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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Duncan Dominates, Spurs Eliminate Suns

Tim Duncan literally eclipsed the Suns in the paint with 24 points, 13 rebounds and nine blocked shots (a career-high and franchise playoff record) as the Spurs advanced to the Western Conference Finals with a 114-106 victory. The Spurs led by as many as 20 in the fourth quarter before a furious but ultimately futile run made the score more respectable. Manu Ginobili had 33 points, a career-high 11 rebounds, six assists and four steals, shooting 11-17 from the field. Tony Parker added 30 points and five assists but shot just 11-27. Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 38 points and 12 rebounds. Steve Nash finished with 18 points and 14 assists.

Parker (11 points) and Stoudemire (eight points) got off to fast starts and the score was tied at 23 after the first quarter. Duncan's early impact was mainly felt at the defensive end; he blocked five shots in the first quarter, making it clear that the Suns would get no easy points in the paint. Neither team led by more than three points during the second quarter, with the Spurs taking a 53-51 advantage into halftime. Duncan scored 13 points in the second quarter and finished the first half with 15 points, eight rebounds and six blocked shots. He shot 7-12 from the field. Parker led all scorers with 21 points, while Stoudemire had 17 points, seven rebounds and three blocks but he shot just 6-15 from the field.

The Suns took their last lead of the game at the 6:49 mark of the third quarter after a Shawn Marion tip-in. Shortly after that, ESPN came back from a commercial break and ran a sound bite of Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni talking about the series. D'Antoni asserted that his team is "more talented" than San Antonio and "just as mentally tough." The timing of those words could not be more exquisitely ironic: Bruce Bowen and Ginobili promptly hit back to back three pointers to give the Spurs their largest lead yet, 69-61. By the end of the quarter, the "more talented" and "just as mentally tough" Suns trailed 81-67 and their two-time MVP Nash had scored exactly three points.

The Spurs led 92-72 with 9:09 left in the fourth quarter after another Ginobili jumper. Nash scored the Suns' next 10 points--and they still trailed by 16 at the 6:20 mark. A Nash jumper finally got the margin under 10 with 3:42 to go (99-90) but neither team scored in the next 1:09. The Suns crawled to within 101-94 with 2:01 left but the Spurs made enough field goals and free throws down the stretch to keep them at bay.

Nash ended up with decent numbers, mainly thanks to his scoring explosion after the game was essentially out of reach, but he was not even the best guard on the court--that would be Ginobili--let alone the best player, which was Tim Duncan. No doubt we will hear that this series was "tainted" by the suspensions of Stoudemire and Boris Diaw (who had one point in Game Six) but the Suns led for most of Game Five even without Stoudemire and Diaw and lost convincingly in Game Six with their full complement of players; anyone who uses the word "tainted" to describe the result of this series simply did not pay attention to the games. In fact, this game and this series followed the same blueprint that San Antonio used to beat Phoenix 4-1 in the 2005 playoffs: stay tight on the three point shooters, contain Nash's penetration and live with whatever Stoudemire scores. The Spurs won the lowest scoring game of the series and the highest scoring game of the series, proving that they could beat the Suns at any tempo. They strolled into Phoenix and grabbed homecourt advantage after Game One. Duncan's dominance caused the Suns to change their starting lineup and Parker's speed forced the Suns to switch Nash on to Bowen and Marion on to Parker. The real significance of Game Four is not Horry's foul and the aftermath but the fact that the Spurs dominated for 46 minutes but ended up blowing a double digit fourth quarter lead for the first time in 28 playoff games and just the third time in 58 such postseason games during Duncan's career; if not for that lapse, the Spurs would probably have won in five games just like they did in 2005. Consider what happened in Game Six: the Suns had their full team, the Spurs still did not have Horry and the Spurs built an even bigger lead than they did in Game Four--and this time they held on to it.

For three seasons we have heard about Nash's greatness, which is supposed to consist mainly of his ability to make his teammates better. His coach publicly stated, more than once, that the Suns are more talented than the Spurs. Yet, Nash failed once again to lead his team to the NBA Finals--despite owning homecourt advantage and being paired with an All-NBA First Team player (Stoudemire), an All-Star/Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Marion), the Sixth Man of the Year (Leandro Barbosa) and a member of the All-Defensive First Team (Raja Bell). Sure, Nash had 14 assists in Game Six but--other than Stoudemire, who is clearly an explosive talent who would thrive on any team--who exactly did he "make better" in the biggest game of the year for the Suns? Marion shot 5-12, Barbosa shot 5-15, Diaw shot 0-1 and Bell shot 5-9. If Nash in fact "made everyone better" during the past three regular seasons and if the Suns in fact are "more talented" than the Spurs than why did this series not even make it to a seventh game? If Kobe Bryant is denied MVP honors for not leading the Lakers to 50 wins and Dirk Nowitzki is blasted for going out in the first round after a 67 win season then how can Nash escape any criticism when his team lasts exactly one round longer than their teams did despite enjoying homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs (after Dallas' elimination) and despite playing alongside so many talented players? If he has been "making them better" all along and deserves two MVPs as a reward for that then he has to be criticized for not making them better year after year in the playoffs.

The reality, of course, is that Nash is an excellent player but he is not and never has been the best player in the NBA. That is why teams led by Duncan and Nowitzki have knocked his Suns out of the playoffs each of the past three seasons--and why Kobe Bryant almost pulled off the same thing in 2006 with so much less help around him than Nash has that it is comical to suggest that Nash is better than Bryant; put Bryant on the Suns for this series and Ginobili would no longer be the best guard on the court and the Suns would be better than they are now both offensively and defensively. Every single writer and commentator who has been saying for the past two weeks that he would switch his MVP vote this year from Nowitzki to Nash because of what happened in the first round absolutely must follow that reasoning to its logical conclusion and publicly endorse Duncan as this year's MVP; you simply cannot bash Nowitzki for losing in the first round and then completely ignore that Nash's team lost in the second round despite having homecourt advantage.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 AM

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King James Uses Marshall Plan to Beat Nets

Great all around play by LeBron James (23 points, eight rebounds, eight assists) and timely three point shooting by Donyell Marshall (18 points, 6-10 from three point range) carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to an 88-72 Game Six victory over the New Jersey Nets. The win earned the Cavaliers a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will face the Detroit Pistons, who eliminated the Cavaliers from the 2006 playoffs in a hard fought seven game series. James struggled a bit with his shooting (8-20 from the field, 6-9 from the free throw line) but he set the tone early in the game and made several big plays down the stretch. Jason Kidd (19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists) led the Nets in scoring, rebounds and assists and did not commit a single turnover; the only blemish on his stat line was 7-20 shooting from the field. Richard Jefferson added 16 points and eight rebounds but the third member of New Jersey's "Big Three," Vince Carter, scored just 11 points on 4-11 shooting. Carter also had five rebounds, four assists and five turnovers.

James had 14 points and four rebounds as Cleveland took a 32-15 lead by the end of the first quarter. He did not score at all in the second quarter but New Jersey was only able to cut the margin to 53-38 by halftime as Bostjan Nachbar hit a three pointer just before the buzzer, his only points of the game. Kidd made his first three shots of the third quarter but Cleveland still led 59-46 when James picked up his fourth foul at the 6:50 mark. He went to the bench for the remainder of the quarter and apparently took the Cavs' entire offense with him; New Jersey closed the quarter with a 14-2 run and only trailed 61-60 going into the final 12 minutes. Kidd had 12 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals in the third quarter.

James returned at the start of the fourth quarter. His presence alone was enough to stop New Jersey's run. The Nets never took the lead but they did manage to stay close for most of the fourth quarter. In fact, they got to within 64-63 at the 9:38 mark after Kidd grabbed an offensive rebound and fired a gorgeous bounce pass from the top of the key that found its way around several hands to Mikki Moore, who scored and drew a foul. Moore made the free throw but the Nets did not score again for the next 2:30 and the Cavs began to pull away. Cleveland finally broke the game open with a barrage of three pointers, several of which came after passes from James, who also scored seven points in the period. The Nets ran out of gas in the fourth quarter, scoring just 12 points, but that was actually a typical fourth quarter performance for them in the latter part of this series; New Jersey averaged 11.3 points on .127 shooting in the fourth quarters of Games Four, Five and Six.

Although the Nets ultimately came up short, the Elias Sports Bureau reports that Kidd became just the second player to average a triple double for an entire postseason (14.6 ppg, 10.9 apg, 10.9 rpg); Oscar Robertson averaged 28.8 ppg, 11.0 rpg and 11.0 apg in 1962 when his Cincinnati Royals lost 3-1 in the first round to the Detroit Pistons. Amazingly, Robertson averaged 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 11.4 apg for that entire season, the only time that an NBA player has averaged a triple double for a season.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:46 AM

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Sheed Steps Up, Pistons Advance to Fifth Straight Eastern Conference Finals

The Detroit Pistons are at their best when Rasheed Wallace is fully engaged and focused. He seemed to drift against the Chicago Bulls at times--specifically, toward the three point line and away from the paint--but his 16 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots played a big role in Detroit's series clinching 95-85 Game Six win in Chicago on Thursday night. He still fired up too many three pointers, making just two of his eight long range heaves, but he shot 5-6 on the rest of his attempts and made his presence felt in the paint, particularly on defense. Richard Hamilton contributed a game-high 23 points and Chauncey Billups closed out the victory in his typical fashion with flawless free throw shooting; "Mr. Big Shot" was just 3-12 from the field but he nailed all 14 of his free throws, which marked the third playoff game in which he has been perfect from the free throw line with at least that many attempts, tying an NBA record held by Dolph Schayes and Kevin Johnson. Billups finished with 21 points and a team-high seven assists. Tayshaun Prince had 17 points and nine rebounds.

