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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Flipping the Script: Murray's Double Double Helps Pacers to Shoot Down the Hawks

The Indiana Pacers are not dead yet. The Atlanta Hawks visited Conseco Fieldhouse on Tuesday with a chance to eliminate the Pacers from postseason contention and all but clinch the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference but Indiana built a 29 point lead en route to a 112-98 victory. Mike Dunleavy led the Pacers with 28 points and recently signed guard Flip Murray had 20 points and 10 assists, shooting 7-11 from the field. Danny Granger added 16 points and eight rebounds, while Marquis Daniels provided a lift off of the bench with 15 points, many of them the result of sharp cuts to the basket that led to dunks or strong finishes at the rim. The Pacers' medical staff has capped Jermaine O'Neal's playing time at 20 minutes per game while he recovers from a knee injury; he contributed 10 points, four rebounds and four blocked shots in 19 minutes of action. All-Star Joe Johnson, who just earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week and Player of the Month honors, led Atlanta with 30 points but they were the proverbial "quiet" 30: he only had 11 points at halftime when the Hawks already trailed by 15 and he accumulated most of his points with Atlanta trailing by significant margins in the second half. Johnson also had six rebounds and a team-high four assists. Josh Smith had 25 points and 13 rebounds but his performance was uneven: he shot just 7-18 from the field, with most of his makes either dunks or layups, and he lost his cool in the third quarter, picking up a technical foul and a flagrant foul in rapid succession.

Atlanta got off to a good start, taking a 20-14 lead after an 8-2 run that included a thunderous fast break jam by Smith, a fast break layup by Johnson and a dunk by rookie Al Horford. The Pacers called a timeout at the 6:32 mark and then closed the quarter with a 24-7 run. The Hawks never got closer than seven points the rest of the way, spent a substantial period of time behind by more than 20 points and trailed by at least 10 points for the entire second half.

I had really hoped to focus my attention on a couple players: Horford and Mike Bibby. Watching a player in person is a lot different than seeing him on TV. However, this game did not accurately represent what either player has provided to the Hawks this season. Bibby never got into a good rhythm, missing all eight of his field goal attempts and playing just 6:51 in the second half; he has played a key role in Atlanta's push for a playoff berth (see Notes From Courtside for Atlanta Coach Mike Woodson's take on his contributions). Horford is a dark horse candidate for Rookie of the Year honors because he is nearly averaging a double double for a team that is in playoff contention but on this night he got into early foul trouble and played less than 20 minutes, finishing with four points and five rebounds. Three positive things that stand out about Horford are that he aggressively pursues every rebound, he sets solid screens for his guards and he is very mobile, sliding his feet well defensively. One negative is that when he catches the ball outside of the paint he seems tentative and uncertain. Once he caught the ball at the top of the key and had an open driving path in front of him. He hesitated, took one dribble and then fired a jumper that missed. At the next stoppage of play, Woodson gestured to Horford to indicate that he should have driven all the way to the hoop.

In his postgame standup, Woodson summarized his team's problems in this game very simply: "Unfortunately, we have to play four quarters but we only played one quarter tonight. I thought we came out ready to play and by the first timeout we were up 20-14. Then they made a big-time run and we just never recovered. We just have to bounce back and put this one behind us. It was a tough loss tonight...We didn't have any kind of defensive presence. When you are trying to make the playoffs you better play defense and rebound the ball to give yourself a chance to win."

Smith said, "It's definitely frustrating. We've been playing hard of late as a unit. Tonight our defensive effort was not up to par and that is what caused us to lose the game."

Of course, Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien was pleased with his team's performance in a de facto elimination game: "We defended well and when we kept them off the glass we kept the tempo where we wanted it. We're playing defense more consistently when the game is on the line and I think we moved the basketball." O'Brien singled Murray out for praise: "He played in command of his game and our tempo. Twenty points and 10 assists in 30 minutes is terrific." Tempo is a key theme for O'Brien. He wants the Pacers to defend well, get the rebound, push the ball and take the first open shot; prior to Indiana's second game of the season, O'Brien said, "You tell each individual during practice one time after he passes up a shot that if ever he does it again you'll yank him. They immediately know that we want them to take open shots. We don't want any surprises. If you get open and you're a shooter, shoot the basketball. If you pass up an open shot early in the shot clock then all of a sudden you're up against the end of the shot clock struggling to get a good shot." This is essentially the same approach that Mike D'Antoni preaches in Phoenix, only D'Antoni has a much more talented group of players at his disposal. I think that the excellent job that O'Brien has done coaching a talent depleted and injury riddled Pacers team has been overlooked by many people. O'Brien is a very good coach, he has taken multiple franchises to the playoffs and given enough time and talent he will do the same thing in Indiana.

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

The race for the eighth playoff spot in the East apparently has not captivated a large audience. Conseco Fieldhouse was barely half full and media coverage of the game was sparse. Coach Woodson's pregame standup basically turned into a one on one sitdown with me (there was only one other reporter present, an Atlanta TV guy who asked a couple questions). I took advantage of this opportunity to find out Coach Woodson's thoughts on a number of subjects:

Friedman: "What has pleased you the most about Al Horford's performance this season?"

