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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Three-mendous! Warriors Overwhelm Jazz, 125-105

Golden State jumped out to a 19-7 lead in less than five minutes, withstood one Utah run and then buried the Jazz with a barrage of three pointers. The Warriors held a double figure lead for the entire second half, winning 125-105 and cutting Utah's lead to 2-1. The Warriors tied an NBA playoff record with 11 three pointers in the first half and finished the game with 15 three pointers in 32 attempts (.469). Utah shot a decent percentage (.474) and once again enjoyed a rebounding advantage (44-32) but the Jazz shot themselves in the foot with 25 turnovers that the Warriors converted into 29 points. Baron Davis had 32 points, nine assists, four rebounds, six steals and one monster dunk over Andrei Kirilenko that will probably be replayed two million times between now and Game Four. Jason Richardson scored 25 points and led the Warriors' long range attack by shooting 5-9 from beyond the arc. Carlos Boozer had 19 points, 11 rebounds and five assists but the Warriors' swarming, aggressive defense limited him to just 10 field goal attempts (he made eight of them). Deron Williams added 14 points and six assists but committed seven turnovers.

Everybody wants to look at the score or the highlights after a game like this but that is not how to figure out what is likely to happen the rest of the way in this series. There have been a few constants so far: Utah gets more rebounds and scores more points in the paint, while Golden State forces more turnovers and makes more three pointers. In order for Golden State to defeat Utah four times the Warriors have to make enough three pointers to compensate for their deficiencies in the paint. It is likely that in the upcoming games the Jazz can make some adjustments to limit their turnovers and do a better job getting out on the three point shooters; it is also likely that Golden State will not stay super hot behind the arc for several more games, particularly when the series shifts back to Utah. On the other hand, it is less likely that the Warriors can do much about their rebounding deficit and it will be difficult to continue to hold Boozer to just 10 field goal attempts. Golden State should be commended for an outstanding performance in Game Three and the Warriors may be able to do similarly well in Game Four but by the end of this series Utah's strength in the paint will carry the day.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:28 AM

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Friday, May 11, 2007

All-NBA Selections Don't Add Up, Part II

Other observers have noticed what I mentioned here in my previous post: the All-NBA selections do not add up, literally--especially the First Team votes. The NBA has admitted to at least one clerical error, stating that Amare Stoudemire's point total is 351, not 494 as originally reported (I went back and edited my previous post so that it will be accurate from a historical standpoint). That means that LeBron James finished in the top five but was relegated to the Second Team based on position.

Considering that the voters were left to their own devices to designate which position a player plays, it makes no sense to elevate Stoudemire to the First Team over James. Yao received more First Team votes at center than Stoudemire did and, for all we know, Tim Duncan may have received more votes at center than either Yao or Stoudemire. The First Team should be Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, who clearly were the five best players in the NBA in 2006-07. Those five players received the most overall votes and the most First Team votes in the balloting. The official team has two power forwards--one of whom, Duncan, plays like a center--and a center, while my team would have a power forward, a small forward and Duncan.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:18 PM

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All-NBA Selections Don't Add Up

The voting for the 2006-07 All-NBA Team does not add up--literally. In case you missed it, here are the members of the three All-NBA Teams:

First Team (1st place votes).....Points

Forward: Dirk Nowitzki, Dal (125).....634
Forward: Tim Duncan, SaS (94).........573
Center: Amare Stoudemire, Phx (36)....351
(note: the original NBA press release listed this number as 494)
Guard: Steve Nash, Phx (129)..........645
Guard: Kobe Bryant, LAL (128).........643

Second Team

Forward: LeBron James, Cle (64).......494
Forward: Chris Bosh, Tor (8)..........234
Center: Yao Ming, Hou (38)............333
Guard: Gilbert Arenas, Was (0)........295
Guard: Tracy McGrady, Hou (10)........278

Third Team

Forward: Kevin Garnett, Min (5).......225
Forward: Carmelo Anthony, Den (1).....142
Center: Dwight Howard, Orl (1)........108
Guard: Dwyane Wade, Mia (1)...........241
Guard: Chauncey Billups, Det (0).......86

The voting panel consisted of 129 members of the media. Players received five points for each First Team vote, three points for each Second Team vote and one point for each Third Team vote. Two players received some First Team votes but did not have enough overall points to make any of the three teams: Miami's Shaquille O'Neal (3) and Denver's Marcus Camby (2). Based on the scoring system and the point totals provided by the NBA it is possible to figure out the vote breakdown for several of the players. The voting was supposedly done by position but that is clearly not the case.

Nash was the only unanimous First Team selection, while Bryant received 128 First Team votes and one Second Team vote. In theory, that should mean that there was only one other First Team vote at guard--but McGrady got 10 and Wade got one, which means that some voters either disregarded positional considerations or else slotted McGrady (or Bryant or Wade) at forward. Matters are even more confused in the frontcourt. Nowitzki received 125 First Team votes at forward and apparently got three Second Team votes and was left off of one ballot entirely (which makes no sense; the voting was done before the playoffs and anyone who thinks that Nowitzki was not among the league's six best forwards this season is smoking crack). Duncan received 94 First Team votes, 34 Second Team votes and one Third Team vote. That means that there should be 39 more First Team votes spread among various forwards--but James got 64, Bosh got 10, Garnett got five and Anthony got one; in other words, 41 extra votes were cast for forwards. Meanwhile, center got the short end of the stick. Amare Stoudemire made the First Team with 494 points and 36 First Team votes, while Yao Ming got more First Team votes (38) than Stoudemire did but only had 333 points. Assuming that O'Neal and Camby were considered centers that still leaves a shortfall of 50 First Team votes at center.

It is easy to figure out how all of this happened: Yao missed 34 games and O'Neal missed 42 games, so some voters left them off of their ballots entirely, while others simply looked at those players' production in the games that they played. If you disregarded Yao and O'Neal because of the games that they missed then you were basically left with Stoudemire, Camby, Howard or Ben Wallace, none of whom had better seasons than Nowitzki, Duncan or James. I am guessing that the ballot does not stipulate which position to put players in, so some voters simply slid Duncan or Nowitzki to center. The end result is that the true center who received the most First Team votes (Yao) ended up on the Second Team, while Stoudemire ended up on the First Team even though James had the same number of points and many more First Team votes. The NBA should have either officially assigned positions to the various players when ballots were sent out or should have put James on the First Team in a tie with Stoudemire since they ended up with the same number of points. It is pretty obvious that some voters put players at different positions than others did which means that, in a sense, they were not really voting on the same issue. Duncan, Nowitzki and Stoudemire are all "bigs," which means that there is no true small forward on the First Team; it makes more sense to put the consensus picks for the two best "bigs" on the First Team alongside James then to put Stoudemire as one of the top five players in the league when it is doubtful that many of the voters would agree with that (as demonstrated by the fact that he did not even receive the most First Team votes at center anyway).

My All-NBA Teams this year would be:

First Team

F Nowitzki
F James
C Duncan
G Bryant
G Nash

I think that there is a general consensus that these were the five best players in the NBA this season, even if there is heated disagreement over how they should be ranked in MVP balloting.

