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Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: The Heat is Off, Durant Sizzles and the Knicks Play Better Without "Starbury"

In Miami, 4-11 is not the number you call for information but the record of the city's pro basketball team. At this rate, the Heat will be dialing 911 before long. While Shaquille O'Neal sails off into the sunset of his career, young Kevin Durant authored the best performance of his rookie season, scoring 35 points as the Sonics beat the Pacers 95-93 to claim their first home win of the season. Everyone is calling for Isiah Thomas' head but, as I've said all along, if Thomas would give "Starbury" the ax then he could prevent the blade from coming down on his own neck. Let's take a closer look at three of Friday night's games:

The Score: Boston 95, Miami 85

The Key Stat: Dwyane Wade scored 10 points, shooting 2-11 from the field and 6-11 on his free throws. He had five rebounds, one assist and six turnovers.

The Bottom Line: The return of Dwyane Wade has hardly solved all of the Miami Heat's problems. For one thing, Wade is not yet playing at the level that he was before he got hurt last season. Another issue is Pat Riley's "subtraction by addition" offseason acquisitions of Ricky Davis and Smush Parker; Davis has no interest in playing any defense and did not contribute much offensively versus the Celtics (six points on 1-6 field goal shooting), while Parker has been playing terribly (.315 field goal percentage) and, to top it off, is dealing with some legal problems as well. Riley's latest move is to bench Davis and point guard Jason Williams in favor of Penny Hardaway and Chris Quinn. ESPN's Stephen A. Smith reported that Shaquille O'Neal had cross words with Riley at a recent practice--O'Neal had little interest in being in shape when he was young and that has not changed with age--but, of course, Smith downplayed the significance of this because any suggestion that O'Neal is not dedicated or challenges his coaches simply does not fit into any storyline that the mainstream media wants to tell. As for the winners, Ray Allen (3-17) and Paul Pierce (7-18) had poor shooting nights from the field but they shot a combined 18-20 from the free throw line as Boston made 16 more free throws than Miami.

The Score: Seattle 95, Indiana 93

The Key Stat: Kevin Durant scored 35 points on 12-20 field goal shooting and posted a game-high +13 plus/minus rating. He had seven turnovers and only two assists but he scored six points in the final minute of the game--all on free throws--to preserve the win.

The Bottom Line: In his previous game, Durant showed some signs of being willing and able to take over down the stretch. It will be interesting to see how teams defend him from now on in such situations. In order to be consistently successful, Durant will have to improve his field goal percentage and demonstrate a more well rounded game than he has so far; this performance is a good start.

The Score: New York 91, Milwaukee 88

The Key Stat: New York trailed 65-52 with 5:45 remaining in the third quarter when Stephon Marbury left the game due to a shoulder injury; Fred Jones took his place and delivered 10 points and two assists in 17:45 of playing time as the Knicks outscored the Bucks 39-23 to claim the win.

The Bottom Line: Is it too extreme to blame one player for the Knicks' troubles? Perhaps, but I'm not saying that Marbury is the only problem; what I am saying is that I can't picture him being part of the solution. The pattern during his career is crystal clear: teams get worse when he arrives and they get better when he leaves. Some would say that Marbury is the most talented player on the team but that may be part of the problem; maybe nobody on the team is willing to stand up to him and/or maybe Marbury does not respect any of his teammates enough to listen. Whatever the case, the point guard handles the ball on nearly every offensive possession and is the front line of the defense and Marbury is simply not someone you can trust with either responsibility.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:55 AM

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Kobe Strikes Early, Bench Takes Over in Fourth Quarter as Lakers Defeat Nuggets, 127-99

Kobe Bryant guided the Lakers to an 81-75 lead after three quarters and then watched from the bench in the fourth quarter as the Laker reserves outscored Denver, 46-24. Bryant could not have been happier to get the extra rest: "The young fellas came in and took care of business. We have young players who have a lot of heart and who care. And when you have that combination, you have a lot of potential. In the past, I've always been the only guy in the gym really working hard. But now I've got guys in there with me pushing themselves every single day, and that makes a big difference." Despite playing fewer than 30 minutes, Bryant still produced game-high totals in points (24) and assists (seven); he also had six rebounds and played the kind of defense that inspired Boston Coach Doc Rivers to tell TNT's Kevin Harlan that Bryant is playing better defense than any player in the NBA. Sasha Vujacic poured in a career-high 22 points, including 19 in the fourth quarter alone. Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets with 23 points but he also had a game-worst -30 plus/minus rating--and he was not even on the court for all of the Lakers' fourth quarter run because he was ejected for choking Vujacic. Anthony later said, "It wasn't intentionally done. I hope people don't overreact." It's hard to see how reaching out and grabbing someone by the throat is not intentional and, in light of the two suspensions that Bryant received last season for striking players in the face inadvertently after shooting the ball, it is hard to see how Anthony can avoid being suspended for what he did. Back to Anthony's plus/minus ratio, when a player shoots 11-15 from the floor, leads his team in scoring and his team gets blown out while he is in the game it is obvious that there is a serious problem at the other end of the court. For some inexplicable reason, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith thinks that the Nuggets can win the West; I still think that they will be one of the bottom tier playoff teams and lose once again in the first round. Charles Barkley is coming around to my point of view after his earlier contention that Denver is an "elite" team; Barkley noted that the truly elite teams consistently have a defensive mindset, something that Denver has yet to develop.

