Dallas Mavericks, so the Rockets have defeated last year's NBA Finals participants by a combined 53 points in the past week. Granted, Miami and Dallas are off to slow starts but Houston's success with a healthy Yao and T-Mac should not really surprise anyone; the Rockets were on pace for a 55-plus win season last year if you just count the games in which both All-Stars played.

Yao has always been a highly skilled big man, but the new element in his game--which started to appear in earnest in the second half of last season--is what ESPN analyst Allan Houston described as "a mean streak." That toughness and aggressiveness is the only thing that Yao used to lack but he seems to have it now. Last season, when I spoke with Patrick Ewing--who was then a Rockets' assistant coach charged with the task of working with the team's big men--I asked him what he tells Yao to get him to play with the same aggression and passion for which Ewing was legendary. Ewing replied, "First of all, you have to be confident. You have to believe in yourself. That is one thing that I tell Yao: ‘No matter what happens, believe in yourself and never doubt yourself.’ I think that Yao is going to be a great player. He has great offensive skills and he just has to believe in himself and dominate."

Miami took an early 15-8 lead and O'Neal was very active, posting up Yao and benefitting from nice feeds from Wade and Antoine Walker. Yao got off to a slow start, only making one of his first five shots but that one was a beauty: Yao cut the lead to 15-10 by catching the ball on the left block, turning to face Shaq, driving to the middle and hitting a jump hook. This move displayed a combination of fluidity, quickness and aggressiveness that Yao simply did not have when he came into the league. Yao is also a fine passer; his assist totals do not always reflect this, because he often makes the pass that leads to the assist, but there is no denying that Yao has great court vision. Miami led 25-22 at the end of the first quarter.

Each team scored 17 points in the second quarter, but Yao showed some flashes of how he would later take over the game. He hit a jump hook over Alonzo Mourning to pull the Rockets within 33-32 at the 5:36 mark, prompting ESPN game analyst Greg Anthony to note that on that possession Yao moved back and forth from block to block before he caught the ball and scored, something that he would not have had the stamina to do in past seasons. Yao scored on post moves over Mourning on the next two possessions, giving Houston a 36-35 lead, but Miami rallied and led 42-39 at halftime after Wade's tip dunk just before the buzzer. Yao had 14 points in the first half, while Wade led Miami with 16.

Yao scored six points early in the third quarter as Houston took a 47-46 lead. Yao did not score again until the fourth quarter but the Rockets received contributions from a variety of sources and outscored the Heat 21-14 and were ahead 60-56 going into the fourth quarter.

Yao took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 points, using a wide array of moves. The whole Miami team could only muster 16 fourth quarter points but the Rockets did not turn the game into a blowout until fairly late. Houston took its first double digit lead (76-66) at the 5:21 mark. Antoine Walker's layup cut the margin back to eight but after that the Rockets relentlessly increased their advantage.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:17 AM

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Redd Alert: Michael Redd Scores a Franchise Record 57 Points, but the Jazz Outlast the Bucks, 113-111

Michael Redd set a Milwaukee Bucks' franchise record by scoring 57 points on Saturday night versus the Utah Jazz, but Matt Harpring's layup with less than two seconds left enabled Utah to escape with a 113-111 win. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar held the old mark with a 55 point outing on December 10, 1971 against the Boston Celtics.

Redd shot 18-32 from the field--including 6-12 on three pointers--and 15-17 from the free throw line. Redd had 39 of his points in the second half as the Bucks outscored the Jazz 70-51 and almost won despite facing a 62-41 halftime deficit. Utah enjoyed a 44-29 rebounding advantage and, despite Redd's heroics, outshot Milwaukee from the field, .538 to .482 (Redd's teammates shot only 22-51 from the field)--but Redd's performance will be the memory that lingers from this contest.

How significant is it to score 57 points in an NBA game? Consider these facts:

* Abdul-Jabbar is the game's career scoring leader and he never did it.

* Other great scorers who played for the Bucks besides Abdul-Jabbar include Oscar Robertson, Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce, Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen.

* Most of the players on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List never did it.

* Redd's total is just three points shy of Larry Bird's and Allen Iverson's career-high, four points off of Shaquille O'Neal's and Karl Malone's career-high and five points less than Tracy McGrady's career-high.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:01 AM

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