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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Cleveland Versus New Jersey Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#2 Cleveland (50-32) vs. #6 New Jersey (41-41)

Season series: Cleveland, 2-1

New Jersey can win if…the Nets get enough defensive stops to fuel their transition game, enabling Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson to thrive in the open court. At least two of those three must play very well in one of the games in Cleveland in order to grab homecourt advantage.

Cleveland will win because…LeBron James is the best player on either team and he will make the key plays down the stretch, which could mean scoring or could mean finding open teammates if he is trapped. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao should enjoy an advantage inside against the Nets' frontcourt.

Other things to consider: New Jersey is a dangerous team, even without versatile big man Nenad Krstic, who went down early in the season with a knee injury. The Nets went into Miami last year and took game one from the eventual champions, so New Jersey is not a team that can be taken lightly, despite their ordinary record (they have the worst won-loss mark of any first round series winner in two decades). It would not be surprising at all if New Jersey wrests homecourt away from Cleveland in game one or two only to lose it back when the series shifts East. This series figures to go at least six games, but Cleveland just looks at least a little better than New Jersey in several areas: the Cavs have the best individual player (James), won the season series between the teams, gained a lot of playoff experience last year (which puts them ahead of Toronto, New Jersey's first round opponent) and were the better overall team all season long.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:04 PM

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Jefferson's Score and Steal Seal Nets Win

Richard Jefferson scored a layup with eight seconds left and made a game-saving steal as the New Jersey Nets beat the Toronto Raptors 98-97 to win their series four games to two. Jefferson finished with a game-high 24 points. Vince Carter added 21 points, while Jason Kidd had 18 points, 15 assists and eight rebounds; Kidd averaged a triple double for an entire series for the second time in his career, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson as the only players to ever average a triple double in more than one playoff series. This was Kidd's 11th postseason triple double, moving into second place on the career playoff triple double list (Magic Johnson had 30). Chris Bosh overcame a slow shooting start to score 23 points; he also had seven rebounds and a career-high nine assists. He had 13 points in the fourth quarter and his basket with :47 left that put the Raptors up one would have been the game-winner if not for Jefferson's heroics.

Toronto's top two point guards, T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon, were questionable before the game due to injuries but they both turned in very solid performances. Ford scored 19 points in 15 minutes, while Calderon had 14 points, six assists and four steals in 33 minutes. Ford scored 13 points on 6-7 shooting in the first half, helping the Raptors take a 46-43 halftime lead. Carter and Jefferson both struggled mightily from the field in the first half, shooting 3-10 and 2-7 respectively.

The Nets hit the Raptors with a 7-0 run early in the third quarter; Kidd started the run with a three pointer and capped it off by feeding Jefferson for a dunk. Kidd had seven points and seven assists in the third quarter and the Nets took a 75-68 lead going into the fourth quarter. Bostjan Nachbar's three pointer gave the Nets a 78-68 advantage after the first possession of the final period, but the Raptors were not rattled, cutting the lead to 80-79 on Calderon's jumper at the 8:41 mark. Carter's dunk with 6:55 remaining put the Nets up 87-83 but they did not make another field goal until Jefferson's last second shot. The Nets made Nine made free throws to stay in contact, setting up the dramatic finish. After Bosh's bank shot gave the Raptors a 97-96 lead, Carter and Bosh traded misses and the Nets called timeout with 12 seconds left. Usually, New Jersey puts the ball in Carter's hands in last shot situations but this time the Nets ran a misdirection play, feeding Kidd at the top and setting a screen for Jefferson, who took Kidd's pass and made a strong drive, spinning to the hoop and finishing over Bosh with his left hand. The Raptors called timeout and then inbounded the ball at halfcourt with eight seconds left. Calderon dribbled for a few seconds and then attempted a low pass to Bosh, which Jefferson intercepted. Bosh had sealed his defender and was open, but the passing angle was very difficult.

The Raptors showed that they are a team with a very promising future--but the future is now for the Nets and their veteran nucleus of Kidd, Carter and Jefferson. The defending champion Miami Heat have already been eliminated and there is no dominant team in the East so this is a golden opportunity for the Nets to make a run at the NBA Finals. Next up for New Jersey is a showdown with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. That series will start on Sunday.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:28 AM

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San Antonio Versus Phoenix Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 Phoenix (61-21) vs. #3 San Antonio (58-24)

Season series: San Antonio, 2-1

Phoenix can win if…Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa are able to penetrate into the paint, break down the Spurs defense and create scoring opportunities for themselves and their teammates.

San Antonio will win because…the Spurs are able to both stifle the Suns' running game and also to run right back at Phoenix with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs eschew many offensive rebound opportunities in order to get back on defense and force teams to shoot contested shots. They are very dedicated to this philosophy and are athletic enough to be able to do this against the Suns; most teams lack either the mindset or the personnel to consistently do this. The Suns repeatedly burned the Lakers with wide open three pointers in transition and lobs for uncontested dunks; the Spurs will eliminate most of those easy scores and force Phoenix to score in a half court set.

Other things to consider: Many people think that Phoenix is poised to win the title this year because Amare Stoudemire is back in the mix. Yes, Stoudemire did have a huge series against San Antonio two years ago--but Tim Duncan's numbers were also very good and the Spurs won easily en route to their third championship. It probably will not be quite so easy this time but the Spurs will get one of the first two games in Phoenix and eventually win the series in six games.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:18 AM

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Chicago Versus Detroit Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Detroit (53-29) vs. #5 Chicago (49-33)

Season series: Chicago, 3-1

Detroit can win if…the backcourt duo of Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton gets the best of Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich and if Detroit is able to score in the paint either off of pick and roll plays or postups by Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess or Chris Webber.

Chicago will win because…Ben Wallace is on a mission to prove that he was THE key component to Detroit's recent postseason success and he will have a monster series on the boards and defensively. Neither Chris Webber nor Flip Saunders have a history of distinguishing themselves much past the first round.

Other things to consider: Sometimes, regular season head to head games matter and sometimes they don't. I know that sounds like a cop out or an Almond Joy commercial ("Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't...") but it's true. Factors like injuries, trades or playing for the fourth time in five nights can all cloud the meaning of regular season games as harbingers of what will happen in a playoff series--but, as Golden State just showed, sometimes a team really does have another team's number, based on style and matchups. Chicago took three of the four regular season games against Detroit and the Pistons needed a big comeback in the other game to eke out a win. Yes, Chris Webber did not play in all of the games, but Chicago poses some real matchup problems for the Pistons. Also, there is no getting around the fact that Ben Wallace was arguably the most important player during the Pistons' two trips to the Finals; the four-time Defensive Player of the Year is not only no longer with Detroit but he will be playing against Detroit in this series. Chicago improved markedly this season and just swept the defending champions, while Detroit's record got worse and the Pistons basically sleepwalked against a near-comatose Orlando Magic team. Look for the Bulls to win one of the first two games in Detroit and to take the series in six games.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:30 AM

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Catching Up With...Greg "Special K" Kelser

The May issue of Basketball Times contains my article about Greg "Special K" Kelser, who starred alongside Magic Johnson on Michigan State's 1979 NCAA Championship team. Injuries shortened his NBA career but Kelser had 19 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in Michigan State's 75-64 championship game win over Larry Bird's Indiana State team. That game will always be remembered for the Magic-Bird showdown but the Spartans would not have won without Kelser's near triple-double. As Kelser told me, "When I look back on it, if you just briefly mention the game it's always going to be 'Earvin Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird' but if you get into discussion about the game then my name has to come up because I think that I played that significant of a factor in the outcome."

The Kelser article is not available online but if Basketball Times is not sold in your area you can click on this link for subscription information:

Basketball Times

Also, Kelser co-wrote a book last year titled Gregory Kelser's Tales from Michigan State Basketball, which can be ordered here.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:28 PM

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Down Goes Dallas! Down Goes Dallas! Down Goes Dallas!

