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Friday, December 21, 2007

Tune in to Gotham Sports Radio on Sunday to Listen to me Talk Hoops

On Sunday December 23, I will be a guest on Gotham Hoops Live. Starting at 9 p.m., host Mike Silva will be interviewing me about various topics, including my recent posts about the 1992 Dream Team versus the 2008 Olympic team and Chet Walker's role in pioneering free agency. You can listen live by clicking on the following link:

Gotham Hoops Live

If you cannot tune in on Sunday, you will be able to find an archived version of the show here:

Gotham Sports Radio

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 PM

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Fourth Quarter Rally Propels Cavaliers to Victory Over the Lakers

The L.A. Lakers built an 11 point lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers with 2:15 remaining in the third quarter but less than three minutes later that entire advantage was gone and by the 9:19 mark of the fourth quarter the Cavaliers were up by five. Instead of adding one more road victory to their surprising early season resume, the Lakers were left trying to explain yet another win that slipped from their grasp in the fourth quarter, a disturbing trend that includes losses to Milwaukee, New Jersey and Golden State. Meanwhile, Cleveland's 94-90 triumph was a welcome turnaround after Wednesday's embarrassing 108-90 loss to the New York Knicks. As usual, LeBron James led the way for Cleveland, scoring a game-high 33 points on 12-29 field goal shooting. He contributed 10 rebounds and five assists; James also handled the defensive chores on Kobe Bryant on the last few possessions, after demanding that assignment and insisting that Sasha Pavlovic check someone else. "If you want to win ballgames, you have to be able to defend the best player," James later explained. Anderson Varejao, playing in just his sixth game after missing the start of the season due to a contract holdout, led both teams in rebounds with a season-high 15 and he also scored a season-high 11 points. Six of Varejao's rebounds came on the offensive glass. The Cavaliers have not exactly set the world on fire since Varejao came back, going 3-3, but that is a better percentage than their overall record of 12-15. Varejao's rebounding, defense and energy played an important part in Cleveland's success last year and as he rounds into game shape it would not be surprising at all if the Cavaliers go on a winning streak or at least put together a run of .700 or .800 basketball to boost their record. Daniel Gibson provided timely shooting (15 points, 5-9 from the field) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (12 points, five rebounds) had a solid game.

Bryant finished with 21 points (8-22 field goal shooting), five rebounds and five assists. He shot just 1-6 in the fourth quarter, including a missed three pointer over James that could have given the Lakers a one point lead with less than five seconds left. When he and James guarded each other on the last few possessions, a palpable buzz of anticipation went through the crowd: that was what everyone had come to see. James deserves credit for making some key plays but it is also important to remember that Bryant is still suffering from a left groin pull that has robbed him of a lot of his explosiveness. After the game, Bryant said, "It's pretty frustrating. I can't explode to the basket like I want to. I have to rely on my jump shot a lot more and it's tough to get a lot of lift, so I am going to have to get in the gym early tomorrow and figure out how I am going to shoot through this." Despite his current physical limitations, Bryant still accepted the challenge of guarding James. Bryant downplayed that, saying simply, "Why not? I look forward to those matchups. That's what I do. I'm a defensive player." James' two free throws after he was fouled by Andrew Bynum gave Cleveland the lead for good with 1:44 left but James missed both of the jumpers that he took against Bryant after that and went scoreless the rest of the way.

Plus/minus statistics can be "noisy" (imprecise due to a variety of factors) but it is interesting that Bryant and James played virtually the same amount of time (40:02 for Bryant, 38:28 for James) but that Bryant had a +8 rating while James had a -7 rating; in other words, most of the time that they shared the court, the Lakers outplayed the Cavaliers. The decisive moments of the game were not the final possessions but rather the 16-0 run that the Cavaliers made at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter, most of which took place with both superstars not in the game. As Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said, "The key to the game was the way we finished the third quarter and the way the momentum switched at the beginning of the fourth. That was the game in a nutshell. We had control of the game and we were doing what we wanted to on the floor and we lost our concentration."

Bryant went out of his way not to blame the bench, saying that the Lakers' reserves have been among the league's best all season, but the sudden dramatic collapse when Bryant briefly left the game is very reminiscent of what repeatedly happened to this team last season, eventually necessitating Bryant going on a scoring binge in the second half of the season just so the Lakers would not miss the playoffs. It was also very similar to what happened the last time these two superstars and their teams faced each other in Cleveland, when a completely healthy Bryant clearly had the edge in his individual battle with James but Bryant received little help from his teammates in the fourth quarter as the Cavaliers won, 99-90.

Lamar Odom had 19 points and 11 rebounds but after scoring 12 points in the first quarter he was basically a non-factor for the rest of the game. With 15.9 seconds left and the Lakers trailing 92-90, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew two defenders and passed to a wide open Odom in the right corner but Odom missed a three pointer. It seems odd that the Lakers put Odom, a career .315 three point shooter who is shooting just .225 from long distance this season, in position to take that shot instead of Luke Walton (a .394 three point shooter this season), Sasha Vujacic (.378) or Derek Fisher (.358 and a proven clutch shooter). Odom bristled at that suggestion: "It was just a regular play. Kobe drove, he had two people on him and I was wide open, so I had to shoot it. If I had a bad night, I still would have taken the shot. That's basketball. A player drives, kicks it to you, you're wide open, you shoot it." He added that he thought the shot was good when it left his hands but that "a game shouldn't come down to one or two shots," particularly since the Lakers had a double digit lead at one point.

