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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bryant Lifts Lakers to Within One Win of Returning to the NBA Finals

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers in scoring (28 points) and rebounds (10) as they beat the San Antonio Spurs 93-91 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals. He scored eight points on 4-4 field goal shooting as the Lakers raced out to a 22-8 first quarter advantage and he contributed six of the Lakers' 16 fourth quarter points, helping them to build up a big enough margin to hold off a late comeback attempt by the defending champions. Lamar Odom bounced back nicely from a subpar game three to post 16 points and nine rebounds. Pau Gasol did not score much (10 points, eight of them coming in the first half) but he added 10 rebounds and six assists. Tim Duncan had game-high totals in points (29) and rebounds (17) but he shot just 10-26 from the field. Tony Parker contributed 23 points and nine assists while committing just one turnover. Manu Ginobili was not only ineffective--seven points on 2-8 shooting, six assists, one rebound--he was largely invisible during his 36 minutes of playing time. Brent Barry picked up the slack for Ginobili with 23 points, including five three pointers. This Lakers' victory snapped San Antonio's 13 game winning streak in home playoff games.

The Lakers held the Spurs to 30-75 (.400) field goal shooting and outrebounded them 46-37. Bryant's impact was felt on the boards as he not only tied Gasol for the team lead but he had twice as many rebounds as every Spur not named Duncan. So how did the Spurs keep the game close? They took care of the ball (committing just eight turnovers) and made 24 out of 26 free throw attempts. Bryant attempted no free throws in this game after shooting just one free throw in game three; he has only shot six free throws in the entire series. This comes on the heels of a series against Utah in which he never attempted less than 10 free throws in a game and he averaged 16 free throw attempts a game. The Jazz foul more than any other team and the Spurs emphasize defending without fouling but those numbers are still bizarre; it's not like Bryant has become passive offensively; he shot 14-29 from the field. After the game, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson drily said, "It's pretty impossible to take 29 shots and not be fouled. Tonight was one of those exceptions, I guess."

It is true that a lot of Bryant's points are coming on jumpers but I disagree slightly with the idea that the Spurs are "giving" Bryant the jumper. It is more precise to say that the Spurs are trying to deny Bryant the opportunity to drive and then contesting his jump shots; that is why Tim Duncan trapped Bryant very aggressively early in the series when Bryant ran screen/roll plays, something that Duncan did not do versus LeBron James in last year's NBA Finals. This series vividly demonstrates just how much better Bryant is than James; one NBA scout (see Postscript below) says "The difference between him and LeBron is like (the one between) a Maserati and a Volvo." Specifically, one difference is that Bryant has a deadly jump shot, so even in a game when his forays to the hoops were limited and he shot no free throws he still had a major impact by hitting jumper after jumper against perhaps the best perimeter defender in the NBA, Bruce Bowen. I have repeatedly said that the Spurs' defense that shut down James would never work against Bryant and it is quite obvious now that I was correct about that: Bryant is shooting 48-90 (.533) from the field against the Spurs, with his primary weapon in this series being the midrange jumper--the same shot that James missed at an alarming rate not only versus the Spurs but also against the Celtics in this year's playoffs.

Bryant's efficiency has simply been off the charts, even by his standards. The Spurs have no answers for Bryant's ability to make shots from anywhere on the court and whenever they double-team him he spoonfeeds Gasol and Odom for dunks or he swings the ball to perimeter players for wide open shots. The Spurs are now trying a little bit of the Chris Paul treatment--guard him one on one, stay tight on everyone else--but the wrinkle that stymied Paul and his New Orleans Hornets does not work against Bryant because he continues to shoot so well and he has no qualms about shooting a high volume of shots. Unlike James, who piled up turnovers by repeatedly forcing passes against the Spurs and the Celtics, Bryant understands that when he is the open man he has to knock down shots; it is not unselfish to pass the ball when you are open and the player you are passing to is well defended. Bryant had just one assist in game four and the Lakers only had 17 assists as a team but none of that matters--Bryant has proven that when he is double-teamed he will not only give up the ball but that he will make a play, a pass that leads to an easy score. In this game, Bryant was the open man and the ball movement that he facilitated primarily consisted of putting the ball into the hoop. Also, in light of my recent analysis of the faulty scorekeeping regarding Chris Paul's assists, it is worth noting that Bryant made several passes that would be scored as assists for Paul; for instance, at the 9:36 mark of the first quarter, Bryant drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and passed to Vladimir Radmanovic, who took one escape dribble and made a jumper. Bryant did not get credited with an assist but Paul was awarded several assists on plays like that in the game footage that I analyzed. The NBA really needs to zealously enforce one universal standard for assists.

