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

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Miami Vice: Chicago Takes a Commanding 3-0 Grip on the Series

Chicago outscored the Miami Heat 32-20 in the fourth quarter, winning game three 104-96 and putting the defending champions on the brink of first round elimination. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit, the challenge that now faces Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade and company. Three Bulls scored at least 20 points: Ben Gordon (27), Luol Deng (24, plus 11 rebounds) and Kirk Hinrich (22). Wade led Miami with 28 points, adding nine rebounds and five assists, but he shot just 12-27 from the field and 4-10 from the free throw line. O'Neal had 23 points and 13 rebounds, shooting well from the field (10-17) but abysmally from the free throw line (3-12). The other three Heat starters--Udonis Haslem, Jason Kapono and Jason Williams--combined for 12 points and two rebounds on 3-14 shooting.

This is why Chicago broke the bank to acquire Ben Wallace, whose value is rarely completely tallied in the boxscore: he had 11 points, eight rebounds, two assists, three steals and one blocked shot, statistics that are seemingly dwarfed by O'Neal's, but one number hints at Wallace's true value--41, the number of minutes that he played, second on the Bulls behind Hinrich. Wallace provides energy and inside presence and is the final piece of the puzzle for the Bulls, who have developed a really nice corps of perimeter players led by Deng, Gordon and Hinrich.

The Bulls beat Miami 108-66 on opening night, took the season series 3-1 and are one win away from sweeping the Heat. The Pistons can say all they want about not missing Wallace but it is obvious that that he has provided a big boost to the Bulls. How much do you think he is looking forward to a possible second round matchup with his old team? Last year I asked Would you pay $20 million for an old Diesel? and concluded that O'Neal would only be worth his bloated salary if he led the Heat to a title--mission accomplished, so he was worth the big price tag, even if this season goes down in flames. Meanwhile, a similar standard should be applied to Wallace and his huge contract: it's not about statistics or regular season wins but rather what you do in the playoffs. The Bulls lost to the Heat in the first round last year, so if they make an extended playoff run (i.e., at least to the Conference Finals) then Wallace can fairly be said to have been worth the cost.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:50 AM

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Not Kidding Around: Kidd and Carter Carry New Jersey to Victory

Vince Carter scored 37 points on 15-23 shooting and Jason Kidd had an amazing triple double--16 points, 19 assists and 16 rebounds--as the New Jersey Nets defeated the Toronto Raptors 102-89 to take a 2-1 series lead. The Nets shot .526 from the field, which did not surprise 20 Second Timeout readers--I told you that New Jersey would shoot well at home in this game. T.J. Ford led Toronto with 27 points and eight assists, while Chris Bosh had 11 points (3-10 field goal shooting) and 11 rebounds. The Nets jumped on the Raptors early--leading 31-19 at the end of the first quarter and 58-39 at halftime--and led by at least eight points the rest of the way.

How rare is a triple double as substantial as the one that Kidd assembled? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there have been only two other 15-15-15 triple doubles in NBA playoff history: 16 points-30 rebounds-19 assists by Wilt Chamberlain in 1967 and 19 points-16 rebounds-18 assists by Fat Lever in 1985. Kidd set his playoff career-high in assists, surpassing his previous best of 16 when he played for Phoenix. This was Kidd's 10th postseason triple double, moving him past Chamberlain and into a tie with Larry Bird for second place all-time on the playoff triple double list; Magic Johnson holds the record with 30. Kidd is averaging a triple double through the first three games of this series; no one has averaged a triple double in a playoff series since Kidd did it against Boston in the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. Johnson averaged a triple double in a series four times, Chamberlain did it twice and Oscar Robertson and Lever each did it once.

Jason Kidd has made the All-Defensive team the last eight years, including a First Team selection last season. He has led the Nets to the NBA Finals twice. His only weakness is his subpar field goal shooting, which hovers around the .400 mark for his career, mitigated somewhat by the fact that he takes a lot of three pointers; he shoots free throws at roughly a .780 clip, which is more than respectable. I know that this amounts to basketball sacrilege, but I'm going to ask the question anyway: are we really, really sure that Steve Nash is a better player than Jason Kidd? Clearly, Nash is a better shooter--but is he a better all-around point guard than Mr. Triple Double?

posted by David Friedman @ 5:21 AM

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Friday, April 27, 2007

The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Thursday's Three Game Threes

The Detroit Pistons are poised to sweep the overmatched Orlando Magic, while the Utah Jazz and L.A. Lakers each won at home to pull within 2-1 in their respective series against the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns.

The Score: Utah 81, Houston 67

The Key Stat: The Rockets set an NBA playoff record by only having four players score : Yao Ming (26 points), Tracy McGrady (24 points), Shane Battier (11 points) and Rafer Alston (6 points). They also set franchise playoff records for fewest points, fewest field goals made (21) and fewest points in a half (25)

The Bottom Line: This game was U-G-L-Y unless you are a Utah Jazz fan; in that case, it was a gritty, defensive struggle that gives the Jazz an opportunity to tie the series with one more home win.

The Score: Detroit 93, Orlando 77

The Key Stat: All five Pistons starters scored in double figures. Detroit won the rebounding battle (47-39) and committed fewer turnovers (13-8).

The Bottom Line: Detroit is simply better than Orlando and should certainly sweep the Magic. Still, the Pistons have hardly played with much sustained intensity or focus so far; they trailed 8-0 at the start of game three, not scoring until Chris Webber's putback at the 8:24 mark. The Pistons did not tie the score until the waning seconds of the first quarter and did not take the lead until the 11:45 mark of the second quarter. Perhaps the Pistons believe that they can simply "turn it on" in subsequent rounds, but championship level teams are not generally this careless or lackadaisical.

