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Friday, December 26, 2008

Magic, Spurs, Cavs and Mavs Each Post Christmas Day Victories

The Christmas Day quintupleheader provided an opportunity to see a third of the NBA's teams in action. I've already posted a detailed recap of the most anticipated game of the year, the Finals rematch between the Lakers and the Celtics. Here are some quick takes on the other four games:

Orlando Magic 88, New Orleans Hornets 68

The Hornets claimed to feel honored to play on Christmas Day but they sure looked like the least enthusiastic of the 10 participants, shooting just .333 from the field and trailing by as many as 31 points. The Magic did not score for more than eight minutes in the fourth quarter and still won easily. Dwight Howard shot just 4-15 from the field and only scored 12 points but he dominated the paint with a game-high 15 rebounds and he blocked three shots. Hedo Turkoglu led both teams in scoring (20 points) and assists (five), while Rashard Lewis had a nice all-around performance (18 points, six rebounds, four assists). David West led the Hornets with 13 points and seven rebounds, while Chris Paul finished with just 12 points on 5-14 shooting. Paul only had four assists and did not get a steal, snapping his NBA record streak of consecutive games with a steal at 108.

The Magic played very well in the first half, building a 61-31 halftime lead but they apparently could not muster quite the same energy in the second half. Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy offered an interesting analogy: "Our first half was our best offensive half of the year. The second half was easily our worst. When my wife wants me to do things around the house, I do just good enough of a job to not get yelled at. That's human nature."

The Hornets are now tied for fourth-fifth in the Western Conference but they are only a game behind San Antonio and Houston, who are tied for second-third. New Orleans plays Houston on Friday night. The Magic are securely in the third place in the Eastern Conference, four and a half games ahead of Atlanta. They have won six games in a row and nine of their last 10 but have not gained any ground on the two teams ahead of them--Boston and Cleveland--because both of those teams have also won nine of their last 10.

San Antonio Spurs 91, Phoenix Suns 90

Phoenix opened the game with an 11-0 run, led most of the way, perfectly executed an out of bounds play late in the game to score the go ahead layup--and still found a way to lose to their nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs. This time the dagger came in the form of a Roger Mason three pointer at the buzzer, delivering a 91-90 win for the Spurs. Tony Parker scored a game-high 27 points and tied Steve Nash for game-high honors with eight assists. Tim Duncan added 25 points and a game-high 17 rebounds. Amare Stoudemire led Phoenix with 25 points and 13 rebounds, while Shaquille O'Neal powered his way to 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots. O'Neal looked better than he has in quite some time; he opened the game with a spin move leading to a powerful dunk and a no look feed to Stoudemire for a slam dunk. Before he came to Phoenix, the Suns were routinely outrebounded and had trouble matching up with the Spurs in the paint; with O'Neal, the Suns beat the Spurs three straight times in the regular season prior to this contest and outrebounded San Antonio 50-43 this time around while outscoring the Spurs 34-20 in the paint.

For much of this game, the Suns showed that there does not have to be a conflict between being a running team and feeding the ball to O'Neal in the post. The reality is that Phoenix' problem has nothing to do with offense; the problem is being able to get key defensive stops. Amare Stoudemire can be a fantastic weak side shot blocker but his defense against his own man often leaves much to be desired. O'Neal did yeoman's work against Duncan--holding him to 5-13 field goal shooting in the first half--but he has never been a great screen/roll defender and it it not clear whether he is in condition to play at this level game after game. The Suns have enough talent to be a very dangerous team in the West but they don't seem to be able to execute well enough to consistently beat the upper echelon teams.

One interesting subplot emerged again near the end of the third quarter. The Suns led 71-66 with less than one minute remaining when Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich decided to resort to the Hack a Shaq (intentional fouling strategy); I have discussed this issue at length here, most recently in my post about the Suns' opening night victory over the short handed Spurs. The bottom line is that in the NBA a possession is worth roughly one point, so as long as O'Neal makes half of his free throws the fouling team cannot realistically expect to gain much of an advantage. Cavs assistant coach Hank Egan--who used to be Popovich's assistant coach in San Antonio--told me that Popovich knows this math but that he employs this tactic for psychological reasons. In this game, neither team gained an advantage from the Hack a Shaq: O'Neal made five out of six free throws but the Spurs were fortunate enough to score on two of three possessions so that Phoenix was still only up by five (76-71) going into the fourth quarter--but if the Spurs had not snared an offensive rebound and converted that extra possession into a Manu Ginobili three pointer they would have actually fallen further behind as a result of the intentional fouling.

