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

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Don't Make Kobe Angry...You Won't Like Him When He's Angry

It has been a rough few days for Kobe Bryant. He is the only NBA player to receive two separate suspensions this season (several participants in the New York-Denver fight received more total games, of course) and the NBA recently reclassified his errant elbow that struck Kyle Korver in a March 9 game as a flagrant foul. The heightened attention on Bryant's elbows led Lakers Coach Phil Jackson to declare that the NBA is conducting a "witch hunt" against Bryant. Not surprisingly, the NBA responded by fining Jackson and the Lakers $50,000 each. Then on Thursday the Lakers got starters Lamar Odom and Luke Walton back and actually looked like a legitimate playoff team for the first time in a while--at least for a half. The Lakers built a 47-36 lead versus Denver but ran out of gas and got blown out, 113-86. Bryant had 25 points and nine assists, including several gorgeous feeds worthy of Steve Nash or any other great playmaker. Lakers not named Kobe Bryant shot 25-64 from the field (.391) and provided no resistance at the defensive end during the second half as L.A. lost for the seventh straight time, a personal career worst for Jackson.

Clearly, passing is an overrated--or at least fruitless--skill when the recipients of the ball can't shoot. So Bryant took a different approach during Friday's game against Portland, putting on an amazing offensive display, including a shot launched (and made) from well beyond half court. That one did not count--Bryant had been fouled just before he shot the ball--but he connected on 23 of his 39 attempts, including 8-12 from three point range. Bryant also made 11 of his 12 free throws. Add that all up and you get 65 points, an NBA season-high and the second best total of Bryant's career--and a 116-111 overtime win for the Lakers. Bryant poured in 24 points in the fourth quarter, including the three pointer that sent the game to overtime. Bryant scored the Lakers' last 15 points--nine of them on three pointers in the final 1:41--and assisted on the basket prior to his personal run, directly accounting for all of the Lakers' scoring in the closing 4:52 of regulation. Then Bryant scored the Lakers' first four points in overtime, contributing nine of his team's 18 points in the extra session.

If the MVP is supposed to be the best player on the best team, then Kobe Bryant will not get it this year. I think that the MVP should be awarded to the best player, period. Who is the player whose game is most complete, who cannot be guarded on offense and is an excellent defender as well? Is there another player in the NBA who can score 65 points in a game the way that Bryant did on Friday, with that shooting percentage, with that many fourth quarter and overtime points? Is there another player who can have such a game and NOT have it be the best game by far that he will ever play? Don't forget that Bryant scored 81 points in a game last season and had 62 points in three quarters last year versus the Mavericks, who later represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.

I love Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. Both players are fun to watch and either one will be a worthy MVP winner this season--but no one will ever convince me that Nash or Nowitzki is either "better" or "more valuable" than Bryant. Nowitzki and Nash are each surrounded by several players who are good or great. Bryant has no All-Star level teammates and his squad has been devastated by injuries. Yet, he remains completely unguardable and on any night that his team is even halfway healthy they can compete with anyone in the NBA; the Lakers own two wins over the Spurs this season (and a two point loss) and one versus Dallas--one of those teams will more than likely win the championship this year. What would Bryant do if he had some more talented teammates? We don't have to speculate about that because we already know--he won three championships when paired with Shaquille O'Neal and made a fourth Finals appearance. Exactly how many titles do Nash and Nowitzki have so far? None--and they actually played together for several seasons.

In the pilot episode of the TV series The Incredible Hulk, investigative reporter Jack McGee got a little too close to finding out that Dr. David Banner's alter ego is the Incredible Hulk and Banner--played by the late Bill Bixby--uttered this classic line: "Mr. McGee, don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry." Was Friday's performance just a one game outburst--or has the Incredible Hulk been unleashed in full fury? Until Odom and Walton reach full strength, the Lakers will need superhero-level performances from Bryant to maintain their position in the standings--and Bryant is quite capable of delivering those kind of performances.

***Fun Facts About Kobe Bryant's Scoring***

1) The Lakers are now 11-4 during Bryant's career when he scores at least 50 points.

2) This was Bryant's third 60 point game. The only other players to have at least three 60 point games are Wilt Chamberlain (32), Michael Jordan (4) and Elgin Baylor (3). The complete list of players who have scored 60 points in an NBA game can be found here.

3) According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bryant has scored 62 overtime points this season, more than anyone else in the NBA. Portland's Zach Randolph, who had six on Friday, is second with 49.

