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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Ballhype's Playoff Pick'em Contest

I finished 13th overall out of 554 entrants in Ballhype.com's Playoff Pick'em Contest but second among the members of the "Carnival of the NBA Group." The scoring was not based strictly on picking the winners correctly because picking an underdog that won carried more weight than picking a favorite that won. Also, you could change your pick during a series but even if your new pick was right you still would not get as many points as someone who chose correctly before the series began. A significant chunk of my points came from correctly predicting before the playoffs began that San Antonio would beat Cleveland in the NBA Finals. On the other hand, I would have had a much higher score if I would have latched onto the Utah Jazz sooner or picked Detroit to beat Chicago.

The person who narrowly edged me for first place among "Carnival" members only recently joined the "Carnival," so he graciously decided that I should receive the top prize, an "Orange Roundie" t-shirt; "Orange Roundie" is a copyrighted phrase that the YaySports!NBA blog coined to describe a version of the NBA's synthetic basketball that tells its own life story.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:20 AM

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Friday, June 15, 2007

King James and his Court Can't Stop Spurs' Coronation

The 2007 NBA Finals may have set offensive basketball back 10 years, as Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich put it, but the Spurs' 4-0 sweep cemented their place on the short list of the NBA's greatest dynasties.

In my newest article for NBCSports.com, I look at how the Spurs stack up to some of the NBA's previous great champions and how the Spurs have managed to be consistently excellent for so long:

King James and his Court Can't Stop Spurs' Coronation

posted by David Friedman @ 7:11 AM

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Swept Away: Cavs’ Valiant Effort Not Enough to Stop Spurs From Claiming Fourth Title

The Cleveland Cavaliers battled back from an 11 point second half deficit to take a three point lead with 6:54 remaining in the fourth quarter but the San Antonio Spurs made just enough plays down the stretch to win Game Four 83-82 and earn the eighth sweep in NBA Finals history. This is the Spurs’ third championship in five years and the fourth since Tim Duncan joined the team 10 years ago. Only the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls have won more NBA titles—and those franchises have been in the league much longer than the Spurs, who started out as an ABA team and joined the NBA after the leagues merged prior to the 1976-77 season. Tony Parker scored 24 points on 10-14 shooting and was a landslide 9-1 winner in voting for Finals MVP. Manu Ginobili scored a game-high 27 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. Duncan, ever the perfectionist and keen competitor, openly expressed his disappointment with his pedestrian numbers (12 points on 4-15 field goal shooting and 4-10 free throw shooting, 15 rebounds, two blocked shots and six turnovers). LeBron James had 24 points, 10 assists and six rebounds but he too was far from pleased by his performance and rightfully so: he shot just 10-30 from the field and 2-6 from the free throw line and he committed six turnovers. “If I don’t play well, our team is not going to have a good chance to win,” he said simply. “I’ve got a lot of things to work on to get better for next year. There’s no one thing that I want to focus on intensively, it’s just everything. I definitely need to get better and once I get better our team will automatically get better. I have to do everything that I’ve done well and continue to improve in order for us to be a better team next year.”

Cavs point guard Larry Hughes was placed on the inactive list for the second game in a row and rookie Daniel Gibson once again started in his place. Gibson (10 points on 4-10 shooting in a career-high 43 minutes) played better than he did in his Game Three start but still did not match the production that he provided recently in his role coming off of the bench.

Anyone who thought that the Cavaliers were going to quit in Game Four does not understand the type of team that General Manager Danny Ferry has put together or the mentality that Coach Mike Brown has instilled in his players. All year long, James has led the team in saying “1, 2, 3, championship” as they broke out of huddles, so they were not about to emulate Nick Van Exel's infamous chant, "1, 2, 3, Cancun.” The problem is that whatever blows the Cavs delivered in this series the Spurs always hit back harder, as if to say, “Is that all you’ve got?” Cleveland took a 10-5 lead to open the game and was very active on the boards, just like in Game Three—but by the end of the first quarter, the score was just 20-19 Cleveland and by halftime the Spurs led 39-34. I was seated next to a writer for Spurs.com and at one point I said to him that points have been at such a premium in this series that when a team scores four straight points it seems like a 10-0 run and the other team promptly calls timeout. He responded that he’s watched the Spurs all season and Coach Gregg Popovich tends to call timeouts quickly if he doesn’t like what he sees; Brown, one of Popovich’s assistants on the 2003 championship team, is very much like Popovich in this regard (and others as well).

