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Friday, April 20, 2007

2006-2007 NBA Playoff Preview

Is it my imagination or has nearly everyone in the United States already written a playoff preview? You may wonder why you should read this one, so it is worth mentioning my recent record as a predictor: in my 2006-07 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked seven of the eight teams that made it to the playoffs. One of my misses was Toronto--I saw the Raptors coming but did not expect them to arrive until next season: "I actually like Toronto’s moves and think that the Raptors will be much improved. If everything breaks right the Raptors could grab the eighth playoff spot but I expect that Toronto’s breakthrough season will be in 2007-08." In my 2006-07 Western Conference Preview I went six for eight. I tapped Sacramento instead of Golden State for the West's eighth seed but wrote, "it would not be shocking to see Don Nelson guide this team to the last playoff spot, particularly if Baron Davis can stay healthy." I was really only way off with one choice: picking the Clippers instead of the Jazz. I expressed some misgivings about the Clippers ("The Clippers have no track record for sustaining greatness--or even viable playoff contending status") but went with them anyway. I honestly did not see Utah coming at all but the way they ended the season they may be going soon--as in, going home after being eliminated.

Last year, I correctly picked the outcome of 10 of the 15 playoff series; my main "nemesis" was the Miami Heat, who won three series that I expected them to lose.

Of course, as the saying goes, past performance is no guarantee of future results. I think that I have a pretty good handle on what is going to happen in the West (barring an injury to a key player)--but the East, other than two doormats, is pretty well packed together. Frankly, if Miami, Chicago or Cleveland made it to the Finals I would not be shocked. Even though Detroit is the number one seed, I would be surprised--not shocked, but surprised--if the Pistons make it, simply because I do not trust Flip Saunders or Chris Webber in big playoff games. Honestly, if your life was on the line based on the outcome of the playoffs, would you feel great if Flip Saunders was your coach and Chris Webber was your starting center?

Here is my take on the first round matchups, what I think will happen after that and who I predict to win it all.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Detroit (53-29) vs. #8 Orlando (40-42)

Season series: Detroit, 4-0

Orlando can win if...Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway and Lil' Penny sign ten day contracts. As I wrote last year when Milwaukee played Detroit in the first round, "the only other chance is that Detroit loses at least three starters to injuries, foul trouble or suspensions."

Detroit will win because...the Pistons are simply the superior team. Detroit sometimes drops a game even against inferior teams but this one really has sweep written all over it.

Other things to consider: Orlando has been fading for a while and basically backed into the playoffs merely because the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks faded even more dramatically. Detroit has played very well since picking up Chris Webber without having to give up anybody.

#2 Cleveland (50-32) vs. #7 Washington (41-41)

Season series: Cleveland, 2-1

Washington can win if...Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler go to Lourdes and get healed. Actually, even that won't help; the injuries to Arenas and Butler enable people to ignore the fact that Washington was dropping in the standings before they got hurt. I believe that the Wizards would have lost in the first round even if they were at full strength.

Cleveland will win because...the Cavaliers beat the Wizards in last year's playoffs when Washington had Arenas and Butler, so there is no reason to think that they will lose to them this year.

Other things to consider: It will be interesting to see Cleveland's mindset in this series. Washington is the type of overmatched opponent that a legitimate championship contender should sweep. Will the Cavaliers have enough focus and concentration to do that, thereby earning some extra rest between rounds?

#3 Toronto (47-35) vs. #6 New Jersey (41-41)

Season series: 2-2

Toronto can win if...if the team's young nucleus continues to play the way that it has throughout the season. That's the rub, of course: you never know how players will react to playoff pressure until they experience it firsthand.

New Jersey will win because...Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson all have a significant amount of playoff experience. This team beat the Heat in game one at Miami last year but Jefferson's ankle injury and Cliff Robinson's suspension contributed to Miami being able to win the next four games.

Other things to consider: I've been touting the Nets for over a year now and they have never failed to fall short of my expectations. Naturally, when I finally picked against them, writing that they would lose to Chicago, they played one of their best games of the year and defeated the Bulls in the final game of the regular season, rearranging the Eastern Conference playoff seedings. This Nets team can be very dangerous and despite this being a #3-#6 matchup Toronto only won six more games than New Jersey during the regular season.

#4 Miami (44-38) vs. #5 Chicago (49-33)

Season series: Chicago, 3-1

Miami can win if...Shaquille O'Neal plays the way he did down the stretch of the season, Dwyane Wade is healthy enough to be a late game closer and the Heat's role players make the open shots that become available because of the extra defensive attention that is slanted toward O'Neal and Wade.

Chicago will win because...the Bulls fought hard against Miami last year even without having Ben Wallace. The addition of Wallace plus Wade's shoulder injury should be enough to help the Bulls to prevail.

Other things to consider: This is, by far, the toughest first round series to pick. It reminds me of last year, when I wrote that San Antonio is thismuch better than Dallas--and then Dallas won game seven in overtime. I have maintained for quite some time that Wallace provides the element that Chicago has been missing--interior defense--so I almost feel duty bound to pick the Bulls but their loss to New Jersey in the last game of the regular season almost made me change my mind; in essence, that was a road playoff game, with the second seed at stake, and the Bulls did not respond well. Still, sooner or later the Bulls would have had to knock off Miami or Detroit and I think that they have the capability to put the New Jersey loss behind them and perform well in the playoffs.

Western Conference First Round

#1 Dallas (67-15) vs. #8 Golden State (42-40)

Season series: Golden State, 3-0

Golden State can win if...Coach Don Nelson continues to keep the Mavericks off balance by pushing the ball and creating mismatches based on using a small lineup.

