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Monday, March 17, 2008

Alston's Three Pointers Launch Rockets Into First Place in the West

Rafer Alston stole the show from headliners Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, making a career-high eight three pointers and scoring a career-high 31 points as the Houston Rockets extended their amazing winning streak to 22 with a 104-92 win over the L.A. Lakers. The victory moved the Rockets ahead of the Lakers in the standings, giving them sole possession of first place in the Western Conference. Alston set the tone early, scoring 13 of Houston's first 18 points, picking up the slack for McGrady, who did not score a point until the last three minutes of the third quarter and who finished with 11 points, six assists and three rebounds while shooting just 4-16 from the field. McGrady looked tired and admitted as much during and after the game--and that is quite understandable considering that he logged the full 48 minutes in two of the previous four games, a clear indication of just how important he is to the team's success. McGrady played 39 minutes on Sunday while Bryant had to step into the role of "marathon man," playing the first 47 minutes and not sitting out until the outcome was no longer in doubt. With both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum sidelined by injuries, the Lakers have no inside presence and are heavily reliant on Bryant to create offense. Bryant led the Lakers with 24 points but he shot just 11-33 from the field.

Bobby Jackson added 19 points on 7-9 shooting for the Rockets. The big performances by Alston and Jackson highlight something that has become a problem area for the Lakers: defending against opposing point guards. Derek Fisher played a big role early in the season for the Lakers and he has historically been a tough, physical defender but it is fair to wonder if the veteran is breaking down a bit after a long season. T.J. Ford, Chris Paul, Jarrett Jack and Beno Udrih are among the point guards who have hurt the Lakers recently; they are good players--and Paul is obviously an MVP candidate--but against the Lakers they all exceeded their normal production. To make matters worse, Fisher's shot seems to have abandoned him as well. He shot just .359 from the field in February and he is shooting .418 from the field so far in March. Fisher scored six points on 2-6 shooting versus Houston.

In one sense, this game was an atypical effort for Houston during the streak: McGrady has been carrying a lot of the offensive load since Yao Ming suffered a season-ending injury and even after this performance McGrady is still averaging 25.9 ppg in March. In another sense, though, this was a quintessential performance by the Rockets: they held the Lakers to a .413 field goal percentage, which is right in line with the stifling team defense that they have been playing. Shane Battier did an awesome job versus Bryant, though he of course had help from double-teams and often had shotblocker Dikembe Mutombo lurking in the paint. Speaking of the ageless former four-time Defensive Player of the Year, he has played a very important role since Yao got hurt, providing defense and rebounding while averaging about 19 mpg. Mutombo's contributions to Houston's success will likely go unnoticed by the average fan but this really refutes a couple false ideas that are frequently stated, namely that Allen Iverson and LeBron James single-handedly carried their teams to the Finals in 2001 and 2007 respectively. No one does anything single-handedly in a team sport. If anyone has really come close to doing it in the NBA it was Michael Jordan before Scottie Pippen arrived or Kobe Bryant the past couple years and you'll note that in both cases those teams struggled to win playoff games, let alone get out of the first round. Iverson and James carried a heavy offensive load for their teams but they received significant support in two ways: they had role players who made key shots at crucial times and their teams collectively bought into the defensive philosophies preached by their head coaches. Mutombo was an All-Star and the Defensive Player of the Year for the Sixers in 2001 and six years later he is still setting the tone in the paint, albeit for shorter stretches of time. Aaron McKie was the Sixth Man of the Year for those Sixers, while Tyrone Hill, Eric Snow and George Lynch also made important contributions during that season. Last year, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson and even the much maligned Larry Hughes all played key roles at various times during the team's Finals run.