Anyone who saw the first part of this game would have never believed that the Lakers could possibly win going away, let alone do so without Bryant scoring 50 or 60 points. Bryant scored the Lakers' first seven points as they took a 7-4 lead but the Nuggets took advantage of L.A.'s sloppy ballhandling and poor shooting to claim an 18-11 advantage by the 4:21 mark. Bryant got his first assist of the game by making a gorgeous no look pass to Ronny Turiaf, whose dunk cut Denver's lead to 22-15. The Nuggets led 33-21 at the end of the first period. Bryant already had 11 points on 5-8 shooting, while the other four Lakers starters scored six points while shooting 2-13 from the field.

Bryant sat out the first 6:09 of the second quarter and Denver pushed the lead to as much as 38-21. TNT's Doug Collins talked about how Kwame Brown's injury has had a domino effect, moving Andrew Bynum (12 points, 13 rebounds) into the starting lineup and upsetting the chemistry of the bench. Collins has a point but would a truly good team be that dependent on the contributions of a career journeyman like Brown? The answer to that question is obviously, "No." Bynum is an improving player but he is still inconsistent. Take a good look at the Lakers' top six players other than Bryant in terms of minutes played per game: Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, Vladimir Radmanovic. How many of those guys would be a top seven player on any of the really good Western Conference teams? Fisher was the fifth leading scorer for the Utah Jazz last year when they made it to the Conference Finals but this season he is in a dead heat with Odom to be the Lakers' second leading scorer. Think of it this way: several of the top Western teams are so deep that they have All-Star caliber players coming off of the bench (Manu Ginobili, Leandro Barbosa, Jason Terry) who would not only start for the Lakers but would arguably be the second best player on the team.

Bryant returned to action at the 5:51 mark. He promptly spoonfed Odom for a layup after Odom had missed his first nine shots from the field. Bryant then made two free throws after being fouled on a strong drive. The Lakers pulled to within one point, 52-51, after Bryant made a no look bounce pass that Odom converted into a layup. Bryant hit two jumpers in the last minute, including a buzzer beater, and Denver only led 57-55 at halftime. Bryant had 17 points and three assists, while Anthony led Denver with 16 points.

The Lakers opened the third quarter with a 13-0 run. Bynum split a pair of free throws and then Bryant drove to the hoop and once again fed Odom for a layup, giving the Lakers a 58-57 lead. An Anthony jumper finally put Denver on the board in the second half but the Lakers answered with a Luke Walton jumper and a bank shot by Bryant, who caught the ball at the top of the key outside the three point line, drove into the paint and tried to shoot a pullup jumper over Kenyon Martin. When Martin stopped that move, Bryant leaned in to take away Martin's ability to jump, then faded away and kissed his shot off of the glass. This is one example of what I mean when I talk about Bryant's skill set and why he is better than other players: he has three point range, so defenders have to crowd him on the perimeter, making it even easier for him to get in the paint. Then, even if a long, good defender like Martin recovers and stops Bryant from executing his first option, Bryant has the footwork, body control and shooting touch to still create an open, high percentage shot. In contrast to what Bryant did on that play, consider a sequence that happened a little bit later in the quarter: Odom received the ball at the three point line not far from where Bryant drove on Martin. Odom was wide open but he instead took two dribbles right into the teeth of the defense and missed a contested jumper. "Made a tough shot out of an easy one," Collins noted. Yes, that is just one play, but it represents the difference between the way that Bryant plays and the way that Odom plays. I'm not talking about talent--we all understand that Bryant is a more talented player than Odom; what I'm talking about is that Bryant just has a better sense of how to play: when to shoot and when to pass, what kind of shot to take depending on how he is being guarded, how to use good footwork to get open (with or without the ball), how to defend without fouling (Odom picks up a ton of cheap fouls) and so forth. This does not mean that Bryant is perfect or that he never takes a bad shot--but it is why so many players and coaches who compete against him on a nightly basis say that he is the best player in the league. As Collins put it, Bryant can make something that is very difficult look easy--and I would add that this is a much better trait than Odom's method of turning something easy into something difficult.

Bryant had seven points and four assists in the third quarter as the Lakers outscored the Nuggets, 26-18. On one play late in the quarter, Bryant grabbed an offensive rebound, drew two defenders and delivered another no look feed, this time to Turiaf, whose dunk put the Lakers up 81-68. Anyone who thinks that Bryant cannot pass, will not pass or is not a good passer simply is not paying attention; he is not just a good or adequate passer--he is a great passer because he is able to deliver the ball on target in a number of different ways (bounce pass, baseball pass, shovel pass, no look pass, etc.) and he can do so in tight quarters. So why doesn't Bryant average as many assists as LeBron James, Steve Nash or other players who are known as great passers? One obvious reason is that Bryant has some teammates who do not catch and/or shoot particularly well (Pete Maravich had the same problem during his career). Another reason is that in many cases Bryant makes the first pass out of the trap to start a play but the second, ball reversal pass ultimately is awarded with an assist (if the shot is made, of course). In this particular game, Bryant had the ball in a lot of situations in which he could make a pass that led directly to a basket, but the passes that he consistently makes out of double teams are very important even if they are not recorded as assists; Hakeem Olajuwon never averaged more than four apg during the regular season (he did so a few times during some playoff seasons) but he made great passes out of the post which led to another pass and a wide open shot. As Hubie Brown always says, the second pass out of the trap is the one that leads to a wide open shot.