Another interesting set of strategic moves took place after Duncan got his fifth foul at the 3:44 mark of the fourth quarter with the Spurs clinging to an 86-84 lead. Popovich elected to keep Duncan in the game, switching him from guarding O'Neal to guarding Stoudemire. The Suns could have then posted up O'Neal against Kurt Thomas but instead they elected to keep going to Stoudemire to try to draw Duncan's sixth foul. Stoudemire missed three consecutive shots but the Suns only trailed by one when Jason Richardson hit a three pointer to answer Parker's jumper. Nash tied the score at 88 at the 1:01 mark by making a free throw after Parker received a technical foul for arguing about a call. Neither team scored for the next :57 until Phoenix took the lead with a great inbounds play: Grant Hill passed to Amare Stoudemire and it looked like Stoudemire would go one on one but then Hill cut baseline and Nash set a back pick on Michael Finley, enabling Stoudemire to feed Hill for an uncontested layup. All the Suns had to do now was guard the three point line, not foul and make the Spurs shoot a contested jumper to try to tie the score. Instead, Richardson left Roger Mason open in the left corner in order to double team Parker and Parker passed to Mason, who calmly hit the game-winning shot. It is hard to understand how the Spurs could give up a crucial layup on a late inbounds play but it is befuddling that the Suns lost to a buzzer beating three pointer when they had a two point lead.

The player who for some reason always gets a free pass for the Suns is Steve Nash, their two-time MVP point guard. He controls the ball, so it is up to him to understand when to run and when to slow the game down but this season he seems more determined to complain about Coach Terry Porter's system than to find ways to make it work. Also, Nash has consistently been a defensive liability and that leads to various matchup problems/switches that invariably burn the Suns in close games against good teams. For instance, on the last play, the Suns put small forward Grant Hill on Parker instead of the natural matchup with Nash guarding Parker; how many teams have won championships when their best player cannot guard the opposing team player who plays his position? The Suns are blessed with a lot of talent now and they have had talented teams throughout the Nash era but no matter how well they play they somehow manage to come up just short. Nash is the only MVP in NBA history who has never played in the NBA Finals--and he is not only an MVP, he is in the select group of multiple MVP winners. For a time, Nash was the best point guard in the NBA but he was never the best player in the league and I still say that objective observers looking back on this era are going to be dumbfounded that Nash won two MVPs over a field of candidates that included (in various years) Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

Cleveland Cavaliers 93, Washington Wizards 89

The Cavs have been cruising along this season against the weaker teams but they were snoozing along for most of the game versus the Wizards before making just enough plays to win 93-89. Mo Williams led the Cavs with 24 points and also had six assists, while Delonte West added 18 points, a team-high seven assists and three steals. LeBron James had 18 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals. Antawn Jamison scored a game-high 28 points, while recently acquired guard Mike James had 26 points and shot 5-8 from three point range. Caron Butler put up a strange stat line: six points, six rebounds, 10 assists.

The Wizards opened the game with a 12-2 run and even though the Cavs quickly rallied to tie the score at 14 the Cavs never managed to gain any separation; they briefly built a 42-34 second quarter lead but by halftime they were only up 49-47. In the third quarter, the Cavs made eight field goals and committed nine turnovers; Washington led 71-68 going into the fourth quarter. If you let a bad team hang around long enough then that team can gain confidence and make a few shots in a row. The Cavs flirted with disaster all game long and it looked like that disaster had arrived at the 1:40 mark of the fourth quarter when Jamison made a three pointer to put Washington up 89-82. How does a team blow a seven point lead in such a short period of time? After the game, TNT's Kenny Smith said that bad teams just find ways to lose, recalling that when he played for the Kings they once blew a seven point lead in a similar amount of time by committing three technical fouls and giving up a four point play. The Wizards "chose" a similar method, starting by fouling LeBron James on a three pointer. After James' three free throws made the score 89-85, Jamison committed an offensive foul. Mo Williams then hit a three pointer to shave the lead to one. The teams traded misses and then Jamison fouled out with a loose ball foul. Anderson Varejao made both of the resulting free throws to put Cleveland up by one and then Washington committed another offensive foul, this time by Butler. Williams made two free throws, Mike James missed a three pointer and West closed out the scoring by splitting a pair of free throws. What could have turned out to be a very costly loss in the race for homecourt advantage became an ugly win but ugly wins count just as much in the standings as pretty wins.

