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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Another Black Eye for the NBA: Fight Night at Madison Square Garden

What seemed like just another blowout loss in a season of blowout losses for the New York Knicks became ugly in a more sinister--and dangerous--way on Saturday night. Denver led New York 119-100 with 1:31 left in the game when the Knicks' Mardy Collins flagrantly fouled J.R. Smith--grabbing him around the neck from behind--to prevent a fast break layup (Collins also had a flagrant foul near the end of New York's blowout loss to Indiana on Friday). Smith tumbled to the ground (Collins made no effort to catch him) and immediately jumped up to confront Collins. Players from both teams quickly gathered in the area and Nate Robinson appeared to take a swing at Smith, who tackled Robinson, sending both players tumbling into the fans' seats on the baseline. Just when it seemed that order had been restored, Carmelo Anthony punched Collins in the face, Jared Jeffries ran after Anthony and more chaos ensued as coaches, officials and security personnel tried to break up fighting between multiple players.

The officials ejected all 10 players who were in the game at the time the fight began--Nate Robinson, Mardy Collins, Jared Jeffries, David Lee and Channing Frye of the Knicks and Andre Miller, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Linas Kleiza and Eduardo Najera of the Nuggets. ESPN's Kiki Vandeweghe, a former All-Star, later commented that he had never seen that happen before. You may also notice that the Nuggets still had several starters in the game at the time this transpired, while the Knicks had emptied their bench. That fact certainly did not escape the attention of Knicks' Coach Isiah Thomas, who recounted after the game what he told Anthony in the wake of the altercation: "I just said to him, 'You know, you're up 20, you're up 19 with a minute and half to go, you and (Marcus) Camby really shouldn't be in the game right now. We had surrendered, those guys shouldn't even be in the game at that point in time."

This kind of melee is exactly the kind of conduct that Commissioner David Stern is trying to eliminate from the game, so expect him to swiftly issue lengthy suspensions to the players he deems to be most responsible for this fiasco. Anthony, Collins, Smith and Robinson will all likely be missing substantial playing time. Stern was 100% correct in the way that he responded to the Pistons-Pacers brawl (November 19, 2004) and he indicated at that time that if something like that ever happened again the punishments would be severe. The NBA simply cannot tolerate fighting among players, particularly when it spills into the stands and endangers fans. Of course, the video of this will be replayed endlessly, so this is a public relations disaster as well, but that aspect pales in importance compared to the safety issues.

ESPN was on top of the story, prominently covering it on SportsCenter and NBA Fastbreak, but NBA TV all but ignored what happened. Dei Lynam mentioned it once in passing but highlights of the game were not shown until much later. Even then, the commentators ignored the fight and talked about the game's implication in the standings. I understand that the league runs NBA TV and wants to put a positive spin on things but, hello, 10 players were ejected and the fight spilled into the stands--you cannot just brush over this like it didn't happen.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:50 PM

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Kobe Bryant is Amazing

I was tempted to just cut and paste the Lakers-Rockets box score into this post to justify the title. The Lakers beat the Rockets 112-101 in double overtime on Friday night/Saturday morning. I missed most of the game because I was at the Pacers-Knicks game but I saw the end of regulation and both overtimes. Bryant had 36 points when I tuned in with a little over three minutes remaining in regulation. He proceeded to score 17 points in the next 13 minutes of action, willing and propelling his team to victory without the injured Lamar Odom (granted, the Rockets were playing without the injured Tracy McGrady). In addition to his scoring, Bryant also delivered three assists (and he should have had more--see below) and grabbed three rebounds during that stretch. Bryant's line: 53 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists.

The numbers do not tell the whole story, though. Here are a few snapshots of Bryant's brilliance--just from the second overtime.

*** The reverse dunk around and over Yao Ming's outstretched arm for the first two points in the second overtime.

*** The Pistol Pete Maravich no-look pass to a cutting Luke Walton, who was fouled and made 1 of 2 free throws.

*** The even more amazing mid air, one handed pass to Kwame Brown. Bryant jumped in the air, bobbled the ball, recovered it and delivered a perfect feed to Brown...who blew the layup. As ESPN's Jon Barry said: Kwame, you're 6-11--dunk the ball.

*** The fadeaway jumper from the right baseline that gave Bryant 51 points and put the Lakers up 108-99 with 2:23 remaining.

*** Perhaps the most amazing thing of all is that Bryant does all of these things and does not seem tired. After the aforementioned shot, Houston called timeout and Bryant ran off of the court doing something that vaguely resembled Jason Terry's "jet" motion. Bryant looks like he could play 10 overtimes and score 153 points without running out of gas. Look at the tape of Jordan's 63 point, double overtime game versus the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs. Jordan looked gassed at the end. Bryant never looks tired--not in the 81 point game, not in the 62 points-in-three-quarters game, not tonight.

*** As if to reinforce the point about never being fatigued, Bryant caps off his night by grabbing a defensive rebound, dribbling through Houston's entire team and scoring a layup for his 52nd and 53rd points.