Andrew Bynum had 17 points and 11 rebounds but he missed two free throws that could have tied the game with 11.9 seconds left. Bryant stormed in to the lane to rebound the second miss and called a timeout, giving his team one last chance to win or tie. Someone asked Bryant about how he got that crucial rebound but Bryant laughed and said, "I'm not giving up my secret. I told him (James) I was going to get it. That's just years of experience." Bryant winked to a courtside camera after the play, provoking boos from the crowd when that image was displayed on the giant overhead screen. After Bryant missed the three pointer over James on the ensuing possession, Fisher appeared to control the rebound but instead he was called for a loose ball foul on Gibson, who made two free throws to ice the win. Asked after the game if he fouled Gibson, Fisher answered point blank, "No. They made the call but, in my opinion, no. I felt like I got to the ball first. There was contact but I had two hands on the basketball, so I felt had I pushed him first and then secured the rebound it would have been a foul but, you know, we shouldn't have been in that spot to begin with." In his postgame remarks, Jackson noted that if what Fisher did was a foul then Varejao committed fouls on each of his offensive rebounds--the point being not that Varejao did in fact commit fouls but rather that this kind of contact is not usually considered a foul in the NBA.

I asked Bryant about his fateful miss: "When you shot the three at the end when you were down by two, was part of that from not being able to drive because of the groin, or was that just reading the defense, or going for the win on the road, or a little bit of all of those things?"

Bryant replied, "He had his hands down on me and he knows better than that. Put your hands down and I'm going to let it fly. It hit the back heel (of the rim), really (ticked) me off because it felt great. As soon as it left my hand, I felt like the ball was going down. It hit the back heel and came out. It was just one of those nights."

Later, after most members of the media had left, I asked Bryant if in his current injured state the court seems much larger and harder to traverse than usual due to his limited mobility and his eyes widened in acknowledgment as he said "Yes" before reiterating his earlier comment: "But I'm going to go in the gym, work on my jumper and figure out how to get through this."

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

Bobby Jones once told me that steals and blocked shots are "unselfish stats. Those are stats that don’t hurt your teammates; they help your team." He added that one of his goals during his career was to get at least 100 steals and 100 blocked shots each season and he marveled at the fact that Julius Erving--an ABA rival turned teammate in the NBA--accomplished this feat 12 times (tied with Hakeem Olajuwon for the all-time record--and Erving missed the cut by three blocked shots in 1977-78 and surely had a 100-100 season in his rookie year when those stats were not yet officially tracked): "He had good anticipation and he was willing to gamble. He was willing to expend the energy and he was a tremendous athlete who could play both ends (of the court)."

Sometimes, defensive "gambling" gets a bad name but it all depends on what kind of system a team is playing and Jones explained that gambling was built into the defensive system used by the 76ers teams for which he and Erving played: "In the type of defense that we played, if one person gambled it was kind of like a spider web type of thing--the web stretches. If one guy goes, the other four sort of cheat and leave their men a little bit to help out in case the ball moves and a guy becomes open. You just keep rotating around. I don’t think it (going for steals or blocks) is selfish at all. I think that it’s good. You have to put pressure on the offense because shooters are so good. The offense has such an advantage because it can initiate what takes place, so as a defender you have got to try to instigate something to throw them off and make them do something they don’t want to do. The old term, 'pressure will bust the pipe,' is very true. It will make people change what they want to do."

Kobe Bryant usually ranks among the league leaders in steals but every once in a while a quote attributed to Tex Winter or Phil Jackson will be trumpeted by Bryant's detractors as "proof" that Bryant is not a good defender. During Jackson's pregame standup, I asked him, "Kobe had some steals in the previous game against the Bulls that led to fast break points. I know that you've talked about that you don't want Kobe gambling too much; talk about the fine line between the advantage of playing the passing lanes to get steals that can lead to easy points versus maybe doing too much of that. How do you evaluate that?"

Jackson answered, "There are guys who just have a nose for the ball and they definitely are going to go after the ball: Chris Paul, Baron Davis and a variety of guys, if the ball is around them they take the ball; they just have the ability to get in there and take the ball. There are some guys who play passing lanes well. (Mike) Dunleavy is a guy like that--Duke kids basically are. That's another style. Then there are some of your post players--Ben Wallace is good at taking the ball on the entry pass and circling the players. Olajuwon was a guy like that--or stealing outlet passes because of their (athletic) ability. But any time you gamble on the ball you put your team in jeopardy because if the ball gets by you suddenly it's five versus four or four versus three."

Of course, that did not really directly answer what I asked. Reading between the lines, it sounds like Jackson is on board with certain kinds of steals but disdains what he would consider a low percentage gamble that is not likely to result in a steal but will definitely lead to an advantage for the offense if the steal is not made. I am not Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes, jumping out from behind bushes with rapid fire questions about defensive gambling, nor am I ever going to go John McEnroe on someone and scream, "Answer the question!" I asked the question clearly and what Jackson chose to say--and not say--is informative in and of itself. Still, I decided to try a couple follow up questions just to see where they would lead, figuring that Jackson would likely stay "on message," as politicians like to say: "Based on the way that you described how different players get steals, is Kobe more of the kind of guy who gets steals because he has that eye for the ball like Chris Paul or Baron Davis or is he more of a guy who gets into the passing lanes?"

