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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Celtics Edge Raptors 89-85 in NBA Europe Live Tour Opener

It is a long way from Rome to the NBA title--literally and figuratively--but the revamped Boston Celtics got off to a good start with an 89-85 preseason victory over the Toronto Raptors in the opening game of the NBA Europe Live Tour, played before 11,118 fans in the sold out PalaLottomattica. New Celtic Kevin Garnett scored 19 points and had a game-high 16 rebounds, while Paul Pierce led all scorers with 21 points. Garnett shot 8-16 from the field, while Pierce shot 8-14. The third member of Boston's "Big Three," Ray Allen, had a quiet performance, contributing 10 points on 4-13 shooting. Starting center Kendrick Perkins picked up three quick fouls, finishing with eight points and seven rebounds.

One of the big questions for Boston this year is what kind of production the team will get out of the point guard position. Starter Rajon Rondo had six assists and just one turnover but scored only four points while shooting just 2-7 from the field; expect him to be left open to shoot many jumpers while teams trap and pressure the Celtics' stars. Reserve guard Eddie House scored 14 points on 6-10 shooting in just 22 minutes but, as NBA TV announcers Tim Capstraw and Dave Johnson noted, despite House's diminutive stature he is not a true point guard; House only had one assist. House's outside shooting could be valuable for the Celtics but his limitations as a playmaker and defender mean that he simply cannot be relied on for more than 15-20 mpg. T.J. Ford led Toronto with 15 points and five assists. Andrea Bargnani added 13 points and Chris Bosh, who was not able to play for Team USA due to plantar fasciitis, had 12 points and nine rebounds.

The new Celtics era began with Boston winning the jump ball and Pierce earning two free throws after a strong drive to the hoop. He made them both and Boston soon took an 8-2 lead. By the 7:43 mark Garnett, Pierce and Allen had each scored. The trio displayed very good chemistry--at least on offense. Defensively, the Celtics had several breakdowns early in the game, allowing Toronto uncontested drives and wide open jumpers. Capstraw attributed this to "training camp legs" but this is the end of the court that bears watching for the Celtics. There is no doubt that Boston can be a very potent team offensively but championships are won by controlling the paint defensively. It can take some time for a coach to fully implement a defensive system; it will be interesting to see how long this process takes in Boston and whether or not that timetable meshes with fans' expectations and the amount of mileage that Garnett, Pierce and Allen have already put on their bodies. Toronto led 27-20 at the end of the first quarter.

The Raptors extended their lead to 34-22 before House hit a couple jumpers to pull the Celtics to within 34-28. Toronto threatened to push the margin into double digits again, going up 40-31, before Boston closed the half with a 12-0 run. Garnett scored the final points with an offensive rebound that he converted into a three point play. He already had a double double (10 points, 11 rebounds) by halftime. During the halftime show, NBA TV ran a feature story about how Garnett, Pierce and Allen are getting used to each other while at the same time enjoying themselves in Italy. The three stars are grateful to be on the same team, have high expectations but also realize that their legacies will be defined by how well they perform in the playoffs. Pierce noted that it turned out to be a blessing in disguise that the Celtics did not get the number one pick in the draft because if they had then Garnett and Allen would not likely be on the team now. Allen said, "We can each go out and score 20 points apiece but if we don't make our teammates better then we'll be home early--very early--and none of us wants that." Garnett, with a serious look on his face, added, "We've done nothing," before lightening the mood by saying that the trio is not the "Big Three" but rather the "C-tles" (as in the Beatles), concluding with a big smile, "I'm Paul (McCartney)."

Pierce showed off his whole offensive repertoire in the third quarter, scoring on drives, fadeaways and postups but Boston still had some defensive issues and the Raptors outscored the Celtics 28-27 to trail 70-68 going into the final period. Since this is just the first preseason game, the starters sat out the fourth quarter, so we did not get a chance to see what Boston's execution will be like down the stretch of a close game.

Obviously, no sweeping conclusions can be drawn after one preseason game. The Raptors got off to a good start in the first quarter and looked very much like they did last year when they won the Atlantic Division title. They struggled to make shots in the second quarter, scoring just 13 points in what turned out to be the decisive 12 minutes of the game. Barring injuries to key players, it is reasonable to expect that they will be at least as good as they were last year. The Celtics showcased some terrific ball movement, keyed by the unselfishness of their stars; their assist totals (four for Allen, three for Pierce, two for Garnett) do not really reflect how often and how willingly they shared the ball not only with each other but also with their other teammates. If anything, they were almost guilty at times of overpassing, which is not a bad problem to have in the early going with three All-Stars who are getting used to each other. Garnett spent a lot of time down low on offense, particularly on the left block, and it will be great for Boston if he stays there and does not drift outside. The last thing that the Celtics need is to have him shooting jumpers when they already have Pierce and Allen to do that. When Garnett was on the block either Allen or Pierce was on the same side wing to make the entry pass, while the other star was stationed on the opposite wing. Perkins manned the weakside block and Rondo was at the top of the key. That is a pretty basic set, obviously, and one can expect wrinkles to be added by the time the regular season rolls around. Still, that basic set is a pretty good one to operate out of for the majority of the half court possessions. Depending on matchups, the Celtics also moved Pierce to the block at times and on other occasions Pierce utilized an isolation play to attack his defender one on one from the wing. Whoever plays point guard is going to be presented with a lot of open shots and whoever plays center will have many offensive rebounding opportunities. The unanswered question offensively is what will Boston's bread and butter play be down the stretch in close games. Garnett has rarely shined as a featured player in such situations, while Pierce and Allen are used to taking those kind of shots.

The other thing to consider is that in order to be in close games against the best teams the Celtics will have to play good defense. It is usually easy for even a casual fan to notice which players are playing selfishly on offense but when there is a defensive breakdown it is not always obvious who is really at fault. The great teams work together very unselfishly on defense and their players are always quick to help each other. After the game, Boston Coach Doc Rivers said that overall he was pleased with his team's defensive "effort," which is not the same as saying that he was satisfied with his team's defensive execution. The Celtics certainly seemed to put forth effort and in his post game comments Pierce acknowledged that it is very important for Boston to become a good defensive team.

Sharing the ball on offense does not look like it will be a problem for Boston--but that is only part of the challenge for championship level teams. Will Garnett, Pierce, Allen and the other "C-tles" work just as hard and share the load as smoothly on defense?

posted by David Friedman @ 11:48 PM


Spurs on the Brink of a Sweep

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 6/13/07

Bruce Bowen made LeBron James work on every possession, shot 4-5 from three point range and tied Tim Duncan with a team-high nine rebounds as the Spurs edged the Cavaliers 75-72 to take a 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals. "He did everything for us," Duncan said after the game. "You can’t say enough about him. He’ll get it done and it doesn’t matter if he gets one shot or eight shots...That’s what defines our team, what he does." Duncan had a subpar night statistically--14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, nine rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots--but don’t let the numbers fool you; much of San Antonio’s success at both ends of the court is a direct result of his presence. Duncan shuts down the paint on defense, forcing any Cleveland player who drives to shoot a contested shot. His defensive work in the previous games seemed to affect the Cavaliers’ approach in Game 3; they settled for too many three point shots and connected on just three of their 19 attempts from behind the arc. On offense, Duncan seems to be a magnet for Cavaliers’ players, who swarm him trying to prevent him from utilizing his deadly jump hooks and face-up bank shots. That leaves the other Spurs wide open behind the three point line and they came through by making 10 of their 19 three pointers. "That was a huge difference in the game," Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said, noting that the teams were pretty even in most of the other statistical categories.