The third quarter has been troublesome for Cleveland throughout the playoffs and it seemed like their season might die in the third quarter of Game Four when the Spurs pushed the lead to 60-49 after Duncan’s hook shot with :56 remaining. If the Cavs were ever going to give up, being down 3-0 and trailing in Game Four by 11 with little more than 12 minutes to go would be the time to do it—but instead they went on a 14-0 run to take a 63-60 lead with 6:54 left. The Cavaliers used their small, quick lineup of Anderson Varejao, Donyell Marshall, LeBron James, Daniel Gibson and Damon Jones to make this final push. The downside of utilizing that personnel grouping is that they can be attacked in the paint and on the glass. Ginobili hit a three pointer to put the Spurs up 69-66 with 4:15 left and James missed a three pointer on the Cavs’ next possession. Then came the key sequence in the game. Ginobili missed a shot but Fabricio Oberto got the rebound. A kicked ball violation by James reset the shot clock to :14, Bowen missed a jumper and Duncan snagged the rebound. Duncan missed a jumper but Bowen ran down that rebound. Oberto eventually scored a layup off of a nice Duncan feed—and then made a free throw to complete a three point play. The Spurs ran more than a minute and a half off of the clock while all this happened, emerging with a 72-66 lead with just 2:29 to go. Cleveland kept things close, aided by a Ginobili foul on Damon Jones that led to three free throws, but the Cavs’ inability to get a defensive rebound at that crucial moment sealed their fate. When Ginobili made two free throws with 1.9 seconds left the Spurs led 83-79 and began celebrating. Damon Jones closed out the scoring by making a three pointer.

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

Cavaliers forward Ira Newble has taken a keen interest in the human rights catastrophe that is taking place in Darfur, Sudan. He put together a petition about the issue that most of his teammates signed and he hosted 15 Sudanese refugees for Game Four. These men are known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, members of the Dinka tribe (like former NBA player Manute Bol) who came to Cleveland in 1991. They have received help from Catholic Charities and St. Agnes Our Lady of Fatima Parish.

***

About two and a half hours before the game began, Spurs assistant coaches put rookie James White through a very organized practice routine. He worked on cutting off of screens, catching the ball and then driving to the hoop, all while being bumped and held. Then he did some dribble drive moves from the top of the key, working on splitting traps and finishing strongly at the hoop. Another sequence involved catching the ball on the baseline and either shooting a faceup jumper or driving to the hoop. After White performed poorly in the baseline drill—missing the first several shots that he took—he was told that anybody else in the arena could have done just as well and “you have to earn the right to play offense.” He then had to play defense for a few possessions and make some stops before he was allowed to play offense again. He then practiced postup moves and wrapped up the session by shooting free throws. I don’t know what kind of NBA player James White will become but this kind of attention to detail, focus on defense and emphasis on preparation indicate why the Spurs are considered the model organization in the NBA. Their methods of teaching and player development seem to be very similar to those employed by Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots, which is not coincidentally the model organization in the NFL.

***

It has been said that success breeds success and failure breeds failure. Games Three and Four were very competitive but the Spurs found a way to win both of them. In his pregame press conference, Popovich said, “I definitely think that if a team has a core of players that have been together a while it follows that execution is probably a little bit easier for that group under pressure because they’ve done it before and they know what situations are best for them, offensively and defensively. If you haven’t been together that long, it’s a little bit more difficult to react, because five people have to react in a team defense or in an offense. If one person doesn’t react properly or the timing is off or the communication isn’t there, then execution can stop.” After the game, Ginobili echoed these sentiments: “We knew today we had a great opportunity, that if we kept the game close until the fourth quarter we were going to have a great opportunity and that’s what happened. We showed our experience in the last five minutes, we made great plays, good defensive possessions.”

