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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ready, Shoot, Aim: Kevin Durant Continues to Misfire at an Alarming Rate

Kevin Durant hardly lit up the summer league; his 24.0 ppg average only looks good if you hold the stat sheet so that your thumb and forefinger cover up his .333 field goal percentage and .263 three point shooting percentage--but that's just summer league, right? Who cares about that? Never mind that many of the summer league participants are not good enough to actually play in the NBA by the time the regular season rolls around. On the positive side, there are the reports that suggested that Durant did very well in the Team USA camp, though all the public actually saw was one nationally televised scrimmage. Granted, Durant did play well in that contest but ultimately he did not make the final roster of 12, even though several of those players received limited minutes during the FIBA Americas tournament. One would think that if a young prospect like Durant could have really helped the team that he would have been given the nod over an older player so that Durant could get more seasoning in case he is in fact the future (or at least a big part of the future) of Team USA.

As Hubie Brown mentioned during one of the NBA Europe Live Tour telecasts, there are four NBA seasons and each successive one is more competitive and intense: summer league, preseason, regular season, playoffs. Durant has now played two games in the preseason, the second season in Brown's vernacular, and his numbers are not any better than they were in the summer league: 13.5 ppg, .323 field goal shooting (10-31), .375 three point shooting (3-8), .500 free throw shooting (4-8), 5.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.0 spg, no blocked shots. In his first game he shot well from the field (5-9) but poorly from the free throw line (1-4) and he had 12 points, four fouls, three turnovers, three rebounds and no assists in 21 minutes as the Sonics lost 104-98 to the Kings. In his second game, Friday's 96-90 win over the Cavaliers, Durant shot horribly from the field (5-22) and adequately from the free throw line (3-4) and he finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals, no turnovers and one foul. The improvements in rebounding and turnovers are good signs but it looks like Durant will have to shoot a staggering number of shots in order to average even 20 ppg.

Durant's next game is on Saturday versus Indiana and then on Thursday his Sonics will visit L.A. for a nationally televised game (on TNT) versus the Lakers. In addition to Durant's shooting woes, he also faces a daunting task on defense, particularly since Coach P.J. Carlesimo moved him to shooting guard. Kevin Martin had a game-high 27 points--including 14 points versus Durant in the first quarter alone--when Sacramento beat Seattle, so watching Durant try to guard Kobe Bryant should be interesting.

I'm not calling Durant a bust or saying that he will not become a very good player eventually--but one would think that the consensus preseason pick to win Rookie of the Year would have a more polished game at this stage. I think that it is legitimate to question if Durant is going to be as good in his first year as people seem to assume that he will be. To this point, his numbers do not support that idea. It seems like once a player gets anointed that his statistics and his performances do not matter. Yes, it's early, but what is wrong with simply telling the truth? The truth is that based on the summer league games and the first couple preseason games that Durant is not as good as advertised. In the next week or two, he will probably have a very good game and then I am sure that everyone will say it was a "breakout" performance, as if that game means more than the ones that preceded it--but in order for that to be true he must sustain a high level of play for more than a game or two.

Some young NBA players (Durant only played one year of college ball and just turned 19) either struggled initially or did not receive much playing time as rookies because their teams had a veteran who played the same position--but even those players (guys like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki) blossomed fairly quickly into All-Star level players. Many truly great pro players made an impact right from the start--from Bill Russell to Wilt Chamberlain to Oscar Robertson to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Julius Erving to more recent stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. LeBron James was very good from day one and is now a perennial MVP candidate. Maybe Durant will follow the KG/Kobe/T-Mac/Dirk model and take a year or so to develop--but I don't understand why everyone acts like this is a sure thing.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:40 AM

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Knicks Run Past Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv, 112-85

The New York Knicks won their preseason home opener 112-85 over Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv. Although the game ended up being a blowout it was actually a competitive contest until early in the third quarter. Jamal Crawford led the Knicks with 16 points, Zach Randolph had 15 points and seven rebounds and Stephon Marbury had an uncharacteristically efficient 13 points on 4-7 shooting plus five assists and no turnovers. Former NBA players Vonteego Cummings (21 points on 6-10 shooting), Marcus Fizer (18 points, 12 rebounds, four assists) and Terence Morris (12 points on 6-9 shooting, nine rebounds) led the way for Maccabi Elite (Elite is the name of the team's primary corporate sponsor, not an arrogant adjective attached to the team's name). Three of Maccabi Elite's top players did not play due to injury, while the Knicks were without the services of Eddy Curry (shoulder injury) and Renaldo Balkman (foot injury). Newly signed Allan Houston will be joining the Knicks shortly as he begins his comeback attempt.

The game was telecast by NBA TV using an MSG Network feed and commentators Mike Breen and Walt Frazier did an excellent job explaining some of the unique circumstances surrounding this event, the first time that an international team has played against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Breen pointed out that the game was not part of the Knicks' season ticket package; tickets were sold to the general public, with the proceeds benefiting Migdal Ohr (the Hebrew words for tower of light), an Israeli charity that provides assistance to 6,500 orphaned, impoverished and underprivileged Israeli children. The resulting crowd was not necessarily anti-Knicks--New York jerseys could be seen throughout the stands--but one that was definitely pro-Maccabi Elite, so for the Knicks' players there must have been a strange feeling at times of not exactly being at home but not exactly being on the road, either. As for the mindsets of the two teams, Frazier said that for the NBA players this is a time to work on their conditioning and prepare for the upcoming regular season but for Maccabi Elite this is an opportunity to measure up with an NBA team and see where they stand. Frazier compared this to when his old Knicks teams used to play preseason games against ABA teams in the 1970s, a subject that I discussed with his teammate Earl Monroe earlier this year.

Despite being shorthanded, enduring a 12 hour flight and playing with NBA rules instead of FIBA rules, Maccabi Elite stormed out to a 15-5 lead. The Knicks did not make a field goal until Marbury's layup at the 7:00 mark. New York trimmed the margin to 25-20 by the end of the quarter. Late in the first quarter, Breen--who has previously mentioned his experiences as a referee--did his typically outstanding job of explaining some of the changes that fans will see this year in terms of how NBA games are officiated. He praised the NBA for adopting a rule that all flagrant two fouls--which result in automatic ejections--will now be subjected to mandatory on the spot video review; sometimes a play may look like a flagrant two from one referee's angle but the video may show that the contact was not quite that severe. Breen also noted that a new point of emphasis is to not allow the move in which a player starts on one foot, hops and lands on that same foot--Frazier wryly called it the "Patrick Ewing move."

The Knicks led for the first time in the game after Nate Robinson's three pointer at the 10:12 mark of the second quarter made the score 27-25. Maccabi Elite never tied or led again but they kept the margin at less than 10 points until Crawford's layup put the Knicks up 51-40 with 1:21 to go until halftime. The Knicks led 53-43 after the first 24 minutes, turning the game around by pressuring Maccabi Elite into committing 13 first half turnovers while only turning the ball over four times themselves (Maccabi Elite finished the game with 24 turnovers compared to just 11 by the Knicks). During halftime, the Knicks honored Coach Red Holzman, running a video tribute to him that was accompanied by a recording of Frank Sinatra singing his classic song "Winners." At the end of the video, these words came on the screen: "613 wins...Two World Championships...A lifetime of memories...Thanks Red."