The Golden State Warriors completed the greatest upset in NBA playoff history with a 111-86 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, winning the series 4-2. Stephen Jackson set a Warriors' playoff record with seven three pointers (on just eight attempts) and scored a game-high 33 points. Baron Davis fought off a hamstring injury to add 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. All five Warriors' starters scored in double figures and two besides Davis had double doubles as the Warriors outrebounded the Mavericks 53-38; Matt Barnes had 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, while Andris Biedrins had 12 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse each scored 20 points for Dallas but that was not nearly enough to make up for the complete disappearance of the likely 2007 MVP, Dirk Nowitzki, who shot 2-13 from the field and scored just eight points. Nowitzki did manage to get 10 rebounds, but this has to be one of the worst performances ever by a player of his caliber in an elimination game; there may have been others that were worse statistically--though I cannot think of one at the moment--but it is difficult to recall a game six in which a prospective MVP had no impact whatsoever and was neither injured nor in foul trouble.

The Warriors are just the third eighth seed to beat a number one seed--Denver stunned Seattle in 1994 and New York defeated Miami in 1999--but they are the first to do so in a seven game series and the first to do so in less than the maximum number of games; New York needed a last second Allan Houston jump shot to win 78-77 in the fifth game of a five game series, while Denver needed overtime to prevail 98-94 in the fifth game of a five game series. Golden State, on the other hand, beat Dallas senseless in the third quarter in game six and did a victory lap in the fourth quarter. Prior to this year's 67-15 Dallas Mavericks, every other team in NBA history that won at least 65 games also won the championship except for the 1972-73 Boston Celtics, who lost in the Eastern Conference Finals after John Havlicek injured his shoulder--and those Celtics went on to win two of the next three titles. Dallas suffered no injuries to key players but lost in the first round to a team that had to win on the last day of the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs. From a historical standpoint, nothing like this has ever happened in the NBA.

You'd never believe it based on the final score, but this game was close well past halftime. The Mavericks came out in a good flow, with Jason Terry opening the scoring with a three pointer on the first possession of the game. The Warriors led 19-15 when Davis left the game at the 5:10 mark in the first quarter after injuring his hamstring. He went to the locker room for some treatment and the score was tied at 29 when he checked back in with 9:46 left in the second quarter. Davis committed a turnover and Terry soon blew by him for a layup. Davis then made a jumper, missed a shot and committed an offensive foul. It hardly seemed like he was poised to do great things; in fact, it looked like Don Nelson needed to get Davis out of the game, both for Davis' good and for the sake of the team--but then, in the next four minutes, Davis made four straight shots, including three three pointers. He was making shots that have not been seen since Michael Jordan and Larry Bird played "horse" in the old McDonald's commercial. The Mavericks kept pace despite Davis' onslaught, trailing just 50-48 at halftime, but Davis had made it clear that he would be a factor the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, Nowitzki endured a nightmare first half, shooting 1-10 from the field and scoring just four points. Stackhouse shouldered the bulk of the scoring burden, pouring in 18 points. The teams traded baskets for the first few possessions of the third quarter before Jackson nailed consecutive three pointers to push the Warriors' lead to 62-54. Howard countered with a three pointer to make the score 62-57 at the 7:32 mark--and Dallas did not score again until Stackhouse's jump shot with 2:24 left in the third quarter. During that time, Golden State went on an 18-0 run that obliterated a season's worth of work by Dallas: Jackson made a free throw and two three pointers, followed by a Davis jumper, two Davis free throws, two Jackson free throws, a Davis free throw, two Biedrins free throws and a Barnes dunk. The last two scores symbolized Dallas' complete helplessness: the Mavericks apparently intentionally fouled Biedrins, a notoriously poor free throw shooter, because they simply could not stop Golden State from scoring. TNT's Steve Kerr noted that for a defensive minded team like Dallas to resort to "Hack a Biedrins" in the third quarter was basically a sign of surrender. Nelson took Biedrins out of the game, so on the next possession Dallas trapped Davis, an adjustment that worked in the latter stages of the Mavericks' game five victory--but he calmly fed Barnes, who delivered an emphatic dunk. If this were a boxing match, the referee would have called the fight right at that moment. Golden State outscored Dallas 36-15 in the third quarter, led 86-63 going into the fourth quarter and did not allow the Mavericks to get closer than 19 points the rest of the way.

Whether or not Golden State can sustain this level of play in the next round, the Warriors' accomplishment in this series will forever be remembered and images from this sixth game--Davis' off balance shots, Barnes' dunk, a great dunk by Jason Richardson in the fourth quarter--will take their place alongside Denver's Dikembe Mutombo cradling the ball in 1994 and New York's Allan Houston pumping his arm and sprinting the length of the court in 1999.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 AM

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AK 47 Steps Up, Jazz Force a Game Seven Versus Rockets

Andrei Kirilenko emerged from his season-long hibernation to provide a spark at both ends of the court as the Utah Jazz defeated the Houston Rockets 94-82, forcing a seventh game. Kirilenko, who made his mark as a player who can stuff a box score in a variety of ways, finished with 14 points, five rebounds, four assists, three steals and five blocked shots. Carlos Boozer had another strong game--22 points, nine rebounds--and Mehmet Okur chipped in 19 points, making four of his seven three pointers. Tracy McGrady led the Rockets with 26 points and 10 rebounds, but shot just 8-23 from the field and had five turnovers. Yao Ming contributed 25 points but he committed eight turnovers and only had only six rebounds.

McGrady and Yao carried the Rockets early in the game, scoring 10 and six points respectively as the Rockets led 22-20 after the first quarter. The Jazz pulled ahead in the second quarter and led at halftime, as they have in each game so far. They extended their slender 43-40 advantage to 65-54 in the third quarter but the Rockets got the Jazz into the penalty and narrowed the margin by scoring from the free throw line, getting their last eight points of the quarter from the charity stripe and closing the gap to 68-62.

Shane Battier's three pointer with 8:15 left in the fourth quarter got Houston to within 75-74, but the Rockets were never able to take the lead. Utah closed the game with a 13-4 run in the last 3:38.

This series has gone strictly "by the book," with the home team winning each game. Houston and Utah are very evenly matched, so that is not surprising. Expect another hard fought, low scoring contest and another victory by the home team in game seven--which means that Tracy McGrady will finally make it to the second round of the playoffs. Look for him to carry the day in game seven, possibly with a big scoring game but definitely by taking over at a crucial moment, either by scoring or by racking up assists.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:27 AM

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Suns Sprint Past Lakers, 119-110

The Phoenix Suns eliminated the L.A. Lakers from the playoffs with a 119-110 home victory on Wednesday night. Last year the Lakers took a 3-1 lead against the Suns before succumbing in seven games--but this year the Suns have Amare Stoudemire, who had 27 points and 16 rebounds; his inside presence was felt throughout the Suns' 4-1 series victory. Shawn Marion added 26 points and 10 rebounds. Steve Nash contributed 17 points and 10 assists, but shot just 5-15 from the field and committed seven turnovers. The Lakers countered with a two-pronged attack: Kobe Bryant scored 34 points but shot just 13-33 from the field; he shot well in the first half but faded down the stretch, which was the case in four of the five games. He also missed practice on Tuesday due to a back injury that he suffered in game four, but his mobility did not seem to be affected in this game. The Lakers' other main weapon was Lamar Odom, who scored a playoff career-high 33 points on 13-21 shooting, adding 10 rebounds. Odom showed a lot of heart and a lot of grit in this series, continuing to play despite injuries to his shoulder, elbow and knee--and there is no doubt that his physical pain pales in comparison to the emotional pain from the death of his infant son last summer. Many of the Lakers can rightly be accused of quitting or being soft--but not Odom.

