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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Cavs Rout Sluggish Heat, 103-79

LeBron James delivered his best performance in more than a week as the Cleveland Cavaliers blew out the Miami Heat 103-79 on Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena. James had 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He has been hampered recently by a toe injury that forced him to miss one game and limited him to fewer than 20 points in three of his last four contests. Larry Hughes chipped in 16 points on 7-12 field goal shooting and Sasha Pavlovic provided a huge lift off of the bench with 15 points, five rebounds and a career-high six assists. Dwyane Wade overcame a slow start to finish with 27 points and seven assists but he also had seven turnovers. Shaquille O'Neal hammered home several rim rattling dunks that seemed to threaten to bring down the entire basket support but he only ended up with 14 points and seven rebounds.

In the first half, both teams acted like they were slogging through quicksand while wearing 50 pound backpacks. After more than seven minutes of play in the first quarter the score was tied at 10 and the teams had combined to shoot 9-28 from the field. Pavlovic had an immediate impact when he entered the game at the 4:51 mark, assisting on a Drew Gooden jump hook and making his first three shots, including a three pointer. The Cavs led 23-17 at the end of the period.

The Cavaliers tried to buy some time to rest starting center Zyrdunas Ilgauskas by inserting the seldom used Scot Pollard to guard O'Neal early in the second quarter. How tough is it to handle O'Neal even in his declining years? Pollard committed three fouls in 2:34 of action--and was unable to return to the game due to back spasms. You know that a guy is a tough cover when you give him three hard fouls and throw out your own back (actually, I think Pollard's back issue preceded his brief appearance, because he had some kind of wrap around his lower back before he entered the game). Cleveland held Wade to one point in the second quarter and led 44-33 at halftime.

An 11 point cushion might seem comfortable in such a low scoring game, but the last time these two teams played (February 1 in Miami) Wade scored 24 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter as Miami rallied from a 12 point deficit to win 92-89. Wade tried to duplicate those heroics, scoring seven points in the first 3:20 of the third quarter as the Heat trimmed the Cavs' lead to 49-43. Miami would get no closer, though, as Cleveland closed the period with a 20-14 run, capped off by James completely posterizing Alonzo Mourning. That dunk may have taken the wind out of the Heat's sails, because it gave the Cavs their biggest lead of the game (69-57). Miami offered little resistance in the fourth quarter and Cleveland's lead steadily grew. Near the end of the game, the only question was whether or not the Cavs would reach triple digits, which entitles each fan to a free chalupa. On Friday, chalupa was spelled M-A-R-S-H-A-L-L, as Donyell Marshall's three pointer with 1:13 left made the score 101-79.

Notes From Courtside:

At halftime, several members of the media discussed their observations of the first 24 minutes and when someone asked me what I thought I replied that the Heat looked "sluggish." It turns out that Miami Coach Ron Rothstein would agree with that assessment. In his postgame standup, he said simply, "They outworked us period...We came out and I thought we played very sluggishly with our offense and I don't have an explanation for it."

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown like what he saw from his team. There has been some controversy regarding whether the Cavs' recent struggles are a result of their play on offense or defense; Brown has repeatedly insisted that the problems originated on defense and in his postgame standup he made a point of mentioning how well Cleveland played at that end of the court during this victory: "This is a great team effort for 48 minutes versus a very good basketball team...I thought we won the right way. We hold this team to 42% (field goal shooting) and we outrebounded them 49-37...It was a good night. It started on the defensive end of the floor."

James, who would like for Cleveland to play at a faster pace on offense, offered a slightly different explanation for the win, agreeing with a questioner who suggested that Cleveland's uptempo offense in this contest fueled the defense: "Of course. Any time you get some easy buckets, it helps you a lot on the defensive end and we took advantage of that." James would prefer that the Cavs push the ball up the court: "Any time we get an opportunity to get out early, it benefits Larry (Hughes), it benefits Sasha (Pavlovic), it benefits myself. We get the ball up the court and we can take some jump shots, we can take some drives early in the shot clock. It doesn't put as much pressure on us than when it's late in the shot clock."

James dismissed the idea that he derived any motivation from the fact that prior to this game he had played poorly in some nationally televised games: "No, that's not me. I don't care about that. There's a stat about us being 0-5 in nationally televised games and LeBron is not the same player (in those games). I don't read into that. My teammates know what I'm capable of doing and I showed it tonight." Of course, the fact that James is perfectly aware of that stat kind of suggests that it did indeed bother him.