The Knicks opened the third quarter with a 9-3 run and the game was not competitive after that point. What did this game tell us about the Knicks? Obviously, no sweeping conclusions can be drawn from this victory but there were a few positive signs for the New York faithful. Marbury demonstrated good judgment with his shot selection and passing and he put forth more effort at the defensive end than I have ever seen from him. Crawford claims to have put on 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason; he still is lean but his upper body does look more developed and he used that extra size to drive to the hoop instead of settling exclusively for long jumpers. Randolph was very productive in limited minutes. Mardy Collins (10 points in 15 minutes) came on strong at the end of his rookie season and seems to be picking up right where he left off. Nate Robinson (12 points, five assists) also had a nice game. It remains to be seen whether the Knicks can play this way against NBA competition on a night in, night out basis. Also, Curry will have to be worked back into the mix once he is healthy and it will be interesting to see how Marbury and Randolph react to that; all three players are used to shooting the ball a lot but Curry should be getting the most field goal attempts on this team because he shoots a great percentage and he operates underneath the basket, drawing double teams that break down the opposing defense.

Breen repeatedly said that there are no great teams in the East but that the battle for the last two or three playoff spots could be very intense because teams 6-13 in the conference will probably be pretty evenly matched (he never identified who he expects to be teams 14 and 15); I made a similar observation near the end of my Eastern Conference preview. It is possible that the Knicks could emerge from that group and claim a playoff spot but I still think that they will come up a little short; team chemistry and team defense have been this team's downfall in recent seasons (along with injuries) and these are still areas of concern for the Knicks.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:47 AM

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Real Madrid Beats Bosh-less Raptors, 104-103

Real Madrid defeated the Toronto Raptors 104-103 in the final game of the NBA Europe Live Tour. Raptors' All-Star Chris Bosh did not play in order to rest a knee injury that is not believed to be serious. Although this was the second victory by a non-NBA team over an NBA team during this year's NBA Europe Live Tour, it is ironic that most of the damage for Real Madrid was done by two American players while three of Toronto's top four scorers are not from North America. Louis Bullock led all scorers with 27 points, while Charles Smith shot 5-8 from three point range and scored 18 points. They received a lot of help from reserve point guard Sergio Llull, who scored 11 of his 17 points in the final 4:15 of the game. Andrea Bargnani led Toronto with 23 points and seven rebounds, while Jorge Garbajosa added 15 points and Rasho Nesterovic had 13 points. T.J. Ford had 18 points and eight assists. Both teams like to use the drive and kick game. Occasionally the big men post up but there is not a steady diet of that and this is demonstrated by Real Madrid attempting 30 three pointers (making 14 for an excellent .467 percentage) and Toronto attempting 18 three pointers (making 7 for a .389 percentage).

Toronto jumped out to a 9-0 lead as Ford repeatedly broke down Real Madrid's defense off the dribble and delivered the ball to open shooters. Real Madrid is obviously a poised and confident team because their players never got rattled during this stretch and Coach Joan Plaza did not even call a timeout. Smith finally got them on the board by making a three pointer and they pretty much played the Raptors even for the rest of the quarter, trailing 29-22 after 12 minutes.

Real Madrid cut the Toronto lead to 35-33 five minutes into the second quarter but then Toronto went on an 11-6 mini-run that was capped by Ford stealing the ball from Llull and racing downcourt to convert a three point play. Real Madrid drained three three pointers in the last 3:21 of the quarter--two by Llull--and only trailed 56-54 at halftime.

Toronto took a 63-58 lead early in the third quarter but then the Raptors started playing very sloppily and lethargically, turning the ball over and not getting back on defense. Real Madrid went on a 10-0 in two minutes to go up by five. Toronto briefly regained the lead but Real Madrid led 79-75 at the end of the quarter.

Neither team scored in the first 2:49 of the fourth quarter. Jet lag anyone? Toronto led for the final time with 4:41 remaining when Anthony Parker's jump shot put the Raptors up 86-84. Llull answered with a three pointer, the start of his late game 11 point scoring barrage. Real Madrid snuffed out any chance of a Toronto comeback by shooting 7-8 from the free throw line in the last :22 of regulation. Ford's three pointer at the buzzer was too little, too late.

Plaza's initial statement after the game is interesting: "This was just a training game. Though it may sound arrogant, I am not going to open a bottle of champagne after this victory." He also said that he would have been satisfied if his team had played hard but lost a close contest and that the important game for his team is next Saturday (presumably when Real Madrid's regular season starts).

The Raptors were outrebounded 48-38. Obviously, Bosh's absence hurt but Coach Sam Mitchell seems to think that the problem runs a little deeper than that: "Any time you get beat the way we got beat on the glass it's hard to win...We're not going to make excuses. They deserved to win and we didn't because they just beat us up physically." He later added, "We've got to find guys who are going to go in there and do the tough things. We've got guys who can shoot the basketball. We've got guys who can pass the ball. We've got to find some guys who will do the dirty work."

posted by David Friedman @ 3:09 AM

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Grizzlies Devour MMT Estudiantes, 98-73

The Memphis Grizzlies routed MMT Estudiantes 98-73 in an NBA Europe Live Tour game played at Palacio de Deportes in Madrid, Spain. Darko Milicic led Memphis with 13 points, while Pau Gasol had 10 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots in 19 minutes. Mike Miller contributed 11 points but shot just 4-12 from the field and rookie point guard Juan Carlos Navarro had just six points and four assists while shooting 2-7 from the field, a far cry from his game-high 21 points in Memphis' 102-99 loss to Unicaja Malaga on Tuesday. Emilio Jasen led MMT Estudiantes with 17 points.

MMT Estudiantes placed ninth in the 18 team Spanish league last season and from the start of the game it was immediately obvious that they were completely overmatched. Memphis led 32-11 after the first quarter and 52-33 at halftime. After the game, Coach Mariano de Pablos offered this assessment of his team's performance: "We played a little soft...We did not have the right attitude. I think that the game was over in the first quarter."

Although this game was a blowout, Memphis Coach Marc Iavaroni was impressed by what he saw of the European teams: "They're well coached. They move the ball very well. Technically, they are on the cutting edge of ball movement, unselfish play and, obviously, shooting the ball. They're big and they're strong and, frankly, it's very physical. The NBA, overall, has done things to enhance the offense. In Europe you see that it's still very, very physical and American teams have to be aware of that when they come over here and play."

