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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Deng It! Luol Deng Scores Career-High 32 Points, Bulls Top Cavs, 103-96

The Chicago Bulls gave LeBron James a 22nd birthday gift that he did not want--a 24-0 second half run that proved to be decisive in a 103-96 win over James' Cleveland Cavaliers. Luol Deng led Chicago with a career-high 32 points, shooting 15-19 from the field. He did most of his damage with mid-range jump shots. Ben Wallace's energy, defense and rebounding have been crucial to the Bulls' recent success but he sprained his ankle in the first quarter. He returned to the game but only played a total of 22 minutes, contributing just two points and two rebounds. The Bulls were also without the services of starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, who sat out with a groin injury. James finished with 33 points, nine rebounds and three assists but he scored 22 of his points in the first half and his production dropped off dramatically after he suffered a sprained ankle in the third quarter; he went through a long scoreless drought that did not end until the last couple minutes of the contest. The loss drops the Cavaliers to 4-9 on the road and 12-7 when Larry Hughes plays (they are 5-5 in games that he has sat out due to injury). The Bulls are now 14-2 at home, 14-1 when they have the halftime lead and 19-12 overall, narrowly edging the Cavs for the second best record in the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls played at a faster pace than the Cavs right from the start, jumping out to a 13-6 lead and pushing that advantage to as much as nine in the first quarter. The period ended with Chicago on top 32-27. James scored 12 points, but the man he was guarding, Deng, had 10 points on 5-6 shooting. On several occasions James was late getting around screens or simply lost track of Deng as the Bulls forward moved without the ball. It is important for the team's best player to set the tone defensively. NBA players are good and can erupt for a big scoring night even if you play good defense--but if you don't keep track of your man and don't fight through screens, just letting him shoot uncontested jumpers, then you can pretty much guarantee that he will be very productive. On one of the old NBA Entertainment tapes (before there were DVDs), then Pacers Coach Dick Versace exhorted his team to stop letting their opponents shoot what he called "warm-up jump shots," saying that they must make them put the ball on the floor and do something. Deng spent most of the night burying "warm-up jump shots."

The Cavaliers gained a little ground in the second quarter but still trailed 56-53 at halftime. Deng scored 16 points on 8-10 shooting, while James got his 22 on 11-15 shooting; the difference is that James had to work for his points by driving to the hoop or shooting with a hand in his face, while Deng benefited from a lot of wide open shots. Chicago shot 56% from the field and Cleveland shot 54%.

Cleveland began the third quarter with a 12-2 run, taking a 65-58 lead. The problem with relying primarily on your offense to bail you out is that sometimes shots stop falling. If your defensive effort is not consistent, those droughts can be fatal. After Hughes' jumper at the 7:17 mark made the score 67-60 Cleveland, the Cavs missed their next 15 shots and Chicago went on a 24-0 run that extended into the fourth quarter. James sat out the last :36 of the third quarter and the first 2:19 of the fourth quarter after injuring his ankle when he landed awkwardly after missing a shot. The score was 76-67 when James left, 78-67 at the end of the third quarter and 84-67 when he came back. James had 28 points before he got hurt and did not score again until his layup with 1:46 left cut the lead to 96-89. James' three pointer with 1:21 left got the Cavs to within 96-92 but the Bulls never allowed the Cavs to make it a single possession game, making five of their last six free throws.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:34 PM

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Iverson Drops 44, Karl Gets 800th Career Win

Allen Iverson scored 44 points and had 10 assists as Denver cruised to a 112-98 win over Seattle, the 800th victory of George Karl's coaching career. Iverson now has 77 40-point games in his career, which ties him with Oscar Robertson for fourth all-time behind Wilt Chamberlain (271), Michael Jordan (173) and Elgin Baylor (88). Both teams were missing key players--Carmelo Anthony (suspension), J.R. Smith (suspension) and Marcus Camby (injury) did not play for the Nuggets and Ray Allen (birth of his child) and Rashard Lewis (injury) did not play for the Sonics. Earl Boykins (24 points) was the only other Nugget to score in double figures. Damien Wilkins led the Sonics with 26 points.

Iverson got off to a quick start with 12 points and six assists in the first quarter, directly accounting for most of Denver's points as the Nuggets outscored the Sonics 35-27. He sat out for about four minutes in the second quarter but Denver still led 49-43 when he returned. Iverson scored 11 points and had one assist in the period and Denver led 60-56 at halftime. Boykins had 11 first half points, while Wilkins almost singlehandedly kept the game close with his 19 points.

The Nuggets pulled away in the first few minutes of the third quarter as Iverson scored six points in a 10-3 run. Reserve guard Mike Wilks played good defense on Iverson for the next few minutes and Seattle cut the lead from 70-59 to 77-74, but the Sonics fell apart in the last :38 of the period, giving up six points to Boykins on three free throws and a three point shot (assisted by Iverson). One of the free throws came after the ejection of Chris Wilcox, Seattle's leading rebounder in the game (seven). The Sonics never recovered from that sequence and trailed by double digits most of the fourth quarter.