P.J. Brown led the Bulls with 20 points, tying his playoff career-high, but the 37 year old veteran did all of that damage in the first half. Luol Deng had 17 points, five rebounds and four assists, shooting 7-14 from the field. The Bulls might have won if Ben Gordon (19 points, 7-18 shooting) or Kirk Hinrich (11 points, 3-13 shooting) did not shoot so poorly. Ben Wallace's minutes and effectiveness were limited by a lingering back problem and he finished with six points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots.

Brown's first half performance lifted the Bulls to a 48-43 lead at halftime. Apparently, the Pistons were just coasting, as they did during much of their first round series versus the Orlando Magic, because they opened the third quarter with a 12-1 blitz from which the Bulls never recovered. The Bulls stayed within striking distance but never regained the lead or even got closer than three points. Detroit led 74-69 at the end of the third quarter.

I never thought that I would see another fourth quarter of a playoff game quite as putrid as the one that I witnessed in person on Wednesday in Cleveland but Detroit and Chicago did their best to match it: with just 1:30 remaining in the game, Detroit had outscored Chicago 11-6 in the final stanza but each team made those totals more cosmetic by putting up 10 points the rest of the way.

I respect that the Pistons can play at a very high level but I don't like their cavalier approach to the game; instead of seeking greatness, they are content to just sort of muddle along, playing their best only in fits and spurts. That almost caught up with them in this series, just like it nearly cost them against Cleveland in last year's playoffs. The truly great teams seek perfection and, even though that is unattainable, they operate at a consistently high level. This is the first time in several years that the Pistons will not exit the playoffs sooner than they did the previous year; Detroit won the 2004 championship, lost in the 2005 Finals and then fell short in the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, that is a pretty good run overall--a total of five straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances under three coaches (Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown, Flip Saunders)--but recently the Pistons had been heading in the wrong direction in terms of trying to get a second ring.

The season was not a failure for the Chicago Bulls. They improved their regular season record by eight games, swept the defending champion Miami Heat in the first round and showed glimmers of their future promise against the Pistons. Throughout this series the Bulls were able to use their quickness to get open looks but they only converted enough of them to win two games. Ben Wallace received a lot of criticism from various quarters during the season but he clearly had a positive overall impact, even if it must gall him to lose to his old team. It will be interesting to see what personnel moves, if any, the Bulls make before the 2007-08 season begins. Depending how the ping pong balls bounce, they could have a very high draft pick that could net them the inside presence they need, either in the form of a college star or packaged with some of their players in a trade to acquire a veteran player who can score on the block.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:32 AM

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NBA Shootaround Crew Discusses the Stoudemire/Diaw Suspensions

Greg Anthony did a lot to inspire the NBA's rule prohibiting players who are not in the game from leaving the bench area during on court altercations, so it was interesting to hear his take on the subject during Thursday's NBA Shootaround pregame show on ESPN; for those of you who may have forgotten, on March 24, 1993 Anthony--then a guard for the New York Knicks--left the bench to join a fight between his teammate Doc Rivers and Phoenix guard Kevin Johnson. Anthony was not playing due to injury and was actually in street clothes; he received a five game suspension for his actions. At that time, the NBA only penalized players for leaving the bench during an altercation if they did not act as peacemakers but that policy was soon tightened to forbid any players from leaving the immediate vicinity of the bench in such situations.

While Anthony was a bit of a hothead as a player, he is definitely cool and rational in his role as an NBA analyst. Anthony completely supports the suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench area and rejects the idea that they should be excused for making a natural, instant, emotional reaction: "Part of playing the game is being in control of your emotions, especially deep in the postseason when the stakes rise." Some have suggested that the NBA should have made an exception in this case because of Stoudemire's importance in the San Antonio-Phoenix series but Anthony contends that this is precisely the reason not to make an exception, arguing that if this rule has no teeth then it will cease to be effective. Anthony points out that the rule works, as demonstrated by the fact that players rarely leave the bench area in such situations: Stoudemire and Diaw were the only offenders in this instance, no one left the bench after Jason Richardson's hard foul on Mehmet Okur in the Utah-Golden State series and, going back to last year's playoffs, no one left the bench when James Posey delivered a forearm shiver to Kirk Hinrich that was at least as blatant as the one that Robert Horry put on Steve Nash.

Toronto Head Coach Sam Mitchell, a guest on NBA Shootaround, agreed with Anthony, saying that everyone knows what the rule is and that the rule should not be changed. He said that if anyone should be blamed it is the assistant coaches who did not restrain Stoudemire and Diaw before they wandered too far. Former Indiana Coach Rick Carlisle does not think that the NBA should rewrite the rule to provide for exceptions, saying, "Extra levels of discretion equal more shades of grey." The current rule is hard and fast, so everyone knows what the standard is. As Shaquille O'Neal said on TNT right after the incident, "If you cross the line, you lose your behind." If the NBA waters down the rule and starts suspending some guys while letting others off the hook then it will result in more controversy, not less, and will defeat the original purpose of the rule, which is to limit any on court altercations to the players who were already in the game plus the three officials.

Tim Legler offered a dissenting view, parroting the currently popular thought that the suspensions are not fair because the Suns received a heavier punishment for something that the Spurs instigated. He thinks that there should be some room for the NBA to exercise judgment in enforcing this rule. However, even Legler went on to add that he does not think that the suspensions cost the Suns Game Five, noting that game was up for grabs all the way until the end and the Suns could have won if they would have made better plays down the stretch.

I wish that the highly paid and very prominent "experts" who are commenting in print and on TV about the suspensions would stop whining about Stoudemire and Diaw, stop calling the series "tainted" and stop saying that Spurs star Tim Duncan should have been suspended for his actions in a situation that did not involve an altercation (and hence is not covered by the rule). This rule is designed to reduce fights and improve player safety and, as Anthony said, the bottom line is that it has done an excellent job in both regards. The numbers--a reduction in fights and the fact that this rule has rarely been violated in recent times because players know the consequences for doing so--speak for themselves. One more thing: the idea that players who leave the bench during a stoppage of play (to look after an injured teammate, perhaps) would be subject to suspension if someone throws a punch while they are on the court makes no sense. Duncan stood up because one of his teammates seemed to be injured; there was no altercation and no hint of an altercation but it looked for a moment like there might be an injury timeout. When there wasn't, Duncan sat back down. Some people have said that someone from the Suns should have thrown a punch at that moment and then Duncan would have been subject to suspension. That is simply asinine reasoning. One, Duncan was still standing in the immediate vicinity of his bench and had not sprinted 25 feet only to be restrained by several people as Stoudemire did. Two, if someone threw a punch at that moment and Duncan sat back down he would not have been suspended, in my opinion; after Horry fouled Nash, other Suns stood up to look to see what had happened but Stoudemire and Diaw were the only ones who moved far from their original positions on the bench to get in close proximity to the incident. Stoudemire, in particular, can be seen in the background of some of the photos of Horry and Raja Bell's confrontation, and he did not stop until several people grabbed him. Stoudemire was certainly close enough to exacerbate the situation and his presence there meant that people had to restrain him as opposed to dealing with Horry and Bell. Point blank, Stoudemire did exactly what the rule was intended to prevent and received the same punishment for it that every other previous violator has.

The NBA does not want to suspend players, but two things lead to automatic suspensions: throwing a punch, even if it does not connect, and leaving the bench area during an altercation. That is why Baron Davis, Bruce Bowen and Jason Richardson were assessed flagrant fouls--either during the game or after video review--but not suspended for their various recent transgressions. That is also why you see very few punches thrown in the NBA and why bench clearing brawls have become a thing of the past.

Commissioner David Stern rightly said that any statement that the Spurs benefited from Robert Horry's action is "palaver." Horry got suspended two games for his conduct (no one seems too concerned that the Suns will be at full strength in Game Six but that the Spurs will be without the services of Big Shot Rob). Stoudemire and Diaw's actions are completely separate; if they had kept their cool, they would not have been punished. It is wrong to blame Horry for their misconduct.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:16 AM

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Suns' Valiant Effort Sans Stoudemire, Diaw Falls Short

Without the services of the suspended Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, the Phoenix Suns needed to play with tremendous energy and they needed a superstar level performance from two-time MVP Steve Nash. The Suns certainly put forth a valiant effort, leading for most of the game but, when push came to shove, Nash was very good, not outstanding, and he did not do much in the fourth quarter as the Suns fell just short. The Spurs made a late run to win 88-85. Manu Ginobili had 26 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter, tying his career-high for points in a quarter of a playoff game; Ginobili also pulled down 10 rebounds. Tim Duncan added 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots. He was the dominant figure in the game, even though he only scored two points in the final quarter: the Suns were forced to double-team Duncan to slow him down and that opened up the court for Ginobili and the other Spurs. Shawn Marion led the Suns with 24 points and 17 rebounds but he only had two points and six rebounds in the second half. Nash had 19 points and 12 assists but shot just 6-19 from the field; he shot 1-8 from the field in the fourth quarter.

San Antonio took a 9-4 lead to start the game but TNT's Steve Kerr put it best: "Both teams look a little off kilter." By necessity, the Suns shortened their rotation and used a small, quick lineup. They were able to push the ball and get into the open court, closing the quarter with a a 20-4 run. Marion did most of the damage, scoring 11 points in the first quarter. The Spurs went through a stretch in which they missed nine straight shots and trailed 24-13 at the end of the period; the 13 points is their lowest output in any quarter, regular season or playoffs, this season.

Things got even worse for the Spurs in the second quarter as the Suns built a 40-24 lead. At that point, Nash had three points and five assists. He certainly contributed to the Suns' success but the star at that juncture was Marion, who had poured in 18 points--three of his field goals were assisted by Nash but he was also producing a lot on his own and grabbing a ton of rebounds. The Spurs steadied themselves a bit after that and rallied to trail 44-33 at halftime.