posted by David Friedman @ 5:57 AM

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Interview with Julius Erving After NBA Cares Program in Cleveland

The NBA and the Cleveland Cavaliers, in partnership with Toyota, Disney, Lenovo and Encyclopedia Brittanica, renovated the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland/West Side Club and dedicated a new Learn and Play Center. This is part of the ongoing NBA Cares program. The ribbon cutting ceremony for the facility was held on Wednesday afternoon. NBA legends Julius Erving, Bob Lanier, Bill Russell, Bill Walton, Austin Carr and Campy Russell headlined the attendees, along with NBA Commissioner David Stern and various other league, city and corporate officials.

Afterwards, the legends conducted some brief, informal media availability sessions. Naturally, I gravitated toward Erving. He spoke with me, the Plain Dealer's Bill Livingston and some Cleveland TV reporters for a few minutes. Here are some highlights of his remarks on a variety of subjects (my questions are in italics, other questions are in regular type):

Does LeBron James need more help to eventually bring an NBA title to Cleveland?

"If they're going to play San Antonio they need more. There are a lot of teams they can beat and there are a lot of teams they did beat in seven game series. They beat Washington, they beat New Jersey, they beat Detroit. They beat some very good teams. Maybe they could have beaten Houston, maybe they could have beaten Phoenix--those are all maybes."

You played in your first Finals in the ABA at the age of 24. What do you think of when you see someone as young as LeBron playing in his first Finals? What kind of memories does that bring back for you?

"Seeing anybody in his first Finals is going to evoke special memories. Even though I was the leading scorer and rebounder on that team (the 1973-74 New York Nets), we had some veteran players, particularly Billy Melchionni, who had great experience; he had been a champion in Philadelphia. Our coaching staff of Kevin Loughery and Rod Thorn were seasoned veterans of playoff wars (as NBA players) and guys who really knew what to talk to the players about in the locker room. I was maybe the horse, so maybe they loosened up the reins and let the horse do what the horse had to do, but the braintrust was way beyond what my understanding of the scope of the situation was."

Overall you had a young team, though.

"Yeah, young players but we had veterans on the floor, Melchionni in particular, and Loughery and Thorn (coaching the team)...I thought we had a nice mix of young players but it's the whole package put together that makes you a team that can be a champion, because we were playing against a pretty veteran team in the Utah Stars, with Zelmo Beaty, Willie Wise, Ron Boone and that crew--they were actually more experienced than we were."

Did you regard it as a big upset--as the commentators did--when your 1976 Nets team beat the Denver Nuggets?

"They dominated us during the regular season but I think that at playoff time us having the championship experience from 1974 really helped. It was something for us to draw on. Brian Taylor played a very significant role during that time, too. The battle with San Antonio before that, going seven games and coming through that healthy, gave us an edge. If you look at the first two games in Denver, I had sensational games, scoring 48 and 45 points, and we got the split. Getting the split was everything for us, because that set the stage; we pretty much played even after that, but we had taken the home court advantage."

What do you look for in Game Four of the Finals?

"I'm not going to be here (laughter). I don't know; I look for a great effort from the Cavs, maybe some great individual play. I don't know if the collective effort of the Cavs can equate to a victory against the collective effort of the Spurs. I think that you might see some pretty good individual efforts because when you get to elimination games--LeBron, maybe Drew (Gooden) or Gibson, might rise to the occasion and have pretty good games. But there is (also) a tendency in elimination games for some guys to disappear and the deletion will probably be greater than the enhancement."

Does some of LeBron's style as a dunker remind you of yourself, particularly his extension and the way he holds the ball over his head with one hand?

"That's a really interesting question. I never really got to see myself dunk a whole lot; I usually just watched the expression on the other guys' faces (laughter)."

But when you see your dunks on highlight films...