In Bryant's scoring burst during the first quarter, he made three jump shots and one fastbreak layup. The Lakers crisply executed their offense, seemingly grabbed every rebound and loose ball and played defense with tremendous energy but also with good attention to detail in terms of making proper rotations. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich burned two timeouts to try to settle his team down but in both cases they turned the ball over on the ensuing possession. However, the Spurs eventually settled down, closing the quarter on a 15-6 run. The Spurs shot 6-6 from the free throw line in the final 4:23 of the quarter, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Jackson, who offered this response when TNT's Craig Sager asked why the Lakers had not been able to maintain their early lead: "You want me to be honest with you? The guys with the whistles. They (the Spurs) went to the foul line on some inconsequential fouls and that got them back in the ballgame."

Jackson took advantage of the Lakers' lead to rest Bryant for nearly the first four minutes of the second quarter. By the time he returned to action the reserves had increased the Lakers' lead to nine. The Lakers briefly went up by 10 but the Spurs went on a 12-2 run to tie the score at 43. After the teams traded baskets, the Lakers closed the quarter out with an 8-2 run that included a couple Bryant jumpers. The third quarter was very much a nip and tuck affair, with the Lakers building an eight point lead only to have the Spurs quickly tie the game again. The Lakers closed the quarter with a 6-0 run to lead 77-70 going into the fourth quarter.

Bryant sat out the start of the fourth quarter as he typically does, but he had only rested for two minutes before he came back in the game with the lead slashed to 77-75. He immediately hit back to back jumpers to stabilize matters and put the Lakers up, 81-77. Neither team scored for more than two minutes after that until Ginobili made a jumper. Then the Lakers went on a 7-0 run with Odom providing five of the points and Bryant seemingly icing the game with a fast break dunk. However, the Spurs had one final run left: Barry made a three pointer, Duncan and Parker scored layups and after Gasol missed two free throws Ginobili knocked down a three pointer to make the score 93-89 Lakers with :42 remaining.

At that point, Bryant committed a gaffe, driving all the way to the hoop instead of pulling the ball out and forcing the Spurs to foul. Bryant later said that he thought that he had a clear lane but he ended up missing a contested shot and Parker almost immediately scored a layup to pull the Spurs to within two points with :28 left. San Antonio had gone from being dead in the water to only needing one stop and one three pointer to win the game. The Lakers ran down most of the time on the 24 second shot clock before Derek Fisher missed a jumper. The ball clearly hit the rim before bouncing off of Robert Horry and going out of bounds but the officials ruled that the ball had not hit the rim, which meant that the shot clock would not be reset. Instead of being able to hold the ball and wait for the Spurs to foul, the Lakers had to inbound quickly and try to beat the clock. Bryant missed a fadeaway jumper and the Spurs called timeout to advance the ball and set up their final shot of the game. Even if you did not watch the game you have probably seen/heard about what happened next. Barry received the pass, traveled (which was not called) and then leaned forward, which resulted in contact between Barry and Fisher. Barry then fired a shot that was not even close. Did Fisher commit a foul? It depends who you ask. If you are a Spurs fan, then you definitely think it was a foul. If you are a Lakers fan, then you definitely think that it was not a foul, that Barry traveled first anyway and that if not for the blown call seconds earlier none of this would have happened anyway. The reality is that depending on who is officiating the game and which players are involved that play could be a no-call, a defensive foul or even an offensive foul. The offensive player is supposed to go straight up, not "invade" the defender's space, though he is rarely punished for doing so. I hate plays in which an offensive player makes a fake, the defender jumps and the offensive player throws himself into a defender who is doing the best he can to avoid contact; I have always thought that this should be called an offensive foul.

As for the play in question, I think that a no-call is the best call but I have seen defensive players be whistled for far less contact. Again, just like with the scorekeeping for assists, it would be nice if these calls were made in a consistent manner--and if the NBA would not pretend to be oblivious to all the discussion about such plays and actually issue a statement giving its official perspective on what happened. I will never forget Scottie Pippen's "foul" against Hubert Davis in game five of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals; still photos showed that Pippen's hand was not even close to Davis' by the time the ball was long gone, yet Pippen was whistled for a foul by Hue Hollins and Davis calmly sank the winning free throws. If that was a foul then what Fisher did certainly is a foul but Darell Garretson--Hollins' partner that day who later became the chief of officials--frankly admitted a few months after the game that it was a horrible call. Ronnie Nunn used to do an excellent job of breaking down the game from a referee's perspective in his short lived show on NBA TV and it would be great to see him or someone from the NBA go on TV and give a definitive answer about the Fisher call, whether the league thinks that it was right or thinks that the officials missed the call.

