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

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Why Blogging is Booming and Newspapers Are Scrambling to Catch Up

One of the things that gives blogging a chance to surpass the newspaper as a medium to convey information and opinion is the interactive nature of a blog. When Thomas Friedman writes something in the New York Times, most of his readers have no opportunity to interact directly with him to agree with, challenge, clarify or amplify his message--but when David Friedman writes something in 20 Second Timeout, anybody and everybody can comment, knowing full well that I will read and respond in a timely fashion. Don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that basketball is more important than foreign policy or that there are not some blogs that are poorly written (with comments sections to match); all I'm saying is that the older, traditional forms of media maintain a distance between the person or persons who dispense information and those who are receiving it. The numerous recent plagiarism scandals and the frequent correction notices that can be found in newspapers bely any pretense that this distance automatically results in a product that is objective and accurate. Dr. Emanuel Lasker, the great World Chess Champion, once said, "On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in the checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite." The blogosphere at its best has a similar purifying effect to that of checkmate: "merciless fact" wins out over supposition. That is why so many of the recent foibles in mainstream media--from Dan Rather's missteps to Reuters' doctoring of photographs and so forth--have been first exposed by bloggers, without whom the general public would have been none the wiser.

What does this have to do with basketball? Simple: some very interesting discussions take place in the comments section of this website. Based on the fact that many different readers post comments I know that at least a certain portion of the readership follows these discussions but I have no way of ascertaining how many "lurkers" read this material without saying anything. I very much appreciate that I have readers who closely follow what is written here and frequently comment about it, sometimes very soon after I make a post. I don't agree with everything that is said but I value everyone's input and always look forward to the opportunity to interact with my readers.

For those of you who may not follow what goes on in the comments sections, I'd like to share the details of a recent (and still ongoing) exchange. Someone, who to this point has chosen to remain anonymous, has posted several comments that contain harsh criticism of Kobe Bryant, parroting the assertions that he is a ballhog and that several other players could have played alongside Shaquille O'Neal and won three titles. The latter statement falls purely in the realm of the hypothetical and cannot be definitively proven or disproven but the weight of the evidence is heavily against it: Bryant has been a fixture on the All-NBA Team, generally as a member of the First Team, since he became a starter in his third pro season. He has also been a fixture on the All-Defensive Team and led each of the Lakers' championship teams in assists. Looking at the NBA during the time period in question, no one else could have filled all of those roles the way that Bryant did.

"Anonymous" then made a more specific assertion, namely that Bryant owns six of the 13 worst shooting percentages all-time for 50 point games. I'd never heard that one before and did not even know how to confirm or deny that, so I asked "Anonymous" what his source was. He told me to go to this page at Basketball-Reference.com. I'd visited there before but had never done the exact box score search that "Anonymous" did. The first thing I noticed was that the box score search function only includes games from 1987-present, so no "all-time" rankings could be made based on this kind of research. There have indeed been 13 50 point games since 1986-87 in which the player shot worse than .500 from the field and six of them were by Bryant. According to "Anonymous," this proves that Bryant is nothing but a gunner. However, I took a closer look at the numbers and here is how I described (in the comments section) what I found: "Kobe's team went 3-3, with two of the losses on the road (even good teams struggle to win half of their road games). The worst of Kobe's shooting percentages is .415 but that includes 7-15 shooting from three point range. He ended up with 50 points on 41 field goal attempts, well more than a point per shot, and had eight rebounds and eight assists in a 112-109 win. A similar story can be told for most of the other six games; in every single one Kobe has significantly more points than field goal attempts because of three point shots and drawing fouls for free throws. Any coach would love to have a player who can score 50 points at a better than a point per field goal attempt clip."

Field goal percentage is not the best tool to evaluate overall shooting efficiency, particularly for players who shoot a lot of three pointers and/or attempt a lot of free throws. A much more precise measure is "adjusted field goal percentage," which is calculated, as I explained in another comment, "by subtracting free throws made from points scored, dividing that number by field goals attempted and then dividing again by two. Apply that formula to Kobe's 'worst' 50 point game in the boxscore search and it works out to .500! In other words, in Kobe's "worst" 50 point game he shot the equivalent of 25-50 from the field with no threes or free throws. Of course, he made a lot of threes and free throws in the actual game, which mitigated the effect of his missed shots." I also pointed out that in the game in question Bryant had eight rebounds and eight assists. "Anonymous" stated that Bryant is just a gunner, that he puts up meager statistics in other categories in his high scoring games and that his high scoring games come against weak teams that the Lakers would have beaten anyway. The idea that the Lakers would have won these games anyway clearly makes no sense and in a previous post that looked at Bryant's statistics in his first 16 40 point games of 2006-07 (he later had two more such games with very gaudy shooting numbers, 17-33 and 18-25) I showed that during those games Bryant averaged 7.0 rpg and 4.7 apg while shooting .514 from the field, .500 from three point range and .853 from the free throw line. That works out to a .575 adjusted field goal percentage, which is very good. Bryant averaged 48.9 ppg in those games, during which the Lakers went 12-4; they went 1-1 in his two subsequent 40 point games (which were actually 50 points apiece), so Bryant spent more than a fifth of the season scoring nearly 50 ppg while shooting a tremendous percentage, contributing rebounds and assists and leading the Lakers to a 13-5 mark. I challenged "Anonymous" to find another player, other than Wilt Chamberlain, who had 16 (I should have said 18) such games in one season. In the face of such numbers it is silly to talk about the records of the various opponents: all NBA teams have good players and no one else can come close to doing what Bryant did against NBA opposition. Of course, those games do not even include his "greatest hits" from previous seasons, including his 81 point game, his 62 points in three quarters versus Dallas (outscoring by one point over a 36 minute span an eventual NBA Finalist) or his 56 points in three quarters versus Memphis on January 14, 2002.

