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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dwyane Wade Hopes to Motivate Shaquille O'Neal to Actually Care About This Season

Does this sound vaguely familiar? "Probably this year more so than any year I have been more vocal with Shaq, talking to him and trying to motivate him. But the main thing is Shaq has got to be self-motivated. He has got to be willing and ready to do it. Even though he is not getting the ball as much as he wants, we need him to help lead this team in other ways, whether it's rebounding the ball or passing the ball the way he knows how to pass." Is that a recycled quote from the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant feud? Nope; those are the words of Dwyane Wade, who is finding out what Bryant discovered several years ago: O'Neal's desire and commitment do not match his imposing size and (now rapidly diminishing) physical gifts.

Let's see: O'Neal feuded with Penny Hardaway because O'Neal wanted to receive the lion's share of the credit, he feuded with Bryant because Bryant actually wanted him to get in shape (and because O'Neal wanted to receive the lion's share of the credit) and now Dwyane Wade finds it necessary to publicly question--to "call out" as people like to say--O'Neal. The funny thing about this is that after O'Neal left L.A., he briefly did everything that Bryant had wanted him to do: he got in shape, played defense and accepted a secondary role on offense that better suited his current capabilities and the growing skills of his superstar partner. Now, O'Neal has the one extra ring that, in his mind, validates his position vis a vis Bryant and the Lakers and he apparently has decided to mail in the rest of his career--while collecting $20 million per year.

It is likely that even if O'Neal were in great shape and highly motivated that he could no longer dominate on a night in and night out basis. That is not the point; the point is that O'Neal could often get away with cutting corners when he was in his prime but this does not mean that he was right to do so or that Bryant was wrong to urge him to work harder. Somehow I doubt that Wade's comment will be viewed as a distraction, as proof that he is a bad or selfish teammate (he's not, but neither was Bryant when he spoke the truth)--or even as evidence that O'Neal should be working harder. People will likely just dismiss the whole thing by saying that O'Neal is old, that he's had a great career (which is true) and that time has passed him by.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 AM

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Defense, Bench Play and a Late Surge From Kobe Lift Lakers Over Pistons

So much for being distracted; so much for not having a good supporting cast. All is well, at least for the moment, for Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers, who improved to 5-3 with a 103-91 victory over the Detroit Pistons, who were without the services of injured starters Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess. In addition to Detroit, the Lakers have recently beaten three other teams that most observers consider to be serious contenders: Houston, Phoenix, and Utah. Kobe Bryant had a poor shooting night but every other facet of his game was on point. "Kobe in the end has to score the basketball but he can be just as deadly when he passes it," ESPN's Jon Barry noted early in the game, pointing out that when Bryant has the ball the entire defense focuses its attention on him, creating open scoring opportunities for other players. Sure enough, the Lakers followed Barry's script to perfection: Bryant had no points and three assists in the first quarter as the Lakers took a 29-20 lead; in the fourth quarter, with the game in the balance, Bryant had 11 points on 4-4 shooting. He finished with 19 points on 6-18 shooting, seven assists and four rebounds. Bryant also played outstanding defense, a trait that seems to be rubbing off on his teammates as the Lakers had 13 steals and many deflections. Lamar Odom posted a double double (25 points and a game-high 15 rebounds) and Andrew Bynum headlined an outstanding effort by the bench, contributing 12 points and seven rebounds. Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince led Detroit with 16 points each.

Detroit fought back to tie the game near the end of the second quarter and only trailed 48-46 at halftime. The third quarter was tightly contested most of the way but Detroit used an 8-2 run in the last 3:00 to go up 68-62 heading into the fourth quarter. The Lakers scored six straight points in the first 1:31 of the fourth quarter to tie the score and soon built a small lead on the strength of several steals that they converted into fast break points. Bryant's scoring burst began with a three pointer at the 5:37 mark that put the Lakers ahead 83-76. Detroit answered with a Rasheed Wallace three pointer and a Hamilton jumper. On the Lakers' next possession they ran the Triangle Offense to perfection as Jordan Farmar fed the ball to Bynum in the post, who then delivered a slick bounce pass to a cutting Bryant for a layup; back in the Chicago Bulls' glory days when they ran the Triangle majestically, Scottie Pippen used to get at least one layup a game using that baseline cut and receiving a pass from Luc Longley, Will Perdue or Bill Wennington. Bryant drew Hamilton's fifth foul on the play and he made the free throw to put L.A. up 86-81. A bit later, Bryant drove to the hoop and kicked the ball to Farmar, whose three pointer made the score 93-83. On the next possession, Farmar returned the favor, passing to Bryant for a three pointer. After Bryant fed Odom for yet another three pointer, the Lakers led 99-85. Not to harp on something that I've mentioned here a few times recently, but those plays by Bryant, Farmar and Odom are just as "clutch"--if not more so--then a desperation shot that someone makes with less than five seconds left in the game; these are winning plays made at a crucial time in the game when Detroit could have otherwise stayed within striking distance.

During the game, Barry listed what he called the five "pure, best talented players--more talented than anyone else in the league": Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James. Mike Breen noted that the past three MVPs--Steve Nash (two) and Dirk Nowitzki--did not make the cut for Barry, yet later agreed with Barry's contention that the aforementioned quintet probably comprises the five most talented players in the NBA. "Talent" is a rather nebulous thing to define: does it refer to athletic ability, fundamental basketball skills or something else? I've always thought that it was silly when people tried to say that Larry Bird lacked athleticism or "talent"; how can it be said that a 6-9 player with superb hand-eye coordination and almost unlimited shooting range lacks "talent"? Bird blocked more shots than many of the game's celebrated leapers (including Clyde Drexler and Dominique Wilkins) and he did not do that merely by outsmarting people; Bird possessed good size and was a decent vertical jumper, particularly early in his career--he never displayed the ability to broad jump, to fly from the free throw line and dunk, but he certainly was more than capable of playing the game above the rim. Nowadays, people similarly try to dismiss Nash's athletic ability--but there is a lot more to athletic ability than just broad jumping or vertical jumping; Nash is very quick and like Bird he possesses great hand-eye coordination and excellent shooting range. Nowitzki is a seven footer who runs the court like a guard and also has tremendous shooting range. He's not athletic? Bird, Nash and Nowitzki are not "talented"? Obviously, the way that athleticism and talent are defined has a heavily racial component to it but the reality is that the NBA's white superstars are more athletic than they are given credit for being and the NBA's black superstars are more fundamentally sound and more well schooled from a technical standpoint than is sometimes suggested.