Popovich said that if he were the referee he would not call a foul on such play, while Jackson conceded that there was contact but agreed with the no-call. Barry said that it was not a foul, though his initial on court reaction was a bit different. Fisher explained that he thought he had maintained his verticality and Bryant scoffed at the very question, saying that with everything the referees let go that could not be deemed to be a foul.

As for the ebb and flow of the game after the Lakers' quick start, Jackson said, "We responded every time that they came in and tied the ballgame. Most of it was Kobe responding to it." Odom echoed those sentiments: "There's something Kobe has that even some of the great ones don't have. It's just like he can will the ball into the basket." Odom calls Bryant "Kobe-Wan Kenobi." Keeping with the Star Wars theme, Bryant has admiringly called Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter "Yoda." In that same interview, Bryant said, "He actually teaches momentums--how to build momentums and how to break momentums." In the first half of game one of this series, Bryant got his teammates involved and calmly assessed the Spurs' defensive scheme--and then in the second half he scored 25 points and rallied the Lakers to victory from a 20 point deficit. That is a truly remarkable accomplishment but he did a similar thing, albeit less dramatically, in game four; Bryant's 28 points came in several staccato-like outbursts that either began a Lakers' run or quelled a Spurs' run. Bryant has become a Jedi Master at building his own team's momentum and breaking the opposing team's momentum.

I read and heard a lot of nonsense by various pundits early in the playoffs on the subject of whether or not it was too late to change their MVP votes and select Paul; in that vein, is it too late to go back and make Bryant the unanimous choice for MVP? Bryant is so obviously the best player in the game that only the foolish or the obstinate would try to argue otherwise. The one alleged flaw in Bryant's game was that he supposedly did not make his teammates better--although I'm still waiting to see another star lead a team to the playoffs twice with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker as starters--but now Bryant is the undisputed leader of the team that won the regular season Western Conference race and is one victory away from returning to the NBA Finals.


Sports Illustrated's
Chris Ballard just wrote a wonderful article that provides some insight into just how driven Bryant really is to be the best and to perfect his game. This article was published before game four was played but it gives some great context to how Bryant has not only elevated his game but brought his team to the brink of the fourth championship of his career. Here is an excerpt:

He unveils a spin move or a crossover or something else he has picked up watching tape and does it over and over and over. "The crazy thing about it is, he has the ability to put new elements in his game overnight," says (Devean) George, a Laker from 1999 to 2006 and a frequent target of Kobe's requests. "He might say, 'Stay after and guard this move. Let me try it on you,' and he'll do it the next day in the game." George pauses to let this sink in. "Most of us, we'll try it alone, then we'll try it in practice, then in a scrimmage, and only then will we bring it out for a game. He'd do it the next day--and it would work."

It's 2003, and Bryant is getting worked up in an interview while talking about a variation on a move: a jab step-and-pause, where you sink deep, hesitate to let the defender relax and, instead of bringing the jab foot back, push off it. Soon enough, Bryant is out of his chair and using the reporter as a defender on the carpeted floor. Then he has the reporter trying the move. Some people are
Star Wars nerds; Bryant is a basketball nerd. "I think Kobe's actually a little bit embarrassed by his love of basketball," says (Gregg) Downer (Bryant's high school coach). "People called him a loner, but it's just that basketball is all he wants to focus on. I think he's part of a dying breed that loves the game that way."

That's why Bryant gets so excited to meet kindred souls. Asked last week about Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Bryant's face lit up as he remembered the time he played for Pop. "I was really hoping he'd run us through one of those rigorous practices he does," said Bryant, who got his wish. By the way, Kobe was talking about practice for the '05 All-Star Game.

Now it's 2008, the Western Conference finals. Bryant is finally where he wants to be: an MVP playing on his team, no behemoth Hall of Famer to get in the way of post-ups, within reach of a title. He is also, by almost all accounts, the best player in the league. "It's not even close," says one Western Conference scout. "The difference between him and LeBron [James] is like [the one between] a Maserati and a Volvo."

The scout has other things to say about Bryant. For example, on his weaknesses: "Um, let me think . . . (long pause) . . . No, I don't think he has any." On his athleticism: "There are probably 10 (with more) in the league"--he names Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith, Dwight Howard and J.R. Smith as examples--"but no one uses his as well as Kobe. Just watch his footwork sometime." And on his focus: "There's a difference between loving basketball and liking basketball. There are only about 30 guys in the league who love it, who play year-round. Allen Iverson loves to play when the lights come on. Kobe loves doing the s--- before the lights come on."