The Score: L.A. Lakers 95, Phoenix 89

The Key Stat: Kobe Bryant scored 45 points on 15-26 shooting from the field (.577) and 13-13 free throw shooting. He also had six rebounds and a team-high six assists. Kwame Brown had a playoff career-high 19 points, while Lamar Odom added 18 points and 16 rebounds.

The Bottom Line: Phoenix took an 11-0 lead before Kobe Bryant even attempted a shot. Bryant then made two straight shots to bring the Lakers to within 11-4. Still, the Suns built up a 31-14 lead near the end of the first quarter and seemed to be well on their way to a 3-0 series lead. Bryant had just six points at that time. He nailed a three pointer to cut the margin to 31-17--and proceeded to score 36 of the Lakers' 78 points in the final three quarters while shooting an extraordinary percentage from the field. He kept his teammates involved along the way--particularly Odom and Brown--and he was active defensively and on the boards but the main thing that Bryant did was what this team needs him to do: put the ball in the hoop repeatedly.

Game Four on Sunday should be very interesting. The Lakers have led at the end of three quarters in two of the three games in this series. They are clearly the vastly inferior team talent-wise, but if Kobe Bryant plays exceptionally well and the rest of the Lakers do their part then the Lakers have shown that they can be competitive with Phoenix. Whether or not fans, writers or others want to acknowledge it, what Kobe Bryant did in this game was remarkable. He carried a team that just two days ago seemed to be broken mentally and physically to a win against a team that has the two-time reigning MVP, two other All-Stars and this year's Sixth Man Award winner. The Lakers got nothing from the point guard position offensively but Jordan Farmar, Shammond Williams and even Smush Parker played good defense. Kwame Brown provided a presence in the paint, as did Lamar Odom. Really, that is all Bryant needs: decent offensive games from two other guys and a solid defensive effort from the team overall. He is more than capable of providing the balance of the points, while also doing his share of the defensive and rebounding work.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:08 AM

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

It's All Gooden! Cavaliers Take 2-0 Lead Over Wizards

Drew Gooden tied his playoff career-high with 24 points as the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Washington Wizards 109-102 at Quicken Loans Arena in game two of their first round series. He scored 15 points in the second quarter alone, including 11 in the final 3:36 of the period. Gooden also had 14 rebounds, spearheading Cleveland's 56-38 advantage on the glass; the 56 rebounds tied a franchise playoff high. LeBron James, playing despite a grade two ankle sprain that he suffered in game one, contributed 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. He was noticeably more aggressive in the second half, an excellent sign for the Cavaliers as the series shifts to Washington for the next two games. Antawn Jamison led the Wizards with 31 points and 10 rebounds but he received little help from the other four Washington starters. Strong efforts off of the bench by Brendan Haywood (13 points, 5-6 shooting), Darius Songaila (13 points) and Roger Mason (10 points) kept the Wizards in the game; Washington's reserves outscored Cleveland's 38-14.

Cleveland started the game very sluggishly and soon fell behind 11-7. James appeared to be very tentative and passive; he did not have a point, rebound or assist for the first 7:55 and finished the quarter with just five points and one assist on 2-6 shooting (the last miss was a half court fling at the buzzer). Even with James struggling the Cavaliers managed to even the score at 23, largely on the strength of seven offensive rebounds.

Washington built a seven point second quarter lead before Gooden took over and rescued the struggling Cavaliers. He shot 6-6 from the field, scoring 15 points and grabbing four rebounds, almost singlehandedly pushing Cleveland in front, 53-48, by halftime. Gooden had 19 points and seven rebounds in the first half, compensating for a quiet nine points, three assists and one rebound from James, who seemed hesitant to jump for most of the first half; his only rebound basically fell into his lap. James began the third quarter much more aggressively, getting some rebounds and driving to the hoop but he only made one of his five shots in the period. Still, the Cavaliers built a 75-63 lead by the end of the quarter with a balanced attack, as each of the starters scored between three and six points; meanwhile, the Wizards shot an abysmal 6-24 (.250) from the field, a total that would have been much worse without Haywood's 3-3 effort. Although James did not shoot well, he made the signature play of the game at the 2:48 mark when he caught Songaila from behind and blocked his layup attempt. That was the first real indication that James felt confident about running and jumping. The play was reminiscent of similar efforts by Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Tayshaun Prince and Kobe Bryant, the four greatest players I have seen at coming up from behind and denying seemingly easy fast break layups.

James had 13 points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers maintained a comfortable lead for most of the period. They were ahead 101-92 with :51.8 left. Antonio Daniels made two free throws for the Wizards and then Eric Snow made a terrible inbounds pass that Jarvis Hayes picked off. That resulted in a Jamison three pointer and suddenly Cleveland was only up 101-97 with :39.5 left. What should have been a routine win became a little dicey, but the Cavaliers made enough free throws down the stretch to prevail. After the game, James said of Snow's pass, "We got careless. It was a careless play between me and E. Snow, so we take the credit for that. Instead of just getting the ball in we went for the home run, which is careless, and those guys made us pay for it with a three pointer. We're a better team than that but at the end of the day we are up 2-0." Later in his postgame remarks, James declared, "We are not overconfident now," insisting that the team is not thinking about getting a sweep but is just focusing on playing well one game at a time.

Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said, "Our guys played well tonight," but noted that his team's downfall was their inability to make shots. He hopes and expects that his players will shoot better during the next two games in Washington.

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

In his pregame standup, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown mentioned two points of emphasis that he stressed to his team in the wake of their game one victory: "We weren't always sharp with our pick and roll coverage...and we have to make sure that we keep moving the ball and keep moving bodies (on offense)." He also stated that Cleveland's medical staff had not placed any restrictions on the amount of minutes that James could play; that turned out to be an understatement, as James played a game-high 45 minutes.

***

James spoke to the media before the game in the locker room after receiving treatment for his ankle. He admitted that the ankle still hurt and said that he would use an elastic band at halftime and whenever he sat on the bench in order to keep the ankle loose (since he only sat out three minutes, that did not prove to be a big factor).

***

You could assemble a pretty good vintage 70s roster from the people in the arena for game two, starting with Austin Carr (currently a Cavs broadcaster), Phil Chenier (currently a Wizards broadcaster) and Phil Hubbard (currently a Wizards assistant coach). Dr. Jack Ramsay, Coach of the 1977 NBA Champion Portland TrailBlazers, was on hand as well, covering the game for NBA TV.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 AM

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

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

The Toronto Raptors narrowly avoided an 0-2 hole versus New Jersey, while the Miami Heat and L.A. Lakers could not do likewise in their respective series. While you often hear that winning the first two games at home is just "taking care of business" and that the other team can get back in the series by winning the next two on their home court, the reality is that in NBA history teams that won the first two games of a seven game series eventually won that series 182 out of 193 times (.943).

The Score: Toronto 89, New Jersey 83

The Key Stat: Each team shot 31-76 (.408) from the field and the Nets actually made more three pointers than the Raptors did (10-6) but Toronto won the game at the free throw line, shooting 21-25 (.840) compared to 11-14 (.786) for the Nets.

The Bottom Line: Vince Carter finished with a team-high 19 points and 11 rebounds but he had a second consecutive poor shooting game (8-24). Jason Kidd matched Carter's rebound total but also did not shoot well (5-14). Look for the Nets to come out blazing when the series shifts to New Jersey. They earned a split in Toronto and can take over the series simply by shooting more accurately at home, which teams tend to do.

The Score: Chicago 107, Miami 89

The Key Stat: Chicago outscored the defending champions 52-37 in the second half. The Bulls shot .551 from the field overall, while holding the Heat to .466 shooting. Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade each had seven turnovers.

The Bottom Line: The Heat are in trouble, pure and simple. Yes, the series shifts to Miami for two games now and, yes, Miami came back from a 2-0 deficit in last year's NBA Finals--but this Heat team is a year older and banged up, plus they do not match up well with the Bulls. Even if the Heat win the next two games--hardly a sure thing--they still will have to win at least one game in Chicago at some point. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the 15th time that the defending NBA champion has faced a 2-0 deficit; only three of the previous 14 teams came back to win that series: 1969 Celtics, 1993 Bulls, 1995 Rockets.

The Score: Phoenix 126, L.A. Lakers 98

The Key Stat: Phoenix shot 50-92 (.543), while L.A. shot 36-87 (.414). Most of the other stats were pretty even (other than assists, for obvious reasons).

The Bottom Line: The Lakers' defense was atrocious, as you might expect when a team yields 126 points on .543 shooting. All five Suns' starters scored in double figures, as did Sixth Man Award winner Leandro Barbosa, who poured in a game-high 26 points on 11-18 shooting. Kobe Bryant finished with a team-high 15 points on 5-13 shooting and he also led the Lakers with five assists. Bryant had been on the bench for quite some time when Coach Phil Jackson inexplicably put him back in with 8:52 left in the fourth quarter and the Suns ahead 107-76. Bryant almost immediately sprained his right ankle, but stayed in the game a few more minutes before Jackson took him out and Bryant went to the locker room to receive treatment. This game provided an interesting test of the theory that Bryant should pass more and shoot less. In game one, Bryant scored 28 first half points and the Lakers had a ten point lead before they crumbled in the second half. In game two, Bryant scored nine first quarter points (and had two assists) as the Lakers only trailed 31-25. In the second quarter, Bryant added two more assists as he accepted double teams and passed the ball to get his teammates involved--and the Suns rocketed to a 68-47 halftime lead. Bryant shot an efficient 4-8 from the field for his 13 first half points and had four assists--and the game was all but over. Bryant shot 1-5 from the field in the third quarter but by that point even if he had gone 5-5 the Lakers would have still been down by double digits (they trailed 90-65 when he attempted his last shot of the night). Bryant attempted 33 shots in game one, so what did the Lakers do with the extra 20 shot attempts in game two? They combined to shoot 31-76 (.408). Lamar Odom, the main player who Bryant is supposedly holding back, shot 4-12 from the field, finishing with 10 points, 10 rebounds and 0 assists. Assuming Bryant's ankle is reasonably healthy by game three, the Lakers' only chance--slight though it is--is for Bryant to be very aggressive offensively from the start of the game. Don't think for a second that the Suns don't realize this. Even with a big lead and even with Bryant clearly not shooting as much as in game one, the Suns still double-teamed Bryant throughout the game: they do not want him to get into any kind of scoring rhythm that could carry over to the next game and are perfectly happy to see him pass the ball so that one of the other four Lakers can fire a brick at the hoop.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:33 AM

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

David Halberstam: A Real Writer

David Halberstam was a real writer. Halberstam, who died on Monday as a result of injuries that he suffered in a car accident, was a real writer not because he won a Pulitzer Prize or because his books sold a lot of copies; awards are often given out as a result of popularity and great sales numbers do not prove (or disprove) the quality of a creative work. No, David Halberstam was a real writer because he loved and mastered the craft of writing. This love and mastery are clearly demonstrated in the work that Halberstam produced, work that covered an amazing array of subjects ranging from the Vietnam War to the civil rights movement to the 1949 American League pennant race to Bill Belichick to a Portland Trailblazers season that he described in perhaps the greatest book ever written about the NBA: The Breaks of the Game.