The Spurs chipped away during the third quarter, getting as close as four points, but the Suns still led 62-56 going into the fourth quarter. Raja Bell made a three pointer and Kurt Thomas made two free throws to put Phoenix up 67-56 with 10:24 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Spurs answered by scoring seven straight points, a run ended by two Marion free throws. Phoenix seemed to have withstood San Antonio's best shot and still led 79-71 at the 5:18 mark. From that point on, the Spurs showed their championship level poise, outscoring the Suns 14-6. Nash made two free throws and had one assist during that critical phase of the game, shooting 0-5 from the field and fouling Ginobili while he shot a three pointer. Ginobili made all three free throws to cut the margin to 79-77 Phoenix and the Spurs tied the score on their next possession. Meanwhile, while Nash faded during that 5:18, Duncan made two free throws, blocked three shots--one of them by Nash--and attracted double teams that helped other Spurs to get open; that is just as valuable as when Nash passes to someone and gets an assist.

With the score tied at 81 the teams traded turnovers and missed shots before Bruce Bowen made one of his trademark corner three pointers. The Spurs' defense and free throw shooting carried the day after that. People who don't understand basketball will say that the suspensions of Stoudemire and Diaw clearly cost the Suns this game because the final score was so close. The reality is things are not that simple. If both teams had played their regular lineups from the start maybe the Spurs would not have trailed by 16 in the second quarter as they scrambled to adjust to the Suns' smaller unit--or maybe the Suns would have been up 20. The point is we will never know for sure. All we can say is that the Suns led for most of the game and had many opportunities to win--and their two-time MVP shot 1-8 from the field in the decisive fourth quarter, while the Spurs' two-time MVP drew double coverage that opened the court for his teammates, particularly Ginobili, to shine. If Nash had shot anywhere close to his normal percentage in this game, perhaps the most important one of the year for the Suns, then Phoenix probably would have won. So, everyone who wanted to shift his MVP vote from Nowitzki to Nash after round one might as well be consistent and keep right on shifting--to Duncan.

Game Six should be very interesting but it is highly unlikely that it will resemble Game Five at all; the Suns will go back to their normal lineup and the Spurs will probably be in control most of the way, like they were in Game Four. Barring a repeat of that game's unusual fourth quarter collapse, the Spurs will eliminate the Suns and move on to the Western Conference Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 9:10 AM

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Nets Score Six Fourth Quarter Points--and Still Win

Despite a fourth quarter performance that set offensive basketball back five decades to the pre-shot clock era, the New Jersey Nets beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 83-72 in Game Five of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. The Nets are one home win away from tying the series and forcing a seventh game in Cleveland on Sunday. Jason Kidd led the Nets with 20 points on 8-14 shooting, adding nine rebounds and six assists. Vince Carter shot less often but more accurately than he did earlier in the series, finishing with 12 points, a game-high 10 assists and six rebounds. Mikki Moore again made a solid contribution--14 points and six rebounds--while Richard Jefferson had 15 points and eight rebounds. Jefferson had nine of his points in the third quarter when the Nets blew the game open. LeBron James led the Cavaliers with 20 points and nine rebounds but he shot just 5-14 from the field; he had five assists but also committed five turnovers. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was the only other Cav to score in double figures--16 points on 6-8 shooting. It certainly seems like he should be getting more touches, particularly when you consider that Larry Hughes took more shots than anyone on either team but scored just seven points, connecting on just three of his 17 field goal attempts; the sellout crowd of 20,562 at Quicken Loans Arena frequently booed Hughes, which is something that I've never understood. I mean, it's not like he's missing on purpose or not playing hard; how does it help the home team's chances when the fans boo every time a certain player shoots? I could understand it if a road crowd heckled Hughes by yelling "airball!" or something like that, but booing your own player for missing shots seems stupid to me.

Cleveland looked sluggish right from the start, trailing 24-18 by the end of the first quarter. James shot 0-2, scoring two points, and Hughes went 1-5. Bostjan Nachbar nailed three straight three pointers, which affected how the Cavaliers played defensively the rest of the way according to Cleveland Coach Mike Brown: "Bostjan hitting those threes really opened the floor for them and gave us some problems. We didn't want to leave (him open after that) and (that) allowed them to get easy baskets in their pick and roll action." Kidd also got off to a quick start, scoring seven points on 3-5 shooting and dishing three assists.

Ilgauskas had 10 points on 4-4 shooting in the second quarter but the Nets still outscored the Cavs 23-21 to take a 47-39 halftime lead. Hughes was 1-12 from the field by that point and was already "hearing it from the crowd," as Marv Albert might say--and definitely not "hearing it" in a good way. The Nets shot 12-18 (.667) in the third quarter, pushing their lead to 74-52 before a mini-run cut it to 77-59 at the end of the period. Kidd shot 4-4 for 10 points.

The Nets were rolling, the Cavs were sinking--and then came perhaps the strangest, ugliest fourth quarter in NBA playoff history. If you don't believe that, check out these numbers: the Nets shot 1-15 from the field and scored just six points, one point better than the all-time shot clock era low set by Portland on May 18, 1999 versus Utah. They made just four of their 10 free throws, with Kidd missing five straight in the last minute of play. It would seem impossible for Cleveland not to come back and win given those statistics--but the Cavs shot 3-17 from the field and managed to put up just 13 points; the 19 total points by both teams is an all-time playoff low for a quarter and the Nets are the first team in the shot clock era to win a playoff game despite scoring as few as six points in a quarter.

Jason Kidd had a humorous explanation of what transpired in the final 12 minutes: "The fourth quarter wasn't pretty. Both teams were on fire defensively, not on the offensive side." Apparently, Cleveland's "free throw defense" against Kidd was also top notch. While watching this fiasco unfold, I thought that the shooting displayed all the delicacy and artistry of someone attempting to put a medicine ball into a tea cup. It might have been excruciating to watch but this was a big win for the Nets. Now they have the same opportunity that Chicago does in the other Eastern semifinal series against Detroit: winning at home in Game Six will put an awful lot of pressure on the favored team to win at home in Game Seven. Game Sevens on the road are usually death in the NBA but the Nets are a veteran team so at this point a series that Cleveland seemed to be firmly controlling is now very much up for grabs. Further complicating matters for the Cavs is that James suffered a bruised knee and a cut on his leg while diving out of bounds in a late game scramble for a loose ball. James did not play in the final :56, but all indications are that he will be available for Game Six.

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

Prior to the game, one of the main topics of conversation was the suspensions handed down to Phoenix' Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the vicinity of the bench during the altercation that happened near the end of Game Four of the Spurs-Suns series. James is not at all concerned that any Cavalier players will make a similar mistake, noting that no one left the Cavaliers' bench after Mikki Moore's flagrant foul on Sasha Pavlovic in Game Four: "Everybody knows how to react if something goes down. If you're not in the game, then just be cool and we'll take care of it on the court." Asked if the NBA should change the rule, James said, "Definitely--but at the same time, it's a rule and you have to respect that. Everyone knows that if something is going on on the court that you might not like it but you have to stay on the bench. I know that it's a (natural) reaction but at the same time you have to second guess yourself and know that you can't leave the bench...It's a rule and you can't fault the NBA (for suspending Stoudemire and Diaw)."

During his pregame standup, I asked Coach Brown, "What did you say to the team in light of the suspensions of Amare and Diaw, in terms of what the team should do if anything happens on the court during the game?" Brown smiled and offered a succinct reply: "Don't leave the bench--simple as that."

It does seem pretty simple, actually. James and the other Cavs seem pretty clear on how to act, as did most of the Spurs and Suns; so if people want to focus critical attention somewhere then it should be directed at Stoudemire and Diaw, who disobeyed an easy to understand rule that has been consistently enforced--including during previous playoff series. They have no one but themselves to blame. Even if the NBA later changes or gets rid of this rule--which I doubt will happen--that does not alter the fact that all Stoudemire and Diaw had to do was, literally, nothing and then they would have been able to play in Game Five.


***

While Jessica Alba has yet to be seen at a Cavs game there were some notable personalities on hand at Game Five, including former Cavs All-NBA guard Mark Price, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens and Jake (as in, "Body by Jake").

posted by David Friedman @ 7:40 AM

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thoughts on the Horry/Stoudemire/Diaw Suspensions

Predictably, the NBA suspended Robert Horry for two games and Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw one game each in the aftermath of the ugly finish to Game Four of the Spurs-Suns series. Reasoned discourse on this subject is very difficult to find because virtually everyone who is discussing the issue has a horse in the race or an ax to grind (pardon the mixed metaphors). The first, most important thing to consider is the first word of the first sentence of this post: "predictably." Right after Horry delivered his cheap shot to Steve Nash, Stoudemire and Diaw left the Suns' bench and anyone who knows anything about the NBA knew exactly what would happen next, namely that Horry, Stoudemire and Diaw would be suspended. The NBA's official explanation is that Horry got one game for the foul on Nash and a second game for throwing a high elbow at Raja Bell. Stoudemire and Diaw received the automatic suspensions that any player gets for leaving the vicinity of the bench when an altercation occurs. This rule is well known and has been strictly enforced before, including during an even more bitter and contentious series in 1997 between Miami and New York. Instead of being angry at the NBA for doing something that is quite predictable, fans should be angry and disgusted at Stoudemire and Diaw for losing their heads at a very critical moment. Again, let me emphasize: everybody knows this rule, it has been enforced strictly in previous playoff series--and no one else from either team violated it. Let's break down some things that have been said about this situation.

It has been suggested that since Horry instigated the incident the Suns should not suffer the bulk of the punishment. Horry was immediately ejected and later suspended two games for what he did; he did not "get away" with anything. If Stoudemire and Diaw had stayed seated then they would be playing in Games Five and Six while Horry would not: advantage Suns in that instance.