Second Team

F Carlos Boozer, UTA
F Bosh
C Stoudemire
G McGrady
G Jason Kidd, NJN

Boozer had the most points (127) of anyone who did not make the official three All-NBA Teams but I think that he actually deserved a Second Team spot. I prefer Kidd's overall floor game to Arenas' shoot from all angles approach.

Third Team

F Garnett
F Shawn Marion, PHX
C Ben Wallace, CHI
G Arenas
G Allen Iverson, DEN

I prefer Marion to Anthony for the same reason that I prefer Kidd to Arenas; Anthony would make my "Fourth Team." Wallace had an impact on a 49 win team, while Howard's game is still a bit one dimensional for my taste; Howard would battle with Camby for my "Fourth Team" center. Did you know that Iverson shot better from the field than Billups and averaged slightly more assists? Apparently the voters did not know, either. Put Billups on my "Fourth Team" as well.

Shaq, Yao and Wade did not play enough games, in my opinion; I don't have a hard and fast rule regarding that, but 40, 48 and 51 respectively are not even close--I think that an All-NBA player (or MVP) should play in at least 65-70 games, though I could see voting for someone who played in 60 games if that player set some major individual records or was the dominant player on a very, very successful team. If a player misses more than a fourth of the season then whatever value he provided cannot equal the impact of other great players who played a more complete schedule.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:13 AM

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Fumblin', Bumblin', Stumblin': Bulls Throw Away 19 Point Lead, Trail Detroit 3-0

The Detroit Pistons took the Chicago Bulls' best shot--and then delivered a knockout punch. Chicago dominated Detroit in the first half of Game Three of the Eastern Conference semifinals, leading 44-28 at halftime. The Bulls pushed their advantage to 49-30 early in the third quarter before completely collapsing the rest of the way, getting outscored 51-25 as the Pistons took a commanding 3-0 series lead with an 81-74 victory in Chicago. The two main culprits in Chicago's demise were turnovers--midway through the fourth quarter the Bulls had committed nine second half turnovers while the Pistons had none--and atrocious shot selection. Detroit went to a zone defense in the second half that completely befuddled and confused Chicago; all of a sudden, it seemed like each Bulls' player felt compelled to overdribble, make a careless pass or fire up a wild shot. The strangest thing about this game is that even after the Bulls owned the Pistons for more than 24 minutes, Detroit looked like a poised and confident team--never forcing the action--while Chicago looked erratic and tentative for most of the second half. ESPN's Jim Gray reported after halftime that Chauncey Billups told him that the Pistons were not worried, which sounded like empty bravado at the time--but the way that Detroit played for most of the second half showed that Billups was telling the truth. On the one hand, you have to respect Detroit's ability to play at a higher level when pushed; on the other hand, you have to wonder why the Pistons are seemingly content to coast for long stretches--sooner or later, if you don't respect your opponents and/or don't respect the game then you will pay the price (not that Chicago is going to be the team to collect the toll this year).

Tayshaun Prince had 23 points and 11 rebounds, while Billups contributed 21 points, seven assists and four rebounds; Prince (19 points) and Billups (17 points) alone outscored the Bulls (30 points) in the second half. Ben Wallace (five points, 12 rebounds, two blocked shots) is not the reason that the Bulls are losing but, on the other hand, he obviously has not proven to be the difference maker that I thought that he would be in this playoff matchup. The strange thing is that the Pistons got basically nothing out of center Chris Webber--zero points, three rebounds--but were still able to win. It certainly helped Detroit that the other four starters all scored in double figures. Both teams shot a lousy percentage--the Pistons shot .395, the Bulls shot .337--and the Bulls dominated the glass (60-43 rebounding advantage) but the Pistons made more three pointers and scored more points off of turnovers. Luol Deng led the Bulls with 21 points and 14 rebounds but shot just 8-22 from the field.

It seems like the Chicago Bulls will have to go back to the drawing board this summer. The expensive acquisition of Ben Wallace apparently is only worth a few more regular season wins and a first round playoff victory. Critics are certain to be out in full force, wondering why the Bulls did not pull the trigger on a deal that could have brought in Memphis' Pau Gasol, who might have provided the steady scoring threat who could have prevented the long scoring droughts that have plagued the Bulls against Detroit. I don't think that Gasol would have helped the Bulls that much, though, particularly if the Bulls would have had to give up Deng; add Gasol and subtract Deng and maybe the Bulls don't even beat Miami--Deng had a big impact in that series. The Bulls certainly could use a legitimate low post scoring threat and I am not convinced that the Ben Gordon-Kirk Hinrich starting backcourt is championship caliber; whichever one plays the shooting guard is too small and they are both erratic with their ball handling and overall decision making. So why did I pick the Bulls in the first place? Let's not forget that Chicago did beat Detroit 3-1 in the regular season, that the Bulls improved this season while Detroit regressed and that Detroit struggled in this round last year against playoff neophyte Cleveland. Those factors, plus the Bulls taking Ben Wallace from Detroit, seemed to tilt things in Chicago's favor--and, for one half, the Bulls played the way that I expected them to play against the Pistons. None of that matters now, of course; a seven game series is a marathon, not a sprint, and in order to win a team must be able to sustain a high level of play for more than 24 minutes.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:18 AM

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Run, Don't Walk: Jazz Push the Pace, Beat Warriors in Overtime Thriller

While many "experts" say that the way to beat the Golden State Warriors is to slow the game down, the Utah Jazz have taken a 2-0 lead in their best of seven series by following the prescription that I offered to the Dallas Mavericks during the first round: "Play loose, play hard, rebound and run, run, run." Utah beat Golden State 127-117 in overtime on Wednesday night, outscoring the Warriors 58-36 in the paint and outrebounding them 60-32. Utah shot .529 from the field compared to .422 for Golden State, although the Warriors did shoot an excellent 15-40 (.375) from three point range.

Carlos Boozer had 30 points and 13 rebounds, while Mehmet Okur also contributed a double double (23 points, 18 rebounds). Andrei Kirilenko had a vintage AK-47 line: 20 points, nine rebounds, five assists, six blocked shots, one steal. Deron Williams was saddled with two fouls in the first minute of the game but still finished with 17 points and 14 assists. Utah's point guard situation was in flux throughout the game because of Williams' foul trouble, a neck injury suffered by Dee Brown in the second quarter that sent him to the hospital and the absence for most of the contest of Derek Fisher, who missed the start of the game to be with his daughter, who underwent successful surgery for a rare and serious form of eye cancer (preliminary reports are that both Brown and Fisher's daughter are doing well). Utah Coach Jerry Sloan left Fisher on the active list and Fisher caught a flight from New York and arrived in Salt Lake City in time to play 10 minutes; he had five points and three assists and his defense forced a crucial Baron Davis turnover when the Warriors were up 112-109 with just 27 seconds left in regulation. Despite the late miscue, Davis had a monster game: 36 points on 13-22 shooting, seven assists and four steals. Jason Richardson added 27 points, shooting 5-10 from three point range.

