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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Rush, Rush: Pacers Rally From Seven Point Deficit to Freeze the Heat

The Indiana Pacers trailed the Miami Heat 82-75 with just 3:17 remaining but scored 12 straight points to escape with an 87-85 victory, Indiana's 11th straight win over Miami at Conseco Fieldhouse. Kareem Rush, who shot 0-2 from the field in the first three quarters, nailed back to back three pointers in a 36 second span to tie the game and then give Indiana an 85-82 lead. Rush is an aptly named player for a Jim O'Brien-coached team that wants to play an uptempo game and he also brings to the table a skill set that O'Brien loves: the ability to make three pointers. O'Brien told reporters before the game that he will never bench a player who has missed five shots in a row "as long as he is willing to take the sixth" but that he will sit down a player in a heartbeat if he fails to attempt an open shot. Rush has obviously completely bought in to that philosophy, saying after the game, "The gun is always loaded. If I'm open I'm going to take the shot. I knew we needed threes when I came in, so I came in firing. That's what they've got me here for."

Danny Granger led Indiana with 25 points and nine rebounds. He is thriving so far under O'Brien, averaging 22.5 ppg in two wins while shooting 17-30 from the field (.567). Ike Diogu had a strong performance off the bench (16 points, six rebounds) and Mike Dunleavy added 15 points. Jermaine O'Neal, who missed the first game of the season due to a knee injury, fouled out in only 24 minutes and showed his rust on offense (10 points on 2-9 shooting) but he contributed in many other ways, including nine rebounds, a career-high tying seven assists, three blocked shots and two steals. The Pacers blocked 13 shots, tying the team's Conseco Fieldhouse record and setting a single-game high in the young NBA season. Rookie guard Daequan Cook, making his first appearance in a regular season NBA game, led Miami with 17 points, shooting 7-12 from the field (including 3-4 from three point range) while also having five rebounds and three assists. Ricky Davis scored 13 points on 5-13 shooting but at least he chased after his misses, grabbing a career-high 14 rebounds. Shaquille O'Neal had his second consecutive double-single (eight points, seven rebounds) before fouling out with 5:26 remaining. The Heat led 76-74 at that point and, although Heat Coach Pat Riley said after the game that the team missed O'Neal's presence down the stretch, Miami went on a 6-1 run to take their biggest lead of the game right after he departed. O'Neal shot 4-13 from the field and committed six turnovers.

Indiana took a 12-4 lead to open the game but Miami rallied to tie the score at 22 before Diogu's layup gave the Pacers a 24-22 advantage at the end of the first quarter. Cook put his stamp on the game in the second quarter, scoring nine points on 4-5 shooting as Miami went up by as many as seven points. Indiana closed the quarter with a 12-4 run, capped off by two Granger three pointers, including one at the buzzer that gave Indiana a 48-47 halftime lead.

Miami took a quick 54-50 lead early in the third quarter but Indiana tied the score on Granger's three pointer at the 6:53 mark. Granger then hit another three pointer and Indiana stayed in front for the rest of the quarter. Neither team led by more than three points in the fourth quarter until the Heat made their mini-run right after O'Neal fouled out and then Rush responded with his dagger three pointers. Granger hit a jumper to put Indiana up 87-82 with just under 41 seconds left. Davis closed out the scoring with a three pointer from halfcourt just before the final buzzer sounded.

O'Brien was understandably happy with his team's effort, saying in his postgame standup, "People who don't believe this group is never going to give up should have been here. The harder you work, the more difficult it is to surrender. Larry (Bird) did a great job getting us some quality depth...he improved the team greatly."

Riley summed up the loss simply: "When it gets real, real, real competitive in two or three minute spurts, we won a number of them tonight and then at the end when it got real competitive they won the last one--a 10-0 run."

Cook was pleased, but not surprised, by his performance: "I felt great and I took advantage of my opportunity, like I've been saying for a while now...I've been working hard and coach told me, 'Always be ready and just bring energy.' That's what I did tonight. I was ready just like I was ready last night, whether I played or not."

After Miami's loss to Detroit in the season opener, O'Neal complained that he did not get the ball enough in the post. I asked O'Neal if he was satisfied with the number of touches he got versus the Pacers and he replied, "It was OK--13 shots and I missed nine of them, so I was satisfied with the touches I got tonight. I just have to continue to take high percentage shots and just hit them."

While O'Neal had no complaints, point guard Jason Williams provided a strong indication that Miami's team chemistry is less than optimal. Asked to describe how the team adjusted after O'Neal fouled out, Williams instead offered this general comment about the game: "We played selfish as a team tonight. We played selfish. It's pretty self explanatory." Someone asked if he thought that the Heat gave the game away. Williams answered, "I don't think we give away anything. They might have took it more than we gave it away." Williams also said that he is not worried about the team's long losing streak (which includes the entire preseason plus being swept 4-0 by the Bulls in last year's playoffs) but rather is focused on the Heat's next game. His body language communicated how negatively he feels about the team's situation but before anyone could ask further questions a Miami Heat p.r. person thanked the media, which essentially means, "interview over."