After the postgame media availability concluded, I participated in an online chat at Sports.Sina.com, a Chinese website. Renjun Bao made all of the arrangements and did an excellent job of translating the questions from Chinese to English and then translating my answers from English to Chinese. He told me that Sports.Sina.com expected about 500,000 people to log on for this event. I enjoyed this opportunity to interact with some very enthusiastic basketball fans. I tape recorded Bao's rendering of the questions and my answers and plan to post a transcript of the chat here within the next couple days.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:31 AM


Thursday, February 08, 2007

Pistons Cruise by Lakers, 93-78

Some teams may fear facing the league's top superstars but the Detroit Pistons are making a point of shutting them down. Detroit kept Kobe Bryant under wraps in the first game of TNT's Thursday night doubleheader and beat his L.A. Lakers 93-78. Bryant led the Lakers with 18 points and five assists but he shot just 5-13 from the field and had eight turnovers. Great players sometimes commit a large number of turnovers because they handle the ball more frequently than their teammates and because they must take risks to break down the opposing defense to create open shots; Bryant's turnovers versus the Pistons were unusual because several of them came on plays when he simply fumbled the ball or allowed someone to slap it out of his hands. A TNT graphic noted that Vince Carter (11 points, 4-11 shooting), Dwyane Wade (21 points, 5-23 shooting) and LeBron James (21 points, 9-22 shooting) have also recently had subpar games against the suddenly surging Pistons.

It's not like the Lakers weren't trying; they actually outrebounded the Pistons 45-44, so the effort was there but what was missing was crisp execution. Four Detroit players scored between 16 and 20 points. Tayshaun Prince had 20 points, six rebounds and four assists, Chris Webber contributed 18 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, Rasheed Wallace produced a nearly identical line of 18 points, 10 rebounds and two assists and Rip Hamilton had 16 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Chauncey Billups only scored six points but he had nine assists and four steals, several of them against Bryant.

TNT's Steve Kerr talked about how good teams impose their will on their opponents early in the game and sustain that effort for 48 minutes: for instance, the Suns make their opponents run, while the Spurs slow the game down. Right from the start, Detroit applied pressure defense to point guard Smush Parker and employed a shifting zone defense that disrupted the rhythm of the Lakers' offense. The Pistons jumped out to a 15-8 lead less than halfway through the first quarter and had already forced four turnovers by then. Billups' fast break layup after the Pistons stole an ill advised cross court pass by Parker pushed Detroit's advantage to 22-10 and the Pistons were up 28-17 by the end of the first period. Webber showed off his all around skills with eight points, five rebounds and three assists. Bryant attempted just one shot, making a three pointer with 27 seconds left.

The Lakers played the first three and a half minutes of the second quarter with Bryant on the bench, using basically the same lineup that produced a fourth quarter collapse on Friday in Indiana (Lamar Odom, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, Ronny Turiaf, Maurice Evans; in the Pacers game, Cook was on the court instead of Turiaf). Kerr noted that Luke Walton, who is out of the lineup because of a sprained ankle, usually plays with that group instead of Turiaf and that he stabilizes the unit because of his passing ability. "Without him (Walton)," Kerr explained, "you can see that this lineup is really lost out there." They got off to a shaky start, allowing Hamilton to convert a three point play for a 31-17 lead, but settled down after that and trimmed the margin to 33-24 before Bryant returned at the 8:34 mark. Bryant promptly made a three pointer and assisted on an Odom jumper as the Lakers got to within four, 33-29. Amazingly, they would get no closer the rest of the game.

Detroit led 48-36 at the half. Webber already had 11 points, six rebounds and three assists, Prince also had 11 points and Wallace had 10 points. TNT's Craig Sager reported that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson blasted his team for playing scared. Jackson's words were to no avail, as the Pistons began the third quarter with a gorgeous play that culminated in Webber's behind the back pass to Prince for a layup. As Bryant and the Lakers continued to bobble the ball all over the place, Kerr mentioned a favorite saying of Tex Winter (the creator of the Triangle Offense): "One bad pass begets another."

