Interesting Nuggets From a Full Slate of MLK Day GamesThere were 13 NBA games on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, including a triple-header on TNT. Here are some observations and comments about several of the games in a notebook style format:
* The top five scorers in the NBA each played in one of the TNT games. Here is how they did:
LeBron James: 28 points (11-26 FG, 5-5 FT), three rebounds, five assists
Kobe Bryant: 17 points (5-7 FG, 6-8 FT), five rebounds, 11 assists
Allen Iverson: 24 points (8-23 FG, 8-11 FT), three rebounds, seven assists
Carmelo Anthony: 13 points (5-11 FG, 3-4 FT), four rebounds, one assist (left game in second quarter due to sprained ankle)
Dwyane Wade: 42 points (17-29 FG, 7-8 FT), six rebounds, seven assists
Memphis 104, Chicago 90
* Memphis rookie point guard Mike Conley had 10 points and a career-high 10 assists. Conley is a fun player to watch and has a bright future because he really sees the court well and delivers the ball to open players on time and on target. Those are distinct skills and a player who has all three of them has a chance to be special.
* Memphis has a collection of talented players who seemingly should be producing more than they do: Darko Milicic, Stromile Swift and Hakim Warrick. These three players are coach/GM killers, the kind of guys you bring in to a team because they look like they can really play but whose day in, day out production is not consistently high.
Cleveland 97, Miami 90
* I don't care if Coach Pat Riley insists that Shaquille O'Neal's body fat and weight are as good as they have been since the Diesel motored into Miami; as the saying goes, the eye in the sky doesn't lie: O'Neal looks out of shape and he moves like he is out of shape. He can barely get off of the ground and lateral mobility is just a fond memory for him. O'Neal is playing defense like an old man in a rec league, standing flat footed in one spot and hacking whoever comes into his area.
* Anderson Varejao's numbers (six points on 3-8 shooting, 10 rebounds) do not really capture the full nature of his impact on the game. On some possessions he guards multiple players, trapping the point guard and then hustling back to his own man. His activity level at both ends of the court is very high, resulting in extra possessions on offense and deflections on defense. He even led a two on one fast break with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, delivering a slick left handed bounce pass that Ilgauskas converted into a layup.
* Dwyane Wade scored 42 points, including 32 of the Heat's 38 second half points; O'Neal (10 points) was the only other Miami player who reached double figures. Last year, some people who don't understand basketball suggested that some of Kobe Bryant's 40 and 50 point games were not that impressive because they came against sub-.500 teams. Of course, Bryant led the Lakers to victories in enough of those games to carry the team to a playoff berth. Less than two years removed from a championship, Wade and O'Neal are "leading" the worst team in the Eastern Conference and Wade is finding out that it is not so easy to score 40 night after night and lead a team to victory, even against sub-.500 teams. The Heat have now lost 14 straight games.
L.A. Lakers 116, Denver 99
* First the "experts" told us before this season that Kobe Bryant would quit on the team because the Lakers neither traded him nor upgraded the roster. Then they told us that Andrew Bynum is the key to the team's success. Most recently they told us that the Lakers would not be able to win without Bynum. Pardon me for mixing sports metaphors, but this is a case of three strikes and you're out. How about trying my Lakers' theories on for size? As I've written for the past two years, Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league. He draws so much defensive attention that his teammates get wide open shots that they would not otherwise be able to create for themselves (this applies to Bynum, too, though he very recently began to showcase some low post moves other than catching lob passes). Bryant is a skillful passer but his assists numbers do not always reflect this for two reasons: (1) his teammates often miss the wide open shots that he creates for them; (2) in many cases Bryant delivers the first pass out of the double-team, which forces the defense to scramble and leads to the pass that garners the assist. In 10-15 years, objective observers will look back at this era and be very puzzled that Bryant did not win the MVP in 2006 and 2007. Maybe the voters will get it right this year.
* In the first quarter, Kobe Bryant did not attempt a field goal or score a single point but he had two rebounds and two assists as the Lakers took a 39-29 lead. Derek Fisher scored 16 points, many of them on shots that were wide open because Denver double-teamed Bryant.