This whole interesting discussion came in response to my post Making Your Teammates Better. Two things that I find very interesting about the way today's NBA is viewed are (1) that Steve Nash is basically immune from any criticism despite being a two-time MVP who has never made it to the NBA Finals and (2) that some people respond with a visceral negativity to the idea that Bryant is not just a scorer but in fact the best and most complete player in the game. Regarding point one, think about this: Nash finished his season by shooting 1-8 in the fourth quarter of a very winnable Game Five and then almost completely disappearing (three points) in the first half of Game Six as his Suns lost to the Spurs. Have you seen or heard anything about those stats, other than at this website? Meanwhile, LeBron James' decision to pass the ball at the end of Game One versus a heavily favored Detroit team supposedly is a referendum on whether he will ever be a truly great player. This is James' first appearance at the Conference Finals level, while Nash is a two-time MVP whose team enjoyed homecourt advantage against the Spurs (at least until they lost it in Game One). Regarding point two, the "Making Your Teammates Better" post focused on what great players do, specifically, to make their teams better and I used the consensus top five players in the NBA this year--Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James--as examples. One would think that this would be non-controversial, but the mere suggestion that Bryant--a three-time champion like Duncan--should be considered a team player apparently greatly irritates some people.

I don't "love" Kobe Bryant or "hate" Steve Nash. I think that they are both excellent players. What I "hate" is that most of the "experts" who analyze basketball do not apply the same standards across the board when they evaluate players. I try to make player evaluations the way that a scout would. As I put it during my exchange with "Anonymous," "Kobe has no weaknesses:

1) Finishes at the hoop with either hand
2) Dribbles well with either hand
3) Has excellent post moves and footwork
4) Draws fouls and shoots FTs very well
5) Has three point range
6) Can get off a good shot attempt even against good defense
7) Rebounds well for his position
8) Reads double-teams well and makes the correct passes, which don't always lead to assists for two reasons: the second pass out of the trap often leads to the assist and it is not possible for anyone to get an assist if the shot is not made
9) Excellent defender, as acknowledged by the league's head coaches in All-Defensive Team voting
10) Tremendous inner drive and will to win

There is no other player in the NBA about which all of the above can truthfully be said."

Players should be evaluated on their skill level and how they apply those skills during games--and that has nothing to do with the cliched concepts of "loving" one player and "hating" another player.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:40 AM

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Thoughts on Greg Oden, Kevin Durant and the Draft Lottery

When Mike Lupica thinks that a prominent coach or general manager is not living up to expectations he often says that it is time for the guru to start "guruing." I have never considered myself a draft guru and I generally prefer to wait to analyze a player's game in depth until I get a chance to see him play against the best competition--NBA players. This year's draft certainly appears to be very deep and the two headliners may very well turn out to be franchise players, so I will offer a few thoughts on Greg Oden, Kevin Durant and the results of the recent NBA Draft Lottery, which caused much consternation in Boston and Memphis and much joy in Portland and Seattle.

Most people who discuss whether Oden or Durant should be the number one pick seem to focus on the best case scenarios regarding each player. Those scenarios are pretty easy to envision: for Oden, that would mean following a development curve like Patrick Ewing--a defensive specialist in college whose offensive game blossomed in the NBA. Ewing became a stalwart presence for the Knicks for many years, though his prime chances to win a championship were frustrated by Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls; for Durant, that would mean following a development curve like Tracy McGrady--a lanky scoring machine whose body and all around game matured once he reached the NBA. I think that in addition to looking at the best case scenario for each player that we should also consider the worst case scenario. Assuming that neither player's career is derailed by injury a la Sam Bowie, what is the worst case scenario for their development curves? If Oden never develops an offensive game past his current repertoire of hook shots and dunks he still can become the 21st Century version of Dikembe Mutombo, a rebounding and defensive force who can help a team win playoff series if he has enough offensive support. Mutombo played a big role in one of the three instances of an eighth seed beating a number one seed (Denver over Seattle, 1994) and was the center on Philadelphia's 2001 Eastern Conference Championship team. If Durant does not reach McGrady's level as a scorer he is still likely to average 20+ ppg for many years to come.

Looking at these two worst case scenarios, I think that the conventional wisdom that Greg Oden should be the first pick makes sense. If he becomes a Patrick Ewing-type center then he could very well lead a team to a title as the main guy--but even if he "only" becomes a Dikembe Mutombo-type center who annually challenges for the Defensive Player of the Year Award then he would still be worth the number one overall pick. On the other hand, even if Durant becomes a 30 ppg scorer there is no guarantee that he will be able to carry a team very far in the playoffs--look at Carmelo Anthony or Gilbert Arenas or McGrady for proof of that. If Durant "merely" becomes a 20-25 ppg scorer then he will certainly have value but he will not be providing something as valuable--or rare--as a seven footer who can control the paint. Durant was a good rebounder as a freshman but with his slender physique I wonder what kind of rebounder he will be in the NBA. Also, he is not much of a defensive player right now, so there is a chance that at the NBA level his game will be somewhat one dimensional. Does Durant have an inner motor like a Michael Jordan or a Kobe Bryant? Will he build up his body and his game to the point that he has no weaknesses? Maybe general managers can find the answer to that question by seeing him in private workouts and talking to him one on one. Based on what I've seen--and the best and worst case scenarios for both players--I definitely would take Oden with the first overall pick.

Some people have said that Portland and Seattle obtaining the first two picks--and, presumably, the services of Oden and Durant--is bad for the NBA because their games will be televised late at night on the East Coast. Supposedly, it would be better for the players and the league if Oden and Durant landed in the Eastern Conference. If that is really the case, then why don't we simply disband the Western Conference teams other than the most successful and popular ones? If the NBA is not going to do that then no one should begrudge any of those teams the opportunity to try to build a contending squad. I think that the idea that these players will not be seen in the East is a crock. If the NBA can find great players all over the world and bring them to this country then the television networks can certainly figure out how to show their games at times that most people can watch. This wasn't a problem for the Showtime Lakers or the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, so why should it be a problem now? I don't know if Boston and/or Memphis "tanked" to try to get the top picks but if they did then the result was certainly poetic justice.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:26 AM

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again: Detroit Beats Cleveland, 79-76

Stop me if you've heard this story before: Cleveland takes a halftime lead, falls behind in the second half and has a chance to beat Detroit on the last possession. Yes, the Game One script played out again in Game Two and the result was exactly the same, a 79-76 Detroit win. Rasheed Wallace led Detroit with 16 points and 11 rebounds. He scored the game-winning turn around jump shot with :24 left and had 10 of Detroit's 19 fourth quarter points. Jason Maxiell added 15 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots in just 22 minutes off of the bench, while Chauncey Billups again had a subpar game (13 points, six assists, five turnovers). LeBron James led the Cavaliers with 19 points and seven assists, adding six rebounds and three steals but he also had six turnovers, shot just 7-19 from the field and only scored five second half points. He received very little help from his teammates; Anderson Varejao had 14 points and a game-high 14 rebounds and Sasha Pavlovic also had 14 points but starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes combined for 11 points on 5-19 shooting, which is unacceptably low production considering that Detroit's entire defense is focused on stopping James. One adjustment that Cleveland made was to utilize three point shooters Donyell Marshall, Daniel Gibson and Damon Jones to spread the floor and punish Detroit for swarming James; that trio combined to shoot 6-14 from three point range in Game Two.