Real writers are able to elicit interesting quotes from their interview subjects because they ask the right questions and listen carefully to what they are told. I was a 10 year old kid when The Breaks of the Game was published and I was thrilled to read such an in-depth look at NBA basketball, my favorite sport. Halberstam interviewed a staggering number of players, coaches, broadcasters and others, so he obviously could not include everything that he heard--but a real writer knows how to include quotes that move the story forward by telling you something about the speaker and something about the topic at hand. On page 251 of The Breaks of the Game, Steve Jones talks about Marvin Barnes: "Saddest story in basketball. Most talented player I ever saw come into the game. He's blown it all and it's all gone, but I never saw a better player than Marvin Barnes when he came in the league. As quick as Walter Davis. The rebounding instincts, timing and strength of Moses Malone. Could shoot like Marques Johnson. Marvin broke every rule there was, sometimes I think he studied the rules just so he could break them." Halberstam then described the quick rise and equally quick fall of Barnes, concluding with this quote from Jones: "The Man gives you one chance at it in this game. You can't waste it. You can't be black and waste anything. Not a damn thing." I was struck not only by Barnes' story but by the way that Halberstam told it, supplementing the factual details of Barnes' career with the haunting, piercing quotes from Jones, a player turned broadcaster who currently can be seen on NBA TV. I never forgot those quotes: "He's blown it all and it's all gone" and "You can't be black and waste anything."

Real writers have an ear for language just like great composers have an ear for music. Here is Halberstam's description of Bobby Gross' thoughts about Julius Erving (p. 355, The Breaks of the Game): "But it was not just the leaping ability. It was The Doctor's hands. They were huge and yet surprisingly delicate, with extremely long fingers. It was odd, Gross suspected, for a player to be so fascinated with another player's hands, but Julius Erving had beautiful hands. They allowed him to hold the ball lightly and yet still control it, to do tricks with the ball, to drive past the basket and then at the last minute to score by putting all sorts of spins and reverse spins on the ball in ways denied mere mortals with mortal hands. Gross, in comparison with most American males, had huge hands but even they forced certain limits on his game. He could not dunk without holding the ball tightly; otherwise he might lose control of it. That alone denied him many of the angles available to Erving."

Real writers can write about any subject because they understand that before committing even one word to paper they must first research their subject and thoroughly understand it. That is why Halberstam was able to write with such depth and feeling about so many subjects--he did the "grunt" work. Too many writers don't get their facts straight before spouting their opinions.

Not everybody thinks that he can be a surgeon or an astrophysicist--but everybody thinks that he can write. If you doubt this, just surf the internet for a few minutes: more people are publishing their writing than at any time in history. Unfortunately, most of this writing is poorly done. David Halberstam's work was great not because of where it was published or the awards it received but because he pursued his craft the right way. Halberstam had an unquenchable thirst to understand the true nature of things and to communicate that understanding to his readers. That is why, at the age of 73, Halberstam was not resting on his laurels but was on his way to do an interview for his newest book when fate intervened.

David Halberstam lived a full life but he died before his time. The best tribute that can be made to him is to understand that real writing is precious and hard to find. Seek it out--and accept no substitutes.

posted by David Friedman @ 9:49 PM

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Rockets Fizzle at the Start but Sizzle in the Second Half to Take a 2-0 Lead Over Utah

Houston outscored Utah 59-49 in the second half to secure a 98-90 win and a 2-0 series lead. Tracy McGrady had 31 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two steals but shot just 9-29 from the field. Yao Ming added 27 points and nine rebounds despite also struggling with his shot (9-24). The Rockets shot just 30-83 (.361) but triumphed because of their tremendous free throw shooting: 34-38 (.895). Carlos Boozer had a great game for Utah (41 points, 12 rebounds, six assists) but he received little help outside of Deron Williams (15 points, seven assists, seven rebounds) and Matt Harpring (14 points, 7-14 shooting); Andrei Kirilenko, who shed tears after game one when speaking with reporters about his diminished role on the team, shot 0-3 from the field and did not score a point, while Mehmet Okur had 10 rebounds and six assists but shot just 2-9, scoring only four points.

How important is it to take a 2-0 series lead? There have been 348 seven game series in NBA history and only 11 teams have come back from a 2-0 deficit. Of course, McGrady and Yao were on the wrong end of one of those comebacks in 2005 versus Dallas. Houston and Utah had virtually identical records during the regular season, so it would not be surprising to see this series extend out to six or seven games but make no mistake about it: Utah faces an uphill climb now, with little margin for error.

Utah got off to a great start, just like in game one, but was unable to sustain it--just like in game one. The Jazz opened the game with a 10-2 run and were up 17-8 midway through the first quarter. Boozer scored 13 of Utah's first 15 points and and had 15 points in the first quarter. Houston got within 19-15 before Utah closed the period with a 7-2 run to lead 26-17 going into the second quarter.