Tony Parker got off to a slow start and did not score until the 7:35 mark in the second quarter but he ended up with a team-high 17 points. Before the game, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich talked about Parker’s evolution as a player: "When he first came and we got him into training camp, we knew right away that we had a competitor, and we put him to the test, we stuck him in the frying pan and we wanted to find out if he was going to be able to handle it, if he was going to break or if he was going to take it and show something. We did a couple things before the draft in working him out. We set it up a certain way to see if he could handle the physical nature of what was about to happen to him in the NBA and he came through with flying colors on that. Then when the real training camp began, all the drills that we did with him went toward the physical side and we had guys that understood that he needed to be tested quickly and they did and he rose to the occasion. Throughout the season he’s steadily improved himself, as I said before, in the decision-making area. We know he can score. He’s a little bit underrated defensively; he takes pride in it. But his decision-making, understanding the game situation, behind, ahead, shot clock, momentum, who hasn’t touched the ball lately, what might work, you know, giving me suggestions from time to time the way Avery (Johnson) used to do, he’s starting to get into that league and that’s been great to see."

LeBron James led the Cavaliers with 25 points and seven assists. He also had eight rebounds, all on the defensive glass, but he again struggled with his ballhandling/decision making--committing five turnovers--and he shot just 9-23 from the field. "We do pretty good with sticking with our game plan," Duncan said of the Spurs’ success defending James. "It’s worked so far and we’re not going to change a whole lot. Whether he tries to impose his will or not, we’re going to be standing in front of him."

The Cavaliers got off to a good start and led by as many as eight points in the first half. The difference for the Cavs compared to the first two games was the tremendous energy provided by Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden on the boards. Midway through the first quarter, Gooden had outrebounded the Spurs 6-5. The Spurs are like flowing water, though. Water does not seem to be as strong as rock but over time water creates canyons. The Spurs keep flowing and keep pounding and eventually they carve up their opponents. By halftime, they led 40-38 and they never trailed again.

Prior to the game, Cleveland placed starting point guard Larry Hughes on the inactive list and elevated Daniel Gibson to the starting point guard spot. This is a move that many observers have been clamoring for but there is a reason that coaches do not like to tamper with their player rotations unless it is absolutely necessary. I asked Coach Brown about this in his pregame press conference and he replied, "Larry went three straight games against the team that won the East (i.e., had the best regular season record in the conference) in the Pistons and we had a nice rotation that we’re comfortable with. Daniel has a nice rhythm coming off the bench. He feels good about it, we feel good about it. That’s the reason. I’m not worried about Daniel playing 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes. He’s a young guy and he’ll have a few months to rest here in a couple of weeks, so it doesn’t matter." At that point, Brown had yet to speak with the training staff to ascertain Hughes’ condition but Brown said, "If he (Hughes) can go, it’s going to be just like normal. He’s going to start, and I’ll keep watching him. His minutes may be limited like they have been ever since he’s been injured against Detroit and even in the last two ball games and then if he can’t (start) we’ll just have to make a decision."

Gibson thrived when he came off of the bench but he struggled mightily as a starter, even though his minutes did not increase that much. He shot 1-10 from the field, including 0-5 from three point range. Moreover, Hughes went from starting to not even playing at all, which further altered the Cavaliers’ rotation and basically completely depleted their bench, which accounted for just seven points. Granted, Hughes hardly put up great numbers in the first two games, but if he had been able to start and play 20 minutes then the Cavaliers could have used their normal rotation, Gibson would probably have played a little better and the Cavaliers may very well have won. After the game, I asked Brown if Gibson’s performance as the Game 3 starter is indicative of why Brown did not make this move earlier in the series. "The team had a nice rhythm, starting Larry and bringing Daniel off the bench," Brown said. "Daniel had a nice rhythm also. That’s why we wanted to keep it like that." Of course, Brown tried to spin this situation positively for the future, concluding, "Tonight I had a gut feel and I went with starting Daniel and I thought he did some good things out on the floor. His shot didn’t go down, but I thought he defended well. I thought he tried to run the team as best as he can and there were some positives. It was a good experience for him to start in a game like that."

The game still came down to the final seconds. With 25.9 seconds left and the Spurs clinging to a 72-70 lead, Anderson Varejao grabbed a defensive rebound. Brown repeatedly screamed that he wanted a timeout but neither his players nor the referees heard him. James ultimately got the ball, drove to the hoop and passed to Varejao. After the game, James explained that he expected to get the ball back "to get a good look at it or give my teammate a better look at it but it was just a miscommunication." Varejao missed a shot but the Spurs left the door open when Manu Ginobili split a pair of free throws. James scored on a quick drive to the hoop, Ginobili made two free throws and the Cavaliers had one last shot, trailing 75-72 with 5.5 seconds left. James caught the ball, Bowen seemed to try to foul him--"incidental contact," James said after the game, making no excuses--and James’ shot rimmed out.

The Cavaliers’ fate in this series hung in the balance as that ball danced on the rim; down 2-1, the Cavs would be full of life but instead they are down 3-0 and the only question left about this series is when the Spurs will deliver the final death blow.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:47 AM


Friday, October 05, 2007

Basketball 101: Spurs Put on a Clinic in the First Two Games Versus the Cavs

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 6/11/07

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. Game 1 was close in the first half but then the Spurs’ suffocating defense and precise offensive execution took over in an 85-76 victory. In Game 2 the Spurs raced to the third biggest halftime lead in Finals history, 58-33. San Antonio pushed that margin to 89-60 near the end of the third quarter but Cleveland went on a 27-6 run and only trailed by eight with 4:53 remaining. Cleveland nearly transformed what was shaping up to be one of the worst Finals performances ever into perhaps the most improbable comeback of all time--but a Tony Parker jumper and a four point play by Manu Ginobili put the game out of reach and the Spurs won, 103-92. After the game, Ginobili made it clear that he was not pleased at how the fourth quarter went. "It was irresponsible of us," he declared. Parker led the Spurs in scoring again with 30 points, while Tim Duncan flirted with a triple double (23 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) and Ginobili contributed 25 points, six rebounds, two assists and three steals. LeBron James started the game playing much more aggressively than he did in Game 1 but he picked up two quick fouls and had to sit out the final 9:05 of the first quarter. James struggled when he returned to the game, shooting an airball free throw and an airball jumper but he closed the game strongly as the Cavs made their late run, finishing with 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists. It was still not a vintage James performance, though: he only shot 9-21 from the field and he committed six turnovers.

On the surface it might seem like Cleveland faces a host of insurmountable problems but there are three main areas that the Cavs need to address before Game 3. (1) The Cavaliers must get a handle on Parker’s dribble penetration and force him to get his points outside of the paint. (2) The Cavaliers must maintain a higher level of focus and effort and eliminate the mental errors that plagued them in both games. James’ early foul trouble in Game 2 was a direct result of a missed defensive rotation, which left James guarding Duncan in the post. (3) If the Cavaliers are going to continue to double-team Duncan then he must not score over 20 points while shooting better than .500 from the field. So far, the Cavs have neither shut down Duncan nor contained his wingmen Parker and Ginobili. The Cavs cannot win if Duncan is going to hurt them with his scoring and his passing, on top of the way that he has completely shut down the paint defensively.