The Cavaliers actually played an even better first half in Game Two than they did in Game One. James was very aggressive, taking the ball to the hoop and dunking with authority; he had nine first quarter points but Detroit led 20-16 at the end of the period on the strength of Maxiell's seven points and four rebounds. Wallace got into early foul trouble but the Pistons hardly missed a beat thanks to the athletic and energetic Maxiell. In the second quarter the Cavaliers countered with their own energy guy, Varejao, who scored 10 of Cleveland's 34 points as the Cavaliers raced to an impressive 50-38 halftime lead.

Once again, Detroit made a big third quarter push, briefly taking the lead and outscoring Cleveland 22-13 to trail just 63-60 going into the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter resembled trench warfare as the teams traded missed shots and turnovers and the scoreboard hardly budged. Cleveland led 69-65 before Wallace went on a personal 7-0 run, hitting a jump shot, draining a three pointer and then stealing the ball from Hughes and going coast to coast for a layup. A Richard Hamilton jumper extended Detroit's lead to 74-69 but Cleveland answered with jumpers by Pavlovic and Varejao and a Pavlovic steal that he took coast to coast to give the Cavaliers a 75-74 lead with 2:31 left. Wallace and James each split a pair of free throws to make the score 76-75 Cleveland at the 1:11 mark. That score should sound familiar because Cleveland had the exact same advantage with just over two minutes left in Game One but the Cavaliers shot 0-5 from the field to close out the game--and they shot 0-5 to close out Game Two also. The Pistons were not exactly scorching the nets, either, but Wallace's big jumper (after he either pushed Varejao or Varejao flopped, depending on your perspective; the referees clearly thought that Varejao flopped) put James and the Cavaliers in a very familiar position.

Of course, the most discussed and overanalyzed Game One play was LeBron James' drive and kick out to Donyell Marshall, who missed what could have been a game-winning three pointer. Should James have passed? Should he have shot? Should he have put on a cape, taken off from the top of the key and dunked on five Pistons like he would in a video game? If you wondered what James would do if he ever faced the same situation again, then Thursday provided the answer: he drove to the hoop against Richard Hamilton, did a spin move and missed an off-balance shot. Hughes grabbed the rebound but his short jumper was also off the mark. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown almost popped a gasket on the sidelines, fuming that James was fouled. Brown got a technical foul, Detroit made a couple free throws and this game ended like the previous one, with Varejao flinging the ball at the hoop from the other end of the court as time ran out.

Was James fouled? James certainly felt that he was and told the officials about it in no uncertain terms. There seemed to be some contact on the play but, as Wallace put it, the officials could have called a push on James, a foul on Hamilton or nothing at all. Neither team shot a lot of free throws despite this being a physical, low scoring game, which indicates that the officials let a lot of contact go throughout the entire 48 minutes. James shot a leaning one hander, which meant that contact would affect the shot more than if he went up with two hands. I think that he should have gathered himself and gone up with two hands, using his size and strength to initiate contact and force the officials to make a call. As Hubie Brown always says, if you go up with two hands then you may get a three point play. He usually makes that comment in reference to post players who are close enough to the hoop to dunk the ball but even though James never got close enough to dunk on his final shot the same reasoning applies.

Although Brown and James complained about the non-call during the game, both men refused to dwell on that play when they spoke to the media afterwards. Each said, "We are a no excuse team," a welcome departure from the incessant whining and complaining that emanated from Phoenix as the Suns' season set. While James was the favorite scapegoat for Game One, TNT's analysts gave him passing grades for his Game Two aggressiveness--even though James' final field goal numbers turned out to be about the same (7-19 in Game Two versus 5-15 in Game One; most of James' additional points came from the free throw line). This time, Brown received most of the criticism, largely because on Cleveland's fateful last possession James did not attack the hoop until less than 10 seconds were left. Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson and Kenny Smith all said that since the Cavaliers trailed by one they should have gone for a quick score. That way, even if the shot is missed the Cavaliers could still foul and have another chance to score down either one, two or three (depending on how many free throws the Pistons made). This is a valid point but I suspect that the reason that Cleveland did not do this is that the Cavaliers had no timeouts left. That means that they could not advance the ball after Detroit's free throws, nor could they make offensive/defensive substitutions. Earlier in the game, analyst Doug Collins pointed out that Brown was using so many timeouts to break Detroit runs that Cleveland might not have any left at the end of the game; that is exactly what happened and it happened in Game One, also. Brown had to use those timeouts, though; it is one thing for Phil Jackson to not use timeouts to break runs when he was coaching experienced Bulls and Lakers teams but Cleveland is a young team and if Brown had not used those timeouts when he did then the score might not have been close by the final seconds.