Although the official statistics say that Utah outscored Golden State just 13-12 in fastbreak points that is still a revealing number because coming into the series most people would have expected Golden State to dominate this category. Also, the final score shows that Utah did not simply walk the ball up the court and try to slowly pound Golden State into submission (prior to the extra session, the score was 113-113); that approach actually plays right into Golden State's hands and is perhaps the key mistake that Dallas made. Golden State is going to run all game long regardless of what the other team does but if the opponent slows the game down then the Warriors can set up all the funky zones and traps that Coach Don Nelson has devised. The Warriors are active and aggressive on defense when they get a chance to set up and when they force missed shots or turnovers then they are off to the races--but if you push the ball at them and try to score before they can organize their defense then you can score a lot of easy baskets and also set up good offensive rebounding opportunities if the initial shot is missed.

Bill Russell is doing a playoff blog for NBA.com and if you have not checked it out then you are missing something that is really special. One of his comments applies directly to the much discussed Golden State-Dallas matchup: "What I try to do sometimes when I watch the game is see what kind of adjustments the losing team has to make. But like I told one of the coaches this year about adjustments, you have to make adjustments that your team can make. You can’t just say, well we have to do a better job on the boards or we have to do a better job passing the ball. That is null and void unless your team can do those things. When you make adjustments, you have to make adjustments that your team can do." In other words, Charles Barkley and other commentators are missing the point when they keep insisting that Dirk Nowitzki should have posted up against the smaller Golden State defenders. Nowitzki is not a great postup player; however, he is a great faceup shooter and he is also above average at driving to the hoop. The Warriors took away his driving lanes by putting a quicker defender on him and immediately sending a second defender at him when he put the ball on the floor. What the Mavericks should have done is push the ball at every opportunity, which would have given Nowitzki the chance to shoot faceup jump shots in transition and/or drive to the hoop in an open court situation without having smaller defenders slapping at the ball from all angles. Nowitzki scored the big basket in last year's game seven against the Spurs by driving to the hoop. He has won many playoff games by nailing faceup jumper after faceup jumper. To simply say that he "chokes" or cannot perform well in big games is to ignore a large segment of his postseason career. Nowitzki was not placed in a proper position to do what he does best. Perhaps he bears some responsibility for that but the coaching staff and his teammates also let him down in that regard.

Utah has beaten Golden State twice because the Jazz are not afraid to attack in the open court. Coach Sloan has publicly stated that he is leaving it up to his point guard, Deron Williams, to decide what pace the team should play at. Williams is pushing the ball up the court, which is providing open shots for everybody else. Even Boozer's postups have been more effective in a semi-transition game than in situations when Utah slowed the ball down and tried to be methodical. Anyone who watched Game Two carefully must realize that Utah's main problem was turnovers and that many of those turnovers came at times when they slowed down, which allowed Golden State to get into their zone defense and get deflections and strips.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:50 AM

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The "Pivotal" Game

Playoff games are often called "pivotal," a term that is used to describe any playoff contest other than game one or game seven: game seven is obviously the decisive game, while game one can hardly be considered "pivotal" -- or can it?

As I explain in my newest NBCSports.com article, the winner of game one has eventually advanced to the next round in 78.4% of the NBA playoff series that have used the seven game format. So, when players, broadcasters and writers talk about a home team "taking care of business" by winning the first two and suggest that the road team now must simply "hold serve" (don't you love those mixed metaphors?) they are disregarding the reality that the game one winner is a prohibitive favorite to ultimately win the series. Yes, there have been exceptions to this--including a couple in this year's playoffs--but taking a 1-0 lead in a playoff series has proven to be a very significant advantage.

You can read the entire article here:

For Openers: The Significance of Game 1

posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 AM

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Suns Rout Spurs, Even Series at 1-1

The Phoenix Suns salvaged their season--for the moment--with a 101-81 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, evening their Western Conference semifinal series at 1-1. The next two games will be played in San Antonio, so a Phoenix loss would have resulted in a 2-0 deficit that would have likely meant almost certain elimination. The Suns still must win at least one road game to regain the homecourt advantage. Steve Nash had 20 points and 16 assists, though he shot an un-Nash like 7-17 (.412). Amare Stoudemire contributed 27 points and nine rebounds. He was slightly outshined by Tim Duncan (29 points, 11 rebounds, two blocked shots) but Duncan received no help from his teammates, who combined to shoot just 21-57 (.368). Superstars' games are portable but most everyone else plays better at home, so if form holds then Duncan's supporting cast will do better in the next two games while Nash's (other than Stoudemire) will do worse.

The Spurs led 25-19 after the first quarter but their offense simply died the rest of the way. The story of this game was not so much about the Suns' uptempo style versus the Spurs' preferred slower pace but simply about the Suns making shots and the Spurs missing them. Still, Phoenix had two 30 point quarters; L.A. Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson's philosophy for beating the Suns stipulates that you have to limit them to one 30 point quarter per game, so the Spurs' usually great defense was somewhat subpar--but that is also a function of missing so many shots, which naturally feeds the other team's fastbreak.

As great as the Spurs are, it would have been surprising for them to take two games in Phoenix. The Suns are a very good team and, obviously, had the better regular season record (that is why they have homecourt advantage in the series--or, had it before Game One). The Suns knew that they had to win this game and I suspect that when this series is over we will see that they played their best game on Tuesday while the Spurs played their worst. Expect two hard fought games in San Antonio. The Spurs will probably take a 3-1 lead before the series heads back to Phoenix but I would not put it past the Suns to get one win in San Antonio, forcing the Spurs to win Game Five on the road and close the series out at home in Game Six.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:39 AM

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Cavaliers Outmuscle, Outhustle Nets

Cleveland controlled the boards again (49-32) and closed the fourth quarter with a 15-7 run to beat New Jersey 102-92 and take a 2-0 series lead. LeBron James was magnificent, finishing with 36 points and a playoff career-high 12 assists; his 25 second half points tied his own franchise record for most points in a half of a playoff game. James has scored at least 20 points in each of his first 19 playoff games, the second best such run ever (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the mark, accomplishing this in his first 27 playoff games). Curiously, James had only one rebound, but his teammates more than picked up the slack in that area. Sasha Pavlovic set a playoff career-high in points for the second straight game (17), while Drew Gooden had 10 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Vince Carter led the Nets with 26 points but shot just 10-26 from the field. He also had seven assists, six rebounds and two steals. Carter suffered a severe cramp in his left calf late in the fourth quarter but did not have to leave the game. Jason Kidd just missed a triple double (17 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists) while shooting 6-9 from the field, including 4-6 on three pointers. Richard Jefferson contributed 22 points and eight rebounds, while Mikki Moore added 15 points on 6-8 shooting. One problem for the Nets is that outside of Moore and their terrific perimeter trio they received virtually no production; a second problem is that Kidd, Carter and Jefferson grabbed 24 of the team's 32 rebounds, while Moore and starting power forward Jason Collins managed to corral just four rebounds in nearly 70 combined minutes on the court.