*** With less than four seconds left and the shot clock winding down, Bryant hits Brown with a gorgeous pass. Brown, of course, blows the layup. If Brown had converted the two point blank shots that Bryant spoon fed him in the second overtime then Bryant would have had a triple double on top of his 53 points.

Barry summed it up: "Kobe Bryant is, in my opinion, the closest thing that we will ever see to Michael Jordan--because of his mind and how hard he competes."

Kobe Bryant is special. Maybe you think that he tries too hard to be like Mike, maybe you think that he shoots too much, maybe Shaq is your favorite player and you feel compelled to hate Kobe. All I can say is that he is the best player in the game and we should all savor the opportunity to watch him play.

Two more little tidbits: The Lakers overcame a 21 point deficit and they are now 10-3 when Bryant scores at least 50 points.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:34 AM

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Fast Paced: Indiana Races Past New York, 112-96

The Indiana Pacers made a season-high 12 three pointers in a 112-96 rout of the New York Knicks on Friday night at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Pacers set season-highs for points in a game, points in the first half (64) and points in a quarter (42 in the second quarter) and fell just two shy of tying the team's NBA record for three pointers made in a game. Indiana led by as much as 26 points and New York never got closer than 15 in the second half. Danny Granger led the Pacers with a career-high 25 points, shooting 8-10 from the field and 3-4 from three point range. Jermaine O'Neal had 11 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots; this was his seventh straight double-double, which places him just two away from the team's NBA record, which he shares with Detlef Schrempf. Jamal Crawford scored a game-high 29 points for New York. The Knicks were shorthanded in the second half, playing without starters Quentin Richardson (back spasms) and Stephon Marbury. Marbury banged his knee and Knicks' Coach Isiah Thomas said that although Marbury could have returned that the game got so out of hand that it did not make sense to risk further damage by putting him back on the court. Marbury finished with six points (shooting 2-6 from the field), four rebounds and one assist in 24 minutes. Eddy Curry had just 10 points, the first time in 12 games that he has scored fewer than 20.

New York led 24-22 after the first quarter, powered by Crawford's 12 points and two assists. Indiana shot just 7-22 (.318) from the field but did chase down six offensive rebounds. Curry made his only field goal attempt but picked up two fouls in just four minutes and spent most of the period on the bench; he never found a good rhythm the rest of the night. Granger led the Pacers with six points, making both of his three point attempts--a sign of things to come.

The Knicks were not fantastic in the first quarter but they certainly gave no indication in the first 12 minutes that they would just completely fall apart in the second quarter. A key play happened at the 4:37 mark of the second quarter, when O'Neal blocked Marbury's ill advised jumper, grabbed the rebound and threw an outlet pass to Granger, who dunked to give Indiana a 49-39 lead. Marbury banged his knee against O'Neal during that play; he left the game briefly (six seconds on the clock, a minute or two of actual time) before returning to action.

In his postgame standup, Thomas described his team's second quarter effort simply: "We just caved. They made a run on us and had things going their way and we just came unglued. It's very disappointing." Granger scored 15 points on 4-5 shooting and the Pacers shot 14-21 overall. The Pacers broke down the Knicks' full court press and either scored layups or made three pointers (4-7 during the quarter). Indiana led 64-49 at halftime. Granger and Crawford each had 21 points.

Marbury hit a jumper early in the third quarter but by the 9:17 mark the Knicks were down 20 and Thomas took him out of the game. Thomas went with a lineup of Eddy Curry, David Lee, Jared Jeffries, Nate Robinson and Mardy Collins. That group played hard but was not able to put a dent into Indiana's lead because the Pacers shot 9-17 (.529) for the quarter, including 4-6 on three pointers. Robinson scored 12 points in the period. Indiana led 92-68 by the end of the third quarter and both teams emptied their benches in the final period.

After the game, Thomas spoke about Curry's struggles: "They were very aggressive with him tonight. I just think that we weren't patient enough in terms of being persistent and pounding it in. But they were good. (Jeff) Foster did a good job on him. They double teamed him and kept him off balance." Thomas also felt that Richardson's absence had a big impact: "When you don't have the shooters out on the floor it makes it difficult (to have good spacing for Curry to operate). When Richardson went out it totally changed the look of the way that we try to play and the way that we feed the post. We didn't have enough shooters on the floor and consequently they were able to collapse on him (Curry)."

Thomas believes that Curry's strong play in recent games has affected the way that teams try to guard him and that he will have to adjust to that: "It's going to be a growing experience for him because everybody is going to just start playing rough with him. We depend on the officials to eliminate the rough play. People are going to just go at him and hold him because if they don't do that then they probably won't be able to stop him."

Indiana Coach Rick Carlisle is pleased with the win, the team's second in a row, but does not want his team to become complacent: "Putting two wins together feels good, but we haven't put three together all year. These are must win games for us. You have to get well at home. We'll find out more where we are as a team Sunday, with Utah coming in. There's a reason they have the best record. They are that good."