Dallas will win because...the Mavericks are on a mission to return to the Finals and finish the job that they did not complete last year. Despite the fact that Golden State swept the regular season series I do not think that Dallas will struggle as much in this series as some people seem to think.

Other things to consider: Over 82 games, the Warriors were little more than a .500 team. Granted, they have been coming on strong in the closing portion of the season but, other than a slow first week, Dallas has been a juggernaut for several months.

#2 Phoenix (61-21) vs. #6 Los Angeles Lakers (42-40)

Season series: Phoenix, 3-1

Los Angeles can win if...the Lakers stick with the game plan of pounding the ball inside on offense and slowing down the Suns' transition game on defense. Kobe Bryant will provide whatever his team needs on a game to game basis--whether that is 40-plus points and/or crisp passing out of double-teams--but the Lakers will rise or fall based on the production of their centers and point guards, who simply have to play better than they did for most of the season.

Phoenix will win because...the Suns are a better team than the Lakers and are more consistent at doing the things that they do well than the Lakers are at doing the things that they do well. If the Lakers did not have Kobe Bryant, they would not have even come close to making the playoffs.

Other things to consider: The Lakers blew a golden opportunity against the Suns last year but, unfortunately for them, they cannot simply press a button and go back to when they had a 3-1 lead. L.A. has faded badly down the stretch, while Phoenix is healthy and has Amare Stoudemire, who did not play in last year's playoffs.

#3 San Antonio (58-24) vs. Denver (45-37)

Season series: San Antonio, 2-1

Denver can win if...the Nuggets make a consistent effort to play good defense, Marcus Camby has a dominant performance at that end of the court and both Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson not only score 25-plus ppg each but also create open shots for their teammates.

San Antonio will win because...the Spurs spend all season getting ready for this time of year. They play suffocating defense and Tim Duncan has proven his greatness as a playoff performer, leading the Spurs to three titles and winning three Finals MVPs.

Other things to consider: For the third straight year Denver is the proverbial "team that nobody wants to face." I have noted previously that such teams generally exit meekly in the first round and that is what Denver did on both of those occasions. Don't expect to see anything different this time around, either.

#4 Utah (51-31) vs. #5 Houston (52-30)

Season series: Utah, 3-1

Utah can win if...the Jazz play the way that they did early in the season; the Jazz have collapsed in the latter part of the season, losing six of their last nine games--and one of the wins came against a Houston team that rested both Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.

Houston will win because...the Rockets have two legitimate MVP level players in Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. Yao missed over 30 games and this team still posted the NBA's fifth best record, so the Rockets obviously have good depth, too.

Other things to consider: The teams look evenly matched on paper and played some very competitive games during the regular season but Houston closed the season on a good note, going 12-5, and both McGrady and Yao appear to be completely healthy.

If these series go as I have predicted, we will see second round matchups of Detroit-Chicago, Cleveland-New Jersey, Dallas-Houston and San Antonio-Phoenix. Each of those series could go six or seven games. I think that the conference finalists will be Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas and San Antonio. Those two matchups also look like they could last for six or seven games. The seeding fell into place perfectly for the Cavaliers: they will have home court advantage against anyone in the East but Detroit and will face weaker opposition while Chicago has to battle past both Miami and Detroit, which will take a toll. I think that LeBron James will lead Cleveland past Chicago and into the Finals. The Dallas-San Antonio showdown is something that basketball fans have been anticipating since the season began. In my regular season preview, I wrote, "It would not surprise me if the Mavericks won the 2007 NBA title but they were in a dead heat with the Spurs for most of last season and I think that the Spurs will beat them this year." Now that the regular season is over I still think the same way. Yes, Dallas won 67 games and certainly is capable of winning the championship, but there just is not that much separating these teams--it is almost like the early 1980s when Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers battled Larry Bird's Boston Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy. They met in the Eastern Conference Finals four times in six years, with each team winning twice. Last year was Nowitzki's turn but this year Duncan will prevail. After that, I expect his Spurs to beat James' Cavs in six games in the Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:51 AM

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NBA Leaderboard, Part XVI (final edition)

The Dallas Mavericks' 67 wins are the most by an NBA team since the L.A. Lakers matched that total in 1999-2000, the first of three championship years for the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant L.A. Lakers. Bryant claimed his second consecutive scoring title, the first Laker to accomplish that since George Mikan won his third straight in 1951. Kevin Garnett took an even earlier vacation than his slumping Timberwolves did but he won his fourth straight rebounding title. Steve Nash seemingly had his third straight assists title wrapped up by the All-Star Break.

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

1) Dallas Mavericks, 67-15
2) Phoenix Suns, 61-21
3) San Antonio Spurs, 58-24
4) Detroit Pistons, 53-29
5) Houston Rockets, 52-30

Houston has to be the "quietest" 50-plus win team that the NBA has seen in a while. Yao Ming missed more than 30 games and Tracy McGrady battled a balky back but the Rockets still finished with the fifth best record in the league. Five Western teams won at least 50 games (the Utah Jazz just missed the top five with a 51-31 record) while just two Eastern teams reached that plateau: Detroit and Cleveland (50-32). The bottom two playoff teams in the West, the Warriors and the Lakers, are each 42-40, while the East has one playoff team with a losing record and two that finished 41-41. Just 13 wins separate seeds one through eight in the East, while 25 wins separate Dallas from the Warriors and the Lakers.