"When I see him dunk it is an awesome experience. I think if he went to the Slam Dunk Contest he would win it every year because he jumps so high, elevates and throws it down so hard, with the emphasis and the impact. I've still got scars on my wrists and going all the way up my forearm (from banging against the rim) and I know that he's got a lot of the same. We have to compare them one day. He is an authoritative dunker but he is so much more than just a dunker. He's struggling a little bit with his shot but that will come in time. He will be in many more situations like this and he will learn how to do a little bit less and actually get a little more out of it."

Is this Finals appearance part of the learning curve for James?

"It's a learning curve for the franchise period, so it's a learning curve for everyone who is involved with the franchise even though they've got some members of management and the coaching staff who have championship experience. To be in it where you are the responsible entity (is different). I listened to some of the press conferences yesterday and I didn't hear certain things that I would have expected to hear that would bring it all together."

Like what specifically?

"The defense of what everybody was doing. Everybody was defending his own position, all the way through. Everybody said, 'I did what I needed to do'--but it's not really about what I need to do; it's about what we need to do."

How would you rank LeBron's 48 performance in Game Five against Detroit?

"I saw Andrew Toney score 25 points in a quarter against the Lakers; I probably would equate it with that...I didn't realize what had happened but when we walked in the locker room Darryl Dawkins came over to Toney and said, 'Boy you put something on them tonight.' Then I looked at the stat sheet. I've seen Tracy McGrady--when I was working in Orlando--go on scoring binges like that and of course I've seen Kobe Bryant do it a few times and maybe even Gilbert Arenas. Michael (Jordan) has probably done it but to get them all in succession (like LeBron did, scoring 25 points in a row)--even in my 63 point game in the ABA I don't know if that many of them were in a row. It's probably just a sign of how gifted, how chosen, how talented the kid is, that he can do that when he is the principle playmaker on the team. But there is a time to step up, take charge and just strut your stuff. Kevin Loughery was always good with this. Sometimes he'd say, 'Look, Doc, the game plan ain't working. You've got to make something happen.' I can see Coach Brown over there saying that to LeBron: 'All that stuff we talked about in the locker room ain't working. Give me something.' Boom--that's the green light."

Did Loughery ever kiss you on the floor (like Brown kissed James after the 48 point game)?

"I don't remember being kissed."

Billy (Cunningham) did (after the Sixers won the 1983 championship).

Erving laughs: "Billy did; he gave me a big wet one on the cheek."

posted by David Friedman @ 6:31 PM

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Starting Gibson Not a Panacea for Cavs' Woes

After the first two games of the NBA Finals, fans and pundits alike felt that Cavs' Coach Mike Brown should bench hobbled point guard Larry Hughes in favor of supersub rookie Daniel Gibson. Brown deactivated Hughes for Game Three and started Gibson but this hardly proved to be the cure all that some people expected it to be. Gibson shot 1-10 from the field, ironically matching Hughes' shooting in the first two games, and the Cavs had no scoring punch off of the bench. I discuss the Hughes/Gibson situation, including Coach Brown's pregame and postgame responses to my questions on the subject, in my newest article for NBCSports.com:

Spurs on the Brink of a Sweep

posted by David Friedman @ 11:21 AM

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It's Just a Matter of Time Now: Spurs Take 3-0 Lead Over Cavs

San Antonio's 75-72 Game Three win over Cleveland tied for the second lowest scoring game in the NBA Finals since the advent of the 24 second shot clock in 1954-55--but don't tell the Spurs that they are boring or that their victories are ugly. "We ended up being fortunate enough to win the game, so we're thrilled about it," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said moments after the game. He literally uttered a sigh of relief as he sat down on the postgame interview stage--and for good reason: winning this game all but clinches the Spurs' fourth championship, while a loss would have left the series very much up for grabs.

Tony Parker got off to a slow start but still finished with a team-high 17 points. Tim Duncan finished with 14 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. He shot just 6-17 from the field but attracted so much defensive attention that the Spurs obtained many wide open three pointers, shooting 10-19 from that distance. Bruce Bowen contributed 13 points (shooting 4-5 from three point range) and tied Duncan with a team-high nine rebounds, in addition to his tireless defense against LeBron James. Manu Ginobili shot 0-7 from the field, finishing with three points, five assists and four rebounds. In other words, none of the Spurs' "Big Three" played great from a statistical standpoint and the Spurs still won the game.

James finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists but shot only 9-23 from the field and committed a game-high five turnovers. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (12 points, 18 rebounds) and Drew Gooden provided some much needed energy (13 points, 12 rebounds) as the Cavs dominated the glass early in the contest. The Spurs closed that gap to 48-41 in Cleveland's favor by the end of the game and that was not enough of a margin for the Cavs to overcome their abysmal 3-19 three point shooting.

Cleveland fans will long rue several missed shots and turnovers down the stretch by the Cavaliers, including a wild attempt by Anderson Varejao with the Cavs down two points with 13 seconds left; none of the Cavs' players heard Coach Mike Brown screaming early in that key possession for the Cavs to take a timeout. They will also lament that Bruce Bowen seemed to be trying to intentionally foul James as he attempted a last second three pointer to tie the game. No foul was called and James' shot--on which the Cavs' fleeting title hopes depended--rimmed out.

A play by play account of one of the lowest scoring Finals games hardly figures to be scintillating, so let's turn our focus toward some key storylines and how they have progressed during this series.

1) Tim Duncan's quest for a place among basketball's immortals

Duncan is almost certainly closer to the end of his career than the beginning and his place in history has been secure for some time. Now, though, he is in the process of moving up the charts, so to speak. The 2007 championship will be Duncan's fourth, matching Shaquille O'Neal's total, exceeding Larry Bird's by one and placing him just one title behind Magic Johnson. Duncan has become the face of the post-Michael Jordan era--a stoic and softspoken face (at least publicly) but the face of the league nonetheless. Duncan is younger and in better condition than Shaquille O'Neal was when he won his fourth title, so Duncan has a decent shot at getting five or even six rings, which would match Jordan.

2) LeBron James' quest for a place among basketball's immortals

Unlike Duncan, James is much closer to the beginning of his career than the end. He has already put together some great regular seasons, some great playoff games and some great playoff series. The next step for him individually is to continue to improve his defense, free throw shooting and perimeter shooting; the next step for him to reach the level that Duncan has been at for several years is to lead the Cavs to a championship. It does not seem like he will be able to do this in 2007 but it does seem like James will accomplish this eventually.

3) Speed kills in the NBA

Bob Cousy told me years ago that speed, not size, "separates the men from the boys." This was true when Cousy played in the 1950s and 1960s and it is even more true today as the NBA has legislated against defensive contact on perimeter players. This enables fast players to zip around the court without being held, hand checked or bumped. Tony Parker may very well win the 2007 Finals MVP and if he does then during his acceptance speech he should thank the NBA rules makers. Parker deserves credit for working very hard on his game since he entered the league but there is no doubt that the current NBA rules are tailor made for his game.

4) More "Boobie" is not always a good thing

All we've been hearing since this series began is that the Cavs should bench Larry Hughes, who has gamely played despite a torn plantar fascia in his left foot, and replace him with rookie Daniel "Boobie" Gibson, who has excelled in his role coming off of the bench. I wrote about this subject in a previous post, concluding that Cleveland Coach Mike Brown has some good reasons for not making this change. I asked him about this prior to Game Three and he acknowledged that part of his thought process has been to not disrupt the rhythm of the team; players get used to their roles, so changing those roles can have a bad domino effect. Hughes was placed on the inactive list for Game Three, though, so Gibson got the call to start. His minutes did not increase that much but his role changed and he ended up shooting 1-10 from the field in a close game. I predicted in the aforementioned post that if Hughes did not start then he likely would not play at all, because there is no sense letting him get cold and stiff on the bench before putting him in the game. That turned out to be the case. We all know that his 20 minutes or so of action did not produce much statistically in the first two games but that did not cost the Cavs those games; the blame for that belongs in great part to the Cavs' underperforming frontcourt players Gooden and Ilgauskas, who rebounded and defended poorly in those games, though Gooden did shoot well from the field. Hughes' minutes enabled Gibson to provide a spark off of the bench. Cleveland's bench scored just seven points in Game Three and Gibson was not any more effective statistically as a starter than Hughes had been. Maybe coaches actually know more about their players' limitations than outsiders do. What a shocking concept!