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

Prior to the game, I spoke with New York Assistant Coach Mark Aguirre, a three-time All-Star who averaged 20.0 ppg during his career and was equally adept scoring inside and outside. One of his main duties is tutoring the Knicks' big men about inside play. I mentioned that I've noticed that Curry does not seem to have great hands. Aguirre acknowledged that this has been a problem for Curry but said that after watching film of Curry he realized that the problem is not so much Curry's hands but rather his feet--when Curry's footwork is not correct, he gets off balance and he loses track of the ball because he is trying to establish position and ascertain where his defender is. Aguirre believes that as Curry's footwork improves that his ballhandling will be less of a problem. Aguirre added that proper footwork is the fundamental basis of all post play and that this is the first thing he emphasizes with each of his players. One encouraging sign for Knicks' fans: Curry is definitely an eager pupil. He walked over to Aguirre while we were talking and asked Aguirre to come on to the court and help him. Curry got into early foul trouble in this game and fumbled some balls when he was off balance but he is also coming off a stretch of 11 straight 20 point games. He is the first Knick to do that since Patrick Ewing had a 17 game streak in 1994. Curry averaged 26.8 ppg, 11.2 rpg and shot .595 from the field in the last five of those games. The combination of Aguirre's coaching and Curry's diligence seems to be paying off.

---

The new synthetic basketball is going to be history in a couple weeks. Prior to the game I had my first real opportunity to handle it (I had previously picked one up briefly off of a rack). The ball has a dead bounce, almost like it sticks to the floor or is underinflated. One of the ball boys told me that you have to dribble it extra hard to have it bounce as high as the leather basketballs do. Although it seems to stick when you bounce it there is also a definite slickness to it and that apparently gets worse as the ball gets wet. I can palm a normal basketball easily and pick it up off of the ground with one hand on top; when I palm the newer ball it slowly slips out of my grip, not because my hand is not big enough but because the surface is slick and my fingertips slide away from the ball. I did not get a chance to shoot the ball but I can understand why players were less than thrilled not only that they had no say in this change but also with the particular product that the NBA selected.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:28 AM

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Bittersweet Return: Hornets Lose to Spurs, 103-77

The Hornets returned to New Orleans on Thursday for the second of six home games that they will play in the city that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Byron Scott's shorthanded squad--playing without injured starters Tyson Chandler, David West and Peja Stojakovic--was no match for the San Antonio Spurs, losing 103-77. Manu Ginobili had 24 points and six assists for the Spurs, Tony Parker added 19 points and eight assists and Tim Duncan contributed 11 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots and two steals. Rasual Butler led the Hornets with 17 points, Desmond Mason had 16 points and nine rebounds and Chris Paul shot poorly (2-11 from the field, six points) but dished out 12 assists.

San Antonio took an 8-0 lead to begin the game and never looked back. TNT's Kenny Smith offered the best and most concise recap of the Spurs' approach: they flew in, kicked butt and went home. The Spurs were not distracted by how many Hornets players sat out or by the emotions involved with New Orleans welcoming back its basketball team. I'm sure that a lot of viewers switched channels as San Antonio's lead grew but, as I previously mentioned, I don't do that. Unlike the Heat on Wednesday, the Hornets did not make a stirring comeback but the game did still provide a lot of entertainment value because of...

Miller's Malapropisms

It is not easy to do live TV. Even the best broadcasters make mistakes and some of the most beloved commentators--like baseball's Ralph Kiner--are known for butchering the language. Still, Reggie Miller was truly in the zone on Thursday:

1) He repeatedly called David West "Doug." OK, that is pretty minor and there was a Doug West in the league when Miller played, so maybe he was having flashbacks. On the other hand, broadcasters have stacks of carefully prepared notes to prevent such mistakes.

2) This is a direct quote: "If I'm the city of New Orleans, I'm very excited to have two young players like Chris Paul and Reggie Bush represent their perspective state as well as franchises." The careful reader will note that this one quote actually contains multiple infractions. English translation of Miller's quote: "New Orleans' fans are very excited to have young players like Chris Paul and Reggie Bush represent not only their city's pro franchises but also the state of Louisiana."

3) Here is another direct quote: "Tonight, Desmond Mason and Rasual Butler have really been the only really offensive tool that Byron Scott can put his hat on." Some computers in public libraries might block that sentence due to its suggestiveness except for the fact that it is completely indecipherable. Miller apparently was trying to say that Mason and Butler have been the Hornets' only consistent offensive weapons.