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

1) Kobe Bryant, LAL 31.6 ppg
2) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 28.9 ppg
3) Gilbert Arenas, WSH 28.4 ppg
4) LeBron James, CLE 27.5 ppg
5) Ray Allen, SEA 26.4 ppg
6) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.3 ppg
7) Vince Carter, NJN 25.2 ppg
8) Joe Johnson, ATL 25.0 ppg
9) Tracy McGrady, HOU 24.6 ppg
10) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 24.6 ppg

17) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 20.4 ppg

19) Tim Duncan, SAS 20.0 ppg

26) Steve Nash, PHX 18.6 ppg

Bryant's scoring explosion in the second half of the season is unlike anything the NBA has seen since Wilt Chamberlain was in his prime. Bryant went from fourth place (28.7 ppg) on Leaderboard X (February 15) to first place (30.0 ppg) in barely a month--and then he added another 1.6 ppg to his average by producing several 40 and 50 point games that enabled the Lakers to win just enough games to qualify for the playoffs.

If you have been following the Leaderboard throughout the season then you are probably wondering why Dwyane Wade is not listed. In order to be ranked among the league scoring leaders a player must score 1400 points or appear in at least 70 games. Wade scored 1397 points in 51 games (28.4 ppg), missing the cut by three points.

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

1) Kevin Garnett, MIN 12.8 rpg
2) Tyson Chandler, NOK 12.4 rpg
3) Dwight Howard, ORL 12.3 rpg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.7 rpg
5) Marcus Camby, DEN 11.7 rpg
6) Ben Wallace, CHI 10.7 rpg
7) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.6 rpg
8) Shawn Marion, PHX 9.8 rpg
9) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 9.6 rpg
10) Elton Brand, LAC 9.3 rpg

13) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.9 rpg

17) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.2 rpg

25) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.2 rpg

Recently, Kevin Garnett has done two things: win rebounding titles and miss the playoffs. He now owns four straight rebounding titles and has not qualified for postseason play in three years. Has there ever been a former NBA MVP whose team missed the playoffs for three straight years after he won that award?

The supposedly "disappointing" Ben Wallace ranked sixth in rebounding with 10.7 rpg after ranking fourth with an 11.3 rpg average last year, when he won his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award. Wallace's old team, Detroit, fell from 64 wins to 53 while his new team, Chicago, improved from 41 wins to 49. Of course, the final verdict on Wallace's free agent signing with the Bulls will not be rendered until after the playoffs.

The Nets have been inconsistent this year but Jason Kidd turned in one of the best performances of his career. The 6-4 guard averaged nearly as many rpg as 7-0 Dirk Nowitzki, who will probably win his first MVP.

Rasheed Wallace, a multi-talented power forward, rebounds more like a small forward, finishing just ahead of Luol Deng, Josh Howard and LeBron James.

Top Ten Playmakers
----------------------

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.6 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 9.3 apg
3) Jason Kidd, NJN 9.2 apg
4) Chris Paul, NOK 8.9 apg
5) Baron Davis, GSW 8.1 apg
6) T.J. Ford, TOR 7.9 apg
7) Andre Miller, PHI 7.8 apg
8) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.2 apg
9) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.2 apg
10) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.0 apg

Nash has been the runaway leader all season long, while Williams, Kidd, Paul and Davis battled for spots two through five. T.J. Ford averaged just 29.9 mpg, significantly fewer than any of the other top ten players.

Starbury finished 20th (5.4 apg)--and undoubtedly still believes that he is the best point guard in the NBA.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

posted by David Friedman @ 2:57 AM

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Acing the Finals Test

Winning an NBA championship is the ultimate validation of a great player's career. Unless he passes that test there is an empty space on his resume. Nine of the 10 players who have the highest career NBA Finals scoring averages captured at least one NBA championship. I look at the Finals accomplishments of each of those 10 players, plus one bonus player and a handful of active players who have averaged 20-plus ppg in their Finals careers, in my newest article for NBCSports.com:

Acing the Finals Test

Here is a chart with more information about these players:

Top 10 Career Finals Scoring Averages


Player... PPG...Points...Games... Series W-L

Rick Barry... 36.3... 363... 10... 1-1
Michael Jordan... 33.6... 1176... 35... 6-0
Jerry West... 30.5... 1679... 55... 1-8
Shaquille O'Neal... 28.8... 865... 30... 4-2
Bob Pettit... 28.4... 709... 25... 1-3
Hakeem Olajuwon... 27.5... 467... 17... 2-1
Elgin Baylor... 26.4... 1161... 44... 0-7
Julius Erving... 25.5... 561... 22... 1-3
Joe Fulks... 24.7... 272... 11... 1-1
Clyde Drexler... 24.5... 367... 15 1-2

Top Active Players

Shaquille O'Neal... 28.8... 865... 30... 4-2
Tim Duncan... 23.7... 426... 18... 3-0
Kobe Bryant... 22.2... 421... 19... 3-1
Chauncey Billups... 20.7... 248... 12... 1-1
Jason Kidd...20.1... 201... 10... 0-2

Minimum of 10 Finals games

posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 PM

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ABA Legacy Article Reprinted at Legends of Basketball

Legends of Basketball has reprinted my ABA Legacy article, adding some photos from this year's All-Star Weekend Legends brunch (one of the captions states, incorrectly, that Artis Gilmore was selected to the "Top 50"; he was a unanimous selection to the 30 member ABA All-Time Team but was not included in the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List--EDIT: this caption was corrected on April 24, 2007).