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Notes From Courtside:

In his pregame standup, O'Brien was asked what has been the most pleasant surprise for him since taking the Indiana job. He answered, "Overall, I've been really happy with the work ethic that our guys have had from day one...We put them through a lot of pain preparing for the kind of tempo that we play and our attitude has been just fantastic. I have a group of guys who work hard together and really enjoy being around one another...I think that this team, if we can string some wins together, will maybe start believing that we are a little bit better than people think we are."

The only thing that he did not like about the team's season opening win against the Wizards was the number of first quarter turnovers: "The rest of the game, we did a good job of taking care of the basketball. When we run, that is no excuse for being lazy with your passes and throwing the basketball all over the place. We need to keep our turnovers down." There are a couple other areas that he also monitors to guard against slippage: "We need to start keeping our opponents off the foul line...and I always look for consistent (fast) tempo. Only in the (preseason) game against Memphis did we run for four quarters."

O'Brien also explained his philosophy for guarding Shaquille O'Neal: "We don't want him to get deep catches. If he gets deep, the ideal--and this is easier said than done--would be to get around and front him. That's hard to do. We will play him mostly one on one tonight. If he gets the ball out of the paint and starts to back his way in then we will come after him." Indiana stuck with this plan, validating my observation that O'Neal's skills have declined to the point that teams can get away with not double-teaming him in certain situations. He is still a huge, physical force but he is no longer an explosive jumper, nor does he move well laterally, so his force is confined to a narrow area. Teams can guard him one on one unless he is so close to the basket that he can just turn and dunk the ball. Otherwise, it takes him so long to maneuver into the paint now that he is very prone to turning the ball over or committing an offensive foul; that extra time he spends backing down also leaves him vulnerable to guards swiping down and stealing the ball. He used to be so quick that if he was not doubled immediately on the catch that he could score at will.

O'Brien has a simple and direct way to convince his players to not be afraid to shoot open shots: "You tell each individual during practice one time after he passes up a shot that if ever he does it again you'll yank him. They immediately know that we want them to take open shots. We don't want any surprises. If you get open and you're a shooter, shoot the basketball. If you pass up an open shot early in the shot clock then all of a sudden you're up against the end of the shot clock struggling to get a good shot. From my standpoint, you have to take the first open look that you can get but you have to make sure that it's an open look; you don't want to take a bad shot early in the shot clock."

***

Cook played his high school basketball for Dayton (Ohio) Dunbar but he has received some bizarre coverage from the local newspaper, the Dayton Daily News, which ran an article before the NBA draft asserting that scouts "question everything about him, including his ability to understand the game." The truth is that scouts raved about his athletic ability and his shooting skills. That same piece suggested that the term "stat-stuffer" has negative connotations, when in fact it refers to a player who can fill up several box score categories. Just before the season, the DDN suggested that Cook may be headed to the NBA Development League, so I can hardly wait to see their story about this game. As the saying goes, don't believe everything you read in the newspaper.

***

I asked an NBA scout to offer an off the record opinion about Miami's acquisition of Ricky Davis and Smush Parker. "They are desperate to bring in athletic talent," he explained. Davis can score but he also takes a lot of bad shots--some of which he makes. He added that, like Davis, Parker is a good athlete. "He needs to settle down and use his head" during games: "All he has to do is listen to Riley and use his athletic ability to do whatever Riley tells him to do." I countered that this sounds fine in theory but that Parker did not heed Phil Jackson's counsel so why would anyone think that he's going to listen to Riley? It's not like Parker was disobeying a fledgling coach who no one respects. My source conceded that since Parker did not respect Jackson's nine rings he may also not respect Riley's five rings. Riley found a good solution for the Parker problem, at least for one night: Parker received the dreaded DNP-CD (Did Not Play--Coach's Decision).

posted by David Friedman @ 2:57 AM

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At Saturday, November 03, 2007 6:51:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

In a time when teams hold the ball while the shot clock ticks down, struggling to score 100 points while coaches try to control every aspect of the game from the bench, O'Brien's philosophy is refreshing.

 
At Saturday, November 03, 2007 10:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The players feel the same way. It is important to understand that while O'Brien will not yank players for missing shots, he will yank them for not playing defense. His system does not just involve running up and down the court; O'Brien stresses the importance of playing good defense. The East is deeper now than in recent seasons but O'Brien believes that he can take the Pacers to the playoffs this year.

 

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