Iverson has now played three games since the 76ers traded him to the Nuggets. He is averaging 31.3 ppg and 11 apg so far and the Nuggets are 2-1. In Iverson's first two games with the Nuggets he had 22 points and 10 assists in a 101-96 loss to the Sacramento Kings and then increased those numbers to 28 points and 13 assists in a 113-105 win over Boston Celtics.

It should not surprise anyone that Iverson is producing so many assists. He ranked eighth in the league last year (7.4 apg), has averaged over 6 apg during his career and in his MVP year (2001) Iverson had 16 assists in a game seven playoff win versus the Toronto Raptors. Iverson shoots a lot but he is also a highly gifted passer. His problem, similar to one that Kobe Bryant has faced in recent seasons, is that in order to get an assist your teammates have to make the shot after you deliver the pass. Even with several of their big guns out the Nuggets have more weapons than the woeful Sixers do and that is why Iverson's assist totals are going up.

One note of caution, though: Iverson's first three games as a Nugget have been against terrible teams. That takes nothing away from his individual excellence but we still don't know how this Denver team will do against the elite teams in the league. As TNT's Charles Barkley noted several times, the Nuggets rank close to the bottom of the NBA in defense and that is not a recipe for winning a championship.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:05 AM

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Dirk's Dagger in Dallas Does in Phoenix

Dirk Nowitzki coolly sank a long jumper over Shawn Marion with a little over one second left, lifting the Dallas Mavericks to a 101-99 win over the Phoenix Suns. Nowitzki finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds but Dallas would not have won without Jason Terry's season-high 35 points and eight assists. Josh Howard (16 points, 12 rebounds) also had a strong game for Dallas. Amare Stoudemire (25 points, 13 rebounds) and Steve Nash (24 points, 13 assists) provided most of the firepower for Phoenix; Stoudemire's markedly increased productivity over the last 20 games is a great sign for the Suns and has a lot to do with the great run that they have been on during that time. Both teams have completely turned things around after slow starts--including this game, the Suns have gone 18-4 after opening the season 1-4, while the Mavericks have bounced back from 0-4 to go 22-3.

The game began with a frenetic pace and Phoenix led 9-8 with a little more than three minutes elapsed in the first quarter (that pace projects to a final score in the 120s). Phoenix was still ahead 16-13 at the 5:26 mark but Dallas closed the quarter with a 17-4 run, with Terry doing most of the damage. He scored 13 points in the quarter and Dallas repeatedly broke down Phoenix' defense, enabling the Mavericks to draw fouls and shoot 14 free throws, making 12.

Dallas went ahead by as much as 13, 38-25, while Nash rested on the bench from the end of the first quarter until the 9:17 mark in the second quarter; the Suns were outscored by 12 points during the roughly five minutes that he sat out. Not surprisingly, the Suns immediately got back in the game when he returned to action, shaving the margin to 38-33 in about a minute and eventually tying the score at 47 when Nash passed to Raja Bell for a jump shot. TNT's microphones captured the words of frustrated Dallas Coach Avery Johnson during a second quarter timeout as he pleaded with center Desagana Diop to aggressively take the ball to the basket, even if that would result in the poor free throw shooter having to go to the foul line: "Show me something," Johnson exhorted. "Dunk on somebody and scream."

Besides Nash's play, a big factor in the Suns' second quarter comeback is that they stopped committing fouls. The Suns want to run and would almost rather give up field goals than send their opponent to the free throw line. They figure that they will outshoot the other team in the end if the game turns into a track meet. This is a fun style to watch but it has a way of keeping both teams in the game, as TNT's Doug Collins pointed out. No Phoenix lead is safe but Phoenix is also capable of getting hot and coming back from big deficits.

Dallas led 52-49 at halftime. Terry already had 18 points and four assists, while Nash had 15 points and seven assists.

Terry scored seven points in less than four minutes as Dallas jumped out to a 65-57 lead in the third quarter. A couple minutes later, his three pointer put Dallas up 70-57 but Nash immediately answered with a three pointer. Terry then hit a three pointer and Nash retaliated with a great pass to Stoudemire for an impressive dunk. Nash and Stoudemire found a real groove with the high pick and roll play and ran it repeatedly in the third quarter, cutting Dallas' lead to 78-76 by the end of the period.