This thing, this freakish compulsion, may be the hardest element of the game to quantify. There are no plus-minus stats to measure a player's ruthlessness, his desire to beat his opponent so badly he'll need therapy to recover. One thing's for sure: You can't teach it. If so, Eddy Curry would be All-NBA and Derrick Coleman would be getting ready for his induction ceremony in Springfield, Mass. But people know it when they see it. G.M.'s, coaches and scouts cite only a few others who have a similar drive--Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginóbili, Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Deron Williams--though they make clear that none of those stars are in Kobe's league. (In an SI poll earlier this season Bryant was a runaway winner as the opponent players feared most, at 35%.)

Even some of the great ones lacked it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that when he was young, rather than challenging everyone as Kobe does, he "just wanted peace." "I think it's a quirk of personality," says Abdul-Jabbar. "Some of us are like Napoleon, and some are Walter Mitty."

Idan Ravin, a personal trainer who works with Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas and Elton Brand and is known by some in the league as "the hoops whisperer" for his effect on players, has even broken killer instinct down into components: love of the game, ambition, obsessive-compulsive behavior, arrogance/confidence, selfishness and nonculpability/ guiltlessness. He sees them all in Bryant.

"If he's a ruthless s.o.b., I kind of respect that," says Ravin. "Why should he be passing up opportunities? Why pass it to a guy who doesn't work as hard, who doesn't want it like you do?"

So, you see, this is Kobe, all of this. Sometimes childish, sometimes regal, sometimes stubborn, always relentless. This is a guy who, according to Nike spokesperson KeJuan Wilkins, had the company shave a couple of millimeters off the bottom of his signature shoe because "in his mind that gave him a hundredth of a second better reaction time." A guy who has played the last three months with a torn ligament in the pinkie of his shooting hand. A guy who, says teammate Coby Karl, considers himself "an expert at fouling without getting called for it." (Watch how Bryant uses the back of his hand, not the front, to push off on defenders and a closed-fist forearm to exert leverage.) A guy who says of being guarded by the physical Bowen, "It'll be fun" -- and actually means it. A guy who, no matter what he does, will never get the chance to play the one game he'd die for: Bryant versus Jordan, each in his prime. "There'd be blood on the floor by the end," says Winter, who has coached them both.

This is Kobe Bryant, age 29, in pursuit of his fourth NBA title. Even if it's hard for us to understand him, perhaps it's time that we appreciate him.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:34 AM



At Wednesday, May 28, 2008 12:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot believe you write that it's a foul depending on who's officiating. You just lost a lot of credit to me by being too partial. I still agree that the no-call is ok, but only as a compensation to the mistake the refs just made on the fisher shot before. So clearly, the spurs deserved to lose, and would have lost all things being equal.
But it's different to say that than sying than mayb it wasn't a foul, when clearly it was one. Fisher doesn't jump vertically but forward, and Barry doesn't travel, at least not by NBA standards - or if he does, then Bryant does all the time.

At Wednesday, May 28, 2008 5:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You misunderstood what I wrote. All I am saying is that in some situations (game/time/score) some officials would have called that a foul and some officials would not. If you have watched enough NBA basketball then you know that to be the case; Chauncey Billups, Ginobili, even Kobe himself have all drawn this type of foul as the offensive player, usually with more contact but sometimes with roughly the same amount as occurred on this play. Clearly, this particular crew in this particular game decided not to call a foul. I have seen fouls called on similar plays when less contact was made.

Refs are not perfect, just like players and coaches are not perfect. As I stated in the post, I would prefer in general that plays like the Barry/Fisher one be no-calls or offensive fouls unless the defender clearly and obviously jumps right into a shooter who is in his normal shooting motion--and no, I don't like this play when Kobe is the shooter any more than when anyone else is. I didn't like it when Reggie Miller would stick his leg out to "draw" a foul. Frankly, this kind of play is dangerous and I'm surprised that it has not led to more injuries. The Barry/Fisher contact was mild for these kind of plays, so a no-call is OK by me.

Fisher may not have jumped perfectly up and down but when the two made contact Barry was not straight up and down, either--he was bent over slightly, leaning forward, so Fisher could not land at the same point from which he took off.

Barry established his right foot as his pivot foot and he picked it up before he put the ball on the floor. That is a travel. Whether or not other players may have also gotten away with traveling at different times does not change that fact--and I have seen Kobe, LeBron and many other players be whistled for that particular type of travel in this year's playoffs. Ronnie Nunn once explained why refs sometimes miss that call, particularly in cases like this one where it may not be as obvious to the naked eye: refs are taught to officiate the defender, so they spend more time looking at him than watching the offensive player's footwork. That said, if each of the three officials is positioned correctly then hopefully one can see a travel while the other two are looking for different violations and/or fouls.

Don't you think that it is significant that neither Popovich nor Barry said that a foul should have been called?

At Wednesday, May 28, 2008 6:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

- mike

Great stuff. ...as always.