The bottom line is that Detroit is the veteran, favored team playing at home and Cleveland had a chance to win both games on the final possession. Brown, James and the rest of the Cavaliers could have done some things better but these games have been a lot more competitive than most people probably expected. If Cleveland plays just as hard--and a little bit smarter and more poised--then the Cavaliers can repeat what they did last year and return to Detroit tied 2-2. So much attention is paid to every shot James does or doesn't take and to Coach Brown's strategies that no one seems to notice that the Pistons hardly look like world beaters. They are literally two shots away from being down 0-2 and several of their key players had forgettable shooting performances in Game Two: Tayshaun Prince shot 0-8, Chris Webber shot 4-13 and Richard Hamilton shot 5-14. That said, the Cavaliers obviously must win both of their upcoming home games to have any chance in this series. It is all right to be encouraged by playing well enough to have a chance to win in Detroit as long as that does not lead to a complacent feeling that just being at home will be sufficient to prevail in Games Three and Four; those games figure to be closely contested, too.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Making Your Teammates Better

It is often said that a particular player "makes his teammates better"--or sometimes it is asserted that a certain player is very talented but does not "make his teammates better." When people employ this misleading phrase they are trying to distinguish between selfish and unselfish playing methods. A selfish player cares primarily about his own statistics; an unselfish player cares primarily about team success--that entails doing what his team needs for him to do to have the best chance to win. It is not literally possible to "make someone better." Magic Johnson could not make anyone run faster, jump higher or shoot better than he previously could; what Magic did was pass the ball to players in positions where they could do what they were good at doing--and not pass the ball to players in positions where they were not likely to succeed. Magic would not throw an alley-oop to someone who was not a good leaper and he would not throw the ball to someone at the three point line if that player was not a good outside shooter.

Great players create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well. A truly great player cannot be guarded by one defender, so just by drawing double-team coverage he is providing an open shot for someone on his team even if he does not handle the ball at all prior to that player making the shot. You can see this with Tim Duncan; he is often guarded by a post player stationed behind him and a guard or forward dropping into his lap. This leaves a Spurs guard or forward wide open. Duncan is not making Michael Finley or Robert Horry "better"; those guys have the ability to shoot well from three point range and have been doing this at the NBA level before Duncan was even in the league. Duncan's greatness affords them an opportunity to play to their strengths--spot up shooting--and away from their weaknesses--creating open shots for themselves on their own. If Duncan were flanked by players who cannot make open three point shots then teams could double-team him without fear; Duncan would be no less of a great player in this situation than he is now but his team would win a lot less frequently.

It is very simplistic to just look a player's assist totals when trying to determine if he is selfish or not. Duncan's assist numbers are decent but hardly eyepopping and he has never averaged as much as 4 apg in a season. On the other hand, Stephon Marbury ranks 11th all-time in career apg, ahead of Steve Nash, Bob Cousy, Nate Archibald, Lenny Wilkens and Jerry West, among others. While Marbury may be making society better with his line of low cost basketball shoes, throughout his career several teams have become worse after he joined their roster and better after his departure; whatever "making your teammates better" means, he has not done a good job of it. Marbury has the ball in his hands all the time and plays a lot of minutes, so he accumulates assists--but his statistics correlate poorly with team success. Duncan is a good passer who delivers a variety of passes--bounce passes, outlet passes, crosscourt passes to open three point shooters. Many of those passes result in baskets but not assists because the recipient reverses the ball after the defense recovers; as Hubie Brown often points out, against a good defense the second pass out of the double-team leads to an open shot. Duncan's assist totals do not really reflect either his ability as a passer or how many open shots his presence creates. Every season there are several subpar point guards who accumulate more assists than Duncan ever will.

In addition to drawing double-teams and then reversing the ball to the open man, great players who pass the ball well do at least two other things that are not measured directly in assist totals: (1) they can see openings that other players do not and successfully pass the ball through those openings; (2) they pass the ball in a way that the recipient can catch it and make a basketball move--this is sometimes referred to by Doug Collins and others as "KYP," meaning "know your personnel." Some players have better hands than others, some players want to catch and dunk without having to dribble and some players want to catch and go straight into a shooting motion; a great player knows which kind of pass to throw to each of these types of players.

Duncan is also a good example of how a truly great player creates opportunities on defense for less talented teammates. The Spurs' perimeter players can close out on perimeter shooters without fear, knowing that Duncan will block or alter most shots that are attempted in the paint. He cannot "make" a bad defender good but he can improve his team's overall defense by erasing others' mistakes. Scottie Pippen had a similar effect as a perimeter defender. In his prime, Pippen was always guarding one and a half men--in other words, he was watching not only his assigned man but he also had his eye on either the post player or the nearest perimeter player. If someone else's man started to drive to the hoop or throw a pass, Pippen would slide over and take a charge or steal the pass; if the post player put the ball on the floor, Pippen would drop down and "dig" at his dribble. This did not "make" bad defenders good but it disrupted the opposing offense, much like Duncan drawing a double-team disrupts an opposing defense.

The consensus five best players in the NBA this season were Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and LeBron James. Nowitzki's major impact derives primarily from his ability to score from many areas of the court; the defensive attention that he attracts creates scoring opportunities for his teammates. Nash is a very accurate shooter but his primary asset is his ability to deliver a variety of passes to different players in different situations. While he is the player in this group who is most often said to "make his teammates better" it is more accurate to say that he enables his teammates to do what they do well and avoid doing what they don't do well. He is surrounded by two gifted finishers (Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion) and several good three point shooters; Nash uses his dribbling ability to probe the opposing defense while his teammates move into their high percentage shooting areas. Nash is outstanding at delivering the ball to whoever pops open first in one of his "sweet spots." While Nash's dribbling and passing are an important part of this process those skills would go to waste if the recipients of the passes were not capable players in their own right. Bryant is the player in this quintet who is most likely to be considered "selfish" but it is impossible to watch him play with a discerning eye and come to this conclusion. His primary job is to put points on the board and his proficiency at that means that opposing teams must double-team him; this creates four on three opportunities for his teammates and Bryant makes the right reads and the correct passes in those situations. Of course, the results of those passes looked a lot better when he played alongside more skillful teammates than his current supporting cast. James has developed into an outstanding scorer while still maintaining a pass first mindset. He handles the ball in different areas of the court than Bryant or Duncan do, so James' first pass often leads directly to a shot, giving him more assist opportunities. Duncan's contributions were discussed above.