Obviously, this game tells us absolutely nothing about how the Grizzlies will do this season.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:13 AM

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Celtics Cruise Past Timberwolves, 92-81

Ray Allen stole the show in Kevin Garnett's first game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, scoring 28 points in 27 minutes on blistering 11-14 shooting as the Boston Celtics won 92-81. This NBA Europe Live Tour game was played in London, England. Garnett had nine points, six rebounds, three blocked shots and six turnovers in 29 minutes. Paul Pierce had a subpar performance, finishing with eight points, five rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes. While his floor game was adequate, he shot just 1-6 from the field and 6-11 from the free throw line. Kendrick Perkins added 11 points and five rebounds. As ESPN2 analyst Hubie Brown noted, due to the extra defensive attention that Garnett, Pierce and Allen will draw, Perkins should be able to score double figures this season just by cutting to the hoop and finishing plays. Point guard Rajon Rondo had a solid game with four points, six assists, four steals and two turnovers. Ricky Davis led Minnesota with 18 points on 7-12 shooting. Rashad McCants (11 points) was the only other Minnesota player to score at least 10 points. Al Jefferson, who will surely be a starter during the regular season, came off the bench and had just five points and six rebounds; he looked sluggish for most of the game, perhaps the after effects of an ankle injury (Brown and play by play man Mark Jones said before the game that Jefferson was not going to play at all).

In Boston's first NBA Europe Live Tour game, an 89-85 victory over Toronto, Paul Pierce made a strong drive to the hoop right after the jump ball and earned two free throws. Against Minnesota, Boston posted Pierce up on the left block right after the opening tip and Pierce again made a good drive. He was fouled but the Celtics were awarded the ball out of bounds. Starting the game with Pierce attacking the hoop is a good idea for several reasons. One, it increases the chance of getting Boston in the bonus (and the other team in foul trouble) early in the quarter. Two, it sets an aggressive tone. Three, I think that his scoring average is a little more important to Pierce than it may be to Garnett or Allen, so it is good to get Pierce involved in the offense very early in the game.

Ricky Davis singlehandedly kept Minnesota in the game in the first quarter, scoring 16 of the Timberwolves' 22 points. Allen countered with nine for the Celtics, who led by one going into the second period. Davis did his damage from all angles but he was particularly deadly from beyond the three point arc. Of course, he did all of this shooting with Jefferson on the bench. It will be interesting to observe Minnesota's shot distribution during the regular season. Brown noted throughout the telecast that Minnesota did a poor job of passing the ball, missing numerous open cutters, and after Jefferson checked into the game Brown felt that the team did not work hard enough to get him the ball down low. Brown also offered a possible explanation for Juwan Howard and Theo Ratliff being in Minnesota's starting lineup: "Are we showcasing two veteran guys for the rest of the NBA?" Howard arrived in Minnesota before Garnett was traded and he has made no secret of the fact that he wants out; in fact, he would like to be dealt to Boston to play with Garnett, but Brown and Jones noted that salary cap considerations make that just a pipe dream.

Minnesota took a 30-25 lead early in the second quarter after Gerald Green scored four straight points but Boston then went on a 7-0 run that was capped off by the highly unlikely sight of shooter Eddie House delivering a no-look pass to a cutting Esteban Batista. Two Rashad McCants free throws enabled Minnesota to tie the score at 39 with 4:14 left but Boston closed the quarter with an 11-4 run to take a 50-43 halftime lead. Brown made a very interesting observation during the quarter, pointing out that young players do not want to pass the ball ahead on the fast break, preferring to dribble the ball themselves. If they would give the ball up, Brown added, the defense would have to react and they would get a return pass for a layup. Ironically, two players who were guilty of not making such passes during this game were not young players but rather veterans Pierce and James Posey. Overall, though, Boston has looked like a good passing team during the first two NBA Europe Live Tour games.

Brown and Jones, like all of the other NBA Europe Live Tour broadcasters, were not actually at the game in London; they were in a studio in the United States. At halftime, ESPN2 showed some highlights from other preseason games and Jones asked for Brown's take on various matters. One question that Brown addressed is whether or not Kobe Bryant's earlier trade request will be a distraction for the Lakers. Brown rejected that notion, declaring, "Kobe Bryant is the number one player in the league. We know that he is the best two guard. This is a true assassin. He proved to people in the Olympic qualifying (the FIBA Americas tournament) that he not only can score the basketball but he can defend any perimeter player in the game. He is one of the great competitors we have in the game and he will lead from day one." Brown is cautiously optimistic about the experiment of moving Kevin Durant to shooting guard, saying that Durant will be able to shoot face up jumpers over other shooting guards and that when he gets a little stronger he will also be able to use his height to post them up. Brown called Durant a good ballhandler--which I disagree with based on what I have seen--and noted that the big challenge will be whether or not Durant can keep up with shooting guards defensively; that is an understatement and I think that the answer will be proven to be an emphatic "no."

The Celtics are playing their top players a little bit more than other NBA teams are during the preseason, either trying to develop chemistry among the newly assembled "Big Three" or trying to set a tone by winning early. While Minnesota spent most of the game shuffling various combinations of players into the game, the Celtics had their starters in the game deep into the third quarter, going up by as many as 17 points before settling for a 75-63 lead by the end of the quarter. In the fourth quarter both teams went with their reserves for the most part. A three point play by Craig Smith pulled Minnesota to within 80-75 with 6:53 remaining but Boston answered with an 8-0 run to put the game away.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:23 AM

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2007-08 Western Conference Preview

Last year, I correctly picked six of the eight Western Conference playoff teams. My two mistakes were choosing the L.A. Clippers and the Sacramento Kings instead of the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors (rest assured that I am not picking the Clippers or Kings to make this year's playoffs). Yesterday I posted my Eastern Conference Preview. This preview will follow exactly the same format, meaning that the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the Finals and not necessarily in the order that the teams will be seeded during the playoffs (which is affected by which teams win division championships).


1) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: I could try to be original here but instead I will simply quote what I wrote last year, which still applies perfectly now: "Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich. The Spurs have three of the top individual players in the league and one of the game's great coaches. That has proven to be a championship winning formula in the past as long as Duncan is healthy." Reasons to mope: The Spurs have won four titles in the Duncan era but have yet to capture championships in back to back seasons. The bench players are aging a bit. Face it, there is not much to mope about if you are a San Antonio fan. Bottom line: The Spurs have to be considered the favorites to win this year's championship. That does not mean it will be a walk in the park--winning titles is rarely if ever easy--but there is no good reason to pick anyone over the Spurs.

2) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: Dirk Nowitzki had a tremendous season last year and, contrary to public perception, he has generally lifted his game during the postseason (22.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, .381 three point shooting in his regular season career; 25.2 ppg, 11.1 rpg, .376 three point shooting in his postseason career). Last year's first round loss was an aberration, both for him and for this team, and Dallas will likely make a deep playoff run this year. Josh Howard continues to improve and Avery Johnson has been an excellent coach overall, though his mentor Don Nelson outmaneuvered him in last year's playoffs. Reasons to mope: The loss in the 2006 Finals and the shocking loss in the first round last year hang over this team like that permanent dirt cloud hung over the cartoon character Pigpen; he could never stay clean for long and Dallas will never cleanse its own dirt cloud until the Mavericks win a title. Bottom line: Many people wondered how the Mavericks would respond after their collapse in the 2006 Finals and Dallas answered with one of the greatest regular seasons in NBA history. Expect a similarly strong response this year, culminating in a dramatic rematch of the playoff series with the Spurs from two years ago.