Rather than ranking players based on talent or athleticism it makes more sense to rank them the way a scout would: how fundamentally sound are they in all aspects of the game and how much of a challenge do they present to the opposing team at both ends of the court? By that standard, Bryant is the league's best player because he has no serious weaknesses offensively or defensively. LeBron James and Tim Duncan--who both struggle from the free throw line--are right behind him (James also needs to show more consistency on defense). One could make a case that Garnett has been the best player in the NBA early in this season but he still lacks a go-to move on the block and has been known to fade--literally and figuratively--in critical situations; for those reasons I would not yet place him above the first three players who I listed. Obviously, if Boston wins 55-60 games or more then Garnett will be a landslide MVP award winner unless Bryant or James do something truly spectacular (Duncan no longer plays enough minutes to put up the stats that wow MVP voters). As for Wade, I would give him an incomplete because we have not seen much of him in the past six months or so; unless he improved his outside shooting and his defense during his rehabilitation period I would not put him ahead of Bryant, Duncan or James. Nowitzki was a worthy MVP choice last year--though I would have voted for Bryant--but his production is not at the same level so far this year; defense is his main weakness. As for Nash, I rate him and Jason Kidd neck and neck as the best point guards but neither one is the best or the most valuable player in the NBA; Kidd's flaw is his shooting, while Nash's flaw is his defense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 AM

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Great Players Can Never Play in Fear of Turnovers

The Phoenix Suns beat the Chicago Bulls 112-102 in fairly routine fashion: they pushed the ball up the court, they made a lot of three pointers (10), they built a big lead (15 points), they squandered the entire lead in the second half and then they put the Bulls away with a barrage of jumpers and backdoor cuts. The Suns are a hard team to handle in the regular season, particularly in Phoenix; the Bulls outrebounded them by seven and still lost by 10 points. The eternal question is can the Suns beat the Spurs in a seven game series and the answer so far has been, "No." Leandro Barbosa had a game-high 25 points, while Grant Hill scored a season-high 24 points and Shawn Marion had 21 points and nine rebounds. Steve Nash shot just 3-11 from the field but finished with 10 points, 15 assists and four steals. Ben Gordon led Chicago with 24 points.

Chicago is a very puzzling team this year because the Bulls play well in stretches and then go through periods in which they look completely clueless. Anyone who thinks that Kobe Bryant could not help this team is delusional--the Bulls go through major scoring droughts in nearly every game and he would be the perfect antidote to that, not to mention the fact that his defense would also make the Bulls much better. The problem for the Bulls now is that the Lakers' bench has played very well in the early part of the season, so Bryant is not likely to accept a trade to a team that plays as lethargically as Chicago does. I still think that there is too much talent on this Bulls team to play like this all season but I am less convinced of that now than I was a week ago. Ben Wallace has clearly aged, while Luol Deng and Ben Gordon may be preoccupied with their contract situations.

This game had a real air of inevitability about it: the Suns' running game wears down most teams during the regular season and the Bulls hardly seem like a mentally strong enough group to overcome that kind of pressure right now. The most interesting thing about this contest is something that TNT's Doug Collins said late in the game after Nash threw the ball away. Referring to Nash and New Jersey's Jason Kidd, Collins declared, "There are two point guards in the league who never fear a turnover...They're going to thread the needle and trust their teammates. They never fear the consequences of a mistake, especially under pressure." This dovetails with my view that it is not a big deal if a great player--particularly one who handles the ball a lot--averages three or four turnovers a game. Obviously, careless turnovers should be minimized and throwing the ball away in a crucial late game situation is bad but the point is that players who are responsible for creating a sizable portion of their team's offense will inevitably have a few turnovers. What you don't want is to have a player who has few ballhandling duties but commits several turnovers a game; if one player handles the ball most of the time and commits three to four turnovers a game it is likely that the rest of the team will commit very few turnovers, so the team total will fall within acceptable levels. Does anyone think that Kidd or Nash hurt their teams by committing too many turnovers? There may be one or two games a year in which they have eight or 10 turnovers--but those games are more than offset by their positive contributions in most other games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:58 AM

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Mavericks Run Past Spurs in Showdown of Western Conference Heavyweights

The Dallas Mavericks used a high octane running game to defeat the San Antonio Spurs, 105-92. Josh Howard led the Mavericks with 23 points. Devin Harris scored 18 points and had a game-high +27 plus/minus, largely because he completely ate Tony Parker's lunch (seven points on 1-11 shooting, a game-low -21 plus/minus). Dirk Nowitzki, who this year almost seems to be operating in a point-forward role, tied Harris with a team-high five assists in addition to scoring 18 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking four shots. Jason Terry continues to thrive in the sixth man role, scoring 18 points on 7-9 shooting. Manu Ginobili had 25 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, while Tim Duncan scored well (24 points) but did not have the impact elsewhere that he usually does (five rebounds, no blocked shots).

Dallas raced out to a 20-8 lead and was in control for most of the game. The Mavericks pushed the ball up the court at every opportunity and led 59-40 at halftime. Of course, a championship team like the Spurs is going to make a run but the Mavericks maintained at least a 10 point lead throughout the second half.