Jackson replied, "He's both. He is one of those guys who will take the ball away from somebody if they expose it but he also plays the passing lanes."

I then asked, "So, is what you are looking for in your scheme based more on taking the ball if the opportunity is there (as opposed to playing the passing lanes)?"

Jackson answered, "That's always a feature but you have to know that you are going to get in foul trouble at some point. Eventually it's going to cost you."

Bryant was called for a foul on the first play of the game when he swiped at the ball as Pavlovic drove to the hoop but Bryant only was called for one other foul the rest of the game. Likely due to his injury, Bryant did not play the passing lanes as aggressively as he normally would, finishing with one steal. Pavlovic, the man Bryant was primarily responsible for guarding most of the game, scored seven points on 2-6 field goal shooting.

***

During the shootaround less than an hour before pregame warmups, Odom came on to the court with a bulky ice pack wrapped around his right knee. That surprised me because generally athletes want to increase blood flow to the joints before competition (i.e., use heat) and then afterwards they want to decrease blood flow to the joints (i.e., use ice) in order to prevent/reduce inflammation. Lakers strength coach Joe Carbone helped Odom to unwrap the ice and as Odom went through his shooting routine I asked Carbone why Odom was using ice before competition instead of afterwards. Carbone prefaced his remarks by saying that only the trainer could answer this for sure but that some players like to use ice before games to relieve pain and inflammation. He assured me that Odom would fully warm up the joint before the game and then most likely use ice again afterwards.

***

Jackson still remains one win away from tying Dick Motta for eighth on the career wins list. Asked about this before the game, Jackson said that it made him think of memories of Motta as a coach. Jackson praised Motta and added, "It seemed like he coached forever." I said, "That means you've been coaching forever, too, right?" and Jackson chuckled and said, "That's what I mean."

***

In his pregame standup, Coach Brown explained why he is against making changes in the starting lineup: "I can't just change guys to keep changing guys. I have to give a group of guys an opportunity to play to see whether or not it can work. That's going to take some time. Hopefully, it won't take a long time but that is where we are right now."

The outcome of this game reaffirmed Brown's thinking in this regard; in his postgame standup, he said, "The one thing that I have to make sure I do is I've got to give our guys an opportunity to play and show that they can help contribute. And that's why even after a game like last night (against the Knicks), I felt I needed to go the same way."

He concluded, "If we give effort like that for as close to 48 minutes as possible, which we did, we'll have a chance to be a good team."

***

Before the game, James talked about how much he enjoyed being Bryant's teammate on the Team USA squad that won the FIBA Americas tournament last summer: "I can always play with a guy who plays hard every night and just has that drive to try to win every ballgame. It was fun being out there on the wing with Kobe Bryant every single night and going out and just taking away anything that anybody wanted on the offensive end. Defensively, me and him were in tune."

James added, "We have different games but at the same time we have the same thing in common and that is wanting to win, just that competitive nature that we always want to win no matter what we are doing, on the court, off the court, we just want to win in everything."

Asked if he thought that Bryant is passing the ball more this season, James said, "Guys make shots and guys make plays, so he has more confidence in them. He's a great playmaker. Sometimes I think that he feels that if guys are not making enough plays then he has to be a little bit more selfish. Guys are making more plays for him this year, which allows him to rest up until the fourth quarter and then do what he do."

Asked if he is surprised that the Cavs still have not put everything together even though the roster from last year is now intact, James replied, "Last year has nothing to do with this year. You look at a team like the Mavericks, they went to the Finals and then they lost in the first round. You look at the Heat, they won the Finals and then got bumped out in the first round. You can't base last year off this year. This is a whole new year, teams are getting better and we have to get better. Who cares what we did last year? It's over and done with."

***

Bynum's improvement and good bench play are no doubt important reasons for the Lakers' good start this season but don't forget that the team also dropped unreliable starting point guard Smush Parker in favor of Fisher, who had 18 points, five assists and four rebounds versus Cleveland. Parker averaged 11.1 ppg on .436 field goal shooting and .646 free throw shooting last season, played horrible defense--particularly in the second half of the season--and openly feuded with Jackson. Fisher's scoring average is about the same as Parker's was (11.5 ppg) but his field shooting (.487) and free throw shooting (.933) are much better, as are his attitude, defense and overall decision making. Parker was the worst starting point guard on any of last year's playoff teams--if not the worst starting point guard in the entire league--and that placed a lot of extra pressure on Bryant both offensively and defensively.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:41 AM

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is This a Make or Break Year for the Suns?

The Dallas Mavericks raced to a 37-20 first quarter lead and survived a furious late rally by the Phoenix Suns to win 108-105 in the first showdown this season between these perennial Western Conference contenders. Perhaps for the first time this season, Dallas looked like the team that won 67 games last year. Not coincidentally, Dirk Nowitzki performed like he did when he won the 2007 MVP, finishing with a game-high 31 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter and eight in the final 2:32. Nowitzki also had nine rebounds. Josh Howard contributed 23 points and seven rebounds and Devin Harris added 21 points, six assists and three steals. Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 25 points and he also had eight rebounds and four blocked shots. Shawn Marion scored 23 points on 10-14 shooting in addition to having 10 rebounds and three steals; both he and Stoudemire benefited from several great passes from Steve Nash, who had 21 points and 18 assists.