After Game 1, many observers suggested that rookie Daniel Gibson should either start in place of Larry Hughes or at least receive heavier minutes. Hughes, who tore the plantar fascia in his left foot early in the Eastern Conference Finals, started Game 2 but played only 20 scoreless minutes, while Gibson scored 15 points in 32 minutes. The Cavs made their fourth quarter comeback with a lineup of LeBron James, Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson and Damon Jones--basically, Cleveland flanked James with one rebounder (Varejao) and three three-point shooters. On paper that is not a great defensive group but they held their own at that end while really providing a spark offensively. The reason that Coach Mike Brown does not start that unit or deploy it for more extended minutes is that, other than James, none of those players have received heavy minutes all season. That group can definitely provide a spark for a short period of time and Coach Brown might go to that lineup a little earlier in Game 3 but it is not realistic to expect that combination of players to last for 35 or 40 minutes, both from a stamina standpoint and also because if they are out there that long then the Spurs will exploit them defensively. Think of a blitzing defense in pro football--it is a great surprise weapon but if you blitz on every down then any decent quarterback will pick it apart. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich candidly admitted after the game that some of his substitution patterns and defensive calls in the fourth quarter were not the best; San Antonio will no doubt react differently--and more effectively--the next time that group of players is on the court together. Meanwhile, the Cavs must get more offensive production out of starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and more defensive awareness from starting power forward Drew Gooden, who has shot well during the first two games but had several lapses at the other end of the court, including running out at Parker, enabling him to drive, as opposed to closing out his defensive rotation with an angle that forces Parker to shoot a contested jump shot.

When they are at the best the Spurs look like five bodies connected to one mind: on defense they hound James all over the court, making sure that multiple bodies obstruct his path to the hoop, while on offense their player movement and ball movement is razor sharp. What the upcoming games in Cleveland will tell us is whether the Cavs’ late runs in Games 1 and 2 resulted from Cleveland increasing its intensity and focus or the Spurs merely letting up off of the gas pedal a bit as the finish line neared. If it is the former and if the Cavs can sustain their good play for more than a quarter at a time, then this could still turn into a competitive series; otherwise, the first NBA Finals games ever played in Cleveland could be the last games of this year’s Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 AM


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Kevin Durant--Shooting Guard?

Even before Greg Oden was sidelined for the season by microfracture surgery, Kevin Durant was widely considered to be the favorite to win Rookie of the Year. Durant clearly has a lot of talent and may very well develop into a great player but after watching him play in the summer league I formed the opinion that he may not be great as soon as people think that he will be. In case you forgot--or did not pay attention in the first place--Durant averaged 24.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, .5 apg, 1.5 spg and 0.0 bpg in four summer league games while shooting .333 from the field, .263 from three point range and .848 from the free throw line. Seattle lost all four games. Yes, that was "just" summer league but you can look at that one of two ways: you can dismiss it because this was Durant's very first live exposure to the NBA or you can raise your eyebrows a bit at how one dimensional Durant's game proved to be against a lot of guys who will not even be on regular season rosters. The only thing that Durant did well was score and he needed a ton of shots to do that.

Yes, Durant looked better by the time the Team USA workouts rolled around but it is safe to say that he is not even close to being a finished product. His thin, frail physique precludes him from being a force in the paint at either end of the court right now, meaning that his ability to make free throws may not prove to be all that relevant because it is hard to see him drawing a lot of fouls; it will also be interesting to see how well he holds up physically (and mentally) over the course of an 82 game season. Seattle is not going to be very good this year and Durant will be expected to carry a lot of weight (no pun intended) in terms of minutes, shot attempts and scoring. A lot of people look at Durant's gaudy rebounding numbers in college and expect that to translate to the NBA but anyone who saw him play during the summer realizes that this is simply not going to happen, at least not any time soon. New Seattle Coach P.J. Carlesimo obviously understands that, because he basically took one look at Durant and shifted him from forward to shooting guard. Maybe some people have visions of Durant being the 21st century version of George Gervin, a slender forward who moved to guard early in his pro career and won four scoring titles--but there are some important differences to consider between Gervin and Durant. Gervin started his career at his natural position of forward and proved that he could rebound, draw fouls and even block shots, averaging 8.4 rpg, 6.3 FTA/g and 1.6 bpg in his first full ABA season (Gervin played just 30 games as a rookie after the Virginia Squires discovered him in the middle of the season while he was playing in the minor league Eastern Basketball Association). San Antonio Spurs Coach Bob Bass moved Gervin to guard late in Gervin's third season, after Gervin had already established himself as an All-Star forward.

Durant has not played one minute of regular season action in the NBA, yet even though he has been advertised as a great inside player his coach already wants him to switch positions. Carlesimo clearly wants to spare Durant from being pounded in the paint but the move to the backcourt will lead to other problems. To the best of my knowledge, Durant has never played guard; now he will have to learn how to do so against the best guards in the world. Also, from what I saw in the summer league, Durant has a very high dribble and is not a great ballhandler, so he will be a turnover waiting to happen if he is relied upon to do a lot of dribbling.

Durant clearly needs to put on some weight but that will be true regardless of which position he plays. I think that he and Seattle would be better served if he takes his lumps at his natural small forward position where he will at least be in the comfort zone of playing in areas of the court that are familiar to him.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:01 AM


The Accelerated Growth Curve of LeBron James

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 6/6/07

LeBron James is on a fast track to greatness that is unparalleled in NBA history. He has led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals at just 22 years of age, four years after he entered the NBA straight out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. There have been younger players who led teams to the Finals and there have been players who led their teams to the Finals prior to their fourth season--but no one who is this young and who has only played four seasons has taken a team to the Finals without playing alongside at least one future Hall of Famer.

James is used to doing things better--and at a younger age--than anyone else: he is the youngest Rookie of the Year winner and he joined Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan as just the third rookies to average at least 20 ppg, 5 rpg and 5 apg. On January 19, 2005 he became the youngest player to have a triple double and on March 20, 2005 he broke Rick Barry’s record to become the youngest player to score at least 50 points in a game. Clearly, James hit the ground running when he entered the NBA and he has been sprinting toward immortality ever since.

Cleveland improved from 17-65 to 35-47 in James’ first season and then advanced to 42-40 in his second season, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker. In 2005-06, James led the Cavaliers to a 50-32 record, the team’s best mark since 1992-93 and the third best record in the Eastern Conference. He finally had the opportunity to showcase his skills in the postseason spotlight. In a 97-86 Game One victory over the Washington Wizards, James posted the first postseason triple double in Cavaliers history (32 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists), becoming the second youngest player (behind only Magic Johnson) to have a triple double in the playoffs and just the third player to do so in his first playoff game.

In Game Two of that series, James had 26 points and nine rebounds but only two assists and 10 turnovers as the Cavaliers lost 89-84. Afterwards, James wryly commented that he had narrowly missed having a second triple double, making it clear that neither his confidence nor his sense of humor had been shaken. He bounced back in Game Three to score 41 points, setting a record for the most points scored by a player in his first road playoff game. In Game Five, James scored 45 points and made the game-winning layup in overtime. The Cavaliers clinched the series in Game Six as James had 32 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.