If Dallas had played this way in last year's playoffs versus Golden State then the Mavericks would have had an opportunity to do this to the Spurs with a berth to the NBA Finals on the line--and, regardless of what anyone thinks, the Mavericks are better equipped to beat the Spurs in a seven game series than any other team in the West, including the Phoenix Suns. That should be obvious, since the Mavericks actually did beat the Spurs in the playoffs just two years ago; the only other Western Conference team to beat the Spurs in the postseason since 2000 is the Shaq-Kobe Lakers.

Unlike Phoenix and Golden State, Dallas is able to play an uptempo game without completely sacrificing defense and without utilizing questionable shot selection; that is why the Mavericks should never be afraid to run with anyone. In fact, when Dallas beat San Antonio in the 2006 playoffs, the Mavericks scored more than 100 points in each of their wins and fewer than 100 in each of their losses. I understand that Coach Avery Johnson wants to construct the Mavericks in the mold of the Spurs, but his best player, Dirk Nowitzki, is neither a back to the basket offensive player nor a defensive stopper in the paint a la Tim Duncan; therefore, Dallas will never be most effective playing the grind it out style that San Antonio prefers.

It is interesting to speculate about why Dallas forces the tempo versus San Antonio but did not consistently do this against Golden State in last year's playoffs. My theory is that the Dallas coaching staff realizes that it cannot beat San Antonio in a slowdown game, so getting into a fast paced game is mandatory--but I think that the Dallas coaching staff had a hard time accepting that the Mavericks really could not simply slow the game down and bludgeon Golden State to death. Mavericks' fans should be ecstatic that their team largely abandoned that wrongheaded approach in the first matchup with Golden State this season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:06 AM

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Durant's Sonics Earn First Win Versus Listless Heat

Miami Heat Coach Pat Riley did not mince words about his team's effort on Wednesday after the Seattle Supersonics earned their first win of the season with a 104-95 victory over his squad: "I don't see a team that really feels like they have anything at stake here. They come out and play, they get beat, they go home. They go into the night...People who don't think they should ever be benched might have to be benched to turn this thing around." Who exactly might Riley be talking about? Starting shooting guard Ricky Davis did much shooting but little guarding or making (19 points on 5-18 shooting); starting point guard Jason Williams had one assist while scoring 14 points on 5-13 shooting; swingman Penny Hardaway knows how to play but his body will no longer permit him to do so (two points on 1-6 shooting, four assists); Shaquille O'Neal is in perpetual foul trouble (four fouls in 16 minutes) and is too old, too out of shape, too hurt or too "all of the above" to be dominant (10 points on 4-4 shooting, three rebounds). Has there ever been a championship team that retained its two star players and had a quicker, steeper fall from grace?

While Miami is crashing toward an inevitable rebuilding project, Seattle expects to soon be a team on the rise, powered by first round draft picks Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. The Sonics led the Heat by 20 at halftime in Miami, which should have been deeply embarrassing to the Heat but, as Riley indicated, the players no longer seem to have any pride (or feel any shame, to be more precise) about their performances. Durant scored 18 points but shot just 6-16 from the field and had as many turnovers as rebounds (five each). In 33 minutes he had just one assist. Yes, Durant has some obvious physical skills, skills which apparently cause non-stop drooling among television announcers and other members of the media, but it is not clear why it is seemingly forbidden to mention a couple very obvious facts about Durant: he is shooting a very poor percentage and his well-advertised all-around game has yet to show up in the NBA. Durant's rookie season is more than 10% over and he has yet to have a significant impact in the won/loss column or in any individual statistical category other than field goal attempts; he has jacked up 173 shots in nine games, the fifth most in the league--and he ranks second in field goal attempts per minute. That, combined with his .382 shooting from the field, makes his 20 ppg average less impressive than it may seem to be at first glance.

All of the observations and predictions that I made about Durant's game during the summer league have been validated so far: I pointed out that he seems to be below average in every area other than free throw percentage and that even that will be of limited value right now because he is not going to draw a lot of fouls in regular season play; I concluded that Durant would need to attempt a lot of shots to average 20 ppg as a rookie, that he would not attempt a lot of free throws, that his floor game would not be great and that he would commit a lot of turnovers due to his high dribble. Sure enough, Durant is averaging 4.9 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.3 spg and .8 bpg--very pedestrian numbers for such a highly touted player. He has only attempted 41 free throws; his free throw percentage (.780) is good but hardly exceptional and his three point percentage (.302) is not great. Durant is also 10th in the league in turnovers per game (3.44), which is a high number for a shooting guard who is essentially a catch and shoot player; his low apg and free throws attempted numbers show that he is not producing a lot for his team off of the dribble to compensate for how much he loses the ball.

Durant appeared on TNT's halftime show during the first game of Thursday's doubleheader and made a couple interesting comments. One, he admitted that everything about playing in the NBA is harder than he expected, including getting open to shoot and trying to get rebounds. Two, he said that the NBA game is much faster than he expected based on watching games on TV. The latter is something that casual fans--and even great college players like Durant--don't understand about the NBA unless they see some games in person: NBA players are much faster (and bigger and stronger and more skilled) than they may appear to be on TV. Without seeing the players in person it is difficult to gauge their size and speed because they are all so big and so fast that on TV these traits tend to be obscured; in person you realize just how big these guys are and just how fast they are moving.

Durant may very well blossom into a great player at some point--but he clearly is not one now. The Sonics have done him a disservice by placing so much on his shoulders so soon (by getting rid of All-Stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) and the media has compounded the problem by continuing to call him a "sensation" when in reality he is a talented college player who is struggling to adjust to the NBA game. It is true that it takes a certain amount of talent to even get off 20 shots in an NBA game but that level of talent should be a given for the second overall pick in the draft. Instead of making assumptions about how great Durant is going to become, why can't we just let his development take its natural course?