Just like Game One, the first quarter was tightly contested. Jefferson, Kidd and Moore combined to shoot 9-10 from the field as the Nets led 28-24 at the end of the quarter; the Nets shot a sizzling 11-18 (.611) but the Cavaliers were almost as hot (10-18, .556). Both teams cooled off markedly in the second quarter, but the Cavs compensated for this by snaring 10 offensive rebounds, converting enough of those second chances to take a 48-45 halftime lead; amazingly, the Nets had just three offensive rebounds in the entire game.

The Nets gained a little ground in the third quarter as Carter scored 10 points on 4-7 shooting and Kidd nailed two three pointers. Cleveland held a precarious 74-73 lead going into the fourth quarter. New Jersey went on an 8-4 run to take an 81-78 lead on Jason Kidd's three pointer at the 8:38 mark of the fourth quarter but the Cavs answered that with a 7-0 run and never trailed again. A key moment in the game happened during a timeout with 5:39 left in the game. Cleveland led 87-85. After the game, Coach Mike Brown explained what took place in the Cavs' huddle during that stoppage of play: "He (LeBron James) turned to me and said he wanted the ball. I said, 'What if they play zone?' He said he didn't care. He said he wanted the ball because he's going to win it for us. I went in the huddle. I called one play. That one play was going to LeBron every single time whether it was versus man or versus zone. He made the plays, the necessary plays to get us over the hump. He was a man tonight." James powered to the hoop for a layup on the possession right after the timeout and the next time down the court he passed to Gooden for a dunk, putting Cleveland up 91-85; the Nets never got closer than four points again. James had 12 points and three assists in the fourth quarter.

While Coach Brown always makes a brief statement before he answers postgame questions, Nets Coach Lawrence Frank strides to the podium and simply says, "Questions?" In response to said questions, Frank praised Pavlovic--"I think Sasha has been one of the better players in this series"--and zeroed in on the Nets' biggest, most obvious problem: "We cannot give away all these extra possessions. You have to give Cleveland credit because of their effort and their wherewithal. They are just kicking our tails on the boards. You have to give them credit and if we are going to put ourselves in a position to get back in this series we're going to have to look within and find a better way."

In his postgame remarks, James singled out the Cavs' defensive mindset as the reason for the team's success (Cleveland has won 10 straight games dating back to the end of the regular season): "We really believe in our defensive schemes and guys know that if one guy beats his man then he's got help. It makes the offense so much easier...Coach has put in a great scheme and we abide by it. We're allowed to do what we want to do on offense when we play defense. He gives us that freedom to do whatever we want to do on offense as long as we do what he wants us to do on defense." I cleaned up the last part of that statement, which James fumbled slightly--transposing "we want" and "what he wants"--before quipping, "You know what I mean...I didn't go to college," which elicited laughter from the assembled media.

When I interviewed Cavs Assistant Coach Hank Egan last year, I asked him how long it takes for a team to really internalize the kinds of defensive concepts that the coaching staff is teaching. He replied, "It depends upon how talented your team is and what their corporate memory is and how quickly they assimilate the information. We’re getting better but it takes a year or more -- especially at the defensive end. You’re deep into your second year before you’re getting to the point that it is second nature." The Cavs are in their second year under Mike Brown and--despite media and fan complaints about his coaching style--things seem to be progressing pretty much at the pace that Egan predicted to me when Brown and his staff had not even been on the job for half a season.

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

Prior to the game, NBA Commissioner David Stern gave a brief, informal press conference and spoke about a variety of topics. Here are some excerpts of his remarks and his responses to various questions:

"The game looks great. We love the openness of it. We think it's fun...I think that we are at a place where there really are more talented players on a global scale in the NBA than at any time previously. I'm not surprised that our arenas are sold out at playoff time and that we've had our fourth year of record attendance in the league...If you're not loving it at this time of year then you are not a fan."

Stern fielded several questions about whether or not the NBA should re-seed the playoffs after the first round. He does not agree with that idea, to say the least: "(Mike) Wilbon and (Tony) Kornheiser have nothing else to do except cause trouble. Ignore them." Stern had his tongue planted firmly in cheek here--I think (but if Wilbon ends up on the same island with Joey Crawford...). "Last year, it was 'You shouldn't have Dallas playing San Antonio' (before the Conference Finals). We changed that, not because people complained but because they made a good point...If you re-seed it means that you have to stop and wait for all the series to be over. The fans wouldn't like it, the teams wouldn't like it, but I'm positive that Kornheiser would like it."

Bill Livingston of the Plain Dealer asked Stern about the possibility of simply taking the eight best teams in the playoffs, as opposed to reserving three spots for division winners. Stern said, "This is a very quiet playoffs, obviously, for this topic (to be brought up)." He firmly stated his objection to this idea, stressing that the NBA schedule has long been formatted so that teams play their intra-division rivals more frequently than they play other teams and that teams should receive some kind of reward (i.e., a division title) for being successful in those games.

Stern said that the NBA plans to create "an enterprise called NBA China," which will incorporate all of the NBA's businesses in China, which includes TV deals, an internet site, commercial products and more. He added that after the Beijing Olympics in 2008 this venture may lead to a joint NBA-CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) league that would "begin to develop basketball even faster and further in China." This "NBA China" league would not be a part of the NBA but would be a self-contained league.

He added that he believes that his successor as Commissioner may add an NBA division in Europe once suitable arenas are built there.

Stern revisited the controversy about the new synthetic fiber basketball (which has, of course, been replaced by the original basketball due to numerous player complaints). He said that the introduction of the new ball was "well intentioned" but could have been handled better and that the next time such a change is considered that there will be more input from the players.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 AM

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Late Jazz Rally Leaves Warriors Singing the Blues

Utah outscored Golden State 4-0 in the last 17 seconds to win Game One of their series, 116-112. The decisive play fittingly came on a putback by Carlos Boozer, who had an off shooting night (6-15) but still contributed 17 points and 20 rebounds, helping the Jazz to a 54-36 rebounding advantage. Boozer rebounded Mehmet Okur's missed three pointer and scored on a layup that put Utah ahead 114-112 with 17 seconds left. Deron Williams had 31 points, eight assists and five rebounds for Utah. Baron Davis led Golden State with 24 points and seven assists, while two Warriors had double doubles: Jason Richardson (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Matt Barnes (20 points, 10 rebounds). Utah's big advantage on the glass is not surprising but the fact that the Jazz beat Golden State in a high scoring game reinforces the point that I made during the Golden State-Dallas series: if your team has at least as much talent as the Warriors do then there is no reason to fear getting into a running game; the Warriors' decision-making and shot selection are questionable at times, so if you run with a purpose then you can beat the Warriors at their own game. Even the Suns, a more efficient team than the Warriors, are vulnerable when an equally talented team runs against them, as the Spurs showed in Game One of that series.