Houston held Boozer to four points in the second quarter and Shane Battier's three pointer tied the score at 39 with 1:54 remaining. Derek Fisher's layup closed out the scoring as Utah led 41-39 at the half. Houston shot just 2-17 from three point range in the first half but got solid production from both Yao (12 points, six rebounds) and McGrady (11 points). Boozer had 19 points and eight rebounds.

Yao opened the second half by converting a three point play, giving the Rockets their first lead of the night (42-41). The lead changed hands for most of the period but the Rockets began to take control late in the quarter and were up 67-62 going into the fourth quarter. The Rockets used an 8-2 run at the start of the fourth quarter to build a 76-64 lead and the Jazz got no closer than four points after that. Boozer scored 12 of Utah's 28 fourth quarter points.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:43 AM

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Detroit Rides Free Throw Accuracy to Victory in Game Two Versus Orlando

The Detroit Pistons hardly looked like world beaters but they enjoy a 2-0 advantage over the Orlando Magic after a 98-90 victory on Monday night. Rip Hamilton (22 points and six assists) and Chauncey Billups (21 points, eight assists) led the way for the Pistons, who shot just 32-78 from the field (.410). Hedo Turkoglu scored 22 points for the Magic, while Grant Hill had 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists. The Magic held the Pistons to a virtual standstill on the boards (44-42 advantage for Detroit). The difference was that Detroit got to the free throw line more often (33-26) and made 26 free throws compared to 17 for Orlando. Also, while the Magic did an excellent job of cutting their turnovers down to nine, the Pistons only committed six.

The Pistons led 28-22 after shooting 11-19 from the field in the first quarter and they pushed that advantage to 37-26 with 6:48 remaining in the second quarter. Hill and Turkoglu checked back into the game at that time and played very well, helping the Magic close the gap to 47-44 by halftime. Turkoglu scored 15 first half points on 7-7 shooting, while Hill added 12 points.

TNT's studio crew blasted the Pistons during the halftime show, citing Detroit's lackadaisical approach to playing against a clearly inferior Orlando team. Magic Johnson said that his Lakers teams used to make a point of setting the tone early in the series against inferior teams in order to get a sweep and provide extra rest for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He said that the Pistons are not doing enough to "get their starters on the bench in the fourth quarter." This increases the chance that some of their key players could get hurt or could be more fatigued during later playoff rounds. Steve Kerr, doing color commentary during the game telecast, made a similar point, saying that last year Detroit allowed the Cleveland Cavaliers to extend a series to seven games, something that Kerr believes adversely affected the Pistons in the next round versus Miami.

Detroit played with a bit more purpose and focus in the second half, pushing the lead to as much as 15 but the Pistons did not succeed in getting much rest for their starters, three of whom played at least 37 minutes. Orlando's Dwight Howard has struggled in the first postseason action of career. He apparently suffered some kind of stomach flu prior to game two, which may have affected his energy/performance; Howard had just eight points on 3-9 shooting, though he did grab 11 rebounds. Still, the Magic have shown some fight despite facing a clearly superior foe and they may very well win a game or two in Orlando if they can get more production from their young center to supplement the contributions of Turkoglu and Hill.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:11 AM

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Things That Make You Go Hmmm...

C & C Music Factory once sang about Things That Make You Go Hmmmm.... Here are a few items to add to the list:

1) Why did the Dallas Mavericks, sporting the best regular season record in the NBA, change their starting lineup to adjust to the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors? If you are the best team in the league, shouldn't other teams have to adjust to you? This question was posed by Charles Barkley on TNT; it will be interesting to see how Dallas Coach Avery Johnson responds in game two.

2) Is Steve Nash really "making his teammates better" when Leandro Barbosa uses his speed to go coast to coast and score?
2 B) Or when Shawn Marion uses his quickness to get an offensive rebound putback?
2 C) Isn't it more accurate to say that Nash is a great player who is surrounded by players who are good/very good?

3) Is Kobe Bryant making his teammates worse when Kwame Brown fumbles passes and misses point blank shots?
3 B) Or when Smush Parker makes poor decisions, argues with his Hall of Fame coach and loses any interest in playing defense?
3 C) Isn't it more accurate to say that Bryant is a great player who is surrounded by a supporting cast that is not very talented and that has been decimated by injuries?

4) Did anyone notice that Kobe Bryant shot a better percentage from the field (15-33; .455) than Steve Nash (7-17; .412) did on Sunday? Bryant accomplished this despite not having a single All-Star on his team to carry part of the load (Nash has All-Stars Marion and Amare Stoudemire, plus Leandro Barbosa, the newly crowned Sixth Man of they Year). Phoenix can win even if Nash shoots poorly; the Lakers have had trouble beating anyone recently unless Bryant scores 40-plus points while shooting a good to excellent percentage from the field (.450 or above).

5) You would not know this unless you were inside Quicken Loans Arena, but Cleveland fans boo much more loudly when the overhead scoreboard displays either the University of Michigan or Pittsburgh Steelers logos than they do in response to anything that happens on the court. The recent increase in attendance at the Q shows that fans support LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers--but Cleveland will always be first and foremost a Browns town and Ohio will always be first and foremost a football state.