The action on the sidelines actually provided more entertainment than the game. Brian Cook is credited with a minute played in the boxscore but he accumulated no statistics because he was actually pulled back from the game before he had a chance to do anything. When Cook entered the game, he tossed his shooting shirt at the Lakers bench, nailing Assistant Coach Kurt Rambis. Jackson then removed Cook from the game. TNT later showed some footage of Cook ranting and raving on the sidelines but they didn't show him tossing the shooting shirt. Don't be surprised if you soon see a small blurb about Cook being fined and/or suspended for "conduct detrimental to the team."

Sager had an interesting misadventure. The veteran sideline reporter did an interview with Chris Webber's father, asking him how happy he was to see his son come back home to Detroit. The father chuckled a little when Sager introduced him to the TV audience and the reason for that became apparent later--when Sager announced, apologetically, that the man in question was actually one of Webber's old coaches. Sager then did an interview with Webber's real father--we think. No explanation was given for the case of mistaken identity and the two interview subjects did not even remotely resemble each other. Marv Albert noted that many people in Detroit are happy about Webber's return and Kerr kiddingly added that Sager's next interview will be with Webber's seven year old nephew, who inspired Webber to wear number 84.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:21 PM


No, You Could Not Win a Game of Horse Against an NBA Player

People who don't watch a lot of NBA basketball often have some strange beliefs about the sport. On the one hand, they sometimes assert that nobody plays defense in the NBA; another, somewhat contradictory statement is that NBA players are merely good athletes who are not able to perform fundamental tasks such as shooting. The reality is that NBA defense is often suffocating; that, and the constant pressure of the 24 second shot clock, has a lot to do with NBA field goal percentages. How do I know that this is true? One, I have seen enough NBA games up close to understand the quickness and strength of NBA players and how these attributes are used on defense. Two, I have seen NBA players who are considered "non-shooters" warm up and effortlessly drain shots from all over the court.

You may have heard about Gilbert Arenas' recent $20,000 bet with teammate DeShawn Stevenson: Arenas said that he could make a higher percentage of one handed college three pointers than Stevenson could make of NBA three pointers shot with both hands. Arenas shot 73/100, while Stevenson made 68/96 shots (he quit when he could not catch Arenas). You can watch the video here: Arenas-Stevenson Showdown

The next time somebody tells you that NBA players can't shoot and/or don't play defense, please share this video. I'm not surprised at how well Arenas and Stevenson did and I know that other NBA players could do similarly well when shooting uncontested college or NBA three pointers. The fact is that if NBA players did not play defense the game scores would be something like 200-198.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM


Is It Possible to Steal a Championship?

A team that escapes with a victory on a fluke play is said to have "stolen" a win. Is it possible to literally steal wins--or even steal a championship? Specifically, how directly do steals correlate with winning? On the surface, a steal is the best way for a team's defense to end an offensive possession--not only does the offense fail to score, but the defense has gained control of the ball immediately, without having to chase down a rebound, and the defensive team may even be in position to quickly convert the steal into fastbreak points.

At NBCSports.com, I take a look at whether or not "crime" pays in the NBA:

Is It Possible to Steal a Championship?

posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Jackie MacMullan Discusses Kobe Bryant

Boston Globe columnist and ESPN.com contributor Jackie MacMullan has written two articles about how Kobe Bryant is playing this year. The first one appeared in the Boston Globe last week and is based on her conversation with Bryant prior to his 43 point game versus the Celtics :

Bryant Undisputed King of this Court

Bryant told MacMullan that he no longer focuses on one-on-one matchups with the league's other stars: "You know you're growing up when the big matchups don't excite you anymore. I used to crave all of them. Vince [Carter] to Tracy [McGrady] to Ray Allen to [Allen] Iverson. I was ready. But now? I've got other things I'm working on." Those "other things" are helping to develop the young talent on the Lakers' roster and transforming the team back into a championship contender.

MacMullan's piece about Bryant for ESPN.com is even more detailed. Here is the link, but it might not be possible to access it unless you are a subscriber to ESPN Insider:

The Transformation of Kobe Bryant

As I've indicated here more than once, I'm not a big fan of the idea that Bryant has "transformed" himself this year. Of course, intelligent people do grow and mature throughout their lives, so it is only natural for anyone to change somewhat as time passes--but that is a lot different than suggesting that someone did not understand how to play winning basketball and now has figured that out. That is like the "analysts" who cover their behinds by saying that Bill Belichick did not know how to coach when he was in Cleveland but "matured" before he got the New England job. Right--that's why his Browns beat Bill Parcells' Patriots in a playoff game and why Parcells never won a single playoff game without having Belichick by his side (you read that right).