3) Phoenix Suns: Reasons for hope: Steve Nash choreographs a wide-open offense and he has two great finishers in Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. Speed demon Leandro Barbosa is a matchup nightmare and Raja Bell is one of the best defensive guards in the league. If Grant Hill stays healthy and can keep up with the frenetic pace for a whole season then he will add another dimension to an offensive attack that is already too much for most teams to deal with during the regular season. Reasons to mope: The Suns are not good enough defensively to beat the Spurs (or probably even the Mavs) in a seven game series. They also sometimes lose focus in crucial situations (such as when two key players left the bench during an altercation, violating a long-standing NBA rule that every player and coach knows about). The Suns did not retain the services of Kurt Thomas, the team's best low post defender. While their racehorse style suits their personnel, their inability to be effective in a half court game down the stretch in playoff games has proven fatal throughout the Nash era. Marion expressed a desire to be traded, a tangible indication of just how delicate the chemistry is on this team. Bottom line: The Suns will win about 55 games and advance in the playoffs until they face the Spurs or the Mavs.

4) Houston Rockets: Reasons for hope: Coach Rick Adelman and newly acquired power forward Luis Scola should both greatly ease the burden that has long been shouldered by Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Reasons to mope: Whenever McGrady gets hurt the team looks terrible--and his always balky back is unlikely to get healthier as he gets older. Houston lost a game seven at home in last year's playoffs, which is uncommon in the NBA; McGrady and Yao both put up good numbers in that contest but other than Shane Battier the rest of the team disappeared in the biggest game of the season. Bottom line: This team should be in the hunt for the best record in the West and is good enough to beat anyone in the playoffs other than the Spurs.

5) Utah Jazz: Reasons for hope: Carlos Boozer had a breakout season and Deron Williams emerged as one of the league's best point guards. Last year's run to the Western Conference Finals could be a springboard to even greater success in the coming seasons. Reasons to mope: A few chemistry problems bubbled to the surface during the loss to San Antonio. Boozer and Williams questioned the effort put forth by some of their teammates. Andrei Kirilenko, who was likely one of the players who that criticism was directed at, feuded with Coach Jerry Sloan and has expressed a desire to leave Utah to play in his native Russia. Bottom line: Utah squeaked by Houston and benefited from Dallas being upset. Don't expect to see the Jazz in the Western Conference Finals this season.

6) Golden State Warriors: Reasons for hope: A healthy Baron Davis spearheaded a high-powered offense that struck so much fear into the hearts of the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks that the Mavericks changed their starting lineup before game one of their first round series. Like Phoenix, this team plays a style that is difficult to deal with during the regular season. Reasons to mope: Golden State's success depends on the health of several players who have been less than stable--mentally or physically--during their careers. Golden State's shot selection is awful and their defense, while aggressive and opportunistic at times, is not completely sound. Bottom line: This is a difficult team to read, one that could just as easily win 50 games or 35. Split the difference and pencil Golden State in for 44 wins--and a first round exit.

7) Denver Nuggets: Reasons for hope: The dynamic scoring duo of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson will be together from the start of the season. Marcus Camby is one of the best defenders and rebounders in the league. Reasons to mope: Defense has not been a strong suit for this team in recent seasons and there is no reason to expect that to change now. Denver will either have to shift Iverson to point guard or else have a very small starting backcourt. Bottom line: Carmelo Anthony is well on his way toward stringing together a Kevin Garnett-like run of first round playoff losses.

8) L.A. Lakers: Reasons for hope: Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA and as long as he is on the court the Lakers at least have a chance to be competitive. The departure of Smush Parker should be worth a few wins and a lot of peace of mind. Before injuries decimated the frontcourt, the Lakers had one of the better records in the West. Reasons to mope: The Lakers' good start had a smoke and mirrors quality because the schedule was front loaded with home games. The Lakers do not have enough depth to withstand injuries or foul trouble. If the team starts poorly then there will be a lot of rumors about Bryant possibly being traded and/or Coach Phil Jackson deciding to retire. Bottom line: Lamar Odom has not yet been an All-Star and, despite his obvious talent, it is unlikely that he ever will become one. The Lakers did little to upgrade their roster; there is maybe a 10% chance that everyone will stay healthy, everything will break right and the Lakers will win 50 games but the most likely scenario is that it will take another great season from Bryant just to get this team into the playoffs.

The New Orleans Hornets have narrowly missed the playoffs the past two years. They will again be in the mix for the eighth playoff spot but the two teams right in front of them--the Nuggets and the Lakers--have stars who can carry a team by scoring 40 or 50 points and that will again prove to be the difference.

While the top West teams are very strong, it is likely that several West bottom feeders will have fewer than 30 wins. Injuries have decimated the L.A. Clippers, who will likely have a season similar to the one that Memphis did last year in the wake of Pau Gasol's injury. Gasol's return means that Memphis will probably not have the league's worst record--but the Grizzlies may very well be in contention for that dubious distinction. Portland's injury problems--most notably to number one overall pick Greg Oden--have been well documented and the Blazers will have another lottery pick to pair with Oden by the time he returns to action in 2008-09. Seattle replaced two All-Stars with two raw young talents, meaning that the Sonics' record will go down before it goes up. You may have heard that Minnesota made a few changes; Kevin Garnett is gone and so is any chance that the Timberwolves will win 30 games. The Sacramento Kings switched coaches but did little to improve the roster; yes, you can chalk them up for less than 30 wins, too.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

2007-08 Eastern Conference Preview

The NBA preseason is now in full swing and the regular season is only three weeks away. That means it is time for my annual NBA preview. I'll start with the Eastern Conference today and then post my Western Conference preview tomorrow. Last year I correctly picked seven of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. My one mistake was choosing Indiana instead of Toronto; I understood that the Raptors were a team on the rise, writing, "the Raptors will be much improved. If everything breaks right the Raptors could grab the eighth playoff spot but I expect that Toronto’s breakthrough season will be in 2007-08"; I simply did not expect the team to jell so quickly.

Listed below are the eight Eastern Conference teams that I expect to make the playoffs this year. They are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the Finals and not necessarily in the order that the teams will be seeded during the playoffs (which is affected by which teams win division championships). At the end are some brief comments about what to expect from the seven Eastern teams that I expect to make the journey to Secaucus for the NBA Draft Lottery.

1) Cleveland Cavaliers: Reasons for hope: Cleveland is a defensive-minded and playoff tested team that represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals last year. Daniel Gibson did not play much during the regular season but he seemingly came out of nowhere to be a strong contributor during the playoffs. If he can carry that success over into this season then Cleveland could win 55-60 games. Of course, the biggest trump in Cleveland's favor is LeBron James, who emerged as the best player in the East down the stretch after getting off to a slow start (for him). Reasons to mope: As Cleveland fans well know, the team did nothing to upgrade the roster and has yet to re-sign free agents Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, two key members of the rotation. Bottom line: The Spurs' four game sweep took some of the shine off of Cleveland's great season and some observers say that the Cavaliers benefited from some easy playoff matchups but it should not be forgotten that Cleveland had the second best record in the conference (50-32) and beat the team with the best record (Detroit, 53-29) in the Eastern Conference Finals. With James doing his magic and the team playing solid defense night in and night out the Cavaliers have an excellent chance to return to the NBA Finals.