Bryant sat out at the start of the fourth quarter. Coach Phil Jackson surely planned to reinsert him in the game around the 7:00 mark or so but by that time the Lakers were up 20 points, so he took advantage of the opportunity to rest his star player. After all, there will be plenty of nights when the Lakers need a 15 or 20 point fourth quarter from Bryant, so any rest that he can get now is very beneficial. This is not a great Lakers team by any means but Bynum is developing, Fisher is solid as always, Jordan Farmar is becoming a good second unit point guard and Odom is a useful--if somewhat overrated--player. Bryant is productive enough--and attracts enough extra defensive attention, freeing up his teammates for easy shots--that this team could possibly win 50 games if everything breaks right. The problem is that over an 82 game season it is not reasonable to expect everything to break right; someone will get hurt or go into a slump and the Lakers will once again end up in the 40-45 win range.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:06 AM

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Boston Massacre: Celtics Humiliate Listless Knicks

What happens when a group of players who are willing to work together and sacrifice goes against a group of players who are not willing to do those things? "It has been a total embarrassment for the Knicks," Marv Albert intoned with his distinctive vocal delivery during the third quarter of Thursday's Boston-New York game. The Celtics led 65-31 at that point en route to a 104-59 victory. That is the second lowest scoring output by a Knicks team in the shot clock era--and it would have been the worst if not for a buzzer beating three pointer by Nate Robinson at the end of the game. TNT ran a startling graphic that showed that Boston outscored New York 42-7 to open each of the first three quarters of the game (14-3; 16-2; 12-2); as Keith Olbermann would say, the Knicks' starting five could have simply gotten a roll of stamps and mailed in their performance.

Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas told TNT's Craig Sager that the first half was the most selfish half of basketball he had ever seen, which could quite correctly be interpreted as a swipe at starting point guard Stephon Marbury, who finished with four points, one assist and three turnovers in 21 minutes; amazingly, things actually got worse for the Knicks in the third quarter and shortly after Albert's comment Thomas benched his entire starting lineup in favor of his "energy" group: Renaldo Balkman, Jared Jeffries, Nate Robinson, Fred Jones and David Lee. That quintet usually makes up in hustle what it lacks in talent, though it is of course an exercise in futility for that unit to try to match up to the Celtics--who have both talent and energy; on this night, though, even the "energy" group suffered a power outage and the Celtics pushed their advantage to 74-35. Boston led 82-41 at the end of the third quarter and as late as the 4:50 mark of the fourth quarter the Celtics had twice as many points as the Knicks (97-47).

Individual statistics don't really mean much for either team in such a lopsided contest. For the record, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce led Boston with 21 points each, Kevin Garnett had eight points, 11 rebounds and four assists in less than 23 minutes and Eddie House scored 15 points, all of them coming on three point shots. Robinson ended up with 11 points after his late heave, the only Knick to reach double figures. Zach Randolph (four points) shot 1-10 from the field and Eddy Curry (four points) shot 2-11 from the field; it is difficult to imagine two All-Star caliber post players performing any worse than they did.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:36 AM

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Another Big Night for Dwight Howard, Another Road Win for Orlando

Dwight Howard is becoming perhaps the dominant low post force in the NBA and that is a big reason that Orlando has an NBA-best 9-1 road record after a 110-94 win in Seattle. Howard scored a career-high 39 points and controlled the paint at both ends of the court with 16 rebounds and five blocked shots. Hedo Turkoglu also had a double double (15 points, 10 rebounds), helping Orlando to overcome a subpar game by Rashard Lewis, who shot just 3-19 from the field in his return to the city where he started his NBA career; he finished with nine points and 10 rebounds. Starting point guard Jameer Nelson (six points, three assists, five rebounds) and his backup Carlos Arroyo (two points, a career-high 14 assists) each played exactly 24 minutes, with Arroyo getting the bulk of the second half playing time. Kevin Durant led Seattle with 22 points but he shot just 6-21 from the field, including a game-high four attempts that were blocked; Durant continues to struggle both with his shot selection and with finishing shots in traffic in the paint. On the positive side, Durant converted all 10 of his free throws, grabbed six rebounds and dished off four assists.

Watching NBA TV's pregame show, one would never have suspected that Durant is shooting less than .400 from the field and committing more than three turnovers per game despite not being a primary ballhandler (2.1 apg). Rick Kamla, who has never seen or met a player who he didn't love, declared, "Kevin Durant's been sensational, thus far." He paused a beat before apparently realizing how ridiculous that sounded, then hastily added, "...in a few games and we are obviously hoping for more of that from KD tonight." Pete Vecsey is notorious for blasting players left and right, but he seemingly has turned over a new leaf: he praised Durant's shooting touch as a "stroke of genius." Fred Carter stuck to his guns that he would have taken Durant number one overall instead of Greg Oden, calling Durant a "finished product" who can dribble, pass and shoot, in contrast to Oden's alleged deficiencies in these areas; I'm not worried about Oden's dribbling, I seem to recall him shooting free throws left handed when his right (shooting) wrist was injured and he rebounded and blocked shots well enough to carry Ohio State to the NCAA Championship Game last season, a lot further than Mr. "Finished Product" took his team. I understand that Durant has a certain amount of potential but why does everyone act like he is tearing up the league when the reality is that he is clanging shots off of the rim left and right for a bad team?