Bryant and Nash are their teams' respective leaders but neither really displayed his "A" game (as Tiger Woods would put it). The difference, of course, is Nash has two other All-Stars to rely on, plus Sixth Man of the Year Leandro Barbosa (18 points), All-Defensive First Team selection Raja Bell and versatile reserve Boris Diaw. A dramatic demonstration of this difference happened in the second quarter. Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson took Bryant out of the game at the 7:56 mark of the second quarter with the Suns leading 41-34. Just 1:45 later, the Lakers trailed 49-34 and Jackson had to put Bryant back in the game; he promptly converted a three point play to pull the Lakers back within 12 and they maintained that distance the rest of the half, trailing 64-52 at the break. Bryant scored 18 points in the first half on 8-16 shooting. TNT's Craig Sager asked the Lakers coaching staff if they could afford to give Bryant any rest in the second half and they told him that apparently they could not; Bryant played all 24 minutes in the second half.

Odom did most of his damage in the third quarter, scoring 16 points while Bryant struggled to find his shooting stroke during the period. Bryant finally made a couple jumpers, one of which cut the Suns' lead to 87-85. That was as close as the Lakers would get, though, as the Suns scored the final four points of the quarter. The Suns began to pull away in the fourth quarter and Bryant's mounting frustration boiled over, leading to a technical foul. He complained on several occasions that he was fouled when the Suns stripped the ball away from him, so it was only a matter of time until he got the technical foul. Nash made the resulting free throw to put the Suns up 105-91 with 6:46 left, but the Lakers made one more run, capped by back to back Bryant three pointers that trimmed the margin to 111-106 with 3:00 to go. Marion hit a jumper and Stoudemire split a pair of free throws to make the score 114-106 but an Odom layup and Bryant jumper sandwiched around two Nash free throws kept the Lakers in striking distance, down 116-110 with :50 left. The game concluded with three Suns' free throws and two missed three pointers by the Lakers.

During the TNT telecast, Doug Collins touched on some subjects that have been recently discussed in this space. He called Bryant "the most criticized great player in the NBA." Collins also said that he thought that Bryant may have made this year's All-Defensive Team more on his reputation than on his play this year, while Shawn Marion missed out on making the team because the voting is based on position (which hurts Marion because there are several standout defensive forwards). Collins is certainly right about the amount of criticism that is directed at Bryant and I made the exact same point about Marion's "snub"--he finished 12th overall, but behind several top notch forwards. Collins is certainly entitled to his opinion about how much "reputation" factors into All-Defensive Team voting but I don't buy this idea from him any more than I buy it from fans. The All-Defensive Team is voted on by head coaches, not media members. When Golden State Coach Don Nelson directs Baron Davis to attack Steve Nash in the post or has his forwards take the ball straight at Dirk Nowitzki he certainly knows who the weak links defensively are on those squads; there is a truism around the NBA that if you want to know who is the weakest defender on a team just watch who Nelson runs an isolation play against in the first half court set of the game. I would assume that if Nelson can identify weak defensive players then he can also identify good ones and I'm pretty confident that the other 29 coaches can do this too. Bryant did not barely make the All-Defensive Team; he is on the First Team, receiving more votes than any other guard. Why exactly would coaches be swayed by "reputation"? As for Marion, despite all the media hype about his defense, the coaches have never voted him to the All-Defensive Team; while Marion does face stiff competition at that position he also is frequently talked up by the media as a top defender, so if the coaches are voting by "reputation" then why has he never made the team? It's not because of Phoenix' bad defensive "reputation," either, because Raja Bell is on the First Team alongside Bryant. This whole "reputation" thing is just meaningless until somebody actually talks to a representative number of coaches and finds out their thinking on the subject of All-Defensive Team voting.

As injuries hit the Lakers during the second half of the season it became apparent that the team could only win when Bryant scored at least 40 points while shooting a good to excellent percentage--which is quite a burden for any player to carry. In the five games against Phoenix, Bryant averaged 32.8 ppg on .462 field goal shooting, .357 three point shooting and .919 free throw shooting. His field goal percentage was virtually identical to his regular season rate, while his three point and free throw numbers improved in the playoffs (field goal percentages tend to go down in the postseason because of tougher competition and because teams zero in on one team for several games in a row). Bryant also averaged 5.2 rpg and 4.4 apg, meaning he averaged 1.2 ppg more and .5 rpg and 1.0 apg less than during the regular season. Keep in mind that he sprained his ankle in the game two loss, the only contest in which he scored less than 31 points. Bryant's best performance came in game three: 45 points, 15-26 shooting from the field, six rebounds and six assists. Not surprisingly, that is the only game the Lakers won. The normally perceptive J.A. Adande of the L.A. Times wrote, "The Lakers' only victory in this series came when he made an effort to set up his teammates for shots in Game 3, rather than throw them the ball in desperation after getting caught in a double-team." That statement makes no sense because the reality is that the only game the Lakers won is the only game in which Bryant scored 40-plus points; in the next game he had nine assists (plus 31 points on more than acceptable 12-25 shooting) but the Lakers lost by 13--in other words, they needed him to get more than 40 points.

Adande offers this quote from Bryant on the current state of the Lakers: "I'll do whatever it takes to win. I've had to do a lot just to get us into the playoffs. I don't want to do that. I want to win championships. I don't want to be a one-man show, a team that goes onto the road, the opposition crowd wants to see me score 50 and lose. I'm not with that. I'm about winning. I want to win championships and win them now. So, they have some decisions to make" (maybe Bryant is listening too much to his critics, because the fact is that when he scored 50 points this season the Lakers went 7-3, so there were not that many instances of him scoring 50 and losing; the problem is that even he cannot score 50 points in enough games to push the Lakers to elite status).

The "they" that Bryant spoke of is, of course, the Lakers front office. Bryant had an extraordinary season in 2006-07, carrying an injured team into the playoffs; now the ball is in the hands of the Lakers front office and they need to make some exceptional moves of their own.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:31 AM

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Finley's Fine Shooting Finishes Nuggets

Michael Finley scored 26 points and set a Spurs playoff record with eight three pointers as San Antonio beat Denver 93-78, winning their first round playoff series 4-1. Tim Duncan had 23 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and one blocked shot but the biggest number that you can attach to his name is .377: that is the Nuggets' shooting percentage in this game. The Spurs have always ranked at or near the top of the NBA in defensive field goal percentage since Duncan entered the league and this game provided a perfect example of why this is the case. Duncan only blocked one shot but he altered many others. Whenever a Denver player entered the paint he had to contend with Duncan. The Nuggets pose tough matchup problems for most teams because they have two players who often have to be double-teamed: Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. Yet the Spurs held both of them below their normal scoring averages and shooting percentages; Anthony scored 21 points on 8-20 shooting and had no assists, while Iverson scored 21 points on 6-22 shooting, adding eight assists. Bruce Bowen alternated between guarding Anthony and guarding Iverson but he had the freedom to drape himself over either player like flypaper because if they got past him then they had to finish over Duncan in the paint.

Denver showed good fighting spirit in this game, though. The Spurs jumped out to a 37-27 lead but the Nuggets battled back and were in front 48-44 at halftime. The Spurs did not score in the last 3:08 of the half and the Nuggets went on a 10-0 run, capped by two Steve Blake three pointers in the last :31. However, the Spurs scored the first seven points of the third quarter to recapture the lead and they never trailed again. Finley made three of his three pointers in the fourth quarter as the Spurs outscored the Nuggets 30-19 in the final stanza.

The first round features eight playoff series, so it is obvious that not all of them will receive equal attention. Chicago's sweep of defending champion Miami certainly opened some eyes, any series involving Phoenix' Steve Nash and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant will always draw interest and Golden State-Dallas has captured the imagination of a lot of people--but the Spurs just quietly and efficiently took four straight games from a team that was peaking at the end of the season and has two potent scorers plus the Defensive Player of the Year. The Spurs are not worried about flying under the radar now because they plan to still be playing a month or so from now in the NBA Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:31 AM

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Nowitzki Saves Mavericks in Closing Minutes

Dirk Nowitzki scored 12 points in the final 3:06 and came up with a key blocked shot as the Dallas Mavericks overcame a 112-103 deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors 118-112. Nowitzki, whose name apparently was changed to either "Much maligned" or "Soft" in recent days (if you listen to the talking heads), led both teams with 30 points and 12 rebounds. Baron Davis had 27 points and nine assists for the Warriors before fouling out on a questionable looking call with 21 seconds left and Dallas up just one point.

