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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Get the 411 About the NBA and More at 411Mania.com

411Mania.com is a website that covers a variety of subjects ranging from sports to politics to pop culture. I will be contributing an article there each Friday about the NBA, plus eventually participating in some of the site's forums and discussions; my first 411Mania submission should be familiar to regular 20 Second Timeout readers: it is a reprint of my article titled "Making Your Teammates Better".

posted by David Friedman @ 6:03 AM

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Instant Classic: LeBron's 48 Points Lift Cavs to Thrilling Double Overtime Win

LeBron James had the signature performance of his young and already impressive playoff career, scoring a franchise playoff-record 48 points to carry the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 109-107 double overtime win versus the Detroit Pistons. He tied Allen Iverson and Jerry West for the third most points scored in a road game in the Conference Finals or NBA Finals (Elgin Baylor holds that mark with 61 points, while Chamberlain ranks second with 50 points). James scored the Cavaliers' last 25 points--and 29 of their final 30--in an amazing 16 minute stretch; he shot 11-14 from the field and 5-9 from the free throw line during that period. He scored all 18 of Cleveland's points in the two overtimes, capped off by the game-winning layup with two seconds remaining. James also had a game-high seven assists and tied for the game-high with nine rebounds while shooting 18-33 from the field and 10-14 from the free throw line. He committed just two turnovers in 50 minutes of action. Only two other Cavaliers scored in double figures, Zydrunas Ilgauskas (16 points) and Daniel Gibson (11 points), both of whom fouled out. Larry Hughes started despite his foot injury and provided a boost with nine points in 29 minutes, including a team-high eight first quarter points. That kind of contribution is important because it means that James can save some energy for crunch time instead of having to do so much that he has nothing left in the tank late in the game; it was also significant that the Cavaliers were able to rest James for the first few minutes of the fourth quarter and actually go from being tied at 70 to being up 75-74. Superstars don't always need a lot of help to win a game; just being able to rest briefly can provide enough of a recharge for them to do incredible things. For example, contrast what the Cavaliers did in this game while James sat to what the Lakers did in the first round when Kobe Bryant was not on the court.

Each Detroit starter scored in double figures and three of them had at least 20 points apiece but the Pistons could neither stop James nor get the ball out of his hands during the most crucial phase of the game. Richard Hamilton led the Pistons with 26 points and five assists and Chauncey Billups had his best all around game of the series, contributing 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists while only having one turnover in 53 minutes. Chris Webber also had his best game of the series, scoring 20 points on 9-13 shooting.

The biggest story of the night after James' amazing performance is the type two flagrant foul committed by Antonio McDyess on Anderson Varejao with 28 seconds remaining in the first quarter and the Pistons leading 28-22. Type two flagrant fouls carry an automatic ejection and considering the amount of contact to the head/neck area that occurred on the play it is certainly possible that McDyess will be suspended for Game Six. James received a technical foul on the play for his demonstrative reaction after Varejao went down. It is very significant to note that James, unlike Carmelo Anthony versus the New York Knicks in December, did not throw a punch and that not one player from either team left the bench area, proving that it is indeed possible even in an emotional situation to not completely lose one's mind. James delivered some choice words to McDyess but did not do anything that could cost his team his services.

Detroit led for most of the first half, including a 37-29 advantage with 8:00 remaining in the second quarter. That is the biggest lead that the Pistons have enjoyed at any point in the first five games of this series, an indication of how close this series has been, which surely must come as a surprise to people who assumed that the Pistons would easily beat the Cavaliers. The reality, as TNT's Charles Barkley said before Game Five, is that Cleveland outplayed Detroit in the first four games and could very well have swept the Pistons, though he later softened his stance by adding that the margins have been so small that you could also make the case that Detroit could have won the first four games, too. Barkley got it right the first time: Detroit is supposed to be the class of the Eastern Conference but what we have seen during the first five games is that the Pistons cannot simply turn it on and win versus Cleveland the way that they did against Orlando and Chicago. Cleveland has the best player on either team and is an excellent defensive squad. The Pistons have no answer for what Cleveland is doing or they would have shown it by now; each game has followed the same pattern, with James having the ball in his hands at the end with a chance to win. Detroit is not able to gain separation early in the game and is reduced to hoping and praying at the end of the game that James does not do something great.