Durant is first on the Sonics in minutes, points and field goal attempts but ranks eighth in field goal percentage among the top nine players in the rotation; combine that with the fact that Seattle has matched the worst start in franchise history (2-14, previously "accomplished" in the team's inaugural season in 1967-68) and you have a recipe for some unhappy veterans. Consider this sequence from early in the game: the Sonics had the ball on a semi-fast break and Durant spotted up on the right baseline and raised his arms in the universal "I'm open, pass me the ball" gesture. Instead, point guard Delonte West waved him off, sending Durant to the weak side so that West could run a pick and pop play with Kurt Thomas, who drained a jumper to make the score 6-4 Seattle. There is no question that Seattle's ownership and coaching staff are on board with Durant taking a ton of shots and (hopefully) developing into a good player in the coming years but it is natural to wonder how long the other players will go along with this as Durant's misses and the team's losses rapidly add up.

Durant missed a layup (a soft attempt that Howard swatted away) and a three pointer before curling around a baseline screen and making his first basket, a smooth jumper that put Seattle up 12-11. A few possessions later, Durant wandered around the top of the key with his too-high dribble, then decided to attack the hoop, only to have the ball poked away; Turkoglu converted an uncontested fast break layup to put Orlando ahead, 15-12. Seattle inbounded and pushed the ball up the court, forcing the late arriving Turkoglu to pick up West while point guard Jameer Nelson switched to Durant. West missed a jumper, but Durant easily got the rebound over Nelson (who is generously listed at 6-0) and scored, a rare inside basket for Durant, who has shown no postup game so far.

Orlando also has a former College Player of the Year who is struggling to find his way; fortunately for the Magic, they are not depending on him to do very much. As I've predicted all along (and contrary to the sentiments expressed by ESPN's resident expert, David Thorpe), J.J. Redick has been a non-factor for Orlando. Prior to this game he had yet to score a single point this season while playing 20 minutes in five games but he managed to score 11 points on 4-5 shooting in 17 minutes versus Seattle; yes, it is nice to get your first extended run of the season against the worst team in the NBA. Redick checked in to the game for the first time at the 3:37 mark of the first quarter with Orlando leading 19-14. He soon hit a three pointer but--as will always be the case with him--whatever he provides on offense he will give back on defense; Redick failed to get through a screen, allowing his man Wally Szczerbiak to make a three pointer. Redick scored a rare basket in transition after the Magic got a steal--and then he was called for a blocking foul as Durant scored a layup of his own. Durant made the resulting free throw. Those were the final points of the first quarter and Orlando led 30-24 after the first 12 minutes. Howard topped both teams with 12 points, shooting 8-8 from the free throw line.

The Magic extended their lead to 40-30 by the 7:44 mark of the second quarter and then used a 9-0 burst near the end of the quarter to go up 57-39. Just when it seemed like the Magic were about to put the game away, Earl Watson and Szczerbiak made back to back three pointers to trim the margin to 57-45 at halftime. Howard already had 20 points and nine rebounds. Szczerbiak led Seattle with 13 points, while Durant had seven points, three rebounds and three assists.

Durant opened the third quarter with a step back jumper, but did not make another field goal until the 7:59 mark of the fourth quarter. Despite that drought, Seattle hung around and after Durant drove to the hoop, drew a foul on Keith Bogans and sank three straight free throws (Turkoglu was called for a technical foul) the Sonics pulled to within 62-56 with 7:47 left in the quarter. Orlando closed the quarter with a 21-12 run and led 83-68 going into the fourth quarter; Howard scored nine of the 21 points and Redick added six more, including an open three pointer. As commentator Steve Jones noted after that shot, "He can shoot it. What you have to know (as a defender) is that's all he can do. Make him do something else. The lack of thought sometimes hurts the Sonics in the biggest of ways and there is an example: you're covering everybody else and you let a guy who can stick it get a chance to get his confidence up, get a good look and knock it down. Now he is going to be a problem the rest of the game." Jones' point is a valid one, although Redick did not in fact score any more points the rest of the way.

The Sonics slowly chipped away at the Magic's lead and got to within 88-82 after a three point play by Durant, who drove to the hoop from the left wing, executed a nice spin move and flipped in a shot as Lewis fouled him. Durant soon drove to the hoop, drew another foul and sank two more free throws to bring Seattle to within four, 88-84. Then he converted another three point play, driving from the top of the key and drawing a foul while making a scoop shot to again make the margin four, 92-88 Orlando. Durant is shooting a terrible percentage from the field, is not a three point threat (.290 three point accuracy coming into this game) and has trouble finishing in traffic but he is shooting better than .800 from the free throw line so it is truly a mystery why anyone would foul him.

The reason that Seattle could get no closer than four points is that seemingly every time down the court Arroyo lobbed the ball to Howard for a dunk. With 5:18 left in the game, Durant drove yet again from the top of the key and drew a foul. Durant made both free throws and Orlando still clung to a 93-89 advantage; Durant had just scored 10 straight points for Seattle in less than three minutes and after that play, Jones said, "Maybe we're seeing Kevin Durant come of age in the sense of, 'I'm going to keep the heat on this team' and find a way to get the Sonics their first win at home." With Kurt Thomas and Chris Wilcox on the bench in foul trouble, Durant even guarded Howard on a few possessions, a situation that Jones termed "a matchstick versus a redwood." Durant used his long arms to try to deter entry passes and he received plenty of double-teaming help.