I love statistics but there is no getting around the fact that you cannot adequately measure a player's value by numbers alone; you have to watch him play with a trained eye and really analyze what he is doing and how it affects his teammates and the opposing team. Saying that someone "makes his teammates better" has become a convenient but overused shorthand. I'd prefer to hear a precise explanation of what exactly the player in question does that makes his team better.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:20 PM

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Spurs Put on a Clinic, Silence the Jazz

The Western Conference Finals have turned into the movie Groundhog Day. The script is simple: a close first quarter followed by San Antonio taking a big lead over Utah in the second quarter and never being seriously threatened the rest of the way. Tuesday night in Game Two the result was a 105-96 San Antonio win. The Jazz scored 17 second quarter points on 7-18 field goal shooting, just slightly better than their 16 second quarter points on 7-20 field goal shooting in Sunday's Game One. Tim Duncan had another stellar game: 26 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, five blocked shots, two steals. He has now had at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in 11 straight playoff games, the second best such postseason streak since 1976-77; Shaquille O'Neal once did this in 12 straight games. Tony Parker added 17 points and a playoff career-high 14 assists, though he did have seven turnovers. Manu Ginobili also scored 17 points, while Fabricio Oberto had 14 points on 6-7 field goal shooting. San Antonio shot .556 from the field and 13-26 (.500) from three point range, so this game was pretty much a complete failure for Utah defensively; the Jazz neither contained Duncan nor limited Ginobili and Parker nor shut down the Spurs' three point shooters. Granted, the Spurs are an outstanding team and it may not be possible to stop everything but in order to win you have to control something. It was hard to tell what exactly Utah's defensive game plan is.

On the other hand, San Antonio is using the same blueprint that worked against Phoenix in 2005 and this year: make the opponent shoot contested shots, don't give up open three pointers and don't be overly concerned if one player has a big scoring night because that won't kill you. Amare Stoudemire's high scoring games did not lead Phoenix to victory over the Spurs and San Antonio has already withstood a career-high 34 points from Deron Williams on Sunday and a 33 point effort from Carlos Boozer in Game Two. Boozer also had a game-high 15 rebounds but the Spurs won the overall battle on the boards, 44-35. Utah shot just .439 from the field and 3-11 (.273) from three point range. Williams finished with 26 points and 10 assists this time but 10 of those points came in the fourth quarter, most of which the Jazz spent trailing by at least 10 points--Groundhog Day again, as this is very reminiscent of how the Spurs shut down Steve Nash in the first half of the decisive Game Six and he improved his stat sheet aesthetically in the fourth quarter when the game was all but out of reach. Don't be fooled by the fourth quarter lead that San Antonio blew in Game Four of their series against the Suns, because you can count on one hand the times that a Duncan-led team has blown a double digit fourth quarter playoff lead--and you'd still have enough fingers left to include Nash's two MVPs. Since then the Spurs have built big leads in Game Six against Phoenix and both games against Utah; naturally, those teams made runs in the second half, but San Antonio remained in control throughout. Good NBA teams are going to make runs when they fall behind by big margins but if the Jazz want to avoid being swept they better figure out a way to avoid falling behind by double digits in the first half.

While Duncan's numbers are consistently excellent, his impact is actually even greater than his statistics suggest. On offense he must be constantly double-teamed or he could score 35-40 points easily; this extra defensive attention creates driving lanes for Parker and Ginobili and wide open three point shots for San Antonio's perimeter shooters. On defense, Duncan not only blocks shots and grabs defensive rebounds, his presence causes players to rush shots or even dissuades them from shooting at all once they venture into the paint. Call it the "Bill Russell effect." I believe that it was Hall of Famer Bob Pettit who once described Russell's impact by saying that his shotblocking was such a threat that it would cause players to start missing even the open shots because they were so busy looking for Russell that they could not concentrate on the goal.

Utah is an excellent home team, so the Jazz may very well get back into this series by winning Game Three--but so far it looks like TNT's Charles Barkley fell for the "banana in the tailpipe" (to borrow Greg Anthony's favorite Beverly Hills Cop reference) with his prediction that Utah would come back and win this series. He based that on Utah's performance in the second half of Game One but he should have known that that was fool's gold. Scoring a lot in the second half but still losing is like these NBA teams that fall out of playoff contention by the All-Star break and then win some games in March; that tricks some people into believing that they have turned the corner when in reality they may have just played better because all of the pressure was off. Utah must come up with a sensible defensive game plan--and be able to execute it--to have any chance in Game Three. It is reasonable to assume that Boozer and Williams will continue to put up good numbers and that Utah's role players will shoot better at home, so a Jazz home win is certainly not out of the question--but I expect this series to be 3-1 in favor of the Spurs by the time it shifts back to San Antonio.

************
Notes:

***ESPN's Mark Jackson said, "So many teams want to play like the Phoenix Suns. I'd want to play like the Spurs." This is an excellent comment, because even though the Suns and Warriors are much loved for their free flowing style of play the Spurs are actually just as good offensively and much better defensively. I can't understand what anyone could have against the Spurs' style of play: they play fundamentally sound basketball anchored by a great post player who is flanked by two great slashing guards and several good perimeter shooters. The Spurs get out and run and their passing against the Jazz in Game Two was a joy to watch.

***ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy weighed in on LeBron James' decision to pass to Donyell Marshall, saying that it is an "easy copout" to wait for the result of the play and then blame James. Van Gundy said that James made the right basketball play. Honestly, this "controversy" is ridiculous. The Pistons freely admitted that they blew the coverage and that Marshall was not supposed to be left open--which should be obvious considering that a three pointer could cost Detroit the game--but James is being criticized for passing the ball to the open man. It was bad enough when Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley started harping on this but now Stephen A. Smith discounts that Jordan made similar passes by saying that he first proved his greatness by making game winning shots and only later passed the ball. Huh? When Jordan shot the ball all the time at the end of games it was said that he could never win a championship that way. It could very accurately be said that James either has learned to trust his teammates much sooner than Jordan did or that this is simply a natural part of James' game (James insists that he has always played this way and always will); how is this a bad thing? I'll admit that James is not the end of the game closer that Jordan was or Kobe Bryant is but James did make game winning shots last year in the playoffs against the Wizards; that convinced me that he is neither afraid to take such shots nor unable to convert them. The great trust and confidence that he has in his teammates surely has played a big role in the overall development of the Cavaliers. Look how much this team has improved since he arrived and look at how he led Cleveland from down 2-0 to up 3-2 in last year's playoffs versus Detroit. James believes in his teammates which makes them believe in themselves--and him. That trust will serve James and the Cavaliers very well in the future. Jordan and Bryant both had to be convinced--in both cases by Phil Jackson--to trust their teammates with the ball in crucial situations. James should be lauded for his willingness to do this already. So far, his career has shown steady progress, from no playoffs to the second round to the Conference Finals (and possibly beyond). Let's wait at least until there is some sign of stagnation or regression before making pronouncements that James cannot win a championship playing the way that he does now. If the media want to go after superstars who lack rings then there are some guys who have been around a lot longer than James and won a lot more individual accolades than he has but still have no championships to show for it: former MVPs Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash, to name three. When James has logged as many years as they have let's see how many playoff series and championships he has won.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:09 AM