It is far too early to say what kind of career Durant will have, so I won't make the same mistake that the breathless commentators have. All that I have predicted regarding Durant is what kind of game he would display during his rookie year and so far my prediction has been closer to the truth than any others that I have heard or seen.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 AM

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

T-Mac Injured Again, Rockets Crash Versus Lakers, 94-91

The L.A. Lakers built an 18 point lead and withstood a furious Houston rally to emerge with a 94-91 road victory, avenging their 95-93 loss to the Rockets in the season opener. Kobe Bryant had a game-high 30 points on 11-23 shooting, adding eight rebounds and five assists. Derek Fisher (13 points) and Lamar Odom (10 points) were the only other Lakers to reach double figures in points. Yao Ming led the Rockets with 26 points and he also had 13 rebounds and five assists. Bonzi Wells provided a boost off of the bench with 21 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals in over 40 minutes of action; his playing time was increased because Tracy McGrady (nine points, two assists) injured his right elbow just before halftime and went to a hospital for an MRI; early indications are that he will be out for a week.

Bryant missed his first five field goal attempts but he did an excellent job distributing the ball to his teammates, though you will find little statistical evidence of this. As ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy noted during the first quarter, "He's making the right basketball plays. He only has one assist but he could have had three or four at least if guys converted layups." Kwame Brown's nickname should be "Assist Killer," because any great pass that could potentially be an assist dies an ugly, brutal death in his hands of stone; he might have the worst hands I've ever seen for a player who actually gets significant minutes in a team's rotation. Say what you want about Kobe Bryant but he has not stopped trying to pass the ball to Brown; on the other hand, as described in Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules, at one time Michael Jordan not only refused to pass the ball to Bill Cartwright in the fourth quarters of games but implored his teammates not to do so either.

Van Gundy firmly rejects any notion that Bryant is a selfish player: "I've always looked at it this way: when he's been surrounded by good enough players, he'll pass when he should; when he's doubled he'll give the ball up. But when he's surrounded by lesser players and the score's going the wrong way he's going to do what any great player would do, which is to get his team back in the game. At times, he may take questionable shots for normal NBA players but not for him. When he's putting pressure on the defense (by scoring) as an opposing coach you're saying, 'Please, just be a facilitator.' You don't want him to be on the attack." All of this should be pretty obvious, because there is a lot of evidence to back up what Van Gundy said: Bryant was the leading playmaker on three championship teams, he gives up the ball when he is double-teamed and he showed in the second half of last season that when Phil Jackson put the burden on him to carry the team with his scoring that he was more than up to that task. Don't judge Bryant based on how many assists he has in a game or how many shots he takes; watch the game and observe his decision making process in the heat of battle before buying into the herd mentality about his "selfishness."

Bryant finally made his first basket, a three pointer, near the end of the first quarter and the Lakers led 25-22 after 12 minutes of play. The Lakers' bench blew the game open in the second quarter, which is largely why five Laker reserves posted positive plus/minus numbers, led by Andrew Bynum (game totals of six points, nine rebounds, +10 plus/minus). Jordan Farmar had eight points, a career-high nine rebounds and a +4 plus/minus. Bryant sat out the early portion of the run but returned to action at the 7:54 mark of the second quarter with the Lakers leading 37-27. In a little over four minutes he drained four straight jumpers and also contributed two assists as the lead ballooned to 56-38. Shortly after that, Bryant came over from the weakside to make a spectacular left handed block on Yao; the night before, Bryant pulled off the same thing against Tim Duncan. Left handed blocks have become something of a Bryant specialty this season as he is still wearing a sleeve to protect his sprained right wrist.

McGrady's elbow injury happened at the :50 mark when his arm got bent backwards as he tried to steal the ball from Luke Walton. Brown fouled McGrady on the play and McGrady split the two free throws while shooting left handed, his right arm drooping lifelessly to the side; he immediately went to the locker room after the second free throw attempt. The Lakers led 61-49 at the break. Despite his slow shooting start, Bryant finished the half with 18 points on 7-14 shooting, while Yao had 11 points and five rebounds.

Bryant made a jumper and assisted on a Ronny Turiaf jumper to push the lead to 65-51 early in the third quarter and the Rockets began resorting to the defense that most teams have to use sooner or later against Bryant: swarming him with two or even three defenders and basically daring anybody else to make an open shot. The Lakers largely failed that challenge and Houston rallied to tie the score at 71 on Shane Battier's three pointer at the 1:44 mark. Fisher had a solid game overall but in the second half he threw some uncharacteristically poor passes. The Lakers' offense became very disjointed. Bryant only forced one shot during this rough stretch, a jumper near the foul line over three defenders; the shot clock was winding down and his only other option was a pass to Turiaf, who had an open shot from roughly the same distance. This is reminiscent of when a young Jordan would shoot over a double-team instead of passing the ball to an open man, later explaining that he had a better chance of making a shot over two guys than his teammate did of making an open shot. It seems unlikely that anything that dramatic was going through Bryant's mind on this particular play, because earlier in the quarter he did pass to Turiaf. Maurice Evans scored the last four points of the quarter, so the Lakers led 75-71 going into the final 12 minutes.

Wells scored eight of his points in the fourth quarter as the Rockets stayed close throughout the final stanza. Van Gundy noted on several occasions that various Laker defenders (mainly Luke Walton) were making a mistake by crowding Wells on the perimeter; the one Laker who seemed to understand this was Bryant--when he picked up Wells on a switch late in the game he wisely stayed back and let Wells shoot a jumper that missed. Wells is an erratic outside shooter who loves to use his quickness and strength to drive to the basket.

Van Gundy also offered a criticism of the Lakers' fourth quarter offense, noting that the team's most effective play was a pick and roll at the top of the key involving Bryant and a big man; instead, the Lakers often went to other options or ran the Bryant play on the sideline where it is easier to trap.