Bonus: I realized that I left out an important "Hubie-ism" from my recent list of seven favorite phrases used by my favorite NBA analyst, so here is an eighth staple of almost any telecast featuring Brown:

When you miss a layup or a dunk in the NBA, the opposing team will score within three to five seconds

Brown has admitted that he does not know why this is the case but it is something that he mentions quite frequently and it certainly seems to be true a significant portion of the time (the Suns often score within three to five seconds of a made basket but that is a different story). My theory about this is that when a team misses a layup or dunk several of their players are often gathered right around the hoop, so a defensive rebound followed by a quick outlet pass will likely lead to an advantage fast break (3 on 2 or 2 on 1).

posted by David Friedman @ 10:40 PM

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The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Sunday's Western Conference Games

Sunday's three Western Conference games featured one outstanding half by Kobe Bryant (followed by a not so outstanding half) and two upsets of highly touted championship contenders.

The Score: Phoenix 95, L.A. Lakers 87

The Key Stat: Kobe Bryant scored 28 points on 11-17 shooting in the first half as the Lakers took a 48-39 lead. The 28 points ties the most he has ever scored in one half of a playoff game but the "39" is even more significant: Phoenix is not comfortable playing at that pace. Fortunately for the Suns, they can bring in Sixth Man of the Year candidate Leandro Barbosa, who scored 19 of his playoff career-high matching 26 points in the second half. Meanwhile, Bryant shot 4-16 from the field in the second half, finishing with 39 points. It should be noted that Bryant exceeded his regular season scoring average while shooting his normal percentage from the field; granted, he played at vastly different levels in the two halves but in the end the Lakers got more point production from him than usual without sacrificing any accuracy. Obviously, the Lakers would prefer to keep the game close in the first half without him having to exert so much energy, making it more likely that he can shoot 11-17 down the stretch.

The Bottom Line: ESPN's Jon Barry summed up this whole series during the pregame show: whether Kobe Bryant scores a ton of points or tries to be a "facilitator," the Lakers do not have enough weapons to beat the Suns in a seven game series. Think about some of the "key" moves that the Lakers have made recently: elevating rookie Jordan Farmar to the starting point guard spot over Smush Parker and welcoming back the injured Kwame Brown as the starting center. How many minutes would either of those guys be playing on a championship contending team? When Bryant plays like Superman, he can singlehandedly make the Lakers competitive against anyone--but he is not Superman, he just seems like he is. Whatever he does in this series--score 50 points or dish out 10 assists--it won't be enough and will surely provide more fodder for his critics. The Lakers are a seventh seeded team that will be competitive with a vastly superior Suns team primarily because of Bryant's scoring and the open shots that his teammates get when he is double-teamed.

The Score: Denver 95, San Antonio 89

The Key Stat: Allen Iverson's 31 points and Carmelo Anthony's 30 points will attract most people's attention but the key stat is .420--San Antonio's field goal percentage in this game. The Spurs usually win by forcing their opponents to shoot a low percentage but the Nuggets beat them at their own game. It will be interesting to see if they can do this three more times.

The Bottom Line: Denver's problem all year--besides suspensions and injuries--has been lackluster defense. If the Nuggets will work hard on defense consistently then they can be very dangerous--but I still think that the Spurs will win this series and that it will not go seven games.

The Score: Golden State 97, Dallas 85

The Key Stat: Dallas had no answer for Baron Davis, who had 33 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. Dallas shot .353 from the field, "led" by Dirk Nowitzki's 4-16.

The Bottom Line: We all knew going in to this series that Golden State provides certain intriguing matchup problems for Dallas but the question here is the same one that applies to Denver: are the Warriors disciplined enough to play this way for an entire series? I still think that Dallas will win this series but I could see it going seven games.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:05 AM

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Cavaliers Outlast Wizards, 97-82

The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the injury depleted Washington Wizards 97-82 at Quicken Loans Arena in game one of their first round playoff series--but the biggest news is not the final score but how close the Cavaliers came to also being injury depleted. LeBron James sprained his left ankle with 8:03 remaining in the third quarter. He writhed in pain on the court for a few moments while the sellout crowd of 20,562 held their collective breath but he did not come out of the game. James finished with 23 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Cleveland also got a strong effort from Larry Hughes, who had 27 points and seven rebounds. Antawn Jamison led the Wizards with 28 points and 14 rebounds but he shot just 10-27 from the field and could not make up for the absence of injured All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler. Playing shorthanded--and without Arenas to push the ball--the Wizards generated just one fast break point while yielding 21 to the Cavaliers.

Cleveland jumped out to a quick 11-4 lead, prompting an early Wizards timeout, but the Cavaliers were not able to put Washington away. The margin bounced between five and seven points for most of the first quarter and the Cavaliers led 27-20 at the end of the period. James had nine points on 4-4 shooting and four assists, while Jamison had seven points on 3-8 shooting. The Cavaliers briefly had a 10 point lead in the second quarter but were not able to build on that and still led by seven at halftime, 48-41. James shot 0-4 in the second quarter, but Hughes picked up the slack with 10 points.

The Wizards got to within two points early in the third quarter before James made a strong drive to the hoop, scoring over Etan Thomas and drawing a foul. James landed on Thomas' foot and twisted his left ankle very badly. He did not stand up for a while and when he did he very noticeably favored the injury. James missed his free throw and did not attempt a shot from the field for almost five minutes, though he did grab two rebounds. Hughes scored nine points in the quarter and James added four points after the injury--two on free throws and two on a layup--to finish the period with 10 points, but the Wizards were still only down seven points, 74-67.

In the fourth quarter, the Wizards unraveled because of turnovers and poor shot selection, managing just 15 points on 5-20 shooting. The Cavaliers extended their lead to 10, 80-70, at the 9:01 mark and led by at least that much the rest of the way. Jamison, perhaps fatigued by the heavier than normal workload, shot just 1-7 from the field. James shot 1-4, but the Cavaliers rode Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who tallied 11 of his 16 points in the final stanza.