Others have stated that the rule regarding leaving the vicinity of the bench is a bad rule that should be changed. The rule is designed to prevent escalation of on court altercations. In the heat of the moment, no one knows if someone who is rushing into the fray is a peacemaker or not. Rudy Tomjanovich was almost killed by a Kermit Washington punch when Tomjanovich tried to be a peacemaker in an NBA fight three decades ago. This rule has played a big part in curbing on court violence in the NBA, as have rules regarding flagrant fouls and the automatic ejection that occurs if a player throws a punch, even if the punch does not connect. By making this a hard and fast rule, the NBA has tried to get rid of the whole macho ethic that made players feel like they had to run on to the court to avoid looking like wimps. Everyone knows that running on to the court leads to a suspension, so most players have enough sense to not do it. It is easier to defuse a situation with just 10 players, three officials and some coaches than it would be to defuse a situation that includes an additional 14 players.

I have no sympathy for Horry, Stoudemire or Diaw, just like I had no sympathy for Carmelo Anthony and everybody else involved in the Knicks-Nuggets incident in December 2006. The NBA's rules about fighting, about escalating a situation and about leaving the bench are very clear. As Commissioner Stern has said, any player who is not able to abide by the rules will have to find another line of work. If the Suns really believe that Horry did this intentionally to start a fight or get some of their players suspended then they were pretty foolish to allow that to happen. All they had to do was remain calm--as Nash did, for the most part--and Horry would have been the only player who was suspended.

Game Five is actually a great opportunity for two-time MVP Nash. Some people compare him to Magic Johnson--which is patently absurd. In Game Six of the 1980 NBA Finals, the Lakers were without the services of regular season MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who suffered a sprained ankle in Game Five (not a migraine, as Dan Patrick incorrectly said this weekend during ESPN's NBA coverage). Johnson responded by producing 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers won the game and the title. He received the Finals MVP for his efforts; Magic was a 20 year old rookie at the time. Nash won the second of his two MVPs largely because of how well the Suns did in the regular season even though Amare Stoudemire missed all but three games. Of course, the Suns did not win the title and have yet to make a Finals appearance with Nash at the helm. Game Five is a golden opportunity for Nash to outduel Tim Duncan, who in addition to also being a two-time MVP is a three-time Finals MVP. If Nash really is the best player in the game then this would be a good time to show it. Regardless of what happens, I know two things: Nash will play well and if the Suns lose he will make fewer excuses for himself and his team than his many supporters will.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:24 AM

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Fisher Sends Golden State Fishing

Derek Fisher scored 11 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter as the Utah Jazz beat the Golden State Warriors 100-87 to win their series 4-1 and advance to the Western Conference Finals. Utah also got strong performances from Carlos Boozer (21 points, 14 rebounds) and Andrei Kirilenko (21 points, 15 rebounds). The Jazz outrebounded the Warriors 59-35 and their 269-171 rebounding advantage during the series is the largest in NBA playoff history according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Baron Davis led the Warriors with 21 points, eight assists and six steals but shot just 5-16 from the field, including 1-7 from three point range. Stephen Jackson scored 16 points but shot 3-17 overall and matched Davis' 1-7 three point shooting. Midway through the game, I realized exactly who the Warriors resemble: a team composed of five Gilbert Arenas clones--not in physical appearance, of course, but in style of play. Arenas shoots from anywhere at any time and when he is hot everything is beautiful. Of course, sooner or later bad shot selection catches up with you.

A glance at the final score may make one think that Utah won by slowing the game down but the reality is that the Jazz nearly fell into the same trap that doomed Dallas in the first round; playing slowly against Golden State merely allows the Warriors to sag into the paint and use their quick hands to deflect passes and get steals. Utah led 80-73 at the 11:40 mark in the fourth quarter, which would be a 106 point pace, but the Jazz scored just nine points in the next nine minutes; they stopped running, were unable to get the ball inside due to Golden State's swarming halfcourt defense and they ended up with a lot of turnovers and forced three pointers. Fisher saved the day by scoring nine of Utah's first 18 points in the fourth quarter. The Jazz scored 100 points only because they made 10 free throws in the last 2:35; the fourth quarter pace was slow and this did not work to Utah's advantage. While it makes sense to slow the game down against Phoenix and pound the Suns to death in the paint--a strategy that almost worked even for the woefully undermanned Lakers in the 2006 playoffs--Golden State plays much more tenacious and scrappy halfcourt defense; the way to beat the Warriors is to run with them, wear them out and rely on the fact that your team cannot possibly have worse shot selection or shoot a lower percentage than the Warriors do. If the Mavericks would have run with the Warriors for the whole series then Dirk Nowitzki could have averaged about 30 ppg and Dallas would have won the series. If you don't believe that, just go back and look at the scores of the games that Golden State won and lost in this year's playoffs. Utah's Game Five win is, by far, the lowest scoring game that Golden State lost and the Jazz won more by attrition than anything else; the Warriors did not make a field goal in the last 3:39 of the game, exhausted after five games of running up and down the court with the Jazz and battling them in the paint. Golden State does not play good transition defense and uses a short rotation, so it makes no sense to slow the game down and fight against their octopus-like halfcourt defense. Carlos Boozer is a better postup scorer than Nowitzki will ever be and when the game slowed down in the fourth quarter he scored exactly no field goals for the first 11:48; his only basket came on a layup with :12 left and the outcome no longer in doubt. If Boozer could not score on the block in a slow down game against Golden State then why would anyone expect Nowitzki to do it? Many of Boozer's points in this series came on second chance points or when Utah pushed the ball and went to a quick attack, not allowing Golden State to drape bodies all over him.

As Charles Barkley noted on TNT's Inside the NBA, Utah has been very impressive so far; the Jazz beat a slow down, grind it out Houston team in the first round and then defeated a helter skelter, up tempo Golden State team in the conference semifinals. It would seem that the Jazz are well prepared for whatever kind of team they will face in the Conference Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:17 AM

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Pistons Need a Tuneup

The Bulls hammered the Pistons 108-92 on Tuesday and with their second straight win they have quickly turned the crowning of Detroit into a Palace (of Auburn Hills) revolt. Just two days ago, the Pistons were poised to sweep the Bulls but now they face the very real prospect of losing Game Six in Chicago on Thursday and having to win Game Seven to avoid becoming the first NBA team to ever blow a 3-0 lead in a seven game series. Chicago’s Game Five shooting was simply remarkable, particularly in the first half when the Bulls connected at a .722 rate, nearly matching the NBA record set by the Lakers (.742) on May 12, 1998 in the first half of their game versus Seattle. The Bulls cooled off to finish at “just” .573 for the game but—regardless of what happens in the rest of the series--I think that this performance and their Game Four win on Sunday have put to rest the near mythical status that some people tried to confer on Detroit Coach Flip Saunders’ zone defense. I never bought the hype, even when Detroit blew out the Bulls in Game One; I noted, "...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." After Chicago blew a 19 point lead and lost Game Three, I still was not impressed by Detroit, writing, "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)."

As Hubie Brown correctly said during Sunday’s telecast, you play zone for a change of pace or to hide poor defenders. What has happened in the past two games is that the Bulls have settled down, stopped turning the ball over and made the numerous open shots that are available against Detroit. Any time the Bulls make two passes—or a Bulls player takes two dribbles in an isolation situation—they can get an open jump shot or a clear path through the lane straight to the hoop. Winning four straight games sounds daunting and the Bulls may not be up to it but the fact is that they are already halfway there. They don’t have to win four games at once; they need to take Game Six at home and then in Game Seven all the pressure will be on Detroit, both as the favorite team that considers going to the Eastern Conference Finals their birthright and as a team that would face the ignominious prospect of being the first NBA team to ever blow a 3-0 series lead. The Pistons will surely come out with a focused and determined effort on Thursday but the question is whether they can deal with the Bulls if the Bulls remain calm and poised and continue to run their offense efficiently. This Bulls team is very well built to deal with the Pistons. As I always say about playoff series, it is important not to be swayed by the result or margin of victory of a particular game but to evaluate whether or not a team can continue to do the things that enabled it to win. Even after the Bulls got killed in Game One I said that the Bulls still had a chance in Game Two if they simply cut down on the unforced errors; the Bulls were beating themselves much more than Detroit was stopping them. The Bulls did not really wake up--or, more precisely, settle down--until Game Three and they still blew that one at the very end; now, though, they have found their stride, and if Detroit does not come up with some answers I would not be surprised to see the Bulls do the "unthinkable." I said before the series began that Chicago would beat Detroit; the Bulls certainly squandered many opportunities early in this series--creating a very steep hill to climb--but based on how they are playing now it is difficult to believe that they will lose Game Six at home. The Bulls don't have to shoot .700 to win; they simply have to attack the zone with force and conviction and make open shots.

Obviously, many Bulls had standout performances in Game Five, but particularly noteworthy are Ben Gordon (28 points, 10-16 shooting, 5-6 three point shooting), Luol Deng (20 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and Kirk Hinrich (17 points, 13 assists). Ben Wallace had a quiet night statistically (six points, five rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots) but his job is to anchor the paint; Detroit’s .423 shooting and the fact that the Pistons launched 19 three pointers (making just five) instead of attacking the hoop indicates that he and the other Bulls frontcourt players certainly had an impact on the game. Tyrus Thomas provided a lot of energy with 10 points, six rebounds, five steals and one blocked shot, a spectacular nullification of a Richard Hamilton layup that the Bulls converted into a Chris Duhon three pointer that gave them their first double digit lead, 39-28, at the 8:34 mark of the second quarter. Chauncey Billups scored ten straight points for Detroit at the end of the first half to pull the Pistons to within 59-51 at halftime but the Bulls were not rattled and proceeded to shred Detroit 33-20 in the third quarter. Billups led the Pistons with 17 points and six assists, but he shot just 5-12 from the field. Richard Hamilton had 16 points, six rebounds and five assists but shot 5-14.