Cleveland cut Detroit's lead to 52-51 by halftime. During the first half, TNT's Craig Sager noted that the Cavaliers planned to change their halftime routine in an attempt to prevent the third quarter doldrums that have plagued them throughout the series. He said that the team's video coordinators were putting together clips of key first half plays that the coaching staff would review while the players had a brief players only meeting. Then the coaches would present to the players what they found on the video, in essence turning the halftime into an accelerated pregame meeting. Despite a rough stretch early in the quarter, Cleveland outscored Detroit 19-18 in the third period, making the score 70-70 with 12 minutes left in regulation.

Ilgauskas' layup at the 7:48 mark of the fourth quarter put Cleveland ahead 79-76. That was the last field goal made by a Cavalier other than James. Detroit promptly went on a 12-2 run to seemingly take control of the game with just 3:15 left. James' layup cut the margin to 88-83, though he missed a free throw to complete the three point play. Cleveland got a stop and then Drew Gooden split a pair of free throws with 2:49 remaining. That was the last point scored by a Cavalier other than James. The only points scored by either team in the next 2:18 were a three pointer and a dunk by James, putting Cleveland ahead 89-88. Billups then nailed a cold-blooded three pointer but James tied the game with another dunk. Billups missed a three pointer to end regulation.

Cleveland took a 100-96 lead in the first overtime but Wallace and Billups each made a pair of free throws in the last :30 to tie the game. TNT's Doug Collins pointed out that Cleveland made some strategic mistakes near the end of the period, the main one being that the Cavaliers ran out of timeouts (a problem that also happened in Games One and Two). That meant that after Billups' free throws they could not call a timeout and advance the ball and could only inbound the ball and throw a desperation heave at the hoop.

James opened the second overtime by draining a fadeaway jumper but Webber's three point play at the 1:28 mark not only fouled out Ilgauskas but also gave the Pistons a 107-104 lead. James calmly responded with a three pointer on the next possession. "This is Jordanesque," said TNT's Steve Kerr, who would certainly know since he played alongside Michael Jordan on three championship teams. When Wallace missed a turnaround jump shot with :13 remaining, Collins said, "We've gone from having a winner in this game to having a survivor." Neither team scored for over a minute until James won the game by driving through the Pistons' defense to score a layup with :02 left.

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

***Before the game, TNT's Reggie Miller made the interesting point that James' much criticized decision to pass to Donyell Marshall at the end of Game One had a positive effect even though Cleveland lost that game: Miller believes that it infused the other Cleveland players with confidence because James showed that he trusts them and thinks that they can help to beat Detroit. Barkley and Kenny Smith reiterated that they never meant to suggest that passing the ball is bad but rather that James should not have passed on that particular occasion because he had a clear lane to score himself. James certainly availed himself of such opportunities many times late in Game Five, providing several eye-popping dunks plus the game-winning layup.

***After the game, the Inside the NBA studio crew heatedly debated Detroit's late game defensive strategy (or lack thereof) versus James. Barkley and Smith argued that you simply cannot let one player score 25 straight points and said that Detroit should have double-teamed him before he went into his move, forcing James to pass. Miller said that it was a situation of "good defense, better offense" and that there was nothing that Detroit could have done. Barkley and Smith cited the numerous dunks and inside points that James scored as proof that Detroit's double-teams either never arrived or came too late, while Miller countered that James also made fadeaway jump shots. Miller asked why they were criticizing James for shooting when they previously said that he should shoot more but they answered that they were not criticizing James for shooting but rather they were criticizing Detroit for not forcing him to pass the ball.

***As for the McDyess foul on Varejao, during the telecast Kerr immediately said that he thought that it should have been a type one flagrant foul, not a type two, and that McDyess should not have been ejected. After the game, Miller said that he thought that McDyess would be suspended but Barkley said that McDyess is a good guy who does not have a reputation of making such plays and that this will enable him to avoid suspension. Barkley added that since McDyess missed virtually the entire game he has, in essence, already served a suspension.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:34 AM

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Spurs Silence Jazz, Advance to the NBA Finals