What does this trip down memory lane to 2001 and 2007 have to do with Houston? The Rockets, like the 2001 Sixers and 2007 Cavaliers, have a transcendent player--Tracy McGrady--who is surrounded by "no-name" players who buy into their coach's defensive system, who play unselfishly on offense and who are able to make the open shots that become available when their star player is double-teamed. I never bought into the idea that the Rockets would miss the playoffs without Yao; Houston has always played very well when McGrady is healthy. However, I did not consider the Rockets to be much of a threat in the postseason without Yao but I am starting to reconsider that notion. This team plays hard all the time and they "look" a little like the 2001 Sixers and the 2007 Cavaliers. Of course, one objection to this idea is that those teams won conferences that were considered to be weak while the West is very strong this year--but Houston has the best record in the West right now! Why shouldn't Houston be considered a contender? Other than San Antonio, none of the West's top teams have ever won anything and most of them are battling injuries while also trying to integrate newly acquired players into their systems. I'm not predicting that Houston is going to win the West; I consider the Spurs to be the favorites until they are eliminated (or unless Tim Duncan gets hurt) but at this point the Rockets are as "legit" as anyone else in the West.

Just as it is important to give credit to the role players on the 2001 Sixers, 2007 Cavs and 2008 Rockets, it is also important to clearly state that McGrady--when healthy--is every bit as talented as Iverson or James. ABC's Mark Jackson said that Houston Coach Rick Adelman told him, "Tracy McGrady is the best passer I've ever seen." Think about that for a moment: Adelman played against Pistol Pete Maravich, coached against Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas and coached Clyde Drexler (5.6 apg in his career, 8.0 apg one season in case you forgot) and Terry Porter. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy, who coached McGrady for three seasons, elaborated about McGrady's passing skills, saying that he is "the second best pick and roll player in the league behind Steve Nash and it's not even close...People see the thing in front of them but he can see to the opposite corner, the opposite wing. His size makes him special. He can pass over the defense."

As for the Lakers, there is no question that this was hardly a vintage performance by Bryant. Still, there were several plays that illustrate how valuable he can be even when he is not shooting well. In the third quarter, Bryant got an assist by feeding DJ Mbenga a lob pass. To call Mbenga "offensively challenged" is an understatement; any assist to him should actually count for two assists in the boxscore. Although Bryant attempted a lot of shots, it was also clear throughout the game that he was trying to involve Mbenga and others in the offense. The problem, as Michael Jordan once put it when he was criticized for not making his teammates better the way that Magic Johnson did, is that it is hard to make chicken salad out of chicken-bleep. Bryant made several great passes to Mbenga, Vladimir Radmanovic and others that sometimes did not even result in shot attempts after the recipient bobbled the ball. After Mbenga mishandled passes from Bryant on consecutive first half possessions, Mark Jackson said, "I understand the unselfishness of Kobe Bryant but those last two plays have to be shot attempts. The Rockets would prefer Mbenga taking shots as opposed to Bryant."

Early in the second quarter, Ronny Turiaf caught a lob from Jordan Farmar and dunked the ball. Van Gundy immediately said, "You know who made that play? Kobe Bryant. He was on the other post and Shane Battier did not want to leave him to come and help. That's where greatness stands out even when you don't have the ball." On the opening possession of the fourth quarter, the Lakers ran a similar play: Farmar dribbled the ball up the court and Bryant flashed into the left block. Farmar passed to Luke Walton, who acted like he was going to feed the ball to Bryant. Instead, Farmar cut off of a back pick set by Turiaf and caught a lob from Walton for an easy hoop. The back side was completely empty because the defense was focused on Bryant.