Taking advantage of these strategic errors, Houston briefly moved in front, 83-81, after Yao's turnaround jumper at the 5:43 mark. Bryant answered with a jumper and then Fisher made two free throws to give the Lakers the lead for good. On the next Houston possession, Bryant harassed Battier, Houston's opening night hero, into missing a jumper and corralled the defensive rebound. Shortly after that, Bryant sank two free throws to put the Lakers up by four. A little drama happened at the end when Farmar senselessly fouled Yao with a little over a second left. Yao made the layup anyway to pull Houston to within 93-90, so the Rockets needed him to miss the free throw so that they could fire up a quick three pointer; Yao not only missed the shot but the ball bounced straight back to him off of the rim, so he wheeled and passed to Rafer Alston, who Fisher had inexplicably left open. Alston's three point shot missed as time expired.

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

***Three years later, many people still try to blame Kobe Bryant for Shaquille O'Neal's departure from the Lakers, even though it was O'Neal who demanded to be traded. The reality is that, rightly or wrongly, Lakers' owner Jerry Buss made a simple business decision that it was not worth it to pay max dollars to an aging center who never has fully committed himself to being in shape (and how is that working out in Miami right about now?). Prior to the Lakers' 107-92 loss to the Spurs, Coach Phil Jackson told reporters, "I think we kind of knew what was going to happen in L.A. I think the owner [Jerry Buss] understood that there was a championship left in Shaquille [O'Neal's] legacy, maybe two. Who knows? But the fact is they made that choice for the way the NBA is structured now and the way the cap and all these other things go on. Our owner is a single-business ownership. It's a whole different financial status and struggle that they have to go through. That was a hard decision, a tough one to make, but one that probably this guy would do nine out of 10 times."

***McGrady's 41 point game in a 105-99 loss to Memphis on Tuesday briefly gave him the lead in the race for the scoring title but now Bryant has moved back into first place

***Bryant is averaging career highs in field goal percentage, rpg, spg and bpg. On the other hand, he is averaging a career low in free throw percentage (largely because of his performance in the first game of the season) and his three point shooting percentage is the lowest that it has been since 2001-02. His free throw percentage is certain to be well above .800 by the end of the season but it will be interesting to see how he does in the other statistical areas. My guess is that his field goal percentage will drop a bit but still remain in career-high territory, his three point percentage, steals numbers and blocked shots will all settle in around his career norms and he will have the second best rebounding season of his career (i.e., between 6.3 and 6.9 rpg).

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:58 AM

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Stephon Marbury Saga

Unlike many people, I have a high opinion of Isiah Thomas' ability as an NBA talent evaluator--with the exception of his acquisitions of Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis. Last summer, Thomas finally sent Francis packing. Now Thomas may be on the verge of following a suggestion that I made in my 2007-08 Eastern Conference Preview: "if Thomas finds a way to get rid of Marbury then the Knicks could grab the last playoff spot."

In an ongoing story that literally gets stranger by the minute, Marbury has gone AWOL from the Knicks. That's right, New York's starting point guard is not traveling with the team and no one from the team seems to know exactly where he is. The latest Marbury drama apparently began after Thomas threatened to bench Marbury due to Marbury's deficiencies as a leader and as a defensive player (to which I say, "What's new?"). Not surprisingly, Marbury reacted very poorly. All of the gory details have not yet been confirmed but what is leaking out in drips and drabs is not pretty. Recently, Marbury has not just been an erratic player but he has acted and spoken erratically away from the court as well. People act like this is funny but has it occurred to anyone that maybe there is really something wrong with him? Perhaps his problems go deeper than just being an overdribbling, non-defending point guard; I don't know the answer to that, so I will not try to practice psychiatry without a license.

What I do know is that Marbury has put up some of the emptiest career statistics in NBA history. The numbers say that Marbury has averaged 19.9 ppg and 7.9 apg, a dual feat that few point guards in history can match--and that just graphically proves the limitations inherent in relying too heavily on statistics to evaluate players; Marbury's me-first approach to offense combined with his disinterest in playing defense make it easy to understand why every team he leaves gets better and every team that acquires him becomes worse. Put simply and bluntly, Marbury is the "anti-Jason Kidd."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:33 AM

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Pierce Pounces Early, Allen Attacks Late as Celtics Beat Pacers, 101-86

Paul Pierce scored 17 of his season-high 31 points in the second quarter and Ray Allen had 15 of his 17 points in the third quarter of a 101-86 Boston victory at Indiana. Pierce shot 8-17 from the field and 14-14 from the free throw line as the Celtics improved to 6-0 and remained the only unbeaten NBA team; Pierce also had 11 rebounds and tied his season-high with six assists. Kevin Garnett added 18 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, three steals and two blocked shots. Brian Scalabrine provided a lift off of the bench with nine points in 13 minutes. Allen (+16), Garnett (+15), Pierce (+10) and Scalabrine (+12) were the only four players who posted double digit positive numbers in plus/minus in this game. Danny Granger led the Pacers with 24 points on 8-10 shooting. Granger tied his career-high with five three point field goals made and was just one three pointer short of matching Indiana's franchise record for most three pointers made in a game without a miss. Jamaal Tinsley added 14 points, eight assists and four rebounds. Jermaine O'Neal had a team-high nine rebounds but scored only 10 points on 4-13 shooting. Considering that Indiana has a new coach, Jim O'Brien, who employs a wide open offensive system and that Boston added two All-Stars in the offseason--Allen and Garnett--one would have expected this game to easily be a sellout but there were only 12,143 fans in attendance, well short of the 18,345 capacity at Conseco Fieldhouse.

Indiana quickly jumped out to a 10-4 lead and stayed in front for most of the first quarter until a Scalabrine three pointer with :15 remaining put the Celtics up 26-24. The score stayed close for most of the second quarter but a turning point seemed to happen after Tinsley delivered a hard foul to Pierce at the 3:06 mark with the score tied at 38. Tinsley whacked Pierce on the left arm and also hit him on the head. Pierce visibly took exception to the contact but calmed himself down by doing some pushups instead of confronting Tinsley. Pierce made both free throws and on the next Celtics possession he finished off a hard drive with an emphatic slam dunk. Pierce scored 13 points in the last 3:06 and Boston led 52-43 at halftime. After the game, Pierce said, "I was a little frustrated. I thought it was a flagrant foul...I tried to use it to fire up my teammates. We didn't need any fighting. When I did the push up, I was just blowing off steam." Boston Coach Doc Rivers added, "Clearly they lit a fire under Paul, because he thought the play was not a clean play. Got him upset and as a coach you've got to make a decision. We went to isos for Paul right away after that and my read was if he gets going because of that then we ride him. If he goes too quickly then you just go to something else. When we went to it the first time he scored and then you knew that he was in the right frame."