* Bryant committed his fourth foul at the 9:01 mark in the third quarter and sat out with the Lakers leading 71-59. A little more than two minutes later, the score was 75-69 and Coach Phil Jackson had to put Bryant back in the game to stabilize the team. Denver continued to make a good run--momentum can be hard to stop sometimes--and even briefly took the lead but by the end of the quarter the Lakers were up 91-82 and never trailed again. Bryant had assists on five straight possessions, repeatedly drawing the defense and then feeding open teammates. Saying that Bryant is "finally" sharing the ball this year is as incorrect as saying that Bill Belichick did not know how to coach in Cleveland but then learned how to do so in New England (look up who is the last Browns coach to win a playoff game and who was coaching the team that he beat); the only difference between this season and last season is that when Bryant passes the ball to open teammates they are finally making the shots. Replacing Smush Parker with Derek Fisher has a lot to do with that. There is a reason that Coach Jackson basically told Bryant to stop passing and shoot more often down the stretch last year: that was the only way that the Lakers had a chance to win. Bryant is a very gifted passer and he put the full range of his skills in that area on display versus Denver, delivering bounce passes, no look passes, behind the back passes to cutters and pinpoint feeds to perimeter shooters who could then catch and shoot in rhythm.
* For some strange reason, the "experts" continually underrate Cleveland--a team built on rebounding and defense that is led by the second best player in the league--and overrate Detroit and Denver, two teams that are stocked with individual talent but have yet to reach their full potential in postseason play (the Detroit teams that reached back to back Finals had Larry Brown and Ben Wallace; I am referring to the current group that loses in the playoffs to lower seeded teams).
Washington 102, Dallas 84
* Face it--this is just not a good time for the Gilbert Arenas fan club, whose members work overtime combing the stat sheets for numerical proof that the Wizards are not in fact better without Agent Zero. Here are two clues for you would be Sherlock Holmeses: (1) Take your eyes off of the Excel spread sheets and actually watch the games--the Wizards are playing harder and they are playing more together and they are actually playing defense now; (2) if Arenas were truly an MVP level player then this would not even be close: the team would be much worse without him. The fact that it is a close enough call to even be worthy of debate shows that Arenas is not as valuable as so many people were saying last season. The reality is that the Wizards have never been much more than a .500 team even with him on the court but they are significantly better than .500 so far this season without him.
* When I asked "Is Gilbert Arenas the Most Overrated All-Star in the NBA?" bloggers rushed to Agent Zero's defense like I'd committed some kind of basketball heresy. One of the funniest parts to me is how the Washington fans insisted that the Wizards' early success was due to a weak schedule, which essentially meant that they would now root for their team to do badly in order to "prove" my contentions about Arenas to be wrong. Let's see: the Wizards just beat league-leading Boston twice and now they've swept the season series with Dallas, a team that had won eight of nine games prior to Monday's contest. This is the first time Washington swept Dallas since 1996-97 and Dallas' biggest loss of the season. It is also the sixth time the Wizards have held a team to fewer than 85 points this season, something that they did not do even once last year (they are 6-0 in those games). Here are some interesting post-game quotes:
"They've gotten a lot better defensively. They're trying to do the right things.'' (Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki)
"Usually, the key to our success is always our offense over the past couple of years. But now it's been the defense. And to win big games and get quality wins, you've got to play well at the defensive end.'' (Washington forward Caron Butler)
"We know with Gil out that we've got to maximize our forwards' scoring opportunities. We're trying to put them in different situations - 3s, they pick-and-roll, they slash, they post up, they come off of screens. If I have to call 100 plays, 95 of them are for our forwards.'' (Washington Coach Eddie Jordan)
In case you can't read between the lines, here is what those quotes really say: with Gilbert Arenas running the show (and being the center of attention), the Wizards were a bad defensive team that was stagnant on offense and relied on his scoring to bail them out; when he hit a hot streak, everything was great but over the long haul you can't have sustained success playing that way. With Arenas out of the lineup, the team is playing better defense and the offense is being run through the forwards instead of through a shoot first gunner masquerading as a point guard.
I also love how some people read one post and then accused me of forming my opinion of the Arenas-less Wizards on the basis of one nationally televised game. Of course, if they had actually read more than one post here then they would know that I've covered numerous Wizards games in person the past several seasons and they would also know that at the very time that Agent Zero MVP hype was reaching its peak in the mainstream media I asked "Is Gilbert a Gunner?" and concluded that this is in fact an apt description of how he plays. Interestingly, in that very post I talked about a game versus the Kings in which Arenas scored 30 points but shot 9-23 from the field and stated that the real star of the game was Antawn Jamison, who shot 9-17 from the field and had 33 points and 13 rebounds. Arenas bragged to Sports Illustrated about how much better guys like Caron Butler, Larry Hughes and Jamison have done playing alongside him--but Butler and Jamison have been doing just fine this year without Arenas' help and Hughes made it to the Finals playing alongside LeBron James. I suppose the concept of sacrificing one's stats to win more games does not make sense to Arenas so he probably thinks that Hughes is worse off now than he was when he was a Wizard.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:55 AM