Leandro Barbosa's reverse layup tied the score at 78 and then Shawn Marion gave the Suns their first lead since the opening period with a fast break dunk. Two Jumaine Jones three pointers and one Marion three pointer put the Suns up 89-80 with 8:45 to go. One might think that Dallas would be reeling after watching a 13 point lead become a nine point deficit but this is just the nature of playing against the Suns; if your team has enough firepower, you can always bounce back and retake the lead just as quickly as the Suns took it from you. Four minutes later Dallas was only down 92-91 and soon after that the Mavericks went ahead after a Nowitzki jumper. A tough Nash runner and a Stoudemire free throw put Phoenix up 94-92 but Dallas did not trail again after Terry's three pointer on a fast break made the score 95-94; the Suns did manage to tie the game on two different occasions after that but Nowitzki or Howard always answered.

This was a very entertaining game to watch. The Mavericks have regained the form that they displayed during last year's run to the NBA Finals. The Suns are clearly one of the best teams in the league but it is very difficult to picture them winning the NBA title. Yes, they can beat anyone on a given night and they battled the Mavericks to the final buzzer but they rely too much on their offense. Dallas and San Antonio are able to get key defensive stops and that is what wins playoff series. It is too exhausting--and too risky--to rely purely on outscoring teams for an entire seven game series. Stoudemire looks like he is close to regaining his form of a couple seasons ago but it is important to remember that even in the playoff series when he scored over 35 ppg against Tim Duncan that Duncan also scored a ton of points--and his Spurs won the series. Dallas and San Antonio can win games that are 101-99 and games that are 81-79; Phoenix can only be successful in fast paced games.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:08 AM

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Lakers Down Slumping Magic, 106-93

The L.A. Lakers rode an 18-point third quarter explosion by Smush Parker to a 106-93 win in Orlando versus the Magic. The Lakers trailed 47-46 at halftime but outscored Orlando 33-26 in the third quarter and 27-20 in the fourth quarter. Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 27 points but shot just 8-22 from the field. He also had three rebounds, two steals, a spectacular block of Jameer Nelson's fast break layup (see below) and a team-high seven assists. Parker finished with 20 points, while Grant Hill led the Magic with 20 points but only had two rebounds and no assists. The Magic have now lost three in a row and eight of their last 11, while the Lakers improved to 3-2 on their road trip with one game remaining (at Charlotte on Friday). The Lakers have won three of their last four games and seven of their last 11.

Perhaps relieved (or surprised) to just face single coverage from Grant Hill in the early going--as opposed to the constant double-teaming that the Miami Heat attacked him with on Christmas Day--Bryant scored eight points on 2-6 field goal shooting and 4-4 free throw shooting in the first nine minutes of action, but the Lakers trailed, 19-14. Hill went to the locker room briefly and Keyon Dooling guarded Bryant for a few possessions before Bryant left the game for his customary break near the end of the quarter. Bryant took one three pointer with the shot clock winding down but otherwise did not handle the ball much during that time frame. Orlando led 25-21 at the end of the first period.

The Lakers fell behind by as much as 12 with Bryant on the bench and trailed 37-28 when he came back into action at the 5:44 mark. Sasha Vujacic made two free throws from a clear path foul that preceded that timeout and then on the ensuing possession Bryant hit a jumper to cut the margin to five. Hill answered with a strong post move against Bryant, putting the Magic ahead, 39-32. The Magic began double teaming Bryant more frequently during the second quarter and at the 3:51 mark he found Vujacic for an open three pointer that pulled the Lakers to within 40-39. Obviously, teams will continue to double team Bryant until his teammates prove that they can make open shots--something that they failed at miserably during the Miami game.

Bryant blew by Hill on the left baseline at the 2:18 mark, scoring a reverse layup and drawing a foul on Hill. The resulting free throw tied the score at 42. Dwight Howard converted a three point play of his own to put the Magic up by three. The teams then traded baskets before Bryant hit the final field goal of the first half with 1:04 remaining, a strong drive from the right elbow. He overpowered Trevor Ariza and Jameer Nelson, who left Vujacic at the top of the key to double team Bryant. Bryant muscled the ball up when Nelson appeared to foul him but the ball went in despite the contact and no foul was called. After that, the teams alternated missed shots and turnovers and Orlando led 47-46 at halftime.

Bryant assisted on the first two Lakers' field goals in the third quarter--a Parker three pointer and a Walton layup--and the Lakers tied the game at 51. The Magic then went on a 12-4 run, with Hill contributing six of the points. It would have been a 14-4 run, but Bryant nullified a sure two points with a clean left handed block of Nelson's fast break layup attempt. He not only denied the shot while avoiding the foul but he also kept the ball in play and Parker corralled the rebound. The Lakers did not capitalize immediately on that opportunity but began making their move about a minute later. Parker scored 14 points in a 5:22 stretch and by the end of the third quarter the Lakers led 79-73. Bryant only scored three points in the quarter, all on free throws, but he had five assists and his passing played a major role in the Lakers' rally.