The saddest thing about the Pistons is that they don't respect the game enough to always play their best. You could see this in the first round against Orlando, when they sleepwalked through most of each game before making a little run in the fourth quarter. That approach is not correct and it does not work against good teams. The Bulls took some time--maybe one game too long--to find their legs in this series but now that they have it will be interesting to see what kind of response they get from the Pistons. One of the best things about the Jordan-Pippen Bulls teams is that they never gave away games through lack of effort; whether it was a "meaningless" game in January or a game in which the Bulls trailed by 20 in the third quarter they never quit and they always, always put pressure on their opponents. That is how you win 72 and 69 games in back to back seasons--and then win championships. To hear Detroit or Dallas talk, it is some kind of burden to win 64 or more games and try to win a title; those Bulls felt a burning desire to win every single game in the regular season and the playoffs.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:36 AM

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Nowitzki Receives MVP, Nash and Bryant Round Out Top Three

Perhaps the worst kept secret in the NBA was revealed today when Dirk Nowitzki was officially announced as the 2006-07 NBA regular season MVP. Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks went 67-15, one of the best records in the history of the NBA, and he played a key role in that success, leading Dallas in scoring (24.6 ppg) and rebounding (8.9 rpg) while averaging a career-high 3.4 apg. He shot .502 from the field, .416 from three point range and .904 from the free throw line, joining Larry Bird, Mark Price, Reggie Miller and Steve Nash as the only players to exceed .500/.400/.900 for an entire season; each of those shooting percentages represent career-highs for Nowitzki. He did all of this in 36.2 mpg, his lowest amount of playing time since his second season (1999-00), a reflection of his team's dominance (i.e., he was sitting out at the end of a lot of blowouts).

Nowitzki received 83 first place votes, 39 second place votes and seven third place votes from a 129 member media panel; Steve Nash, who won the two previous MVPs, finished second (44, 74, 11) and Kobe Bryant finished third (2, 11, 65, plus 30 fourth place votes and nine fifth place votes). Points are awarded on a 10, seven, five, three, one basis, so Nowitzki had 1183, Nash had 1013 and Bryant had 521. Others who received at least 100 points include Tim Duncan (286), LeBron James (183) and Tracy McGrady (110).

There is no denying the elephant that sat in the room alongside Nowitzki, Dallas owner Mark Cuban, Dallas Coach Avery Johnson and NBA Commissioner David Stern during the MVP press conference: in the first round of the playoffs, Dallas became just the third number one seed to lose to an eighth seed since the current playoff format began in 1983-84 and the first one to do so in a seven game series. Obviously, that is a disappointing way to end the season but the recent backlash against Nowitzki being this season's MVP is tasteless and ridiculous. This is a regular season award: it is clearly labeled as such and that is why the voting is done before the playoffs even start. So, what happens in the playoffs is completely irrelevant. Until this year I don't recall that there was ever this much talk about whether or not a regular season MVP deserved the award based on what he did in the playoffs. The closest comparison would probably be 1994-95, when San Antonio's David Robinson won the award and then Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon, the 1993-94 winner, torched him head to head in the playoffs--but that involved direct competition between the two leading contenders for that year's MVP. Perhaps that was not entirely fair either, but the stark contrast in the head to head showdown certainly lent credence to the idea that Olajuwon should have been a repeat winner. Maybe if Steve Nash outplayed Nowitzki head to head in this year's playoffs then a case could be made against Nowitzki but they in fact met just last year and Nowitzki was the best player on the court as his team eliminated Nash's Suns and went on to the NBA Finals.

The NBA MVP is meant to recognize the best individual regular season performance in a given year. Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks were the story of the 2006-07 regular season. I don't hear the people who are complaining about Nowitzki's MVP saying anything about the conspicuous lack of championship hardware on Nash's mantle. Did you know that Nowitzki has a higher career playoff scoring average (25.2 ppg) than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and Kevin Garnett? Nowitzki ranks 13th all-time and he also ranks 22nd all-time in career playoff rebounding average (11.1 rpg), ahead of Karl Malone, Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, David Robinson and Dennis Rodman, among others. There is no question that Nowitzki and Dallas did not perform well in this year's first round--but it is wrong to say that this nullifies what he did over an 82 game regular season or that this proves that he is a subpar playoff performer overall.

Yet, people are talking about changing the system and doing the voting after the playoffs. That is stupid--since 1969 there has been a Finals MVP to acknowledge postseason greatness. Also, it makes no sense for the NBA to award a single MVP after the Finals that encompasses the entire year--regular season and playoffs. That is a bad idea because what do you do if, for instance, Baron Davis leads Golden State to the championship? He was nowhere near the best player during the regular season and his team was mediocre for 82 games. Does it make sense to give him an award for all of 2006-07 when he only performed well for a few weeks? If Davis and the Warriors win the title then he will be a very deserving Finals MVP winner.

Voters could quit worrying about which is the best team and who is the best player on that team and simply give the award to the regular season's outstanding individual player. I've said all along that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league and I think that, ironically, there would be less backlash if he had won the 2006-07 MVP. He is widely acknowledged to be the league's best player but for some reason many people shy away from recognizing the best player if his team did not win a certain number of games--but the reality is that we have not had a regular season MVP whose team won the championship that year since Tim Duncan in 2002-03, so the award might as well go to the outstanding player from the regular season. That said, if the premise that most voters used was to select the best player from the best regular season team, Nowitzki certainly fits that bill in 2006-07 and it is not right to criticize him or the voters for that; Nowitzki had a great season and the voters cast their ballots based on that performance.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:26 PM

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Suns Fight Back, Even Series--But Will All Hands Be on Deck for Game Five?

Phoenix battled back from an 11 point fourth quarter deficit to beat San Antonio 104-98 and even their series at 2-2--but the lasting memory from this game may very well not be the epic on court duel between two excellent teams but rather a late game flagrant foul and the possible repercussions from what happened after that play. The Suns led 100-97 when Manu Ginobili missed a layup. Leandro Barbosa grabbed the rebound and passed the ball to Steve Nash. With less than 24 seconds left, the Spurs clearly had to foul but instead of doing the customary grab and hold, Spurs forward Robert Horry delivered a forearm shiver to Nash's chest, sending the Suns guard sprawling into the scorer's table. Nash lay motionless for a beat before jumping up to confront Horry, who was already squared off with Raja Bell. The referees ejected Horry for a flagrant two foul and you can rest assured that he will not be in uniform for Game Five. Bell received a technical foul--but perhaps the most significant action happened in the vicinity of the Suns' bench, where Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw took several steps on to the court before being restrained by Suns' officials. That is a strict no-no in the NBA; anyone who leaves the bench area when there is an altercation is subject to an automatic one game suspension. Would the NBA really do that in the middle of a hotly contested playoff series? Absolutely; in 1997, Patrick Ewing wandered a few steps away from the Knicks' bench during one of the many Knicks-Heat rumbles and the NBA suspended him for Game Six and the Knicks lost that game (and then lost the series in seven games).

On TNT's Inside the NBA, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and guest Shaquille O'Neal discussed the play and the possibility that Stoudemire and Diaw will be suspended. Barkley mentioned that he was once suspended for taking even fewer steps on to the court than Stoudemire did. He added that he didn't think that was right and that he hopes that Stoudemire won't be suspended. The funny thing is that Barkley repeated several times that he got suspended for doing even less, so if he really does not want Stoudemire to be suspended I'm not sure if his comments actually helped Stoudemire very much. Barkley thinks that the rule is a bad rule and that the NBA should make an exception in this case. Smith rightly said that if the NBA does not suspend Stoudemire then it will have to do away with this rule because it could never again suspend someone in a similar situation. Barkley said that it would not be fair for the Suns to perhaps lose two starters due to an incident that was instigated by the Spurs but O'Neal summed the whole thing up best with two quotes: "If you cross the line, you lose your behind" and "Life's not fair."

I think that the rule is a good one and I have no sympathy for anyone who gets suspended for violating it. The NBA wants to curb on court violence and fighting; those kind of situations are escalated when players come running in from each bench. There are five players from each team on the court, plus three referees. Coaches can also come on to the court to restore order. It is not necessary for anyone else to intervene. Everybody knows the rule and no one has to worry that he will be considered a wimp for not coming on to the court because the NBA has been consistent about suspending anyone who does that. Kenny Smith mentioned that Jalen Rose and several other Suns did not violate the rule; Barkley said that that was because they were role players who were not as emotionally involved in the game as players who actually had played. That might be, but since the NBA has instituted a regimen that includes flagrant fouls, suspensions for blows to the head and prevention of players leaving the bench during altercations there has been a reduction in fighting; maybe the NHL thinks that unregulated mayhem is good for business but since their games are on a network that no one can find and currently get ratings slightly above that of a test pattern no one much cares about the NHL's way of doing things. Horry should be out one game (or two) and Stoudemire, Diaw and anyone else from either team who left the bench area should be suspended for a game as well.

The saddest thing about all the late game histrionics is that they will ultimately overshadow a tremendous game that included an impressive comeback by the Suns. Phoenix jumped out to an early 18-10 lead but San Antonio, applying Coach Gregg Popovich's philosophy of not being in a hurry to win, chipped away and closed to within 24-22 by the end of the first quarter. By halftime the Spurs led 45-40 and everything seemed to be pointing toward a San Antonio win: the Suns shot just 43% from the field in the first half, including 1-7 from three point range as the Spurs continued to not let Phoenix get open looks from beyond the arc. The Spurs' lead fluctuated from between 5 and 11 during the third quarter and stood at 80-72 going into the final period. It seemed that while San Antonio could not completely put Phoenix away that the Suns also did not have quite enough to get over the hump. TNT's Steve Kerr mentioned that this game could prove to be a defining moment for the Suns, either getting them right back in the series or all but sealing their fate.