The San Antonio Spurs routed the Utah Jazz 109-84, winning the Western Conference Finals 4-1 and reaching the NBA Finals for the fourth time in the Tim Duncan era. As soon as the game began it became apparent that only two words would be needed to describe Utah: not ready. The Spurs simply overwhelmed the Jazz mentally and physically, taking a huge first quarter lead and never looking back. At the 7:52 mark of the first quarter, the Spurs were already up 12-4. Barely five minutes later, the Spurs had pushed that margin to 30-11 and ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy was quoting Yogi Berra's famous quip about it "getting late early." NBA teams generally make at least one run, particularly if they fall behind early, but the Jazz never got closer than 16 points the rest of the way. No Spur played more than 30 minutes and Mike Breen, Van Gundy and Mark Jackson spent the second half grasping at straws for filler material to talk about during one of the longest garbage time segments that has probably ever been seen this late in the playoffs. Duncan had 21 points and seven rebounds in just 29 minutes. Tony Parker tied Duncan with a game-high 21 points, adding five rebounds and five assists. This game is a great example of the significance of point differential and also how individual statistics can be deceptive. Some people dismiss point differential as a measure of a team's strength because winning teams obviously will always have a positive differential but they fail to understand that a large differential accumulated over the course of a season is an indicator of dominance. Of course, one game is a very small sample size and the Jazz recently blew out the Spurs but a 4-1 series victory capped off by a 25 point win is pretty convincing any way that you cut it--and that leads right into how individual statistics must be placed into context by actually watching the games and seeing what transpired. A lot of NBA players could go out and get 21 points and seven rebounds--but Duncan did that work in just 29 minutes against a very good team and it was apparent that if the Spurs needed him to get 30 or 40 points that would not have been a problem. In other words, his statistics for this game do not really reflect his overall impact or skill level. Before Game Five, one of the ESPN talking heads--I think that it was Breen--said something to the effect that Utah's Deron Williams has been the best player on the court during this series, citing his gaudy scoring and assists numbers. It is certainly possible to be the best player on the court even though your team won just one game in a series--Michael Jordan did that several times early in his career and Kobe Bryant did it this year--but only if you are having an impact at both ends of the court and the other team has to go to great lengths to contain you. Jordan and Bryant were swarmed by defenders (and put up big numbers anyway). Deron Williams is a promising young player who certainly had some good moments versus the Spurs but the best player on the court during this series was unquestionably Duncan; he patrolled the paint on defense and required a lot of attention to stop his offense, which led to open shots for his teammates. The double-teaming brought down his individual numbers in some games and sitting out a big portion of the Game Five blowout limited his numbers some more but if you watched the series with any understanding of basketball then you knew that Duncan was the best player.

No one from Utah had a particularly strong game. Andrei Kirilenko led the Jazz with just 13 points, shooting 4-11 from the field. Carlos Boozer shot 3-10 for his nine points, though he did have 12 rebounds and four assists. Williams, who recently fought off a stomach ailment and was greatly limited by a foot injury, had 11 points and two assists and was less than pleased by his team's effort: "There were some guys that were already on vacation. Point-blank. On vacation. A long time ago." Utah Coach Jerry Sloan used different words to communicate essentially the same message: "They came at us really hard. They destroyed our will to want to play. That was the whole thing. We abandoned our offense right away. And we never could get back into it the rest of the night. They put us where they wanted us all night long." Early in the second quarter, San Antonio led 44-24 and Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Michael Finley had combined to score 36 points on 14-19 field goal shooting. This is what the Spurs do when Tim Duncan is healthy: they methodically, systematically wear teams down. That is why I picked the Spurs to win the championship in my playoff preview; that is why way too much was made of the suspensions that happened in the previous round versus the Suns--not just because Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were the only two knuckleheads to violate a no tolerance rule that every NBA player knows but because the Spurs wear teams down and take over series in Games Five and Six (if the series makes it to six games). The Spurs beat the small-lineup Suns in Game Five as Steve Nash flamed out down the stretch (which has received nothing like the attention that has been heaped on LeBron James' pass/shoot decisions versus Detroit) and then they beat the Suns in Game Six even though Stoudemire had a big scoring night. The only team that consistently beat the Spurs in the playoffs in the Duncan era when Duncan was at full strength was the Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers, who swept the Spurs in the 2001 Western Conference Finals, beat them 4-1 in the second round in 2002, lost to them 4-2 in the second round in 2003 (a season scuttled by O'Neal waiting to have toe surgery, which ultimately cost the Lakers homecourt advantage) and then beat them 4-2 in the second round in 2004. In each of those years, the winner of the Lakers-Spurs series made it to the NBA Finals and from 2001-2003 that team won the championship.