I have not written much about the Wizards this year because the franchise has turned into a circus/disaster area. Their troubles began in the offseason when they grossly overpaid to re-sign Gilbert Arenas, who would not be worth a max level deal even if he did not have chronic knee problems. The Wizards apparently dreamed that a healthy Arenas could lead them to something other than the first round exits that they have been annually experiencing. Arenas has yet to play in a single game this season but that is not really the cause of Washington's misery; Arenas only played in 13 games last year--and the team did better without him--but the Wizards still went 43-39 and qualified for the playoffs. They have never won more than 45 games since Arenas joined the team, so that was hardly a bad record for them by recent standards, and their effectiveness without Arenas is why I thought that they could grab the eighth seed in the East this year even with Arenas missing at least half of the season. What I didn't count on is Brendan Haywood suffering what might be a season ending wrist injury and that Antonio Daniels--Arenas' steady if unspectacular backup in recent years--would be hobbled by injuries before being dealt to New Orleans. With no true point guard and little paint presence, the Wizards have been horrible despite having two All-Stars (Butler and Jamison). The Wizards responded to the rash of injuries by firing Coach Eddie Jordan but that makes no sense; if management believes that Arenas is truly a max level player and that Haywood is a key cog then how can they reasonably expect the team to do well with those two starters sidelined? Jordan guided the Wizards to four straight playoff appearances, so what did management learn about him in the first 11 games of this season that they did not know in the offseason? As I said, the franchise has turned into a circus/disaster area. Just a few months ago, Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson were mouthing off about how they would beat the Cavs in a playoff series and now the Wizards are battling the Thunder for the worst record in the NBA. Meanwhile, Arenas has said that it might not be such a bad thing if the Wizards lose a lot of games because then they can use a lottery pick to get a franchise player. The most amazing thing about all of this is that Arenas retains his popularity in Washington no matter what; he never played defense, his shot selection was horrible, he never led the team past the second round, he never showed that the team was actually significantly better off with him than without him and now he says that fans should happily accept all of the losing in order to get a franchise player (which is what he is supposed to be based on what Washington is paying him) but he is still a fan favorite. His popularity is no doubt a big reason why Washington re-signed him for such a steep price; management feared that there would be a backlash if they let Arenas walk.

Dallas Mavericks 102, Portland Trail Blazers 94

The final game of the quintupleheader featured two Western Conference teams with similar records but vastly different roster compositions; the veteran laden Mavericks are hoping/praying that they can put everything together to make one more Finals run, while the youthful Trail Blazers hope that this season they will make the first of many consecutive playoff appearances. The Mavs are led by 2007 MVP Dirk Nowitzki, who scored 24 of his game-high 30 points in the first half. Nowitzki's reputation has probably never completely recovered from Dallas' collapse in the 2006 NBA Finals and shocking first round upset loss to Golden State the folowing year but by any objective measure he is still one of the league's top players. The Mavs brought in veteran point guard Jason Kidd (six points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) last year to put them over the top but too many other Western teams had already surpassed them. Still, with a nucleus of Nowitzki, Kidd, Josh Howard (15 points before being ejected) and Jason Terry (19 points) the Mavs could still be a dangerous team in the playoffs. The Mavs started the year 2-7 but have won 15 of their last 19 games.

Portland is led by Brandon Roy (22 points versus Dallas), a smooth guard who last season made the first of what will be many All-Star appearances. Rookie center Greg Oden (four points, five rebounds in a foul plagued 25 minutes) missed all of last season due to injury and is still getting used to the NBA game but he has already shown that he can provide a physical presence in the paint. LaMarcus Aldridge had a quiet game (12 points) but he is a solid 17 ppg, 7 rpg player who is a good shooter. Young guards Rudy Fernandez (13 points) and Sergio Rodriguez (nine points) are already exciting, productive players and they are sure to become even better as they mature and get more used to the NBA game.

