20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

LeBron's First Triple Double of the Season is not Enough as the Cavs Fall to Denver

Marcus Camby led Denver with 26 points and 17 rebounds as the Nuggets built a 25 point second half lead, held off a late rally and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 110-99. Allen Iverson had 25 points and nine assists. LeBron James had his first triple double of the season--and the 10th of his career--but his 30 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds were not enough to prevent the Cavs from losing their third straight game on their Western Conference road trip. Cleveland is just 8-13 on the road and slipped into a tie with Washington for the best record in the Eastern Conference (23-16). Denver is treading water at 19-17, hoping to make a move up in the standings when league scoring leader Carmelo Anthony returns from his 15 game suspension.

Although the Cavs have the best record in the East and are one game ahead of their pace from last season, they are experiencing two of the NBA's unpleasant realities: (1) after last year's playoff run they have a target on their backs and can no longer sneak up on anyone; (2) they are expected to do well and their performances--as a team and as individual players--will be closely scrutinized. Granted, the Cavs did not look good for most of the Denver game, nor did they play well in their previous two losses but if you listened to ESPN's Bill Walton and Jon Barry you'd think that the Cavs are having as bad a season as, say, the L.A. Clippers (anybody still think that they are the best team in L.A.?). Here are some of Walton and Barry's bon mots from throughout the Denver game:

* The Cavs are "lackluster." (Barry)
* "Where's the spunk, where's the leadership?" (Walton)
* The Cavs "look absolutely demoralized." (Walton)
* The Cavs play "like there is no direction out there." (Barry)
* This Cleveland team "is in shambles." (Barry)

Guys, this is one game. Even the 1996 Bulls team that went 72-10 got blown out once or twice in the course of the season. Mike Tirico tried to be a voice of reason, asking, "Don't (teams) go through stretches like this during a season?" Walton replied that it is LeBron James' responsibility to prevent that from happening. That sounds great, but James ended up with a triple double and his team still lost; one man cannot do everything on a basketball court--otherwise, Jordan would have won about 12 titles and Kobe's Lakers would not have missed the playoffs two years ago. I do think that the Cavs need to focus better, particularly on the road and particularly against lesser teams, but I don't agree with the many commentators who seem to think that the sky is falling on top of the Cavs.

If the Cavs were truly "lackluster" and devoid of "leadership" then they would not have trimmed Denver's 80-55 lead to 103-98 with 3:15 left in the fourth quarter. Cleveland battled back on the road to turn a rout into a very winnable game. Moments before that, James' right ankle was twisted grotesquely when he dove for a loose ball and his leg got pinned underneath J.R. Smith's leg, but James missed only eight seconds on the game clock before he returned to action. "Lackluster" teams surrender to pressure but playoff caliber teams keep fighting--even on nights when their shots are not falling. Two years ago, Cleveland would have probably lost this game by 20 or 30.

That does not mean that all is well in Cleveland, though. Coach Mike Brown is trying to mold his team into a defensive-minded squad, so he cannot be happy that the Cavs trailed 64-45 at halftime. Denver shot .506 from the field for the game while the Cavs shot just .422; Brown no doubt would like to see those numbers reversed.

Early last season, Cavs Assistant Coach Hank Egan told me that it takes one entire season plus part of the next season to completely install a defensive philosophy and to get a team to be able to execute it. The Cavs' first round win over Washington and second round scare of Detroit in the 2006 playoffs may have made it seem that they had progressed a little further than they really had in terms of being able to implement the coaching staff's philosophies consistently under pressure; the blowout loss on the road to Detroit in game seven is proof of that and the same thing is true of last year's young Lakers team. If the Cavs and the Lakers are able to avoid key injuries down the stretch, expect to see things "click" for both teams in the second half of this season and in the playoffs.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM

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Detroit and Minnesota Work Overtime--Twice--Before Pistons Prevail

The Detroit Pistons needed two overtimes--and the ejection of the rebounding machine known as Kevin Garnett--to escape from Minnesota with a 104-98 win. Richard Hamilton led the Pistons with 26 points, adding seven rebounds (including four on the offensive glass) and five assists. Chauncey Billups had 25 points and eight assists; he scored 16 of Detroit's 26 fourth quarter points. Chris Webber contributed 16 points (8-12 field goal shooting), seven rebounds and four assists in his first start with his new team. Mark Blount led Minnesota with 22 points and he also had 15 rebounds. Garnett had a game-high 19 rebounds but shot just 4-13 from the field, finishing with 14 points. He was ejected in the fourth quarter after an altercation with reserve forward Antonio McDyess, who was also thrown out of the game. Garnett had more rebounds than Detroit's five starters at the time he was tossed.

Webber got off to a good start, making three of his first four shots and dishing two assists in the first six minutes as the teams played to a 12-12 standoff. Minnesota had a 21-20 lead at the end of the first quarter.

In the second quarter, aliens from outer space used a force field to prevent the ball from going into the hoop. OK, you come up with a better explanation for Minnesota scoring four points and Detroit scoring two points in more than four minutes of "action." Neither team produced a point between the 10:16 and 8:14 marks. When you look at the play by play sheet you can actually hear crickets chirping and see tumbleweeds blowing as if you are watching a camera pan over a ghost town. Eventually, the teams started trading baskets and by the end of the quarter they almost matched the first quarter's output. The game was tied at 39 at halftime after Garnett hit a jumper just before time expired, only his second field goal of the half.

The third quarter was a lot like the second quarter. Minnesota hit a couple free throws to take the lead, then Tayshaun Prince tied the game with a jumper at the 11:06 mark. Then the aliens returned and no one scored until Hamilton's runner with 8:57 left in the period. Minnesota's offense was so horrible that when the Timberwolves took a 52-51 lead on Blount's layup with 3:26 left, ESPN's Tom Tolbert joked, "That's been their best play--an offensive rebound by Garnett and a feed to Blount." Minnesota led 58-53 by the end of the third period.