While the Mavericks--winners of four straight and six of their last seven--appear to be rounding into form, this has been a strange season so far for the Suns. Their 18-8 record is second only to San Antonio in the West but no one on the team seems particularly happy, even when the team wins, something that I observed firsthand after the Suns' 121-117 victory in Indiana. A few days ago after a loss to New Orleans, Nash said, "It’s very, very disappointing. I wish I could find a way to make sure each guy is ready to play. But what do you do, interview each guy before a game?" The Suns have a tendency to coast on defense, relying on their high powered offense to bail them out. When that does not work--during the first quarter versus Dallas, for instance--the Suns may temporarily play with more energy and focus on defense, but that transformation does not always last long enough to secure victory. Needless to say, this is a recipe for failure in the postseason, something that clearly concerns Nash and some of the team's executives, including General Manager Steve Kerr, who recently admitted publicly that the team is currently being "evaluated" to determine if roster changes need to be made. The Suns did just beat the Spurs in San Antonio--Tony Parker did not play--but they are not likely to beat the Spurs in a seven game series if their defensive effort continues to be transitory rather than a staple of the team's identity. During a stoppage of play in the first quarter, ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said, "This start by Phoenix has highlighted their greatest strengths--which are their transition game and Steve Nash--but also their greatest weaknesses. They've given up 25 points in less than nine minutes because they do not protect the basket. You're not a championship caliber team unless you can protect the basket."

Van Gundy made several interesting observations about both teams. He took issue with Josh Howard's statement that the Mavericks wore themselves out last year by winning so many regular season games. "Total cop out," Van Gundy declared, asking rhetorically if the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that went 72-10 or the great Celtics teams led by Larry Bird ever said such things. Van Gundy added, "There is no such thing as turning it on and turning it off. You either have good habits or you don't." He concluded that Howard's comment is nothing more than an "excuse" for the team's first round loss to Golden State, which--in Van Gundy's opinion--resulted from what he called a "perfect storm" of the Warriors peaking at just the right time.

Van Gundy later suggested that Nowitzki should shoot more three pointers because it is difficult to get into rhythm when you only attempt a few shots from that range. I have been saying for a while that Nowitzki should play to his strengths--including his ability to face up defenders and shoot jumpers--instead of having the mindset that he has to post up just because he is seven feet tall.

After Nash made a gorgeous twisting layup over Dallas center Erick Dampier, Van Gundy said, "I have a problem with anybody who says that guy is not a great athlete. The coordination to be able to control your body, keep your eye on the backboard and then touch it up there on the board--that is a tremendous athlete." Of course, I agree with Van Gundy about this and I recently did a lengthy post on this very subject.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:40 AM

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Mr. Big Shot Takes Over in the Fourth Quarter as Detroit Beats Boston

The Boston Celtics led for most of the game but when crunch time arrived the Celtics disappeared and the Detroit Pistons won, 87-85. This showdown in Boston between the teams with the two best records in the Eastern Conference was just chapter one in a story that will continue throughout the regular season and very possibly not conclude until the playoffs. Chauncey "Mr. Big Shot" Billups made two game-winning free throws with just .1 second left in regulation and he finished with a game-high 28 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter. He also had a game-high eight assists. His backcourt mate Richard Hamilton scored 21 points on 8-11 field goal shooting. Antonio McDyess (13 points, 10 rebounds) was the only other Piston to reach double figures in scoring. Kevin Garnett led Boston with 26 points and 12 rebounds, shooting 9-15 from the field; he also did not block a shot, committed a game-high five turnovers and scored only five points in the fourth quarter, the last of which came when he split a pair of free throws with 3:54 left. Ray Allen scored 24 points on 9-13 field goal shooting, engaging in an entertaining--and at times scrappy--battle with fellow UConn alumnus Hamilton. Paul Pierce had a subpar game--11 points on 5-16 shooting, four rebounds, four turnovers. Rajon Rondo provided an early spark and he finished with 14 points (7-10 shooting), seven assists and three steals but a wise man (Bill Russell) once said that it's not how many points you score but when you score them (a thought that also applies to Garnett).

There were many interesting storylines coming into this game. During the pregame show, ESPN's Bill Walton listed four "keys": (1) Kevin Garnett's production, (2) the Billups-Rondo matchup, (3) Hamilton's production and (4) the defensive matchup of Tayshaun Prince on Pierce. Walton said, "The key is Kevin Garnett, who is the best player in this game. Garnett has to set a relentless pace and be so far ahead of everybody else that he brings his teammates along with him." Walton is right that Garnett is--or at least should be--the best player in a Boston-Detroit game but whenever I watch Garnett play, particularly against good teams, I think of something that Scottie Pippen said years ago: "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." Garnett won the MVP in 2004 and he is a top five candidate for this year's award by virtue of his production and Boston's outstanding record--but will he ever take over a game and grab it by the throat the way that Kobe Bryant or LeBron James often do?

My questions about Boston coming into this season concerned the team's defense, the starting center, the starting point guard, the quality of the bench and how well the team would execute down the stretch in close games. Boston's defense has been magnificent and a lot of the credit for that has to go Garnett, whose length and quickness are very disruptive. Center Kendrick Perkins, point guard Rajon Rondo and the bench have all performed at least adequately and at times quite well. Boston's ability to execute down the stretch has not been tested for the most part because the Celtics have been rolling to victories without any extended road trips or even heading out West at all, so the fourth quarter of this game certainly merits close examination. First, though, let's take a look at what happened in the first three quarters.