Plays like those are why I laugh when I hear about how great Bryant's supporting cast is, as if that disqualifies him from winning this year's MVP. Let's not get things twisted here: Steve Nash won two MVPs while playing with All-Stars Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, All-Defensive Team member Raja Bell and perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate Leandro Barbosa. Bryant has spent the past three seasons bereft of any teammates who are All-Stars, All-Defensive Team members or Sixth Man Award candidates. This season, Andrew Bynum emerged as a solid big man and the Lakers vaulted to near the top of the West even before the Gasol trade. Bynum was not even an All-Star, mind you, and there were no other All-Stars in sight on the roster, but just by having a big man who can actually catch the ball, rebound and block some shots Bryant's Lakers became contenders. Then, Bynum got hurt and everyone said that the Lakers' season was over--but the Lakers went 6-5 without Bynum, including road losses at Dallas, San Antonio and Detroit, and they were still in the thick of the playoff hunt even before they acquired Gasol. The Gasol deal was a coup, no doubt about it, not only because of who the Lakers got but also because they did not give up anyone who was a part of their rotation. Gasol is a smart and skilled basketball player who can catch (no small thing considering some of the big men Bryant has played with recently), shoot, pass, rebound and block shots (more so as a weakside defender than a one on one post defender). Still, Gasol has never won a playoff game, he has never made the All-NBA Team and his one and only All-Star appearance took place in 2006--yet as soon as he joined the team the Lakers rapidly moved up in the standings until they claimed the top spot in the West. The Spurs have three All-Stars. The Suns have four players who have made the All-NBA First Team at least once during their careers. The Mavs have the reigning MVP, an All-Star small forward, a sixth man who used to contend for the scoring title and a Hall of Fame point guard. The Nuggets have two of the top five scorers in the league and the Defensive Player of the Year. Yet as soon as Bryant got one player who has made exactly one All-Star team his squad moved past everyone else in the standings. If Bryant can make the Lakers the best team in the West with one one-time All-Star then what would he do if he were paired with at least one perennial All-Star? Oh, wait, we already know the answer to that: win three championships.

When people rave about how well Bryant's supporting cast is playing this year they don't seem to comprehend that Bryant has a lot to do with that success. When those players are on the court with him the defense is tilted toward Bryant. You don't think that teams can stop a Walton to Farmar lob play if the defense is not loaded up toward Bryant? How tough would it be to stop that Farmar to Turiaf lob without Bryant attracting extra defensive attention? If you read the names Odom, Walton, Farmar, Turiaf and Vujacic and you are thinking those guys make the playoffs in the West without Bryant then you are tripping more than Phil Jackson and Bill Walton did in the 1970s.

Before Gasol got hurt, we got a nice reminder of what kind of playmaker Bryant can be when he has a big man who can catch and finish. Bryant was the leading playmaker on those three Lakers championship teams early in this decade and when Gasol came aboard Bryant showed that he is more than willing to take up that role again when he has at least one player who can catch and finish; Bryant seemed positively giddy to be playing with one legit top level player, albeit a player who is at the lower end of the top level (i.e., not even an All-NBA Team caliber performer). The Lakers have a tough stretch of games coming up but Bryant will make sure that they hang tough until Gasol returns--and then we will once again hear about how Bryant should not win the MVP because his supporting cast is so strong, as if anyone in his right mind would trade the non-Bryant portion of the Lakers for the supporting casts of any of the top teams in the West.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 AM

7 comments

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7 Comments:

At Tuesday, March 18, 2008 1:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

mcgrady cant and will not carry the rockets like iverson and james did in 01 and 07 they had no help on those teams and still carried them far even though the conference was weak as hell i dont think the rockets will get out the first round so that is a moot point and when he had a similar team to ai and lebron on orlando how far did they go? they never made it out the first so that argument dont stick this team is similar. the lakers didnt have gasol or bynum so this win is flaud when they come back the lakers are once agiain championship contenders gasol get 20 and 8 odom get 15 and 10 bynum get 13 and 10 and the bench is fifth in the league at 32ppg he does have talent around him more than james got for sure or had going to the finals ai as well.

kobe a great player but for some reason you try to make him better than he is he just doesnt garner the respect you feel he deserves becasue he is not as good as you think he is. you talk as he is on the bird magic jordan level he is not he is somewhat close but still a distnce away from those guys. if you not a fan of kobe no more than any other player why you care how the media treats him if shaq was getting unfair treatment or lebron was getting unfair treatment you wouldnt defend them like that clearly you are a major fan of his you do nuthing but praise him all day and bring him up in every article talk about he is the greatest this and greatest that like he tiger woods or something he great and all but i think you take it way too far, it's your sight you could do what you want my whole thing is keep it real at least admit he is your favirote player why you write about and defend his every move.

 
At Tuesday, March 18, 2008 7:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

As Van Gundy has pointed out before, T-Mac was on the lower seeded (worse) team every time he made the playoffs except for last year. Who, pray tell, on those Orlando teams was the equivalent of Mutombo, McKie, Lynch, etc.?