Here is the link:

The Legacy of the ABA

posted by David Friedman @ 8:52 AM

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Cavs Beat Bucks 109-96, Clinch Second Seed in East

LeBron James had 24 points, nine assists and five rebounds as the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 109-96 at Quicken Loans Arena. Earl Boykins led Milwaukee with 28 points and seven assists. Cleveland's win, coupled with New Jersey beating Chicago 106-97 and Washington edging Indiana 98-95, moved the Cavs up to the second seed in the East and dropped Chicago from second to fifth. Cleveland will play Washington in the first round, a rematch of last year's first round--but the depleted Wizards will be without the services of Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler. Chicago could have earned that seemingly easy matchup simply by winning in New Jersey; now the Bulls will have to face the defending champion Miami Heat in the first round, though the Bulls will have homecourt advantage. If the Bulls survive that test then they will most likely meet top seed Detroit in the second round. Reversal of fortune does not begin to describe this turn of events.

Cleveland jumped on Milwaukee from the opening tip, building a 26-11 lead less than six minutes into the game. It seemed like the Cavaliers would cruise to victory against a team that, as Kenny Smith would put it, had one foot on the basketball court and one foot in Acapulco. Instead, Ruben Patterson scored 10 first quarter points on 4-5 field goal shooting and the Bucks pulled to within 31-22 by the end of the period. It was Boykins' turn to shine in the second quarter and the 5-5 guard who briefly played for Cleveland several years ago shot 5-6 from the field and scored 10 points as the Bucks rallied to take a 47-46 lead before the Cavaliers closed the half with an 8-4 run--three James baskets plus an Anderson Varejao dunk off of an assist by James.

Throughout the game, most of the assembled media literally kept one eye on the court and one eye on TV screens that displayed the New Jersey-Chicago game (broadcast by ESPN). I kept a running tally in my notebook of the scores of both games at various stoppages of play. New Jersey led 31-22 after the first quarter but a Cavaliers loss would clinch the second seed for Chicago based on tiebreaks, so when Milwaukee took that brief lead the Cleveland fans were understandably restless.

Cleveland only outscored Milwaukee 25-21 in the third quarter and the Cavs had a 79-71 lead going into the fourth quarter (New Jersey led Chicago 52-40 at halftime). James scored seven points in the final period but the unlikely hero for the Cavaliers was Donyell Marshall, who scored 12 points on 5-6 shooting and added four rebounds. Cleveland led by as many as 17 and never let the Bucks get within 10 after pushing the margin to double digits with 10:56 remaining. The undermanned Bucks played without All-Star Michael Redd, Dan Gadzuric and Brian Skinner and lost starting center Jared Reiner early in the game after he injured his knee. The Cavaliers outrebounded the Bucks 53-30 but Milwaukee's small lineup countered by shooting 12-29 from three point range. Marshall's three point play with 3:57 left put the game out of reach at 101-85 and, by pushing the Cavaliers' total over 100, earned a free chalupa for every fan in attendance (New Jersey led 64-55 midway through the third quarter at this point).

In his postgame standup, Ckeveland Coach Mike Brown praised his team's defensive effort both in this game and during the course of the season: "We took care of business. They're a tough team because they have so many shooters and guys who can can score. They just spread you out and keep driving and kicking...On the year, we had a good, solid year. We improved defensively; we started talking the language. We moved up 11 spots in both opponent's field goal percentage and opponent's points per game. That's big...We have to be able to defend to win ball games in the playoffs. Our guys did a nice job of it throughout most of the year. We were more consistent. We still have room to grow on that side of the ball."

After the game, James expressed pride about posting a second consecutive 50 win season: "It's a big accomplishment. Not a lot of teams get an opportunity to do that. We had 46 wins with four games left and we did it...No matter who we were put up against, we honestly just destroyed teams and played well offensively and defensively."


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

The Cavaliers gave away more than $500,000 worth of prizes in honor of Fan Appreciation Night. Their generosity extended to the media as well; the team provided free massages and a large cake for the writers and photographers.

***

LeBron James has averaged at least 27 points, six assists and six rebounds for three straight seasons; Oscar Robertson is the only other player who accomplished this.

***

Cleveland joins Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio and Detroit as the only teams to win at least 50 games in each of the past two seasons.

***

After the game, Cavaliers players, team officials and many members of the media watched most of the conclusion of the New Jersey-Chicago game on the big screen TV in the locker room before the Cavs' P.R. Department closed the locker room to all non-team personnel. The game could still be seen on the massive screen on the basketball court--the Cavaliers allowed ticketholders to stay until the Nets-Bulls game concluded--and on the TVs in the media room; I actually expected the locker room to be closed sooner than it was, because all of the writers had finished doing their interviews and were basically just standing around watching the TV. As he closely watched the game, LeBron James voiced his great delight when Bostjan Nachbar made some big three pointers and he shook his head in dismay when the Nets let Ben Wallace score a layup without fouling the notoriously poor free throw shooter. Despite any cliches that are uttered from time to time about seedings and matchups not mattering it was pretty clear that the Cavaliers preferred being the second seed to being the fifth seed, which is of course a perfectly logical way to feel.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:05 AM

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Pundits React to Crawford Suspension

Most commentators seem to be unaware that Jake O'Donnell's career ended just as suddenly as Joey Crawford's apparently has, so several expressed surprise about the indefinite suspension levied by David Stern. The only difference between O'Donnell in 1995 and Crawford in 2007 is the intense media coverage now that makes it impossible for the NBA to simply sweep the whole thing under the rug. The NBA cannot have a referee become the main story in any game, let alone the upcoming playoff games that will decide who wins the 2007 championship. To the best of my knowledge, I am the first person who noted that O'Donnell is the most apt historical parallel to the Crawford situation, a point that I made when I wrote a post shortly after the Spurs-Mavs game ended. O'Donnell's ejection of Clyde Drexler from a 1995 playoff game--after refusing to shake Drexler's hand before the game--led to the immediate end of O'Donnell's long and distinguished career. O'Donnell never officiated another game and then announced his retirement months later. That would never work now. Instead, Stern spent Tuesday appearing on various TV and radio programs explaining why he suspended Crawford (it should also be noted that Duncan was fined $25,000 for his post-ejection comments; I have yet to hear whether or not the NBA has formally rescinded the second technical foul and the automatic fine associated with it). Not surprisingly, not everybody agreed with Stern's decision.

Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon and others expressed surprise at Stern's suspension, apparently unaware of the O'Donnell precedent. Tim Legler, Woody Paige and others opined that Stern's action is too, well, stern--and they are wrong. I think that Stern is 100% correct now, just as he was when he made sure that O'Donnell never returned to the court; any official who acts like he is bigger than the game is a menace to the league's integrity, pure and simple. I don't care how highly he grades out from a technical standpoint--Crawford, like O'Donnell, lacks the proper attitude to officiate NBA games. Crawford proved that with his response to Stern: Crawford said that he would not hesitate to eject Duncan again under similar circumstances. So, Crawford is not only wrong but he is also unrepentant. Furthermore, as Stern noted, Crawford is a repeat offender who Stern previously warned about exactly this kind of conduct.

Calling the suspension "indefinite" as opposed to "permanent" is a smart move by Stern for two reasons: (1) it leaves open the possibility of Crawford admitting that he was wrong and seeing if there is a way to salvage his career; (2) if Crawford does not do this then it will be understood that he ended his career as opposed to Stern being blamed for taking Crawford's livelihood away from him. That said, the chances of Crawford ever officiating an NBA game again appear to be slim and none--and slim left the court with Duncan on Sunday.

I do agree with Legler that if Crawford has officiated his last game that this is a sad day for the NBA. It is sad that a longtime official cannot put his ego and emotions aside to do his job properly and it is sad that one of his last oncourt actions may have impacted the Western Conference playoff seeding.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:34 AM

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Much to be Decided on Season's Final Day

Dallas and Detroit have clinched the number one seeds in the Western and Eastern Conferences respectively but there is still a lot to be decided for several teams as the NBA season concludes with Wednesday's games. Chicago and Cleveland are battling down to the wire to get the second seed in the East. Both teams are 49-32 but Chicago holds the tiebreaker edge and can clinch the second seed with a win at New Jersey. Cleveland needs to beat Milwaukee at home and hope for a New Jersey victory. The good news for Cleveland is that New Jersey also has something at stake, because the Nets can move into the sixth spot--and a matchup against third seed Toronto, the least experienced of the top teams in the East--with a win against the Bulls. The Nets have won two of their three games against the Bulls this year but the Bulls just waxed the Nets 105-74 in their most recent meeting on April 6. The Bulls have won three games in a row and six of their last eight, while the Nets have also won three games in a row and six of their last eight. Look for the Bulls to win a close game; they are the better team and they understand that there is a world of difference between playing the defending champion Miami Heat in the first round and playing whichever team lands in the seventh spot. Since the NBA automatically places the three division winners among the top four seeds, either Chicago or Cleveland is going to drop not to third but to fifth--and a first round date with the Heat. Chicago or Cleveland would have homecourt advantage in that series but that is simply not the route you want to take if you can avoid it; playing Miami in the first round and then probably Detroit in the second round is the toughest scenario possible for an Eastern Conference team. The second seed would only have to face one of those teams--and not until the Eastern Conference Finals.

Out West, the top six seeds are set, as are two of the series matchups: third seed San Antonio will play sixth seed Denver and fifth seed Houston will have homecourt advantage against fourth seed Utah (Utah is awarded the fourth seed for winning the Northwest Division but Houston has the better record). The Lakers have also clinched a playoff spot but need a win in Sacramento or a Golden State Warriors loss at Portland to keep the seventh seed. The L.A. Clippers need a win at home against the Hornets and a Warriors loss or they will miss the playoffs. Dallas will play whichever team lands at eighth and Phoenix will play the seventh seed. The Clippers have won three of their last four but the Warriors have won four in a row and eight of their last nine; Golden State will beat Portland and grab the last playoff spot, while the Lakers will defeat Sacramento to set up a rematch of last year's first round series with Phoenix.

Wednesday night will definitely be a good time to keep one eye on the court and the other eye on the scoreboard, both for fans and players.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:23 AM

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

David Stern Suspends Joey Crawford Indefinitely for "Egregious Violation of Game Management"

NBA Commissioner David Stern announced today that Joey Crawford has been suspended indefinitely because of what Stern called an "egregious violation of game management by an individual who had been specifically addressed on this very subject by me." Crawford ejected Spurs' forward Tim Duncan from Sunday's Dallas-San Antonio game by issuing Duncan a second technical foul; Duncan was sitting on the bench, laughing, when Crawford threw the hammer down. After the game, Duncan told reporters that Crawford had challenged him to a fight. As I wrote right after the game, there is a precedent for the NBA to take immediate and severe action against Crawford: Jake O'Donnell, a well respected and long serving referee, ejected Clyde Drexler from a playoff game for no apparent reason. O'Donnell had refused to shake Drexler's hand before the contest. The NBA made no announcement, but O'Donnell never worked a game again; he announced his "retirement" months later.