Orlando got as close as 83-80 in the fourth quarter but Andrew Bynum delivered back to back baskets and the Lakers were never seriously threatened the rest of the way. Bryant scored nine points in the fourth quarter.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Failure to Launch: Misfiring Rockets Crash Against Pacers

The Indiana Pacers shot .349 from the field at home versus the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night--and still won, 81-76. This was the first time all season that Houston scored less than 80 points and the fewest points that Indiana has allowed this year. The teams combined to miss 102 field goals in a game that looked like one of those practice drills during which coaches put a lid on top of the basket so that the players can practice rebounding; Indiana grabbed a season-high 38 defensive rebounds. Houston's 20 points in the paint were the fewest by a Pacers' opponent this year. Clearly, the Rockets missed the services of All-Star center Yao Ming, who will be out several more weeks because of a fracture near his knee--but the Pacers were also missing their best inside player and leading scorer (18.7 ppg), Jermaine O'Neal, who was a late scratch (flu).

Al Harringon led the Pacers with 23 points despite shooting 10-24 from the field. He also had 14 rebounds. Jeff Foster scored just one point but he had a game-high 16 rebounds and a season-high tying three assists. Jamaal Tinsley finished with 17 points (6-16 shooting), six rebounds, four assists and three steals. Tracy McGrady returned to action for the Rockets after missing seven games with back spasms. He showed serious signs of rust, shooting just 7-22 from the field and committing seven turnovers, but he still led Houston with 19 points and five assists.

Houston started out strongly, taking a 7-0 lead in the first 1:31 of the game. Tinsley almost singlehandedly brought the Pacers back, scoring 10 points in a five minute span, after which Indiana led, 13-11. The Rockets led 24-22 at the end of the first quarter even though McGrady shot just 1-5 from the field.

The second quarter statistics are very interesting. Indiana shot 6-29 from the field (.207)--and outscored Houston, 19-15. How did this happen? The Rockets turned the ball over eight times, so they only attempted 14 shots, making six. McGrady had his best quarter of the game, shooting 4-5 from the field and scoring 10 points, but he was also charged with three of the turnovers. Indiana shot 15-52 (.288) in the first half but led Houston, 41-39.

The Rockets' turnover problems continued in the third quarter (six) and their shooting--which was not great in the first half (15-35, .429) began to go south as well (7-19, .368). In one priceless sequence, Juwan Howard airballed an eight foot jumper from the right baseline, Dikembe Mutombo rebounded the miss on the left baseline and shot an airball jump hook. Later in the quarter, Mutombo went up for a two hand dunk--and airballed it. I've never seen an airball on a dunk before. The Pacers shot 8-18 (.444), with Harrington (eight points) doing most of the damage, and they led 62-58 at the end of the period.

The Rockets finally solved their turnover problems in the fourth quarter, committing just two, but they shot a miserable 5-21 (.238). They fell behind by as many as nine, tied the game with 2:01 remaining but missed five of their last six shots after that. Harrington shot 3-3 from the field, scoring six points, while McGrady shot 0-8 from the field, 0-2 from the free throw line and committed both of Houston's turnovers, including one with 1:29 left and the Rockets trailing 74-73. After the game, he explained why he played so poorly in the game's final moments: "Because I was fatigued down the stretch, I didn't recognize the double teams. That is how I got stripped a few times by them. That's the biggest thing, being fatigued and not being in basketball shape...When I get into game shape, that will help me get rid of some of those turnovers like I had at the end."

In his postgame standup, Rockets' Coach Jeff Van Gundy offered this concise assessment of the game: "It looked like both teams had pianos on their backs...You can't turn the ball over like we did tonight and expect to win, especially on the road. We were discombobulated out there."

Meanwhile, Pacers' Coach Rick Carlisle started his postgame standup with a smile and a "Whew!" He elaborated on that expression of relief: "It was a really tough game, a low-scoring, grinding game. Houston plays that style at times and that was their approach tonight. We tried to get out and run some but we had mixed success with that, so we wanted to get the ball to Al (Harrington) inside and he delivered for us. If we had one of those Taco Bell deals tonight (which usually means free food if a team scores 100 points), it would have been 80-point chalupa night the way both teams were playing. Our guys played hard tonight, they really did. It's a struggle at times and sometimes it looks like we are playing to keep both teams in the game at the same time, but the intentions are good. I hope that we get to a point where we don't make the game so hard on ourselves."

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

Some of Carlisle's comments from his postgame standup pertained less to this game and more to the general state of the Pacers. A lot of what is said in these sessions does not make it to newspaper game recaps that are written on deadlines (and may have limitations in length) but I thought that these remarks should not be left on the cutting room floor, so to speak:

"We're in a situation right now where we have to have a balance with our movement game, our pick and roll game and our postup game. The thing that hurts us is when we get in a gray area where we are not really running anything and we are not in transition. That's what we're fighting right now and it's a battle worth fighting and when we get to the point where we can make those transitions smoothly the game won't be as difficult for us."