This Rockets team is in no way similar to T-Mac's Orlando teams. Hello--the Rockets have a 22 game winning streak and they have the best record in the toughest conference. Houston's success is predicated on team defense, sharing the ball on offense and T-Mac's ability to create shots for himself and others. That is the exact formula that the 2001 Sixers and 2007 Cavs used. I'm not saying that Houston is going to win the West but I am saying that the possibility should not be discounted. Even if they don't stay in the top spot they will almost certainly have home court advantage in the first round and this should be the year that T-Mac gets out of the first round--unless Phx stays in the bottom half of the draw and the Rockets have the misfortune of playing them.

Gasol, Odom and Bynum have yet to all be on the court at the same time and I seriously doubt that they will all post those averages when they play together. Kobe had that team in contention in the West in the first half of the season with no All-Stars and Bynum playing decently on a consistent basis for the first time in his career. As soon as the Lakers got one one-time All-Star they zoomed to the top of the standings. The Spurs have three All-Stars (and Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen, etc.). The Suns have four guys who have been All-NBA First Team at some point. The talent on the other top West teams--other than Houston without Yao--is better overall than the talent on the Lakers. Like I said, those Farmar-Turiaf lob passes would not be looking so good without Kobe drawing so much attention from the defense. That is why a smart coach/analyst like Van Gundy mentioned that during the broadcast. I brought it up in the post for the benefit of anyone who did not watch the game or did not pay attention when he mentioned that; this is a very important thing to understand about the dynamics of how a team works. Kobe's playing 39 mpg so at least part of the time that those bench players are on the court he is on the court as well and that helps them to be productive.

I have specifically NOT put Kobe on the MJ-Bird-Magic level. If you read my Pantheon series then you know that I tabbed Kobe, Shaq, Duncan and LeBron as players who may be considered in that light when their careers are over. For the most part here I am strictly comparing Kobe to other active players.

Did you miss it last season during the playoffs when LeBron was unfairly criticized for not taking the last shot and I defended him? Did you miss it when many people said that the Shaq trade was a bad idea for PHX and I said that Shaq makes PHX a dangerous team? In fact, you have an obvious bias toward LeBron, who you have already crowned as someone who will win multiple titles and be crowned as the greatest player of all-time.

Most of what I said about Kobe and T-Mac in this post reacted to and expanded upon comments that Van Gundy and Jackson made during the telecast.

 
At Thursday, March 20, 2008 6:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

houston is too small to do what sixers 01 and houston 07 did man. and mcgrady is no lebron hello david, gooden mike miller was better than mckie and lynch they were just weak role players iverson made look great that year what did they do after iverson? there not contenders there going home early david.

bynum was playing great ball numbers dont tell the story he was a big part of why they are contenders not just kobe and gasol made them contenders for real after they acquired him not just with kobe he is the main reason but not the only reason how you like to always make him kobe wasnt even putting up monster numbers when they zoomed up to the top which shows he has talent around him not like he was putting up 35 a night and they 46-21 chris paul has less around him than kobe does as well.the bullls celtics and lakers wouldnt look so good in 80's and 90's if bird magic and jordan wasnt getting the defensive attention they got the lakers without shaq early 2000's pistons without isiah you can say that if you take away any star off they team and lebron got less around him than kobe as well.


he is NOT on the bird magic jordan level so im glad youre finally admitting that it took some time for you to do that. he could be if he win 2 more championships shaq will be if he win in phoenix this year.

lol i am a fan of lebron and kobe i have no bias toward either. i have crowned him because he will more than likely and has proven so much in a five year career, youre bias toward kobe you try to dimish bird and magic you diminsih the players he plays with no matter what if kobe played with wilt and russell you would still say he as no help. i said chris paul was mvp and lebron should be third you say kobe mvp every year no matter what even though his team won 42 and 45 games and chris paul has less around him putting up monster numbers on a team no body expected anything fromhe put up better number than steve nash had less around him and nash won it twice he should be mvp if his team finish one over lebron and kobe.

most of what you say about kobe tmac and dirk is youre bias toward them thats all i heard the telkecast youre not repeating that.