The main advantage that running teams enjoy is that during the regular season most teams do not have the time to prepare to play against that style and, after playing four games in five nights, opposing players do not have the mental or physical energy to withstand that kind of onslaught. In the playoffs, though, you get to lock onto one opponent for up to two weeks and there is plenty of rest between games. Running teams can still beat the weak (L.A. Lakers) and the scared (Dallas Mavericks, who refused to push the ball even though their only two wins came in the highest scoring games in the series) in the playoffs but a "pure" running team will always have trouble winning a championship as long as there are two or three teams that are adept at both pushing the ball and playing in the halfcourt. This is not a criticism of Phoenix or Golden State; neither team would be nearly as successful by playing a slow down, halfcourt game, so it makes sense for them to speed up the game--but that does not mean that the opposing team must react by slowing the game down or that a "pure" running style is the best formula for winning a championship; it is simply the style that best fits the Suns' and Warriors' personnel.

This was a good performance by the Warriors. They were competitive on the road against a good, resilient team. Golden State is playing with house money because no one expected the Warriors to make it this far. Game One suggests that they are not just a one trick pony that posed matchup problems for Dallas but a legit playoff team that can compete with the Utah Jazz. This should be a long, entertaining series.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:04 AM

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Detroit Dominates Again, Takes 2-0 Lead Over Chicago

Though the score was closer, in many ways the Detroit Pistons' 108-87 Game Two victory over Chicago Bulls was even more impressive than their Game One win. The Bulls presumably made adjustments both strategically and in terms of their attitude and yet they were once again in trouble from the beginning, falling behind 8-0, trailing by as much as 24 and never getting closer than 13 in the second half. The Pistons shot .526 from the field and held the Bulls to .343 shooting, a number that would only look good in Chicago if it belonged to the White Sox or Cubs. Detroit outrebounded Chicago 51-30. Tayshaun Prince had 25 points and seven rebounds for the Pistons, leading a very balanced attack: Richard Hamilton contributed 24 points, nine rebounds and six assists, Chris Webber had 22 points (on 10-11 shooting) and seven rebounds and Rasheed Wallace added 10 points (on 4-4 shooting) and seven rebounds in 18 foul-plagued minutes. The "worst" performer among the Pistons' starters was Chauncey Billups, who shot just 4-11 but still ended up with 14 points and 10 assists. Most of the Bulls looked outmatched and overwhelmed and only two of them played well: Ben Wallace had 13 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots but often seemed to be battling all by himself on the boards; Tyrus Thomas led Chicago with 18 points in 22 minutes.

The story of this game was pretty much the same script that played out in game one, except for Billups taking more of a supporting role and Prince being the lead actor. Detroit jumped on top early, the Bulls made a couple of half-hearted runs and the Pistons stepped on the gas and pulled away. There is some precedent for a 2-0 series to eventually become competitive: Detroit took a 2-0 lead versus Cleveland last year and then lost three straight before prevailing in seven games; Chicago took a 2-0 lead over the Washington Wizards in 2005 but lost the series in six games. We just saw Houston blow a 2-0 lead over Utah. So the issue is not whether it is possible to overcome a 2-0 deficit--clearly, it is very possible; the issue is whether or not the Bulls' players can make the necessary adjustments to perform better in Game Three.

The bright spots so far for Chicago have been the energy and hustle shown by Wallace in both games and by Thomas in Game Two; also, the Bulls were able to get into the paint at will in Game One, which is why Detroit played more zone defense in Game Two. If Detroit stays in the zone, then Chicago must continue to attack in the paint first (as TNT's Doug Collins mentioned during the telecast) and only then shoot jump shots after making the defense compress. If Detroit goes back to the man to man then Chicago must drive to the hoop AND finish. Getting to the hoop has not been a problem but the Bulls have then committed silly turnovers or thrown up wild shots. Detroit deserves credit for putting pressure on Chicago but the Bulls are capable of playing a lot better than they have so far. Speaking of pressure, the Bulls should apply more backcourt pressure against the Pistons to force Detroit to run down the shot clock and to break the rhythm of their offense. Sitting back and waiting for Detroit to smoothly pick apart the Bulls' halfcourt defense is not working. Bench players perform better at home then on the road, so it is certainly possible for Chicago to at least get this series to 2-2 heading to Detroit for Game Five. However, I am less confident about that possibility now than I was after Game One because Chicago showed little progress in Game Two and there is certainly a lot of ground to make up in order for these games to be competitive.

Many people have said that this series is a referendum of sorts on the Ben Wallace deal; I certainly am in that camp as well. The way that this series is playing out right now, though, it is possible to argue that both teams were right: Chicago has clearly improved as a result of acquiring Wallace, winning more games and then sweeping Miami in the first round; meanwhile, Detroit, after a bumpy start, acquired Chris Webber, who has fit in very well with Coach Flip Saunders' offensive and defensive philosophies. I think that Detroit would have taken a big step back if Webber had not basically fallen into their laps but that is a hypothetical situation. The reality is that Joe Dumars signed Webber and the result is that the Pistons are playing the best that they have played since they won the championship in 2004. Wallace is not having a bad series against his old team but his efforts are being made irrelevant due to the total disappearance of the Bulls' other key players: Kirk Hinrich shot 0-7, Ben Gordon shot 3-7, Luol Deng shot 4-12.

I was stunned to look at the boxscore after the game and see that Detroit committed 21 turnovers while Chicago had 13. Watching the game it seemed like the Bulls were handling the ball with all of the dexterity of a quintet of Edward Scissorhands clones. The Bulls have one more chance to shoot better, handle the ball with more precision and try to knock the Pistons out of their offensive comfort zone, because no NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 AM

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Spurs Swipe Homecourt Advantage From Suns

The San Antonio Spurs' 111-106 game one victory left the Phoenix Suns battered and bloodied both literally and figuratively. Steve Nash missed several crucial possessions down the stretch because of uncontrollable bleeding from his nose, the result of an accidental head butt that he suffered when he collided with Tony Parker while going for a steal with 2:53 remaining and the Suns trailing 100-99. Parker remained on the ground longer than Nash and emerged with a nasty bump on his head but Nash looked like he, not Oscar de la Hoya, had just gone 12 rounds with Floyd Mayweather. The Suns were able to patch Nash up so that he could stay in the game initially and he made a three pointer and a tough driving layup to keep the Suns in contact but Nash had to leave the game with :54 left when the bleeding could not be stopped. The Suns trailed 106-104 at that point and they were behind 110-106 when he came back in the game with :09 remaining. Nash's injury will provide Suns' apologists with a welcome excuse but the bigger picture reality is that this is a devastating loss for Phoenix: the game was played at their pace, on their homecourt and they still lost despite Nash's 31 points and eight assists.