Alas, Durant's "coming of age" will have to wait for at least one more game. At the 3:57 mark, Durant tried yet another drive from the top of the key but this time the Magic avoided fouling him, he went up softly and Howard easily blocked his shot, sparking a fast break that culminated in a Bogans three pointer that put Orlando up 99-92. From that point on, the Magic's three point shooters had a field day because multiple Seattle defenders swarmed Howard in the paint; Orlando drained three three pointers in a little over a minute, bringing back memories of Shaquille O'Neal setting up camp in the post more than a decade ago while Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson and Penny Hardaway shot uncontested jumpers.

In my Eastern Conference Preview, I said that Orlando will long rue wasting a lottery pick on Redick and "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." One could argue that Turkoglu's career-high numbers thus far mean, in effect, that Orlando has added a "really good player"; his emergence as what Vecsey called a "near All-Star level player" combined with Howard indeed playing at an MVP level has enabled the Magic to challenge for the best record in the Eastern Conference. They had a similar start last year only to fade down the stretch but Howard's play is not a mirage, so the Magic will not likely have a late season slide this time around.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 AM

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cleveland Sends Message to Boston: We're Still the Eastern Conference Champions

All 82 games count the same in the standings but they don't all feel the same--and Cleveland's 109-104 overtime victory at home over Boston definitely had a playoff vibe to it. It seems like everyone wants to crown Boston and bury Cleveland but the shorthanded Cavaliers--who are without the services of holdout Anderson Varejao and the injured Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall--showed that the three pronged formula that carried them to the 2007 NBA Finals still works: team defense and rebounding plus the brilliance of LeBron James. Cleveland held Boston to .430 field goal shooting and won the rebounding battle 47-40. James held up his end of the bargain by scoring 38 points, including 11 of Cleveland's 17 in overtime. He also had 13 assists and four rebounds. Cleveland's other two frontcourt starters also had big games: center Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 15 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots and power forward Drew Gooden contributed 24 points and 13 rebounds while shooting 11-15 from the field, including 8-8 in the third quarter. With 77 points, 31 rebounds and 18 assists, Cleveland's starting frontcourt outperformed Boston's more heralded "Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, who ended up with 64 points, 18 rebounds and 15 assists. Allen had 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists but he missed two key free throws near the end of regulation. Pierce shot just 5-15 from the field, finishing with 16 points, six rebounds and five assists. Garnett, touted by many as an MVP candidate, had 19 points, five rebounds and five assists; when the game was on the line he did plenty of trash talking but James' actions spoke much louder than Garnett's fiery words.

The Cavaliers jumped out to an 11-2 first quarter lead. James did not score until he converted a fast break dunk more than seven minutes into the game but he had three assists during that opening salvo--and he should have had four, but Ilgauskas' dunk attempt was blocked by Garnett on Cleveland's first possession. Garnett showed his range as a defender on that play, sliding forward to stop James' drive and then dropping back to nullify Ilgauskas' shot after James passed the ball. Cleveland led 19-7 after James' first basket and Celtics' Coach Doc Rivers took his second timeout of the first quarter at the 4:58 mark. The two starting centers, Ilgauskas and Kendrick Perkins, each went to the bench at that time and Boston went on a 13-7 run to finish the quarter; Cleveland did not score for nearly three minutes after Ilgauskas sat down. James has evolved into a very vocal leader, both on the court and in timeout huddles. He picked up Boston point guard Rajon Rondo outside the three point line on Boston's last possession of the quarter and screamed repeatedly at his teammates, "Stay home!" In other words, James was accepting the defensive challenge and did not want anyone to leave someone open by coming over to help. James stayed in front of the very quick Rondo and forced him to miss a tough fadeaway jumper as time ran out. Cleveland led 26-20, in no small part due to a 14-6 advantage on the glass; Ilgauskas shot 4-5 from the field and had eight points and six rebounds, while Allen had nine points as Boston shot 4-4 from three point range.

In the second quarter, Cleveland got into the bonus early but failed to drive to the hoop enough to take advantage of this. Instead, the Cavaliers turned the ball over and took some questionable shots and Boston outscored Cleveland 29-20 to take a 49-46 halftime lead. James scored 12 points and had five assists in the first half but he shot just 3-11 from the field and only had two rebounds. Ilgauskas had 12 points and nine rebounds, while Garnett produced this fairly quiet line: eight points, one rebound, two assists and three blocked shots.

In the opening moments of the third quarter it looked like Boston was about to take control of the game as the Celtics went ahead 53-46. Gooden answered with a driving layup at the 10:37 mark, the beginning of a remarkable stretch in which he made eight straight shots, ranging from outside jumpers to inside moves. His 16 third quarter points helped Cleveland to retake the lead and set up a great fourth quarter as Cleveland clung to a 74-72 advantage heading into the final 12 minutes. "This is more like a playoff game," said Cavaliers' TV analyst Austin Carr during the third quarter. "You don't see many fast breaks at all. All you see is that every possession is a grind it out situation."