The Spurs' only other playoff losses since Duncan's rookie year (1997-98) are to the Utah Jazz (1998; John Stockton and Karl Malone's second and last NBA Finals run), Phoenix Suns (2000; Duncan did not play due to injury) and Dallas Mavericks (2006; Duncan was limited by plantar fasciitis); Duncan led the Spurs to championships in 1999, 2003 and 2005, winning the Finals MVP each time. Now the Spurs get to rest for a week while Cleveland and Detroit battle for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. San Antonio will have homecourt advantage against either team.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:26 AM

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Just Like Last Year: Cavs Beat Pistons, Tie Series at 2-2

Anyone who expected the Detroit Pistons to make short work of the Cleveland Cavaliers was seriously mistaken. The Cavaliers' 91-87 Game Four victory tied the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2. Last year's second round matchup between these teams also was tied after four games, with each team "protecting" its home court. Detroit is the deeper and more experienced team but Cleveland has far and away the best player on either squad, LeBron James, and he was fantastic on Tuesday night, finishing with 25 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. He did much of his damage in the fourth quarter with the game up for grabs, producing 13 points, four rebounds and three assists while shooting 4-6 from the field and 5-5 from the free throw line. Daniel Gibson picked up the slack for a hobbled Larry Hughes, scoring a career-high 21 points while making all 12 of his free throws. Drew Gooden added 19 points and a team-high eight rebounds. Chauncey Billups led Detroit with 23 points and nine rebounds but this was not a good performance for "Mr. Big Shot," who shot 6-16 from the field, committed five turnovers and passed for just two assists. He exercised questionable judgment on several occasions, alternately forcing shots and then trying to make ill-timed or poorly thrown passes. The cliche says that "once is an accident, twice is a trend and three times is a problem," so after four subpar games it is fair to say that Billups is having significant problems versus the Cavs. Richard Hamilton had 19 points and eight rebounds but he only shot 9-21 from the field. Detroit's starting frontcourt was largely silent: Rasheed Wallace and Chris Webber combined to score 11 points on 5-13 shooting, though Tayshaun Prince was solid with 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists. The Pistons' most productive big was Antonio McDyess, who came off of the bench to contribute 12 points and five rebounds in 24 minutes.

Cleveland got off to a good start in the first quarter, led by Gooden's 10 points. Billups countered with 13 points for Detroit but the Pistons trailed 26-22 heading into the second quarter. James had just five points--a three pointer and a dunk--but passed for four assists.

The Pistons hit the Cavs with a 7-0 run to open the second quarter: a jumper by Wallace followed by a three pointer and two free throws by Billups. Cleveland responded very well, building a 12 point lead before Detroit cut the margin to seven by halftime. Gibson took center stage with 11 points, many of them scored while James took a brief rest.

I don't know what the Cavaliers eat, drink or do at halftime but they should consider changing their entire routine. No matter how well they play in the first half, they seem to start the third quarter running like they are carrying pianos on their backs (to borrow a great line Jeff Van Gundy likes to use). Put it this way: if you went to the concession stand at halftime and did not make it back to your seat until the 7:00 mark of the third quarter you did not miss a single Cavaliers' point. James shot 0-6 during the quarter and after the game he said that he told his teammates to carry him to the fourth quarter and keep it close so that he could win the game then. Gibson did just that, scoring nine of Cleveland's 15 third quarter points, which was enough to keep Cleveland right in the game, down just 67-65 with 12 minutes to play.

Sure enough, James took over the fourth quarter; maybe the Cavaliers should just rename the third quarter the fourth quarter, like some buildings superstitiously don't refer to a 13th floor. James led both teams in scoring, rebounds and assists in the decisive period and he showed great interest in the one part of the game that to this point has kept him from becoming the very best player in the game: defense. James took on the challenge of guarding Billups, the Piston who had played the best in the first 36 minutes, and basically shut him down, though of course he received defensive help from his teammates, including Gibson, who drew a key charging call on Billups with just 2:28 left and Cleveland leading 87-81. Billups shot 0-3 from the field and had three turnovers and one assist in the fourth quarter. In addition to the charge, Billups threw the ball away to end one possession and badly misfired on an off balance three pointer with :44.9 left and the Pistons only down three, 88-85. James sealed the win by making two free throws at :04 to put the Cavs up 91-87. In the ensuing timeout, he reminded his teammates to simply raise their arms up and not even jump because the Pistons were sure to try to make a three pointer and draw a foul for a potential four point play.