The Spurs pushed the lead to 83-72 early in the fourth quarter and were ahead 85-75 with 8:55 left when Tim Duncan got his fourth foul and went to the bench. Within a minute the score was 85-80 and Popovich was forced to put Duncan back in the game. A couple Michael Finley three pointers held the Suns at bay and then four Tony Parker free throws gave the Spurs a 95-88 lead at the 3:58 mark. The Suns scored twice to get within 95-92 but Duncan's putback with just 2:22 left made the score 97-92 Spurs. That turned out to be the Spurs' last field goal of the game. Meanwhile, the Suns scored on their next four possessions--including a Nash jumper and two field goals assisted by Nash--to take a 100-97 lead. Then came Ginobili's miss and Horry's fateful flagrant foul.

How unusual is it for the Spurs to lose after having an 11 point fourth quarter lead? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Spurs had been 55-2 during Duncan's playoff career in such games and had won 27 straight. That means the Suns either deserve a lot of credit for having the grit and skill to win after facing such a deficit or they were lucky to escape with a road win after being outplayed for most of the first 46 minutes or so. The reality is that both statements have some degree of truth to them; the Suns seized an opportunity but they also got some help from the Spurs.

Nash finished with 24 points on 8-12 shooting, adding 15 assists and eight turnovers. He had two turnovers during the stretch when the Spurs pushed the lead from 91-88 to 95-88 but made up for those miscues with some incredible passes in the game's last two minutes. Stoudemire had 26 points and nine rebounds. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 23 points and seven assists, adding six rebounds. He also had five turnovers; though there were not a ton of turnovers in this game, most of them were committed by the star players from both teams. Duncan had 21 points, 11 rebounds, three blocked shots and six turnovers. Manu Ginobili had an awful shooting performance--3-14--that was somewhat offset by Finley's 17 points.

There is no doubt that this frenetic finish will only reinforce some people's belief that if Nash had not been off of the court at the end of Game One due to the blood rule that the Suns would be leading 3-1 now. Likewise, if the NBA suspends Stoudemire and/or Diaw and then the Spurs go on to win the series there will always be a "what if?" factor attached to this showdown. The reality is that injuries, foul trouble and suspensions are all part of the game. The 1972-73 Boston Celtics went 68-14 and then lost in the Conference Finals when John Havlicek suffered a shoulder injury; they went on to win two of the next three championships. In other words, the cream rises to the top. The Spurs and Suns have each been contending teams for several years already. The Spurs have won three championships and the Suns have not won any. Although the particulars of this game are surprising--namely, the Spurs blowing an 11 point fourth quarter lead and a five point lead with 2:22 left--I am not shocked that the series stands at 2-2. Before the series, I wrote that the Spurs would win one of the first two games in Phoenix and eventually capture the series in six games and that is still what I expect will happen. After the series stood at 1-1, I wrote in one of the comments sections after a post that I thought that the Spurs would win both games in San Antonio but would not be shocked if Phoenix got a split. Someone accused me of hedging my bets but I explained that I expected the two games in San Antonio to be close enough that Phoenix could steal one. If Phoenix had won both then I certainly would have been very surprised.

As I have mentioned a few times during the playoffs, people overreact to whatever they have seen most recently. When one team wins it seems like they will never lose again. The reality is that most series do not end in sweeps and in matchups between good teams the loser will usually win a couple games. Let's not forget that the Suns have the reigning two-time MVP and that they are the only team in the league that has two All-NBA First Team players. They have the homecourt advantage and by all rights should be considered the favorite based on team record and overall talent, so it would be pretty pathetic if they would lose in four or five games. It is not easy to hold down the Suns' running game and to consistently deny good looks to their three point shooters; that is why Phoenix racks up a lot of wins against weaker teams during the regular season. The question is can they beat the Spurs four times out of seven and I still say that the answer is, "No." I think that the rest of this series will most likely resemble the first 46 minutes or so of Game Four.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:49 AM

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Moore is not Enough: Cavs Take 3-1 Lead Over Nets

Mikki Moore scored a career playoff-high 25 points on 11-14 shooting but he also delivered a flagrant foul that seemed to rouse a previously dormant Cleveland Cavaliers team and perhaps propelled them to an 87-85 victory over the New Jersey Nets. The Nets now must win three straight games--starting with Game Five in Cleveland on Wednesday--to avoid elimination from the Eastern Conference semifinals. LeBron James had 30 points, nine rebounds and seven assists for Cleveland. He shot an excellent 9-16 from the field but just 10-15 from the free throw line, including two misses in the last 3:32 that could have been costly; in the last 1:09, he shot 1-2 from the free throw line and missed both of his field goal attempts. The Nets let him off the hook by shooting 27-75 (.360)--take out Moore's numbers and that drops to an amazingly horrid 16-61 (.262), which would earn boos as a batting average. The bulk of the shots--and misses--came from the Nets' big three perimeter trio of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, who bricked their way to 2-13, 6-23 and 3-12 performances respectively. Kidd and Carter had strong floor games but nothing can make up for missing that many shots. Kidd had seven assists, just one turnover and a playoff career-high 17 rebounds, becoming just the fifth guard in the past 30 years to have at least 17 rebounds in a playoff game. Carter had nine rebounds and a playoff career-high nine assists.

The lead went back and forth for most of the first half. James scored ten straight Cleveland points from the end of the first quarter through the beginning of the second quarter but that was only good enough to give the Cavs a 27-24 lead after they trailed 20-19 at the end of the first quarter. New Jersey led 46-42 at halftime and Moore was the unlikely top scorer for the Nets with 14 points, while James had 16 for the Cavs. New Jersey was ahead 50-46 at the 8:48 mark of the third quarter when Moore committed a flagrant foul on Sasha Pavlovic as Pavlovic drove to the hoop. Pavlovic received a technical foul after he jumped up and went after Moore--standard NBA procedure in such instances, though nothing really happened between the two other than some talking. Jefferson made the technical free throw and Pavlovic split his pair of free throws. The Cavs retained possession because of the flagrant foul and Zydrunas Ilgauskas nailed a jumper to pull Cleveland to within 51-49. A little more than two minutes later, the Cavs were up 60-53. New Jersey rallied to tie the score at 69 after a Kidd three pointer and even took the lead briefly during the fourth quarter but they never were able to match the four point advantage that they held prior to the Moore-Pavlovic play. Obviously, that one play did not decide the outcome of the game since both teams had a chance to win at the end, but it was pretty obvious that the Cavs played with more fire and determination after the flagrant foul than they did before it.

Cleveland led 86-80 with 2:06 left in the fourth quarter but shot 0-3 from the field and 1-2 from the free throw line the rest of the way, leaving the door open for New Jersey to win the game. Carter made five out of six free throws but he also committed two turnovers, including the decisive one on the Nets' final possession. They had the ball with :10 left and ran an isolation play for Carter, who was guarded by Eric Snow. Carter tried to back him down from the free throw line extended but he lost the ball out of bounds as Snow held his ground and Larry Hughes flicked at the ball.

This was not a pretty win but it placed the Cavaliers on the brink of their first Conference Finals appearance since 1992.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 AM

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Steve Kerr: "I Just Got by With What I Had"

Most of Steve Kerr’s opponents were quicker and stronger than he was, but Kerr carved out a 15-year NBA career based on intelligence, determination and the ability to consistently make outside shots.

Kerr played on five championship teams--three in Chicago, two in San Antonio--but before that he spent some time with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he went up against Mark Price in practice every day. As I noted in my article about Brad Daugherty (Brad Daugherty: From the Court to the Race Track), Johnny Bach, one of Phil Jackson’s assistant coaches during the Chicago Bulls’ first threepeat, says that Cleveland’s pick and roll combination of Price and Daugherty was "the best in the business because of Price." Kerr adds, "Mark really revolutionized the way that people attack the screen-and-roll. To me, he was the first guy in the NBA who really split the screen-and-roll. A lot of teams started blitzing the pick-and-roll and jumping two guys at it to take the ball out of the hands of the point guard. He’d duck right between them and shoot that little runner in the lane. Nobody was doing that at that time. You watch an NBA game now and almost everybody does that. Mark was a pioneer in that regard. He gave people fits with that little split. I think that during his era he was one of the top few point guards in the NBA and if you look at the history of the league you have to include him among the upper echelon of all the point guards who have ever played."

Here is a link to my profile of Steve Kerr:

"I Just Got by With What I Had"

4/6/10 Note: Contrary to what it says in the HoopsHype article, the Suns chose Kerr with the 25th pick in the second round of the 1988 draft (the 50th selection overall)

posted by David Friedman @ 3:30 PM

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Recipe for Utah Victory: Fish and Booze

Carlos Boozer scored 34 points and grabbed 12 rebounds and Derek Fisher scored 21 points--including 14 in the fourth quarter--as the Utah Jazz beat the Golden State Warriors 115-101 to take a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference semifinal series. Deron Williams avoided foul trouble and played a solid game: 20 points, 13 assists, six rebounds, though he did have seven turnovers and shoot just 6-18 from the field. The Warriors may be running on fumes now, worn out by their high octane style and short rotation of players. Baron Davis, Golden State's heart and soul, had just 15 points, seven assists, one rebound and four steals, shooting 6-16 from the floor and 2-8 from three point range. An interesting subplot developed late in the game when Davis clocked Fisher in the head with an elbow. Fisher crumpled to the court but was eventually able to resume play and did not seem to suffer any ill effects. No foul was called but earlier in the year the NBA suspended Kobe Bryant for delivering blows to the head that looked a lot less deliberate than what Davis did to Fisher. Another chippy play happened when Jason Richardson took down Mehmet Okur when Okur drove to the hoop late in the game; Richardson received a flagrant foul and it will be interesting to see if the NBA follows up with a fine and/or suspension. Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington led the Warriors with 24 points each. As Golden State Coach Don Nelson said frankly after the game, none of his players had an exceptional performance; Harrington started at power forward but only had three rebounds, while Jackson only shot 5-15 from the field.