Boston began the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run but the Cavaliers answered with a 7-0 run of their own--with James scoring six of the points--to go up 81-79 at the 8:34 mark. Cleveland maintained a small lead for a little over three minutes until two Pierce free throws put Boston up 88-87. An Allen jumper made the score 92-89 Boston with just 2:02 left but neither team scored for more than a minute until James drew two defenders and whipped a pass to Daniel Gibson who swung the ball to Sasha Pavlovic in the left corner for a big three pointer. Pavlovic was called for a reach in foul on Allen with 23 seconds left but Allen, one of the best free throw shooters in NBA history, missed both free throws. Cleveland had the last possession of the game but did not make very effective use of it. James dribbled the ball for about 18 seconds before firing a long jumper that clanged off of the rim. After James missed the shot, Carr declared, "You've got to run a play in those situations. You can't just sit there and sit there (dribbling) and then shoot over the top. You must run a play." As great as James is, with 20 or so seconds left in a game I'd still prefer to have the ball in Kobe Bryant's hands: Bryant understands that he must attack the defense, which would lead to him scoring a layup, drawing a foul, using his dribble to create an open jumper or commanding a double-team that would leave one of his teammates wide open. Two other reasons to prefer Bryant over James in such situations are that Bryant is a better three point shooter and a much better free throw shooter.

At the start of the overtime, James did what he should have done on the final possession of regulation: put his head down, drive to the hoop and dare the Celtics to stop him without committing a foul. His power layup gave the Cavaliers a lead that they never relinquished. Anyone who believes the talk that Boston has a star power edge over Cleveland should watch the tape of the overtime period; look closely and you will see that there is only one true superstar on the court and he took over the game.

Coming into the season, the main questions about the Boston Celtics concerned the point guard and center positions, the bench, the team's defense and who would take control down the stretch in close games. Boston's defense has been outstanding so far, the bench has been productive and starting point guard Rajon Rondo and starting center Kendrick Perkins have been at least adequate. Assuming that the Celtics do not suffer slippage in those areas, the big lingering question concerns how this team will function down the stretch in close games. So far this season, the Celtics have been winning so easily that they have not been in many close games but that does not lessen the importance of this issue because in the playoffs it is vitally important to be able to win close games: think of how many times the Jordan-Pippen Bulls or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers won games with last second shots. Cleveland's offensive plan in such situations is well known but not easy to stop: James has the ball, probes the defense and either creates an open shot for a teammate or takes the shot himself. This game indicated that in pressure situations Boston's plan is for Allen to inbound the ball, after which either Pierce or Allen will try to create something with dribble penetration. Garnett is largely an afterthought; his last made field goal was a jumper with 3:30 remaining in overtime and he only made two shots in the last 7:38 of the game. He drew a foul with 2:07 left in overtime and the Celtics only down 96-94 but he spent so much time riling himself up and trash talking various Cavaliers that the usually reliable free throw shooter only made one of his two attempts. On the next possession, James delivered a dagger three pointer that put Cleveland up 99-95.

James takes too many three pointers (he shot 2-8 from long distance in this game) and at times he drains too much of the shot clock by dribbling the ball without going anywhere--but it is also clear that he is a killer: he makes big shots and big plays and this season he has taken a very obvious interest in playing defense. It is downright scary to think about how good he could be if he improved his shot selection a little bit because he is already almost impossible to guard; as Carr noted, Boston "tilted the court" toward James by having two and sometimes three defenders watching him but this did not work any better for the Celtics than it did for Detroit in last year's playoffs.

This was just one game and the Celtics may very well win the rematch in Boston on Sunday. However, we can draw some conclusions from not only what we saw in this game but what has happened in the early going this season. Boston's reconfigured team has jelled very quickly, is playing somewhat better than I expected so far and will win more than 50 games barring injuries to key players. However, although "The Big Three" of Garnett, Pierce and Allen is formidable it is hardly unbeatable. Despite his ability to put up numbers in many different statistical categories, Garnett is more like a very productive, versatile role player than a true superstar; as Scottie Pippen once said of Garnett, "He's very productive but unproductive. He gets you all the stats you want, but at the end of the day his points don't have an impact on (winning) the game. He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, but in the last five minutes of the game he ain't the same player as in the first five." That may seem unfair or unduly harsh but I firmly believe that there is a lot of truth in what Pippen said--and until I see Garnett repeatedly make big plays down the stretch I will continue to believe it. The Cavaliers often double-teamed Garnett during the game, which sometimes led to open shots for other players. It is interesting that Garnett had opportunities to either spin away from the double-team and shoot or to make a quick move before the double-team arrived but he rarely did either of those things; players like Shaquille O'Neal in his prime, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and now LeBron James not only pass out of double-teams but also sometimes look for their own shot in such situations by spinning away from pressure. Garnett gives the appearance of a player who does not really want to take the shot in such situations. If I were coaching against Garnett, I would consider not double-teaming him at all, in effect forcing him to take those shots (the effectiveness of such a strategy of course depends on having at least a decent defensive power forward). On the other hand, Pierce and Allen are certainly willing to take pressure shots but if they could carry a team like Bryant or James then they would likely not have been watching the playoffs at home last season (yes, I realize that Pierce and Allen each missed a lot of games due to injury but their teams were hardly world beaters even with them on the court). In a matchup between Boston and Cleveland, James is going to have the upper hand on Pierce virtually every time. Allen will win his matchup with Pavlovic but not necessarily by a bigger margin than James will beat Pierce. Ilgauskas has an edge over Perkins, so the Garnett-Gooden matchup may tip the balance. Garnett is of course a better player than Gooden but Gooden knows his role and is good at it: he rebounds, he defends and he makes open shots. In this game, Gooden not only did those things but he actually outscored and outrebounded Garnett. I think that a lot of people have made the mistake of looking at names on jerseys and resumes in record books while failing to consider how these two teams actually function on the court. Charles Barkley went so far as to say that Cleveland would struggle to make the playoffs. I maintain that the Cavaliers will still prove to be the team to beat in the East by the time the playoffs roll around. The Celtics are not some juggernaut team that is going to blow out the Cavaliers if the two teams meet in the playoffs; the games will be close, so the question really boils down to this: Late in a close game, who would you fear most with the ball: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen or LeBron James?