4) Kobe Bryant is now averaging 29.7 ppg for the season. Despite being slowed at the start of the season as he recovered from offseason knee surgery, he has now moved into a virtual tie with Carmelo Anthony in the race for the scoring title. Last week I wrote that Bryant is just one 71 point game away from passing Anthony. The funny thing about that is that Bryant is the one NBA player who you can write a sentence like that about and actually reasonably expect that he will have something approaching a 71 point game (I also noted that a couple 50 point games would do the trick, provided of course that Anthony does not respond in kind).

posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 AM


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Friday, March 16, 2007

Kenny Smith: Always Ahead of the Game

Kenny Smith had an excellent career at North Carolina and won two NBA championships with the Houston Rockets but he is hardly content to rest on his laurels. He, Charles Barkley and Ernie Johnson host TNT's Inside the NBA, must-see TV for NBA fans. Smith's broadcasting work has given him a platform to branch out into other areas, most notably when he gathered together dozens of NBA players on short notice for a charity game to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina. I recently spoke with Smith about being a teammate of Michael Jordan's, playing for Bill Russell in Sacramento, winning NBA titles and whether he would be interested in coaching and/or running a team at some point (if you pay close attention when Smith breaks down game film on air, you probably can guess the answer to that one).

My article about Smith can be found here (10/10/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Kenny Smith is best known now for appearing alongside Ernie Johnson and Charles Barkley on TNT's Inside the NBA, but he played with Michael Jordan for one season at North Carolina and later learned from Bill Russell when the Celtics legend coached the Sacramento Kings. Jordan and Russell each merit serious consideration as the greatest NBA player ever and they both left an indelible impression on Smith.

Jordan was a junior when Smith was a freshman. "No, I don't think that anyone could have foreseen that," Smith says of Jordan winning six NBA titles and five MVPs. "I think that you could see that he was going to be a hard worker and a good player, all of the positive things, but to be the greatest player to ever play in our lifetime? I might have treated him a little differently (Smith laughs). The one thing that I always tell young guys is that the things that used to be his deficiencies became his strengths as his career went on, which is incredible. In college, he wasn't a great ballhandler, he wasn't a great outside shooter; he was good. Then those things became his strengths in the NBA--his ballhandling ability and his outside jump shot and his turnaround jumpers and his shot on the baseline and pull-up jumpers. That is just a testament to how hard he worked. I always say that he was probably the first fundamentally sound great athlete."

Smith was voted a consensus First Team All-American in 1987 after his senior season at North Carolina, during which he averaged 16.9 ppg and 6.1 apg. He set a school record for career assists with 768 (since broken by Ed Cota).

The Kings selected Smith with the sixth overall pick. Sacramento was a bad team and Russell lasted less than a season as the team's coach. But two decades later Smith still vividly recalls words of wisdom from the greatest winner in the history of North American team sports. "I could write a book," Smith says with a laugh. "It was a great experience; any time that you are around greatness it is a great experience. I always said, 'Coach, you talk like Confucius. Every time you talk it seems like you have a quote that should be written down as a proverb somewhere.' I think that he took a special liking to me. He was coming in as a coach and he drafted me. I always had to sit next to him on the bus and always had to sit next to him on the plane. So he talked my ear off--anybody who knows Bill knows he is a talker. Even to this day--I went to China two years ago and he expected me to sit next to him. I took my daughter and she was laughing, 'He likes talking to you.'"

During a recent TNT broadcast, Smith mentioned that Russell would sometimes tell the Kings' big men, "Just go get the ball." Smith noted that for great players the game really is simple--you see the ball and you go get it. "I think that the one thing you would say is that great players take for granted that they are great and they expect greatness from others," Smith explains. "A lot of times, when you expect greatness from others, obviously, you are not going to receive that. I think that was probably a big aspect of what was frustrating at times for a lot of guys on our team. For me, it wasn't frustrating, honestly. I had been around Coach (Dean) Smith and all these great players at North Carolina. It wasn't a big misunderstanding, so to speak, about how to decipher what he was actually trying to get out of you--for me it wasn't."

Smith tells another story about Russell that he'll never forget. "We could be in the middle of a team meeting and he's telling us what we need to do, what we did wrong, defensively we didn't do a good job and oh, by the way, Bill and John go see the trainer," Smith says. "You're thinking, 'Wait a minute, he just cut these guys.' It's kind of a little insensitive but as a great player you're thinking that he will get a job somewhere. But for a guy who is on the bubble, who is not a great player, that was his one chance to be in the league."