The Celtics started off the game very crisply, creating open shots by posting up either Garnett or Pierce on the left block. On one out of bounds play, Allen cut across the lane from the right wing, Garnett set a screen and Allen curled around for a catch and shoot jumper. The big story early, though, was that no one could stay in front of Rondo, who repeatedly blew by Billups for layups and short jumpers. Rondo even scored over Rasheed Wallace after driving, coming to a dead stop, making a one hand ball fake that sent Wallace flying and then hitting a short bank shot; it looked like a Harlem Globetrotter faking out a Washington General. Rondo scored 10 straight points in a little over three minutes and Boston led 29-25 at the end of the quarter. ESPN commentator Hubie Brown said, "I think that he's shocked them by how easily he's blowing by the perimeter defenders and getting into the paint."

The Celtics pushed the lead to 10 points in the second quarter but Brown wisely cautioned, "Right now, they're on a honeymoon. They're 20-2. Let's see what happens when adversity sets in and they have to go out West. Can they do this on the road against the top teams in the Western Conference?" Rasheed Wallace's three pointer pulled the Pistons to within 52-45 by halftime. The first half showcased each team's weaknesses. Detroit can be vulnerable to dribble penetration, something that has been true ever since Ben Wallace departed; the Pistons are so good overall that they can overcome this against a lot of teams in the regular season but it can be an issue at playoff time. Boston has yet to establish a go-to player or a go-to play, which does not matter when you are blowing out teams in the regular season but will be critically important in the postseason. We caught a revealing glimpse of this on the last possession of the first half. The Celtics inbounded the ball with 9.5 seconds left. Garnett received the pass, did a dribble handoff with Pierce and then posted up on the right block. Pierce passed the ball back but Garnett was unable to even get off a shot before time expired. Sure, the Celtics still went to the locker room up by seven--but they ended up losing by two and they had the same problems executing at the end of the game that they did at the end of the first half.

In the third quarter, the game ground to a halt, making half court execution very important. After Billups' three pointer at the 6:41 mark, Boston only led 56-54. On the next possession, Pierce forced a three pointer early in the shot clock. Brown observed, "Right now, Pierce is starting to get a little tense. He wants to get some shots up. They missed him twice cutting into the painted area with Prince behind him." No one is going to force shots when the team is winning easily and everybody is putting up good numbers but when things become tough we find out what kind of game a player really has.

Boston still led 65-61 going into the fourth quarter. A big momentum shift happened after the Pistons put in Lindsey Hunter, perhaps the best on the ball defender at the point guard position in the NBA. ESPN's Jon Barry immediately said that Boston might want to consider having Pierce bring the ball up the court just to avoid having to deal with Hunter. The Celtics did not make that adjustment and Hunter stole the ball twice. The second steal led directly to an uncontested Hamilton fast break dunk that put Detroit up 70-67 with 9:23 left. Boston never led the rest of the way. The Pistons led 78-71 by the 5:58 mark but Allen's driving reverse dunk, two Garnett free throws and an Allen three pointer trimmed the margin to 81-78 with 4:28 remaining. Although Rondo abused Billups in the first quarter, he did not score a point in the second half and he was beaten several times by Billups in the fourth quarter. Billups' three pointer with 3:34 left put Detroit up 85-79. Neither team scored in the next 2:33 but it is interesting to examine who had the ball during that time; in other words, note that Garnett's name only appears a couple times and never as the primary option. Pierce traveled and Billups missed a wild jumper with the shot clock winding down. Rondo missed on a wild drive to the hoop and McDyess answered with an airball jumper. Garnett passed inside to Perkins, whose shot was blocked by Wallace. McDyess missed another jumper. Pierce drove to the hoop and forced an off balance shot; Brown commented, "That was a desperate move." Perkins blocked a jumper by Prince. Allen dribbled into the left corner and missed a fadeaway three pointer. Obviously, neither team was putting on an offensive clinic but the Pistons had a six point lead in their back pockets. Garnett rebounded a missed jumper by Allen and passed to Allen, who fed Eddie House for an open three pointer that broke the scoring drought; one of the best times to shoot a three pointer is right after an offensive rebound when the defensive players are out of position.

Billups missed a jumper on the next possession and Boston got the ball back down three with 37 seconds left. Brown immediately said, "You don't need a three if you go quick." In other words, the Celtics should have tried to get a two point basket with more than 24 seconds still left on the clock, giving themselves a chance to get a defensive stop and then go for the win. Instead, the Celtics used up almost all of the shot clock before Allen bailed them out by drilling a three pointer from the top of the key. Brown noted, "This is a big pressure shot, because if you miss it the game is over because you are going to foul." Allen deserves credit for making such a big shot but the larger point is that the Celtics executed very poorly, both in terms of clock management and in terms of the shot that they ultimately took.