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:57 AM

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

NBA Leaderboard, Part III

The rebounding race will probably go down to the wire but the leaders in wins, scoring and assists may not change much during the season unless/until Kobe Bryant starts stringing together 40 point games.

Best Five Records
-------------------

1) Boston Celtics, 11-1
2) Orlando Magic, 13-3
3) San Antonio Spurs, 12-3
4) Phoenix Suns, 11-3
5) Utah Jazz, 10-5

The Boston Celtics still top the charts but the Orlando Magic handed them their only loss and are currently right behind them in the standings. The Spurs, Suns and Jazz are who we thought they were, with the Dallas Mavericks right behind them. Figure out what happened to the Chicago Bulls and how to fix it and you will win the Nobel Prize in the just created category for explaining phenomena that defy logic. One obvious answer is that the Bulls were built around the idea of a bunch of good but not exceptional players who played hard all the time and that this year they are not playing hard--but that just begs the real question: why has an entire team essentially quit?

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
------------------

1) LeBron James, CLE 31.3 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.3 ppg
3) Tracy McGrady, HOU 26.6 ppg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 25.3 ppg
5) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.2 ppg
6) Richard Jefferson, NJN 25.1 ppg
7) Michael Redd, MIL 24.5 ppg
8) Baron Davis, GSW 24.4 ppg
9) Kevin Martin, SAC 24.1 ppg
10) Allen Iverson, DEN 23.6 ppg

14) Dwight Howard, ORL 22.5 ppg
15) Paul Pierce, BOS 22.2 ppg
16) Yao Ming, HOU 21.9 ppg
17) Dirk Nowitzki, 21.4 ppg

19) Kevin Garnett, BOS 20.9 ppg

23) Ray Allen, BOS 19.6 ppg

27) Kevin Durant, SEA 18.9 ppg

James has a stranglehold on the scoring race at the moment and also seems to be determined to lead the league in triple doubles. Bryant got off to a similarly "slow" start (by his lofty standards) last year only to win the scoring title going away. If Bryant really wants the title or if the Lakers need him to start scoring 35 or 40 a night then his average will go up very rapidly. Kevin Martin and Richard Jefferson have never scored like this before, so it is reasonable to assume that their averages will fall to the 22 ppg range. Some 30-point games vaulted Howard to the threshold of the top ten. Like Shaquille O'Neal, he knows his range and does not attempt shots outside of that range. Neither Kevin Garnett nor Tim Duncan is the highest scorer on his team and Dirk Nowitzki only recently passed his Dallas teammate Josh Howard. It seems increasingly obvious now to everyone, but I said all along that Kevin Durant would struggle to even average 20 ppg this season--and he is not making up for his abysmal shooting percentage with his production in any other area.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
----------------------

1) Marcus Camby, DEN 15.0 rpg
2) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.4 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.8 rpg
4) Emeka Okafor, CHA 12.7 rpg
5) Kevin Garnett, BOS 12.7 rpg
6) Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cle 11.9 rpg
7) Shawn Marion, PHX 11.7 rpg
8) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.5 rpg
9) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.0 rpg
10) Tyson Chandler, CHA 10.3 rpg
11) Andrew Bynum, LAL 10.2 rpg
12) Yao Ming, HOU 10.1 rpg

14) Al Horford, ATL, 9.8 rpg

18) Tim Duncan, SAS 9.1 rpg

21) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.6 rpg

24) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.4 rpg

26) Lebron James, CLE 8.3 rpg

33) Shaquille O'Neal, MIA 7.5 rpg

50) Kobe Bryant, LAL 6.2 rpg

Camby is doing his damage in just 33.6 mpg. He is certainly capable of maintaining this level of production if he can avoid injury but his track record indicates that he will miss at least 10 games during the course of the season. Whoever figures out the Chicago conundrum should then tackle the Kaman questions: What has gotten into the Clippers' center (other than some extra opportunities provided by Elton Brand's absence) and can he keep this up all year? Young Andrew Bynum is showing signs of improvement, though his mental lapse at the end of the recent Lakers loss in New Jersey ruined a last second play that Phil Jackson designed. Rookie Al Horford is a more productive all around player than Kevin Durant, contrary to what you may have heard/read/seen elsewhere. Jason Kidd's rebounding numbers are within shouting distance of Dirk Nowitzki's and Tim Duncan's, which is simply remarkable. Shaquille O'Neal has played better recently, while Bryant's rebounding dip can mostly be explained by Bynum's efforts and the return of Lamar Odom.