Throughout the game, Miller sounded like he was shouting while fellow analyst John Thompson sounded like he was whispering. Thompson made some interesting comments, so perhaps TNT might consider turning his microphone up and ratcheting Miller's down a notch or two. I would have loved to see the look on play-by-play man Dick Stockton's face after some of Miller's statements. Stockton and Miller had an interesting exchange late in the game. Stockton praised the Spurs for making few mistakes in terms of the veteran personnel that they sign and Miller responded by saying that the Spurs work on the little details in practice so that they don't make a lot of mistakes during games. Stockton took a deep breath before pointing out that he was talking about personnel decisions made by management, not on-court decisions made by players. If this were Saturday Night Live circa 1976 Miller would have answered, "Never mind." The reason that this caught my attention is that broadcast partners usually don't correct each other on air, except when someone like Marv Albert good naturedly ribs his counterpart. On the rare occasions when broadcasters correct each other, they usually do it nonchalantly. For instance, Stockton could have answered Miller's repeated "Doug West" references by saying "David West is indeed an important player for New Orleans." Stockton either ignored or didn't notice that one but he didn't let the other one slide. Call this a wild hunch, but I'm guessing that Miller will be spending more time in the studio and less time calling games.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:21 AM

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May Day: Bobcats Make Magic Disappear, 99-89

It was billed as a battle between Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor but Sean May stole the show, scoring a career-high 32 points to lead the Charlotte Bobcats to a 99-89 victory over the Orlando Magic. May, who shot 9-15 from the field and 14-17 from the free throw line, also grabbed six rebounds despite playing only 31 minutes in a reserve role. Rookie Adam Morrison, who has struggled mightily in home games (9.9 ppg, 29% field goal shooting, much worse than his 17.1 ppg and 44% field goal shooting in road games), had 22 points and seven rebounds, one of his best performances in Charlotte so far. Okafor had a solid, if unspectacular, performance--13 points, 11 rebounds, three blocked shots. Keyon Dooling led the undermanned Magic--who were without the services of injured starters Grant Hill, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson--with 20 points, while Howard had 10 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots.

To say both teams got off to a slow start is an understatement; at the 4:26 mark in the first quarter Orlando led 8-4 and I wondered if this would be like a pickup game in which the first team to 12 wins. Fortunately, the pace picked up a little in the closing minutes of the period and Orlando led 18-15 after 12 minutes of play. May scored six points on 3-4 shooting and Howard had six points and eight rebounds; he would be curiously silent for the rest of the game.

TNT's Doug Collins made a couple interesting comments during the first quarter. Noting Morrison's poor shooting numbers at home and the fact that Morrison missed long jumpers on his first two attempts of the game, Collins--a four-time All-Star in the 1970s as a 76er--said that every game he tried to score 20 points by getting four layups, four free throws and four jumpers. He suggested that Morrison should go to the hoop and not just try to shoot himself out of his troubles from the perimeter.

Collins also noted that Magic Coach Brian Hill loves Darko Milicic's passing ability. Milicic had a team-high five assists, including a gorgeous touch pass to Bo Outlaw for a layup late in the first quarter. I have not heard a lot of analysts mention this aspect of Milicic's game but I was immediately impressed by his court vision when I saw him play in person last season.

Charlotte took the lead early in the second quarter and never looked back, going ahead by as much as 16 in the second half. This was a nice win for the Bobcats but they still have the worst record in the East and the Magic are still fighting for the best record in the East. Without further ado, I'd like to switch gears from a conventional game recap to something I'll call...

Chronicles of Redick

Magic lottery pick J.J. Redick played 20 minutes, his most extensive court time in his injury plagued rookie season. I have expressed my opinion about Redick's NBA prospects on numerous occasions (Thoughts on the NBA Draft, Eastern Conference Preview and March Madness, Part I). Collins noted that it is difficult for a rookie to adjust to the NBA on the fly after missing so much time due to injury (an experience that Collins went through in his rookie season)--but the bottom line is that this is a performance oriented league and if you cannot perform then you will end up pursuing a different line of work.

Redick first entered the game at the start of the second quarter with Orlando up 18-15. His first field goal attempt came on a wide open jumper on the left baseline after Morrison was late getting around a pick. Redick missed. Redick made his next shot, a wide open three pointer with 8:46 left that tied the score at 23. About a minute later he nailed a pullup jumper in the lane to bring Orlando to within 27-25. On Orlando's next possession the Magic ran Redick off of a double screen but he missed a wide open jumper. His off the dribble game is suspect but he did manage to draw a foul on Morrison by driving to the hoop (of course, Morrison's individual defense may be even more suspect that Redick's off the dribble game). Trevor Ariza came in for Redick at the 3:15 mark with the Magic trailing 37-30. Orlando was outscored 22-12 with Redick on the court. He made two open shots, missed two open shots, drew a foul and also committed a foul that resulted in two made free throws. Obviously, one player is not responsible for all the good (or bad) that happens while he is on the court. On the other hand, a player who is a lottery pick should, in theory, be able to have a significant positive impact on games at some point.

Redick returned to action with 3:49 left in the third quarter and the Magic trailing 66-55. He failed to box out Morrison, who grabbed an offensive rebound; the Bobcats eventually scored as a result of that extra possession. Redick did not attempt a shot until the 1:22 mark, when he pump faked Morrison but missed an open jump shot. Collins commented that Redick is pump faking too much and should just shoot the ball in rhythm when he receives it. The problem is that Redick is not able to create his own shot and has to rush to make sure that his catch and shoot chances are not blocked. Morrison is 6-8; how many 6-8 guys guarded Redick in college? Maybe Redick will get into a groove in which he catches and shoots the ball with good rhythm but in the NBA there is just a small window of opportunity to get your shot off. On the next possession, Redick strayed too far away from Morrison, who nailed a jumper to put Charlotte up 72-62. Redick ended up with the ball at the top of the key as time ran out in the quarter. He pump faked and missed a jumper as the buzzer sounded. Redick did not attempt any more shots during his remaining time in the game and when Carlos Arroyo replaced him with 5:54 left in the fourth quarter the Magic trailed 87-75. Redick returned for the last 99 seconds of garbage time, during which neither team scored.