Carlisle chose to start little used rookie Shawne Williams in O'Neal's spot, explaining that he wanted to change his rotation as little as possible; also, continuing to bring Danny Granger off the bench allowed the second unit to retain its firepower. He made it clear, though, that he is looking at more than just this game:

"We're at a point now in evaluating our entire situation in which I have to look at what is best for this team, long term. I told the guys today that in the next three games--including tonight--that we have to make a statement with the group that is (currently) starting or otherwise I'm going to look to go in a different direction (obviously, he said this to the team before realizing that O'Neal would not be able to start) because the consistency hasn't been there and there may be a way--there is a way--to look at a different lineup situation that may help develop our roster to make us a better team come March and April. That is something that I have be aware of in my position...That's where we are: the effort is inconsistent and the carelessness and some of the other things--you have to take a hard look at that and say, 'What is best for this franchise? What is best for the ownership and our fans?' One of the things that I am looking at is that a guy like Shawne Williams can help this team. He is probably our best athlete--he and Granger are probably our two best athletes. He is a live body; he can shoot the ball. We are going to look for opportunities for him to play--and then he has to earn the minutes when he is in there. Something like this (starting Williams) can help deepen our team a little bit and we're looking to do that because we are not just looking to win a game today but we're looking to compete in the East and that's not based on just putting five guys out there who look like they should be the starters. There could be a more complex formula to that."

Asked about how the team is doing this season compared to how he expected the Pacers to do, Carlisle replied: "All things considered, we're OK. We're a couple games above .500, we've had a murderous schedule that really doesn't get any easier until February and we've had our franchise player (O'Neal) miss some games. I'm not upset about where we are and overall our effort has been good but you have got to look to maximize your situation and that's what I'm doing. I'm looking at this thing very closely and the best formula for us to win may not be starting the five best players. It may be something else where the pieces fit together a little differently. We're going to look at it through the month and see where we are. If Jermaine can come back on Friday, then of course we'll start him. If not, maybe we'll start Shawne and maybe we'll start someone else...The business of winning games in this league is a dead serious business and I don't mind making the hard decisions if my gut tells me it's right. Right now, I'm looking at this very closely."

Williams shot 0-2 from the field and grabbed two rebounds in 11:15 of action. It should be noted that on October 5, Carlisle signed a contract extension and was given the additional title of Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations. That is the Pacers' way of making it crystal clear that if the team does not perform up to expectations, this group of players--and not Carlisle--will be held accountable. Carlisle certainly seems to be setting the stage to take one or more of his high profile players out of the starting lineup. Another way to interpret what he said is that the Pacers need to see what the other guys on their roster can do and that if their young, talented players develop then this could clear the way to trade any veterans who are underperforming. It is interesting that Carlisle says that he is not upset with where the team is and yet he has told the players that he is considering changing the starting lineup within the next three games if the starters do not perform with more consistency.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:22 AM

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Monday, December 25, 2006

Wade Drops 40, Heat Rout Listless Lakers

Dwyane Wade led the Miami Heat to a 101-85 victory over Kobe Bryant's L.A. Lakers in a game that has become a Christmas Day fixture for the NBA. Wade had 40 points, 11 assists, four rebounds, four steals and four blocked shots in Miami's first victory this season against a team with a winning record. Wade shot 12-20 from the field and 15-16 from the free throw line. He set the tone from the start with 12 points, five assists and three blocked shots as Miami stormed to a 30-16 lead by the end of the first quarter. Bryant, who led the Lakers with 16 points, scored just two in the first period, shooting 0-6 from the field; he shot 4-17 for the game, shot 8-9 from the free throw line and tied for the team lead with four assists. The Lakers shot just 31-79 (.392) as a team, while the Heat shot 34-66 (.515); those numbers--and Miami's 45-31 rebounding advantage--are the key statistics from the game.

The Heat went through a stretch of over six minutes during the second quarter when they did not make a field goal but still led by seven because the Lakers' offense was almost equally inept. Throughout the game, Miami would build up a double digit lead, then make some careless plays that allowed the Lakers to creep closer before rebuilding another double digit lead. Miami led 47-40 at halftime. Wade outscored Bryant 16-4, but neither shot particularly well from the field: 3-7 for Wade, 1-9 for Bryant. The difference was that Wade got to the free throw line and converted his opportunities. Wade had five assists, while Bryant had four.

Bryant's best scoring stretch of the game happened early in the third quarter, when he scored six points in 3:21. Wade had four during that same span and Dorell Wright made a jumper, so the Heat were still up by seven. A Luke Walton layup brought the Lakers to within five but they would get no closer than that the rest of the way. Miami led 74-64 at the end of the quarter. Miami began pulling away in the fourth quarter, let the Lakers get within eight points a couple times, and then sealed the deal with three Jason Kapono three pointers in the last three minutes.