Woodson: "I mean, for a rookie to come in and play like he has played and really never hit a wall--most rookies hit a wall after so many games and you have to kind of regroup them and get them going again. He obviously was well coached in college and truly prepared when he came into our league. I'm proud and so impressed with what he has done as an undersized center. He should be playing forward but I've been playing him at center. I'm just proud."

Friedman: "What one area would you most like for him to improve going into next season? Everyone talks about how important it is for a player to work on something in the offseason and come back the next season with something new to add to his game."

Woodson: "Being a more dominant scorer on the block, without a doubt. He will be a guy we will look toward for dominance inside and scoring. Probably to position himself to block more shots, although he's pretty good defensively now in terms of help side and on the ball defense and covering up for some of the mistakes that our guys make on defense. But, no question, we have to develop his low post game in terms of scoring the ball more consistently."

Friedman: "Talk about the impact that Mike Bibby has had as you've made a playoff push. In what specific ways has he affected the team?"

Woodson: "Just from a veteran leadership standpoint. I had not had a legitimate point guard until Bibby came here. I'm not taking anything away from (Tyron) Lue and Anthony Johnson because I respect and appreciate them working for us. They were great pros but Mike is a unique point guard who ran a team in Sacramento for many years. They made the playoffs. He's a quarterback. He knows how to run a team. He's starting to round into better shape. When we got him he wasn't in great shape. Our players love playing with him because they know if they get out and run he'll throw them the ball. He's great in pick and roll basketball and he makes big shots."

Friedman: "The MVP race is a big topic of conversation around the league. Obviously, it's voted on by the media, not by the coaches, but if you had a vote who would be your top three and what would be the reasons for each person you would put in there?"

Woodson: "You've got to look at Kobe being at the top. Chris Paul has had a great, great season as well but the fact that Kobe hasn't won it and his Lakers team is right there says a lot. I just think that Kobe is a phenomenal player. I think Chris Paul is great, too. Those are the only two I look at right now, though you could put LeBron James in that picture as well. I think (I would rank them) in that order: Kobe one, Paul two and LeBron three. Why? Their teams are winning. They (Bryant and Paul) are really dominating in the West; they are right there with San Antonio. And LeBron has done so much for Cleveland; when he is on the floor, good things happen for their team. But, again, I still think that Kobe is the front runner."

Friedman: "Do you recall--either in your playing days or your time as a coach--seeing anything like this playoff race out West? Not just that it is so close, but that all of the teams have good records."

Woodson: "No. I never have seen that. A lot of those teams are going to win 50-plus games and somebody is not going to make the playoffs. That is unheard of. It just shows you the parity out there; they can't afford to slip up. Over here in the East if you play .500 ball you've got a chance."

Friedman: "Obviously it's a close race but if you had to guess who do you think is going to be in the Western Conference Finals?"

Woodson: "Until San Antonio is dethroned they are the front runners. That is how I look at it. I think that with what Pop (Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich) has done--as long as Duncan is in the league, he's a master at getting guys to play around him."

Friedman: "There is some talk about Ginobili or Parker being the most valuable player on that team but don't you think that is a little deceptive because everything they do is built around Duncan?"

Woodson: "Tim Duncan is that team's MVP. However you cut it, if you take Tim out of the mix they will definitely struggle. Tim Duncan has been a dominant force in our league for a long time."

Friedman: "Do you think that now that Phoenix has Shaq providing a low post presence that they will match up better in a playoff situation with San Antonio or Utah, teams that might have given them trouble in the past?"

Woodson: "It didn't hurt Phoenix bringing Shaq over. Don't get that twisted. Shaq is still a dominant force in our league. I wish I had him on my team, really. He's won. You can't question anything about Shaquille O'Neal--nothing. He's been a dominant force for a long time and he's won. I think that was a great pickup and anything can happen in a seven game series."

As the media availability session ended, there was only time for one more question, so I asked Coach Woodson about the delicate balancing act that is involved with winning these last games to get the eighth playoff spot but also trying to prepare in some fashion to face Boston in a first round playoff series. Woodson explained that his focus is very narrow at the moment: "Right now, the Pacers are the team we are trying to beat tonight and it has nothing to do with Boston (or playing) New York on Friday--none of those things mean anything to me. The Pacers are the only team that is standing in our way. I just hope that our guys come out and respond and feel the same way."

***

Prior to the game, Hawks Assistant Coach Alton Lister--a 7-0 center who played 953 games in his 16 season NBA career-- worked with Zaza Pachulia on low post moves and footwork. A major focus was how to execute an inside pivot move from the left block, followed up by a jab step and then either shooting a jumper or driving to the hoop. It was almost like practicing a dance routine: rotate your hips this way, step here, keep that foot down, maintain your balance. Each part of the move is important in isolation and must be executed with precision in order to manipulate the defender the desired way. Lister also demonstrated how to subtly use your shoulder and body mass to nudge the defender off balance. Former Pacers great--and current Pacers Director of Player Personnel--has told me on many occasions that big men should be coached by other big men who played center or power forward and thus know firsthand exactly what it takes to play inside in the NBA. Watching Lister and Pachulia, one could see the advantage of having a like-size person instructing Pachulia, someone who could body up to him as a defender or demonstrate certain moves while Pachulia acted as a defender; I agree with Daniels that it would be more difficult to do that kind of hands on training as a much smaller person, though I don't agree with Daniels that there are not any smaller people who are qualified to do this type of coaching.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:35 AM

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