The Timberwolves pushed their advantage to 61-53 early in the fourth quarter but then Billups decided to participate in the proceedings, scoring 10 points in three minutes as Detroit pulled to within 67-65. Hamilton's runner tied the score at 70 with 5:18 remaining. That is when Garnett decided to prove how tough he is and probably cost his team the game. While Hamilton's shot was dropping through the hoop, McDyess delivered a forearm to Mark Madsen's sternum. Garnett pushed McDyess in the back to express his disapproval and when McDyess wheeled around, Garnett--clearly trained in the Carmelo Anthony fighting school--threw the ball at McDyess, hitting him in the chest, put up his fists like he was ready for anything and then backpedalled so fast you would have sworn he was wearing roller skates. Supposedly, this shows how much he was "standing up" for Madsen. In reality, it led to his ejection (and a possible suspension if the NBA decides that he threw a punch) with nearly half of the fourth quarter remaining to be played in a tie game. Do great players sometimes throw punches/get ejected? Yes, of course, but they don't usually do it late in a tie game. When the knucklehead from the San Diego Chargers headbutted a New England Patriot, the Patriot in question did not feel compelled to throw a punch and then run away like a school girl. He just stood there and kept his composure as the officials called the penalty. Yes, it's an emotional game, but that does not mean that you have to take complete leave of your senses. The McDyess-Madsen incident was not that severe and it was already over; Madsen did not need to be defended and, if he did, there is always an opportunity to deliver a hard foul later in the game and to do it in a way that you don't get ejected. As McDyess aptly put it after the game, "I know they can win without me. I don't think they can win without K.G."

Detroit took a brief 76-73 lead but rookie Randy Foye made a layup and assisted on two other baskets down the stretch as Minnesota caught up and forced the game into overtime. Fittingly, neither team scored in the last 1:16 of regulation after Hamilton's jumper tied the game at 79.

Foye scored nine points in the first overtime and Mike James hit a miracle three pointer with the shot clock running down to give Minnesota an 89-86 lead with 13.8 seconds left. Wallace missed a three pointer but--with Garnett in the locker room--Hamilton, not a noted rebounder, grabbed the offensive board and brought Detroit to within 89-88. Foye made two free throws and Detroit had one last chance with 5.5 seconds left. Inexplicably, Minnesota neither committed a foul nor did they guard the three point line; the Timberwolves made sure that they did not give up two points and instead presented Billups with a wide open three pointer from the top of the key, which he drained to tie the game at 91.

Wallace opened the second overtime with a baseline jumper and Detroit never looked back, outscoring Minnesota 13-7. Wallace scored six of the 13 points and Minnesota did not make a field goal until more than four minutes had passed.

***Notes***

The Timberwolves were actually missing their top two scorers down the stretch. When Minnesota Coach Dwane Casey took Ricky Davis out of the game in the third quarter, Davis headed straight to the locker room. Eventually, he returned to the bench; player and coach both later claimed that Davis simply had to use the bathroom but Casey never put him back in the game, which understandably attracts attention considering that Davis is the team's second leading scorer--and the team's leading scorer was ejected just past the midway point of the fourth quarter of a game that eventually went into double overtime.

******

Before the game, ESPN's Shootaround crew voiced their opinions about the Webber signing and the state of the Pistons in general. Greg Anthony, Tim Legler and Stephen A. Smith painted a bleak overall picture, noting that Rasheed Wallace is leading the league in technical fouls, Nazr Mohammed--the ostensible replacement for Ben Wallace--has been invisible and the players, while they like Flip Saunders as a person, do not have confidence in his coaching and are gradually tuning him out.

All of that should sound familiar to regular 20 Second Timeout readers, since I have repeatedly said that the Pistons have been heading in reverse ever since Larry Brown and Ben Wallace departed. Rasheed Wallace was a perfect fit when Brown and Big Ben were there to keep him in line but Sheed has no interest in being anything more than a complementary player (which is a shame considering his tremendous skill level); the more that is asked from him, the less he will deliver (other than emotional outbursts, which will increase in direct proportion to his and the team's diminishing success). The idea that Mohammed could replace Ben Wallace's defense and rebounding with his allegedly superior offense is, quite simply, absurd. Ben Wallace is a better offensive player than Mohammed--a better passer, a better offensive rebounder and a better screener; there is more to playing offense than just scoring, not that Mohammed is such a great scorer anyway. Webber has basically fallen into Detroit's lap and Joe Dumars is surely hoping and praying that C. Webb plays well enough that observers don't focus on how foolish it was to replace Big Ben with Negligible Nazr.

As for Webber's possible impact, the Shootaround guys gave mixed reviews. Anthony believes that Webber can help Detroit to make the Finals. Smith, a Philadelphia writer who got a front row view of Webber during his time with the Sixers, declared, "I just don't see it when it comes to Chris Webber. He can't run and he can't jump." While everyone agrees that Webber's passing skills will help Detroit offensively, Smith noted that Webber is "virtually hopeless" on defense. That, of course, is the real problem. The Pistons won a championship as a hard nosed defensive team, using Larry Brown's system, which was anchored around Ben Wallace's energy, tenacity, rebounding and shot blocking. Now Brown and Wallace are gone and the Pistons are trying to win with offense. Webber will without question help the offense with his passing--and he will score more than Mohammed did--but there is no way that the Pistons will have the same playoff success as an offensive minded team as they did when they were a defensive minded team. If the Phoenix Suns can't win a title with offense, this Pistons team--which needed two extra sessions to crack 100 points against a mediocre Minnesota team--surely will not do so either.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:21 AM

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Friday, January 19, 2007

NBA Leaderboard, Part VII

The Mavericks are pulling away from the rest of the league, the Lakers are moving up in the standings without Lamar Odom and the Utah Jazz are probably making their last appearance in the top five. Detroit is on pace to win 18 fewer games than last year; Chicago, after the annual slow start as a result of the "circus" road trip, is on pace to win six more games than last year and will probably do even better than that (the Bulls got off to a much worse start last year). Those things couldn't have anything to do with Ben Wallace, could they?