Orlando's Travis Diener provided an interesting contrast to Redick. The second year guard scored a career-high 16 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter. He is listed at 6-1, 175, while Redick is listed at 6-4, 190, but Diener showed that he could create his own shot off of the dribble--albeit with the help of a screen, but Redick's attempts came from curling around picks without the ball or simply catching and shooting; he never used a live dribble in a pick and roll situation. After Diener quickly pulled the trigger on a three pointer that brought Orlando to within 87-75, Collins contrasted Diener's approach to Redick's by noting, "He's not pump faking. He's just letting it fly."

This could prove to be Diener's best game of the year and one of Redick's worst. I realize that--but if you just watch the two of them play, watch how they handle the ball, how they catch and how they shoot, can you really tell which one is a lottery pick and which one is a second rounder? Redick is a good enough shooter that he may get hot one game and put up 20 points--but can he consistently get his shot off, night after night, in the NBA? Even if he can, who will he be able to guard? The Magic are a team on the rise and the lottery pick that they used to draft Redick should be the last one that they have for a while; at some point they will regret that they did not make better use of that selection.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:39 AM

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Nowitzki is Too Much for the Odom-less Lakers

Dirk Nowitzki had 23 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists as the Dallas Mavericks beat the L.A. Lakers, 110-101, in the second half of ESPN's Wednesday night doubleheader. The Lakers, playing without power forward Lamar Odom--who may be sidelined for a month with a sprained knee--were outrebounded 39-31 and had no answer for Nowitzki's all around game; they also did not do a great defensive job against Jason Terry (26 points, nine assists, five rebounds) and Josh Howard (29 points). Kobe Bryant had a game-high 33 points, tied for the team lead with seven rebounds, had a team-high four assists, tied for the team lead with two steals and had the Lakers' only blocked shot--in other words, there will be a dozen articles written saying that he tried to do too much and another dozen articles written saying that he did not do enough. Bryant shot 9-18 from the field and 14-17 from the free throw line, while the rest of the Lakers shot just 23-55 from the field (.418). Dallas shot 39-65 from the field (.600).

The Mavericks attacked the undermanned Lakers immediately, taking an 8-0 lead. Bryant scored the Lakers' first two points at the 8:56 mark when he snagged a defensive rebound and dribbled coast to coast for a layup. He spent most of the quarter trying to get his teammates involved, though--and they spent most of the quarter missing shots, resulting in a 33-21 Dallas lead. Howard (12) and Nowitzki (11) combined for 23 points on 10-13 shooting.

Bryant continued to try to create for his teammates in the second quarter. Rookie guard Jordan Farmar responded with 10 points on 4-5 shooting and Vladimir Radmanovic scored seven points but Dallas outscored L.A. 26-23 and held a 56-47 halftime advantage. Howard (18), Nowitzki (14) and Terry (13) all played aggressively, while Bryant had just five points on 2-6 shooting.

Other than during some stretches in last year's playoff series versus Phoenix, I have yet to see the Lakers do better with Bryant "deferring"--and the playoffs were a unique situation in which Coach Phil Jackson developed an "Inside Man" strategy that was specifically tailored to Phoenix' weakness in the paint. Bryant stopped "deferring" in the third quarter and promptly brought the Lakers back into the game. He scored 10 points in the first 7:09, culminating with a steal and slam dunk that pulled the Lakers to within 70-67. Bryant fell and took a blow to his "funny bone" at the 3:31 mark but shook off the injury (literally shaking his hand until the feeling came back) and made both free throws to cut the Dallas lead to 72-71. Bryant's three pointer with 3:06 remaining tied the game for the first time, 74-74; he scored nine straight Lakers points in a little over two minutes and finished with 17 points in the quarter. The Lakers only trailed 83-81 going into the fourth quarter.

Early in the fourth quarter, with the score tied 83-83, Devin Harris raced to the hoop for a sure two points, only to have his shot swatted from behind by Bryant, a play reminiscent of Bryant's spectacular rejection of Utah's Deron Williams earlier in the season. Bryant kept the ball in bounds, but Farmar was almost immediately stripped and Harris ended up scoring a layup anyway. Soon after that, Dallas went on an 8-0 run and never looked back.