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hamilton Leads Listless Detroit to Game One Win Over Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers led by as many as nine points but the Detroit Pistons relied on Richard Hamilton's midrange shooting plus some clutch fourth quarter plays to escape with a 79-76 victory. Hamilton finished with a game-high 24 points on 11-21 shooting, adding seven assists. Rasheed Wallace had an excellent all-around game, contributing 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocked shots, doing his part to make up for the departed Ben Wallace. Chauncey Billups seemed out of sorts for most of the game, turning the ball over seven times while having just 13 points and five assists but he scored ten of those points in the fourth quarter, including a big three pointer with 1:52 left that gave the Pistons the lead for good. Zydrunas Ilgauskas led Cleveland with 22 points and a game-high 13 rebounds, while Larry Hughes and Anderson Varejao had 13 points each. LeBron James scored a career playoff-low 10 points on 5-15 shooting but he had 10 rebounds, nine assists, four steals and only two turnovers. He did not attempt a free throw or a three point shot; the latter is a good thing for Cleveland and the former is an oddity, to say the least, considering that James is one of the best players in the league at earning free throw attempts.

If the Pistons have in fact learned to not take teams for granted and to play hard for an entire game it was certainly difficult to tell during most of this game. Cleveland took a 10-5 lead by the 8:45 mark of the first quarter and did not trail until the third quarter. The Pistons shot themselves in the foot by allowing Cleveland to feast on the offensive glass and by committing a lot of turnovers. Cleveland outscored Detroit 24-19 in the first quarter and led 41-35 at halftime. The only thing that kept Detroit in the game in the first half was Hamilton, who scored 15 points. James scored a 2007 playoff-low four first half points on 2-7 shooting but he had six rebounds and three assists. Billups had a disastrous first half: three points on 1-3 shooting while committing four turnovers.

Apparently, Detroit confused Cleveland with their first round opponent, Orlando, a team that the Pistons only had to play hard against for about five minutes a game. Detroit opened the third quarter with a 7-0 run to take a 42-41 lead but after that the quarter was played to a 14-14 standstill; Detroit led 56-55 going into the fourth quarter. Cleveland began the final stanza with a 6-2 run to take a 61-58 lead with 9:28 left. Detroit went four minutes without making a field goal and Cleveland led 64-60 after a Sasha Pavlovic three pointer. That turned out to be the biggest fourth quarter lead that either team would enjoy. Detroit answered with an 11-4 run to go up 71-68 but Ilgauskas scored the Cavaliers' next eight points and Cleveland led 76-75 at the 2:08 mark. Cleveland had a big defensive breakdown on the next possession, sending three players at a driving Hamilton, who swung the ball to Tayshaun Prince, who passed to Billups for a wide open three pointer that proved to be the game winning shot, though there was still 1:52 left in the game.

What happened after Billups' three pointer has already been the subject of much discussion and analysis. James and Hamilton traded missed jump shots and then Hughes missed a wild shot but stole the ball from Billups. Cleveland called a timeout with :36 left and then ran a play for Ilgauskas to shoot a jumper, one of the Cavaliers' pet plays and a shot that Ilgauskas made repeatedly during this game. He missed but Hughes got the offensive rebound, a play that Detroit Coach Flip Saunders later termed a missed block out assignment by Billups. The Cavaliers called another timeout and brought in Donyell Marshall, who had scorched the Nets with his three point shooting to close out that series. James got the ball at the top of the key, went away from a pick to avoid being trapped and drove hard to the left side of the hoop. He seemed to have half a step on Prince, but Rasheed Wallace came over from the right baseline and James fired a bullet pass to a wide open Marshall, who missed the potentially game winning three point shot. Billups got the rebound and finished the scoring by making one of two free throws with two seconds left. Cleveland had no timeouts remaining, so Varejao had no choice but to fire a desperation three quarter court heave. In his postgame press conference, Saunders said simply, "We dodged one."

After the game, TNT's Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson and Kenny Smith each criticized James for not shooting more often during the game and for passing the ball to Marshall on Cleveland's final possession. Barkley said that in an end of the game situation like that he only saw himself and the rim and would not pass to anybody. Smith acknowledged that James' pass did result in a wide open shot but he agreed that James should have attempted a layup. Johnson added with a laugh that James has to learn when to be like Michael Jordan (i.e., look to shoot) and when to be like him (i.e., look to pass). Ernie Johnson asked if James should be cut some slack based on his youth but Magic firmly said, "No," noting that this is James' fourth year. Magic said that he was willing to give James the benefit of the doubt in his first three seasons but that he has been around long enough to make the right decisions now.

I respect the collective knowledge of TNT's studio analysts but I think that they are wrong in this instance. For one thing, Hamilton admitted that the Pistons messed up on the play in question: "We made a mistake allowing Donyell to get a wide open three point shot." Flipping the dial, NBA TV's Fred Carter mentioned the first thing that I thought of when Marshall's shot was in the air: Wallace made the exact same mistake in the 2005 NBA Finals versus the Spurs and Robert Horry made a game winning three pointer that probably cost the Pistons a second NBA title. So how can James' decision to pass be wrong when the Pistons were in the exact same wrong defense that hurt them two years ago? If Marshall had made the shot then the Pistons may have lost the game and homecourt advantage and we would all be talking about Wallace's bonehead move. Wallace, for his part, said that he was not even trying to double-team James but was simply coming in to get the rebound because Hughes had snuck in and gotten an offensive rebound on the previous play. He seemed amazed that James found an angle around the long-armed Prince and was able to deliver such a good pass to Marshall.