It is said that success has many parents but failure is an orphan but in Detroit's case the "father" of this victory was pretty evident. As Hamilton said, "We can't turn the ball over, we have to put it on the backboard, where our bigs can get tip-ins." Detroit did not commit an outlandish number of turnovers--12--but eight came in the second half and Billups' two most costly ones happened in the final three minutes of a very close game.

Cleveland won Game Five in Detroit last year and it could certainly be argued that they are "due" a road victory in this series considering how competitive the first two games in Detroit were, so this year's Game Five should be very interesting. For the first time in this series, there is a lot of pressure on Detroit, because if Cleveland does win Game Five I don't think that James will let Game Six slip away this year the way it did in 2006. The winner of Thursday's game will probably represent the Eastern Conference in the 2007 NBA Finals.

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

While I waited in the press conference room for Coaches Brown and Saunders to make their pregame remarks, I struck up a conversation with Toni Christy, a stenographer who works for ASAP Sports, a company that the NBA hired to produce press conference transcripts during the NBA playoffs. Christy uses the exact same device at the press conferences that she uses when she works as a court stenographer; it looks like a typewriter but has fewer keys and none of them are labelled. The smaller keyboard helps stenographers to type faster--Christy types 230 words per minute--but also requires them to memorize which combinations of keys to hit in which order to bang out complete words or phrases. Christy has a digital dictionary that she plugs into the top of the device that provides the template for each particular event. In other words, for a court case a certain combination of keys may mean "lawyer" or "judge" or other common legal terms but when Christy unplugs that dictionary and puts in the basketball dictionary that same combination of keys now might mean "rebound" or "blocked shot." Christy also has dictionaries for golf and baseball, her favorite sport. In addition to her court duties and transcript work, Christy also does closed captioning for various events, including televised major league baseball games. I always wondered where the closed captioners were located and Christy answered that question: generally, they are sitting at home, dressed comfortably and watching the broadcast on regular television; she also listens to a separate audio feed through headphones, so if her TV goes on the fritz or bad weather strikes her area she can still provide the closed captioning. Christy is very interested in sports and enthusiastically described her experience doing the closed captioning for a very inspirational speech that Dick Vitale gave to University of Florida athletes (as usual when she does captioning work, she listened in the comfort of her own home). She mentioned that he speaks very quickly, which makes the captioning work challenging, but she added that his speech alternately had her laughing at his wit and then in tears as he spoke about Jim Valvano, the former North Carolina State basketball coach who died of cancer. Christy was so enthralled by Vitale's message that she taped the speech for her teenaged son.

***

During his pregame press conference, Brown downplayed his team's success against Billups and Hamilton, obviously not wanting to provide bulletin board material; Brown has clearly patterned himself after Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich in several ways and this is one of them: you never hear the Spurs saying anything that will get their opponents fired up or feeling disrespected. Brown said, "Those are two great players. There is no way we can stop either one of those guys. They're veterans that have won a championship before...They're going to come out and attack tonight, it's as simple as that." That turned out to be prophetic, particularly regarding Billups, but Cleveland withstood the initial onslaught, made adjustments and won anyway.

As for the offensive end of the court, Brown reiterated that he has emphasized to his players that the way to attack a shotblocker (such as Wallace or McDyess) is to take the ball straight into the player's chest and "put the onus on the referees to make them make the call." There is a great book called Stuff Good Players Should Know in which author and former Duke player Dick DeVenzio calls that "nostril time": you don't double clutch or fade away from a shotblocker; you attack his body and put the ball right past his face so that he cannot create any distance to use his length and jumping ability to swat at the ball, kind of like the way a smaller boxer dives inside to nullify a tall boxer's reach advantage.

***

The Pistons have a champion's swagger, even though they are three seasons removed from winning the title and no longer have the same head coach or starting center. Before the game, Saunders did not seem too concerned about his team's prospects. One reporter asked him an elaborate question about how well James played in Game Three compared to Games One and Two and whether the Pistons could beat the Cavaliers if James played at the Game Three level the rest of the way. Without missing a beat, Saunders simply said, "Yeah" and turned his attention to the next question. Unfortunately for Saunders and his Pistons, James is a lot easier to dismiss in a press conference than he is on the court and it is far from clear that the Pistons can in fact beat the Cavaliers if James plays at a high level. So far, Detroit is 0-2 in such situations--and barely made it to 2-0 even in the games when James played far below his normal capabilities.