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

1) Dallas Mavericks, 33-8
2) Phoenix Suns, 30-8
3) San Antonio Spurs, 27-13
4) L.A. Lakers, 26-14
5) Utah Jazz, 25-14

The Lakers moved ahead of the Utah Jazz and, even after their blowout loss to Dallas, have the fourth best record in the league. The Jazz are 4-6 in their last 10 games and figure to disappear from the top five pretty soon. The Cleveland Cavaliers (23-15) still have the best record in the Eastern Conference but six Western Conference teams have better records than they do. The Orlando Magic once had the second best record in the league but are now second in their division behind Washington.

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

1) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 31.6 ppg
2) Gilbert Arenas, WSH 29.9 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 29.4 ppg
4) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.1 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 27.9 ppg

7) LeBron James, CLE 26.8 ppg

9) Yao Ming, HOU 25.9 ppg

11) Vince Carter, NJN 25.2 ppg

16) Tracy McGrady, HOU 22.8 ppg

Agent Zero's averaged dropped by .6 ppg but he maintained control over the second position. Allen Iverson's average seems to have stabilized for now but it will be interesting to see what happens after Carmelo Anthony returns to action. Tracy McGrady moved up another spot, largely on the strength of his recent 45 point performance against Dallas, but his balky back forced him to leave that game early and once again leaves his status in doubt.

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

1) Kevin Garnett, MIN 12.6 rpg
2) Dwight Howard, ORL 12.6 rpg
3) Marcus Camby, DEN 12.1 rpg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.7 rpg
5) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.3 rpg

9) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.3 rpg
10) Ben Wallace, CHI 10.1 rpg

21) Rasheed Wallace, DET 8.6 rpg
22) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.3 rpg

As I predicted, Howard no longer mans the top spot; he is now in a dead heat with Kevin Garnett, but Garnett's numbers have been going up while Howard's have been declining. Marcus Camby is averaging 16.2 rpg in January. Tim Duncan and Ben Wallace are still neck and neck at the bottom of the top ten. Sheed dropped out of the top 20 as some non-qualifiers played in enough games to be listed again. He tied his season-high with 15 rebounds on December 1 but has reached double figures in boards just three times since then. By the way, Ben Wallace's replacement, Nazr Mohammed, ranks 30th--among centers. Mohammed also wants to be traded if newly acquired Chris Webber takes some of his minutes--but Detroit doesn't miss Ben Wallace, right? And they won't miss him even more in the playoffs when the game slows down and defense and rebounding become even more important, right?

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

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.4 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 9.2 apg
3) Chris Paul, NOK 9.0 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 8.7 apg
5) Andre Miller, PHI 8.7 apg

The five top players are still the same, although Williams and Miller switched spots. Baron Davis is just .1 apg behind them, though, so he may move into the top group soon. "Starbury" now ranks 24th with a 5.5 apg average.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

posted by David Friedman @ 6:30 AM

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Mavericks Rout Lakers, 114-95

Prior to Thursday's Lakers-Mavericks game, Charles Barkley declared, "Dallas is gonna beat the Lakers like a drum tonight." Sure enough, the Lakers--fresh off of a hard fought win in San Antonio on Wednesday--were no match for the Mavericks. Dallas shot .545 from the field and grabbed 19 offensive rebounds in a 114-95 win. The Mavericks are 19-1 in their last 20 games and have won six straight since the Lakers beat them 101-98 in L.A., ending Dallas' 13 game winning streak. Josh Howard had 29 points and 11 rebounds and Dirk Nowitzki contributed 27 points and 10 rebounds. Kobe Bryant had 26 points and five assists in defeat.

Before the game, Bryant told TNT's Cheryl Miller that the four keys for the Lakers would be (1) ball movement, (2) crisp offensive execution, (3) keeping the Mavericks off of the boards and (4) limiting turnovers. The Lakers shot just .449, committed 16 turnovers and were outrebounded 53-28--in short, they did not do any of the things that they needed to do to keep the game close, let alone beat the league's best team.

The Lakers kept the game close for most of the first half despite their rebounding problems but once they started turning the ball over in the second half the rout was on; Dallas' 60-48 halftime lead ballooned to 79-57 midway through the third quarter and the Lakers never got closer than 17 points after that.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:49 AM

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Short-Handed Pacers Come up Just Short Versus Miami

The Miami Heat built a 16 point fourth quarter lead and withstood a furious fourth quarter rally to defeat the Indiana Pacers, 104-101. Dwyane Wade had 33 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Danny Granger led the short-handed Pacers with a career-high 28 points. Indiana did not have the services of the recently traded Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson--the team's second and third leading scorers--nor could the Pacers use their newly acquired players because the principals involved in the Indiana-Golden State trade have not yet taken their physicals and joined their new teams.

Miami outplayed Indiana for most of the game but only led 55-49 at halftime. The Pacers stayed close in the first half by shooting 3-6 from three point range (Miami was 0-3) and shooting 6-8 on free throws (Miami was just 3-5). Game analyst Doug Collins observed, "Indiana is a resilient team." That would become even more evident in the fourth quarter. Wade and Granger each led their respective teams with 18 first half points. During TNT's halftime show, Barkley declared, "Indiana will finish with a better record than Cleveland," the team that currently has the best record in the East. Barkley clarified that he does not think that the Pacers will get the top seed; he believes that Cleveland will fall back into the pack down the stretch unless the Cavaliers address their problems at point guard. Smith is not buying that for one second; he expects the Pacers to stay right about where they are now in the standings (currently sixth in the Eastern Conference).