On ESPN's NBA Fastbreak, Allan Houston agreed with James' decision to pass to Marshall, apparently referring to TNT's analysis when he said that James seems to be receiving what he called "unfair criticism" and concluding, "Sometimes it just comes down to making or missing."

James offered this explanation during his postgame press conference: "The winning play if two guys go at you is to give it up--simple as that." He also rejected the idea that he should have shot more often during the course of the game: "It's not about taking a high volume of shots. It's about trying to win the basketball game. You got to take what's there and we had an opportunity to win with me taking three shots in the fourth quarter. My game is not sold on taking a lot of shots. I'm going to continue to say that and that's the only answer I can give you."

Barkley said something very interesting: James is the best player on the court but he passes the ball too much to players who are clearly inferior. If Magic or Jordan had felt that way then they would never have passed to anybody (other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Magic's case) and if Barkley really feels that way then he should be on board with Kobe Bryant shooting 60-70 times a game. I mean, if a great player should not pass the ball to lesser players then I cannot understand why anyone would ever question Bryant's shot selection. When Jordan passed to Bill Wennington (at the end of Jordan's 55 point game versus the Knicks during his first comeback) or Steve Kerr (against the Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals) did he not know that he is supposed to take every shot?

LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash all say the same thing regarding the choice to shoot or pass: they read the defense and take what is there. It is simply fascinating to see how the pundits react to each of these players. Bryant is a three-time champion who is generally criticized for shooting too much. This was James' first ever game at the Conference Finals level and the knock against him is that he passes too much. Supposedly, Bryant is selfish but James lacks Bryant's killer instinct. The funny thing about this is that Bryant and James had virtually identical numbers last year in seventh game losses: Bryant was accused of "quitting" because he shot infrequently in the second half, while not much was said about James' lack of second half shot attempts. I've always felt that Bryant is the only player about whom a referendum is held after every play to evaluate whether he is either being "selfish" or "quitting" but perhaps James is moving up to Bryant's level in this regard. Meanwhile, two-time MVP Nash recently shot 1-8 in the fourth quarter of a playoff game that his team lost. Why is that not called "selfish"? When he hardly shot the ball at all in the first half of the next game, an elimination game which his team lost, was he "quitting"?

During the 1991 NBA Finals, Chicago Coach Phil Jackson called a late game timeout to pointedly ask Michael Jordan, "Who's open?" Jackson repeated that a couple times before Jordan acknowledged that it was John Paxson. Jordan then passed the ball to Paxson several times down the stretch, Paxson made the jumpers and Jordan's Bulls won the first of six titles. Ironically, that happened against the same Magic Johnson who is now saying that James passes too much. Are we to believe that the final step in Jordan's development was to learn to trust his teammates but that the final step in James' development is to not trust his teammates? The simple truth is that a superstar needs help to become a champion. Bryant is the best player in the NBA but when he is double-teamed, gives up the ball and no one can make a shot then his Lakers are going to lose. Nash is a great player but he cannot take over a game as a scorer, cannot guard the great players at his position and cannot lead a team to a title simply by being a passer; if great playmaking was the most important element to winning championships then John Stockton probably would have won at least one championship. Bob Cousy did not win a championship until Bill Russell came along. Oscar Robertson did not win a title until he played with Abdul-Jabbar. Magic won five titles but he also played with Abdul-Jabbar and Magic was a much more complete and dominant player than Nash is.

James is more willing to give up the ball at this stage of his career than Jordan was and has shown that he will continue to do so even if his teammates do not make shots. It's so funny that Bryant gets criticized for not passing to his subpar teammates yet James is criticized for continuing to do so. There is only one real solution for Bryant and for James: hope that their teams' respective managements surround them with players who are willing and able to step up to the challenge. Otherwise, neither player will win a title and both players will be subject to criticism whether they shoot 15 times or 30 (the other solution would be to figure out how Nash is able to get more accolades than either of them but completely avoid any criticism when his team--much more talented that Bryant's Lakers or James' Cavaliers--does not make it to the Finals).

Cleveland's roster does not look like that of a championship team. Coach Mike Brown's offense is frequently criticized. James supposedly does not know when to pass and when to shoot. Yet, the Cavaliers have shown steady improvement during James' career, an upward movement that has accelerated since Brown's arrival. They made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and in Game One they nearly beat a veteran team that has been in this round for five straight years. There is no reason to think that Cleveland cannot win Game Two to earn a split; certainly there is every reason to expect, based on what we saw on Monday, that this will be a hard fought and closely contested series. Barkley said that Cleveland cannot beat Detroit with James passing this much but that is a strange remark considering that Cleveland was one missed shot away from winning this game. If critical attention should be focused anywhere shouldn't it be directed toward Detroit? If Cleveland is so subpar and James so clueless then how come the Pistons' fate hinged on whether or not Marshall made a wide open three pointer after Detroit blew a defensive coverage that surely had just been talked about in the previous timeout? Should a game between a supposedly great team like Detroit and a supposedly flawed team like Cleveland come down to one final shot?

posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 AM

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Spurs Withstand Utah's Fourth Quarter Rally, Win Game One, 108-100

San Antonio completely controlled the first half and held on for a 108-100 win over Utah in Game One of the Western Conference Finals. Tim Duncan produced 27 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots. I think that the opposing team's shooting percentage should be included in his individual stats because he is such an imposing defensive presence; the Jazz shot just .419 from the field and that kind of defensive field goal percentage has been a staple of the Spurs with Gregg Popovich as coach and Tim Duncan in the middle. Manu Ginobili had 23 points and 10 assists, while Tony Parker added 21 points, six assists and three steals. The Spurs also got an unexpected offensive contribution from center Fabricio Oberto, who scored 14 points on 6-8 shooting; he moves well without the ball and received passes from Duncan and Ginobili when the defense focused too closely on them. Deron Williams had 26 of his career-high 34 points in the second half and he also had nine assists and seven rebounds. Carlos Boozer got off to a slow start but still got a double double (20 points, 12 rebounds) despite shooting just 7-17 from the field. ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who of course just coached against Boozer when the Jazz beat the Rockets in the first round, noted that in the second half Boozer made an adjustment and started shooting his faceup jumper as opposed to trying to get all the way to the hoop against the long arms of Duncan and Oberto. One of San Antonio's defensive principles is that if you drive by one 7-footer that you still have to shoot over another one, so Boozer is not going to have quite the same success in the paint that he did against Houston's Yao Ming or against various smaller Golden State defenders; Boozer could drive right past Yao and shoot over the Golden State players in the post but against the Spurs he will need to shoot his midrange jumper effectively. The weirdest stat of the game is that Utah outrebounded San Antonio 48-33. It is not surprising that Utah rebounded well--the Jazz are a great rebounding team--but it is unusual to win the battle of the backboards by that much and still lose.