Dallas took a 31-15 lead in the first 7:30 of the game and at that point it hardly seemed like the Mavericks would need any late game heroics to extend this series to a sixth game. Golden State cut that margin to 36-28 near the end of the first quarter but then the Mavericks built a 53-32 lead just past the halfway mark of the second quarter. As TNT's Charles Barkley so aptly put it, though, the Warriors will not go away--you have to kill them. By halftime, Dallas was up just 62-55. Jerry Stackhouse received a technical foul as the teams walked off of the court, so Stephen Jackson shot a free throw before the start of the third quarter, bringing Golden State to within 62-56. The Warriors tied the game at 67 on a Jason Richardson three pointer and the teams battled back and forth after that, with Dallas taking a 90-87 lead into the fourth quarter.

The game was nip and tuck for the first few minutes of the fourth quarter but then the Warriors went on an 11-1 run--including two three pointers and an alley oop that Davis threw from near half court to Jason Richardson--to take a 112-103 lead with just 3:21 remaining. Dallas teetered on the brink of elimination--and then Nowitzki took over, draining a three pointer, blocking Matt Barnes' layup and then nailing another three pointer. Devin Harris' layup pulled the Mavericks to within one, 112-111, and then Nowitzki put Dallas ahead for good by making two free throws with :48 left. Golden State's last points came on a Davis three pointer at the 3:21 mark.

Golden State definitely looked impressive in their two home games in this series--and if the Warriors intend to win this series they better come up with that kind of a performance on Thursday in Game Six, because--as I wrote last year--Game Seven on the road in the NBA is death. As regular readers of this site know, I like to dissect Xs and Os and the strategic aspects of basketball but I think that in this series some of those things have been overdone, at least from Dallas' side. The Mavericks posted one of the best regular season records in NBA history but for most of this series they have been changing their lineup and trying to outthink the Warriors--but you can't outthink a crazy man. Don Nelson is the crazy man in this series--crazy like a fox. He knows that his team is not as good as Dallas, which is why he keeps saying that--but he also knows that by running and gunning on offense and triple-teaming Nowitzki on defense and just creating a wild and crazy shootout that there is a chance that his team will be standing at the end; certainly, the Warriors would have no chance to win by playing in a more conventional way.

The Mavericks should start looking at this series the same way that the Warriors do, namely that Dallas has the better team: the Mavericks have the likely MVP, a young All-Star in Josh Howard, several other talented players (Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse, Devin Harris) and a deeper bench. If Golden State wants to run, Dallas should not be afraid to run with them. The Mavericks did this in the first half and were blowing the Warriors' doors off. I don't believe that the Warriors can rely on a short rotation, run and gun for the entire game and stay with a deeper, more talented team. The Mavericks need to stop being afraid of what Golden State is doing and simply push the ball right back at them, letting their superior talent and depth carry the day. Dallas is not a slow it down, post up team, so when the Mavericks try to do that and miss the Warriors get the ball, run down court and score in about five seconds. That quiets Dallas' crowd or fires up Golden State's crowd, depending on where the game is being played. Slowing the game down ironically works in Golden State's favor, because it allows them to drape quick bodies on Nowitzki and dictate to Dallas who gets open shots. On the other hand, when the Mavericks run then Nowitzki gets open jumpers in transition, the kind of shots that he loves to take. Just look at the scores of the five games so far: the two games that Dallas has won are the only two games in which they scored over 100 points. This series is not about Avery Johnson "calling out" Nowitzki or about a bunch of Xs and Os. If I were coaching Dallas, this is what I'd write on the chalkboard: Play loose, play hard, rebound and run, run, run. Dallas is not going to beat Golden State in a slowdown game because Nelson will not, under any circumstances, allow the Warriors to slow the tempo down; so Avery Johnson will simply have to bite the bullet and beat the Warriors at their own game.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:45 AM

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Raptors Not Extinct--Yet

The Toronto Raptors built a 20 point first quarter lead and held on for dear life to win 98-96 and stave off elimination by the New Jersey Nets; the Nets still lead the series 3-2 and can advance to a second round matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers by winning at home in game six. Jose Calderon led the Raptors with a career-high 25 points and eight assists before spraining his ankle with less than 30 seconds left; he played 38 minutes after starting point guard T.J. Ford injured his neck in a collision with Vince Carter. Andrea Bargnani and Anthony Parker each had 18 points, while foul trouble limited Chris Bosh to 11 points and eight rebounds. Vince Carter played much better than he has in his previous games as a visitor at the Air Canada Centre, producing 30 points on 10-22 shooting. Richard Jefferson added 23 points on 9-14 shooting and Jason Kidd just missed yet another triple double (11 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds), but New Jersey's perimeter trio received little help from the rest of the roster.

Toronto blasted out to a 33-13 lead by the end of the first quarter, with the only down note being Ford's injury. The Nets were only able to shave three points off of that margin by halftime, trailing 59-42. Toronto maintained a double digit lead for most of the third quarter but New Jersey went on a 10-0 run early in the fourth quarter to get within 85-81. Bosh then sank two free throws but the Nets countered with a pair of Jefferson jumpers to make the score 87-85 Toronto. The Raptors kept their cool and pushed the lead back to 95-88 at the 3:16 mark but the Nets had one run left, a 6-0 streak that got them to 95-94 after Carter's three pointer with 27 seconds remaining. Bosh made three of his four free throws in the closing seconds but the victory was not assured until Bostjan Nachbar's three pointer failed to connect as time ran out.

Ford, whose career was nearly ended by a previous neck injury, reportedly had tingling in his arms and was taken to a hospital for further tests. He returned to the arena in street clothes. Winning game six on the road on Friday will be a supreme challenge for the young Raptors, particularly if Ford is unable to play.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:04 AM

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

NBA Coaches Select Kobe Bryant as League's Best Defensive Guard

Not too long ago, some guy who apparently spends more time admiring my mustache than he does watching basketball decided that Kobe Bryant is an overrated defensive player who is living off of his past reputation (as I discussed in several late March posts, including this one). On Monday, the NBA announced its 2006-07 All-Defensive Team, as selected by the league's 30 head coaches (who cannot vote for their own players) and, lo and behold, Bryant made the First Team for the second year in a row and fifth time in his career (he also has earned two Second Team selections). This will not even slow down Bryant's detractors, who already are out in full force mocking the coaches' knowledge and questioning not only Bryant's selection but Shawn Marion's omission; after all, the writers and broadcasters placed Marion fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting, so they have a major discrepancy to explain: how can Marion be a viable Defensive Player of the Year candidate but not rank among the league's 10 best defenders on the coaches' ballot? This is when we start to hear about bias among the coaches--members of the media, of course, are never biased--but my favorite complaint is that the coaches either are not following what happens in the league or don't understand what they are watching. Yeah, right--guys whose livelihood depends on making up game plans and deciphering which players can be attacked defensively know less about the NBA and are more biased in voting about it than writers and broadcasters. Sure, that makes sense.

The top three members of the All-Defensive Team this year are not controversial: Bruce Bowen (19 First Team votes, 4 Second Team votes, 42 points), Tim Duncan (16, 4, 36) and Marcus Camby (11, 12, 34). Camby won the Defensive Player of the Year Award and tied with Bowen by appearing on 23 of 29 All-Defensive Team ballots, so the media and coaches agree in this instance. Bryant finished first among guards (14, 4, 32) and Raja Bell rounded out the First Team (7, 11, 25). The Second Team consists of Ben Wallace (12, 9, 33), Jason Kidd (8, 7, 23), Tayshaun Prince (7, 7, 21), Kevin Garnett (8, 4, 20) and Kirk Hinrich (7, 4, 18).