2) Chicago Bulls: Reasons for hope: Like Cleveland, Chicago is a defensive-minded team. The Bulls have a deep roster and Luol Deng seems to be on the verge of blossoming into an All-Star. Ben Wallace may have slowed down a little bit but he still has more than enough left in the tank to anchor a deep playoff run. When/if Tyrus Thomas' mental game catches up with his athletic talent he will be a beast. Reasons to mope: The Bulls have no true superstar--though Deng may change this if he continues to develop--and most championship teams are blessed with a singularly great player who can take over games. The Bulls struggle at times on offense, partially because they lack a great player who can take over for a five or ten minutes stretch and partially because they also do not have a player who can catch the ball on the block and go to work. They rely greatly on dribble penetration leading to layups and open jumpers because they are not able to attack the paint by posting up. Bottom line: Cleveland and Chicago are really 1A and 1B and I expect these two teams to have a closely fought battle in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals.

3) Toronto Raptors: Reasons for hope: Toronto won a division title and got some playoff experience a year ahead of schedule. Chris Bosh has quietly emerged as one of the 15 best players in the NBA, while second year players Andrea Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa will presumably be even better--and healthier--this season. Free agent additions Jason Kapono and Carlos Delfino should fit in very well. Reasons to mope: Three things could potentially hold this team back: injuries, inexperience and a lack of attention to detail on defense. The first factor could derail any team and Toronto did a lot to address the second factor by making it to the playoffs last season, so the third factor will likely make or break the Raptors' chances of winning the conference. Bottom line: Toronto will win a playoff series and be a tough out but the Raptors are not quite ready to make a trip to the NBA Finals.

4) Detroit Pistons: Reasons for hope: Detroit has a wealth of playoff experience and still has arguably the best starting lineup in the conference. Barring injuries there is too much talent here to win less than 45-48 games. Reasons to mope: This highly regarded team is annually considered to be a contender but has not made it to the NBA Finals since Larry Brown led the Pistons to a championship in 2004. With each passing season it is becoming increasingly obvious that Flip Saunders is a good coach but not a championship level coach like a Brown, Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich. The core players are not getting any younger or any better and I don't buy the idea that rookie Rodney Stuckey will put this team over the top. Bottom line: Brown is long gone, center Ben Wallace is in Chicago and Detroit's championship window is officially shut (it actually closed when Larry Brown left, as I mentioned at that time, but people have been slow to recognize this).

5) Boston Celtics: Reasons for hope: Paul Pierce now has two All-Star teammates in the form of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. None of those players has won anything of consequence, so they are all hungry and willing to do whatever it takes for the team to be successful. Reasons to mope: The NBA is a five on five game, not a three on three tournament; starting point guard Rajon Rondo must prove that he can run the team, make open shots and play solid defense, while starting center Kendrick Perkins figures to be adequate at best. The bench is a major question mark and it is just as questionable how well this team will play defense. Allen and Pierce missed a lot of time due to injuries last season and all three stars are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Bottom line: It is asking a lot to throw three stars together, mix in a subpar supporting cast and then expect an instant championship to be the result, even though many Boston fans seem to think that is exactly what will happen this year. A more realistic goal is for Boston to win 50 games, advance past the first round and lay the foundation to make a more substantial playoff run in 2008-09--and contrary to what you may hear or read, it is hardly a given that Boston will even be able to do that much.

6) New Jersey Nets: Reasons for hope: Jason Kidd is still one of the top point guards--and players--in the NBA. Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson are a dynamic scoring tandem and Nenad Krstic will be back in the mix after missing most of last season due to injury. Reasons to mope: The Nets always look great on paper and occasionally even look great on the court but something always seems to go wrong come playoff time. Though this statement would have been unimaginable prior to last season, the loss of free agent Mikki Moore could really hurt this team; Jamaal Magloire must step up and contribute in his place. Bottom line: The Nets look like a team that may go on an impressive run at some point in the season before ultimately losing in the first round of the playoffs.

7) Orlando Magic: Reasons for hope: Dwight Howard may be on the verge of winning many rebounding titles in a row. All he needs now is an offensive game with his back to the basket. Free agent Rashard Lewis should average 20-plus ppg and probably lead the team in scoring. New Coach Stan Van Gundy will probably get a little bit more out of this group as a whole than Brian Hill did last season. Reasons to mope: As I wrote in last season's preview, "Orlando spent a lottery pick on J.J. Redick, who will not be able to create his own shot and will struggle on defense. Check back here in 3-5 years for the article about how many guys who were drafted after Redick end up having better careers." Orlando should not be in the Draft Lottery again any time soon and will long rue the day that it wasted that pick on Redick. Orlando needs to commit fewer turnovers on offense and focus more attention on playing good defense in order to move up in the standings. Bottom line: Orlando will make the playoffs but either needs to add one more really good player or have Howard emerge as a legit MVP-level player in order to truly be a contender.

8) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope: There is always at least a little hope when you have Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal on the roster and Pat Riley running the show. Reasons to mope: Wade is rehabbing shoulder and knee injuries and will not be back until November; it is impossible to predict how long it will take for him to truly be at full strength. Shaquille O'Neal is obviously declining and it is legitimate to wonder how hungry he is to win another title; in his mind he one-upped Kobe Bryant and the Lakers by winning a ring in 2006 and he may be satisfied with that. Sometimes teams speak of "addition by subtraction"--cutting a disgruntled player to improve team chemistry--but the signing of Smush Parker can be considered "subtraction by addition." Seriously, if Parker plays major minutes he will be worth five more losses in the standings. He spent most of last season sniping at Hall of Famer Phil Jackson, who has gotten along with a wide range of players, so it will be interesting to see how much Parker enjoys Riley's marathon practice sessions. Bottom line: The Heat turned in the most complacent, lackluster and disgraceful title defense in recent memory, starting with a blowout loss to Chicago on opening night and concluding with being swept by Chicago in the first round of the playoffs. It is possible that Wade will quickly regain his health, O'Neal will at least feign interest in the regular season and the Heat will finish higher than this but I honestly would not be shocked if Miami misses the playoffs altogether.

Other than the Boston Celtics--who will obviously be much improved this season after having the conference's worst record last year--the non-playoff teams in the East in 2007 had between 28 and 35 wins. I expect this year's Draft Lottery candidates in the East to be similarly bunched together. Here are some brief thoughts on each of these teams.

I'm sure that the first thought many of you had after scanning my eight playoff teams is "What about Agent Zero and the Washington Wizards?" Washington has three All-Star caliber players on offense but plays poor defense and lacks a consistent post up game. People like to talk about how the Wizards were briefly in first place in the East last year but you can rest assured that will not happen this season. It took a perfect storm of injuries to key players on other teams and sluggish stretches by Cleveland and Chicago for Washington to briefly occupy the top spot. The Wizards could grab the eighth spot if Miami completely implodes--a definite possibility--but they simply are not better than the first seven teams listed above.

I hate to use the term "sleeper" but if Emeka Okafor stays healthy then Charlotte could be a dangerous team; the combination of Gerald Wallace and Jason Richardson will likely be dynamic offensively.