Most observers thought that the experienced and talented Detroit Pistons would be too much for young James and the Cavaliers and it certainly seemed that way as Cleveland lost the first two games of the series at Detroit. Game Three proved to be a different story, though, as James had his second playoff triple double (21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) and led the Cavaliers to an 86-77 victory. After that game, some people questioned James’ shot selection and aggressiveness--a theme that would recur in this year’s series against Detroit--but James denied that he was either passive early in the game or deliberately more aggressive in the fourth quarter: "I don't plan what I'm going to do before the game. I just react to the game. If I'm doubled, I give the ball up. That's been my motto all year and it's been my motto all my life since I've been playing basketball. But I saw some creases that I could attack in the fourth quarter to give ourselves a chance to win the ballgame."

James helped the Cavaliers to beat Detroit 74-72 in Game Four. The Cavaliers then shocked Detroit and the basketball world when they won Game Five 86-84 in Detroit as James had 32 points, five rebounds and five assists. James seemed to be the only person who was not surprised by this turn of events, calmly saying after the game, "They’re not the big, bad wolf and we're not the three little pigs." Throughout the 2006 playoffs, James maintained a perfect balance mentally, staying confident but not crossing over to being arrogant or surly. He repeatedly said that Detroit is a "great team and we are becoming a good team" but it became clear that his respect for Detroit did not in any way diminish his belief that the Cavaliers could beat the Pistons.

It turned out that James and the 2006 Cavaliers were not quite ready for prime time. The Pistons rallied to win Games Six and Seven. Still, James’ efforts did not go unnoticed. Scottie Pippen, one of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time and an analyst for ESPN during the playoffs, declared that James was already a better player at age 21 than Michael Jordan had been. The day after Pippen said that, I asked James what he thought about such high praise and he replied, "I just go out and play. I can't start comparing myself to the greatest basketball player ever--what he was doing at 21 and what I'm doing at 21. I don't get into that, but that's a great compliment."

James’ regular season statistics declined in most categories in 2006-07, though he still put up good numbers overall (27.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 6.0 apg). The Cavaliers matched their 2005-06 record of 50-32 but this time that was good enough for the second seed, just three games behind the Pistons. James led the Cavaliers to a first round sweep of the Washington Wizards and a six game victory over the New Jersey Nets, setting up a rematch with Detroit--but this time the teams would play for the right to go to the NBA Finals.

Cleveland suffered twin 79-76 losses in Detroit to open the series but, just like in 2006, James led the Cavaliers to two home wins to square the series, setting the stage for the signature game of his career so far: a 48 point, nine rebound, seven assist masterpiece during which he scored 25 straight points, including all 18 of Cleveland’s points in two overtime periods in a 109-107 road victory. I later asked James if, during the heat of the moment, he was aware of exactly how well he was playing and how many points in a row he had scored. He replied, "No, you are mostly focused on each possession and the score of the game and things like that. You are not worried about what is going on as an individual. You are mainly worried about how we can score on this possession and how we can get a stop on the other end--just trying to do what’s best to help the team win the ball game."

The Pistons responded in Game Six by literally sending their entire team at James, providing plenty of open shots for Daniel Gibson, enabling the rookie to score a career-high 31 points as Cleveland won 98-82; despite Detroit’s smothering defensive coverage, James still had 20 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. Prior to Game Six, someone suggested to James that he "grew up" during the series but he politely disagreed: "I don’t know why (people say that). I’m still the same player. If I get doubled and the game is close, I’m going to pass it again. If we make the shot, I’m on top of the world, if not then I’m underneath a lot of trees and leaves and things like that but that’s fine with me. I’ll take the criticism that comes with it. I’m the leader of this team. I get a lot of credit when we win and I’ll take it (the blame) when we lose."

Despite all that James has accomplished, there is still room for improvement. Ron Harper, who won five NBA titles as a player and got an eyeful of James the past couple years as a Pistons assistant coach, says of James, "He is not a great defensive ball player; I mean, at times he plays good but he’s not what I would call an MJ, a Kobe or a Scottie Pippen defender who hawks the basketball, who will cut the basketball floor down. He’s starting to learn how to play and that is what young players do: they learn how to play." Harper explains the difference between those three players and James: "They are very savvy defensive players who know how to cut the angles of the floor off and know what they are trying to do when various players have the basketball. They are great players who could not only guard the basketball but are great help defenders, too. In order to be a great defensive player, you have to have the heart and the pride to say, 'I’m going to stop this guy.' LeBron is having a good playoff series, showing that somewhere down there he has that but I don’t know if he has that all the time. Those guys play that way all the time; they are not only great offensive players but great defensive players, too."

Harper concludes, "When he wins a championship is when I will compare him to MJ, to Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, to Larry Bird to Clyde (Drexler), to the great players." As for who is the best player in the NBA today, Harper declares, "Kobe is the best player in the game, period. There is not a player who comes close to doing what he does on the floor. He wants to guard the best ball players, he wants to take the hardest jump shots, and he wants to do the things he wants to do to win the ball game. There is not a player in the NBA who comes close to doing what he does."

Hall of Famer Hubie Brown, currently an analyst for ESPN and ESPN Radio, concurs with much of Harper’s assessment of James: "He’s always going to be in the top ten in steals because he gambles. Is he great on the ball? He’s average--not great, not bad. He’s average. If you go around and give me all the top scorers, when you go through their careers--Jerry West, Michael Jordan--they’re all on the All-Defensive Team. That will come. You have to remember that he came to the NBA straight out of high school. He is playing the small forward position or sometimes the two guard; those positions take a ton of shots." James guarded 2004 Finals MVP Chauncey Billups for extended stretches during the Pistons series, which represents another stage in his development. Brown says, "That shows confidence in James that he’ll keep him in front with his size and that he’ll put pressure on him on the shot. So they have enough confidence in him to do that, which is great."

James has led Cleveland to a 19-10 record during his playoff career while averaging 28.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg and 7.2 apg. James ranks fifth in career playoff ppg (behind Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Jerry West and Tracy McGrady) and 14th in career playoff apg. No player ranks higher than James on both lists and only two 20 ppg scorers have averaged more playoff assists than James (Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas). James is the only player in playoff history to average at least 25 ppg, 8 rpg and 7 apg. He scored at least 20 points in each of his first 19 playoff games, second all-time to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 27 game streak.

Cavaliers General Manager Danny Ferry summed it up best on the eve of Cleveland’s Game Six triumph over Detroit: "Who knows what path LeBron is going to take? He’s still a young player with an incredible talent, he’s a competitor and it’s going to be exciting to watch it unfold--and it’s going to happen under an intense microscope."

posted by David Friedman @ 5:17 AM


Scott Skiles Decides to No Longer Be a Member of the Fashion Police

To paraphrase Allen Iverson, we're talking about headbands--not a missed practice, not a missed workout, certainly not a missed game or any kind of lack of effort; we're talking about headbands. For some mysterious reason, Scott Skiles--who otherwise appears to be a very good coach--sees some connection between wearing a headband and on court productivity. That led to a very celebrated showdown last season with his star center Ben Wallace, who would no sooner go into battle without his headband than the fastidious Jerry Rice would have taken the field without his uniform looking immaculate. Athletes are creatures of habit and routine and if they are productive and their habits/routines are harmless I have never understood why a coach would try to disrupt his own players' rhythm. In a recent post I mentioned that Bill Russell recalled that Red Auerbach did not believe in setting curfews for his players and in general wanted to set up as few rules as possible. Joe Lapchick had a similar philosophy and his thinking on this subject influenced Bobby Knight. Phil Jackson could care less what color Dennis Rodman's hair was as long as the Worm grabbed 15 rebounds and played good defense. That does not mean that Jackson was soft; if Rodman missed a practice, then Jackson fined him but he did not turn the matter into a confrontation or a public spectacle and the team moved forward (and won three titles with Rodman playing the third most important role behind Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen). John Madden used to say that he had only three rules as a coach: be on time, pay attention and play like hell on Sunday.