Kobe does that "pump fake, get the defender up in the air, lean into him so that he fouls you, and shoot" a ton. I, personally, just think it's smart. It's the defenders fault for buying the pump fake, and jumping up in the air. If he goes straight up, i can see an argument for the offensive player getting in the "defenders space", but if he jumps forward, i have no problem with the offensive player leaning into him so that he fouls him.

By the way, Ginobili's "3" was a 2. He had a foot on the line, so the Lakers should've had a 3 point lead, and then had been inbounding the ball with (almost) 6 seconds left with no potential shot-clock violation, forcing the Spurs to likely foul Bryant and he undoubtedly would've made at least one of the two (making it a 3 or 4 or 4 or 5 point lead depending on whether the Ginobili "3" had been correctly called).

The Barry "foul" would've only counted as 2 shots, and the refs, like you said, hate to decide games on a call like that. See last year's finals, game 3, Lebron gets fouled by Bowen just before he takes a 3, but it doesn't get called.

Not to mention the Parker layup was very arguable as a "goaltend". Here's a video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvQFQoTOPQ8 (also has the Ginobili "3".

Lamar pretty clearly blocks it into the backboard before it goes back into his hand. Not a goaltend.

Anyway.. Could you believe the Duncan travel that wasn't called at the end of the 1st? He took 4 to 4 and a half steps before he took off. It was absolutely hilarious.

It's a shame the game had to end like that, and that now places like ESPN make it out as if the Spurs got screwed, when the truth is, we were/are the better team and deserved the game...

At Wednesday, May 28, 2008 7:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The "pump fake and lean" move is smart because of the way that the game is called but I would like to see the rule/interpretation changed. If a defender maintains his verticality he should not be called for a foul (assuming of course that he does not swipe down with his hands/arms).

It looks like you are right about Ginobili's "3," though it is hard to tell from the angle that I saw on TNT.

You are right that Duncan took a lot of steps on the move that you mentioned. The refs are calling traveling more than they used to but sometimes they miss some ones that are obvious to the rest of us because they are trained to spend more time looking at what the defender is doing.

I give the Spurs a lot of credit for their grit/poise because the Lakers outplayed them for most of the game and yet the Spurs still maneuvered themselves into position to have a chance to win at the end. A team that is less focused/mentally tough would have lost that game by 10 or more points.

At Wednesday, May 28, 2008 10:29:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I'm basically convinced now that the Lakers are for real. I really liked the defense and quickness to rebounds and loose balls.

I think the series is basically over now. Unless Ginobili miraculously heals, or Duncan and Parker both have epic games, I think the Lakers will win comfortable in Game 5.

David, I'm wondering why people care about how obsessive-compulsive or driven or or confident or ruthless a player is. There appears to be some sort of belief that having these qualities makes a player superior. Shouldn't a player's performance on the court be the only thing that matters? If player X is better than player Y, then it doesn't matter how obsessed player Y is about basketball and how much player X would be happy doing something else. People like to have romanticized views of the top people in any field (like basketball, or mathematics) as "crazy" or "obsessed" genius types, perhaps because it elevates the field to a mythical level. It just doesn't sound as cool if the best people in a field love and enjoy what they are doing, but aren't obsessive freaks about it. No one likes to think that a player having outside interests or being a nice to teammates can help him focus on basketball and play his best because it doesn't paint the "obsessive" image which we find more captivating.

I don't know what question Kareem was responding to in the SI article, but it appears as if his quote may have been taken out of context. I don't think one can deny Kareem's personal drive for excellence, no matter how much he enjoyed other things or how much he didn't act like a jerk towards teammates in the name of winning. Playing at a very high level into your 40s (with no retirements in between) shows quite a drive and commitment, and being possibly the greatest player ever and coaching at low-level positions for little or no pay demonstrates quite a bit of love for the game. But that probably doesn't make for as interesting an article as one filled with anecdotes painting a picture of a "crazy, obsessed genius".

At Thursday, May 29, 2008 12:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Spurs lost because they didn't rebound, and they jacked up three after three after three. They have been playing "Suns ball" and deserved to lose this one.

"I hate plays in which an offensive player makes a fake, the defender jumps and the offensive player throws himself into a defender who is doing the best he can to avoid contact."

This is one of the most infuriating "plays" in the game. Trying to "draw contact" this way is pathetic. It should be an offensive foul because leaning into an airborne opponent is dangerous. "Leaning in" is not how you make a jumpshot, it's not a NATURAL BASKETBALL MOVE! Enforce this and flopping goes down too! Flopping has become more rampant because of 3 reasons: 1. The defense has less and less options that won't get them tagged for cheap fouls. 2. They're not calling legitimate offensive fouls if the defender doesn't "sell" it. 3. That stupid no charge semi-circle (Off topic so I won't elaborate).