Looking at those numbers, the coaches indicated loudly and clearly that they consider Bryant to be the best defensive guard in the NBA--he got significantly more First Team votes than any other backcourt player. Why do coaches have such a high opinion of Bryant as a defensive player? One obvious factor is that Bryant guards the top perimeter threat on opposing teams, particularly in crunch time. Think about this: the Lakers' team defense is much worse this year than it was last year and Bryant still cruised to a position on the First Team. That tells you that coaches recognize that the Lakers' defensive slide this year stems not from Bryant but from other players--namely, the point guard and the center, as I have said repeatedly throughout the season. The oft-cited instances of Bryant being "burned" this season were in fact examples of bad pick and roll defense by his team. For instance, anyone who watched Bryant versus Dwyane Wade (when Wade was healthy, by the way) knows that Wade rarely, if ever, beat Bryant one on one (he also rarely guarded Bryant, deferring to Jason Kapono and others for the most part); Wade scored in transition and on pick and roll plays that were poorly handled by the Lakers' big men.

As for the Marion "snub," Marion received 10 votes, including five for the First Team, and his 15 points just missed the cut for the Second Team (he finished 12th, two points behind Shane Battier and three points behind Kirk Hinrich, the last member of the Second Team). So, Marion did in fact receive significant support, just not as much as the other forwards--and you can make a good case that he is not a better defender than Bowen, Duncan, Prince or Garnett. Bowen guards point guards, shooting guards and forwards; Duncan completely shuts down the paint; Prince, like Bowen, guards multiple positions; Garnett is a beast on the defensive backboards and a long armed defensive presence, though I have always felt that he should block more shots than he does. Marion is clearly a good defender or he would not have finished 12th in the coaches' voting but there are legitimate reasons to select those four forwards ahead of him, namely their versatility and/or paint dominance. That is not "hating" Marion or "snubbing" him. Note that Bell got 18 total votes, nearly twice as many as Marion, so there is hardly an anti-Suns bias at work here.

I know that I cannot "win" a debate about the All-Defensive Team, because those who downgrade Bryant as a defender and/or insist that Marion is the league's best defensive player are not interested in the truth; they are interested in mustaches or promoting their favorite player or who knows what else. Even though I can't "win," 20 Second Timeout readers have been "winning" all year by gaining an understanding of what is really happening on the court, as opposed to what some people want you to believe is happening; there is always an "Awful Basket" or a "False Bucket" or some such site for that. Here's a novel idea for some big budget media organization: instead of publishing articles about how Marion was "snubbed" or Bryant is not worthy, send a reporter out to interview some head coaches and find out who they voted for and why. Maybe the coaches will decline to comment, not wanting any distractions while the playoffs are going on or not wanting to irritate players for whom they did not vote, but I'd rather hear one coach explain his vote than 10 "experts" saying that coaches don't know anything about basketball.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:33 AM

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Carmelo Anthony's Least Favorite Playoff Numbers: 1 and 4

Each year around this time we hear that Carmelo Anthony's Denver Nuggets are a "dangerous" team that "no one wants to play"--and then they win one game, sometimes on the road against a higher seeded opponent, before losing four and getting eliminated. Denver is one loss in San Antonio away from doing this for the fourth year in a row. San Antonio trailed by as many as 10 points in Monday's game four but outscored Denver 29-16 in the fourth quarter to win 96-89 and take a 3-1 series lead. Right after Denver beat the Spurs in San Antonio in game one, some "experts" predicted that the Nuggets were for real this time--and I wrote that the Spurs would win the series in less than seven games.

Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 22 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. The Elias Sports Bureau combed through the archives and discovered that this was the 20th playoff game in which Duncan led or tied for the team lead in all three categories, one shy of the NBA record held by Larry Bird. Robert Horry had just six points and six rebounds but added yet another chapter to his War and Peace length book of playoff heroics by draining a three pointer with :30 left that put the Spurs up 93-89. Can you say, "Good night, thank you for coming and don't forget the speakers"? (just checking to see if there are any Cheech and Chong fans here...) Anthony actually had a reasonably productive game: 29 points (11-18 shooting) and six rebounds, though he did have an unsightly 6/3 turnover to assist ratio. He has played better, by far, in this year's playoffs than in his three previous postseasons, when he averaged 18.6 ppg on .362 shooting. Allen Iverson had 22 points and seven assists but shot just 9-25 from the field and only went to the free throw line five times.

The Nuggets probably have the best mix of players that they have had since Anthony entered the NBA; next year, when Iverson is on board for a full season and Anthony presumably avoids being suspended, they may in fact really turn out to be dangerous--but their 2007 postseason seems destined to end like the previous three did: 1 and 4 and out the door.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM

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The Value of Homecourt Advantage

The Houston-Utah series is shaping up as a perfect example of the value of homecourt advantage--which is good news for the Rockets, who claimed a 3-2 lead with a 96-92 home win on Monday. Tracy McGrady, who had 26 points and a career-high 16 assists, can advance to the second round for the first time in his career if he can lead the Rockets to a road win in game six or a home win in game seven. Yao Ming shot just 6-18 from the field but he scored six of Houston's last seven points, finishing with 21 points and 15 rebounds. Carlos Boozer had another strong game for the Jazz with 26 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals.

Things looked bleak for Houston when McGrady left the game in the second quarter due to a hip pointer and the Rockets fell behind by 10 while he received treatment in the locker room. He missed less than two minutes before returning to action and the Rockets rallied to trail by just one, 44-43, at halftime. Utah extended that lead to 72-68 by the end of the third quarter--despite 11 points in the period by McGrady--but the fourth quarter belonged to Yao (nine points) and McGrady (six points), who combined to score 15 of Houston's 28 points.

While it is true that great teams can win at home or on the road, homecourt advantage is a very significant thing to have in a playoff series, particularly one that features two pretty evenly matched teams. There is an old NFL Films clip with Bill Parcells in which he exhorts his players on the bench by saying, "This is why you lift all those $%$&*# weights." In other words, the work that you do in the weight room, in practice and during the regular season prepares you to win in the playoffs. Well, this game showed why "meaningless" games in January are in fact meaningful. Houston finished one win ahead of Utah--one game out of 82. Remember when Utah lost to Seattle on January 12? You probably don't, of course, but if the Jazz had won that game then they would have had the same record as Houston and would have earned homecourt advantage based on their 3-1 regular season record versus the Rockets. In other words, that "meaningless" loss could end up costing Utah this series.

The Elias Sports Bureau seems to be working overtime in the playoffs; they say that McGrady and Yao are the first teammates to each have a 20-15 performance in the same playoff game since Charles Barkley (30 points, 20 rebounds) and Kevin Johnson (21 points, 16 assists) accomplished this for Phoenix at San Antonio on April 28, 1996.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:53 AM

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Cavs Sweep Wizards, Await New Jersey-Toronto Winner

Cleveland beat Washington 97-90 on Monday night, completing a sweep of the game but undermanned Wizards. LeBron James had 31 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. He shot just 2-10 from the field in the first half but rallied to connect on six of his 12 second half shots. Zydrunas Ilgauskas added 20 points and 19 rebounds, noting with a smile after the game that if he had known his stats he would have tried to get one more rebound to reach 20-20 status. Larry Hughes contributed 19 points, four rebounds and three assists, including some key fourth quarter field goals as Cleveland held off a late Wizards rally. Antawn Jamison, the only big gun left for the Wizards after All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler were felled by injuries, scored 32 points.

I was less than impressed by Detroit's sweep of Orlando since the Pistons allowed the Magic to stay close for the better part of the series, so it must be said that the Cavaliers hardly looked like world beaters in these four games. Still, Cleveland had never swept a playoff series in franchise history, so this accomplishment is not without significance. The Pistons are a number one seed with an extensive playoff pedigree, so they are expected to easily dispatch an eighth seed; postseason success is a much newer phenomenon for James' Cavaliers.