Nothing has changed: the Spurs are more versatile than the Suns and are a better defensive team. We all know that they can beat the Suns in a slow down game but they can also beat them in an uptempo game, even if that is not San Antonio's preference. Nash's scoring was a little better than usual and his 8/3 assist/turnover ratio was a little worse than usual but that is all part of San Antonio's defensive plan: the Spurs make sure that they get back on defense in order to deny easy lob passes to Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. That puts the onus on Nash to either run the shot clock down farther than he wants or to take on a bigger role as a scorer. I've never understood why anyone double-teams Nash; it makes more sense to stay at home on the other four guys and do your best to slow Nash down one on one. That may result in a big scoring night for Nash, but that means 30-35 points, not 50-60, and the Suns cannot win with Nash scoring 30-35 while everyone else is held in check. Stoudemire shot just 6-19 from the field, though he certainly had some good moments as well en route to 20 points, 18 rebounds and five blocked shots. Nevertheless, Tim Duncan more than offset those numbers with 33 points, 16 rebounds and three blocked shots; Duncan shot 12-24 from the field. Meanwhile, Nash's counterpart Parker scored 32 points and had eight assists. Nash shot 11-18 (.611), which is very good, but Parker shot an even better 14-22 (.636). Yes, the game was close and either team could have won but that should be the rallying cry of the road team, not the home team; now the Suns must win game two, because heading to San Antonio for two games down 0-2 is a recipe for quick exit from the playoffs. Something else that may become a factor if the Suns are able to extend the series to six or seven games is the Spurs' superior depth: the Suns used just eight players, five of whom played at least 33 minutes, while the Spurs used 10 players, three of whom played at least 33 minutes. If the Suns make it to game six or game seven they will be a tired, worn down team by that time.

This series is interesting for two reasons: (1) the battle for Western Conference supremacy; (2) the eternal question of who is the NBA's best player. Nash is not a statistically dominant player: his numbers are comparable to those put up by his predecessors John Stockton, Kevin Johnson, Mark Price and others, none of whom got close to winning an MVP, and he is not ranked as the best player in the NBA by any of the most widely used formulas: Hollinger's PER, NBA EFF or the Roland Rating. There is no precedent for the league's best passer to be selected as the MVP unless that player also had a tremendous all around game (Magic Johnson--scorer, rebounder, passer deluxe) and/or was leading teams to championships (Magic Johnson again).

How does that relate to my oft repeated view that Kobe Bryant is both the best and the most valuable player? Bryant's claim to those titles is not based on the nebulous concept of "making one's teammates better" that Nash advocates use in lieu of individual statistics and/or championship success; all great players make their teammates better by drawing more defensive attention and then passing the ball when that extra coverage arrives, so Nash is no different than the other top five or 10 players in the league in that sense. Bryant is the best player because he is the most complete player, someone who scores, rebounds, passes and defends. From a scouting report standpoint, his game has no weaknesses. That does not mean that he is perfect or that he never makes mistakes or forces shots; that means that his game has no glaring holes. Nowitzki--well, let's not beat on a man while he is down; Nash is not a great one on one defender, so his impact is mainly felt on one end of the court; Duncan and LeBron James each have free throw line weaknesses.

As for value as it relates to winning, Bryant's value to his team can be demonstrated statistically by looking at the Lakers' performance when he is not on the court or aesthetically by simply watching a few Lakers games. Warning: the results are not pretty; Lakers Coach Phil Jackson had good reason to recently say that his players performed with the intelligence of slugs and earthworms. Bryant's status as the best/most valuable player should not hinge on whether or not his teammates convert the open shots that he provides. Bryant's impact is obvious and it is equally obvious that he is willing to distribute the ball or shoot as the situation warrants; he leads the team in assists but is also capable of averaging 40 ppg for a month if his coach says that is the only way to save the season.

Nash may yet lead the Suns past the Spurs and to an NBA title but the more likely scenario is that in a week to 10 days he will be on the same fishing boat with Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant. Then maybe someone can explain why Nash is better than Nowitzki or Bryant, each of whom has enjoyed greater success both statistically and from a team standpoint than Nash has so far. The statistical case to support Nash as the best player is simply not there and after three years we are still waiting to see Nash's "value toward winning" translate into even one NBA Finals appearance. An even better question is this: Duncan's Spurs won the championship during Nash's first MVP year (2005), so how will it look if they knock off the Suns and win the title this year, giving Duncan two championships in three years but no MVPs during that span? If Nash got two MVPs based solely on his contributions to team success, shouldn't he forward the trophies to a player who actually has led his team to ultimate success?

Nash is a great player, one of the five best in the NBA today in my opinion. What I don't understand is his ascension in the eyes of many to the number one spot despite a lack of statistical support or championship hardware to justify ranking him as the absolute best. The other thing that I don't get is why it is some kind of sacrilege to suggest that Nash might "merely" be a top five player and not the consensus number one. Nash fanatics regularly suggest that Bryant is not even a top ten player and that his defense is overrated, two claims that are so ludicrous on the surface that they barely deserve reply; suffice it to say that it would be hard to find many coaches or scouts who would agree with those sentiments (out of context statements by one or two people do not count as a consensus of opinion among coaches and scouts).

This is an interesting time for Nash-philes because if he leads the Suns to the title then he is simply living up to the outsized expectations that have been placed on him--but if the Suns again fail to even make it to the Finals then Nash's "supreme" contributions to winning deserve some scrutiny. Rather than awarding regular season MVPs based on what we think or expect a team's ultimate success will be why not simply determine who the best, most complete player is and give that player the award? Then we won't feel like we need a recount after each round of the playoffs.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:15 AM

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Pavlovic's Prince-Like Block Preserves Cavs' Win

Cleveland dominated the boards 51-38 and held New Jersey to .372 shooting from the field in an 81-77 victory in game one of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. New Jersey had a chance to pull within two with 1:45 left in the game when Jason Kidd stole Larry Hughes' errant pass and seemed to have a clear path to the hoop for a layup--but Sasha Pavlovic sprinted back and swatted Kidd's shot away at the last possible second, a play reminiscent of Tayshaun Prince's block against Reggie Miller in Game Two of the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals. Pavlovic also scored a playoff career-high 15 points and was the only player on either team to attempt at least 11 shots and shoot better than .500 from the field. LeBron James had 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists but shot just 8-21, while Vince Carter posted very similar numbers in defeat: 21 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, 7-23 shooting. Drew Gooden added a double double for Cleveland (14 points, 14 rebounds), while Jason Kidd narrowly missed a triple double for New Jersey (seven points, 10 rebounds, nine assists).

The score was close throughout the game, with neither team ever enjoying a lead greater than eight points. With 2:30 remaining in the first quarter, Cleveland led 18-17 and both teams had shot 8-19 from the field; the only difference was that Cleveland had made two three pointers compared to New Jersey's one. The Nets had their greatest success in the second quarter as Carter shot 4-8 from the field for 11 points and New Jersey led 33-25 at the 7:55 mark. Pavlovic and Hughes countered with seven points each during the period and by halftime the Cavaliers were ahead 43-40. New Jersey took a three point lead briefly in the third quarter but by the end of the period the score was knotted at 59. While both teams shot poorly, the Cavaliers grabbed 20 offensive rebounds during the game compared to just nine for New Jersey.