Late in the fourth quarter, ESPN's Mark Jones summed it up nicely: "Kobe Bryant really has not gotten much support from his teammates tonight." Tom Tolbert concurred, "I was just going to say that. They have to step up...if he's going to defer to you, you have to step up and make shots--especially the easy ones." Jones revisited that point again after Bryant made back to back jumpers: "It's easy to criticize Kobe for taking charge offensively and to criticize him for taking a lot of shots but that lies with his teammates--they've got to be engaged and involved offensively." Tolbert agreed, adding, "There's no question. When he goes to you--I'm not going to say that you have to finish every time, but you have to be fairly consistent and they haven't been in the fourth quarter."

posted by David Friedman @ 3:29 AM

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Suns Eclipse Heat, 99-89

I never leave a game early; I never turn off the television or switch channels, even during a blowout. Once I start watching a game, I watch it until it's over. That may seem strange to those of you who race to the parking lot during the third quarter or have a quick trigger finger on the remote--but if you watched ESPN's telecast until the end on Wednesday night when Phoenix defeated Miami 99-89 then perhaps you now understand my point of view. The recipe for a blowout seemed to be in place: neither Shaquille O'Neal nor Dwyane Wade were in the lineup for Miami and the Suns have won 11 games in a row. Not only did this look like a game from which a lot of people would be leaving/tuning out early, it looked like a game that a lot of people would probably decide to ignore completely. Everything went according to the script for the first 40 minutes or so and Phoenix led 88-63 with 9:52 to go. Then, just as fans streamed to the exits and television viewers around the country flipped the channel, things got very interesting.

Phoenix jumped out to an 8-2 first quarter lead and the Suns were ahead by as much as 23-12 before the Heat pulled to within 26-19 by the end of the first quarter. Steve Nash (eight points and six assists) and Shawn Marion (seven points and five rebounds) fueled the Suns' quick start.

The Suns extended their lead to 56-40 by halftime. Hubie Brown explained the simple formula that the Suns executed to perfection: "Phoenix covers both corners (with three point shooters), plays three on three in the middle of the court and beats you with ball movement." Time after time, Nash penetrated to the hoop, creating layups and dunks for his frontcourt players and open three pointers for his perimeter shooters. Phoenix outrebounded Miami 24-18 in the first half and shot 6-15 from three point range while holding Miami to 0-4 three point shooting.

Marion began the third quarter by burying yet another three pointer. Brown said of Phoenix, "They come out of that locker room and they are ready to bust out. That is a mindset (established) by the coaching staff." Brown repeatedly emphasized that Miami's only chance was to shoot a high percentage from the field while running the shot clock down (reducing Phoenix' open court opportunities) and to stay in contact with Phoenix' three point shooters, resisting the temptation to help against dribble penetration. Brown also refuted criticisms of the Suns' defense: "It's a misnomer that they don't guard you. You can't have a differential of 6.4 without playing defense. It's unorthodox because they don't double team a lot, they stay at home on the three point shooters." Brown added that Phoenix did not mind trading their three pointers for the other team's two pointers. Basically, Phoenix does not want to give up three pointers and does not want to foul; this turns the game into a track meet/three point shootout that favors their athletic players who are also excellent perimeter shooters.

As Phoenix pulled away during the third quarter, Brown praised the efforts of Miami's power forward and center: "(Udonis) Haslem and (Alonzo) Mourning are doing muscle work and they're getting it done--but they need help." He also observed that Phoenix' long road trip seems to have taken a toll on Amare Stoudemire: "Stoudemire tonight has not shown us a lot of hop. He's making his shots when he gets opportunities but he hasn't had the quickness." An ESPN graphic showed Stoudemire's significance: during Phoenix' 1-5 start he averaged 19.2 mpg, 10.0 ppg and 4.2 rpg. Since then, Phoenix has gone 13-1 and Stoudemire's numbers increased to 30.9 mpg, 19.8 ppg and 9.9 rpg.

One might think that you have to have a young team to play the Suns' style but Brown noted that this is not the case: "They have the second oldest team in the league; they have guys who have a lot of mileage--but they are in fantastic shape."

Phoenix scored six straight points at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter to take an 88-63 lead. Then, Miami went on a 17-0 run in less than six minutes, sparked by the play of reserves Jason Kapono (11 fourth quarter points) and Robert Hite (eight fourth quarter points). Nash ended Phoenix' long scoring drought by running down a defensive rebound and throwing an outlet pass to Leandro Barbosa, who converted a fastbreak layup. Nash also nailed a three pointer with 2:19 remaining to put the Suns up 93-85 after Miami had just cut the margin to five with a Kapono three pointer.

Phoenix committed five turnovers and shot just 3-14 from the field as Miami clawed its way to within 94-88 with 1:32 left in the game. Nash turned the ball over, although it appeared that his pass had been deflected by a Miami player, and on the Heat's next possession James Posey's three pointer went halfway down the net before spinning out. Boris Diaw's finger roll put Phoenix up 96-88, effectively ending Miami's comeback. If you tuned out or left early, you missed a thrilling fourth quarter rally.