Since the infamous "Malice at the Palace" the Indiana Pacers have almost completely redone their roster. Now they also have a new coach, Jim O'Brien, who will no doubt speed up the offense and make greater use of the three point shot. The Pacers may need to make a couple more personnel changes to return to the playoffs.

Milwaukee will presumably have a healthy Michael Redd for the entire season but lottery pick Yi Jianlian will not likely be a significant contributor this season and may very well be a distraction if it is true that he has been promised a certain amount of playing time regardless of his production. This team does not rebound or defend well enough to make the playoffs.

In Philadelphia it is out with the old A.I. and in with the new A.I.; Allen Iverson departed for Denver in the middle of last season and we finally found out what Andre Iguodala could do if he got more touches. Expect Iguodala to make the All-Star team this year but the Sixers will again miss the playoffs.

It has certainly been an eventful offseason for the Knicks, hasn't it? In case you forgot, Isiah Thomas got rid of Steve Francis and brought in a legit 20-10 player in Zach Randolph. It will be interesting to see how the all offense, no defense twin towers tandem of Randolph and Eddy Curry fares. I have a hard time predicting success for any team that starts Stephon Marbury at point guard; if Thomas finds a way to get rid of Marbury then the Knicks could grab the last playoff spot.

Atlanta has stockpiled a lot of young, athletic players but they don't play well together.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 AM

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Unicaja Malaga Tames the Grizzlies, 102-99

Unicaja Malaga defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 102-99 in a back and forth game that showcased many exciting plays, ranging from soaring dunks to four point plays. This NBA Europe Live Tour game was played in Malaga, Spain at the Palacio de Deportes. Spanish rookie guard Juan Carlos Navarro scored a game-high 21 points for Memphis, shooting 5-8 from three point range. He got off to a slow start in his first NBA game but then he produced 19 second half points. Pau Gasol added 18 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots and Mike Miller had 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Rookie lottery pick Mike Conley scored four points and had three assists in limited action. He showed the ability to drive around defenders and get to the hoop; the question is whether or not he can make the outside shot consistently and this performance (2-4 from the field) is too small of a sample to answer that right now. Conley always looks calm and in control and he plays with a high basketball IQ.

Davor Kus led Malaga with 20 points. He only shot 5-14 from the field but he scored 16 fourth quarter points, including three three pointers, one of which became a four point play. Kus played a key role as Malaga came back from a nine point deficit in the final period and then he shot 4-4 from the free throw line in the last 12 seconds to ice the victory. Malaga outrebounded Memphis 57-37 as three players--each of whom has some NBA experience--had double doubles: Marcus Haislip (18 points, 11 rebounds, four assists), Boniface Ndong (16 points, 12 rebounds) and Daniel Santiago (14 points, 10 rebounds). This the first game that an NBA team has lost to an non-NBA team this year in the NBA Europe Live Tour; last year, the 76ers and the Clippers each lost a game to a non-NBA team and, perhaps not coincidentally, neither of those teams made it to the playoffs. Yes, this is only Memphis' first preseason game but the Grizzlies do not look much like a playoff team, either.

The Grizzlies got off to a good start, taking a 20-10 first quarter lead but they quickly squandered most of that advantage and were only ahead 21-18 by the end of the quarter. Haislip did a lot of early damage with 10 first quarter points. In the second quarter it was Malaga's turn to build a double digit lead and then promptly lose it, as the Spanish team went up 44-33 before Memphis trimmed that deficit to 47-42 at halftime. Uncharacteristically for a FIBA team, Malaga did not shoot well from three point range in the first half but they made up for it by making more than half of their two point shots. Haslip led all first half scorers with 13 points, while Gasol and Rudy Gay each had eight points for Memphis.

The second half also so both teams go on extended runs to take double digit leads. Malaga struck first, hitting the Grizzlies with a barrage of three pointers and drives to go up 62-47 at the 7:26 mark. Memphis Coach Marc Iavaroni, who was clearly none too pleased with his team's first half performance, berated his players quite vociferously during this stretch. Malaga still led 69-59 with 3:19 to go in the period when Gasol converted a three point play to pull Memphis within seven points. The Grizzlies went on a 9-1 run in the final three minutes to take a 71-70 lead going into the fourth quarter.

Memphis rode that closing momentum in the opening minutes of the final period to go up 82-73 but Kus scored seven points in a 22 second stretch to all but obliterate that lead. Then the Grizzlies struck back with two Navarro three pointers, a soaring fast break dunk by Gay and a Navarro runner. Memphis led 92-83 with 5:31 to go and it seemed like the worst was over for the Grizzlies--but Memphis did not make another field goal until Gasol hit a turnaround jumper at the 2:01 mark, by which time Malaga was only down 94-91. The Grizzlies did not score on their next three possessions and three Ndong putbacks made the score 97-94 Malaga with just :19 left, enabling the Spanish team to seal the victory by making their free throws.

While home court advantage, FIBA rules and the fact that NBA teams are just starting their training camps are three factors that are in favor of the European teams in these games, one thing that definitely should be an advantage for the NBA teams is that the games last 48 minutes, not the 40 that FIBA teams play. NBA teams are not only deeper in talent than their FIBA counterparts but should be more accustomed to playing longer games. In the two previous games featuring NBA teams versus European teams on this tour so far, both NBA teams outscored their opponents in the second half en route to close wins. While Memphis did outscore Unicaja in the second half of this game, the Spanish team not only enjoyed a 32-28 fourth quarter edge but they also closed the game with a 19-7 run.

After the game, Iavaroni said, "Our help side has to be a lot better. We had chances to take charges and block shots and we fouled instead. Fouling kills good defense." Allowing 15 offensive rebounds, including the back breaking plays by Ndong in the last minute, also kills good defense. Memphis has some talented players but the team seems to be a bit soft and definitely lacks focus.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:04 PM

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Ollie Taylor Battled All the Giants at Just 6-2

Ollie Taylor rode the bench in high school before jumping center against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in college and playing against Julius Erving and Rick Barry in the ABA. Along the way, he set numerous National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) records while leading San Jacinto to the 1968 national title. Taylor followed that up by lifting Houston to a Sweet 16 appearance in 1970. Owner of a 46 inch vertical leap, Taylor dazzled fans from Rucker Park to the ABA with his spectacular dunks. You can read all about Taylor's career in my HoopsHype.com article about him:

Battling Giants at 6-2

posted by David Friedman @ 5:11 PM

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Monday, October 08, 2007

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

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 6/15/07

Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich previously said that the 2007 NBA Finals are setting offensive basketball back 10 years, so San Antonio’s 83-82 Game 4 victory was a fitting way to conclude matters. The Spurs won despite shooting .381 from the field and .688 from the free throw line. Tony Parker clinched the Finals MVP by scoring 24 points on 10-14 shooting. Manu Ginobili had a game-high 27 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. In the post-game press conference, Tim Duncan looked at the boxscore with dismay and described his performance as subpar; he then laughed and said, "We’re sticklers...we should appreciate and enjoy the win (but) we’re all competitors and it defines us as competitors." He had six turnovers and finished with just 12 points on 4-15 field goal shooting and 4-10 free throw shooting. On the positive side, he did grab a game-high 15 rebounds and his strong defense in the paint played a big role in Cleveland’s poor shooting. LeBron James led Cleveland with 24 points and 10 assists but said, "I have to be 10 times better." James shot 10-30 from the field and committed six turnovers, many of which he candidly admitted were unforced.