Richard Jefferson's three pointer at the 10:49 mark in the fourth quarter put the Nets up 65-61 but a little over six minutes later the Cavaliers had turned the tables and taken a 75-69 lead. James led both teams with nine points in the fourth quarter. Jefferson's strong driving layup brought the Nets to within 75-71 and when Hughes threw the ball away on the next possession it looked like Kidd could cruise in for the layup--but Pavlovic's block maintained the all important two possession lead. The teams traded empty possessions after Pavlovic's block, so when Nachbar made two free throws at the :56.7 mark the Nets were still down two points. Hughes nailed a jumper, Carter hit two free throws and then James made a runner to close out the scoring. Without Pavlovic's block, the score--and thus the strategy for both teams--would have been different. After the game, Pavlovic said of his blocked shot, "I lost the ball on that pass and I just didn't give up on the play because it was very important. I knew Jason Kidd probably was not going to dunk, so I just followed him and tried to get the ball...It was important. I don't think it won the game but it was important for us. We just can't give up on plays."

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said, "Sasha's play was a heck of a play. We call that a winning play. He did not give up on the play. He continued trying to run Kidd down. The block was an unbelievable play and kept the crowd into it. It really energized our team. We are going to need plays like that throughout the course of the series in order to get over the hump."

While Pavlovic's block was the game's signature moment, the main overall theme was Cleveland's rebounding dominance, a key factor in the thinking of both squads prior to the series. Starting guards Kidd and Carter got 23 of the Nets' 37 rebounds and if New Jersey's frontcourt does not provide more help on the glass then it will be difficult for the Nets to win this series.

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

Less than a week ago, I wrote a post about Kobe Bryant being selected to the All-Defensive First Team, a squad that is chosen by the NBA's 30 head coaches. As I indicated at that time and in some earlier posts, I suspect that NBA head coaches have a better idea about who is playing good defense and who is not than fans and random writers do. I had never heard anyone actually ask any of the coaches what their thought process is regarding the All-Defensive Team but I always assumed that heavy consideration was given to players whose strong defense shows up in game film and/or scouting reports. During Coach Brown's standup prior to the game, I asked him this question: "Most of the postseason awards are voted on by the media but the one that is voted on by the coaches is the All-Defensive Team. What is the thought process that head coaches go through when they vote for the All-Defensive Team? Do you look at stats like steals and blocked shots or how various players performed against your team? What exactly goes into that?"

Coach Brown replied, "I think that it's an individual thing. I'm not a big stat guy when it comes to individual stats for defense because a guy might average three steals a game but if he's always gambling then he may be out of position a lot. The steals thing might look pretty stat-wise but not always be good for the team. For me personally, I just look at who gives our players and our team the most trouble when we go against that team. How tough do they defend LeBron, how tough do they defend Z, how tough do they defend whoever else it may be and how gritty they (opposing defenders) are. That's what I base it on."

I followed up with this question: "You've been on a few different coaching staffs during your career as an assistant and so forth. Do you think that the approach that you described is the approach that most coaches take?"

Brown answered, "I don't know. I know that Pop (Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich) does. He's not going to necessarily vote for a guy just because he averages a whole bunch of steals--and it's the same thing with blocks. I know that Pop looks at intangibles when voting for the All-Defensive Team."

So, if most coaches make their selections the way that Brown and Popovich do then their votes are not influenced by who writers think the great defenders are or who is leading the league in steals; their votes are determined based on which opposing players factor most heavily in their game planning and scheming regarding opposing defenses. Someone might say that certain coaches see some teams and players more often than they do others but all 30 coaches vote, so that kind of thing should cancel out. Plus, when scouting opposing teams the coaches see film of other players not just against their team but also against various other teams, so they are very familiar with the capabilities and limitations of the league's players at the offensive and defensive ends of the court.

***

During LeBron James' pregame standup (which was technically a sitdown as reporters gathered around a seated James at his locker), he said that the ankle that he sprained against Washington in the first round is not completely healed but that it is much improved thanks to the days off between series. James sounded congested and was coughing a little bit, which he dismissed as the effects of seasonal change. After the game, he seemed more under the weather than he had earlier. During his postgame press conference he draped a towel over his head and used the lower end of it to cover his mouth a few times when he coughed. Hughes and Gooden were seated on either side of him and when Gooden coughed James turned to him and asked if he (James) had made him sick. Gooden replied "No," and said that he had been sick for a few days.

***

Bill Cartwright, who won three championships as the starting center for the Chicago Bulls, is now an assistant coach with the Nets. Prior to the game, he worked with Josh Boone on various post moves. Before Boone arrived on the court, Cartwright showed that he can still make his awkward looking but very effective midrange jumper, nailing several in a row.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:04 AM

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Utah Versus Golden State Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#5 Utah (51-31) vs. #8 Golden State (42-40)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Golden State can win if…Baron Davis continues to play at an MVP level and if the Warriors' frenetic style frustrates and befuddles the Jazz as much as it rattled the Dallas Mavericks in round one.

Utah will win because…Carlos Boozer is a mobile and powerful big man who will score, rebound and draw fouls in the paint, disrupting Golden State's running game. Boozer has a really nice game now; he has a countermove that he immediately employs if the defense takes away his first move--actually, he has an array of first moves, accompanied by different countermoves. His recent TNT "Fundamentals" segment is must viewing for any upcoming post player. Deron Williams is strong and tough and will not back down from Davis.

Other things to consider: I'll be more honest than most people who are making predictions about this series: nothing that happens between these two teams would surprise me at this point. I thought that both squads would fight valiantly but be eliminated in the first round. If Golden State stays hot and runs the Jazz right out of the gym in four straight I would not be shocked; if Utah slows the game to a crawl, Baron Davis blows out a hamstring, Stephen Jackson gets suspended for something and the Jazz sweep the Warriors I would not be shocked, either. The Warriors changed their roster in midseason and Utah started hot, got cold and then overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat Houston in game seven on the road, so who knows what any of that means. So why am I picking Utah? I'm trying to play the percentages. Utah was the better team for a longer stretch of the season and thus has the homecourt advantage in the series; Utah has an excellent post player in Boozer; Davis is always one wrong move away from an injury that takes him out of the lineup; Jackson is always one wrong move away from ending up suspended or in court; I'm still not convinced that Golden State is a great team, as opposed to a team that simply matches up great with Dallas. Individually, none of those factors would necessarily be decisive but taken together all of the "X" factors seem to point in Utah's direction.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:59 AM

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Boozer's Big Game Carries Jazz to Rare Game Seven Road Win

Carlos Boozer had 35 points, 14 rebounds and five assists as the Utah Jazz defeated the Houston Rockets in game seven of their first round series. While most of the media's attention has been focused on Golden State's stunning upset or the meek submission of defending champion Miami, Utah and Houston engaged in a very hard fought first round series. The home team won each game until the Jazz broke through in Houston on Saturday night. Mehmet Okur (16 points, 11 rebounds) made two big three pointers down the stretch and Deron Williams played a great all around game (20 points, 14 assists). The story for Houston was plenty Tracy McGrady (29 points, 13 assists, five rebounds, three blocked shots), a lot of Yao Ming (29 points, six rebounds) and not enough from everybody else; Shane Battier was solid (16 points on 4-7 three point shooting) but Rafer Alston shot just 3-11 for his 11 points and the rest of the Rockets were largely invisible for most of the game.