Now it was Detroit's turn to make a strange move. Billups had been having his way all quarter long on isolation plays, to the extent that Boston Coach Doc Rivers took out Rondo and put in Tony Allen. However, after the timeout, Detroit ran a screen and roll with Billups at the top of the key. That brought Kevin Garnett--the Celtics' best defender--into the play and after Billups bobbled the ball Garnett got the steal. Boston called timeout and had a chance to go for the win with five seconds left. Pierce received the pass and fired a fadeaway from the left baseline--but he not only missed, he shot too soon and Detroit secured the rebound with just under two seconds left. After another timeout, Detroit inbounded to Billups, whose pump fake suckered Tony Allen into fouling him. Billups sank the free throws and the Celtics lost at home for the first time this season.

Garnett did get the potentially big steal from Billups and his offensive rebound preceded House's three pointer--but down the stretch, with the game on the line, he did not have a primary role offensively. Even worse, the Celtics executed poorly on several possessions with the game in the balance, only to be temporarily bailed out by the big three pointers by House and Allen. Playoff games often come down to getting key defensive stops and then executing efficiently on offense. Yes, this was just one game and the Celtics still have the best record in the league, but they also have some things to work on before anyone should just pencil them in to the NBA Finals. Let's review the keys that Walton mentioned before the game: Garnett's production was good but he did not put his stamp on the game in the closing minutes the way that the best player on the court should; Billups got the best of Rondo (and Rondo's replacements) when it mattered the most; Hamilton essentially canceled out Ray Allen; Prince shook off his own shooting woes to do a good defensive job on Pierce--and Boston needs Pierce's scoring more than the balanced Pistons need Prince's scoring, so that matchup worked out well for Detroit.

These critiques may seem like nitpicking but whoever eventually wins the Eastern Conference will be a team that holds itself to that kind of high standard and is able to execute under pressure in close games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:24 AM

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Lakers Kick off Eastern Road Trip With 103-91 Win in Chicago

Kobe Bryant is still laboring as a result of the groin injury that he suffered during Friday's loss to Golden State but with more than a little help from his friends the Lakers defeated the Bulls 103-91 in Chicago. Sasha Vujacic led six double figure scorers for the Lakers with 19 points, shooting 6-10 from the field. Bryant had 18 points on 7-19 shooting. He started out 3-10 in the first half, then made his first four shots in the third quarter before cooling off again. Bryant also had six rebounds, two assists, three steals and one blocked shot; his +13 plus/minus rating was the third best on the team, trailing the +18 efforts of both Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum (Vujacic's plus/minus rating was +6). Odom had 17 points and a game-high 16 rebounds, including 10 boards in the first half, while Bynum overcame a slow start offensively to finish with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. Luol Deng led Chicago with a game-high 26 points. The Bulls outshot the Lakers .481 to .430 but committed more turnovers (18-13) and grabbed fewer rebounds (52-41). The Lakers also went to the free throw line more often (28-17) and converted those opportunities at a greater rate (.821-.706).

The Chicago announcers claimed that the Bulls played with energy but if that is the case then I'd hate to see what this team looks like when it does not play with energy; the rebounding, turnovers and general lack of aggressiveness (as suggested by the paucity of free throw attempts) all speak to mental and physical lethargy. Ben Wallace did not have a single rebound in the first half and he ended up with two points, five rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. Ben Gordon scored eight points on 3-9 shooting. Although the game was close most of the way, I doubt that any seasoned NBA viewer who watched this contest really believed that the Bulls were going to win; the Bulls' play just lacked direction, purpose--"oomph," for lack of a better term. Consider this sequence from a fast break opportunity in the second quarter: forward Tyrus Thomas had the ball at midcourt on the right wing, with point guard Chris Duhon in the middle and forward Andres Nocioni on the left wing. The correct--and obvious--play is to pass the ball to Duhon, who should dribble to the foul line, read the defense and either shoot a pullup jumper, pass to one of the wings or go all the way to the hoop if there is an opening. Instead, Thomas tried an impossible crosscourt bounce pass to Nocioni that went sailing out of bounds. If I ever put together a DVD titled "How Not to Play Fundamentally Correct Basketball," that footage will be the first exhibit. Later in the game, the Bulls also showed that they could not inbound the ball against a basic press without committing a turnover. What has happened to this team in the past six months is just bizarre, because during last year's playoffs the Bulls swept the defending champion Heat and even battled the Pistons for a minute before being eliminated. I keep waiting for the light to come on in Chicago but maybe it never is going to happen for the Bulls this year.

The news is much more pleasant for the Lakers. Bryant's nagging injury is a bit of a concern but assuming that he will heal up sooner rather than later the forecast for this team looks good. Odom is playing solid basketball, Bynum's game has vastly improved in all areas and the bench is a positive factor on most nights (not necessarily the same guys each time, but the group as a whole).

I've noticed one hitch in Bryant's game this season, something that predates his injury; previously, whenever he picked up his dribble and pump faked most defenders either fouled him or got off balance enough that he could attempt a shot. Now, defenders are staying on the ground, leaving Bryant nowhere to go since he has already used up his dribble; that happened to Bryant a few times against Chicago. He is an intelligent player, so it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to this.