Although I don't like the title of MacMullan's piece, the article itself is not bad. In fact, it contains a Bryant quote that basically dismisses the premise of the title. Talking about charges that last year's scoring explosion showed he is selfish, Bryant said: "It was hurtful to hear that kind of stuff. Did they think this was something I all of a sudden discovered I could do? I've been able to put up points since the day I walked into this league. But, in the past, I deferred from doing that to win championships. It was necessary last year for me to score. We had a new system and too many young new players. Phil and I discussed it. He told me, 'You are going to have to shoulder the load until everyone else catches up.'"

That, of course, is exactly the way Jackson explained the situation to me last year prior to the Lakers' game in Cleveland on March 19: "I think that early in the year, obviously, while the team got adjusted to playing with each other under the system we work that it was really a necessity for him to carry a load."

MacMullan writes that Bryant sometimes has to correct people who think that everything has been handed to him--even his own teammates:

Bryant reminds his young teammates he averaged 15 minutes a game as a rookie and can sympathize with their struggles to earn consistent playing time. "I remember Devean George telling me, 'You came into this league with a silver spoon in your mouth,'" Kobe says. "I told him, 'Your history isn't so good. Check the books.'"

posted by David Friedman @ 3:34 PM


The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Tuesday Night's Action

There were only five NBA games on Tuesday night, but some interesting story lines played out. Here are the scores, key stats and bottom line meaning of three of those contests:

The Score: Detroit 109, Boston 102

The Key Stat: Detroit is 8-3 since signing Chris Webber.

The Bottom Line: Letting Ben Wallace go and "replacing" him with Nazr Mohammed (6.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg this season) was a ghastly error. To paraphrase Dennis Green's overused and yet very catchy phrase, Nazr Mohammed was what I thought he was--and Chris Webber is letting Joe Dumars off the hook. I never understood why anyone thought that Mohammed is a significantly better offensive player than Ben Wallace--who does not score much (neither does Mohammed, by the way) but who sets screens, passes and gets offensive rebounds--or why anyone believed that he would be an adequate replacement in the middle for Big Ben. Detroit started the season 21-15, a far cry from last year's 64-18 record. Then, the Philadelphia 76ers decided to hit the "reboot" button and injected new life into two franchises: Denver received Allen Iverson and Detroit received Chris Webber (the 76ers have been playing better, too--a subject worthy of discussion in another post). Webber's numbers as a Piston are not eyepopping (12.5 ppg, 7 rpg, 3.3 apg) but they are tremendous compared to Mohammed's. More importantly, Webber's passing fits in perfectly with Detroit's offense, particularly the off the ball cutting abilities of Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. Joe Dumars did a great job building a championship team in Detroit but in recent years there has been a lot more talent leaving the Palace at Auburn Hills than arriving there: Larry Brown, Ben Wallace, Mehmet Okur and Darko Milicic have departed and the team has done worse in the postseason each year since winning the title. I heard Chauncey Billups recently say that he thinks that Detroit should have won the championship each of the past two years. I wonder if in ten years we will look back at this era of Pistons basketball the way that we see the 1980s Chicago Bears: one year wonders who squandered the opportunity to win multiple titles. I'm still not convinced that Flip Saunders can steer this ship to the Finals even in the depleted Leastern Conference but he seems to have a better chance now than he did 11 games ago.

Postscript: Look at Boston Coach Doc Rivers' face, which seems to be etched with the battle scars of each defeat from the team's franchise record 15 game losing streak: does anyone age faster than coaches or political leaders? The grey and/or receding hair, lines on the face and bags under the eyes index for those two fields is off the charts.

The Score: New York 102, L.A. Clippers 90

The Key Stat: Eddy Curry had 23 points and eight rebounds, David Lee chipped in 16 points and 10 rebounds and Jamal Crawford scored 23 points for the victorious Knicks, who are just one win away from equalling last season's total.