I don't understand why they don't put more refs, each with their own assigned duties. Ex. One ref watches the ballhandler 100% of the time for stepping, travelling, palming, pushing, shuffling, etc. Another ref focuses on the on-ball defender for illegal actions. What's so hard about that?


At Thursday, May 29, 2008 7:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that obsession and ruthlessness are usually the underlying explanations for why someone can achieve the highest level of success. People are fascinated by individuals who can dominate a given field and that is why they are interested to learn more about these aspects of their personalities. I maintain that Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady and Roger Federer are essentially the same person at the core, no matter how they may present themselves (or be perceived). They are ruthless, obsessed people in terms of how they approach what they do best. Like Brady said, "We're trying to kill teams." Horace Grant once said of Jordan that he tested teammates for mental weakness and if he detected any he would literally ride that player right off the team; Jordan wanted to know who he could trust in the last five minutes of the game and if you were mentally weak he did not want to go into battle with you. Fischer's favorite part of chess was breaking his opponent's ego and will. His opponents--and Kasparov's opponents--often spoke of a palpable force that they felt when playing against him. We all see how Woods' opponents crumble when they have to face him in the back nine on Sundays. All of these guys prepared and trained themselves so fanatically that the actual games were probably easier than their practice sessions.

I watched all of the ESPN SportsCentury documentaries. Discounting the horse that was inexplicably included, few of the athletes who were profiled came across as "normal" people with stable personal and family lives (though I suppose one could argue about how to define such things). I once joked to someone that the only "normal" person in the whole bunch seems to be Jack Nicklaus. He was the only one who did not seem to have any personal and/or professional "drama" in his life story.

Perhaps the Kareem quote was taken out of context but I did not see it reflecting as poorly on Kareem as you apparently do.

At Thursday, May 29, 2008 8:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me preface this by saying that I am a Spurs fan.

I think that it was clearly a foul on Barry at the end of the game. This is not a case of Spurs-fan v Lakers-fan. Imagine how the game would change if defenders could leave their feet and jump into shooters. There were some missed calls before the final play.

However, refs don't like to decide important playoff games on fouls like that. That's fine.

In response to your question: "Don't you think that it is significant that neither Popovich nor Barry said that a foul should have been called?"

The answer is "Yes", but for a different reason than you think. Popovitch said "We have to focus [on the] next game in hopes that we can win that game and survive. . . . If you don't let it go, you can't focus on the task at hand." ( http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-nbarefs29-2008may29,0,5107091.story)

You cannot win championships by obsessing about missed calls and focusing on perceived wrongs.

At Thursday, May 29, 2008 11:48:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I don't doubt that many of these people you listed as taking an obsessive, ruthless approach are at the top of their fields. However, I don't think taking such an approach is essential to being at the top. Mayne being ruthless and obsessive works for those people, but there are different (though less romantic) approaches which also work.

What irked me about the Kareem comment was it appears to suggest a lack of drive or commmittment on Kareem's part towards excellence. It seems like what Kareem is addressing is a lot more specific and has to do more with the ruthlessness and obsessiveness. Kareem provides a great example. Whatever it is that he lacked that the author was talking about, it wasn't essential in order for him to enjoy many years as the best basketball player on the planet. I believe that you yourself have noted that some great athletes (like Julius Erving) take an approach that is like the opposite of ruthlessness. People like Erving and Wilt Chamberlain (a player who loved a lot more than just basketball) seemed to take a more philosophical approach to basketball than always looking at it as a matter of crushing egos or driving out weak-minded players. Jack McCallum once mentioned in a SI article how many people liked to describe basketball as being a religion to Larry Bird (sounds romantic, doesn't it?), but how that wasn't the case.

People love to hear about the "crazy genius" in any field, and I think that's why the article highlights the traits that it does. For instance, people like to look at great mathematicians as all being like the cinematic portrayal of John Nash, or like Grigori Perelman. I've met a few Fields Medalists and other people of that caliber, and many of them struck me as being much more normal than the stereotype would suggest. Yes, they worked very hard and loved what they did, but that didn't mean they were obsessed or didn't love other things or lacked balance in their lives.

As for great athletes not having stable personal or family lives, I suspect a lot of that has to do with the celebrity that comes with being a great athlete and not necessarily just some charachter quirks.

At Thursday, May 29, 2008 4:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The NBA has officially stated that Fisher should have been whistled for a non-shooting foul, which would have resulted in two free throws because the Lakers were in the penalty.