The Warriors got off to a good start, leading 12-7 within the first four minutes, but never showed the same bounce--or three point shooting accuracy--that they had in Game Three. The teams traded runs for most of the first half, with Utah leading 50-49 at halftime. The Warriors led 78-75 after three quarters but the Jazz blew them out 40-23 in the fourth quarter. The conventional wisdom is that the way to beat Golden State is to slow the game down but I have consistently disagreed with that during the playoffs; the Warriors are going to run whenever they get the ball, so their opponent will have to score points to beat them. If you slow the game down when you are on offense, you let the Warriors set up their gimmicky defenses and use their athleticism to get in the passing lanes. Golden State's transition defense is not great and their shot selection is worse than that of most teams in the league, so there is no reason to be afraid to run with them--just run to get layups or uncontested jumpers by your good outside shooters. Every game that the Warriors have lost in this year's playoffs their opponent has scored at least 112 points.

Since Friday, we saw a ton of replays of Baron Davis' sensational dunk over Andrei Kirilenko but, as I wrote after Game Three, "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." Each of my predictions in that post came true in Game Four: the Jazz dominated points in the paint (50-32), Boozer's field goal attempts went up (from 10 to 19), Golden State cooled off from the three point line (15-32, .469, in Game Three; 12-39, .308, in Game Four), the Jazz reduced their turnovers (from 25 to 21) and Utah again controlled the glass (52-36 rebounding edge). Blowouts are dramatic and highlight reel dunks are fun to watch but they don't necessarily tell you anything about what will happen in the next game. The Warriors have a lot of heart and will not likely go down easy in Game Five but if the Jazz continue to control the boards and limit their turnovers then they will probably close out the series at home.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:10 AM

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Put Away the Brooms, Detroit

This time, the Chicago Bulls decided to play for the full 48 minutes--or pretty close to it. Now the question is whether the Bulls can sustain this level of effort, concentration and execution on the road. In any case, their 102-87 Game Four win over the Detroit Pistons prevented an embarrassing sweep and keeps alive hope, however faint, of an improbable comeback. Luol Deng had his best game of the series (25 points, 10-15 shooting, 13 rebounds), while guards Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon contributed 19 points each. Hinrich also had a game-high 10 assists. Ben Wallace, who has been the most consistent Bull in this series, also had his best game with 11 points, a game-high 17 rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and two steals; in contrast, Chris Webber, Detroit's starting center, had 0 points for the second consecutive game. Also, ABC's Hubie Brown narrated a nice highlight clip that demonstrated that even when he is not scoring that Wallace can contribute on offense, contrary to popular belief: in addition to his offensive rebounding, Wallace is a good passer.

Chauncey Billups led Detroit with 23 points and eight assists but did not have a good shooting night (5-14); many of his points came on fourth quarter free throws after the Bulls committed some bad fouls and got into the penalty very early. Of course, those points count just the same as points from field goals but it is interesting to note that the Bulls played pretty good defense when they avoided lazy fouls: Detroit shot just 31-83 (.373). The only Piston who really played well was Tayshaun Prince, who shot 8-16 and had 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals.

Chicago Coach Scott Skiles really cut down his rotation in this game, using only eight players and playing three of his starters for more than 40 minutes, including 48 for Deng and 46 for Hinrich. Rookie Tyrus Thomas brought some nice energy off of the bench with 10 points and seven rebounds in 14 minutes. He took some bad shots but he has too much talent and too much length to just sit on the pine.

The Bulls got off to a good start, just like in Game Three, but this time they did not cave in down the stretch. Deng and Hinrich each scored eight points as Chicago led 27-19 after the first quarter. There has been a lot of talk about Detroit's zone defense during this series but, as Brown noted repeatedly, any time that the Bulls were patient and made a couple passes they were able to get into the paint and obtain quality shot attempts. Also, once the Bulls got the defense moving with crisp passing they were often able to get favorable one on one matchups; most of the Bulls are able to get past Piston defenders in a one on one situation after the second dribble, as Brown mentioned. Brown added that teams generally play zone either to hide a weak defender or to change the tempo of the game.

The Bulls' biggest enemy against the Pistons has not been the zone but rather their own impatience and sloppy ball handling. I noticed this even during Detroit's blowout win in Game One. The "hidden" advantage that any decent NBA defense has is the 24 second shot clock. If you can disrupt the other team even slightly, whether through backcourt pressure, a deflection or a zone look that causes some tentativeness then the clock really works to your advantage. I have yet to see Detroit stop Chicago consistently when the Bulls space the floor correctly and attack with precision. This series has been more about willpower, concentration and execution under pressure then it has been about any supposed innovation by Detroit. That is why Skiles scoffed a few days ago when someone suggested that Detroit's zone has stymied the Bulls; Skiles said, correctly, that the Bulls have missed a lot of open shots and committed too many unforced turnovers.

The Bulls also turned the tables on the Pistons by showing a zone look of their own. There is an old coaching axiom that you should always press against a pressing team; pressing teams don't like to be pressed. Perhaps the Bulls figured that a team that often uses a zone would not like to face a zone. With Wallace, Thomas and Deng in the paint, the Bulls actually can play a pretty effective zone, shutting off the paint, forcing jump shots and then getting rebounds.

Obviously, you don't want to get carried away about one win when the Bulls will most likely go to Detroit and lose Game Five. The point is that the Bulls have largely dug this hole for themselves with their own ineptitude; it may be too late for them to do anything about it now but other teams can look at video, see the holes in Detroit's zone and make the appropriate adjustments. This Detroit team is a very solid squad that has a lot of talented players but it is hardly unbeatable and it is not as good as the 2004 championship team, though it may be the best team that Detroit has had since then.

Chicago led 50-43 at halftime but could hardly feel secure about that after blowing a 19 point second half lead in the previous game. Indeed, the Bulls went up by as much as 23 this time and still had to sweat things out down the stretch. They still led 77-56 at the end of the third quarter but the Pistons started the fourth quarter with seven straight points and eventually got as close to 87-80. What changed? Detroit made some shots at the start of the quarter but got a lot of points at the free throw line after the Bulls committed a lot of senseless fouls. The Bulls started kicking the ball all over the place and stopped running the basic zone offense that had been so effective for three quarters. Also, it was pretty clear that several players got a little tight as the margin got smaller. Gordon made a big three pointer at the 3:20 mark, the Bulls' first points in nearly two minutes, to make the score 90-80.

Detroit Coach Flip Saunders made an interesting--and by interesting, I mean suspect--decision after Billups' three pointer made the score 90-83 with 2:46 left. The Bulls had made just two shots in the previous two and a half minutes but he decided to employ the "Hack A Ben," intentionally fouling Ben Wallace. Supposedly, this strategy is "playing the percentages" but I think that somebody needs to recalculate the math on this one. If an NBA team scores on 50% of its possessions it is doing well; that works out to a point per possession (or slightly more once you add in the occasional three pointer or three point play). So as long as Wallace makes at least one out of two free throws, the "Hack A Ben" strategy is not likely to produce any advantage. From a non-mathematical standpoint, this strategy takes away any chance of forcing a turnover or missed shot, takes your own team out of its natural offensive rhythm and allows the Bulls to set up a half court defense as opposed to possibly having to stop a transition score. Also, the hacked player often seems to concentrate more because he resents being singled out. Sure enough, Wallace made three out of four free throws and the Pistons failed to score on either of the following possessions. What kind of message is Saunders sending to his team if he doesn't think that they can come back from seven down with 2:46 left without resorting to gimmicks? That is just a three possession game. Even if the Bulls used up the whole shot clock, the Pistons would have gotten the ball back with 2:22 left. Score quickly and it is a two possession game. One more stop and one more score and it is a one possession game with more than one minute left. This is the kind of decision that may not make a difference in this series but could matter in a closer series. It is interesting that one of the bones of contention between Ben Wallace and Saunders last year was that Wallace felt like the Pistons were getting away from their identity as a strong man to man defensive team. Now the Pistons play zone and resort to the "Hack a Ben."

In case you didn't know it, ABC mentioned approximately two million times that no team has come back from a 3-0 deficit and only a select few have come back from the 3-1 deficit that the Bulls currently face. I don't expect Chicago to accomplish this but a couple things are worth noting: (1) Detroit went from up 2-0 to down 3-2 versus Cleveland last year and came very close to losing Game Six; (2) Detroit has yet to have an answer for when the Bulls play with poise and precision--the Pistons' main trump has been that the Bulls seem unable to sustain that level of execution. Right now, the Bulls don't have to win three games; all they have to do is win one game in Detroit, something they did during the regular season, and then they can feed off of their crowd in Game Six. Detroit has a talented team and the Pistons are a pretty cocky group; they act like they are champions even though they have not won the title since '04 and have been leaving the playoffs earlier and earlier since then. Game Five could be interesting--if the Bulls are not satisfied with merely avoiding being swept.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:46 PM

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Duncan Dominates, Nash--Not So Much

The story of the San Antonio-Phoenix series will ultimately boil down to two things: (1) the Spurs have the best player on either team, Tim Duncan; (2) the Spurs can win at the Suns' preferred uptempo pace but the Suns cannot win at a slowdown game. Duncan had 33 points, 19 rebounds and three blocked shots as the Spurs defeated the Suns, 108-101, to take a 2-1 lead. Those kind of numbers are nothing new for Duncan in the playoffs; in fact, Duncan moved into fifth place on the career postseason list for 30 point, 15 rebound games: this was his 15th, one more than Hakeem Olajuwon had; the only players who had more such games are Wilt Chamberlain (39), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33), Elgin Baylor (31), Bob Pettit (24) and Shaquille O'Neal (22).