The Lakers led 49-45 at halftime. Bryant and Vujacic each had 10 points. NBA TV's Frank Isola commented, "Kobe is not 100% yet with that groin injury. He's playing--and I think that a lot of other guys would take a week off--but this is Kobe Bryant, who loves to be out there." Despite Bryant's brief scoring burst early in the third quarter, the Bulls made a little run to tie the score at 58 before a Bryant turnaround jumper at the 7:26 mark put the Lakers up, 60-58. Those would be the last points that Bryant scored (he sat out the start of the fourth quarter, like he does in most games) but he found other ways to contribute: he got all three of his steals in the fourth quarter and the Lakers scored on the ensuing possession each time, including one sequence when Bryant stole the ball from Kirk Hinrich and flipped an underhanded outlet pass to Odom, who streaked ahead of the pack for a fast break dunk. The Lakers also used Bryant as a screener in the halfcourt offense, something that they did in the Warriors game as well. One time, Bryant's screen freed up Jordan Farmar, a defender slid over and Farmar lobbed an alley oop to Bynum for a dunk; another time, Farmar got loose and made a three pointer. Using a great scorer like Bryant as a screener is a good tactic because the defense does not dare leave him unattended.

After the game, Isola declared, "People talk about leading by example. That fact that Kobe Bryant--who I think is the elite player in the league--is willing to go out there when he is not 100% sends the right kind of message to his entire team...The bottom line is when they throw the ball up he is ready to play, he is always ready to compete and I think his teammates feed off of that." Bryant wants his teammates to care as much and work as hard as he does. Just like he did last summer with Team USA, Bryant sets the example in practice and during games and the rest of his team is following suit.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:59 AM

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part II

I am participating in a season-long bi-weekly poll in which various bloggers offer their takes on the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year races. The results of the first poll were published on December 3. The results of the second poll were just posted at Clips Nation.

The top four players who I chose for MVP finished in the top four on the overall ballot, albeit in a different order. Seven of my 10 selections ranked in the consensus top ten; I left off Carlos Boozer, Manu Ginobili and Caron Butler in favor of Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming and Dirk Nowitzki. Four of my top five rookies were consensus picks; I chose Glen Davis instead of Jamario Moon.

Here is my complete ballot exactly as I submitted it (MVP and RoY votes are scored on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 and 5-4-3-2-1 basis respectively, so James is my top MVP pick and Durant is my top RoY pick):

MVP

10-LeBron James: The cliche states that a player cannot lose his job due to injury. If anything, LeBron enhanced his top ranking due to injury because the Cavs looked terrible without him. It is worth remembering, though, that Hughes and Varejao were also out during that time.
9-Kobe Bryant: LeBron, KG and Howard have gotten most of the early MVP headlines but Kobe is having a major impact at both ends of the court.
8-Dwight Howard: Orlando has hit a bit of a funk recently but his production has actually increased.
7-Kevin Garnett: He is the best player on the best team but his numbers have dropped off dramatically (16.0 ppg and 7.2 rpg in December after putting up 20.1 ppg and 11.8 rpg in November). Part of this can be attributed to a decline in his minutes and it is important to note that the Celtics are 6-0 in December.
6-Tim Duncan: Like James, absence made the heart grow fonder.
5-Steve Nash: His shooting percentage plummeted but his assists went up as Phoenix hit the road.
4-Chris Paul: Was putting up career-high numbers in the first month of the season and then he increased them dramatically in December.
3-Tracy McGrady: Houston may be struggling a bit now but history has shown that when he is not in the lineup the team is terrible.
2-Yao Ming: Continues to put up solid scoring, rebounding and shooting numbers and has also taken on a more vocal leadership role.
1-Dirk Nowitzki: I gave the reigning MVP the benefit of the doubt early because his team was winning but now the Mavs are sliding and his numbers are down, so I'm dropping him to 10th place.

ROY

5-Kevin Durant: So many rookies seem to be hitting the proverbial wall now that he may actually earn RoY by default even though I am less impressed by his game than most people.Yes, he's had two games of more than 30 points since the last rankings, but he's also had games in which he shot 4-12, 4-17 and 3-11--and it's not like he's making up for that with his floor game (1.9 apg this season, 1.4 apg in December).
4-Al Horford: Shooting dropped off in December but his rebounding remains consistent.
3-Juan Carlos Navarro: His numbers are all over the map--two points one night, 27 on another.
2-Yi Jianlian: Has been solid most of the season and his numbers have improved recently.
1-Glen Davis: Did not do much in the first month of the season but is now a solid contributor off of the bench for the Celtics.

Dropped from the list since last time: Sean Williams (playing time, production have plummeted), Luis Scola (ditto)

Added to the list since last time: Yi Jianlian, Glen Davis

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:39 AM

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Dan Majerle: Evolving to Survive

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with 1988 Olympian and three-time NBA All-Star Dan Majerle. I included part of my interview with him in my post titled Is Steve Nash the Best Athlete in the NBA?

However, in addition to talking about Steve Nash, Majerle also discussed his own career, including his two experiences playing for Team USA (he won a gold medal in the 1994 FIBA World Championship) and his evolution from the high flying "Thunder Dan" to a dangerous three point shooter. You may be surprised to find out what Majerle says about the 1988 matchup between Team USA and the Soviet Union and how he thinks Kobe Bryant compares to Michael Jordan (Majerle played against both of them):

Dan Majerle: Evolving to Survive

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:51 AM

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Monday, December 17, 2007

NBA Leaderboard, Part VI

Kevin Garnett's minutes and production have dipped but his Celtics keep right on rolling, maintaining a 70-win pace. Kobe Bryant moved a little bit closer to LeBron James in the race for the scoring title--or, more precisely, James slipped back toward Bryant, whose average has stayed around the 27 ppg mark for most of the season. Dwight Howard continues to put up Moses Malone-sized double doubles, while Steve Nash is on track to join Bob Cousy and John Stockton as winners of four straight assists titles.