So Bulls fans just received the best news that they could have gotten (other than trading for Kobe Bryant without giving up Luol Deng): Skiles has decided to turn in his fashion police badge and let Wallace wear a headband this season. That means less internal turmoil in the locker room and more energy and focus being directed where it should be, on beating the opposition. In a related story, new Sacramento Kings coach Reggie Theus has instituted a curfew for his team on the road and banned cellphones on the team bus. Theus, who ironically was known as "Rush Street Reggie" during his playing career, no doubt has first hand knowledge of how nocturnal activities can be a distraction for players but if he wants to have a long and successful NBA coaching career then he should heed the wisdom of Lapchick, Auerbach and Jackson and pull back the reins a bit.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:09 AM


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

LeBron James Rewards Long Suffering Cleveland Fans With an Eastern Conference Championship

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 6/3/07

Cleveland is home to perhaps the most star-crossed sports fans in the country; after all, in Cleveland, athletic disasters come complete with their own dramatic names: "Red Right 88," "The Drive," "The Fumble." One of the greatest moments in Cleveland sports is "The Miracle at Richfield," which happened when the Cleveland Cavaliers made it to the 1976 Eastern Conference Finals only to lose to the Boston Celtics in six games but, as Steve Kerr wryly put it recently, that is hardly much of a miracle.

All of that tortured history means that Saturday night’s 98-82 victory over the Detroit Pistons in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals is a very special moment in Cleveland sports history. The Cavaliers became just the third team to win a conference championship after trailing 2-0. They also avenged last year’s seven game loss in the Conference semifinals to the Pistons. This set off much celebrating in the arena, which later spilled out into the streets of Cleveland, which were jam-packed with cars--horns honking and people leaning out to high-five each other--and ecstatic pedestrians for hours after the game ended.

The game had a strange flow to it, not least because of a delay of more than 20 minutes prior to the start of the second quarter due to a scoreboard malfunction. That stoppage seemed to rob the Cavaliers of a lot of momentum and they went from leading 27-21 after the first quarter to being deadlocked at 48 at halftime. Not surprisingly, there was much doom and gloom talk in the hallways and the media room at Quicken Loans Arena, as writers quipped that if the Cavaliers lost this game then it would forever be known as "The Clock."

That nickname will not join "The Drive" and the others, however, because the Pistons lost their poise and the Cavaliers discovered an outside shooting threat who can punish teams for double and triple teaming LeBron James. Rasheed Wallace got ejected after he fouled out, which may be some kind of record, but the Pistons already trailed 81-69 at that point, largely because of the three point shooting of rookie guard Daniel Gibson. Detroit swarmed James throughout the game and in the fourth quarter Gibson exploded for a franchise record 19 points as Cleveland turned a close game into a rout. He finished with a game-high 31 points and his nickname, "Boobie," is already becoming a cult phenomenon in Cleveland, as fans came to the game with signs and T-shirts utilizing the word in several ways, some of them at least vaguely off-color.

Of course, none of this Cleveland success would be possible without the singular talents of James, who delivered a performance for the ages in Cleveland’s Game Five road win. That forced Detroit to literally send their whole team at him in Game Six, hoping that no one else on the Cavaliers would make a shot. James shot just 3-11 from the field but he still stormed to the hoop enough to shoot 14-19 from the free throw line and finish with 20 points. He also had game-high totals of 14 rebounds and eight assists, but perhaps his best contributions are intangible: James believes in his teammates and infuses them with confidence. That is why he passed to Donyell Marshall at the end of Game One instead of taking the shot himself--and before Game Six, James informed the assembled media that, if presented with that choice again he would not hesitate to do the same thing.

Prior to the game, I suggested to Cavaliers General Manager Danny Ferry that if James can carry the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals that it would be an unprecedented accomplishment for a player who is so young and who is not playing alongside another current All-Star. Ferry immediately responded, "His goal is not to get to the Finals, but to win it. If he can do that, then obviously it will be an incredible feat for our whole team. I think that our players are better than everyone gives them credit for, but at the same time, the greatness of LeBron is going to overshadow a lot."

posted by David Friedman @ 7:10 AM


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

MSG/Isiah Thomas Case Delivers Another Black Eye to the NBA

The Tim Donaghy scandal caused many people to question the credibility of the NBA's on court product, so the last thing that the league needs is something to give people pause about the way it conducts its business off the court--but instead the NBA received another black eye in the form of a guilty verdict in Anucha Browne-Sanders' civil suit versus Madison Square Garden, the corporation that runs the New York Knicks and for whom Browne-Sanders once held an executive position. Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas was not found personally liable but MSG was ordered to pay Browne-Sanders $11.6 million in damages, $1.6 million more than the amount she asked for in her civil suit. MSG must pay $6 million for allowing a hostile work environment to exist and an additional $2.6 million for retaliating against Browne-Sanders; MSG chairman James Dolan must pay an additional $3 million.

MSG vowed to appeal the verdict and Thomas steadfastly maintained his innocence: "I'm innocent, I'm very innocent, and I did not do the things she has accused me in this courtroom of doing. I'm extremely disappointed that the jury did not see the facts in this case. I will appeal this, and I remain confident in the man that I am and what I stand for and the family that I have." Browne-Sanders declared, "What I did here, I did for every working woman in America. And that includes everyone who gets up and goes to work in the morning. It's for also the women who don't have the means and couldn't possibly have done what I was able to do."

This entire case has presented the NBA in a very unsavory light, with numerous salacious details being discussed in open court. Browne-Sanders' central claim is that Thomas sexually harassed her and that MSG fired her after she complained about his conduct. The guilty verdict will no doubt provide more ammunition to those who believe that MSG should fire Thomas and it will also lead to calls for the NBA to discipline Thomas and MSG. So far, the NBA's stance appears to be that a civil proceeding requires a lower burden of proof than a criminal case and that this situation is not an actionable offense for the league. As NBA spokesman Tim Frank put it, NBA policies "do not encompass civil litigation." That said, for years the media has had no problem distorting Thomas' record as an executive and a coach; now Thomas' many enemies have a very real and very public stick with which to attack him. The stigma from this verdict will linger for quite some time and it is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that Commissioner David Stern will decide that it is such a p.r. disaster that he simply must issue some kind of punishment in order to distance the league from the situation. Needless to say, the NBA justifiably does not want to be associated in any way with sexual harassment or with retaliating against someone who claims to be sexually harassed.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:36 PM


For Openers: The Significance of Game 1

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 5/7/07; it has been updated to include statistics from all rounds of the 2007 NBA Playoffs

Playoff games are often called "pivotal," a term that is used to describe any playoff contest other than game one or game seven: game seven is obviously the decisive game, while game one can hardly be considered "pivotal"--or can it? As Yogi Berra might say, it can get late early in a playoff series. There have been 363 NBA playoff series in a seven game format and the winner of game one has captured 285 (78.5%) of those series.