Manu Ginobili added 24 points, including 12 in the third quarter; Ginobili did most of that damage while Duncan rested and after Ginobili was accidentally poked in the eye by Shawn Marion. No foul was called on the play but, instead of whining about the non-call, Ginobili focused his anger into raising his level of play. As ESPN's Greg Anthony pointed out after the game, when someone else can carry the load with the superstar on the bench it means that the superstar will be able to have a lot of energy to finish the game. Anthony could have added that this was something that Scottie Pippen provided for Michael Jordan--and something that Kobe Bryant desperately needs now. Marion led Phoenix with 26 points, while Amare Stoudemire had 21 points in 21 foul-plagued minutes; he was his own worst enemy, committing some obvious infractions at moments when he had to know that one more foul would send him to the bench--better to give up one basket and keep playing for several more minutes than to try to make a sensational, difficult block. Steve Nash had 16 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds but he committed five turnovers and shot just 6-17 from the field. The amazing thing about this game is how small of an impact the two-time MVP had on the outcome. In fact, the Suns actually played better when he was not in the game. Nash sat down with 2:13 left in the first quarter and Phoenix leading 24-19. The Suns were up 39-29 early in the second quarter and still led 39-33 when he returned at the 8:12 mark. He played the rest of the quarter and the Spurs outscored the Suns 22-14 to take a 55-53 halftime lead. Nash had five assists in the first half but shot 0-4 from the field. Let's imagine that Dirk Nowitzki or Kobe Bryant shot 0-4 from the field in a half of a playoff game. Would either of their teams still be within two points? Would that be written off as something that just happens or would it be considered an indictment of their heart/character? Anyone who is honest knows that if Nowitzki shot 0-4 in a half of a playoff game he would be called a "choker" and if Bryant did so he would be called a "quitter" who is supposedly trying to show up his teammates.

Nash's struggles continued in the third quarter, as he turned the ball over on the Suns' first possession. Later, he scored his first point of the game by splitting a pair of free throws but he missed his first five field goal attempts of the quarter before making a jumper at the 5:00 mark, pulling the Suns within 66-62. During the telecast, Jon Barry mentioned a couple times that Raja Bell shot 4-4 from three point range during the first half but did not get many attempts in the second half. Of course, anyone watching the game could see that. One would hope that an analyst would explain why that happened. Was Nash shooting too much? Was Bell not working hard enough to get open? Did the Spurs' defensive coverage of the three point line improve in the second half? One thing that I know for sure: if Bryant had a teammate who shot 4-4 from three point range in the first half (sheer fantasy, but work with me here) and that player did not get the ball in the third quarter while Bryant was bricking away at a 1-10 clip then we would hear a lot about how Bryant shoots too much and does not get his teammates involved. That criticism is not true of Bryant and does not apply to Nash either; the question is why are these two players looked at so differently when they are doing very similar things. After the game, Nash said, "I am always going to try to be aggressive and I try to take what the defense gives me. If I'm there to shoot I have to keep on shooting and if I am drawing attention and can pass to a teammate then that is the play I try to make." Bryant has repeatedly said almost exactly the same thing, but it seems like many people don't take him at his word even though it is obvious that he does in fact also play that way. Bryant and Nash are both great players who read the defense and try to take what is there. Nash is a point guard, so his role involves more passing, while Bryant is a shooting guard whose primary role involves scoring--but Nash can certainly score and Bryant is usually his team's top playmaker.

Somehow, in the past three years Nash has gone from an underrated point guard to someone whose reputation has been pushed to a place that his performance cannot in fact match, particularly against elite teams in playoff competition. Bryant is a three-time champion who can make even a poor team competitive; Duncan is a three-time champion; Nowitzki, who has somehow become a "villain" even though he had nothing to do with guarding Baron Davis, has had a great playoff career and already taken a team to the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, Nash is paired with a talented cast that he has yet to elevate to a championship level: he and Amare Stoudemire are the first teammates to make the All-NBA First Team since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant--a duo that of course won three titles together; Nash also has another All-Star running mate in Shawn Marion, plus Sixth Man of the Year Leandro Barbosa, All-Defensive Team selection Raja Bell and several talented role players. Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni has stated that the Suns have more talent than the Spurs but that the Spurs play together better. Obviously, he did not mean that as a swipe at his MVP point guard but think about this objectively for a moment: We are supposed to believe that Nash has "made" all of these players great and then at the same time we are supposed to accept the idea that after winning two MVPs by "making" these players great that this MVP and his great teammates cannot make it to the NBA Finals even once. Sooner or later, people will have to figure out that all of this does not add up.

Nash did score 10 fourth quarter points but the Suns never got closer than six points and spent most of the period working uphill against a double digit deficit--a deficit built in large part while Nash was missing shots and committing turnovers. Meanwhile, while Duncan has been a nightmare for the Suns to cover, the Suns have had to take Nash off of opposing point guard Tony Parker because Parker abuses him so badly. In Game Three, Nash was assigned to Bruce Bowen, who is not a threat to post up or drive. Still, Bowen delivered 10 points, nine rebounds, four steals and one blocked shot, which is a lot of tangible production for a guy whose primary role is to play positional defense (Bowen does not usually get a lot of steals or blocks). The reality is that there there is no place to hide Nash defensively in this series.

Why am I seemingly writing off the Suns when the Spurs are only up 2-1 while in other series I caution against reading too much into one game? Simple. I am not basing my assessment of Nash and the Suns on one game; that is the fallacy that others use when talking about Bryant (and now Nowitzki) but I am not doing that at all. The fact is that the Suns have a poor record against the Spurs for the past several years; they can compete with the Spurs, at times, but when push comes to shove they lose--and we have seen nothing in the first three games of this series that suggests that anything different is going to happen now. The Suns will play well and will probably win one more game--and then they will go home and the Spurs will advance to the Western Conference finals.

After that happens, I will be left with the same unanswered question that I have had for some time: how can Nash be a two-time MVP if his primary qualification for the award revolves around winning and his team has not won anything? I've heard some people who voted for Nowitzki to be this year's MVP say that they wish that they could have their vote back based on what happened to the Mavericks in the first round. At least the Mavericks lost to a team that is peaking. What exactly have Nash and the Suns accomplished so far in the playoffs? They beat a Lakers team that had one of the worst records down the stretch of any team in the NBA--and they could not even sweep that dysfunctional team because Bryant, the best player in the NBA, willed the Lakers to a victory with a 45 point outburst. Then, in Game One versus the Spurs the Suns squandered homecourt advantage and in Game Three Nash had a very subpar performance.

I am amused by all this talk now that the MVP voting should be done after the playoffs. This is supposed to be a dig at Nowitzki but wouldn't Nash have to give back both of his MVPs, too? The regular season MVP should go to that season's outstanding individual player, whether he carried a great team to 60-plus wins or a poor team to 40-plus wins. If the voters go back to honoring individual excellence then they won't have to wait with bated breath for "their guy" to not lose early in the playoffs. There is a Finals MVP to honor the player who leads his team to a championship.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM

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Triple Double Trouble: Kidd Carries Nets to Game Three Win

Jason Kidd notched his 11th career playoff triple double (23 points, 14 assists, 13 rebounds), helping the Nets to a 96-85 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Kidd moved past Larry Bird and now trails only Magic Johnson (30) for most career playoff triple doubles. The Nets' biggest problem during the first two games in Cleveland was a huge rebounding deficit but New Jersey won the battle of the boards 43-30 this time, with their "big three" perimeter trio of Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson nearly matching the Cavs' rebounding by themselves. Carter and Jefferson scored 23 points each, though neither of them could match Kidd's shooting (8-12 from the field, 5-6 on three pointers) or his fantastic floor game; Carter shot 8-19 and had six rebounds and four assists, while Jefferson shot 8-17 and contributed eight rebounds and three assists. Larry Hughes led Cleveland with 23 points (yes, four players scored 23 points in this game) but number 23, LeBron James, had perhaps the worst playoff game of his young career, scoring less than 20 points for the first time in his 20 postseason games. More significant than his point total was his 5-16 shooting, including 1-5 from three point range; James did have 12 assists and six rebounds but he was not able to put his stamp on this game even though the Cavaliers got as close as four points during the fourth quarter.

New Jersey set the tone right from the start, opening the game with a 15-4 run. By now, it should be pretty clear to everyone that no matter what happens in the first two games of a series things can change when the series shifts venues; role players perform much better at home and sometimes even stars do as well (contrast the numbers that James and Carter put up in Cleveland versus their Game Three statistics). That does not necessarily mean that "momentum"--a favorite buzz word among broadcasters--has truly been gained or lost. Playoff series between good teams are usually not going to end in sweeps, so the eventual loser is likely going to obtain a win or two and may even have a blowout victory if things break just right.

Cleveland withstood the initial onslaught very well and even took the lead, 38-37, in the second quarter. The Nets were back on top, 45-43, by halftime. Kidd, Carter and Jefferson scored the first three baskets of the second half and then Mikki Moore added a layup as the Nets pushed their advantage to 53-43. Hughes briefly stemmed the tide with back to back jumpers but then Kidd, Carter and Jefferson combined to score the Nets' next 17 points as New Jersey maintained a double digit lead (70-55). Cleveland ended the third quarter with a 9-3 run and the Cavs trailed 73-64 going into the fourth quarter. The Nets endured some nervous moments when Carter missed the latter part of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter due to a left hand injury that he suffered in a loose ball scramble; they were only up 77-70 when he returned to action, but Carter soon nailed a jumper and then scored on a fast break dunk that was set up by Kidd's defensive rebound and brilliant length of the court pass. That dunk put New Jersey ahead 83-73 and Cleveland never got closer than 10 points the rest of the way.

The Nets are a veteran team that may very well be able to tie this series at 2-2 by capturing another home win but in order to advance they are going to have to figure out a way to perform better on the road, where they only have one playoff victory this year. Expect James to bounce back with 30-plus points in Game Four; if the Nets get complacent after this home win it could be their last victory of the year.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM

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