The Bottom Line: This message is for everyone out there who made fun of Isiah Thomas as an executive and/or coach. Isiah Thomas is responsible for assembling the current New York Knicks roster and he has now spent 50 games coaching it. The Knicks are one of the most improved teams in the NBA. Curry has blossomed into a legitimate All-Star candidate. Lee is averaging a double-double. Crawford has been unstoppable at times and has not only produced a 50 point game but he has also made numerous clutch shots. Is there any reason that Thomas should not be a candidate for both Executive of the Year and Coach of the Year? In Bill Parcells' parlance, Thomas bought the groceries and cooked the meal. I am still skeptical of the idea of having Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis on the same team, but Thomas' Knicks are doing better than just about anyone expected. Is it possible that Thomas--who is an NCAA Champion, a two-time NBA Champion, a Hall of Famer and a Top 50 player--might know more about basketball than his numerous media and fan critics? Jermaine O'Neal, Brad Miller and Al Harrington all improved markedly while Thomas coached them in Indiana and the same thing seems to be happening with the Knicks' young players. Will Thomas and the Knicks be able to keep this up long enough that Thomas' critics will have to borrow from the Bill Belichick/Kobe Bryant story template and explain how much Thomas has "changed and evolved" this year?

The Score: Houston 98, Memphis 90

The Key Stat: Houston is 15-6 since Yao Ming was forced out of action with an injured leg.

The Bottom Line: I agree with the ESPN NBA Coast to Coast panelists who laud the contributions of Dikembe Mutombo and Shane Battier to Houston's recent success--but that is also known as burying the lead. Let me place the lead in bold, capital letters, so no one misses it: TRACY MCGRADY. He had 33 points, eight assists and six rebounds in the win over Memphis. Yes, the Grizzlies are dreadful but T-Mac's production in the last 20 games (he missed one game since Yao's injury; naturally, the Rockets lost) is fantastic: 28.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg , 6.2 apg. Last year, the Rockets could hardly win a game without him but were a very solid team when he was in the lineup, even if Yao was out of action. Again this season, the Rockets are proving to be a formidable team whenever T-Mac steps on the court, even without Yao. It would be great to see what this team is capable of with a healthy T-Mac and a healthy Yao on the court at the same time. I don't see why anyone should question T-Mac's status as an All-Star starter this year. The Rockets are 7.5 games behind Phoenix. Let's trade Amare, Marion, Diaw and Bell for Mutombo, Juwan Howard, Shane Battier and Rafer Alston and see how well Nash and his new teammates would do.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:10 AM


NBA Leaderboard, Part IX

All-Star Weekend is fast approaching and the 2006-07 NBA season is already well past its midpoint. The Dallas Mavericks, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash sit atop the leaderboard in wins, scoring, rebounding and assists respectively. Who will wear those crowns at the end of the season? Nash is the only sure bet at this point; the races for most wins and best rebounding average are too close to call and it is still possible that Anthony will fall back to the pack and/or one of his closest competitors will get hot for a sustained stretch of time.

Best Five Records

1) Dallas Mavericks, 39-9
2) Phoenix Suns, 39-10
3) San Antonio Spurs, 32-16
4) Utah Jazz, 32-17
5) Houston Rockets, 31-17

It has pretty much become a two horse race for the best record in the NBA. It will be interesting to see if Steve Nash's shoulder injury tips the balance in favor of Dallas; one of the few questions about Nash concerns his durability, both in terms of becoming worn out over the course of a long season and also in terms of getting injured. The Spurs, Jazz and Rockets are in an extremely tight race for the third spot; just behind them are the Lakers, who feasted on their early home games and will have to do well on the road the rest of the way in order to move up in the standings (they are currently 30-19). What about the East? Detroit is number one, for the moment, with Washington and Chicago not too far behind; the Pistons would be sixth in the West, barely ahead of the Lakers.

Top Five Scorers (and a few other notables)

1) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 31.0 ppg
2) Gilbert Arenas, WSH 29.4 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 28.9 ppg
4) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.8 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.8 ppg

8) LeBron James, CLE 26.6 ppg

10) Vince Carter, NJN 25.0 ppg

13) Tracy McGrady, HOU 23.8 ppg

The top five has not changed since the previous leaderboard, but Melo's average is going down while Bryant and Wade's are going up. Last week I expressed doubt that Kobe will repeat as the scoring champion but now he is only about 2 ppg back with about 30 games to go. If Melo drops below 30 ppg I think that Kobe will repeat as the scoring champion. LeBron's numbers are going down as he battles his toe injury. T-Mac should receive serious All-NBA consideration this year: the Rockets are 15-6 since Yao Ming got hurt and, laudable as Dikembe Mutombo's contributions have been, let's get real: without T-Mac's scoring and ability to draw defenders, the Rockets would be in big trouble. Last year they could barely win a game without T-Mac in the lineup, even when Yao played.