It remains to be seen how serious James' ankle injury is. He had no dunks or high-flying moves after it happened, but his mobility did seem to increase near the end of the game. Of course, there is still the possibility that the ankle will swell up and become stiff overnight. "It's definitely going to hurt a lot tomorrow, I know," James said during his postgame interview session. "This is not my first time having an ankle sprain by stepping on someone's foot, so I know that when I go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow it's definitely going to hurt. The best thing about it is we don't play until Wednesday, so I get enough time to get a little bit of rest and see how it feels. I had no intention of not coming back (to finish the game after the initial injury). In the first game of the playoffs, you have to set the tone and if I was able to limp on it I was going to be in there."

James was incredulous at the suggestion by one reporter that he had had a "subpar game," replying, "I thought that my numbers were pretty good--23, nine and seven, with one turnover...the most important thing is that we got the win. That's all that matters."

In his postgame standup, Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said, "I want to compliment my guys for working hard and doing the things that we wanted them to do. We just didn't put the ball in the basket...but our effort was great and our intent was great." Washington shot just 29-79 from the field (.367). Asked how much the Cavaliers' defense had to do with Washington's shooting, Jordan chose his words carefully, not wanting to slight the Cavaliers but also wanting his players to maintain the belief that they will be able to shoot better in the upcoming games: "They're a good defensive team. I felt we missed some open shots. I thought that we worked hard enough and executed well enough to get some open shots...when it was time to make plays, we missed a layup--their defense was good but we have to finish the plays. Whether it was good defense or great defense, we have to find a way to make an open shot. That's all."

Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown started his postgame remarks by praising the Wizards' resiliency: "Washington came out and did a nice job in the first three quarters and going into the fourth. We got a little lucky and we were able to put together a run in the fourth quarter to cause some separation, so the score is a little deceptive. It was a tighter game than what the final turned out to be. Give Eddie Jordan and his group credit for playing the way that they did." Brwwn added that he is pleased with the Cavaliers' defense and knows that Jamison is going to score "because that is what he does."

Since Jamison's team has been decimated by injuries, a reporter asked him what went through his mind when James got injured. Jamison replied, "Nothing, really. I didn't think it was that serious. He was down there for a while but I thought that eventually he would get back up. I was just questioning the (foul) call but I got a good explanation from the referee. I didn't think that it was a serious injury at all."

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

In his pregame standup, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown talked about his first experience in the NBA playoffs: being the video coordinator for the eighth seeded Denver Nuggets in 1994 when they upset the first seeded Seattle SuperSonics, one of only two 1-8 upsets in NBA history. Cleveland-Washington is a 2-7 matchup, so Brown is in almost the opposite situation now. I asked him what he learned from being part of that Denver team that he can use to help the Cavaliers avoid a similar fate. Coach Brown replied, "Real simple: it's not over until the final buzzer goes off from a game four win. It doesn't matter if we start 2-0 or 0-2. Especially if we start 2-0, people are going to start talking and making noise about a sweep or this and that--if you believe that, you're in the wrong business. Those guys are NBA players and those guys want to win. It would make their season, with the two injuries they've had, to come in here and win this first round."

***

Arenas was in uniform prior to the game--but only to come on the court and shoot set shots from the right baseline. He did not jump at all or pursue the ball after he released it. Several Cavaliers came up to talk to him, including Eric Snow. By game time, Arenas was wearing a suit and seated behind the Wizards' bench. He will not be able to play in this series--but word out of Washington is that Butler will have the cast taken off of his broken hand soon and that he may play as early as game three.

***

John Thompson did the color commentary for TNT's broadcast of the game. When he walked on to the court about 90 minutes before tip-off to prepare for the telecast, a fan screamed out his name and asked for an autograph and to have his picture taken with the man who led Georgetown to the 1984 NCAA Championship. Thompson jokingly refused at first, but then signed the item that the fan had brought to the game and posed for a picture with him as well.

posted by David Friedman @ 10:52 PM

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The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Playoff Quadruple-Header Edition

There is nothing like the first two days of the NBA Playoffs--back to back quadruple-headers that offer fans a tasty hoops buffet: whatever style or flavor of basketball you enjoy there is a series that provides it. Saturday served up Vince Carter's postseason return to Toronto, a tough loss for the defending champion Heat, a wire to wire home win for the Pistons and a strong second half performance by Tracy McGrady that carried the Rockets to victory.

The Score: New Jersey 96, Toronto 91

The Key Stat: New Jersey outscored Toronto 20-8 in fast break points and 46-22 in points in the paint, largely because of Jason Kidd's ability to push the ball up the court and find his teammates with pinpoint passes. Toronto had a +10 point differential when Chris Bosh was in the game during the first half and a -20 point differential when he was not in the game during the first half; foul trouble limited Bosh's first half minutes and he scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half.

The Bottom Line: Richard Jefferson has always been a key component for New Jersey and when he is rolling the Nets can compete with just about anybody. Jefferson had a game-high 28 points on 11-21 field goal shooting. Toronto fans enjoyed heckling ex-Raptor Vince Carter throughout the game. Carter was a non-factor for most of the contest, but when New Jersey's offense died in the fourth quarter he came up with nine points, half of his team's total in the period. Kidd shot poorly (3-11 from the field, eight points), which cost him the opportunity to post a triple double, but he led both teams in assists (15) and rebounds (10, tied for game-high honors with Toronto's Rasho Nesterovic). Toronto's trump card in this series was that the Raptors had home court advantage but the veteran Nets stole that in game one and their experience should help them to eventually prevail in what looks to be a competitive and entertaining series.