Nash finished with 18 points and 11 assists, while Marion had 23 points and 13 rebounds. As Brown observed, Stoudemire was not flying quite so highly as he has recently, and he ended up with just 12 points, three rebounds and two blocked shots. Mourning led Miami with 19 points, adding five rebounds and two blocked shots. Haslem had 14 points and seven rebounds.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:27 AM

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

NBA Coast to Coast Breaks Down Iverson, "Ring Thing" Guys, the NBA's New/Old Ball and the Lakers' Title Chances

What is it like to guard Allen Iverson? Most of us will never experience that firsthand but three people who have--Greg Anthony, Tim Legler and Jon Barry--answered that question posed by Matt Winer on ESPN's NBA Coast to Coast. Anthony said, "The thing about Allen Iverson that overwhelmed me is that I'd never seen a guy with his overall speed and quickness have that high a level of skill." According to Anthony, that combination made Iverson "the most intimidating player in the game other than Shaquille O'Neal." That's a bold statement but Legler completely agreed, adding "There were only two guys that I ever played against who brought fear into my locker room: Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson." Legler explained that O'Neal can overpower players and that Iverson wears players out with his constant movement, noting that even a great scorer like Reggie Miller would have times during games when he was passive and the ball would go into Rik Smits. Legler declared that Iverson has "relentless competitiveness--the only other guy I saw who had that was Jordan." Barry agreed with his two colleagues, adding, "Nobody in the NBA is faster with the ball."

One would think that such a tremendous player would be an asset to any team but Barry is not so sure. He said that Iverson would not fit in on a really good team because he demands the ball too much and that a really bad team might not be inclined to give up several young players who have upside in order to acquire Iverson. Anthony completely disagreed with Barry, saying that Iverson's availability is a "once in a lifetime opportunity" because "if you don't think that he can go play with other teams and other players you are kidding yourself." Anthony argued that Iverson could help put a good team over the top, suggesting that an Iverson for McGrady deal could help Houston and adding that Nowitzki-Iverson would be a powerful duo in Dallas. Iverson wants to win, Anthony explained, and he would do what he has to do to help teams like that to win. Legler took the middle of the road, agreeing that Houston might be a good fit for Iverson but siding with Barry in stating that Iverson would not be able to blend in with an elite team--Legler cited San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix as examples--that has a chance to win this year; those teams have set offensive patterns that would be too disrupted by Iverson's style of play.

Later in the show, the panel returned to the subject of Allen Iverson and his possible future destination. Anthony said that in order for the team that acquires Iverson to fully benefit from his skills, two things must be in place: a coach who commands Iverson's respect and a great player who Iverson respects: "Great players don't have a problem deferring if you can prove that you are better than they are." Anthony is absolutely correct. Look at big time scorers like Oscar Robertson, Bob McAdoo and Mark Aguirre--or even former All-Stars Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning from last year's Miami Heat: players will sacrifice minutes, shot attempts and points for a legitimate opportunity to win a championship.

The Coast to Coast crew also tackled the subject of the NBA getting rid of the new composite basketball in favor of the leather basketball that the players prefer. Marc Stein reported that the tipping point that influenced Commissioner Stern to give in on this issue is that a number of players complained that the new basketball is cutting their hands. Ironically, even some of the players who have brought this up--including two-time MVP Steve Nash--don't want to switch back in midseason because they have just gotten used to the new basketball. Ric Bucher added that the NBA is waiting until January 1 to make the change because most teams simply gave away their old basketballs, so the NBA has to find out how many old basketballs are still around and then decide how to procure enough for each team. How did the NBA get into this mess in the first place? Anthony explained that, like so many things in life, it was simply a matter of miscommunication. The NBA sent a personalized new composite ball for each player to the teams in the offseason. The problem is that most players do not spend the offseason in the city where they play during the season, so they either received the basketballs late in the summer or not at all. The NBA was waiting for feedback and when the league office received none the powers that be interpreted that as a sign to go ahead with the change.

NBA Coast to Coast devoted a segment to what it termed "Ring Thing" guys--players who do the dirty work that must be done for teams to win championships. Barry cited Derek Fisher, Shane Battier, Robert Horry, Eduardo Najera and Ben Wallace. Anthony said that he prefers the term "glue guys" and he listed Andre Miller, Raja Bell, Josh Howard, Udonis Haslem and Mehmet Okur. Legler's five are Derek Fisher, Anthony Johnson, Andres Nocioni, Shawn Marion and Etan Thomas. ESPN also showed a graphic of four all-time "glue guys" who helped teams to win championships: Bill Walton (presumably from the '86 Celtics when he was Sixth Man of the Year and not the '77 Blazers when he was the Finals MVP), Kurt Rambis, Dennis Rodman and Horace Grant.

In the past year or two, no one has liked the Lakers more than Anthony (other than 20 Second Timeout, of course). Anthony said that Phil Jackson "has never coached a team that has underachieved. That is the ultimate compliment that you can give a coach." He added that Jackson recently told him that this Lakers teams is "eerily similar" to the 1991 Bulls team that won the NBA championship. Anthony has spoken with several other Western Conference coaches and he said that each and every one of them said that they fear how good the Lakers might be this year. Anthony concluded, "I think that the L.A. Lakers can win a championship this year."

Barry disagreed with Anthony, citing Smush Parker's inconsistency and the lack of playoff experience on the roster (other than Kobe Bryant, of course). Anthony countered that the Lakers received valuable playoff experience last year by extending the Phoenix Suns to seven games.