The relative importance of winning game one has held constant for quite some time. From 1983-84 to 2001-02, the NBA used the five game format in the first round and the seven game format in the next three rounds, meaning that each of those seasons included seven series that employed the seven game format (just to be clear: this does not mean that all of these series lasted seven games, merely that they were best out of seven as opposed to best out of five). In 1983-84, four of the seven teams that won the first game went on to win the series. After that, in 14 of the next 18 years the game one winner won at least six of the seven series each season; in the other four seasons, the game one winner prevailed five out of seven times. In 2002-03, the NBA lengthened the first round series to seven games, increasing the total to 15 seven game series each season. For three straight years, 11 of 15 game one winners went on to win the series; in 2005-06, the number was 10 and this year 12 game one winners ultimately captured the series.

It should be added that the team that enjoyed home court advantage has won 274 (75.5%) of the 363 NBA playoff series in the seven game format. That indicates that most of the teams that win game ones are home teams. Why is home court advantage so pronounced in the NBA? After all, unlike many football or baseball games, NBA games are not played outside, so weather conditions are not a factor. Home court advantage in the NBA consists of familiarity with court conditions, including the visual background behind the rims (a significant factor for shooters and something that varies greatly from one arena to another), not having to deal with any hassles associated with traveling and, obviously, the emotional boost provided by thousands of cheering fans. Also, the team that has home court advantage had the better regular season record, which no doubt contributes to the success ratio of home teams in game ones.

The trend of game one winners advancing roughly three fourths of the time held up perfectly in the first round of the 2007 playoffs, with six of the eight game one winners ultimately moving on to the second round. The two exceptions were the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz. The Spurs, a veteran laden team that ultimately won the championship, dropped game one to the Denver Nuggets before reeling off four straight victories, repeating what they did to Denver in the 2005 playoffs. Utah’s series with Houston was very evenly matched, with the home team winning the first six games until the Jazz pulled off a rare game seven road win. That series was the only one in the first round that went against both historical trends: Utah won the series despite not having home court advantage and losing game one.

The team with home court advantage prevailed in five of the eight first round series this year. In addition to Utah, Golden State and New Jersey both won without having home court advantage. The experienced Nets beat a young, promising Toronto squad, while Golden State pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in NBA history by eliminating the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks. That series set a lot of records but perhaps the only "traditional" thing about it is that the team that won the first game went on to win the series.

Form continued to hold in the later rounds of the 2007 playoffs, as six out of seven game one winners won the series and five out of seven teams that enjoyed home court advantage ultimately prevailed. Only one series violated both "rules": Cleveland lost game one in Detroit but came back to beat the Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. This is the second year in a row that Detroit lost in the Eastern Conference Finals despite having home court advantage.

In the 2005-06 playoffs, not only did game one winners take the series 10 out of 15 times, but the team that had home court advantage prevailed in 12 series. Miami and Dallas, the two eventual NBA Finalists, accounted for four of the five series during which the game one winner did not capture the series and each of the three occasions in which home court advantage did not prove decisive. The only other "odd" series was the New Jersey-Indiana matchup in the first round. Vince Carter and Jason Kidd combined to shoot 14-44 from the field as Indiana snuck away with a 90-88 game one win in New Jersey. The Nets bounced back to win game two at home, split two games in Indiana and then closed out the series with a home win in game five and a road victory in game six.

The Nets also figured in a second instance that went against form in 2006: they cruised by Miami 100-88 in Miami in game one in the conference semifinals but then lost four straight games. What happened to the Nets? Richard Jefferson sprained his ankle in game one and, even though the Nets held on to win, he was not the same for the rest of the series, taking away an important weapon from New Jersey, who also lost the services of key reserve Cliff Robinson due to a drug related suspension. Robinson was not putting up big numbers but he was a versatile and important member of the Nets’ rotation, a player who forced Shaquille O’Neal to leave the paint and guard him on the perimeter, opening up driving lanes for other Nets.

Miami went against the odds two more times during the 2006 title run: the Heat defeated the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals even though Detroit had home court advantage and then they beat the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals despite losing the first two games and not having home court advantage. Dallas also went against the odds on a couple occasions in 2006: the Mavericks lost game one to both San Antonio and Phoenix but ultimately won those series in seven and six games respectively. Dallas enjoyed home court advantage against Phoenix and won four of the next five games after losing the series opener; the Mavericks navigated a much more treacherous path against the Spurs, ultimately needing an overtime win on the road in game seven to advance to the next round.

It is not surprising that Miami and Dallas, the two NBA Finalists in 2006, accounted for four of the five series that year that were not taken by game one winners and all three of the series that were not won by the owner of home court advantage; while winning game one and/or having home court advantage are usually good predictors of success, there are several recent examples of one or both of those things not being the case in the Conference Finals. In both the 2004 and 2005 Western Conference Finals, the road team captured game one and parlayed that victory into a series win and a trip to the NBA Finals. In the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, Detroit lost game one on the road to Indiana but prevailed in six games and the Spurs did the same thing versus the Mavericks in the 2003 Western Conference Finals. The Nets won game one of the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals at Detroit and went on to sweep the Pistons.

The overall success of game one winners through NBA playoff history brings to mind Damon Runyon’s famous quip: "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong—but that is the way to bet." In the NBA playoffs, a seven game series is not decided after one game, but that is the way to bet.

One and Done: Game One Winners Generally Advance

Yr./7-gm. series/# won by game 1 winner/# won by team with HCA*


10 Year...117...89...90

Overall Totals...363...285...274
(since 1946-47)...78.5%...75.5%

*Home Court Advantage

posted by David Friedman @ 7:48 AM


Monday, October 01, 2007

Acing the Finals Test

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 4/19/07; it has been updated to include statistics from the 2007 NBA Finals

Winning an NBA championship is the ultimate validation of a great player’s career. Unless he passes that test there is an empty space on his resume. It takes a great team effort to win a title but there is no denying that it helps to have that one great player who can score in almost any situation and who must be double-teamed, opening up opportunities for role players to shine (hello, John Paxson, Steve Kerr and Robert Horry).

Nine of the ten players who have the highest career NBA Finals scoring averages captured at least one NBA championship. The only exception is Elgin Baylor, who lost in each of his seven Finals appearances and who retired after playing just nine games in 1971-72, when his Lakers finally broke through and won their first title since the George Mikan era. Only three of the nine had winning records in the Finals, which shows how difficult it is for even the greatest of the great to win at the sport’s highest level: Michael Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals, Shaquille O’Neal has gone 4-2 and Hakeem Olajuwon went 2-1.

The top career Finals scoring average of all-time belongs to Rick Barry, who scored 36.3 ppg in two NBA Finals. That record is probably one of the safest ones in NBA history. The NBA stipulates a 10 game minimum requirement for being ranked on this list, so a player would have to make it to at least two Finals and perform at a very high level to challenge Barry’s mark. Barry won the Finals MVP in 1975 when he led the Golden State Warriors to a sweep of the Washington Bullets, one of the most improbable upsets in sports history.

The second spot is held by Michael Jordan, who is probably the first name that many fans think of in this category. He averaged 33.6 ppg, which is quite impressive, but his 6-0 record in the Finals will be even tougher to match. Jordan’s name is all over the Finals record book: highest average in one Finals series (41.0 ppg in 1993, beating Barry’s 1967 effort by .2 ppg), most consecutive games with at least 20 points (35--every game that Jordan played) and most consecutive games with at least 40 points (four, 1993). He also holds the record for points in a half with 35 on June 3, 1992 versus Portland; that was when he made six three pointers in the first half, famously shrugging in disbelief after one of them.