After the game, LeBron James said, "Last year, going into the playoffs, it was all about making the playoffs. I hadn't been there in my NBA career, and Z hadn't been there since his rookie season, so that was our main focus: 'Let's make the playoffs, let's make the playoffs.' We've got bigger and better things now. It's about winning a championship, and we're one step closer."

The Wizards led by as many as nine points, but watching the game the outcome seemed almost inevitable. Even Washington Coach Eddie Jordan seemed to understand this; he used his bench extensively for the first time in the series, either to give his younger players postseason experience or to get a head start on the player evaluation process for next season. The Cavaliers got the stops they needed to get down the stretch, outscoring the Wizards 23-13 in the last 6:04 of the game.

The Elias Sports Bureau unearthed a couple interesting statistical nuggets pertaining to this game:

1) No player has reached the point, rebound and assist levels that James did in a series-clinching game since Scottie Pippen produced 32 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists versus the Lakers in game five of the 1991 Finals as the Chicago Bulls won their first title; that tells us something not only about James but also about Pippen's value.

2) Jamison's 32 ppg average in this series is the second highest ever by a player whose team got swept in a seven game series; George Gervin racked up 32.3 ppg as his Spurs lost to the Lakers in the 1982 Western Conference Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:57 AM

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Warriors Come Out to Plaaay

Remember when ESPN had a little theme song for its highlights of each NBA team? The refrain for Golden State went, "Warriors come out to plaaay," which I found to be amusing since the Warriors usually came out to get their butts kicked. Now, though, I can't get that infernal song out of my head--it's on constant rotation on my mental turntable, along with Jack Buck's Kirk Gibson home run call: "I can't believe what I just saw!" Is a barely .500 team that qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the regular season really going to eliminate one of the winningest teams in NBA history? Golden State's 103-99 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday gave the Warriors a 3-1 series lead. Baron Davis scored 33 points on 12-17 shooting, adding eight rebounds and four assists. If the Mavericks have an answer for him they have yet to reveal it. Dirk Nowitzki had 23 points and 15 rebounds for Dallas, including two three pointers in the last :23 as the Mavericks mounted a late rally.

I don't think that people have really wrapped their minds around how incredible this is. The Dallas Mavericks went 67-15--after an 0-4 start. None of their key players are injured. Their star player, Nowitzki, will probably win the MVP. Only two eighth seeded teams have beaten number one seeds since the NBA went to the current playoff format in 1984--and one of those eighth seeds was a 27-23 Knicks team that beat a 33-17 Heat team in the lockout shortened 1999 season. That's not exactly the same thing as a 42-40 Warriors team running a 67-15 Mavericks team right out of the gym. The only other example, 42-40 Denver beating 63-19 Seattle in 1994, is somewhat similar to this year's Warriors-Mavericks series--but Dallas won a few more games this year than Seattle did and had a better team last year (NBA Finalist) than Seattle did in 1993 (Western Conference Finalist).

Of course, it is possible that Dallas will restore order in the basketball universe by winning the next three games; the Suns overcame a 3-1 deficit versus the Lakers last year. Also, the Mavericks beat the Rockets in 2005 after falling behind 2-0. Charles Barkley's 1993 Phoenix Suns lost the first two games of the first round to the L.A. Lakers--at home, in a best of five series, no less--and recovered to not only win that series but to advance all the way to the NBA Finals. Whether Dallas authors a great comeback or Golden State pulls off perhaps the biggest upset in NBA history we are witnessing a series of historic significance.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:54 PM

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Vinsanity is Back--Plus, Remember When J. Kidd Was the NBA's Best Point Guard? He Still Might Be...

Vince Carter was just plain old "VC" in the first two games of the New Jersey-Toronto series, played in the decidedly unfriendly (at least toward him) confines of the Air Canada Centre--but now that the series has moved to the very friendly confines of Continental Airlines Arena, "Vinsanity" and "Half Man, Half Amazing" have reemerged in full flower. Carter had 37 points on 15-23 shooting in a 102-89 game three win and followed that up with 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in just 30 minutes in a 102-81 game four victory on Sunday that put the Nets up three games to one. If the Raptors had kept the game close enough so that Carter had to play 40 or 45 minutes, he might have had 40 points and a triple double--which he actually did against Washington on April 7 in a 120-114 win: 46 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists.

Speaking of that amazing April 7 game, Jason Kidd also had a triple double in that contest: 10 points, 18 assists, 16 rebounds. Kidd and Carter became the first teammates to have a triple double in the same game since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. What does that have to do with game four of the Nets-Raptors series? Kidd and Carter had a very realistic shot of becoming the first teammates in postseason history to post triple doubles in the same game. Kidd had 12 points, six rebounds and seven assists in the first half, while Carter had 21 points, six rebounds and five assists. The Raptors fell behind by as many as 33 points, though, allowing Kidd to shut it down early and rest his sore left knee; Kidd finished with 17 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds.

Kidd has already said that this was the best season of his career, even better than when he was an MVP candidate a few years ago after resurrecting the Nets and leading the team to back to back Finals appearances. He is averaging a triple double for the entire series, a feat that he previously accomplished in the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. Magic Johnson (four times), Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Oscar Robertson and Fat Lever are the only other players who have ever done this. Kidd is so good that, as TNT's Steve Kerr noted, he is a rare player who can dominate a game without scoring; Marv Albert wryly noted that in one game this year he mentioned on the air that Kidd was only 10 points away from a triple double.

Kidd had microfracture surgery a few years ago and seemed to have disappeared from the roster of the league's elite players, at least in the popular mind. He had a bit of a resurgence last year and this year his game has returned with a vengeance, which just brings to mind again the question that I have posed here, in various forms, for a while: Why has Steve Nash received so much more MVP consideration than Kidd, Stockton, KJ, Price and other great playmaking guards of the past 20 years ever did? I always felt that Kidd, Stockton, KJ and Price were underrated--not that they should have won an MVP in this year or that year, but that they should have received more consideration (Kidd did finish second to Tim Duncan one time). Prior to 2004-05, I actually thought that Nash was underrated as well--but now he's won two MVPs and people just casually throw around the idea that he is the best point guard and best passer ever. Ever?! I think that Nash is great and I actually have thought that a lot longer than most other people have; Nash reminded me of Mark Price back when Nash was getting booed early in his career and not even an All-Star, much less a two-time MVP (by the way, Price is one of the most underrated guards ever, so anyone who thinks that I am "hating"--in the overused word of the month--by comparing Nash to Price just does not get it).

It probably won't happen--for either team--but wouldn't a Kidd-Nash showdown in the NBA Finals be interesting?

posted by David Friedman @ 5:21 PM

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Passing Fancy: Nash has 23 Assists, Suns Cruise Past Lakers

Steve Nash put on one of the best playmaking displays in playoff history as the Suns beat the Lakers 113-100 to take a 3-1 series lead. His 23 assists fell one short of tying the playoff single game record, jointly held by Magic Johnson and John Stockton; Nash's 15 first half assists tied a playoff record held by Johnson and Doc Rivers. Nash also had 17 points, though he shot just 6-15 from the field, well below his normal percentage. Amare Stoudemire had 27 points and a playoff career-high 21 rebounds and Shawn Marion also had a double double (22 points, 11 rebounds). The Lakers squandered Kobe Bryant's near triple-double (31 points, nine assists, seven rebounds) by offering little support outside of Lamar Odom (19 points, 13 rebounds, five assists), who is playing despite shoulder, elbow and knee injuries.