Someone else asked Saunders what Billups' message was to his coach about his subpar play and Saunders replied that Billups told him, "I'll be ready." Again, this is an instance where talk and posturing are cheap. This series is more than half over and we have yet to see anything remotely resembling the best of Chauncey Billups. Frankly, it is not enough to make some shots in the fourth quarter (in Games One and Two) when one of the big reasons that the game was so close in the first place is that you stunk up the joint for the first three quarters of the game. The Pistons are very fortunate that their casual approach to this series did not lead to a Cleveland sweep, which probably would have been the result if Cleveland had made just one more shot at the end of games one and two.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:59 AM

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Gi-no-bili! Barkley's Favorite Player Takes Over in the Fourth Quarter

The San Antonio Spurs bounced back from their terrible Game Three performance to post a 91-79 Game Four victory over the Utah Jazz. The Spurs lead the Western Conference Finals 3-1 and are one home win away from their fourth trip to the NBA Finals in the Tim Duncan era. Some analysts fell for the trap of reading too much into the margin of Utah's Game Three win but right after that game I wrote, "Look for a much closer contest in Game Four and don't be surprised if the Spurs go back to San Antonio with a 3-1 lead." Duncan had decent numbers but looked out of sorts at times, leading ESPN's Mark Jackson to say, "I've never seen him play worse." Duncan still managed to put up 19 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots, which is a pretty good night's work for most players, but he did have five turnovers. The Spurs got vital contributions from Manu Ginobili, who finished with 22 points, six rebounds and three steals. He scored 16 fourth quarter points, including three free throws that put the Spurs up 82-72 at the 3:57 mark after Derek Fisher fouled him while he was attempting a three pointer. Tony Parker (17 points), Michael Finley (13 points) and Fabricio Oberto (11 points, 11 rebounds) each scored in double figures for the Spurs.

Some deride Ginobili for flopping when he tries to draw charges but you have to give him credit for this: when he receives a hard foul, he doesn't whine and he doesn't act tough and try to start a fight; he stands up, dusts himself off and shoots his free throws. On the other hand, the Jazz clearly lost their cool down the stretch, as Coach Jerry Sloan and Derek Fisher were both ejected. "They just have not conducted themselves with the poise necessary to win a close game," concluded ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy, who probably wondered why Utah did not collapse like that when he coached the Houston Rockets against them in the first round--doesn't that seem like a lifetime ago? Not only Utah's players and coaches lost their composure but also their fans, who threw debris on the court after the game, as Michele Tafoya explained to the national television audience that it would not be possible to do the traditional postgame interview on the court. The final result and the ugly behavior at the end should not detract from the fine performances turned in once again by Deron Williams (27 points, 10 assists, three steals) and Carlos Boozer (18 points, nine rebounds), who have emerged in this postseason as one of the top young duos in the NBA. They just did not receive enough help from their teammates, none of whom scored in double figures. As ESPN's Tim Legler put it on SportsCenter, "Utah is basically playing two against five offensively." This was Utah's first home loss of the 2007 playoffs and most likely their last home game of these playoffs as well, unless the Jazz are able to pull it together and win in San Antonio, always a daunting task.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:12 AM

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Wise LeBron Leads Cleveland to Victory

LeBron James is "wise beyond his years" TNT's Doug Collins said during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals and Wise LeBron lived up to that billing by guiding Cleveland to an 88-82 win over Detroit, cutting the Pistons' lead to 2-1. James had 32 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. He shot 12-21 from the field and scored 12 points in the fourth quarter. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (16 points, seven rebounds), Sasha Pavlovic (13 points) and Drew Gooden (12 points, six rebounds) each scored in double figures, providing the support that even superstars must have to win at this stage in the playoffs. Rasheed Wallace led a balanced Detroit attack with 16 points, while Chris Webber had 15 points and Tayshaun Prince and Chauncey Billups contributed 13 points each. However, Billups shot just 4-14 from the field and committed five turnovers. Richard Hamilton had his worst game of the series (seven points, 2-8 shooting).