Top Five Rebounders (and a few other notables)

1) Kevin Garnett, MIN 12.4 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 12.2 rpg
3) Dwight Howard, ORL 12.0 rpg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.8 rpg
5) Tyson Chandler, NOK 11.5 rpg

8) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.8 rpg

11) Shawn Marion, PHX 10.1 rpg
12) Ben Wallace, CHI 10.0 rpg

22) Rasheed Wallace, DET 8.3 rpg
23) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.0 rpg

The likelihood of Howard becoming the youngest rebounding champion ever seems increasingly remote; early in the season he was ahead of everyone by more than 1 rpg but now KG has opened up a .4 rpg lead over him. Marion is within shouting distance of the top ten, which is pretty remarkable considering the listed heights and weights of the other leaders. Kidd has stayed steadily in the 8 rpg range throughout the season.

Top Five Playmakers

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.8 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 9.1 apg
3) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.8 apg
4) Baron Davis, GSW 8.7 ppg
5) Chris Paul, NOK 8.6 apg

For the first time in quite a while we have a change in the top five. Davis moved up to fourth and Andre Miller slipped to sixth as Andre Iguodala assumed some of the playmaking duties for Philadelphia. "Starbury" dropped to 22nd and is averaging 5.4 apg.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com; also, the previous leaderboard should have been numbered "VIII," not "IX." This is in fact the ninth leaderboard that I have posted here.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 AM


Monday, February 05, 2007

Online Basketball Chat on Friday February 9

On Friday February 9, I will participate in an online basketball chat with Chinese basketball fans via the Sports.Sina.com website, which is the largest portal Chinese website and usually ranks in the top ten on Alexa.com's worldwide website traffic list. Sports.Sina has already posted my photo and bio, plus a link that fans can click on to post their questions:


The primary subject of the chat will be Yao Ming and how he compares to the all-time great centers, but I will field questions about any basketball related subject. Renjun Bao has graciously arranged this chat and he will translate the questions from Chinese to English for me and then translate my answers from English to Chinese for publication at Sports.Sina.com. I very much look forward to this opportunity to communicate with Chinese basketball fans and I plan to post a transcript of the chat in English at 20 Second Timeout.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:33 AM


Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: A New 20 Second Timeout Feature

How important are regular season NBA games? What does the outcome of a particular contest really mean? Usually at 20 Second Timeout I write an in depth post about a game that I either covered in person or watched in its entirety on TV. Of course, I can't see every game and sometimes I catch part of a game or some highlights of a game but I notice something about that game that I think is significant in some way. Without further ado, here are the scores, key stats and bottom line meaning of three of Saturday night's games:

The Score: Lakers 118, Wizards 102

The Key Stat: Kobe Bryant (39 points, six rebounds, six assists, two steals, 14-26 field goal shooting, 2-5 three point shooting, 9-10 free throw shooting) outplayed Gilbert Arenas (37 points, five rebounds, four assists, one steal, 9-29 field goal shooting, 3-15 three point shooting, 16-17 free throw shooting).

The Bottom Line: The last time these two teams met, Gilbert Arenas scored 60 points--including 15 in overtime--in a 147-141 Wizards win. Bryant said that Arenas' shot selection indicates that the self proclaimed Agent Zero "doesn't seem to have much of a conscience," which caused some critics to assert that Bryant is the last person who should be criticizing someone else's shot selection. I took Bryant's remarks at face value, looked at the numbers and concluded that Arenas is indeed a gunner--in both the good and negative senses of that word; he is a fearless, high volume offensive player but he also takes a lot of bad, low percentage shots. Some 20 Second Timeout readers asserted that since Arenas shoots a good three point percentage that his low overall field goal percentage and high number of three point attempts should be excused but I responded that if Arenas shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 in the next then the Wizards will go 1-1 at best in those games despite the fact that his three point percentage would be .389. Having your point guard jacking up eight or nine three pointers a game--particularly on a team that is not good defensively anyway and has poor court balance--is not a formula for postseason success. Look again at the numbers: some of the categories are close, but Bryant outdid Arenas in every single area and his team won by 16 points in regulation. So, in the two Lakers-Wizards games this season, the Wizards won once in overtime when Arenas hit a much higher percentage of his shots than normal (and shot a very high number of free throws) and then got routed at home when Arenas shot 3-15 from three point range.