The Score: Chicago 96, Miami 91

The Key Stat: Fast break points played a key role in this game, too, as Chicago outscored Miami 25-4 in that category (Shaquille O'Neal's scoring in the halfcourt limited the Bulls' edge in points in the paint to 36-32).

The Bottom Line: Shaquille O'Neal was Miami's most effective player, scoring 19 points on 9-14 shooting and grabbing six rebounds, but he only played 27 minutes before fouling out; he had 17 of his points in the first half. Foul trouble limited Bulls' starting point guard Kirk Hinrich to 19 minutes but he shot just 1-7 from the field and Chicago played better when he was not in the game; rookie Thabo Sefolosha came in for him and gave Dwyane Wade fits defensively in addition to scoring nine points in just 18 minutes. Sefolosha's length and quickness enable him to be disruptive on defense in a way that is reminiscent of a young Scottie Pippen (the rest of Sefolosha's game is a long way from being Pippen-like, but he is a nice young player with plenty of the proverbial "upside"). Wade seemed out of sorts for most of the game, though he did explode for nine fourth quarter points, including seven in the game's last 3:06 after O'Neal fouled out. Wade finished with 21 points but had just three assists and two rebounds while committing five turnovers and five fouls. Luol Deng led the Bulls with 33 points on 14-22 shooting, while Ben Gordon made up for Hinrich's missing offensive production, tallying 24 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. Gordon is the ultimate feast or famine player: his overall stat line looks good, but he also had five turnovers and shot 7-19 from the field--he kept both teams in the game, uncorking lightning quick moves that led to sweet runners or pullup jumpers and then firing wild shots that caromed off of the backboard or passes that sailed more wildly than Rex Grossman's worst interceptions. Ben Wallace's contributions also deserve mention: he played a game-high 45 minutes and had a game-high 14 rebounds as Chicago enjoyed a 46-33 edge on the glass. On ESPN's Around the Horn, Tony Reali likes to ask if a player or team should be encouraged or discouraged by recent developments. Should Chicago be encouraged by this win or discouraged to escape by such a small margin after O'Neal fouled out and Wade had a subpar game? Any time you win and don't suffer an injury to a key player you should be encouraged but it is clear that this series will go through some twists and turns before a winner emerges.

The Score: Detroit 100, Orlando 92

The Key Stat: During the season Detroit ranked first in fewest turnovers committed per game (11.7) and Orlando ranked 30th (last) in that category (16.3). That trend continued in this game, with Orlando committing 21 turnovers compared to just 11 by Detroit. How costly are those squandered possessions? Orlando shot .581 from the field compared to Detroit's .493 and still lost; not many teams lose when they make nearly 60 percent of their shots. Another area of concern for Orlando is free throw shooting: the Magic shot just 18-36 (.500), while Detroit shot an adequate 23-31 (.742).

The Bottom Line: The Pistons never trailed in this game, led by as many as 16 points and were ahead 91-77 with less than 4:30 remaining. Then their well oiled, precision offense bogged down and the Magic pulled to within 93-90 with :53 left. Tayshaun Prince's dunk off of a very well run play in a half court set made it a two possession game (Prince was fouled but missed a free throw that would have made the score 96-90) and Chauncey Billups closed out the win by sinking five of six free throws. Billups finished with 22 points and 11 assists despite shooting just 5-13 from the field. Richard Hamilton also had 22 points for Detroit as each Piston starter scored in double figures. Dwight Howard had 13 points and 19 rebounds for Orlando but he also had six turnovers and shot just 3-11 from the free throw line. Hedo Turkoglu led Orlando with 17 points. The Pistons will win this series because they are a better team than the Magic but two questions remain: (1) Will Detroit focus enough on the task at hand to sweep Orlando? (2) If the Pistons look a little shaky closing out a win at home against a sub-.500 team how will they perform in similar situations in later rounds against tougher opposition?

The Score: Houston 84, Utah 75

The Key Stat: Tracy McGrady scored one point in the first half on 0-6 field goal shooting, though he did have five assists. He bounced back to score 22 points on 8-11 shooting in the second half, including 16 points on 7-8 shooting in the third quarter alone. The teams combined to produce 13 fast break points. Yes, Houston and Utah are the "anti-Suns."

The Bottom Line: As ESPN reminded viewers approximately 10,000 times during the broadcast, McGrady has yet to lead a team to the second round and he has already stated that he should get all of the blame if Houston fails to get out of the first round this year. In the first half, McGrady seemed to feel the weight of all of that self-imposed pressure but in the second half he just settled down and played his game. Utah led 40-31 at halftime, but when McGrady came out firing in the second half the Jazz had no answers; T-Mac's third quarter outburst propelled the Rockets to a 59-53 lead by the end of the period. He finished with 23 points, seven assists and four rebounds, while Yao Ming had 28 points and 13 rebounds. Deron Williams led the Jazz with 15 points and nine assists, adding nine rebounds; Derek Fisher also had 15 points. Carlos Boozer snared 12 rebounds but only scored 11 points on 4-17 shooting. This will be a low scoring, grind it out series but, as Bill Walton noted near the end of the game, Houston has two superstars and Utah has none, so the Rockets should eventually win this series.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:02 AM

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