Boston kept the lead in double figures for most of the third quarter but never extended it past 16. Pierce had just two points on 1-2 shooting but Allen got loose for 15 points on 5-10 shooting. This is a good example of how a player's contributions don't always show up statistically; the Pacers had to pay added attention to Pierce and that left Allen open. One could argue that Pierce's contributions showed up in his second quarter statistics but the point is that he had an impact on what happened in the third quarter just by being on the court; the threat that he poses offensively means that in future games he can also have that kind of an impact even if he does not have a second quarter scoring outburst because if teams trap him from the start of the game to prevent a Pierce scoring run then Allen or someone else will be open. The only way to fully understand this kind of dynamic is to actually watch a team play and to really pay attention to what they are trying to do and how the other team is countering those things. Plus/minus can hint at some of these things, but Pierce's impact--and the impact of any other player who must be double-teamed--is no less real even on occasions when his teammates do not make the open shots that his presence creates. Only a handful of players have that kind of effect on a game, guys like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and a few others; sometimes their teammates take advantage of playing four on three and sometimes they don't but a player who commands that kind of coverage is more valuable than players who don't, regardless of what their respective statistics might indicate.

Boston led comfortably for most of the fourth quarter, although Indiana briefly got to within 89-82 at the 4:07 mark after a Tinsley layup. He missed a free throw that could have cut the lead to six and then Garnett hit a big jumper at the 3:44 mark. When people talk about clutch shots they usually mean buzzer beaters but Garnett's basket was huge because the Pacers had just trimmed the margin from 14 to seven in less than two minutes. If he had missed and the Pacers scored then all of a sudden it is a two possession game with plenty of time left. One of the knocks on Garnett during his career is that he has not made a lot of shots like that in the fourth quarter, so it is interesting both that Boston went to him in that situation and that he delivered. I'm still not sold on a 20 foot jumper being a go-to move for any seven footer not named Dirk Nowitzki but I give Garnett credit for making it at a crucial time. A couple possessions later, Garnett scored a layup on a feed from Pierce and the Pacers never seriously threatened again.

"It was a good win. I don't think it was a well played game by either team," Rivers said after the game. "But obviously we'll take the win. Defensively I thought that we were pretty solid all night." He is not completely satisfied with how the Celtics closed out the game: "That is the one thing that we are not doing yet. We had three or four times when the lead was 14 or 16 and we defensively gambled and gave up threes. I know that there were at least three of them and that just brings the game back. I love my team because they are trying to do stuff and they are trying so hard but I'm trying to tell them to sometimes just be solid. We're doing extra: Paul fouls a three point shooter when if he made that shot with Paul draped all over him, that's all you need but then we're trying to do extra instead of just being solid. We're going to learn that."

"We're busting our ass out here. We're working really hard," Garnett told the assembled media outside the Celtics' locker room during his postgame standup. "Every night we're working hard. Like I keep saying, we know our flaws and we're very much aware of them and we're just trying to continue to work. We have to take care of the ball and get better ball movement at times and be more patient at times. We're still a work in progress. We're just a team that's working hard." Garnett noticeably does not enjoy talking to the media, so the added attention and coverage that is part of being on a successful team will no doubt be one of his biggest challenges/frustrations this season. The funny thing is that after Garnett finished a somewhat brusque question and answer session and went back into the locker room, several members of the media agreed that he actually acted a bit better than he had in the past (all I know from firsthand experience is that on the one previous time that I spoke with Garnett he was reserved but polite). I think that Garnett is just a very intense player who does not particularly enjoy talking about his team with outsiders but what is interesting is that his disposition toward the media is not generally held against him but other players are criticized for similar or even lesser "offenses."

Road wins are hard to come by in the NBA even for good teams, so the fact that the Celtics won despite not playing at their peak level is impressive. One somewhat sloppy win in November is not enough to make me jump on the bandwagon that has Boston cruising to the NBA Finals but this is the first time that I've seen this Celtics team in person and I am impressed by how hard they played throughout the game, particularly on defense. It is obvious that on the nights when each member of the Big Three is clicking that Boston will be very hard to beat but this performance showed that Boston is capable of grinding out wins as well. People forget that even the greatest teams of all-time had to do that sometimes; the classic example of this that I like to cite is Chicago's win over Indiana in game seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Bulls shot .382 from the field but scratched, clawed and battled their way to 22 offensive rebounds, proving that they were going to win the game no matter what: if they kept missing shots then they would fight to get the ball back and then shoot it again. Shooting guard Michael Jordan (9-25 from the field, 28 points) had five offensive rebounds and small forward Scottie Pippen (6-18 from the field, 17 points) had six, so it was not just about Dennis Rodman, who had three offensive rebounds. Call it tenacity, heart or will to win, the great teams have it and that is how they win even when they are not at their best. The Celtics provided a glimpse of this against Indiana and it will be interesting to see if they can replicate such efforts at playoff time against the very best teams.

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

Prior to the game, I asked Coach O'Brien, "What have you noticed about the Celtics early in the year that has surprised you? They've put so many new players together and they're doing so well so quickly." He replied, "I think that Doc and Danny (Ainge) have done a great job of getting veteran bench people--getting Eddie House, who really keeps them in the flow from the three point line, and then stealing (James) Posey, who helps them do the same thing. When they go to the bench they have people who can continue to space the court and keep the lane open for (Rajon) Rondo and also for Kevin Garnett. So I think that getting a better than average bench put together and then utilizing it very effectively has been the thing that has probably surprised a lot of people."