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

Bill Livingston, who currently writes for the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, agreed with my assessment that he has been blessed; at the beginning of his career he had the privilege of covering Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers and now he has the opportunity to chronicle the exploits of young LeBron James. Livingston told me and the Philadelphia Daily News' Phil Jasner (winner of the 2004 Curt Gowdy Award presented by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame) that James' 48 point performance in Game Five versus Detroit is the best thing that he has seen in all of his years covering the NBA. Jasner did not disagree, although he mentioned that Allen Iverson's 48 point performance in Game One of the 2001 NBA Finals was also amazing.

***

Patrick Ewing, Julius Erving, Bill Russell and Bill Walton came to center court during a stoppage of play and were warmly greeted by the Quicken Loans Arena crowd. Erving seemed to receive the loudest cheers, though Russell was probably not too far behind. Erving looked up to Russell as a youngster, while Ewing admired Erving--several generations of basketball greatness were represented at that moment.

I spoke with Erving briefly right after he made a pregame appearance on NBA TV. I interviewed him in 2004 for my Basketball Digest article about the two ABA-NBA All-Star Games (1971 and 1972). I asked him if he read my recent NBC piece titled The Legacy of the ABA. Many things have been written about him over the years, so he could have just offered some generic comment--but he not only said that he had read the article but he mentioned some specific passages that appeared in it. That is so like Erving, who is as big a star as anyone but makes you feel important when you talk with him. The applause that he received is well deserved and reflects not only his greatness as a player but the way he conducts himself, in victory and defeat.

***

ABC commentator Mark Jackson has adamantly maintained that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA and has a chance to be the greatest player of all time. I spoke with him prior to Game 3 and asked him to compare Bryant to James: “Two great players. I believe that Kobe Bryant is far and away the best player in the world. If you ask some of the great players in the world they will agree with what I said. LeBron James is an outstanding player and is only going to get better. He has had a great run to start his career and far surpassed what people expected of him and he’s going to be a joy to watch for a long time to come.” I asked Jackson to specifically explain why Bryant is better than James, suggesting that free throw shooting and defense are two obvious areas where James can improve. “Those things (and) Kobe is an outstanding outside shooter, which stretches the defense. They are both great players, apples and oranges, but I believe that Kobe Bryant, by far—and not just compared to LeBron—is the best player in the league.”

I asked Jackson if being the best player means that you should win the MVP. He replied, “Kobe Bryant wasn’t the MVP of the league this year. I voted for Dirk Nowitzki and I voted for Steve Nash second. You don’t have to be the best player to be the MVP…I voted for Kobe third. I would not vote for anyone for MVP from a team that did not make the playoffs. I thought that it was a feat for the Lakers to make the playoffs and that is why Kobe was worth consideration.”

posted by David Friedman @ 4:46 AM

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Monday, June 11, 2007

George Vlosich: The LeBron James of Etch A Sketch

I first met George Vlosich III at the 2004 National Sports Collectors Convention, which was held in Cleveland, Ohio. He had a display booth where he exhibited his fantastic artwork. Vlosich is a very talented artist who works in multiple media but he is most well known for his remarkable ability to create highly detailed images using an Etch a Sketch. I wrote a profile about him for the November 12, 2004 issue of Sports Collectors Digest.

By chance, I recently bumped into him at a Cavaliers playoff game. He told me that he designed the "FatHead" walls at Quicken Loans Arena and the logo for the Cavaliers' 1986-87 Hardwood Classics uniforms and that he was working on an Etch A Sketch of LeBron James. Here is a link to a Youtube video showing how Vlosich created the James sketch:

George Vlosich's LeBron James Etch a Sketch

You can find more of Vlosich's work here.

posted by David Friedman @ 10:08 PM

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Basketball 101: Spurs Put on a Clinic Against the Cavaliers

The first two games of the 2007 NBA Finals seemed more like a basketball clinic than a competition, with San Antonio doing the teaching and Cleveland learning some hard lessons about what it takes to win at the highest level of the sport.