The Spurs have won three titles in the past five years and four in Tim Duncan’s ten year career. This was the first time that the Spurs won the Finals with a sweep and just the eighth Finals sweep in NBA history. Duncan and Popovich are the two constants in what has to be ranked as one of the NBA’s great dynasties; the Spurs join the Boston Celtics, L.A. Lakers and Chicago Bulls as the only franchises in NBA history to win at least four championships. The only slight blemish on their run is that they have yet to win in consecutive years but when Popovich was asked about that after the game he replied, "I don’t give a (expletive deleted)" before apologizing for his language. He certainly has little else for which to apologize or express regret. Parker said, "I can definitely give a lot of credit to Coach Pop because I would never be here without him." Duncan attributes much of the Spurs’ success to Popovich’s leadership: "He’s the one who puts us together. He’s the guy that makes it run. He’s the one that stays on us no matter how well or how badly we’re playing. He finds the right way to approach us. I can say no more than he defines the team. He always has and as long as he’s here he always will." Cleveland Coach Mike Brown, who was an assistant coach under Popovich when the Spurs won the 2003 championship, also offered high praise for Popovich: "He doesn’t get enough credit. He doesn’t get enough credit for his Xs and Os but, more importantly, he doesn’t get enough credit for his people skills. He’s a tremendous teacher and a tremendous person and he’s the reason that organization is where it’s at."

Some people will surely try to diminish the Spurs’ dynasty status by suggesting that the Cavaliers were perhaps the worst team to ever appear in the NBA Finals but that objection does not stand up to close scrutiny for two reasons: (1) Three previous Finalists had losing records--the Minneapolis Lakers in 1958-59 (.458 winning percentage), the 1956-57 St. Louis Hawks (.472) and the 1980-81 Houston Rockets (.488). The Cavaliers went 50-32 (.610) and that included a 19-10 (.655) mark against the Western Conference, so they did not just fatten their record up by beating Eastern Conference teams. Two of those 19 wins were against the Spurs; (2) as Tim Duncan pointed out prior to the Finals, "This is the toughest road that we've had to a Finals...Denver was unbelievable with the two scorers they had and the physicality they have; Phoenix, of course (posed a great challenge); Utah did one heck of a job and you know what they're going to bring to the table." Moreover, not only were several NBA Finalists statistically worse than the Cavaliers but Cleveland also beat Detroit, the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, in four straight games after losing the first two games of the series. Part of the reason that the Cavaliers struggled so much in the Finals can be attributed to the greatness of the Spurs. In that sense, the Spurs’ own ability makes it difficult to appreciate how great they truly are; they made a great player (James) and a very good team look quite ordinary.

Obviously, Bill Russell’s Celtics’ 11 titles in 13 years is the gold standard of NBA dynasties. Michael Jordan’s Bulls won six titles in eight years--two three-peats wrapped around his first retirement. That surpassed Magic Johnson’s Lakers because the Bulls won more championships in fewer years. If Duncan and the Spurs repeat next year, their five titles in 11 years would certainly have to be considered to be comparable to what Johnson’s Lakers did (five championships in nine years, one repeat). People can argue forever about which eras were tougher or easier to play in but the only thing a team can do is beat its contemporaries. Duncan’s Spurs have been contenders since he arrived and the only team that has beaten them in the playoffs when Duncan was healthy was the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers (Duncan was hobbled by plantar fasciitis last year when Dallas won a tough series with an overtime victory in Game 7); that Lakers team could very well have become the team of the first decade of the 21st Century but they were broken up before their time while the Spurs keep rolling along. Someone asked Popovich why the Spurs have been able to avoid the pitfalls that led to the premature demise of the recent Lakers’ and Bulls’ teams. Popovich cited two main factors: "Our ownership under Peter Holt allows us to do our jobs...he’s never said no to me about anything. Not one time have I gotten a no. He trusts us to do our jobs and do what we do...(the second factor is) Timmy and the other guys we’ve tried to bring in who have a certain character, a character that’s made up of people who have gotten over themselves, people who care about the team more than an individual...a good example would be Manu, an All-Star, coming off the bench. When you have those kind of guys it’s kind of special."

One of those "character" guys is Michael Finley. While winning championships is nothing new for the Spurs, this title is the first in Finley’s 12 year NBA career. Duncan and Popovich both mentioned how special it is to help Finley to reach the sport’s pinnacle. "They dedicated this Finals to me," Finley said after the game. "It just shows you what type of guys these are. For them to give me the game ball...I mean, I’m blessed." Another "character" guy is Robert Horry, who won his seventh championship. He is the eighth player to win that many NBA titles and the first seven of them were all members of Russell’s Celtics.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:57 PM

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Raptors Rally to Beat Lottomattica Roma, 93-87

Chris Bosh had 23 points and nine rebounds as the Toronto Raptors defeated Lottomattica Roma in an NBA Europe Live Tour game. Jason Kapono added 15 points, making all three of his three point shots, and Andrea Bargnani contributed 13 points and seven rebounds. Christian Drejer, a smooth shooting forward, led Lottomattica with 23 points; he shot 4-8 from three point range as Lottomattica connected 12 times from long distance. Jon Stefansson scored 19 points and ex-Celtic Allan Ray had 15 points. All of the NBA Europe Live Tour games use a mixture of NBA and FIBA rules and are officiated by crews that have NBA and FIBA referees; obviously, all of the games are road games for the NBA squads, who also have not been in training camp quite as long as their European counterparts have.

The Raptors got off to a good start and led 23-19 by the end of the first quarter. The basic strategies of both teams became evident pretty early in the game, as outlined by ESPN2's Hubie Brown, who provided color commentary while sitting alongside play by play announcer Rick Kamla in ESPN's studio: the Raptors enjoyed a decisive advantage in the paint with Bosh, Bargnani and even a reserve player like Kris Humphries, while Lottomattica's strengths are three point shooting and scoring in transition. This game was entertaining to watch not only because of the contrasting styles of the two teams but also because the cross-pollination that has happened in recent years in basketball was on full display; European teams often have several American players on their rosters, while many NBA teams have players from various countries on their rosters. It is worth noting, though, that in general the best non-American players seek to play in the NBA, while the American players who go overseas are almost always ones who have not been able to make an NBA roster.

Lottomattica outscored Toronto 26-21 in the second quarter to take a 45-44 halftime lead, as Brown pleaded with the Raptors to get out on the three point shooters on defense and to pound the ball inside on offense. Lottomattica used a barrage of three pointers to go up 65-58 by the 4:14 mark in the third quarter. Jason Kapono scored seven points in the last two minutes of the period to help Toronto tie the score at 66 going into the fourth quarter.