Naturally, the Bryant-Wade matchup attracts more attention than any other aspect of this game. Wade clearly got the better of things because his team won the game and his statistics were obviously superior but the most interesting thing about the matchup is that it was not really a matchup--Dorell Wright and Gary Payton took turns guarding Bryant and sometimes Miami played a zone. Wade did guard Bryant on a few trips down the court but not for sustained periods. The Lakers started each half with Luke Walton guarding Wade while Bryant guarded Wright but for a substantial portion of the game Bryant was the primary defender on Wade; later in the game, Maurice Evans served as the primary defender on Wade. So, based on Wade's numbers that must mean that Wade scorched Bryant, right? Not exactly. Wade got off to his fast start in the first quarter when he was being guarded primarily by Walton (to be fair, some of his points came in transition or after switches); Evans did not enjoy much success as the primary defender, either. When Bryant was Wade's primary defender, the Heat freed Wade with well executed screen and roll plays that the Lakers ineptly defended throughout the game. Kwame Brown in particular seemed clueless about where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do after Bryant had been screened. Wade made some fantastic shots throughout the game; he got to his high percentage areas and he converted at an excellent rate. For most of the game, the Lakers used single coverage on Wade and did not double him until he got into the lane; they tried to trap the screen and rolls (with little success) but only to slow Wade until his primary defender could catch up. Most of the points that Wade scored when Bryant was the primary defender came on botched screen and roll coverages. Wade hit a couple shots over Bryant without the benefit of a screen and drew some fouls against him as well. Wade also stole the ball from Bryant just after Bryant caught a careless pass and converted a fast break layup with the trailing Bryant trying in vain to catch him from behind. Bottom line: Bryant did not shut Wade down but he did not do a bad job against him either. If a coach or scout graded the game tape, most of Wade's points would be charged to other primary defenders or to faulty screen/roll coverage.

At the other end of the court, Bryant rarely saw Wade and rarely saw single coverage. Wright or Payton took the primary responsibility but as soon as Bryant had the ball anywhere past midcourt, either on a fast break or in a half court set, the Heat sent two or even three defenders his way, forcing him to give up the ball. Bryant forced a couple shots but for the most part his attempts came within the flow of the game and were from his high percentage areas; he just did not make a lot of them. Miami obviously had a game plan designed to force the other Lakers to make shots and the Lakers struggled mightily to do so, particularly from three point range (5-23, .217). A sequence that happened with about a minute left in the first half typifies how the Heat defended against Bryant. After he received a dribble handoff from Ronny Turiaf at the elbow, a typical initiation of the triangle offense, the Heat double teamed him and forced him to the left baseline. He broke the trap with a crisp crosscourt pass to a wide open Vladimir Radmanovic, who shot a three pointer as Wright ran to contest his attempt. Radmanovic missed the shot, but Turiaf dove to the hoop, filling the spot vacated by Wright, grabbed the rebound and scored (if Turiaf had not gotten the rebound, Bryant would have, because he cut straight to the hoop after passing the ball; if you listened closely you could actually hear Turiaf scream, "I got it," after which Bryant retreated to get back on defense as Turiaf put the ball through the hoop). Bryant receives no credit in the boxscore for Turiaf's basket, but that breakdown in the Heat's defensive rebounding was created by the need to double team Bryant and his effective pass out of the trap. That is how a great player makes his team and his teammates better even when he doesn't score, even in a game when he is shooting poorly (he still must be trapped or, lo and behold, he might not continue shooting poorly) and even on a play when he does not receive an assist (Wade, of course, does the same thing when he is trapped). Sadly for the Lakers, most of Bryant's passes out of double teams resulted in missed shots that they did not successfully rebound.

The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child; it takes teamwork to guard a superstar and even when the superstar is held in check there are opportunities for his teammates to make shots. On some nights when Bryant's teammates are shooting poorly he is able to shoulder the burden and score even against trapping defenses but on this night he did not do that.

The misleading thing about this game is that it neither represented how either of these teams has performed so far this season nor did it tell us much about how they will do after O'Neal and Odom return to action. Even with the win, Miami is just 13-14, treading water in a weak Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Lakers are 18-10, far better than what most people expected. Miami may become a dangerous team if O'Neal returns to action in time and the Lakers surely miss the multi-talented Odom. Although this game did not tell us much about the teams it was a tremendous platform for Wade to remind everyone that he has earned all of the accolades that he received in the past year.

***Notes***

ABC's NBA Nation pregame show got off to a flying start with a Dan Patrick moderated discussion between Mark Jackson and Mike Wilbon about Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Jackson reiterated the statement that he made about Bryant last year: "Kobe Bryant, when it's all said and done, will be the best basketball player to ever play this game." Patrick seemed a bit stunned (or bemused). Jackson continued, "Kobe Bryant is not playing Dwyane Wade; he's playing against history. Wilt Chamberlain was told that he was just a one man show, (then he) went out and led the league in assists. Michael Jordan was just an offensive player--well, he made the All-Defensive First Team nine times. Kobe Bryant was told that he was just a selfish guy looking to score; now he is the consummate teammate and a big brother to his cast."