In my newest article for NBCSports.com I give an overview of what we've seen so far and discuss some adjustments that the Cavaliers must make to get back in the series as the action shifts to Cleveland on Tuesday night:

Basketball 101: Spurs Put on a Clinic against the Cavaliers

posted by David Friedman @ 1:50 PM

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Tony Parker and the Spurs Race Past the Cavs

The Cavs again had no answer for Tony Parker, who scored a game-high 30 points as San Antonio beat Cleveland 103-92 to claim a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals. The series now shifts to Cleveland for Games Three, Four and (if necessary) Five. Parker only had two assists but he shot a blistering 13-20 from the field. Tim Duncan picked up the playmaking slack with eight assists as he nearly posted a triple-double (23 points, nine rebounds). Duncan was not officially credited with any blocked shots but his presence in the paint deterred or altered numerous attempts and contributed to Cleveland shooting just .407 from the field. The third member of San Antonio's "Big Three," Manu Ginobili, also had a big game: 25 points, six rebounds, two assists, three steals. LeBron James rebounded from his subpar Game One to post 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists but he shot just 9-21 from the field and committed six turnovers. Daniel Gibson scored 15 points in 32 minutes of action off of the bench.

James demonstrated a very aggressive mindset early in the game but was relegated to the bench with two fouls at the 9:05 mark in the first quarter. Cleveland trailed 7-4 at that point but matters quickly went downhill and the Spurs led 28-17 by the end of the quarter. James has been the Cavs' most effective defender on Parker, who scored all seven of his first quarter points after James left the game. James played the entire second quarter, scoring 13 points but, as Charles Barkley might say, by that time the Spurs' brushfire had become a raging inferno. San Antonio led 58-33 at halftime, the third biggest halftime margin in Finals history. The Cavs looked sluggish and confused as the Spurs beat them to rebounds and loose balls and took advantage of several Cleveland mental errors. No one had looked this bad in the Finals since Utah staggered to a 96-54 loss to Chicago in Game Three in 1998.

The Cavs basically played the Spurs to a standstill in the third quarter and there was no reason to think that the outcome of this game would ever be in doubt. San Antonio led by as many as 29 points in the second half--but then a funny thing happened on the way to a blowout: Cleveland Coach Mike Brown went to a lineup of James flanked by rebounder/hustle guy Anderson Varejao and three three-point shooters (Gibson, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones). That group played with intensity and purpose and by the 4:53 mark in the fourth quarter Cleveland only trailed 95-87. Amazingly, the Cavaliers had a legitimate chance to win the game--but Parker hit a jumper and Ginobili converted a four point play to avert the potential monumental collapse.

Naturally, you can be sure that the "experts" will wonder why Brown does not play the James-Varejao-Marshall-Gibson-Jones quintet for all 48 minutes in Game Three. One reason is conditioning: other than James, none of those guys regularly starts or logs heavy minutes. Another reason is the element of surprise: teams can adjust to a steady diet of anything and if that group is on the court too long then the Spurs are sure to exploit their obvious defensive deficiencies. Brown will surely go to that combination of players again and he may even do so earlier in Game Three than he did in Game Two but he is not about to completely scrap his regular rotation. Players know and are comfortable with their roles and wholesale changes are not likely to help the Cavs individually or collectively. It is no secret that point guard Larry Hughes has not been the same since he tore the plantar fascia in his left foot in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals. Hughes has bravely gutted it out to this point, so Brown has elected to keep Hughes in the starting lineup, but if you look at the boxscores it is clear that Hughes' minutes are inching downward while Gibson's are increasing.