I chose my words very carefully in the post. Instead of getting into a back and forth about whether or not this was a foul, I decided to examine the broader issues of offensive players leaning into defenders and the reality that certain kinds of contact are considered fouls by certain refs in certain situations and not considered fouls by other refs in other situations. It was interesting over the past few days to hear that almost all current and former players don't think that Fisher committed a foul and almost all current and former coaches (notwithstanding the two coaches who were closest to the play) do think that Fisher committed a foul.

Instead of saying that Fisher left his feet and jumped into Barry, I would say Fisher left his feet, Barry leaned forward and the two made contact. The question then is how to interpret that contact: defensive foul, offensive foul, incidental. The NBA has said that it should have been considered a defensive foul, so that question has been answered.

I respect the Spurs for their ability to let the past go and concentrate on the task at hand. I much prefer the approach of "no-excuse" teams like the Spurs, Lakers and Cavs to the approach of "excuse" teams like the Suns. That said, if the Spurs really thought that it was a foul I think that Popovich and Barry would have answered those questions a little differently and with a little bit more anger. They wouldn't have dwelled on it but they would have gotten their point across before moving on.

Knowledgeable NBA people can be found arguing both sides in this instance, so there seems to be some room for interpretation about this play.

At Friday, May 30, 2008 8:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You make some interesting points but I still think that you are reading something negative into the Kareem quote that is not really there. Maybe Kareem was more obsessed than 95% of athletes but thinks that Kobe is more obsessed than he was.

Another possibility to consider is that maybe Kareem really was a ruthless competitor but nowadays, for whatever reason, he prefers to minimize that aspect of his personality.

Erving is an interesting case. I have made the argument that he may have been the "nicest" superstar in terms of how he interacted with his teammates. Bobby Jones told me that Erving was always an "encourager." Yet Erving was absolutely a fierce competitor while he was on the court and he had a tremendous work ethic. So he has some unique blend of "normal" traits and "ruthless/obsessed" traits.

As for Wilt, although this is no doubt an oversimplification, many would say that he was too nice. Russell once said that he would have taken it as an insult if Willis Reed would have tried to play against him on one leg. One can picture Jordan having a similar reaction to Russell's. In fact, during Jordan's Wizards' days a player--I think that it was Kenyon Martin--said something to MJ about having a bad knee and that MJ should take it easy on him. After the game, MJ was incredulous that anyone would admit during the game to having a weakness and could not believe that someone would think he would not go right after that weakness (not to cause injury but to take advantage of his lack of mobility).

At Saturday, May 31, 2008 1:56:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I think much of the point I'm trying to make is captured in your observations about Erving. Of course any great athlete is very competitive and obsessive and ruthless in a sense, but these traits need not be as big a part of his/her personality as they appear to be for people like Kobe or Jordan. Being close to Kobe or Jordan in this sense is not essential to being a great athlete. From interviews and and articles I've read (both from the time they were playing to after retirement), people like Jabbar or Erving or Chamberlain were much more philosophical about the competitive aspects of basketball, and none of them came off as defining their lives or themselves as men by what took place on the court as much as the Kobes and MJs of the world.

Different people focus in different ways. Kareem was never known to be very emotional on the court or like a Napoleon type, but he always maintained that keeping an emotional balance helped him perform his best. For him, getting peace was probably more instrumental in performing his best than trying to detect mental weakness in teammates or obsessing about killing other teams would have been.

I don't buy the arguments from some that Wilt was too nice. From watching Game 7 of the 1970 finals a few times, it's clear that Wilt easing up was not a problem. The Lakers tried to force the ball in to Wilt a lot at the beginning. The Knicks were blowing the Lakers out and the Lakers weren't going to get back into the game by standing around and watching Wilt go to work in the low post. When you are getting blown out, the entire team needs to get in sync and collectively raise their level of execution. Wilt didn't have a great performance, but he still put up 21 and 24 despite the fact that he had recently come back from a knee injury and had limited mobility. I don't know what anyone who watches the game could blame Wilt for. Should he have knocked Willis Reed to the ground and dunked over him? Was that what he had to do to prove he wasn't easing up?

I think Russell's quote came from the time he was feuding with Wilt. It's funny because if Russell were playing and felt incredibly insulted by Reed, it's not like he could have done a whole lot more to take advantage of it. He'd have struggled to score half as many points as Wilt. However, maybe Sam Jones and John Havlicek wouldn't have had their lunch eaten by Frazier, Barnett and DeBusschere and the Celtics would have won, and then everyone could have chalked it up to Russell's "killer instinct" and "will to win." (Sarcasm directed towards Russell, not you.)

At Saturday, May 31, 2008 12:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with a lot of what you said but I also think that we are talking about several different things here. I think that all of these players were "obsessed" in terms of how hard they worked and practiced. Kobe and MJ display a certain kind of ruthlessness that Dr. J, Kareem and Wilt did not.