Postscript: Kobe's overall numbers in the two games: 42 ppg, 7 rpg, 8 apg, 29-50 field goal shooting (.580), 9-16 three point shooting (.563), 17-20 free throw shooting (.850). Agent Zero's overall numbers in the two games: 48.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 6 apg, 26-61 field goal shooting (.426), 8-27 three point shooting (.296), 37-44 free throw shooting (.841).

Second Postscript: The most amazing thing about all of this is that I know, with near 100% certainty, that someone will look at the above numbers--in which Kobe outperformed Arenas in every category except total points--and conclude that Arenas is equal to or better than Kobe. In the discussion here about whether or not Gilbert is a gunner I referred to regression to the mean, a fancy way of saying that all of the extra shots that Arenas hit in his 60 point game he will miss in subsequent games; look at how Arenas' field goal percentage plummeted to its normal level around .430 after just one more game against the Lakers.

The Score: Jazz 108, Suns 105

The Key Stat: The Suns are now 1-7 against the other top teams in the West (Dallas, San Antonio, Utah and the L.A. Lakers)--and 36-3 versus the rest of the league.

The Bottom Line: To win a championship, the Suns will have to beat at least one of the four Western Conference teams that they have struggled against this year and then, if they pull that off, beat the best Eastern Conference team in the NBA Finals. Yes, the Suns are fun to watch and their twin double-digit winning streaks this year are very impressive but being nearly perfect against the weaker teams does not necessarily prove one's ability to beat the elite teams. In Saturday's game the Jazz did not even have the services of All-Star Carlos Boozer, their best player. The Suns will win likely win 60+ games this year but may not even make it back to the Western Conference Finals.

The Score: Heat 117, Bucks 98

The Key Stat: Dwyane Wade (32 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals), Shaquille O'Neal (20 points, 8-11 field goal shooting in 20 foul plagued minutes) and Jason Kapono (career-high 28 points, 6-7 three point shooting) led the Miami attack.

The Bottom Line: I believe that it was the comedian Denis Leary who used to have a commercial with the tag line "I think you hear me coming and I think I'm coming in." That is a good slogan for the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Who exactly should scare Miami? Washington, with Arenas misfiring three pointers from all angles, a leaky defense and no hope of guarding Shaq? Uh, no, I don't think so. Detroit? I don't like to be negative, so how can I put this delicately? When--I said "when," not "if"--Pat Riley returns, do you suspect that a coaching matchup with Flip Saunders worries him? How about facing a Pistons' defense that lacks Ben Wallace as an anchor? Cleveland? Yes, LeBron James can take over a playoff series but Wade can match him and Shaq will tip the scales--pun intended--in the Heat's favor. Chicago? Now we're getting warmer. The Bulls are the one Eastern Conference team that I think could beat a full strength Heat squad in a playoff series; Chicago made a pretty good run at Miami last year without Ben Wallace. With Big Ben, they will not have to double team Shaq as much. Still, Wade showed last year how one superstar can take over a playoff series. Chicago does not have that kind of player, while Miami not only has Wade but also Shaq, who may no longer be able to dominate an entire series but can certainly still dominate a game and still commands double teams that open up the court for Wade, Kapono and the rest of the Heat.

The scary thing about the Heat for everyone else in the East is that Miami could actually be better in this year's postseason than they were last year when they won the championship. For one thing, the Heat already know that they can win a title with this group, so any pressure or doubt relating to that issue is no longer present. Also, Kapono has emerged as a dead-eye three point shooter who even can make some off the dribble shots now; it's like Miami added a 6-8 Steve Kerr, only Kapono is more mobile and is an above average individual defender. With Wade attacking the basket, Shaq anchoring the paint and Kapono firing from deep, how exactly is a team supposed to guard the Heat? Granted, Shaq's old wheels could fall off at any point and Wade always seems to be one tumble away from a serious injury but if health does not bring down the Heat they may make a return trip to the Finals. Yes, Miami is currently the eighth seeded team in the East but they are also only 5.5 games behind the Wizards with 35 games to go. We'll find out if Agent Zero's hibachi can reach the same temperature that the Wade-Shaq Heat can.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:02 AM