I expected a close contest in Game Two--and by that I don't mean an eight point game in the fourth quarter after Cleveland trailed by 29 at one juncture. The most disappointing thing about this game was the long stretches during which the Cavaliers seemed to play without a purpose, both mentally and in terms of their intensity/physicality. James started the game aggressively, so we will never know what would have happened if he had not gotten into foul trouble or if Brown had rolled the dice and left James in the game. Still, the Spurs blew the game open in the second quarter even with James on the court, so it was not just a matter of what the Cavs were not doing well but also the fact that the Spurs kicked it into another gear. Maybe they really were rusty in Game One. The natural tendency at this point is to write off the Cavaliers but it is premature to do that until we see how they come out in Game Three at home. The Spurs took a 2-0 lead in the 2005 Finals only to get blown out in Games Three and Four at Detroit. The Cavaliers are an excellent home team and they rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference Finals versus Detroit to win four straight games, so any obituaries for the Cavaliers' season must wait at least one more game.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:55 AM

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Is Coaching in the NBA Really so Easy That Even a Caveman can do it?

Everyone apparently "knows" that Daniel Gibson should be starting at point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers in place of the hobbled Larry Hughes--everyone except Cleveland Coach Mike Brown. Why is Coach Brown reluctant to make an adjustment that many people think that he must do?

One interesting thing about being a head coach in the NBA is that there are only 30 jobs available but yet there are literally millions of people who think that they are well qualified for the task. Hughes' mobility has been limited ever since he tore the plantar fascia in his left foot in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals. Meanwhile, rookie Gibson has emerged as a clutch shooter and a surprisingly effective defensive player. On the surface, benching Hughes and starting Gibson seems like an obvious move. Let's go beneath the surface, though, and examine some possible reasons why Brown has kept his rotation the same:

1) Cleveland has been winning with this rotation.

Cleveland won the game during which Hughes sustained his injury and the next three games as well. Even in the Game One loss versus the Spurs the Cavs only trailed by five at halftime.

2) If Hughes does not start he may become stiff from sitting on the bench, rendering him ineffective.

I know that cynics will respond that Hughes is already ineffective but the reality is that if he is going to play hurt it makes little sense to bring him off of the bench. He is most likely to be loose right after the pregame warmups.

3) If Gibson starts then the bench will lack firepower.

If Gibson starts then Hughes will likely not play that much because he will not be able to get loose coming off of the bench. Who will provide scoring punch for the second unit? Making Gibson a starter is not just one change; it sets off a domino effect that alters the roles of Hughes, Gibson and whoever will take over Gibson's role.

4) One cannot assume that Gibson will maintain his current productivity if he is given additional minutes.

Gibson is a rookie who has not been a starter or received heavy minutes for most of this season. It is more than a little unrealistic to believe that his playing time can be increased to 40 mpg (as some have suggested it should be) with no corresponding drop off in his performance. In fact, he has yet to play 40 minutes in a game even once in his short career.

Coach Brown has steadily increased Gibson's playing time throughout the playoffs but it is clear that he does not want to change his rotation unless Hughes becomes physically unable to play at all. This is quite understandable when one considers that Gibson averaged just 16.5 mpg in his 60 regular season games this season. While he has played well in some recent playoff games it does not make sense to believe that simply turning the point guard position over to him is the best move for the Cavs. Brown is correct to continue to start Hughes as long as Hughes is able to play. This enables Brown to keep all of his players in their normal, accustomed roles. He can adjust playing time during the game as foul trouble, matchups and other considerations dictate. Perhaps Gibson will indeed play 35-40 minutes in a game at some point in this series but when all factors are considered it is understandable why Coach Brown has elected to not start Gibson.

The part of this story that no one is talking about is the idea that Hughes cannot make his injury worse by getting shot up with painkillers and playing. Bill Walton was told the same thing in the 1978 playoffs, as was Grant Hill in the 2000 playoffs. Both of them played and both of them made their injuries worse. I respect Hughes' toughness and devotion to the team and hope that things work out for the best but he certainly is taking a risk by playing, particularly considering that he has to artificially deaden the pain to do so.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:30 AM

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