Utah took a 7-0 lead to start the game but, as Tim Duncan said afterwards, the Spurs knew that there was a lot of time left and that their shots would fall eventually. By the end of the first quarter, the Spurs were up 23-20. The difference in the game was the second quarter, during which the Spurs outscored the Jazz 31-16. Duncan scored 12 points in the first seven minutes of the quarter and by that time the Spurs already had a 39-28 lead. They closed out the quarter with a 15-8 run to push the margin to 54-36 by halftime. Duncan had 18 first half points, while Ginobili had 14 points and four assists.

San Antonio's lead grew to 19 points in the third quarter and was still 16 (78-62) at the start of the fourth quarter. The Jazz outscored the Spurs 38-30 in the fourth quarter, largely behind the efforts of Williams (18 points) and Boozer (10 points), but they never got closer than seven points--and that did not happen until :22 remained, so while the Jazz made it "interesting," as the cliche goes, they never were really in a position to win the game.

Prior to the game, the pundits wondered whether Utah would be rested or rusty since the Jazz have been off for a few days; on the flip side, they tried to figure out whether San Antonio would be tired or riding waves of momentum in the wake of the Spurs' win on Friday over Phoenix. The whole "rest versus rust" debate is so overrated: the "rested" Jazz took a 7-0 first quarter lead and then apparently the "rusty" Jazz took their place and were outscored 54-29 for the remainder of the first half. The reality is that NBA teams perform best when they play every other day; that is the most natural rhythm for them but whether you are "rested" or "rusty" you have to bring it in the playoffs or you end up with a loss. One of the best things about this game was Utah Coach Jerry Sloan's postgame press conference. I'd like to dub in his remarks over all the whining that we heard from Phoenix after the Spurs eliminated the Suns. Sloan said that his team did not compete in the first half, played selfishly and looked intimidated. He told them at halftime that anyone who was scared did not have to come out and play in the second half. Eschewing any possible excuses, Sloan said that he is tired of hearing about how young his team is. He expects the Jazz to play hard, play smart, read what is available on the court and to stop hanging their heads or blaming others for their own mistakes. Sloan gave San Antonio credit for playing well but said that his players have to do a better job.

Guys like Sloan and Popovich--and Mike Brown in Cleveland--are considered "boring" by some people but they understand what the game is really about: playing hard, sticking together, focusing on defense and giving credit to the opponent while making no excuses regarding your own team's play. If what they say is considered predictable that is only because these guys believe in doing things the right way and are not going to deviate from that to provide an interesting soundbite or to make any excuses.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:55 PM

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Cleveland Versus Detroit Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

#1 Detroit (53-29) vs. #2 Cleveland (50-32)

Season series: Detroit, 3-1

Detroit can win if…the Pistons maintain a high level of concentration and do not become lackadaisical and/or overconfident.

Cleveland will win because…it's LeBron James' time. He has completely turned the Cavaliers franchise around and during his young playoff career he has shown the ability to produce under pressure, make game winning shots and get the ball to his teammates when he is double teamed. The Cavaliers took the Pistons to the brink last year and this year they will use what they learned from that experience.

Other things to consider: The Pistons have a championship swagger even though the head coach and some of the key players in the rotation have not in fact ever won a championship. So far, the Pistons have not been punished for this but they dodged a real bullet when the Bulls blew a huge lead in Game Three. Last year, Detroit took a 2-0 lead over Cleveland but had to hang on for dear life to win in seven games; that extra mileage took a toll and the Pistons lost to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. This year, Detroit took a 3-0 lead over Chicago but the series dragged on for six games. The Pistons may have set themselves up for the same fall in the Eastern Conference Finals that they experienced last year. Detroit certainly looks better and deeper than Cleveland on paper but the Cavaliers have the only legitimate superstar in this series. Look for LeBron James to make the difference with some key late game plays as Cleveland wins a hard fought series and the Cavaliers earn the franchise's first trip to the NBA Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:11 PM

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San Antonio Versus Utah Preview

Western Conference Finals

#3 San Antonio (58-24) vs. #5 Utah (51-31)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Utah can win if…they outrebound San Antonio, Deron Williams decisively wins his matchup with Tony Parker and the Tim Duncan-Carlos Boozer matchup is not in favor of Duncan by a huge margin.

San Antonio will win because…the Spurs are built for this, having won three titles already during Duncan's career. Last year the Mavericks knocked them off in overtime of Game Seven and they have been on a mission since that day. Duncan's numbers are always good but his impact goes well beyond stats: he not only blocks shots, but he intimidates and alters shots; he not only scores on the block, but he causes the opponent's entire defense to collapse on him, freeing up his teammates to score.

Other things to consider: The Utah Jazz are a much better team this year than I expected them to be and I really respect how much Carlos Boozer has worked on his game; he is like a "mini-me" version of Duncan offensively, utilizing great moves, countermoves and footwork--but he does not have the defensive impact that Duncan does and he does not have the championship level experience that Duncan does. Look for the Spurs to win in five games, six at the most. Utah's best chance is to steal Game One; the Spurs only have a two day turnaround from their series with the Suns and, historically, Game One winners go on to win the series nearly 80 percent of the time. I think that the Spurs will win the series even if they stub their toes in Game One but I expect the Spurs to push past any fatigue that they are feeling and eventually head to Utah with a 2-0 lead. How long the series will last depends on how well the Jazz play on their homecourt.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:14 AM

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