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

1) Boston Celtics, 20-2
2) San Antonio Spurs, 18-5
3-4) Detroit Pistons, Phoenix Suns, 17-7
5) Orlando Magic, 17-8

The Spurs dropped a couple games when Tim Duncan sat out due to injury, so the Celtics--owners of a nine game winning streak--pulled away a bit. Are the Magic going to duplicate last year's fast start and slow fade? Dwight Howard is still putting up MVP caliber numbers but the Magic are just 5-5 in their last 10 games; they are also 5-5 at home, which is very strange considering their 12-3 road record. One of those numbers will turn out to be a fluke; if it is the former, then Orlando could win 50-plus games but if it is the latter then the Magic will end up with 40-45 wins. Detroit has been winning "quietly," fueling the predictable and tired talk that the Pistons have been disrespected. Guess what? The Pistons have four All-Star caliber players and no one questions their ability to do well in the regular season. In recent years the Pistons have had very good records only to fall short of winning a title and it remains to be seen if Detroit can return to the championship mountain top this season--anything less will be a disappointment for a nucleus that won a ring in 2004 and that believes it should have won multiple titles during this era.

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

1) LeBron James, CLE 29.4 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.0 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 25.4 ppg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 24.9 ppg
5) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 24.6 ppg
6) Kevin Martin, SAC 24.5 ppg
7) Richard Jefferson, NJN 24.4 ppg
8) Tracy McGrady, HOU 24.2 ppg
9) Michael Redd, MIL 23.7 ppg
10) Dwight Howard, ORL 23.7 ppg

14) Yao Ming, HOU 21.8 ppg

17) Paul Pierce, BOS 21.0 ppg

19) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 20.8 ppg

24) Manu Ginobili, SAS 20.0 ppg
25) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.7 ppg

26) Ray Allen, BOS 19.2 ppg

29) Kevin Garnett, BOS 18.9 ppg

James returned after missing several games due to a finger injury but he has averaged just 22.3 ppg since he came back, shaving 1.3 ppg off of his average and placing Kobe Bryant just a couple 50 point games away from taking the lead. However, the Lakers are doing well with Bryant scoring 27-28 ppg and he has a few nagging injuries of his own, so while it is always possible that he will erupt for 50 points it does not seem likely that he will do so any time soon. The Nuggets' Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony could become the first teammates to rank in the top five in scoring since the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal did it in 2002-03. Kevin Durant is who I thought he was: a high volume, low percentage shooter who needs a lot of FGAs to average 20 ppg. That does not seem likely to change this season because Durant has not even hit the proverbial rookie wall yet, after which his production figures to decline a bit; the real test for Durant will happen next summer--not in the playoffs, but during his offseason workouts; he must improve his shooting, his ball handling and his overall understanding of the NBA game and he must add some bulk to his almost painfully thin frame. George Gervin and Reggie Miller were lean but even when they were young they were wiry and not easily pushed around. If Durant is going to be as good as most people seem to expect then about a year from now we should be able to see the fruits from his labors during the summer of 2008.

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

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 15.4 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 14.4 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.8 rpg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.7 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.5 rpg
6) Tyson Chandler, NOH 11.3 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.1 rpg
8) Shawn Marion, PHX 10.9 rpg
9) Zach Randolph, NYK 10.7 rpg
10) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.7 rpg
11) Zydrunas Ilgauskas, CLE 10.5 rpg
12) Kevin Garnett, BOS 10.5 rpg
13) Yao Ming, HOU 10.3 rpg
14) Andrew Bynum, LAL 10.0 rpg
15) Al Horford, ATL 10.0 rpg

22) Ben Wallace, CHI 8.9 rpg
23) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.6 rpg

21) Tim Duncan, SAS 8.9 rpg

23) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.7 rpg

28) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.2 rpg

35) Shaquille O'Neal, MIA 7.7 rpg

50) Kobe Bryant, LAL 6.1 rpg

Howard extended his lead over Camby but the top ten seems to have stabilized for the most part. Ben Wallace, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are all below their career norms as the season nears the quarter pole. Kidd's presence on this list is remarkable considering his age, his height and the fact that he had microfracture surgery a few years ago. Among shooting guards, Bryant and the Knicks' Quentin are tied for the lead (unless you believe the positional designations at ESPN.com, where forwards Mike Miller, Josh Howard, Luol Deng and Hedo Turkoglu are listed as shooting guards).

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

1) Steve Nash, PHX 12.1 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.3 apg
3) Chris Paul, NOH 9.6 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 8.9 apg
5) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.6 apg
6) Baron Davis, GSW 8.3 apg
7) Jose Calderon, TOR 7.9 apg
8) LeBron James, CLE 7.8 apg
9) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.8 apg
10) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.5 apg

Nash is well on his way to becoming the first player to win four straight assists titles since John Stockton claimed nine in a row from 1988-96. Kidd won five in a six year stretch (1999-2001, 2003-04) but Andre Miller snuck in to take the 2002 title. The only player other than Stockton to win at least four assists titles in a row is Bob Cousy; like Kidd, Oscar Robertson once captured five in a six year period. Magic Johnson won all four of his in a five year period just before Stockton came into prominence.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:39 AM

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