 
At Friday, March 21, 2008 12:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

I know that Houston has a small team when Dikembe is not in the game but you are missing my main point: the role players on the 01 Sixers and 07 Cavs are underrated, as are the role players on the 08 Rockets. That is why people were surprised by what these teams did. I picked the Cavs to go to the Finals and I said that the Rockets would make the playoffs even without Yao because I understand how good the role players on those teams are.

I like how you say that the numbers don't tell the story for Bynum and then you knock Kobe for not putting up big numbers when the Lakers were winning games. Which is it? Do numbers tell the story or they don't? Kobe drew the defense and passed to Bynum and/or Gasol when those guys were playing. I'd like to see Bynum get those kinds of shots and shoot that kind of percentage consistently without playing alongside Kobe--and it's hilarious to hear Gasol being built up as this all-world player, when he is the same guy who has never won one playoff game and who could not prevent Memphis from being awful this year. Gasol is a nice, solid one-time All-Star whose career has been revitalized by playing with Kobe.

Bird and Magic each had two HoF/Top 50 players (Parish/McHale and Kareem/Worthy). Kobe's got one, one-time All-Star. There is nothing more to be said; either you get it or you don't.

For the last time (and I mean it, because I am not running or responding to any more comments that mention this), it did not take me a long time to say that Kobe is not as good as Bird or Magic or MJ. I defy you to search anywhere on this site and find somewhere that I said that even once. I have said that Kobe is the closest active player to MJ in terms of style/skill set. I may have said that Kobe does certain particular things better than one of those players--but I have never, ever said that Kobe is better than those three players. Just read my Pantheon series--Bird, Magic and MJ are in, Kobe is mentioned with Duncan, Shaq and LeBron as the best of the active players.

I have not "diminished" any of Kobe's teammates; I told the truth about the strengths (few) and weaknesses (many) of Kwame, Smush and the other players who Kobe carried to the playoffs.

One last myth that we are not going to discuss here again: I do not say that Kobe is the MVP "every year." I said that Kobe should have clearly won in 06 and 07 and that he should win this year over LeBron in a close decision. I said that Shaq should have won in 05 and I have never said that Kobe should have won it in any other year, even though one could make a decent case for him in 03.

Van Gundy and Adelman both praised T-Mac's passing ability. Van Gundy said that Ginobili could not have led the Rockets on this streak the way that T-Mac did. Van Gundy said that T-Mac is the second best pick and roll player in the league to Nash. Van Gundy listed T-Mac as an MVP candidate, as did Mark Jackson. Not all of these comments came in this telecast but they all are from telecasts in the past few days. Which games were you watching? Obviously, not the Rockets' games.

 
At Friday, March 21, 2008 10:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

the role players on all 3 teams are okay but the stars are diffrent iversobn had by far his best season of his career scoreing 40 and 50 alot for them to win lebron had to score 48 for them to beat detroit, i dont knoiw if t mac has it in them like skip bayless say him and dirk disappear alot when you absouloutey need a basket that wasnt the case with ai and lebron.

the numbers dont tell the story for bynum his defensive presence and gasol offensive presence and defensive are key for the lakers growth. i said kobe is not putting up 35 points a game and there 47-21 he has alot of help around him it's not about one guy it's collectively this is a very good team if they werent they wouldnt be winning kobe had less around him in then in the past and when he did they won 42 and 45 games.

who said this team was better than bird and magic teams i never said that i pointed out they made the game easier for the players they played with like kobe does his. gasol, won 50 games twice and averaged 20 and 8 so he was great with memphis they played agianst better teams each time is why they never won but he great with or without kobe he makes this impact if he go anywhere as barkley been saying.


bird magic jordan way better enough about that. kobe hasnt won in a while anyway im talking about bynum gasol and the laker bench youre trying to diminish as no good i know parker and kwame arent good you trying to spin what i say as you always do.

mvp has nuthing to do with best player it is a team win and impact award if you dont win 55 plus you dont win the award they set the precendent for that years ago if it was about best player kobe should win the last two yearsl ebron this year it but it is not.

t mac is a great player and i know he better than giniibli but not lkebron or kobe been my point i heard what they said about the pick and roll and they take him over giniobili whats your point.