NBA teams often rest their starters toward the end of preseason games, as we saw yesterday when Toronto lost to Boston, but that was not the case in this contest; clearly, no NBA team wants to lose to a non-NBA team, even in a preseason game. Bosh and several other key Raptors players were on the floor at the start of the fourth quarter but the score was still tied, 75-75, with less than eight minutes to go. Unfortunately, ESPN2 lost its feed from Rome for about three minutes of game action. During that time, Toronto made a run, leading Brown to joke that he and Kamla must have been holding the Raptors back. The play by play sheet indicates that Juan Dixon made a runner, Kapono nailed a three pointer and Bosh hit two free throws to give Toronto an 82-75 lead; ESPN2 regained the feed at that point. About a minute later, Anthony Parker made a three pointer and the Raptors enjoyed their biggest lead of the game, 85-75. Lottomattica got no closer than five points the rest of the way. Bosh did not check out of the game until 1:14 remained and Toronto was up by eight.

During the game broadcast and during the time that the feed to Rome was not working, Brown offered his take on this year's Raptors. He likes the acquisition of Kapono, who was Miami's third leading scorer last year. Brown believes that Toronto is a team on the rise but says that the Raptors must improve in two areas: defense and drawing fouls. The ability to stop teams and the ability to get opposing big men in foul trouble will both be important when Toronto plays against top teams, Brown said. As for the Boston Celtics, who are many people's chic pick to win the East, Brown does not buy into that at all, noting that there will be a lot of pressure on players 4-10 in the rotation to prove that they can make meaningful contributions, particularly during the playoffs. He agreed with Kamla's suggestion that Boston may have a better chance to make a deep playoff run in 2008-09 after the team has had a full season together.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:39 PM

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Revamped Timberwolves Defeat Efes Pilsen, 84-81

The new-look Minnesota Timberwolves began the post-Kevin Garnett era with an 84-81 win over Efes Pilsen, a strong Turkish team. The NBA Europe Live Tour game was played in front of 11,500 enthusiastic fans in Abdi Ipekci Sports Hall in Istanbul, Turkey. Efes Pilsen shot just 28-80 from the field (.350). Minnesota actually shot even worse than that (29-86, .337) but enjoyed a 68-47 rebounding advantage. Ryan Gomes had 12 points and 13 rebounds for the Timberwolves, Ricky Davis tied for team-high honors with 12 points and Al Jefferson contributed 11 points and 17 rebounds. Drew Nicholas led Efes Pilsen with 24 points but he shot just 8-25 from the field. He also had five rebounds and a game-high four assists. Andre Hutson, a name familiar to Midwesterners from his playing days at Michigan State and Trotwood-Madison (Oh.) High School, added 15 points and a game-high 18 rebounds for Efes Pilsen.

Efes Pilsen led by as many as five points in the first quarter, scoring repeatedly on back door cuts. At times, the contest looked like Team USA versus Greece in the 2006 Olympics but Minnesota rallied to take a 41-39 halftime lead. The second half of the game was also very tightly fought. Hutson's three point play put Efes Pilsen up 77-76 but Jefferson answered with an offensive rebound/putback and after that play Minnesota made enough free throws to escape with the win. Nicholas' last second three point shot just missed the mark.

My admittedly very early take on the post-Garnett Timberwolves is that the team is obviously young and athletic. However, there are serious questions about the squad's poise, discipline and leadership--I mean, Ricky Davis is the veteran presence in the starting lineup. Need I say more? This is the guy that the Cavaliers could not wait to get rid of before his bad attitude and work habits had a chance to influence LeBron James--and now he is "the guy" in Minnesota. In 27 minutes he shot 5-15 from the field, had one assist and showed little interest in playing defense. The point guard situation is tenuous at best. Randy Foye is the starter right now. He is a decent player but I'm not convinced that he is actually a point guard; Foye had three assists and four turnovers. Sebastian Telfair played almost as many minutes as Foye did and I know that he is not a quality NBA point guard. Telfair had an odd stat line: nine points on 2-8 shooting, two assists, three turnovers--and eight rebounds, two more than the 6-0 (allegedly) guard has ever grabbed in a regular season game. Clearly, the rebound total is an aberration but his other stats are pretty much in line with what you can expect out of him: he is such a poor shooter that teams can play well off of him, limiting his ability to create passing lanes even though he is quick and has decent court vision. Telfair is also an absolute sieve on defense, something that he tried to make up for in this game by repeatedly hitting guys upside the head after they drove past him. NBA TV's Rick Kamla and Alaa Abdelnaby both mentioned how bizarre it was to see Telfair, who has blocked 21 shots in 214 career games, wildly swinging as if he were trying to block shots but connecting with nothing but the heads of his bewildered opponents. He left so many scratch marks on Nicholas' forehead after one play that Abdelnaby said it looked like Nicholas had just lost a fight with Freddy Krueger or Edward Scissorhands. If Telfair pulls that nonsense against another NBA team's star, one of that team's big men will send him flying into the stands the next time that he drives the lane.

Jefferson and Gomes are two bright spots for Minnesota, as their double double statistics indicate. A third promising player is Corey Brewer, though his modest statistics from this game (two points, three rebounds, two assists, one steal) do not show it. He got a steal right after he came into the game, showed an ability and willingness to guard a variety of kinds of players and just seems to have a very high basketball IQ. Brewer is like a poor man's Scottie Pippen. That does not mean that he will ever be nearly as good as Pippen was; Pippen came into the league as a raw talent, like Brewer is now, and then worked on his mind, his body and his overall game until he became a superstar. All I'm saying is that Brewer has the potential to be a very, very good player and someone who can contribute to a winning program in ways that may not always be measured statistically.

After the game, someone asked Efes Pilsen Coach David Blatt to explain the similarities and differences between NBA teams and European teams. He replied, "The rules make it a lot easier for us to play against NBA teams...The best athletes and the top, top players in the world are playing in the NBA. I think the gap has rapidly decreased and I think without question that the top level European teams are closer and closer to NBA level teams." Blatt added that the FIBA rules, which were used during this game, enabled Efes Pilsen to play zone defenses that took away a lot of Minnesota's isolation plays because FIBA weak side defenders can camp out in the lane, something that NBA defenders cannot do for more than three seconds. He almost apologized for using some tactics against Minnesota that the Timberwolves are not prepared for (both because training camp has just begun and because some of those tactics are not legal under NBA rules anyway) but said that he did this because it was the best way for his team to keep the game close and because his team needs to practice these tactics to prepare for its upcoming season. Blatt said that if the two teams played again in a few months that the score would not be as close (i.e., Minnesota would win by a bigger margin). He also thanked Minnesota for agreeing to play against his team and said that the fair play and sportsmanship displayed by Minnesota will be his lasting memory from the event. Blatt's candor in assessing what transpired during the game only reinforces one of the things that I have said regarding Team USA's performances in FIBA competitions: it is important for Team USA to practice together under FIBA rules as a unit to get accustomed to that style of play. Fortunately, under the direction of Jerry Colangelo, Team USA has been doing just that and has gotten away from the idea of haphazardly throwing together an NBA All-Star team and heading off to FIBA events with minimal preparation.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:28 AM

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