Of course, as I noted in my post, in this day and age of intense media coverage, the NBA can not just make Crawford "disappear" without issuing some kind of statement. That is why Stern is making the rounds today on various TV programs, clearly explaining exactly what Crawford did wrong and why Crawford will--at a minimum--not be working any more games this season, including the playoffs. Stern added, "Although Joey is consistently rated as one of our top referees, he must be held accountable for his actions on the floor, and we will have further discussions with him following the season to be sure he understands his responsibilities."

Don't expect to see Crawford back in the NBA ever again. Stern told ESPN, "In fairness I would say that he doesn't think that he did anything wrong and probably doesn't wish to work in the NBA anymore." Crawford clearly still does not get it and it is inconceivable that, barring a major change of heart on his part that certainly seems extremely unlikely, David Stern will ever let him back into the league.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:31 PM

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Lakers Clinch Playoff Berth as Kobe Scores 50 Points

Kobe Bryant's critics will have to work overtime to find fault with his most recent performance: he scored 50 points on 18-25 field goal shooting (.720), grabbed a team-high eight rebounds, passed for three assists, had two steals and committed just one turnover as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Seattle SuperSonics 109-98 and clinched a playoff berth. Rashard Lewis led Seattle with 24 points.

The Lakers benefited from Kwame Brown's return and the benching of malcontent point guard Smush Parker. Brown had just three points and four rebounds but his impact is generally felt at the defensive end of the court; also, by starting him at center the Lakers are able to use Ronny Turiaf more effectively as a bench player and he responded with eight points and four rebounds in just 16 minutes. Jordan Farmar started at point guard and had nine points, three assists and no turnovers in 28 minutes; Parker came off the bench and had four points and one assist in 20 minutes.

The Lakers are now 13-5 in Bryant's 40 point games this season and 7-3 when he scores at least 50 points. They have won just two of their past eight games overall, with Bryant scoring 46 points in the other victory. The last time they won without Bryant scoring at least 40 points is on April 1 versus Sacramento; Bryant had 19 points and a season-high 13 assists in that game. Prior to that, the last time the Lakers won without Bryant scoring at least 40 points is February 26; he had 35 points, eight rebounds and four assists against Utah.

So, how can this game fit into the peculiar world view that insists that Bryant is selfish, that he is not the NBA's best player and that his scoring outbursts are nothing special? Let's try to beat Bryant's bashers to the punch:

1) Seattle is a crappy team and Ray Allen did not play, so it does not mean much to score 50 points against the SuperSonics or to beat a bad team.

Guess what? The Lakers are a crappy team, too. They benched one D-League level guard only to replace him with a rookie who they are bouncing back and forth from the D-League (Farmar looks like he will develop into a nice player, though). The Lakers' roster is so bad that the return of Kwame Brown is almost met with a hero's welcome. Could Kwame Brown start at center for any other playoff team? How many backup centers for those teams could Kwame beat out for a roster spot?

If it is so easy to score 50 points, how come Bryant is the only one who does it this frequently? Also, Bryant did drop 50 on Utah earlier this season and 62 in three quarters last year against Dallas, so it's not like he reserves such outbursts for bad teams. Bryant also had 50 points in a playoff game versus Phoenix last year that the Lakers lost not because of his scoring--which kept them in the game--but because they could not lasso one defensive rebound near the end of the contest.

2) Bryant only had three assists. He's a gunner. Why does he shoot so much?

Let's see: Bryant shot 18-25 (.720) and the rest of the team shot 24-55 (.436). If somebody was shooting too much, I don't think it was Bryant. I think that most coaches would live with three assists (and only one turnover) and .720 shooting. Anyway, Bryant's assist totals don't tell the whole story, because when he is double-teamed and passes the ball the open shot arrives after the next ball reversal. I did not get to see this game, but I'd be willing to bet that a good number of the 24 made shots opened up as a direct result of Bryant being double-teamed.

3) The Lakers can't play this way and beat a good team in a playoff series.

That is probably true. So what? Bryant's not the general manager. Bryant is leading this team to the maximum amount of wins that it is capable of getting based on its roster composition/injury problems. Bryant's Lakers have a better record against the West's elite this year than Nash's Suns do.

4) Bryant can't shoot like this every night but on the nights that he is missing he will keep shooting and the Lakers will lose.

No one can shoot like this every night; most players can't shoot like this on any night. Bryant's job is to keep shooting open shots from his high percentage areas and to pass the ball when he is double-teamed and cannot beat the trap off the dribble. Anyone who watches him play should be able to see that this is exactly what he does, game after game. Sure, he shoots better on some nights than others, but he has spent the whole season doing exactly what he has been asked to do--and nobody in the league does it better or could do as much as he has done with this kind of team.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:04 AM

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Joey Crawford Wants to Hop in an Octagon with Tim Duncan

After Raja Bell clotheslined him in a playoff game last year, Kobe Bryant said, "If you want to train and hop in an octagon, we can train and hop in an octagon. That’s not basketball." Bryant and Bell seem to be on amicable terms now but a new NBA feud has emerged: official Joey Crawford versus the Spurs' Tim Duncan. The problem began when Crawford apparently became convinced that thousands of fans bought tickets and millions of viewers turned on their televisions not to watch Duncan play versus Dirk Nowitzki but rather to see Crawford prove how tough he is. First, Duncan was whistled for a very questionable offensive foul (this call was not made by Crawford). Duncan was taken out of the game and play continued. Crawford felt that Duncan was mocking him from the bench (Duncan later denied saying anything), so he hit Duncan with a technical foul. Then, about a minute later, the Spurs' Fabricio Oberto was called for a foul. Duncan was still on the bench and he started laughing and then he covered his face with a towel. Crawford pointed to Duncan and ejected him. Duncan first looked stunned. Then, when he realized that Crawford was serious, Duncan appeared to direct an epithet toward Crawford before leaving the court. The only player who I remember being ejected in a similar way is Rasheed Wallace, who was tossed by Ron Garretson several years ago for staring at him in a "funny" way--but at least Sheed was actually on the court at the time, though that one seemed a bit harsh as well, even if Sheed is a hothead.