Jerry West scored more Finals points than anyone else (1679) and he ranks third with a 30.5 ppg average. He had the misfortune of playing at the same time that Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics dominated the league; West’s Lakers lost to the Celtics six times, but he could hardly be blamed. In 1969 he averaged 37.9 ppg in a seven game loss to Boston, winning the first ever Finals MVP. West remains the only player from the losing team to receive that honor. He scored at least 20 points in 25 straight Finals games, which was the record in that category for over 20 years before Jordan surpassed him. West scored at least 20 points in every game of a seven game Finals on three separate occasions; no one else has done that more than once.

Shaquille O’Neal is the only active player in the top ten. His average took a hit during the 2006 Finals but for now he is still holding on to fourth place at 28.8 ppg. He owns the best field goal percentage in Finals history (.601) and is in the top ten in total points, rebounds and blocked shots. O’Neal’s string of 21 straight games with at least 20 points (snapped during the 2004 Finals) ranks third all-time.

Bob Pettit (28.4 ppg) went 1-3 in the Finals but his 1958 St. Louis Hawks are one of only two teams to beat Russell’s Celtics in a playoff series (the other one, the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers, had the same coach: Alex Hannum). He scored a then-record 50 points in the decisive game six of the 1958 Finals; that still ranks as the fifth best scoring effort in a Finals game.

Hakeem Olajuwon never scored 40 points in a Finals game but his 27.5 ppg average ranks fifth and his 32.8 ppg in Houston’s 1995 win over Orlando is the second best performance in a Finals sweep (O’Neal scored 36.3 ppg in the Lakers’ win over New Jersey in 2002).

Elgin Baylor lost seven times in the NBA Finals, six of them playing alongside Jerry West; Russell’s Celtics were simply too deep and too good. He still holds the record for most points in a seven game Finals series (40.6 ppg, which ranks third overall behind the Barry and Jordan efforts mentioned earlier). He also holds the record for most points in a Finals game, 61, which was the playoff record as well until Michael Jordan scored 63 in double overtime in a first round loss to the Boston Celtics in 1986. Baylor scored at least 30 points in 13 straight Finals games, a record that both Jordan (nine) and O’Neal (seven) could not come close to matching.

Julius Erving’s NBA Finals career-high was 40 points but he scored at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 Finals games, including a streak of 19 straight. His Philadelphia 76ers lost three times to teams anchored by dominant centers--once to Bill Walton’s Portland Trailblazers and twice to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s L.A. Lakers--before acquiring Moses Malone and storming to the title in 1982-83. In addition to Erving’s 25.5 ppg in the NBA Finals it is worth noting that as a New York Net he averaged 33.4 ppg in two ABA Finals, winning the championship on both occasions and scoring at least 20 points in 10 of 11 games; in three of those games he tallied at least 40 and in eight of them he had at least 30, including all six games of the 1976 Finals, when he scored 37.7 ppg versus the Denver Nuggets and led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots.

Joe Fulks (24.7 ppg) played in the first two NBA Finals, leading the Philadelphia Warriors--then a member of the Basketball Association of America, one of the forerunners to the NBA and a league whose records are counted by the NBA--to the 1947 championship. Fulks, a 6-5 forward, was the league’s first big star (Mikan was playing in the National Basketball League at that time). His 26.2 ppg in the 1947 Finals set a rookie record that still stands today and his 37 point effort in game one was the best by a rookie until Magic Johnson scored 42 in game six in 1980.

Clyde Drexler (24.5 ppg) rounds out the top ten. He reunited in Houston with his college teammate Olajuwon to win his only ring in 1995. Prior to that, Drexler performed very well in two Finals losses with the Portland Trailblazers.

Each of the players in the top ten has either already been inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame or is a mortal lock to receive that honor as soon as he becomes eligible. The player just behind Drexler, though, has been largely forgotten because he played in the shadow of two of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players (Erving and Malone) and because his career was shortened by foot injuries. Andrew Toney averaged 24.4 ppg in two NBA Finals, literally missing the top ten by one field goal--kind of symbolic of how he was able to compete against the very best and yet just fall short of achieving ultimate recognition. Known as the "Boston Strangler" because of his exploits versus the Celtics, Toney did his Finals damage against the Lakers in 1982 and 1983. He also had his regular season career-high, 46 points, against the Lakers.

The only active players other than O’Neal who have averaged 20 ppg in their NBA Finals careers while playing in at least 10 games are Tim Duncan (22.7 ppg), Kobe Bryant (22.2 ppg), Chauncey Billups (20.7 ppg) and Jason Kidd (20.1 ppg). LeBron James shot just .356 from the field in his Finals debut this year but he still managed to average 22.5 ppg as his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by Duncan's San Antonio Spurs; James needs to play in six more NBA Finals games to meet the minimum qualifying standard to be ranked among the career Finals leaders. Duncan has won four titles and three Finals MVPs. Bryant won three titles playing alongside O’Neal with the Lakers and is not in the top ten because of his injury-hampered performance in 2000, when a sprained ankle knocked him out of game two (he had two points in nine minutes), caused him to miss game three and affected him the rest of the way, although he came up big in game four after O’Neal fouled out; Bryant averaged 24.5 ppg in his other three Finals appearances, including 26.8 ppg in 2002 when the Lakers swept the Nets. Billups may yet provide more reasons to call him "Mr. Big Shot," while Kidd scored at a higher clip than his usual production during the Nets’ back to back Finals losses in 2002 and 2003.

Acing The Finals Test

Top 10 Career Finals Scoring Averages

Player..PPG..Points..Games..Series W-L

Rick Barry..36.3..363..10..1-1
Michael Jordan..33.6..1176..35..6-0
Jerry West..30.5..1679..55..1-8
Shaquille O'Neal..28.8..865..30..4-2
Bob Pettit..28.4..709..25..1-3
Hakeem Olajuwon..27.5..467..17..2-1
Elgin Baylor..26.4..1161..44..0-7
Julius Erving..25.5..561..22..1-3
Joe Fulks..24.7..272..11..1-1
Clyde Drexler..24.5..367..15..1-2

Top Active Players

Shaquille O'Neal..28.8..865..30..4-2
Tim Duncan..22.7..499..22..4-0
Kobe Bryant..22.2..421..19..3-1
Chauncey Billups..20.7..248..12..1-1
Jason Kidd..20.1..201..10..0-2

Minimum of 10 Finals games

posted by David Friedman @ 7:26 PM


The Legacy of the ABA

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 4/14/07

"Wow. That’s a long time. Those years got by fast," Hall of Famer David Thompson said during All-Star Weekend when I asked him his thoughts about the 40th anniversary of the founding of the ABA. Fellow Hall of Famer Earl Monroe also can hardly believe that four decades have passed since the ABA was founded: "Wow. Has it been that long? Gosh almighty. Those teams were a great addition to basketball. They were really able to put people in a frenzy, so to speak, because of their style of play. Obviously, the style of play was great because, when you look at it, that is the style that guys are playing today. I remember just seeing those teams and wanting to play with those guys."