Smith was in no danger of being cut, of course, and he savored the opportunity to learn the ropes from a great champion. "For me he was great because he told me all the great stories of how great teams thought," Smith continues. "He wouldn't let me sit next to certain guys. 'Don't sit next to him. You can't talk to him, Kenny. This guy doesn't want to win. He's never going to be a winner; you don’t want to sit next to him.'"

Smith spent two and a half seasons with the Kings, finishing the 1989-90 campaign in Atlanta before ending up with the Houston Rockets. In 1990-91, Smith scored 17.7 ppg for the Rockets while shooting .520 from the field, .363 from three-point range and .844 from the free throw line. He also averaged 7.1 apg and had a career-high 106 steals. In some years, those numbers would merit selection to the All-Star team but that honor eluded Smith during his 10-year NBA career.

"I don't think that I was underappreciated," Smith says thoughtfully. "I don't think that I was underrated. I think that when I played, we had guys who were perennial guys. You know, it would almost be like trying to make it to the All-Star Game now as a forward in the Western Conference. Tim Duncan is going to be there. Kevin Garnett is going to be there. Dirk Nowitzki is going to be there. I was in that situation because it was point guard heaven when I was playing."

The 1991 West All-Stars included point guards Magic Johnson, Kevin Johnson, Terry Porter, John Stockton and Tim Hardaway, plus shooting guard Clyde Drexler. "I just came up in the wrong time, in the wrong position, and I know that," Smith says. "It doesn't bother me as much (now) as probably it did when I was playing. My father asked me one time, 'Would you rather be a perennial All-Star or win two NBA championships?' I had never won one at the time he said that. I said, 'I'll take two championships.' Here it is at the end of my career that I have two championships and no All-Star appearances. So I guess I talked my way into it. So I always tell my son, 'You want to be a perennial All-Star who wins five championships.'"

Smith started at point guard for most of his six seasons in Houston but during the two championship seasons in 1994 and 1995 he split time with Sam Cassell, who was just a rookie in 1994. Cassell often played during key fourth quarter minutes, which meant that Smith sat on the bench. Smith defused what could have become a very awkward situation.

"All of my life I had been 'that guy,' so to speak, who ran the show," Smith says. "I had to start practicing what I had always preached to guys who were coming into the league or guys who were coming to North Carolina. I used to say, 'First of all, just because you are not playing doesn't mean you can't play. Remember that.' The other thing is, 'You can never be in competition with me.' I used to tell guys, 'Don't be in competition with me. I'm on your team.' I pulled Sam aside--because the papers love to say, 'This guy should be starting' or 'This guy's better'--and this is when we had no problems, because I said, 'Sam, you'll never have to worry about this.' He said, 'What?' and I said, 'That when you're in the game I'm hoping that you're doing badly. You'll never have to worry about that.'"

It turns out that Smith's words made a greater impression on Cassell than Smith realized at that time. "You know, to this day he says that was one of the biggest phrases that helped him to relax and become a good basketball player," Smith adds. "I had him on my radio show maybe three months ago and we were talking about Shaun Livingston--before he got hurt--and he said he had that conversation with Shaun. The reason he did it is because I had that conversation with him. That almost brought chills to me--I was like, 'Wow.'"

Smith retired from the NBA when he was just 31. He still had offers to play, but they came in the form of one-year contracts. "I did not feel that those one-year situations were productive for me because of my kids and having to fly around--it wasn't productive," Smith says. "I was playing for the love of the game, but I didn't love the teams that were calling me."

Just as Smith was beginning to consider retirement, he received an offer from TNT. The timing was perfect. Being on TNT has provided Smith a platform that he can use to have an impact on society in a variety of ways, most notably by organizing a charity game to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. Smith feels blessed that he had the opportunity and the ability to bring so many players together so quickly for such an important cause. "I think that one thing that I have found--after getting 42 NBA players for the Katrina game, 23 or 24 of whom have been All-Stars and a lot of them perennial All-Stars--is that guys always want to do something (positive) but they are not sure what to do, whether it is charitable or if its societal or if its business. They always want to be involved in something but are not sure how to initiate it or how to be the one to initiate it."