Asked to list some keys to beating the Celtics, O'Brien said, "We're going to have to defend their three point shots. You never beat a really, really good team unless you are extremely aggressive both offensively and defensively." He added that the Pacers have shown the ability to push the tempo offensively in spurts but have yet to do so for four quarters. I followed up by asking, "Why is it difficult to stay aggressive offensively for four quarters? Is it a mental thing?" O'Brien answered, "You know what? We're working on that. I think the tendency on teams is to revert back to habits. The habit of most people in the NBA is that the fourth quarters are grind it out time. That's not my viewpoint. My viewpoint is that the thing that gets you your lead has to sustain the lead: (fast) tempo, moving the basketball, moving people, going inside out on drives or postups. Part of it is my ability to substitute intelligently to make sure that we always have fresh people on the court in the fourth quarter."

O'Brien disputed Denver Coach George Karl's recent statement that Danny Granger is the Pacers' number one option: "I don't even think that's relatively accurate. I don't view Danny as the number one option at all. I think that our offense has to run through Jermaine. That doesn't mean that Jermaine is going to be the guy who scores the most points; it means that Jermaine, for a guy his size, is going to be a big assists guy this year. He'll probably, in the long run, be our high scorer. The offense runs through Jermaine. The offense runs through Jamaal. I would say that Danny Granger is no more of a scoring option than Mike Dunleavy is or than Jermaine is. It doesn't look to me as if there is one guy who we go to--we need to play team basketball constantly. It never even has been a discussion for one moment in our coaching meetings that Danny Granger or this guy or that guy is our number one scoring option. You play basketball. I think that Danny Granger is going to be one of the great recipients of this style because it is perfectly suited for him. I'm not trying to say that he is not a key part of this; he is an extremely key part of this. When you talk about number one options you talk about who Paul Pierce was last year--the ball is going to go to him and he is going to touch the ball 20 times down the stretch. This is more of a team concept of offense...George Karl knows a lot about basketball and I know that it was a compliment to Danny and I'm not trying to take that compliment away but him being the number one option is inaccurate."

***

In the locker room before the game, Pierce offered his thoughts on playing alongside Kevin Garnett after each of them endured several losing seasons with Boston and Minnesota respectively: "You know how some people get stuck in marriages where they really don't want to be but they are so used to each other that they just hold on and find ways to work it out? That was kind of the situation that Kevin and I were in...I was kind of at the end of my rope. Going into the summer, I thought one of two things was going to happen: we'd either do what we did right now or I would be traded. I'm happy. The funny thing about is that when we played Minnesota last year one time on the free throw line I said to Kevin, 'Am I going to have to come to Minnesota or are you coming to Boston?' That's a true story."

I asked Pierce, "Why do you think that the Celtics have been able to jell so quickly defensively?" He answered, "It just has to do with our commitment, working at it every day and buying in to what the coaches want us to do. We practice it each and every day. Of course, the presence of Kevin--an All-Defensive player for the last decade--helps a lot."

***

During his pregame standup, Coach Rivers said, "There will be a time this season when something will happen and that will be the test for us. San Antonio and the other top teams have gone through tests. We've gone through nothing. That's why a lot of people have picked other teams (to do better than Boston) and rightly so."

I asked Rivers, "You have been very good defensively very early. What are the reasons that you have been able to make that adjustment so quickly despite adding a lot of new players and has it surprised you how quickly you have become a good defensive team?" He answered, "No, really, I mean we've focused on it. Give all the credit to the players. They've committed to it. Garnett makes a big difference. That's clear. James Posey coming off the bench makes a difference, having another veteran. We just have a different group of guys. We just have mature guys, older guys, who understand the urgency of defense. I think that makes you a better defensive team."

I followed up by asking, "Do you have a certain statistical target in terms of defensive field goal percentage or something else that you set as a goal for your team to say that this is how we know we are playing good defense?"

He replied, "At the end of the game, we look at the 'W' and the 'L.' Then you look at the stats and say that this was too high or too low."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:52 AM

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Monday, November 12, 2007

NBA Leaderboard, Part I

The inaugural edition of the 2007-08 leaderboard features familiar names atop the scoring and rebounding lists but a new name leading the charge in assists.

Best Five Records
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1) Boston Celtics, 5-0
2-3) Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, 6-1
4) Detroit Pistons, 5-1
5-8) New Orleans Hornets, Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, 5-2

Obviously, it is very early but we see several "old reliables" are getting off to good starts, including the defending champion Spurs, conference finalists Detroit and Utah plus perennial contender Phoenix. You may have heard that Boston added a couple new players. Orlando and New Orleans also made the first Leaderboard last season. Houston has two healthy superstars plus a new coach.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) Kobe Bryant, LAL 30.4 ppg
2) Kevin Martin, SAC 28.0 ppg
3) Tracy McGrady, HOU 27.3 ppg
4) LeBron James, CLE 26.6 ppg
5) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 26.3 ppg
6) Richard Jefferson, NJN 26.0 ppg
7) Carlos Boozer, UTA 25.4 ppg
8) Baron Davis, GSW 24.8 ppg
9-10) Allen Iverson, DEN 24.0 ppg
9-10) Yao Ming, HOU 24.0 ppg
11) Paul Pierce, BOS 23.6 ppg
12) Steve Nash, PHX 22.9 ppg
13-14) Ray Allen, BOS 22.6 ppg
13-14) Kevin Garnett, BOS 22.6 ppg

16) Kevin Durant, SEA 21.7 ppg

32) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 19.8 ppg

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Kobe Bryant won the last two scoring titles and has to be considered the favorite this year as well; last season he got off to a slow start by his standards and he still won the title going away. The last scoring champion who three-peated was Michael Jordan, who did it in 1996-98; Allen Iverson won three of the next four scoring titles after Jordan retired. Kevin Martin is a rising star but his numbers figure to go down a bit after Ron Artest and Mike Bibby return. Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are the league's best one-two scoring punch, while Boston's Big Three are proving that there are more than enough shots to go around for the Celtics. Kevin Durant is the only player in the top 26 in scoring who is shooting less than .400 from the field; Gilbert Arenas, #27 at 20.3 ppg, is shooting .356 from the field, including .139 from three point range. Dirk Nowitzki is off to a slow start by his standards (19.8 ppg, .438 field goal shooting).