Wilbon disagreed: "I would take the guy who just won a championship. Why wouldn't you take Wade? I think that the one thing that may separate them is that Wade is so natural with his teammates. Kobe's been better (with that) this year but it's been an effort...I would take Dwyane Wade (over Kobe Bryant), narrowly."

Jackson responded, "I love Dwyane Wade but I'm taking Kobe Bryant." Anticipating that this is not a popular stance to take, he added, "I'm taking my phone off the hook."

I have written more than once that Bryant is the best all-around player in the game today and that he is the current player who is most similar to Michael Jordan but saying that Bryant will become the greatest basketball player ever is a bit farther than I'm willing to go. As for the Bryant-Wade comparison, I don't get Wilbon's argument about choosing the guy who just won. Bryant already won three NBA titles in a row. Granted, he did not win a Finals MVP but he made major contributions to those teams as an All-NBA player and an All-Defensive Team performer who hit many key shots and made many key stops in those championship runs. He also led those teams in assists, so it's not like he just learned how to play team ball, either.

One way to look at this is to consider for a moment the game plans prepared by the Lakers' Phil Jackson and the Heat's Pat Riley, two of the best coaches ever. Neither is particularly fond of double teaming because of how it can break the defense down and wreak havoc with defensive rebounding. Riley chose to shadow Bryant with multiple defenders whenever Bryant had the ball at his offensive end of the court and Riley rarely used Wade as the primary defender. This strategy indicates that Riley does not think that one defender can contain Bryant and/or that he does not believe that the other Lakers can make open shots. The Lakers primarily went with single coverage on Wade; their biggest breakdowns happened on screen and roll plays, with their big men not being properly positioned. Kwame Brown and Ronny Turiaf are young players whose games have developed under Jackson's tutelage but there is still room for more progress. Despite Bryant and the Lakers having a poor shooting night, the Lakers were still within eight points as late as the 7:16 mark of the fourth quarter. In the endless debate of Chamberlain versus Russell, one thing that Chamberlain used to always point out was that he guarded Russell one on one, while Russell often had help guarding Chamberlain. Chamberlain liked to point to old photos that showed two or three Celtics in close proximity to him when he had the ball. Wade is obviously a great player and he is often double teamed and trapped as well but when you watch a Lakers game Bryant often has two guys on him, with players three, four and five waiting in the wings. The Chicago Bulls used this approach in their recent win over the Lakers. Obviously, it would be more difficult for teams to load up on Bryant if Lamar Odom were playing but even when Odom is on the court teams tend to guard Bryant this way. There are 81 reasons that teams guard Bryant this way--and, contrary to conventional "wisdom," none of those reasons have to do with Bryant refusing to pass the ball, because he is a willing and excellent passer out of the trap. What he needs more than anything is a Steve Kerr or Robert Horry type player who could feast on open weak side three pointers.

posted by David Friedman @ 10:28 PM

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Follow the Leader: LeBron Scores 19 Fourth Quarter Points, Carries Cavs to Win Over Magic

LeBron James outscored the Orlando Magic 19-18 in the fourth quarter and carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to an 86-83 victory at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night. James finished with a game-high 32 points but he only had nine points in the first half and 19 points with 4:04 left in the game. He then scored all 13 of the Cavs' points from that point until just 19.2 seconds remained, singlehandedly taking the Cavs from a 73-72 deficit to an 85-78 lead. Along the way, James became the youngest player in NBA history to score 7000 career points. Zydrunas Ilgauskas contributed a season-high 22 points for Cleveland, 18 of them in the first half. Drew Gooden was the third Cavalier to score in double figures (14 points, 12 rebounds). Dwight Howard paced Orlando with 17 points and 13 rebounds. The Southeast Division-leading Magic once had the best record in the Eastern Conference but they have now lost two in a row and seven of their last 10, dropping them to third in the Eastern Conference, mere percentage points ahead of the Cavs, who snapped a three game losing streak.

Who would have guessed that Ilgauskas would be the early focal point of the offense? Anyone who listened to Coach Mike Brown's pregame standup--in a performance worthy of the best fortune tellers, he told the assembled media: "We can definitely do a better job of getting him the ball on the low post...if he's right around the 15-17 shot mark, that's where he should be...We need to get him the ball and he needs to be aggressive."

Coach Brown also addressed what the Cavaliers must do to become a more consistent team: "One of the things is just focus--to focus a little bit better. The second thing is to bring effort. The last thing is that we want to make sure that we are trying to defend and that we are trying to cover for one another...we have to rely on each other and trust that our teammates are going to be there to cover up any mistake that an individual makes."