Smith's philanthropy consists of a lot more than that game, though. Smith explains that he started the Aim High Foundation "for inner city kids in New York, to help them achieve goals through sports and education. That was primarily what we did (at first), from giving kids coats to wear to school to buying them books to taking them to basketball camps and basketball tournaments. After New Orleans, there became an added part to help Katrina victims."

When Smith analyzes basketball on TNT, he sounds like a coach designing a game plan or a general manager trying to construct a team. This is not an accident. Smith is very interested in becoming an NBA coach or general manager at some point. "I think that it's inevitable, because of what is transpiring from what I say on television," Smith says. "It's pretty easy to see my philosophies, how I think about the game and what my thought processes are. That's the first thing. Then, it helps that people can see your personality and they know what type of guy you are, so to speak. Lastly, the things that have happened in the last year or two show my ability to be a magnet, to bring players together for different events. I think that woke a lot of people up (to the fact) that I can get to this guy. I know that obviously the situation with Katrina had a big part and was divine intervention but also I was put there as a vehicle. So that spoke a lot of volume about (my) ability to make things happen."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM


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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Clash of the Titans: Phoenix Wears Down Dallas, 129-127 (2 OT)

In a highly entertaining prelude to a possible playoff showdown, the Phoenix Suns took a 16 point first half lead over the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night and survived a huge Dallas comeback to prevail 129-127 in double overtime. Both teams made impressive runs just when the other team seemed to have put the game out of reach. Steve Nash had 32 points, 16 assists and eight rebounds. He scored 10 points in the last 57 seconds of regulation and hit the three pointer that tied the game at 111, sending the contest into overtime. Nash also made a key defensive play near the end of the second overtime, deflecting a Dallas inbounds pass off of Jason Terry, regaining possession for the Suns. Amare Stoudemire also had a tremendous night, making 12 consecutive field goals at one point and finishing with 41 points and 10 rebounds, shooting a blistering 16-19 from the field. Jerry Stackhouse led Dallas with a season-high 33 points, while Dirk Nowitzki had 30 points, 16 rebounds and six assists. Nowitzki shot just 11-28 from the field, missed a key free throw late in regulation, and cost his team a point in the second overtime by losing his composure and getting whistled for a technical foul (he did seem to have a legitimate gripe but chose the wrong time and manner to express it). He also missed a jumper that could have tied the game at the end of the second overtime. Jason Terry finished with 27 points, five assists and five rebounds.

While this is a thrilling win for the Suns and their fans, it is important to note that Phoenix is still just 2-6 against the other top teams in the West--Dallas, San Antonio and Utah--while Dallas is 5-3 against San Antonio, Phoenix and Utah. This game showcased all of Phoenix' strengths and weaknesses. The Suns are a great offensive team. Nash is a masterful creator and a very accurate shooter. Stoudemire is not merely living off of Nash's assists but also creating his own opportunities with powerful one on one drives to the hoop. Shawn Marion is "Mr. Do Everything," contributing 15 points, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals. The speedy Leandro Barbosa provides instant offense off of the bench (17 points). The Suns shot .557 from the field and made more than .800 of their fourth quarter field goal attempts. The bad news? The Mavericks pounded them on the glass, 55-38, including 27 offensive rebounds. The Mavericks accomplished a 32 point swing--from down 16 to up 16--by being physical, shutting off dribble penetration and attacking the Suns in the paint on offense. Phoenix will not become bigger, stronger or more aggressive in the playoffs. What will happen in a playoff game if the Suns are not able to shoot at such an astronomical rate? Dallas is a more physical team and a more defensive minded team. Anyone who has watched Phoenix play knows that even if the Suns have a double digit lead that the other team can come back. The Suns cannot put away teams because they don't have the mindset to play the kind of defense that is necessary to do that. During the regular season they can run most of the inferior teams out of the gym, hitting them with waves and waves of offense. This style does not work at the championship level of the playoffs, because in the postseason there is more time off between games and all of the teams have at least eight highly talented players. Barring an injury to Nowitzki, I cannot see the Suns beating the Mavericks in a seven game series, nor can I see them beating the Spurs in a seven game series unless Tim Duncan is sidelined by injury.