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
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1) Kevin Garnett, BOS 15.8 rpg
2) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.7 rpg
3) Marcus Camby, DEN 14.3 rpg
4-5) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.5 rpg
4-5) Zach Randolph, NYK 13.5 rpg
6) Emeka Okafor, CHA 13.2 rpg
7) Zydrunas Ilagauskas, CLE 13.1 rpg
8) Shawn Marion, PHX 12.9 rpg
9) Carlos Boozer, UTA 12.6 rpg
10) Al Jefferson, MIN 12.4 rpg
11) Tyson Chandler, NOH 11.6 rpg

14-15) Drew Gooden, CLE 10.4 rpg
14-15) Yao Ming, HOU 10.4 rpg

17) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.3 rpg

29) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.2 rpg

32) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.0 rpg

39) Kobe Bryant, LAL 7.6 rpg

41) Shaquille O'Neal, MIA 7.5 rpg

Kevin Garnett has cornered the market on rebounding titles; he is going after his fifth straight, a feat not accomplished since Dennis Rodman snared seven in a row while playing for three different teams between 1992-98. Dwight Howard typically starts strong and fades slightly in this category. Chris Kaman's boardwork is a major reason that the Clippers have exceeded expectations so far. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki rank a bit lower than usual. As usual, Jason Kidd outrebounds many starting frontcourt players. Kobe Bryant is picking up the slack on the glass that was created by Lamar Odom's absence; it is unlikely that he will outrebound the Diesel for a full season.

Top Ten Playmakers
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1) Chris Paul, NOH 11.8 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.5 apg
3) Deron Williams, UTA 10.4 apg
4) Steve Nash, PHX 8.9 apg
5) Baron Davis, GSW 8.8 apg
6-7) T.J. Ford, TOR 8.1 apg
6-7) Allen Iverson, DEN 8.1 apg
8) Earl Watson, SEA 7.7 apg
9) Jason Williams, MIA 7.6 apg
10-11) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 7.5 apg
10-11) LeBron James, CLE 7.5 apg

Fueled by his career-high 21 assists on the road versus the Lakers, Chris Paul is the early leader in assists. Last season, the names did not change much on this chart; barring injury, that will probably be true this season as well. Perennial assists leader Steve Nash is scoring a bit more and distributing a bit less in the first few games, perhaps as a result of Amare Stoudemire's knee issues.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:04 AM

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Boston Celtics are Taking Care of Business

The Boston Celtics beat the New Jersey Nets 112-101 on Saturday night to improve to 5-0 and remain the last undefeated NBA team. Paul Pierce scored 28 points on 9-19 shooting, Ray Allen had 27 points, 10 rebounds and five assists and Kevin Garnett had an off shooting night (5-14, 18 points) but still contributed 14 rebounds and six assists. So far, the "Big Three" have been as good as advertised: focused, unselfish and willing to do whatever it takes to win.

The five biggest questions about the Celtics coming into the season were defense, bench play, point guard play, the health status of Allen and Pierce and how well the team would function down the stretch in close games. The latter two cannot be answered until after the playoffs but we have some preliminary returns regarding the first three. Neither Allen nor Pierce have been known as defensive stoppers during their careers, so it was very legitimate to wonder how good Boston would be defensively. Through the first four games (NBA.com has not been updated to include Saturday's games), Boston ranks first in the NBA with a team defensive field goal percentage of .398; that category is a primary focus of Gregg Popovich's Spurs and none of his four championship teams have held their opponents to less than .400 shooting. Yes, Boston's success is only based on a handful of games but it usually takes teams time to jell defensively, so it is a good sign that the Celtics are already doing so well at that end of the court. The Celtics are only giving up 88.5 ppg (third best in the NBA). Boston ranks fifth in scoring (106.5 ppg) and first in field goal percentage (.542; Dallas, at .504, is the only other team that is making half of its shots), which adds up to a whopping 18 ppg point differential, which would easily be an all-time record. We can say with confidence that that number will not hold up over the course of the season but if Boston can maintain a 10 ppg differential or greater--no easy feat, because that territory is inhabited by the greatest teams of all-time--the Celtics will win more than 60 games.

As for the bench, no one is putting up gaudy scoring or rebounding numbers but Eddie House, Kendrick Perkins and James Posey in particular have been very productive and each one is shooting at least .484 from the field. Starting point guard Rajon Rondo is averaging 9.3 ppg and 3.8 apg while shooting .531 from the field. Realistically, that is all that the Celtics expect or need from their bench and from Rondo if the "Big Three" are healthy and clicking.

I'll be honest: I did not expect Boston to be this good this soon--and I'm still not sure that they will be this good for the entire season. Health concerns are more likely to crop up at the end of a marathon campaign, not the beginning. As for how the team reacts to being in close games--that has not been an issue yet, but rest assured that it will have to be addressed at some point. Who will have the ball and where on the court will he get it? Where will the other players be stationed? Even the greatest champions ever had to win some close playoff games and no definitive verdict can be issued about this Celtics' team until they go through that crucible. Also, how will the team react to adversity, whether it comes in the form of injuries, a losing streak or something else? As Jeff Van Gundy said on Friday during the Wizards-Nuggets game, it is easy to be a leader when the sailing is smooth; Van Gundy noted that now that things are rough we see that the Wizards lack leadership. Will that also be the case in Boston? That question cannot be answered during long winning streaks.

What we have learned, though, is what this Celtics team is capable of when everyone is clicking--and you can bet that Boston's rivals don't at all like what they have seen so far.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:30 AM

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