Cleveland got off to a great start in the first quarter, taking a 7-0 lead on the strength of five points by James--two fastbreak dunks, plus a free throw. Billups started the game 0-2 from the field with two turnovers but Detroit weathered the storm and battled back to tie the score at 22 by the end of the quarter. Webber led both teams with nine points on 4-7 shooting, a veritable scoring explosion for him considering his recent production. Larry Hughes had to go to the locker room with what was eventually diagnosed as a "plantar fascia strain," which Craig Sager helpfully explained is not as serious as the now seemingly ubiquitous plantar fasciitis; it is a just a strain that happens in the general area that can be stricken by plantar fasciitis, which is a chronic injury. Hughes is criticized for not being James' Scottie Pippen but that is not fair: Pippen is one of the greatest players of all-time and it is very difficult to find someone with his combination of size, speed and two-way (offense/defense) skills. Also, Hughes is listed as 6-5, 185, while Pippen was 6-7, 228 in his prime. Cleveland assistant coach Hank Egan once described Hughes to me as a "steady Eddie" guy, a calming influence on the team who has an impact in several different ways. Cleveland's best lineup this season includes Hughes at point guard and Pavlovic at shooting guard. Hughes only saw limited action the rest of the way, finishing with six points and two assists. Rookie Daniel Gibson picked up the slack, scoring nine points in the game and playing tough defense on Billups.

James continued to play aggressively and his 19 points, five rebounds and three assists enabled the Cavs to take a 46-43 first half lead. Billups struggled so much that Detroit Coach Flip Saunders benched him for most of the second quarter, but Prince and Webber picked up the slack with nine points each in the first half.

Ilgauskas scored six quick points early in the third quarter but Wallace answered with two three pointers and then Billups hit a three pointer to tie the score at 55. TNT's Marv Albert asked, "Are we watching a meltdown here?" just before Antonio McDyess made a long jumper to give Detroit a 57-55 advantage. Doug Collins noted that the Cavs in general and James in particular have been sluggish in the third quarter of each game in this series. James scored just one point and shot 0-1 from the field in the period, with the lone shot being a wild fadeaway from deep on the left baseline. At halftime, Saunders told Sager that James had gotten many of his points in transition; the Pistons handled the ball better in the third quarter, denying James the opportunity to work his open court magic. Detroit led 63-62 heading into the 12 minutes that would decide, as Collins put it, if Cleveland would make this a series or if the only question left would be how soon Detroit will advance to the Finals.

Cleveland opened the fourth quarter with a lineup of Damon Jones and Gibson in the backcourt, James and Donyell Marshall at forward and Anderson Varejao at center--four shooters, plus rebounder/defender/screen setter Varejao. James nailed a tough fadeaway three pointer from the left baseline on the Cavs' first possession but other than that the shooting lineup started the fourth quarter looking more like the gang that couldn't shoot straight and Coach Mike Brown soon put starters Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden back in the game. Both teams' offenses spent several minutes in deep hibernation until James revived memories of Julius Erving dunking over Bill Walton in the 1977 NBA Finals. "This is as good as it gets!" Collins exclaimed after James uncorked a soaring dunk over Wallace to give Cleveland a 70-68 lead. At the peak of his jump, James held the ball even with the top of the square before throwing it down emphatically. James drew a foul from Wallace on the play but missed the free throw. On a subsequent possession, Gooden fumbled the ball out of bounds and James flexed his right bicep and shouted at Gooden to go up strong.

"When James catches the ball on the wing, he invites the double-team," Collins observed midway through the fourth quarter and this literally seemed to be the case on one key possession, James waving his hand toward himself, then passing to Gibson for a three pointer that put Cleveland up 77-72. A jumper by James made the score 79-73 but Billups, who was just 1-10 from the field to that point, drained a three pointer to cut the lead in half. Ilgauskas answered with a jumper and then James hit a three pointer to put Cleveland up 84-76--but the Rasputin-like Pistons refused to die, trimming the margin to 84-82 before James hit a tough mid-range jumper over Hamilton to give Cleveland a two possession lead, 86-82, with 16 seconds left. That ended the game--and may have started this series.