Tuesday was a slow night in the NBA, with only four games on the schedule. One of them involved the Lakers, who raced out to a big lead and hung on to beat the Rockets, 102-94. Houston started out the year 14-6 but McGrady is out indefinitely with back spasms. Last year the Rockets were also a .700 team with McGrady but a .007 team (or pretty close to that) without him. People who downgrade McGrady's impact should look at how poorly Houston does without him even when Yao puts up 26 points like he did against the Lakers. Bryant finished with 23 points, eight rebounds and seven assists but the big news from the game is that Lamar Odom sprained his knee during the first quarter and did not return to action. If these Lakers are the '91 Bulls then Odom is their Scottie Pippen--and one thing that the '91 Bulls avoided were injuries to key players. If Odom has to miss an extended amount of time then Bryant may have to go back to putting up 35 ppg to pick up the slack.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:57 PM

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NBA Leaderboard, Part III

The season is nearly a fourth over for most teams and we are starting to get an idea of who the contenders and pretenders are in various statistical categories. For instance, Paul Pierce had 52 rebounds in his first four games but has had exactly one double figure rebounding game since then and currently ranks 36th in the league in that category. On the other hand, current leaders Utah, Iverson, Howard and Nash have been at or near the top right from the beginning and it is reasonable to assume at this point that they will be at or near the top at the end of the season--barring injuries, of course (or a lengthy period on the inactive list for Iverson).

Best Five Records
-------------------

1) Utah Jazz, 16-5
2) San Antonio Spurs, 15-6
3-5) L.A. Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets, 14-6

Dallas is just behind this group at 14-7. Orlando, the best team in the East (15-8), would be the seventh seed in the Western Conference. As Charles Barkley would say, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan are rolling over in their graves...

Top Five Scorers (and a few other notables)
------------------

1) Allen Iverson, PHI 31.2 ppg
2) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 30.9 ppg
3) Michael Redd, MIL 29.2 ppg
4) Joe Johnson, ATL 28.7 ppg
5) Gilbert Arenas, WSH 27.8 ppg
6) Dwyane Wade, MIA 27.5 ppg
7) LeBron James, CLE 27.3 ppg
8) Vince Carter, NJN 27.0 ppg
9) Kobe Bryant, LAL 26.4 ppg

Iverson passed Anthony but is now on the inactive list and probably won't play again until the Sixers are able to trade him. If he is out for too long then he will not meet the minimum standard for games played or points scored and will no longer be listed among the official leaders by the NBA. Arenas vaulted back into the top five after some big performances. Bryant started off the season slowly as he recovered from knee surgery and he recently suffered a sprained ankle but his average continues to inch up. It's highly doubtful that he will match his scoring average from last year but certainly not out of the question that he could average 35 ppg over a 10-15 game stretch and take over the number one spot.

Top Five Rebounders (and a few other notables)
----------------------

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 13.0 rpg
2) Carlos Boozer, UTA 12.3 rpg
3) Chris Bosh, TOR 12.2 rpg
4) Tyson Chandler, NOK 12.1 rpg
5) Kevin Garnett, MIN 12.0 rpg

7) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.7 rpg

15-16) Yao Ming, HOU and Rasheed Wallace, Det 9.5 rpg

20) Ben Wallace, CHI 9.0 rpg

23) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.6 rpg

Howard maintains the top spot, but his average dropped a bit, tightening the race. Duncan stayed at seventh, but his average also dropped a little. Yao's average has been going down slowly for a while. Rasheed Wallace has never been a great rebounder for his size/athletic ability and his current average is by far the best of his career. If he stays ahead of Ben Wallace (which I doubt will happen) it will be the first time since '98 that he averaged more rpg than his ex-teammate. Kidd is a 6-4 point guard who will be 34 in March and has had the dreaded microfracture procedure that has turned Chris Webber into a statue and Jamal Mashburn into an ESPN analyst while cutting short Lil Penny's promising TV career--yet Kidd is having the best rebounding season of his career and ranks among the league leaders.

Top Five Playmakers
----------------------

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.6 apg
2) Andre Miller, DEN, 9.5 apg
3) Jason Kidd, NJN 9.4 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA, 9.1 apg
5) Chris Paul, NOK 8.9 apg

Membership in the top five has been the same for most of the season, but Nash is running away from the pack. "Starbury" moved up to 26th, just edging Boris Diaw.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:25 AM

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Will the "Leastern" Conference Produce the Worst NBA Finalist Ever?

The NBA's Eastern Conference standings look more out of whack than the Bizarro character from the Superman comic books. The vast majority of the teams are below .500, including the entire Atlantic Division. By rule, eight Eastern Conference teams will qualify for postseason play and one of them will participate in the NBA Finals. Could a sub-.500 team end up in the Finals this year? My most recent article for NBCSports.com looks back at the worst Finalists ever and which current Eastern Conference teams they most closely resemble:

Best of the Worst or Worst of the Best?

posted by David Friedman @ 2:02 AM

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