Duncan's ejection for laughing was strange enough but that was just the start. After the game, Duncan said of Crawford, "He looked at me and said, 'Do you want to fight? Do you want to fight?' If he wants to fight, we can fight. I don't have any problem with him, but we can do it if he wants to. I have no reason why in the middle of a game he would yell at me, 'Do you want to fight?'" Duncan added, "He came into the game with a personal vendetta against me. It had to be because I didn't do anything the entire game. I said three words to him and the three words were, 'I got fouled' on a shot. ... That's all I said to him the entire game."

On the other hand, Crawford contended "he was complaining the whole game...And then he went over to the bench and he was over there doing the same stuff behind our back. I hit him with one (technical) and he kept going over there, and I look over there and he's still complaining. So I threw him out." Crawford added, "He called me a piece of (expletive). Is that nothing?" But Duncan appeared to say that after he was ejected, not before.

It will be very interesting to see how the NBA handles this. I was not there, so I don't know what was said back and forth throughout the game--but it certainly seemed that Crawford ejected one of the league's best players because he was laughing. How can Crawford know what Duncan was laughing about? Duncan was not even on the court. Maybe Gregg Popovich told a funny joke. Maybe somebody passed gas. How can an official eject someone for laughing?

The outcome of this game could have affected who gets the number two seed in the Western Conference. The Phoenix Suns had the inside track but had not clinched that spot until the Spurs went on to lose. San Antonio led 74-68 when Duncan was ejected and got outscored 23-12 the rest of the way. I don't believe in conspiracies but this is the kind of thing that fuels reckless talk. Then there is the matter of the above comments from Duncan and Crawford. The NBA cannot sweep this under the rug. Either Crawford abused his power, challenged a player to a fight and wrongly ejected him or Duncan is lying. If the first is true, then Duncan's technical fouls should be rescinded (at least the second one, for sure) and Crawford should be suspended. If the second is true, then one of the NBA's top players has slandered a veteran official by falsely accusing him of challenging him to a fight; that would seem to warrant a heavy fine, at least according to previous precedents. It will be very interesting to see how Commissioner David Stern deals with this volatile situation. Can the NBA afford to have Crawford officiate a Spurs playoff game?

It's a shame that this happened, because it takes the focus off of a very competitive game between the NBA's two best teams (San Antonio has the league's best record since the All-Star break and has been easily handling the Suns for years, so the Suns are not the second best team in my book). Dallas Coach Avery Johnson said before the game that he would not use any of his players for more than 26 minutes (the Mavericks have already clinched home court advantage, so this game was technically meaningless for them) but five Mavericks ended up playing longer than that--despite Duncan missing the entire fourth quarter. In other words, despite what anybody said, both teams looked at this game as a potential playoff preview and each wanted to get the upper hand against the other. The game was close throughout and very well played--but instead of seeing an exciting conclusion with both teams playing at full strength all we got was Crawford trying to prove that he's the boss. San Antonio made some key mistakes down the stretch and the Mavericks won, 91-86. Dirk Nowitzki and Devin Harris led Dallas with 21 points each, while Tony Parker had a game-high 23 points for the Spurs. Duncan finished with 16 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots.

If the NBA can verify that what Duncan said about Crawford is true let's hope that David Stern shows Crawford who is really the boss so that a fiasco like this does not happen during the playoffs.

There is a precedent for Stern taking strong action here. Jake O'Donnell was a well-respected official who, for unknown reasons, intensely disliked Clyde Drexler. O'Donnell ejected Drexler from a playoff game for no apparent reason and never worked another NBA game. The "official" story (no pun intended) is that O'Donnell retired--but who has ever heard of one of the top officials in a sport suddenly quitting early in the playoffs and then announcing his retirement several months later? O'Donnell's ejection of Drexler was so egregious--and it came after O'Donnell refused to shake Drexler's hand before the tip-off--that the NBA had no choice but to get rid of him. Obviously, this was hardly something that the league wanted to become a big story, so it is easy to understand why the NBA never admitted to firing O'Donnell. I wonder if, in this age of intense media coverage, the NBA will be able to find such an easy way out of this mess.

posted by David Friedman @ 10:36 PM

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Seven Great "Hubie-isms"

You don't really want an analysis of Chicago's 101-68 win over Washington, do you? For those who do, I'll keep it brief: Chicago has a very good chance to win the Eastern Conference and Washington is not very good without Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler. Now, what to do with the rest of this post? Mike Tirico and Hubie Brown handled ABC's broadcast of Chicago's rout, so now is as good a time as any to list some of the best "Hubie-isms" (not necessarily from this game, but ones that he has emphasized for many years). Hubie Brown is my favorite NBA analyst of all-time and I was fortunate enough to interview him last year. He is very analytical, he knows his stuff and he is able to explain things clearly and briefly during stoppages of play so that he is not constantly talking over the action. Brown led the Kentucky Colonels to the 1975 ABA championship and he won NBA Coach of the Year awards in 1978 with Atlanta and 2005 with Memphis; he also coached some strong New York Knicks teams in the early 1980s that featured Bernard King: in 1983 and 1984 those squads were eliminated from the playoffs by the eventual NBA champions. Without further ado, words of wisdom from Coach Brown:

1) The importance of point differential as an indicator of a team's strength

Long before Bill James or "Moneyball," Brown focused on certain key statistics, with point differential at the top of the list. When the Colonels brought him in for an interview, he had charts and diagrams showing what statistical indicators corresponded to certain won-loss records and he explained exactly what he would do to get the Colonels to perform at the highest possible level. Kentucky hired him and Brown led the team--which had fallen just short of a championship for several years--to a title. Brown emphasizes that you don't only look at how many points a team gives up but that you must focus on the point differential.