Orlando rode strong starts by Howard (7 points) and Grant Hill to take a 25-21 lead after the first quarter. The teams battled to a 19-19 standstill in the second quarter. After Coach Brown suggested that Ilgauskas should be getting 15-17 shots, the 7-3 center took care of that in the first half alone, shooting 7-15, many of the attempts coming on taps and tip ins; he had five offensive rebounds. No one else on either team attempted more than nine shots. James was a quiet 3-6 from the field and 3-7 from the free throw line for nine points. He had two rebounds, one assist and three turnovers and did not have the impact that he typically does. Howard already had a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) at intermission. Orlando shot .459 from the field while Cleveland shot just .356 but the Cavaliers grabbed 10 more offensive rebounds and converted on enough of those extra possessions to only trail 44-40.

In the third quarter, the trends that developed in the first half continued: Orlando shot acceptably (.467), Cleveland shot poorly (.381) and Cleveland obtained extra shot attempts by crashing the offensive boards. The Cavs outscored the Magic 22-21 but still trailed 65-62 heading into the final period.

The Cavaliers stayed close throughout the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter, until James made the difference with his tremendous closing surge. At halftime, a pessimistic Clevelander asked me what reason is there to believe that the Cavs are better than the Magic since Cleveland trailed at halftime on their home court. I offered two thoughts: (1) the Cavs did not look like a worse team than the Magic, they just went through a half in which they shot poorly; (2) the Cavs have a superstar who can carry them down the stretch in a close game but the Magic lack such a player (Howard is a blossoming stud on the boards but still has not completely developed his low post offensive game--when he does, the rest of the league better look out). I suggested that even in what seemed to be a poor outing for James he could still end up with 25-30 points and make the decisive plays down the stretch. Sure enough, James answered the bell in the clutch and showed the difference between a superstar and an All-Star.

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

A sizable contingent of Duke fans showed up to cheer Orlando rookie J.J. Redick. It's a good thing that they showed up early, though, because the only shots he took happened during warmups; he received a DNP-CD (Did Not Play-Coach's Decision), which figures to happen in most close games this year in which Orlando is not shorthanded. The Magic spent a lottery pick to acquire a player who is not better at his best skill (shooting) than a second round pick (Travis Diener) who was already on their roster. Diener gets the spare minutes at guard that do not go to starters Jameer Nelson and Grant Hill and primary reserves Carlos Arroyo and Keyon Dooling. Prior to Saturday's game, Redick spent 15 games on the inactive list, received eight DNP-CDs and played in just four games, averaging 3.4 ppg. After he completed his warmups, he jogged off the court and went straight to the locker room without stopping to even acknowledge his fans, let alone sign any autographs. My advice: enjoy having fans in NBA arenas while you can and don't take this opportunity for granted. I wonder how many Duke fans show up to watch Trajan Langdon play for CSKA Moscow?

In contrast to Redick's behavior, Orlando's Howard--who had an equal or greater number of fans at the game--spent several minutes greeting fans and signing autographs. He bent over and signed a basketball for a little kid who barely came up to his kneecaps. I don't know if he signed something for every single fan--that probably is not possible when you are that popular--but he signed a lot of items.

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Everyone on Orlando seems to have his own workout routine. Redick and Diener fired jumpers, mainly from 17-18 feet and beyond. Grant Hill started with short shots, then jumpers and then free throws; his routine reminded me a little of Michael Jordan's--minus the turnaround jumpers from the elbows--and a little of Reggie Miller's--minus the large number of three pointers. Several of the big men--including Howard, Darko Milicic, Bo Outlaw and James Augustine--worked on post moves against Assistant Coach Mark Bryant, a former player who I like to call the hardest working assistant in the league. He works up as much of a sweat as some of the players.

Hedo Turkoglu, who is day to day with a sprained ankle and was placed on the inactive list for Saturday's game, found a way to keep his shooting eye sharp without using his ankle. Lying on the floor outside the three point line on the right baseline, he banked in a three pointer. His next attempt from the same spot rimmed in and out. If the NBA revives the old "Horse" games at halftime, I think he is ready.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:46 AM

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World B. Free: From Rucker Park to the NBA Finals

World B. Free never met a shot he didn’t like or couldn’t make, whether he was playing in the streets or on an NBA court. He earned his name in Rucker Park and he earned his fame by helping the 1977 Philadelphia 76ers make it to the NBA Finals, battling George Gervin for scoring titles and revitalizing the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise in the dark days of the early-mid 1980s. Here is a link to my article about the 6-3 guard who was also known as the "Prince of Mid-Air" because of his incredible jumping ability:

World B. Free: From Rucker Park to the NBA Finals

posted by David Friedman @ 12:17 AM

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