The Lakers were still within striking distance at halftime, trailing just 58-51, because Bryant had 20 points and four assists while shooting 8-17 from the field. Of course, the close score was really fool's gold, because the Lakers simply do not have enough firepower to win a shootout with the stacked Suns; the winning formula for the Lakers is to hold the Suns below 100--preferably below 90--while Bryant scores 35-40 points. The second half of these games is when the Suns really load up two or three guys on Bryant, daring him to either force up bad shots or pass the ball to his teammates--for whom even wide open shots are often an adventure. In the third quarter the Suns pushed the lead to 81-67 by the 1:38 mark. Odom had a strong quarter, finishing with 10 points, but Bryant had just four points on 1-3 shooting in that 10:22 stretch; he shot 2-2 in the last 1:38 but the Suns also made two baskets and were still up 85-71 going into the fourth quarter. ABC's Jon Barry said more than once that people who criticize Bryant for shooting too much are wrong because the Lakers' only chance is for Bryant to shoot the ball a lot. Mike Breen tried to make the case that Bryant should pass when he is double or triple teamed but he did acknowledge that what Dallas Coach Avery Johnson told his superstar, Dirk Nowitzki, also applies to Bryant: pass when you are triple teamed, score when you are double teamed and kill them when you are only guarded by one player. That is actually a pretty good description of what Bryant has been doing for most of his career--but the passing part leads to better results when you actually have good players receiving the ball.

The Lakers made a token run at the start of the fourth quarter but never even trimmed the margin to less than 10 points. It seems that the effort and intensity that they showed in game three was a one time thing just to avoid being swept and that now the Lakers--other than Bryant and Odom--are content because they won a game.

Nash's passing during this game was special, definitely on par with previous efforts by Johnson and Stockton (and recent performances by Jason Kidd). Nash is able to use angles and spins on his bounce passes that are simply uncanny--much like Johnson, Stockton and Kidd. Breen suggested that Nash might be the greatest passer and/or point guard ever, which is absurd. Johnson is the greatest point guard ever--and I can't see any coach taking a 6-3 shooter/passer over a 6-9 scorer/passer/rebounder who could also play forward and center. I'm not taking Nash over Oscar Robertson, either. During the Nets-Raptors game, TNT's Steve Kerr offered a much more sober and rational judgment, taking Johnson and Kidd over Nash, saying that Kidd has been playing at an ultra-high level longer than Nash has. Kerr abstained on the question of where Robertson would rank, saying that Robertson played before he was born (Robertson played before I was born, too, but I've seen, read and heard enough to know that he was better than Nash and Kidd; you could make a case that Robertson is in fact the best all-around player of all-time).

I'm not on board with Nash being the greatest passer, either. Stockton and Johnson hold most of the statistical records. What about the ability to deliver various kinds of passes--bounce passes, one hand passes, no look passes, post feeds, hitting cutters on the move and so forth? If that is the standard I would take Johnson--his size provided him passing angles that no other point guard has ever had and there is not a single kind of pass that he was not able to deliver on time and on target. It it amazing to me how quickly people forget what kind of player Magic was. I also don't think that Nash is doing anything from a passing standpoint that Stockton did not do both over a longer period of time and with greater proficiency (at least in terms of his apg averages).

Isn't it enough to simply appreciate what Nash is doing and to acknowledge that he is the best passer in the game today and one of the two best passers of the past decade (with Kidd being the other one)? When people start saying that Nash is the best of all-time I get the feeling that they are trying to retroactively justify the recent MVP voting. Steve Nash is a great passer and a great point guard. No one can deny that--but anyone who thinks that he is better than Johnson or Stockton needs to break out some old NBA tapes or DVDs or find some footage on YouTube.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:19 AM

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Gone Fishing: Miami's Title Defense Swept Away by Relentless Bulls

The Miami Heat's title defense went full circle: it started with a blowout loss to the Chicago Bulls on opening night and it ended on Sunday when Chicago completed an impressive sweep of the 2006 NBA champions with a 92-79 victory. Ben Gordon led the Bulls with 24 points, while Luol Deng had 22 points and 12 rebounds. Dwyane Wade had 24 points, 10 assists and five rebounds but he shot just 8-22 from the field and had seven turnovers. Shaquille O'Neal contributed 16 points and seven rebounds, Alonzo Mourning shot 6-6 from the field for his 14 points and James Posey had an odd stat line: 1-8 shooting, five points--and 18 rebounds.

Ben Wallace's performance deserves special mention. His value is largely not captured by numbers but a couple aspects of his performance in this series stand out: Wallace held O'Neal scoreless for the entire fourth quarter of game four as the Bulls closed out the Heat and Wallace outrebounded O'Neal 39-34 during the series. Wallace had 13 points, 11 rebounds, one blocked shot and one steal in game four. With less than three minutes remaining and the Heat trailing 82-77, Heat Coach Pat Riley resorted to the "Hack a Ben" strategy, intentionally fouling Wallace away from the ball, hoping that the notoriously poor free throw shooter would miss both attempts (if you do this with less than two minutes remaining, the fouled team gets to select the shooter and keep the ball). Wallace twice stepped up and went 2-2, part of a 7-8 performance by him from the free throw line.

When the defending champions are resorting to playing tag with Wallace, chasing him around the court while he tries to evade "capture" so that the Bulls can run more time off of the clock, you know that the Heat have exhausted all serious options and realize that they cannot win by basketball skill alone. Even though some prominent coaches have used the "Hack a Ben" (or "Hack a Shaq") strategy, I don't believe that it is a sound approach. I asked Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy about this when the Clippers visited Indiana in December 2005. Dunleavy steadfastly defended the tactic but I see two big drawbacks: if the hacked player shoots just 50% then you have to shoot better than 50% from the field (or make some three pointers) to gain any ground; the parade to the free throw line allows the other team to set up their defense and may get your own team out of whatever offensive rhythm they have established while trying to come back.

After the game, Gordon talked about Wallace's value: "I can't even explain all the things he has helped us with that don't show up on the stat sheet. I think he is the best big-man passer in the league. He likes to tell me he's a point forward sometimes. He likes to throw no-looks. He does a lot besides the usual things everybody expects."

Bulls Coach Scott Skiles added: "He has been a rock all season long. He is a very underrated offensive player. Everybody thinks if you don't score, you can't play offense. He is an excellent passer. He can put the ball on the floor. We can play off him in the high post. We can make cuts off him. And that doesn't say anything about his defense and rebounding. He is a serious player."

Perhaps this series will help rebut a couple myths, namely that the regular season does not matter and that Shaquille O'Neal, despite his horrible career free throw percentage, "makes them when they count." The Heat seemed to treat this season as a trifling matter to be disposed of, apparently believing that they could turn it on in the playoffs. Granted, some of their injury situations could not have been predicted or controlled but the Heat were at full strength (other than Jason Williams) on opening night against these same Bulls--and lost 108-66. The Heat stayed below .500 for most of the season before making a late surge when O'Neal returned to the lineup after a long absence due to a knee injury. The reality is that the regular season matters; that is when teams earn home court advantage (which the Bulls used in this series to grab a 2-0 lead) and when they work out the structure and chemistry that are necessary for postseason success. Look how well the Bulls play together now. There were some rough spots during the regular season but they used those games to get Wallace and some other new additions acclimated to Skiles' system.

As for O'Neal's free throws, he shot 9-27 during the series, including 3-19 in the two games in Miami (0-7 in game four). I still don't understand how some free throws "count" more than others in O'Neal's thinking. If you make them early, then maybe you won't be behind late in the game--and if you miss 16 free throws in two games then you have cost your team a lot of points; last I checked, free throws count the same no matter when they are scored. If anything, it makes more sense to speak of making field goals "when they count." Field goals are contested shots, so if you are a star player the other team can load up their defense to stop you late in the game--but free throws are, well, free.

The acquisition of Ben Wallace has already paid some dividends, giving the Bulls the inside presence they needed to deal with O'Neal and the Heat, who eliminated the Bulls in six games last year. Next up will be a very interesting matchup with Wallace's old team, the Detroit Pistons. The Bulls beat them 3-1 in the regular season, just like they beat the Heat 3-1 in 2006-07. I will post a preview of that series soon.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:40 AM

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Warriors Headline Wacky West

While there have been several close games in the East, it appears that there will only be one competitive series--New Jersey-Toronto--and there may be as many as three sweeps. Meanwhile, there will be no first round sweeps out West and there are several intriguing upset possibilities. The big story is of course the 2-1 lead that the 42-40 Golden State Warriors enjoy over the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks. I have mentioned more than once that the proverbial "team nobody wants to face" usually submits fairly meekly in the first round but this series, regardless of the eventual outcome, is clearly an exception. Golden State peaked down the stretch after the multiple player trade with Indiana and once key players returned to health but I really did not think that the Warriors would pose this many problems for the Mavericks. Yes, Golden State swept the season series, but Dallas was so dominant for so long that I could not believe that a barely .500 team could pose a legitimate threat to the defending Western Conference champion. Watching game one changed my mind somewhat--I still thought that the Mavericks would ultimately prevail but conceded that the series might go the distance.