In the third quarter, Miami began to pull away and the Heat led 85-70 at the end of the period. The contest seemed to be heading toward garbage time--but the Pacers are indeed quite resilient and they battled back from an 89-73 deficit at the 9:21 mark of the fourth quarter to pull within 96-91 after Jeff Foster's three point play with 2:28 remaining. Foster is a relentless rebounder, particularly on the offensive glass--he had nine rebounds, including six offensive rebounds, in this game--and his putback and free throw made the Miami fans quite nervous, as evidenced by how quiet the once raucous crowd got after that play. Marquis Daniels cut off Wade's drive and forced him to shoot an airball jumper and the Pacers had a golden opportunity to steal the game--which Collins said would be "grand theft" considering how much Miami had dominated for most of the contest. On Indiana's next possession, Daniels' dribbled the ball off of Alonzo Mourning's foot but only half heartedly pursued the ball as it went into the backcourt; as Collins so aptly put it, he "looked guilty." After the ball rolled out of bounds, the officials blew the call and awarded possession to Miami. Jason Williams' jumper put the Heat up 98-92 and after the Pacers scored he hit another jumper to make the score 100-94. The Pacers still kept scratching and clawing, though, and two Jermaine O'Neal free throws and yet another Foster putback brought them to within 100-98.

The closing seconds proved to be quite frenetic. Two Wade free throws pushed the lead to four but a Shawne Williams three pointer wiped out most of that margin. With only 13 seconds left, it was obvious that the Pacers had to foul but Wade eluded their attempts to grab him as he dribbled the ball. As he got close to the hoop, it looked like a Pacer fouled him and Wade launched a shot, hoping to get a three point play--but no foul was called. Wade made the basket but that provided the Pacers with 4.3 seconds to try to tie the game. He would of course never have shot the ball if he didn't think that he had been fouled and replays showed that he was pushed in the chest. The whole sequence looked very strange. Granger's three point attempt missed as time ran out.

***Notes***

TNT's Charles Barkley likes the recent trade in which Indiana acquired Mike Dunleavy, Ike Diogu, Todd Murphy and Keith McLeod from Golden State for Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson, Sarunas Jasikevicious and Josh Powell. Barkley expects Murphy to return to his previous form as a double-double performer while playing alongside Jermaine O'Neal and believes that Dunleavy and Diogu are better suited for Indiana's playing style than they are for Golden State's. Kenny Smith called this an "Excedrin" trade, saying that the teams basically exchanged headaches. Harrington has complained about his role and Jackson's off court problems have been well documented; Dunleavy, Diogu and Murphy had all fallen out of favor with new Golden State Coach Don Nelson. The outgoing Indiana players have more athletic talent than their replacements but the deal could work out well for both teams.

I think that Indiana got the better end of the deal. I agree with Barkley that Dunleavy and Murphy will blend in well with O'Neal and I think that Diogu is an underrated player who will be very productive for the Pacers.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 AM

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Pro Basketball's 2000 Points Club

Pro basketball's "2000 Points Club" is one of the most elite statistical groupings in sports, as I note in the opening paragraph of my most recent NBCSports.com article:

Scoring 2000 points in an NBA season requires a rare combination of productivity and durability. If a player participates in all 82 games he must average 24.4 ppg to reach this milestone. Every missed game requires an extra .3 ppg to stay on pace for 2000 points. Pro basketball's 2000 point club has operated under these rules for decades, unlike some of the "clubs" in other major sports. For instance, when Jim Brown first rushed for over 1000 yards he did it in a 12 game season, necessitating an average of better than 83 yards per game; today's running backs can crank out 1000 yards in a 16 game season by averaging just 62.5 ypg.

Here is a link to the article:

Pro Basketball's 2000 Points Club

posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Catching Up With...Former Cleveland State Coach Kevin Mackey

The January issue of Basketball Times includes my profile of Kevin Mackey, who achieved national acclaim as Cleveland State's coach when his 14th-seeded Vikings upset Bob Knight's third-seeded Indiana Hoosiers in the 1986 NCAA Tournament. Mackey is currently a scout with the Indiana Pacers. This article is the first installment of a new series in the magazine that is titled "Catching Up With..." Some of you may remember the "Beers With..." profiles in Sport Magazine in the 1980s; "Catching Up With..." is kind of like that, only without the beer, and focusing primarily on individuals who had a great basketball accomplishment but are not necessarily currently in the public eye on a day to day basis now. The article is not available online but here is a link to Basketball Times' website if you would like to purchase the magazine: http://www.basketballtimes.com/

Here is the opening paragraph from the Mackey article:

Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey has always looked for a certain kind of player: “the kid who was passed over, who is talented and maybe has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder—and terrific heart and terrific desire.” Mackey has recruited, coached and/or scouted such players for several decades now, first as a championship winning coach at Don Bosco high school in Boston, then as an assistant coach at Boston College in the early days of the Big East Conference and, most famously, as head coach at Cleveland State University.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:59 AM

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Kobe Bryant Scores 34, Lakers Beat Spurs in San Antonio

Kobe Bryant had 34 points, eight assists and six rebounds as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Spurs 100-96 in San Antonio. Vladimir Radmanovic scored 13 points, making all three of his three pointers. Maurice Evans was the only other Laker to score in double figures (11 points). Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 26 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots, while Tony Parker had 25 points, five rebounds and four assists. Manu Ginobili was silent for most of the game but finished with 16 points after scoring eight points during the Spurs' fourth quarter rally that came up just short.