This game does reveal at least one chink in Dallas' armor, though, and this must not be glossed over: the Mavericks seem to lack a killer instinct at times. Who can forget last year's NBA Finals, when Dallas was just six minutes away from taking a 3-0 lead? Who would have thought at that point that the Mavericks would not win another game in that series? Dallas was one free throw or one rebound or one stop away from winning this game in the fourth quarter but failed to grasp each of those opportunities. Detroit raced to a great regular season record last year but faltered in the playoffs. Dallas will face tougher teams in the 2007 Western Conference playoffs than the Pistons did in the 2006 Eastern Conference playoffs, including a San Antonio Spurs team that has looked unbeatable since the All-Star break. This loss has to remind Dallas' players and coaches of last year's failure in the Finals. Dallas' theme this year is supposed to be "Finish" and the Mavericks certainly failed to do that on Wednesday night. The rematch in a couple weeks in Phoenix, the final regular season meeting between these two teams, should be very interesting.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:46 AM


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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

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

Dwyane who? Miami is now 8-2 since "Flash" got hurt, has won seven games in a row and has moved into the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Regular 20 Second Timeout readers are not surprised by the Heat's strong play without Wade, which was predicted in this space 11 days ago.

The Score: Miami 88, Utah 86

The Key Stat: Miami overcame a 17 point second half deficit as Shaq had 13 points and nine rebounds in less than 27 minutes and Antoine Walker scored all 13 of his points in the final 11 minutes.

The Bottom Line: Miami now owns the longest current winning streak in the Eastern Conference and is just a half game behind the Washington Wizards, who currently are the first place team in the Southeast Division. The Wizards are reeling, losing seven of their last 10, and Miami can move up to the fourth seed by passing the Wizards and winning the division title.

The Score: Cleveland 124, Sacramento 100

The Key Stat: Cleveland is 3-0 this year when LeBron James does not play and 9-2 without him since he joined the team in 2003-04.

The Bottom Line: Cleveland made up for James' absence with strong performances from Zydrunas Ilgauskas (19 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists), Larry Hughes (25 points, seven assists and six rebounds) and Sasha Pavlovic (25 points, six assists). The Cavaliers have been accused of coasting for most of the season but they have won six straight and own the second best record in the East, trailing Detroit by just two games. Clearly, this team consists of a lot more talent than just LeBron James and the Cavaliers will be a formidable playoff team.

The Score: San Antonio 93, L.A. Clippers 84

The Key Stat: San Antonio is enjoying a 13 game winning streak, the team's longest of the season and the longest active streak in the league.

The Bottom Line: Everyone knows that Dallas is having a tremendous season but the Spurs have a good chance to win 60 games. Last year's playoff series between the two Texas rivals was a down to the wire classic and if they meet this year we can expect more of the same. Although Dallas has the better record, San Antonio is performing better in both point differential and defensive field goal percentage, two very important statistical categories. Regardless of these teams' final records, if both squads are healthy then a playoff series featuring them will be very, very closely contested.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:27 AM


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Monday, March 12, 2007

A New Chapter in the Book of Isiah

I'd like to file a missing persons report. Remember all the "experts" who breathlessly informed us that Isiah Thomas is a bad coach and even worse as an executive? They've all disappeared--or at least become very quiet. Thomas' New York Knicks have steadily improved throughout the season and have actually worked their way up to the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Knicks owner James Dolan has decided to reward Thomas' efforts with a multi-year contract extension. The exact terms of the deal have not been publicly announced but Dolan explained why he made the move now as opposed to waiting until the end of the season. You may remember that he gave Thomas an ultimatum before this season to produce "significant progress"--or else. Dolan said that this goal has already been reached: "I feel that the team and Isiah have shown that significant and evident progress, that they are a better team. We're all excited about the opportunity to make the playoffs but I'm also excited what this team is going to look like next year. That I feel that way is that we've created a great foundation for building this franchise. That is signficant progress. Because we reached that goal now, it has to be recognized and not wait an additional 19 games."

Five weeks ago, I detailed how much the Knicks have improved and asked, "Is there any reason that Thomas should not be a candidate for both Executive of the Year and Coach of the Year?" Admittedly, this was before the Mavericks began making a serious run at 68-70 wins; I would not argue with anyone who says that Dallas' Avery Johnson should repeat as the NBA's Coach of the Year. No one has ever won the award in consecutive seasons, though, and the honor usually goes to the coach whose team has exceeded expectations to the greatest degree as opposed to the coach of the best team; maybe those criteria are faulty, but--whether one looks at these precedents or simply considers what Thomas and the Knicks have accomplished in the shadow of Dolan's ultimatum--it is clear that Thomas is a worthy Coach of the Year candidate.

posted by David Friedman @ 9:47 PM


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