Golden State's game three win on Friday night made it clear that the Mavericks are facing some serious problems: (1) their players seem to be very tight, which is understandable considering that an underdog is giving them everything they can handle; (2) the Mavericks are having great difficultly dealing with Golden State's armada of fast, athletic players; (3) Golden State has rattled likely MVP Dirk Nowitzki by swarming him when he has the ball and by going right at him when he is on defense. I think that the biggest adjustment that the Mavericks must make is to change their mentality: instead of trying to defend their great record and defend their Western Conference title they must go into attack mode, focusing on their strengths. Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse and Devin Harris are all highly skilled players and they must play aggressively and decisively. Dallas Coach Avery Johnson made a big mistake--pun intended--by benching his centers in game one and trying to play "small ball." Dallas must continue to use the starting lineup that rampaged to one of the best records in league history. I still think that Dallas will win this series--don't forget that this Mavericks team beat the Spurs in a game seven in San Antonio last year--but I have been surprised and impressed by how well the Warriors have implemented Coach Don Nelson's game plan.

Like Golden State, Denver pulled off a game one upset, beating the San Antonio Spurs 95-89. The Spurs won the next two, though, including a 96-91 victory in Denver on Saturday night that regained home court advantage. As I wrote in the previously referenced post, I expect the Spurs to win this series and I don't think that it will last seven games--and I said that before the Spurs bounced back to win two in a row. Still, Carmelo Anthony is having the best series of his playoff career, so it would not be surprising if the Nuggets manage one more win, particularly if he and Iverson both get hot in the same game, like they did in the series opener.

The Phoenix Suns-L.A. Lakers matchup is the toughest one to figure out so far. Before the playoffs began, this looked like one of the biggest mismatches--the Lakers have been fading for months, while the Suns are one of the top teams in the NBA. Obviously, if the Lakers did not have Kobe Bryant they would not be anywhere near the playoffs and certainly would not pose a threat to the Suns--but the Lakers do have Bryant, the game's best player, and he scored 28 points in the first half of game one to stake L.A. to a nine point halftime lead. Then he went cold in the fourth quarter and the Lakers collapsed. Phoenix' game two rout made a sweep seem to be a very realistic possibility--but then in game three Bryant played even better than he did in game one and he finally got some help from his teammates. Amazingly, the Lakers are one home win away from turning this into a three game series--and the shorter the series becomes, the more impact Bryant can have (Coach Phil Jackson's dream is to compress the battle to one quarter, with the Lakers in striking distance and Bryant well rested). The key thing right now is whether the Lakers are satisfied with avoiding a sweep or if they really want to fight, scratch and claw to try to beat Phoenix. You know that Bryant will be ready to battle on Sunday; if he can convince his teammates to have that same mentality then things could get very interesting.

The one Western Conference series that everyone expected to be a dogfight is now living up to its billing after a slow start. Utah fell into an 0-2 hole versus Houston but the Jazz won two games at home to even the series, including a 98-85 win on Saturday. Barring an injury to a key player, this matchup really looks like one that will be decided by home court advantage--game seven will be played in Houston and the Rockets will probably need that edge to knock off the resilient Jazz.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:16 AM

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Cavaliers Edge Pesky Wizards, Take 3-0 Lead

Detroit just swept Orlando without looking overly impressive for most of the series--and the Cleveland Cavaliers are three quarters of the way toward matching that feat against the Washington Wizards. LeBron James had 30 points, nine assists and six rebounds as the Cavs beat the Wizards 98-92 in Washington. Antawn Jamison tried to singlehandedly make up for the absence of injured All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler but his 38 points (on 15-27 shooting) and 11 rebounds were not quite enough to stave off defeat. Like the Pistons, Cleveland managed to get double figure scoring performances from each member of the starting lineup.

The Cavaliers cruised to a 61-44 halftime lead but squandered all of their advantage during the third quarter, allowing the Wizards to tie the score at 65. The Wizards outscored the Cavs 31-16 in the third quarter, with Jamison doing most of the damage (17 points). Cleveland built a 77-70 lead late in that period but then fell asleep at the switch again, letting the Wizards tie the score at 81 with 9:06 left in the fourth quarter. Washington Coach Eddie Jordan has apparently decided to sink or swim with his starters: Antonio Daniels (48), Jamison (45) and Jarvis Hayes (40) each played at least 40 minutes, while Darius Songaila (24) was the only Washington reserve who received significant playing time. The Wizards made it a one possession game (93-90 Cleveland) with :37 left, but James drove to the hoop and then passed to Sasha Pavlovic for a huge three pointer to put the Cavs up six. James then added two free throws before Daniels made an inconsequential layup at the buzzer.

It is always difficult to close out a series, particularly on someone else's court. Game four on Monday will be a nice little test of how serious the Cavaliers are about this year's playoffs. Tough battles loom in the upcoming rounds, so the Cavaliers need to dispatch Washington and give James' injured ankle the maximum amount of rest before round two begins.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:38 AM

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The Closer: Detroit Sweeps Orlando

The Detroit Pistons became the first team to punch their ticket to the second round of the playoffs, sweeping the Orlando Magic by winning game four, 97-93. All five Pistons starters scored in double figures, a recurring theme in this series; according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Pistons are the first team in 10 years to have all five starters score in double figures in four straight playoff games. Chauncey Billups led the way with 25 points, adding six assists and four rebounds. Dwight Howard had his best game of the series by far--29 points, 17 rebounds--but his Magic crumbled down the stretch, ruining any chance of extending the series by at least one game.

This is Detroit's first series sweep since the "Bad Boys" swept the Pacers 3-0 in the first round in 1990 and the win improved the Pistons' record to 12-1 in closeout games since 2003; the only blemish is a game seven loss to the Spurs in the 2005 NBA Finals. On the surface, this is all quite impressive--until you consider that the Magic had the worst record of the 16 playoff teams and yet they were able to stay within eight points in three of the four games. TNT's Steve Kerr said during game four that Detroit does not respect Orlando and that the Pistons feel like they can simply turn it on in the fourth quarter. Granted, that is exactly what happened--Orlando led 85-80 with 3:18 remaining before being outscored 17-8 down the stretch--but what does that say about the Pistons' mindset for the playoffs? Orlando outscored Detroit 56-26 in the paint--where have you gone, Ben Wallace?--and led by as many as 10 points during game four. Detroit will likely face Ben Wallace and the Chicago Bulls in the second round and the philosophy of coasting for 45 minutes before turning it on in the last three will not work against a team that is as energetic as the Bulls are.

A couple snapshots from this series stick out in my mind: (1) Rasheed Wallace angrily waving off Coach Flip Saunders when Saunders tried to substitute for him in game three. Sheed eventually came out of the game, blasting Saunders with a string of profanities as he walked past Saunders and took a seat on the bench; (2) Chauncey Billups ignoring Saunders' timeout signal early in game four, driving to the hoop and turning the ball over, resulting in an Orlando fast break hoop. Is it just me or does Saunders not exactly seem to be in total command at times? Ben Wallace questioned Saunders' lack of emphasis on defense last year, which no doubt played a role in Detroit declining to keep the four-time Defensive Player of the Year. You don't exactly have to be the Wizard of Westwood to guide a veteran team that has multiple All-Stars past the worst squad in the playoffs. A matchup with the Bulls, who seem to be on the verge of a sweep of their own against the defending champions, will be significantly more challenging.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:33 AM

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