You are right that in 1970 Wilt was still recovering from a knee injury and that his teammates did not do a great job of passing him the ball. However, many of Wilt's teammates have talked about how he did not want to be perceived as a mean giant, how he would let up on a dunk rather than cram it through and possibly break someone's wrist. Dolph Schayes told me that it drove him nuts (as Wilt's coach) when Wilt shot the fadeaway to prove that he had finesse in his game as opposed to going to the hoop with more force. So, while there are some mitigating factors for Wilt versus Reed, there is also some truth to the idea that he was not "ruthless" and certainly did not want to be perceived as "ruthless."

Russell's quote from when he was feuding with Wilt had to to with Wilt not returning to action in the last game of the 1969 NBA Finals. Russell said that only a broken leg would have kept him out of action. Of course, Wilt wanted to go back in but Van Breda Kolff stubbornly kept him on the bench.

I think that Russell would have asserted his dominance over Reed in terms of rebounding and running the floor for easy baskets. You are of course correct that Russell played with an armada of HoFers.

At Sunday, June 15, 2008 3:31:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Schayes made a legitimate point, but I wonder where the line should be drawn in terms of being overly picky. It seems almost silly to criticize a player for not being efficient enough when he is scoring 50 ppg while making over half his shots. I would also point out that it takes a significant amount of drive, focus, and love for the game to develop a fadeaway jumper when you don't need to. Also, Wilt rarely took that shot in the second half of his career.

I believe that Al Attles was the teammate of Wilt's who made the remark about Wilt not wanting to be known as a mean giant. I'm not sure that Attles' comment expressed any dissatisfaction with how much Wilt was doing to help his team win. After all, two points is two points whether it is gently dropped through the hoop or slammed home as hard as possible. I recall reading how it used to anger Attles how much abuse Wilt took from other players even though he rarely fought back. Attles became known as Wilt's "bodyguard" because he got into so many fights with other players over this issue.

I think when discussing Chamberlain and how "mean" he was, it is important to keep things in context. When he came into the NBA, many were pondering whether or not the league could "survive" him. From all accounts, the referees let other players beat up on Chamberlain, and the league showed it had no reservations about altering the rules to minimize his dominance. If Chamberlain were simply bullying people in the paint and stuffing the ball down their throats on ever possession, it is very likely that the referees and the league would have gone even further to contain him. Unlike in the 90s with Jordan or Shaq, Chamberlain's dominance was not embraced, but rather feared and discouraged. Chamberlain probably had to deal with such attitudes his entire life, and I don't think he should be blamed for being being as much of a monster as he could have been. No one would have accepted it.

Yes, Russell's first harsh comments about Chamberlain came after 1969 Game 7, but in the years that followed, Chamberlain claimed Russell continued to take cheap shots at him whenever he could. Indeed, the two men would not reconcile until the 90s. So perhaps Russell was more harsh than he should have been.

Chamberlain DID dominate against the Knicks in terms of rebounding. He didn't run the court and get easy baskets all night (though it happened at least once), but his offensive output was still greater than Russell's would have been. Also, keep in mind that Chamberlain's mobility was still limited coming back from his knee injury. There's no way Russell playing in place of Wilt with the same teammates and same system would have swung that game for the Lakers. The Lakers' problem was the Knicks' defense, energy, and perimeter scoring. It didn't look like the Lakers had a very good gameplan on offense either. There aren't many other games available from that era, so it's hard to tell, but from what I've read, the Baylor-West pre-Sharman Laker teams did not have very good offenses in terms of balance. It was basically give it to Jerry or Elgin and see what happens. This is one thing which was out of Wilt's control and Russell was very fortunate to play in a more balanced, well-thought-out system.

At Sunday, June 15, 2008 4:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Wilt "only" averaged 36.9, 34.7 and 33.5 ppg for Schayes--not 50 ppg--so no wonder Schayes was upset :)

Schayes was not bashing Wilt overall, he just told me that he wished that Wilt would have gone to the basket more and not shot the fadeaway so much. Essentially, that's the same thing we say about KG and Sheed. Obviously, Wilt was much greater than those guys but whether or not you are able to make a fadeaway if you have the size and skills to go to the hoop then that should be the first plan of attack for a big guy.

You make a good point in bringing up some of the obstacles that Wilt had to overcome early in his career.

We'll never really know what Russell would have done against Reed. You are right that Russell was not the focal point of Boston's offense but if he saw a weakness to attack then he would have attacked it or he would have made sure that his wing scorers drove into the paint and forced Reed to be mobile.

You are right that the pre-Sharman Lakers did not always run great offense and that Russell benefited from superior coaching than Wilt had for most of his career. Hannum and Sharman were exceptional coaches but some of Wilt's coaches were not so great, to be charitable.


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