Bryant helped the Lakers get off to a good start, scoring three points as the Lakers took an early 8-4 lead, but he picked up two quick fouls and had to sit out the last 8:29 of the first quarter. Tony Parker used his speed to dominate the remainder of the first quarter, scoring nine points and collecting two assists as the Spurs went on a 21-11 run to lead 25-19 by the end of the period. The Lakers made just four of their last 16 field goal attempts in the quarter. After one of Parker's driving layups, ESPN's Hubie Brown noted that he was fouled twice on the play (nothing was called). If you wonder why your favorite college player never made it to the NBA, rewind that play and watch it a few times (it put the Spurs up 20-16 at the 2:05 mark). NBA players are tremendously fast and strong and you must be able to absorb contact at the rim and finish the play to be a scorer at that level. When I did my A Scout's-Eye View of the Game article, one of the things that Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey emphasized to me is that the ability to deal with contact is essential for an NBA prospect; no matter how gaudy his college numbers are, if he is unable or unwilling to do that then he will not succeed at the next level.

Bryant returned to action in the second quarter and converted two three point plays. On the first one he drove around Bruce Bowen and made a tough reverse layup; on the second one, Andrew Bynum grabbed an offensive rebound and made a nice feed to Bryant, who scored despite having Bowen draped all over him. That play tied the score at 29. Bryant's brilliance makes it easy to forget that the Lakers have maintained one of the best records in the league despite Lamar Odom being out for an extended period of time and without the services of centers Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown. Bynum has filled the void in the middle nicely. Last year, he became the youngest player in NBA history and he is still the youngest player in the league. Hubie Brown said that Bynum's length and activity on defense remind him of a young Tree Rollins (who Brown coached). Like the young Rollins, Bynum has a tendency to get in foul trouble, but Brown believes that as the officials get more used to Bynum's game that Bynum will receive the benefit of the doubt on some of the close calls that now go against him.

During a break in the second quarter action, ESPN played a clip from an interview with Pat Riley, who raved about how well Bryant is playing this year: "He rates right there, probably, with Jordan. I mean, Jordan will always, to me, be the best of the best of the best, but you have to put Kobe there. That is where Dwyane (Wade) and LeBron (James) and Carmelo (Anthony) and all these other guys would like to be considered one day. But I don't think that anybody is going to be considered better than, you know, the guy who hung in the air. Never." From time to time I hear from people who don't like Jordan-Bryant comparisons but what I find interesting is that these comparisons are often coming from ex-players: Riley, Steve Kerr, Mark Jackson, Doug Collins. Also, I don't think that anyone is saying that Bryant is equal to or better than Jordan; they are saying that he is similar in many ways and that he is closer to Jordan's level than the other top players of this era.

As the Lakers continue to do well this season, we are hearing more and more about a "new" Kobe Bryant but what we are really witnessing is a "new" Lakers team: a young core group that is being groomed and developed by Phil Jackson and his coaching staff and that feeds off of Bryant's competitiveness and all-around ability. Bryant is averaging 5.5 apg this season but he has already had three full seasons during which he averaged at least that many assists and he led all three Lakers' championship teams in assists. He has not suddenly learned how to pass or become more willing to do so; his teammates are playing better, the Lakers are winning more often and people are now choosing to notice Bryant's passing. This is the basketball version of something that happened in the NFL regarding the perception of Bill Belichick. He supposedly "changed" from when he was a "failure" in Cleveland and has now become a great coach. The reality is that he had the same blueprint in Cleveland that he has now in New England: build a smart, physical team that is anchored by a great defense. The Browns were horrible when he first arrived but within three years they beat (ironically) New England--then coached by Belichick's mentor Bill Parcells--in the 1994 playoffs. The Browns started 3-1 in 1995 before collapsing under the psychological weight of Art Modell's planned move of the team to Baltimore. Belichick was a good coach then but because he cut hometown hero Bernie Kosar and because he was viewed to be linked at the hip to Modell (though Modell unceremoniously fired him right after the 1995 season after letting Belichick take the heat from the fans all season long) it was convenient for fans and the media to ignore how he was methodically building a contender. The conventional wisdom at that time was that Belichick had ridden Parcells' coattails and was only qualified to be a defensive coordinator, not a head coach. By the way, how many playoff games and Super Bowls has Parcells won without Belichick by his side? Perhaps the "experts" never figured out who was really the "brains" behind the Parcells-Belichick pairing; maybe there was a reason that Parcells kept hiring that "failed" coach to run his defenses with the Giants, Jets and Patriots.

Anyway, back to Bryant and the Lakers. When Bryant passes to his teammates now, they take (and make) the shot. In the past couple years, they either missed those shots or meekly passed the ball back to Bryant with the shot clock running down. Bryant and Bynum combined for a nice play with 3:18 left in the second quarter. Bryant elevated for a jump shot but at the last second he fired a perfect pass to Bynum, who dunked the ball to cut the Spurs' lead to 43-40. Hubie Brown said, "That's what the young guy needed." Bynum had been playing hard, but those were his first two points of the game. I saw Bryant deliver similar passes last year to Lakers' post players only to have the ball bounce off of their heads, hands or feet.

Bryant's third three point play of the second quarter tied the score at 45, but the Spurs closed the period with an 8-4 run to take a 53-49 lead. Bryant scored 17 points on 7-8 field goal shooting in the second quarter, finishing the half with 20 points and three assists in just 15 minutes of playing time. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 15 points and three assists.