Julius Erving scored 27 points in a 97-87 New York Nets win over Monroe’s New York Knicks on October 2, 1973. More than 17,000 fans showed up at Madison Square Garden to see the contest between the reigning NBA champions and the upstart Nets, who had just traded for New York native Erving and would go on to win that season’s ABA title with one of the youngest starting lineups to ever win a championship. The rival leagues played a total of 155 preseason games between 1971-72 and 1975-76, with the ABA enjoying a 79-76 edge. From 1973-75, ABA teams posted 15-10, 16-7 and 31-17 records respectively versus the NBA teams. "Those games that we played against teams like the Nets and the Indiana Pacers were hard fought because they were trying to get recognition and we were trying not to give them that recognition," Monroe recalls. "Those games were very special. The battles that we had between us were kind of legendary, especially in the minds of the guys who played in those games."

The NBA initially refused to sanction any games against ABA teams, ostensibly because the ABA was a minor league. That conceit was proved false at the Houston Astrodome on May 28, 1971 when the best players from both leagues faced off (without NBA approval) in the first NBA-ABA All-Star Game, with the proceeds being contributed to charity and to the two leagues’ players’ association pension funds. Nine of the 10 NBA players who played in that game were later inducted in the Hall of Fame and selected to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list, while the ABA roster featured one future Hall of Famer and several extremely underrated players. The myth of clear NBA superiority was shattered when the NBA’s cream of the crop only beat the ABA’s best by five, 125-120. This was not an ordinary All-Star game, either. In the 2007 NBA All-Star game, the two teams combined to attempt 22 free throws; in the 1971 NBA-ABA All-Star game, the NBA squad attempted 70 free throws, including 31 in the fourth quarter alone, which would have been a regular season record at that time.

After that kind of contest, the NBA could no longer justify ignoring the ABA and that fall NBA teams played preseason games against ABA teams for the first time. On May 25, 1972, a second ABA-NBA All-Star game was held, with the NBA winning 106-104. On the court, the ABA could match the NBA basket for basket and actually showcased a more exciting, more modern game, with the three point shot, an uptempo style and a legion of high flying dunk artists. The ABA was the Vincent Van Gogh of basketball--an artistic success but a commercial failure, at least in its own lifetime. Van Gogh struggled to make ends meet but now his paintings sell for millions of dollars. ABA players used to race to the bank to cash their checks before they bounced but the NBA eventually adopted the style of play popularized by that league and used it to become a global success in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. The ABA no longer exists but, like Van Gogh, it left behind a rich legacy.

That legacy is manifested in many ways. "I think that the story of the ABA actually begins with Spencer Haywood and what he went through in order to get undergraduates into the pros, which is what the ABA did; they went after a lot of undergraduates," says Ollie Taylor, a high-flying 6-2 guard/forward who played four years in the ABA. "Their mindset was to get the players before the NBA did. There is a really untold story there. Now after all these years they are finally bringing it to the forefront that we were legitimate and that we were the new age coming. Playing above the rim was a big focal point of that."

In 1970, Haywood jumped to the NBA after averaging 30 ppg and 19.5 rpg in his first and only ABA season, winning the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. The NBA attempted to forbid him from playing because his college class had not graduated. The resulting case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately paved the way for players like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to leave college early and for players like Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and others to turn pro straight out of high school. The fierce competition between the ABA and the NBA for talented players led to a salary explosion that has continued to this day.

The ABA developed and nurtured many of the players who became the NBA’s marquee stars in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Moses Malone, George Gervin, David Thompson and Dan Issel. The scintillating Erving had an excellent NBA career but those who saw him in his ABA days got a special treat. Mike Gale, a two-time ABA All-Defensive Team guard who played with Erving on the 1974 ABA champion New York Nets and later played against him in both leagues, says, "Doc was an awesome player. Because of the way the ABA was at that time (not having a national TV contract), most of America did not get to see him in what we would call his prime. Some of the moves that he made, you will never see again. It was amazing to see his work ethic. After practice, we’d be out there playing and shooting. He just loved the game. He’d try to think of things that were out of the ordinary and not done the regular way. It was a sight to see. We sat back (as teammates) and would say, 'How’d he do that?'"

The ABA changed the way that basketball is played and the way that it is packaged and presented. The ABA did not introduce the three point shot--t had been previously used in the ABL and some college teams had experimented with it decades earlier--but the ABA popularized it. The rivalry between the leagues was so bitter that the NBA could not bring itself to start using the three point shot until four years after the merger. College basketball began using the three point shot a few years later. It is impossible to imagine basketball at any level today without the three point line. March Madness would not be the same without the possibility of an underdog team getting hot from three point range and knocking off a blue chip school.

The ABA wrapped a concert and a Slam Dunk contest around the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, essentially creating the concept that has morphed into what is now known as All-Star Weekend. The NBA scoffed at that idea for years before finally embracing it in 1984. The ABA’s influence can even be felt in the box score. Steals, blocked shots, turnovers (the ABA called them "errors") and offensive rebounds are statistics that were first tracked by ABA scorekeepers before the NBA decided to make them part of the game’s official numerical language. Ironically, while the NBA adopted these categories for its own use it stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the statistics compiled by ABA players. The NFL recognizes that the AFL’s Joe Namath was the first pro quarterback to pass for 4000 yards in a season but the NBA acts as if the 11,662 ABA points scored by Namath’s New York contemporary Julius Erving do not exist. The careers of great ABA players like Roger Brown and Mel Daniels exist in a statistical netherworld; sometimes, they are mentioned in articles or on TV but often their accomplishments are completely disregarded.

During the Legends Brunch before this year’s All-Star Game, the National Basketball Retired Players Association took a step in the right direction by honoring the contributions of its ABA alumni. Rick Barry, Julius Erving, George Gervin, Artis Gilmore and Spencer Haywood--each of whom starred in both leagues--read off the names of dozens of ABA alumni, who then each stepped forward to receive a trophy and some well deserved applause. The next thing that should happen is that the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame should assemble a committee to review the careers of ABA players who have been passed over for Hall of Fame induction.

Artis Gilmore has to be the greatest basketball player who is eligible for Hall of Fame induction but has not received that honor. He amassed 24,941 career points (19th all-time) and 16,330 career rebounds (fifth all-time) during his ABA-NBA career. Maurice Lucas, an All-Star in both leagues and a teammate of Gilmore’s in the ABA, is angered and mystified by the Hall of Fame’s ongoing snub of Gilmore: "I don’t know why he is not in the Hall of Fame; I think that it is criminal that he is not in there. Artis is one of the greatest players who ever played this game. If you look at his statistics, he’s got more rebounds than probably 95% of the people in the Hall of Fame and he’s got more points than 95% of the people who are in the Hall of Fame. He was just a fabulous player and his time will come and I am real hopeful that someone recognizes him real quickly because he deserves to be in there without even a question about it."

"If you look at Gilmore’s numbers—field goal percentage, rebounding and everything—he definitely should be in the Hall of Fame," Thompson says. Monroe hopes that Gilmore and other deserving ABA players will eventually be recognized by the Hall of Fame: "I think that the way the Hall of Fame is conducting its searches that a lot of those guys are being looked at a little bit more and I think that is the right thing to do because they made such a great addition to basketball in general and they brought people out. I’m sorry that we are not using the red, white and blue ball because that was a great invention."

Major League Baseball set a good example by inducting several deserving Negro Leaguers into its Hall of Fame (even though they botched things by leaving out Buck O’Neil) and the NBA should work with the Basketball Hall of Fame to do something similar regarding ABA players. It is incumbent on the Hall of Fame to make sure that the neglected ABA greats finally receive the recognition that they earned long ago.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 AM