The Blazers faltered down the stretch versus Dallas, scoring just 14 fourth quarter points; the score was tied at 90 with 5:30 to go but Portland made just one field goal the rest of the way, while Dallas received a big lift down the stretch from bench players Terry, Jose Barea and Brandon Bass. It will be interesting to see how quickly the Blazers learn from these kinds of losses and figure out how to protect their homecourt against good teams. Even though the Blazers are not nearly good enough to win a title this year, it would be very valuable for them to qualify for the playoffs and get some postseason experience.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:07 AM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Saturday, December 27, 2008 6:44:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Is it just me, or do the Spurs get no respect from the mainstream media?

During the pregame show, for instance, I understand that ABC wanted to hype the Lakers-Celtics rematch, but even when the Spurs-Suns game was being discussed it was all about the Suns.

Another example came during the Lakers-Celtics game. Van Gundy and Jackson were discussing teams that would only be satisfied with a championship and they conclude that only the Lakers, Celtics and Cavs fall into that category (I think Van Gundy later added the Rockets). I suppose the Spurs are going to be thrilled if they manage to get to the Western Semifinals.

There are lots of other little examples like these ones which I won't get into.

I've never seen such disregard for a team which has been the most dominant over the previous decade, is only one year removed from a championship, and is still playing at a high level. Maybe if Tim Duncan started pounding his chest after every play or if Parker and Ginobili started feuding through the media or if one of them got into some legal trouble people would start to pay attention.


Anyway, I think that the Spurs have quietly replenished their backcourt (Mason and George Hill were very good additions), Parker is playing great, and Duncan shows no signs of slowing down. They lack athleticism up front and Ginobili is still a bit of a wild card, but I think the Spurs are capable of beating anyone in a playoffs series.

I think the main advantage the Lakers have over the Spurs is their depth and youth. They were quicker to loose balls and had a lot more energy during last year's conference finals. We'll get a better idea of how big a factor that will be a few months from now. I'm looking forward to another Lakers-Spurs series. I think we'll get a real classic. My feeling is that Popovich is going to push hard for the Spurs to get the No. 2 seed so that they don't wear themselves out in earlier rounds (as they appeared to last year).

 
At Saturday, December 27, 2008 7:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Every season, even people who should know better forget about the Spurs. I did not make that mistake in my Western Conference Preview, declaring: "Unless injuries derail them, the Spurs will be right in the hunt for the Western Conference title."

I think that San Antonio is the biggest threat to beat the Lakers in a Western Conference playoff series--and the Lakers are also the biggest threat to the Spurs, so I agree with you that if the Spurs can stay healthy enough to move up to the number two spot and avoid facing the Lakers until the WCF they would be wise to do so.

Don't forget that the Spurs are without Oberto for the moment, so their frontcourt will be bigger and more mobile when he returns; he was the starting center--and a valuable contributor--for the 2007 championship team that swept Cleveland in the Finals.

The Rockets have the pieces in place to be a contender but it just seems like they will never have all of their key guys healthy at the same time. There is also reason to wonder if a team that has not even won a first round series can suddenly win multiple playoff series; granted, the Lakers did that last season but they have Kobe Bryant--a three-time champion--and no one on the Rockets matches either his skill set or championship pedigree.

 
At Saturday, December 27, 2008 10:46:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

Vednam,

JVG was definitely showing his bias with that statement about the Rockets. People always wax lyrical about how good their team looks on paper, but the fact remains that only 3 of their key players - Rafer Alston, Brent Barry, and the ever-reliable Ron Artest - have ever won a playoff series. On the other hand, the Spurs have proven over and over and over that they will at the very least be a factor when May and June roll around. The big question before the season was whether they could get contributions from their younger role players, and guys like Roger Mason Jr, George Hill, and Matt Bonner are stepping up for them. I agree with David that the Spurs are the most dangerous team in the West outside of the Lakers.

 
At Sunday, December 28, 2008 11:52:00 AM, Blogger Ben said...

David,
Good stuff about the Suns and you are right on about the key stops on the defensive end. I think it will improve as the season continues but that (not offense or toughness) has always been the achilles heal of the team.

Turnovers are getting better and the blending of the two styles are becoming more fluent.

 

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