Bryant got his fourth and fifth assists early in the third quarter and the Lakers took a 59-57 lead after he blew by Bowen and dunked over Duncan at the 6:59 mark. About a minute later, Bryant combined flash with fundamentals to put the Lakers ahead 61-60. Moving without the ball on the weak side, he used a jab step fake to fool Bowen into believing that he was going to the top of the key to receive a pass. Bowen moved into the passing lane and Bryant bolted back door, caught a perfect lob pass from Smush Parker and hammered a two hand dunk in Duncan's face.

The Spurs went on an 11-4 run shortly after that play to take a 71-65 lead but Bryant helped the Lakers to answer that by driving and then dishing to Radmanovic for a three pointer and then making a good pass out of a trap, initiating a sequence of good ball movement that culminated in another Radmanovic three pointer that made the score 73-71 Lakers.

The fourth quarter got off to a strange start as the Spurs had only four players on the court. That is a delay of game violation and Sasha Vujacic made the resulting technical free throw. Later he was fouled while attempting a three pointer and made all three of those free throws as well. The Spurs missed nine of their first 10 field goal attempts in the final period and the Lakers built an 83-73 lead. Just when the Lakers seemed poised to put a stranglehold on the game the Spurs responded with their best several minutes of play all night, trimming the margin to 90-89. On the ensuing Lakers possession, Bryant drew a double team and dished to Bynum. "That was a great pass by Kobe Bryant," Hubie Brown declared--but it did not result in two points. Bynum lowered his shoulder and committed a charge, his sixth foul of the game; that is the difference between an assist leading to two crucial points and a turnover that results in two Ginobili free throws that put the Spurs up, 91-90. The Lakers recaptured the lead on Bryant's eighth assist, a pass to Luke Walton, who scored inside. Duncan made one of two free throws to tie the game again and then Bryant hit a tough pullup jumper from the left wing, the final lead change of the game. Two Maurice Evans free throws gave the Lakers a little breathing room and a Ronny Turiaf layup with nine seconds left put the Lakers up five. After Brent Barry made a three pointer, Bryant shut the door by making two free throws with four seconds left.

"What we learned tonight," Bryant told ESPN's Lisa Salters after the game, "is that we really have to execute down the stretch." She noted that during a fourth quarter timeout he said to his teammates, "This is what playoff basketball is all about," and asked Bryant what he meant by that. He answered, "Teams are going to battle back. The important thing is that we tighten up, we continue to execute and stay compact in what we are trying to do and not get rattled. It's OK to make mistakes."

posted by David Friedman @ 1:01 AM

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Kobe Bryant Leads Lakers to 124-118 Overtime Win Versus Heat

Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade both had big games, but Bryant made the key plays down the stretch as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 124-118 in overtime. Bryant finished with 25 points, eight assists and four rebounds, while Wade had 35 points, eight assists and five rebounds. Bryant shot 11-24 from the field, while Wade shot 12-25; the difference in their point totals came from the fact that Wade attempted 13 free throws (making 11), while Bryant shot 3-3 from the free throw line. Brian Cook received several of Bryant's assists, scoring 25 points. He also had 10 rebounds and four assists. Five other Lakers scored in double figures. Udonis Haslem supported Wade with 20 points and 11 rebounds.

One of the most interesting things about the Bryant-Wade "rivalry" (if it can really be called that when they only face each other twice per season) is that Bryant generally guards Wade one-on-one (except for switches or traps on screen/roll plays), while Wade seldom checks Bryant one on one. At the start of the game, Bryant guarded Wade, but Wade guarded Lakers small forward Luke Walton and Miami small forward Jason Kapono guarded Bryant (with frequent double-teaming help whenever Bryant put the ball on the floor).

Phil Jackson is renowned for the mind games that he plays with opponents (and sometimes with his own players) and he seemed determined to not let Miami "hide" Wade on defense. Luke Walton is not generally a primary offensive threat, but with Wade guarding him Walton went into the post on several occasions and scored over the smaller Wade. Walton scored seven points in the first quarter.

One might think that Byrant would try to exploit Kapono by going one on one but he spent most of the first half setting up his teammates. "The last couple possessions, Kobe Bryant won't get credit for an assist," noted TNT's Steve Kerr during the first quarter. "But just passing the ball back out to a teammate started a chain reaction...all of a sudden, four teammates touch the ball and they get a layup."

"You can see that Kobe is really enjoying being the facilitator right now," TNT's Doug Collins added. "The other night against Orlando he was quiet until the fourth quarter, then he had 16 points, hit all five of his field goals (and) all six of his free throws to close that game down."

Shortly after that, Bryant stopped at the free throw line on a fast break and shuffled a pass to Ronny Turiaf for a resounding dunk, putting the Lakers up 27-17. "He looks like Scottie Pippen the way he is playing now," said Kerr (a former teammate of Pippen's). "The big wing, point forward type of guy, distributing and loving every second of it."

During the first quarter, TNT ran a clip of a pregame interview with Bryant: "My role has changed from last year at this time. Last year at this time we were still trying to figure out our way through the offense and as a consequence I had to take most of the load when it came to scoring. This year is different. I don't have to do that. I can facilitate and try to maximize my teammates' opportunities."

Collins correctly noted that this change began at the end of last season, as players like Walton and Kwame Brown showed that they could handle more of the scoring load, and carried over into the first round playoff series against the heavily favored Phoenix Suns, when the Lakers took a 3-1 advantage before collapsing and losing in seven games.

Bryant did not attempt a lot of shots in the first half, but the ones he did were special. On one occasion, Bryant caught the ball on the post, faked a one handed pass to a cutter a la the Harlem Globetrotters--completely fooling Gary Payton--and then hit a turnaround jumper. "He's just so fundmentally sound," Collins said after that shot. "Steve, you played with Michael (Jordan) and I coached Michael: their footwork, the way they used ball fakes--that (being fundamentally sound) is such a weapon that they added to their game and makes the game so easy for them."