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

***During the pregame show, TNT's studio crew continued the minute by minute, second by second (over)analysis of LeBron James' every on court action. Charles Barkley acknowledged that ESPN, TNT and others go overboard with their critiques--and then proceeded to reiterate most of the criticisms he previously made of James, saying that James is not "Above the Law" (Steven Seagal movie reference) and should be critiqued when he does not make the right play. Barkley said that he learned a long time ago that he can't please everyone, so he will speak his mind and he made a kissing sound as an indication of what people who don't like his views can do. Kenny Smith seemed to back off of some of his earlier remarks--or at least he clarified them, saying that he did not have a problem so much with James' pass/shoot decisions but just that James waited too long to make his move in the previous games since Cleveland was trailing. Reggie Miller said that people should stop making mention of the fact that James is 22 years old; if he is going to be the face of the league then he has to carry his team--but Miller also admitted that during his first Conference Finals appearance (when he was much older then James is now, by the way) he and the Pacers were just happy to be there. Miller made an excellent point by noting the irony that the league's young players are often criticized for shooting too much and being selfish but that James is taking heat for making the correct and unselfish play in Game One by passing to a wide open Marshall.

***The game had to be stopped a couple times during the first quarter when foam from fire extinguishers in the ceiling of Quicken Loans Arena fell to the court in response to the pregame pyrotechnics that have unfortunately become a staple of NBA games. As TNT's Steve Kerr said, it is no longer just a game anymore, "It's a circus." The NBA needs to get rid of the explosions and the fireworks and bring the focus back to where it should be: the world's greatest athletes. Listening to Commissioner David Stern speak to a small group of reporters after his press conference in Cleveland prior to one of the Cavs' playoff games with New Jersey, I got the distinct impression that he feels the same way that I (and others) do about the over the top production that goes on before games and during stoppages of play; I hope he finds a way to convince or compel teams to put an end to this stuff.

***Wallace hardly seemed broken up by the loss, amiably chatting with friends/family after he changed out of his uniform. Miller said that this tells him that the Pistons are just on cruise control and plan to win the series in five or six games. He may be right but that is what is wrong with this team: the Pistons do not respect the game or their opponents enough to play at a high level consistently. They kind of muddle along and assume that they can win by playing hard for the last five minutes. I much prefer the manic intensity of the Jordan-era Bulls, who treated a midseason game in Vancouver like Game Seven of the NBA Finals. Pat Riley said that there is winning and there is misery and Bill Musselman took it one step further, saying that defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat. Either Detroit is not as good as many people want us to believe or the Pistons do indeed spend a lot of time on cruise control. They are a Donyell Marshall three pointer and Larry Hughes short jumper away from being down 3-0 right now, so complacency hardly seems wise or appropriate. Cleveland took Detroit to the limit last year and the Cavs are better, deeper and more experienced now.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:06 AM

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Jazz Rout Spurs, 109-83

The Utah Jazz convincingly silenced any talk that the San Antonio Spurs would sweep them but still face an uphill battle to win the Western Conference Finals.

The Score: Utah 109, San Antonio 83

The Key Stat: The Jazz outscored the Spurs 66-36 in the second half. Tim Duncan finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and eight turnovers, snapping his streak of 11 straight 20 point/10 rebound playoff games. He only played 26 minutes, picking up his fourth foul at the 5:44 mark in the third quarter with Utah leading just 62-60. Duncan scored five points after that, perhaps becoming a bit tentative. The only Spur who played well was Tony Parker (25 points, seven assists).

The Bottom Line: The Jazz have been a strong team at home throughout the 2007 playoffs but whether they win their home games by six or 26 they still have to win at least one game in San Antonio to take the series. Teams leading 2-0 in the Conference Finals (as the Spurs did before this game) have gone 55-2, so the odds are still against the Jazz turning things completely around. Still, other than the first half of Game One the Spurs have yet to find an answer for Utah point guard Deron Williams (31 points, eight assists, five steals); Carlos Boozer has also played well since early in Game One (27 points, 12 rebounds). Those two players combined to shoot 22-38 from the field (.579) and if the Spurs have to focus more on stopping them then opportunities will open up for other players. Andrei Kirilenko was missing in action (0-2 shooting, two points, two rebounds) but Derek Fisher, Gordan Giricek, Matt Harpring and Paul Millsap all made solid contributions.

The best news for the Spurs is that the old adage still holds true that they don't start the next game down by 26 points. The score was 75-69 Utah early in the fourth quarter, so the game really only got out of hand late. Look for a much closer contest in Game Four and don't be surprised if the Spurs go back to San Antonio with a 3-1 lead.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:30 AM

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