Top Ten Playmakers
----------------------

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.0 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.4 apg
3) Chris Paul, NOH 10.4 apg
4) Baron Davis, GSW 8.8 apg
5) Deron Williams, UTA 8.7 apg
6) LeBron James, CLE 8.1 apg
7) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.1 apg
8) Chauncey Billups, DET 8.0 apg
9) T.J. Ford, TOR 7.8 apg
10) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.8 apg

Not surprisingly, Nash took control of the assists portion of the leaderboad and he does not figure to relinquish that spot. Jason Kidd has a career average of 9.2 apg but he has not averaged double figures in assists since he was Phoenix' point guard.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:10 AM

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Kobe's New Goal This Year: Defensive Player of the Year

Kobe Bryant has been considered one of the NBA's best defensive players for years, making the All-Defensive Team every season since 1999-2000 except for his injury plagued 2004-05 campaign. NBA coaches voted him to the All-Defensive First Team last season, ignoring critics who sniped that Bryant's game slipped a bit at that end of the court. This summer, Bryant was clearly the best defensive player as Team USA rolled through the FIBA Americas tournament and he intends to use that performance as a springboard toward winning his first Defensive Player of the Year award. Several perimeter players won the award in the 1980s and 1990s--including Michael Jordan and Gary Payton--but in recent years it has tended to go to the league's best defensive big man. Another challenge for Bryant is that--unlike Team USA--the Lakers need for him to shoulder a big scoring burden. Bryant believes that some subtle differences in how the Lakers play this season will enable him to score at a high rate while still expending a lot of energy at the defensive end of the court: "You rarely see me in isolations. There's more coming off screens and catching and shooting. There's more ball movement. I try to put a lot of responsibility on my teammates to make more decisions, make more plays at the offensive end, so I don't have to do that. In the long run, I think that's going to make us a better team."

Many interesting story lines are already developing this season, including the rise of the Celtics, the continued excellence of the Spurs and Dwight Howard helping to transform the Magic into contenders. This could lead to a very competitive MVP race, with past winners Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Tim Duncan (an outside shot in recent years due to his limited minutes) battling LeBron James--who is channeling Michael Jordan's 1989 triple double efforts--Kobe Bryant--who could join Michael Jordan (1988) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) as the only players to win MVP and DPoY in the same season--and Kevin Garnett, the 2004 MVP who will receive a lot of consideration due to his all around numbers and the Celtics' great record.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:41 PM

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LeBron's Triple Doubles Turn Back the Clock to 1989

Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan each could score 30-plus points while putting up triple doubles but most perimeter superstars can be roughly divided into two categories: triple double threats who are not great scorers (such as Jason Kidd, who has 90 career regular season triple doubles) and dominant scorers like Tracy McGrady, who has won two scoring titles but posted just two career regular season triple doubles. The triple double threat player and the dominant scorer have different skill sets but each one places great pressure on opposing defenses. In case you're wondering, Kobe Bryant is somewhat of a hybrid of these types, with two scoring titles and 14 career regular season triple doubles to his credit; he has fewer triple doubles than the high-scoring Jordan (who had 25) but almost as many as noted all-around threat Scottie Pippen (17).

LeBron James had 30 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in Cleveland's 111-106 win over Indiana on Sunday; his 14th career triple double came just one day after James scored more than 30 points while having a triple double on Saturday, making him the first player to have at least 30-10-10 on back to back days since Jordan did it on March 28-29, 1989. That was the year that Chicago Bulls Coach Doug Collins shifted Jordan from shooting guard to point guard down the stretch of the season. Jordan racked up 15 triple doubles in 1988-89, including seven in a row and 10 out of 11 from late March to mid April. Jordan scored between 21 and 47 points in those 10 games but the Bulls only went 5-5. That was Scottie Pippen's second season; he had not yet fully blossomed but he showed plenty of promise, increasing his scoring average from 7.9 ppg to 14.4 ppg while enjoying similar improvement in other aspects of his game. In the first game of Jordan's fantastic triple double streak, Pippen scored a game-high 31 points in a 111-110 win over Seattle.

What does all of this history mean? James is making a solid case that he is the best player in the game by showing that he, like Robertson and Jordan, can score at a high rate while still amassing triple doubles. We could have a very intriguing MVP race this season between James, Kevin Garnett--the all-around threat who is leading Boston's resurgence--and Kobe Bryant, the dominant scorer who also makes his presence felt on defense and who can be counted on to provide solid rebounding and playmaking. Of course, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash will also probably receive consideration, while Tim Duncan will be unjustly ignored since his relatively low minutes during the regular season artificially suppress his per game averages.

Robertson and Jordan's high scoring triple double feats are a tribute to their talent and hard work but these accomplishments also indicate that their teammates were not quite carrying their weight. Jordan did not start winning championships until Pippen emerged as an All-NBA player and Robertson's 1962 Cincinnati Royals went 43-37 and lost in the first round of the playoffs despite him averaging 30-plus points and a triple double during that campaign, the only time an NBA player has averaged a triple double for an entire season.

The Cavaliers have yet to find someone to play the Pippen role while James does his best imitation of Jordan (which is not to say that he is as good as MJ was); moreover, injuries to Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall plus the holdout of Anderson Varejao have whittled away a lot of the team's depth. James' response, like Jordan' in 1989, is to try to pick up the slack in as many statistical areas as possible. Jordan's Bulls made it to the Eastern Conference finals in 1989 before losing to a dominant Detroit team that was about to win back to back championships. There is no team like that in the East this year (Garnett's Boston squad has just been put together and does not have the collective playoff experience as a unit that the 1989 Pistons did) so it will be interesting to see just how long James can keep this up and just how far he can carry the team unless/until the Cavaliers are back to full strength; it seems like everyone has either forgotten--or simply dismissed as a fluke--the fact that James led the Cavaliers all the way to the 2007 NBA Finals. Garnett and Tracy McGrady are rightly considered to be superstars but Garnett has only been out of the first round once in his career and McGrady has never made it to the second round, so James' last two playoff runs already distinguish him from many other well known and well regarded players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:29 AM

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