The Lakers led 33-29 after the first quarter. Bryant shot 3-4 from the field, scoring seven points and collecting four assists. Wade also played well, scoring 16 points and passing for three assists. How good could Bryant's defense have been if Wade was on pace for 64 points? The important thing to note is that most of Wade's points came on screen and roll plays or in transition when Bryant got cross-matched (since Wade was not guarding him). Collins identified a Lakers' weakness that I wrote about at length after the first encounter between these teams: "Sort of shades of Christmas Day, where every time Dwyane Wade saw one of the Lakers' big guys come into the game they (the Heat) went straight into the screen and roll situation; they (the Lakers' big guys) were all in foul trouble on that particular day. This is one of those games that is going to be very tough for (Andrew) Bynum because he (Wade) has got you back pedalling the entire time and then he creates contact." Collins added that the Lakers' deficiency in this area could be a problem in the Western Conference playoffs since teams like Dallas and Phoenix run a lot of screen and roll plays. Kerr noted that the NBA has changed the rules regarding defensive play on the perimeter, greatly restricting the level of contact that is allowed, and he suggested that no one has taken better advantage of this than Wade.

Bryant took a brief break from guarding Wade when Maurice Evans came into the game; Jackson seems to like the Evans-Wade matchup, because he also tried it for brief stretches during the earlier meeting. Evans is strong, quick and tough, traits that make him a solid defensive player. Bryant took his customary rest at the start of the second quarter, but the Lakers' reserves played very well and actually extended the lead to as much as seven (48-41). It was 48-44 when Bryant returned to action. The Lakers led 61-59 at halftime. Bryant did not score in the second quarter, finishing the half with seven points and five assists. Wade had 19 points, five assists and no turnovers. He shot 7-9 from the free throw line, once again getting the Lakers' big men into foul trouble.

The Lakers' offense hit a lull in the third quarter. At one point, Bryant drove and seemed to be fouled by Alonzo Mourning but nothing was called. Wade raced downcourt and tipped in Jason Williams' missed three pointer. On the next possession, Bryant received a pass at the top of the key, dribbled past Kapono and hit a fadeaway jumper on the right baseline, putting the Lakers ahead 70-69. "With that shot, you get the idea that he is starting to think offensively," Marv Albert commented. "Absolutely," agreed Collins. "He is starting to get a sense that his team is going to need him to pick up the pace offensively." Antoine Walker, fresh off of his suspension for failing to meet Pat Riley's conditioning guidelines, hit two three pointers in an 11-0 run late in the third quarter and the Heat took an 87-85 lead. Vladimir Radmanovic put the Lakers back on top 88-87 by nailing a three pointer just before the end of the quarter; Bryant got his seventh assist on that play.

On a couple different occasions, Bryant hit tough jumpers from the right wing that put the Lakers up seven in the fourth quarter, but Miami answered with a quick run that tied the game. Wade played a key role in that spurt: he made two free throws after Bryant fouled him, then he stole a careless Walton pass and converted a fast break dunk and then he assisted on a Jason Kapono three pointer that tied the game at 108 with a little less than two minutes left in regulation. Bryant's runner with 46.5 seconds left put the Lakers up, 110-108. Bryant scored the Lakers' last six points in the fourth quarter. Bryant forced Wade to miss a three pointer on the next possession, but Jason Kapono got the loose ball after a scramble and fed Udonis Haslem for a dunk. On the Lakers' final possesion, Bryant drove aggressively to the hoop, beating Wade and colliding with Haslem. The ball went flying, no foul was called and the game went to overtime; Bryant and Haslem both argued, but Kerr opined that it was a good no-call.

Wade scored the first basket of the extra session, stripping Bryant and taking the ball coast to coast for a dunk. An exasperated Bryant, who had only attempted one free throw at that point despite making frequent forays to the hoop, looked around in vain for a foul call. None came, but on the next possesion Bryant caught the ball in the exact same spot at the right elbow, froze Wade with a jab step and nailed a jumper. The Lakers then took the lead after two Andrew Bynum free throws, but Wade used a Haslem screen to get open and tied the score again with a long jumper. Bryant then drove to the hoop and kicked the ball out to Cook, whose three pointer put the Lakers up, 117-114. Wade missed a bank shot, but the Lakers were not able to extend their lead because Jason Williams stole the ball and scored a fast break layup. Bryant beat Wade on a backdoor cut and scored a tough spinning layup over Alonzo Mourning after Luke Walton hit him with a nice pass. Haslem's jumper brought the Heat to within one.

After not guarding Bryant for most of regulation, Wade did guard him for most of the overtime period--but with 43.3 seconds remaining and the Lakers up 119-118, Gary Payton guarded Bryant and Wade checked Smush Parker. Bryant received the ball at the top of the key and blew past Payton, forcing him to foul. "I don't know if I agree with that change of putting Payton on Kobe at that point in time," Collins commented. "I think that Wade gets away with a little bit more at that point in time than Gary Payton." Bryant made both free throws, putting the Lakers ahead 121-118. Wade attempted to drive on Bryant on the next possession, but Bryant cut him off and then Parker stole Wade's pass. "Every time Kobe has forced him to his right Wade has not done a nice job of finishing," observed Collins. "I think that the difference in this game ultimately could be Bryant's defense on Wade in the second half," Kerr added. "Kobe Bryant's defense on Wade changed this game." Parker sealed the win with two free throws and Cook closed out the scoring with one more free throw.