 
At Saturday, March 22, 2008 4:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

Since you are a "LeBron guy" I'm surprised that you would take seriously anything that Bayless says. He always calls Lebron "Prince James." Bayless praises Kobe a lot so I suppose you must think that I would be impressed by him but I don't think that he understands that much about the NBA game.

I have not said anything bad about Bynum, Gasol or the Lakers' role players. My point is that all of them are dependent on Kobe for a lot of their success. Gasol was not some superstar before he came to L.A. He's never won a playoff game or made the All-NBA Team. Bynum has one solid half-season under his belt. Put it this way: imagine that Kobe had missed as many games as Bynum has missed. What do you think the Lakers' record would be?

Kobe is smart enough to understand that he does not have to try to score against double teams now because he has guys who can catch and finish. Do you think that he is not capable of averaging 35 ppg now? That is why I evaluate players based on skill set, not solely on stats or won-loss record. I understand that the media MVP voters do things differently but that does not mean that they are right.

Your "case" for Paul to be MVP over Kobe (which you argued in a different thread) is really very flawed when you consider how many games Gasol and Bynum have played versus how many games West and Chandler have played. Even if NO does finish one game ahead of L.A., Kobe still has had a better season than Paul even by the standard that you are using: Kobe has done more with less to make his team a winner, because he and the Lakers have had to withstand injuries to key guys while the Hornets have been healthy this season. For comparison's sake, when both teams had injury problems last year, Kobe carried the Lakers into the playoffs but Paul's Hornets did not make it. Yes, that was last season and does not have a direct bearing on this year's MVP race, but it is a useful comparison to keep in mind if you are basing your MVP vote on which player has a greater impact on his team winning games. Kobe had a greater impact than Paul last year and he has had a greater impact than Paul this year.

 
At Sunday, March 23, 2008 1:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

i know the lakers need kobe more than bynum and gasol i dont know who said bynum and gasol was more important than kobe that is not true. but they wouldd not be nearly as good without him they be where sacramento is right now like 31 wins not 48 wins they wouldnt be in contention or anything i know that but without bynum and gasol there not relevant either because they have no big guys in the west gasol was very good without kobe and bynum showed some signs but all star players impact role and other players on team.

i said he doesnt have too because he has players around him now he has a very good supporting cast of players i think he still could put up those numbers. paul is mvp to me or a canidate because nobody expected them to be as good they been number 1 in west west has been out a few games but they been relatively healthy i go by the mvp criteria he put up close to 55 wins i think they will they got 47 now they beat boston and he has more impact on his team than any other player take him away there no good especially this year last year he wasnt as good as he is now he lead league in asists and steals almost 4 a night in steals and steal get 21 a game to go with 11 asists nash won mvp with 15 11 and 18 11 on a better team talent wise than his. there probably going to give it to kobe even if the hornets finish ahead of lakers kobe has more credientials than paul and has had mvp caliber years but not enough wins in the past. to me james is the best player but is disqualified because not enough wins most have kobe either ahead james or vice versa hell win it which i wont have a problem with paul should get more consideration is my point.

yeah we agree on something skip bayless is a joke especially his critcism on lebron calling him prince james and saying the cavs have a great supporting cast and are better without james. why does espn pay this man is my question to me he is makeing a name for himself by hateing on lebron for no reason and they give him credibilty on cold pizza like he knows the game when he doesnt. thats where i got team obliterator form because he doesnt like terrell owens either even if T O or lebron have a great game he nitpicks the bad points to try to tear the game down. matter of fact he doesnt like tiger woods either saying he is the greatest front runner ever lol tiger is the most clutch athlete ever when he needs a big putt he always makes it. he praises kobe saying he a way better shooter than jordan ever was but says he doesnt trust his intangibles as a player. but he has always says kobe had more physical talent than jordan, but i agree he is a joke he doesnt know much about nba at all and he says he watches the games all the time you might thought he learn something by now.

 

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