2) Distance is not a factor

Brown mainly uses this one in reference to Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant, two players who can score from any distance and against any kind of defensive pressure.

3) Dunk the ball with two hands in traffic so that you don't get knocked off balance and so that you might have an opportunity for a three point play

Brown mentioned this during the Bulls game. Too many players go for the fancy one handed dunk but the slightest body contact causes them to lose the ball, meaning that at best they get two free throw attempts and at worst they get a turnover if the official does not deem the contact worthy of a foul call.

4) There is plenty of time

Brown says this both when a team trails early in a game and also at the end of contests when a team is only one or two possessions behind. Brown then explains exactly what the trailing team needs to do: it might be better screen and roll defense, taking care of the defensive boards or (in a late game situation) calling a play to get the ball to the team's best scorer in one of his high percentage areas.

5) It depends on the philosophy of the coaching staff

This sounds like a cop-out, but not the way that Brown says it. Two examples: (1) Tirico asked Brown if a team should shorten its rotation during the playoffs. Brown stated that it depends on the philosophy of the coaching staff but he went on to explain the rationale behind two different ways of doing things: Brown's approach was to go 10 deep all season and to constantly rotate in fresh players but some coaches prefer to rely on just their top seven or eight guys; the difference stems from what kind of system the team is using (Brown's teams played a lot of pressure defense, so he needed to have fresh bodies on the court every few minutes). (2) Whenever a team is up three and on defense with less than 10 seconds left there is always a question of whether or not they should foul to prevent a tying three pointer from being shot (Charles Barkley is a big advocate of fouling). Brown always explains that some coaches believe in playing good fundamental defense, forcing the other team to make a difficult, contested shot, while other coaches think that the better percentage play is to foul, forcing the other team to make a free throw, miss a free throw, get the rebound and then score (my opinion is that it depends on the personnel that each team has. If the trailing team has excellent three point shooters, then fouling probably is the way to go--but if the trailing team does not have good three point shooters or if the defending team is a young squad that might mess up and foul someone while he is shooting instead of before he shoots then simply switching on all screens and contesting the shot is probably the way to go).

6) The NBA game is played a foot above the rim, at the top of the box

Brown brought this up near the end of the Bulls game, acknowledging that he has said this many times before (he told me the same thing in the interview referenced above). The high school, college and FIBA games are played around rim level, but the athleticism in the NBA is off of the charts. The speed, quickness, power and jumping ability of NBA players are things that you have to see in person to fully appreciate but Brown constantly emphasizes these aspects of the NBA game; there is a reason that many college stars end up sitting on the bench in the NBA or not even making it to the league at all.

7) Will you please...?

When a player does not do what he should be doing, Brown often begins, "Will you please...?" and then follows that with an explanation of what he should have done. When Dick Stockton did play by play alongside Brown he would often wait for Brown to finish and then say, "As long as you say please."

posted by David Friedman @ 9:32 PM

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Off-Key Jazz Silenced by the Suns, 126-98

IF the Suns can play like this during the NBA's postseason marathon then they will win the 2006-07 NBA title. That's a big "if," which is why I capitalized both letters. I still don't believe that it will happen--but the Utah Jazz might have been convinced after the Suns blasted them 126-98 on Utah's home court. Utah had won the previous three meetings between the teams this season but the Suns jumped on the Jazz right from the start on Saturday night, taking leads of 6-0 and 13-1. The Suns went up by as much as 15 before the Jazz pulled within five points with 8:12 left in the second quarter. People who claim to have been abducted by UFOs speak of unexplained missing blocks of time; I think that is what happened next in this game, because the score went from 36-31 to 68-44 faster than you can ask, "Is Phoenix this good or is Utah this bad?" (it actually took a little less than eight minutes to happen but I don't think that we can completely rule out the idea that aliens did something to the Jazz and/or the space-time continuum during this game)

Leandro Barbosa led the Suns with 28 points, while Steve Nash had 13 points and 18 assists. A night after shooting horribly versus the Lakers, the Suns connected at a .524 rate (43-82) from the field. Mehmet Okur had 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Jazz. On Friday night, the Jazz beat the league-leading Dallas Mavericks 104-89 in Dallas but prior to that the Jazz had just lost five straight games. They are battling with the Houston Rockets for home court advantage in their first round series, so they should hardly have been complacent about facing the Suns at home. Like the Jazz, the Suns were playing the second game of a back to back after winning the first game.

The way to beat the Suns is to pound the ball inside on offense and shut down the Suns' three point shooters. Granted, this is easier said than done, but Utah failed pretty miserably on both counts, not establishing an inside game until the Suns had a big lead and letting the Suns shoot 10-23 (.435) from three point range. The Suns also shot 30-31 (.968) from the free throw line. Jazz announcer Ron Boone, broadcasting the game for NBA TV, kept insisting that Utah would make a run and get back in the game but the Jazz never cut the margin to less than 19 in the second half. The Suns need one victory or one San Antonio loss to clinch the second seed in the Western Conference.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:26 AM

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