During the game's final timeout, TNT cut to the studio crew and Magic Johnson said, "This is one of the best played regular season games I've seen this season. Both teams have played exceptionally well." Bryant and Wade embraced after the final buzzer, a fitting show of mutual respect after such an exciting and entertaining game. Right after that, TNT's Craig Sager asked Bryant about accepting the defensive challenge against Wade and Bryant replied, "I just enjoy playing defense. For us it was an adjustment because he is such a great screen and roll player. They set great screens for him and that takes me out of the play, so we had to really focus and do a concentrated effort as a team of trying to corral him a little bit coming off of those screens." In addition to his defensive work, Bryant produced 12 of his 25 points in the last five minutes of regulation and the five minute overtime period.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:33 AM

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Agent Zero's Hibachi is Still Smoking, C. Webb is a Piston and the Suns Burn the Grizzlies

Martin Luther King Day proved to be very eventful in the NBA. Chris Webber attended Monday's Detroit-Minnesota game as a guest of the Pistons and announced that on Tuesday he will sign with the Pistons. Magic Johnson, who has a small ownership interest in the L.A. Lakers, appeared on Monday night's TNT broadcast as a studio analyst. He said that while he is disappointed that Webber did not sign with the Lakers he understands Webber's desire to return to his home state, adding, "Chris felt comfortable with (Pistons President) Joe Dumars." TNT's Charles Barkley thinks that going to Detroit is a good move for Webber, explaining, "His legs can't sustain playing every night against those power forwards in the West." Webber's passing ability should lead to a lot of easy baskets for guys who move well without the basketball, like Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. On the other hand, while TNT's Kenny Smith agrees that Detroit is a good fit for Webber, he believes that Webber would fit in even better in New Jersey or San Antonio, based on what those teams need and what Webber can provide.

Gilbert Arenas, aka "Agent Zero," produced another 50 point game and another buzzer beating, game winning three pointer. Arenas tied Michael Jordan's Verizon Center record with 51 points and broke a 111-111 tie with a "walk off" three pointer as his Washington Wizards beat the fast fading Utah Jazz. This was Arenas' third 50 point game in a 15 game span, a feat that has only been accomplished by Kobe Bryant since Michael Jordan did it in the 1988-89 season. Arenas is also the first player in franchise history to have three 50 point games in one season. He shot 14-29 from the field, 7-12 on three pointers and 16-17 from the free throw line. Arenas also had five assists while committing only one turnover.

While Webber provided the day's NBA headline and Arenas supplied the individual fireworks, Phoenix and Memphis tried to explode the scoreboard in the first game of TNT's doubleheader. The Suns prevailed 137-122 as the teams combined for 148 first half points (76-72 Phoenix), the most points scored in one half in an NBA game this season. The Grizzlies scored more points in the first half than they did in their previous game, a ghastly 111-66 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night. Amare Stoudemire led the way for the Suns with a season-high 42 points, shooting 15-21 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line. He also had nine rebounds. Steve Nash had 12 points and 15 assists. The Suns shot 14-34 (.412) from three point range. Mike Miller led Memphis with 25 points; Pau Gasol had a nice all around game with 23 points, nine rebounds and seven assists but he was silent during the third quarter when the Suns broke the game open behind Stoudemire's 16 points. The Grizzlies committed numerous turnovers during the period and were not able to get their other scorers involved despite the fact that the Suns double and even triple teamed Gasol, who shot 7-7 from the field in the first half (17 points) in addition to dishing off for six assists.

At halftime, Magic, Barkley and Smith offered some interesting thoughts on the Suns' prospects and how Memphis' style has changed since the team fired Coach Mike Fratello and installed Tony Barone as the interim head coach. Barone has Memphis playing an uptempo style. Of course, he also has the benefit of Gasol's services; Gasol missed most of the early part of the season with a broken foot that he suffered during the FIBA World Championship last summer. Barkley said that this kind of game reinforces Phoenix' bad habits on the defensive end of the court, the area where they must improve in order to beat Dallas or San Antonio in a playoff series. Magic added that even though his '80s Lakers played an uptempo style that they also played defense and made sure to shut down outmanned teams like Memphis; echoing Barkley's point, he said that he would have expected his Lakers to be up at least 15 at halftime versus a team like the Grizzlies, pushing that margin to 20 in the third quarter. Smith quipped, "Defense wins championships but copy-catting keeps your job." He explained that since Phoenix has done well with an uptempo style that other teams are copying it, even if they don't have the personnel to do it with the same level of success.

It is not surprising that the Suns simply wore down the Grizzlies in the third quarter but there were a couple things worth noting in the second half. One, Stoudemire's game has literally improved by leaps and bounds since the preseason, when he looked more tentative than a freshman at the prom and moved more awkwardly than a newborn colt. Now he is running, jumping and dunking with authority. He benefits from Nash's timely feeds but Nash also benefits by having an extraordinary athlete to catch his passes.

The other interesting thing that happened in the second half is that the Suns kept all of their starters in the game until just 38.3 seconds remained. They were up 136-118 at that point and TNT's Dick Stockton and Reggie Miller had been wondering aloud for several minutes why the Suns were risking injury to Nash, Stoudemire and other key players. With a few minutes left, Nash took a pretty good whack to the face (the contact was deemed inadvertent and no foul was called on the play) and could be seen rubbing his jaw but he stayed in the game even after that. The Suns were still running and gunning full speed right up to the end. When this happened in the Knicks-Nuggets game, a flagrant foul and a fight ensued. Fortunately, nothing of that nature happened in this game. After the game, Cheryl Miller asked Phoenix' Raja Bell about the Suns' strange substitution pattern and he replied that the Suns have blown several leads this year, so Coach Mike D'Antoni wanted to make sure that did not happen again--which is exactly how Nuggets' Coach George Karl justified leaving his starters in versus the Knicks. I don't know if any of this means anything but you can bet that if a freak ankle injury or a fight had happened that D'Antoni would be answering a lot of questions about this.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:30 AM

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