The Rockets got off to a slow start, as they did in each game of the series; they trailed at halftime in all seven games. McGrady made just one of his first five shots from the field, though his passing was outstanding throughout the game. He found his shooting touch in the second quarter, finishing the first half with 13 points (5-11 shooting) and nine assists, but Boozer's 17 points and seven rebounds helped Utah build a 53-43 halftime lead. Utah actually was up by as much as 16 in the second quarter.

As they did throughout the series, the Rockets made a run in the third quarter, getting as close as 61-58 before Utah extended the margin back to 71-60. Houston trailed 75-67 going into the fourth quarter. As the Rockets tried to claw back into the game, TNT's Steve Kerr noted two things: (1) Houston is not good at coming back because the Rockets struggle to score points, so most of the time the Rockets lose when they are behind after three quarters; (2) the Rockets rely more on Tracy McGrady to either score or create scoring opportunities for others than any other team in the league relies on one player. The first issue is of course related to the second; any one player, no matter how great he is, can be slowed down by good team defense. In this regard, McGrady's predicament is actually very similar to Kobe Bryant's. Both players are amazing scorers who can score on the block, on the drive and from three point range. As Hubie Brown says, distance is not a factor. Bryant and McGrady are also willing and able passers; they draw double-teams and are very effective at passing out of them. That means not only giving up the ball when you are trapped but making the right read and delivering a good enough pass that the recipient can either shoot immediately or else easily deliver a skip pass to the weak side. Of course, the problem for both Bryant and McGrady is that if their teammates don't make shots then their passes are in vain. That is why I disagree slightly with Kerr; the Lakers are more dependent on Bryant than the Rockets are on McGrady because McGrady has another All-Star (Yao) and some decent three point shooters (Battier, Alston, Luther Head). While that cast of players was not enough to get past Utah it is clearly superior to the motley crew that plays alongside Bryant. In any case, there is a difference between Bryant and McGrady's playoff exits on one hand and Dirk Nowitzki's on the other hand. Bryant and McGrady made the correct plays and put their teams in the best possible position to win, while Nowitzki seemed to get away from doing the things that he does best (part of that blame also goes to coaching and part of the credit goes to Golden State, particularly Coach Don Nelson, for forcing Nowitzki out of his comfort zone).

McGrady had eight points and two assists in the fourth quarter as the Rockets outscored the Jazz 32-28. That is a very productive quarter for Houston, which is typically a slow down kind of team, but it was not enough to overcome the eight point third quarter deficit. Houston tied the score at 80 with 8:38 left and even led by as many as five (88-83) after a McGrady runner, but the Rockets could not contain Boozer (10 fourth quarter points) or Okur down the stretch. The last eight and a half minutes of the game after Houston tied the score were some of the best back and forth, nip and tuck basketball that we have seen in this year's playoffs, filled with three point plays, three point shots and acrobatic drives. The dagger was Okur's three pointer with 1:16 remaining that put the Jazz up 99-95. After that, Utah closed out the game with good free throw shooting, though Houston could have extended the contest by committing a foul more quickly on the last possession instead of inexplicably letting several seconds run off of the clock.

The series began with Andrei Kirilenko literally crying about his lack of production and diminishing role for Utah but it ended with two Kirilenko free throws and some tears from McGrady, who stayed composed long enough to talk with TNT's Craig Sager but was unable to finish his postgame podium interview. As Charles Barkley said, it is not necessarily fair or right but McGrady will get a lot of blame for this loss even though he played very well and did all that he could do.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:43 AM

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Strong Defense Powers Pistons to 95-69 Game One Win Over Bulls

Detroit jumped on Chicago early and then blew the game open with three straight three pointers in the fourth quarter, cruising to a 95-69 victory in game one of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Pick a statistical category and Detroit controlled it, from rebounds (46-38) to field goal percentage (.439 to .329) to turnovers (committing 15, forcing 21). Chauncey Billups set the tone in the first quarter, torching Ben Gordon for 12 points as Detroit took a 29-23 lead. Billups and Richard Hamilton each finished with 20 points. Luol Deng led Chicago with 18 points and eight rebounds. Ben Wallace had nine points on 4-5 shooting and tied Deng with eight rebounds and Kirk Hinrich scored 15 points on 6-7 shooting and dished out six assists but the Bulls could not overcome horrendous 3-30 shooting from their bench players (no, that is not a typo).

Chicago battled uphill for most of the first half, falling behind by as many as 16 points, but the Bulls were only down 10 at halftime. They got to within 60-52 in the first two minutes of the third quarter but then P.J. Brown picked up his third and fourth fouls and had to go to the bench. His replacement, rookie Tyrus Thomas, seemed more than a little out of his depth. Rasheed Wallace immediately scored on him in the post and Detroit pulled away to a 70-57 lead by the end of the third quarter.

Any thought that the Bulls might make a fourth quarter run was quickly ended when Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince each made a three pointer within a 1:21 stretch. That made the score 79-57 and turned the rest of the game into, as Marv Albert likes to say, "extensive garbage time."

Years ago, Danny Ainge noted that after you win a playoff game by blowing someone out you don't get to start the next game with a 20 point lead. Last year, Detroit cruised to two easy home wins against Cleveland and then fell down 3-2 before eventually prevailing in the seventh game. In game one of the 1985 NBA Finals, Boston beat the L.A. Lakers 148-114. The Lakers won the next game and won the series in six games. So, Detroit's margin of victory in game one is irrelevant; the important issue is whether or not Chicago can correct the mistakes that led to the loss. The Bulls stayed in contact for three quarters before Detroit's barrage of three pointers. Prior to that, a couple things stood out: (1) The Bulls looked jittery and a lot of their turnovers were, in tennis terms, unforced errors. Yes, Detroit played good defense but the Bulls were fumbling the ball in the open court and throwing wild, low percentage passes; (2) the Bulls were able to get into the paint almost at will, mostly by dribble penetration, but they missed a lot of layups or turned the ball over. Just by controlling the ball better and converting opportunities in the paint the Bulls could have made the score a lot closer. Starting in game two, look for the Bulls to be much more effective in exploiting scoring opportunities in the paint; if Detroit reacts to take that away, then look for the Bulls to start making open jump shots, like they did versus Miami. The Pistons seemed really determined to take away the jump shot from Chicago, even at the cost of leaving open driving lanes.

The bigger concern for the Bulls is how to deal with Billups and Hamilton. Neither player really hurt the Bulls during the regular season but both caused problems in game one and they could have scored more than 20 points apiece if Detroit had needed them to do so. The Bulls may have to change around some of their defensive schemes to make sure that Billups cannot just abuse Gordon one on one. On the other hand, if the Bulls clean up their ballhandling and avoid another 3-30 shooting effort from their bench then they probably can live with the defensive performance that they had; after all, Detroit shot just .439 for the game.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:00 AM

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