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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tracy McGrady Fuels the Rockets

Tracy McGrady played all 48 minutes and had 30 points, seven rebounds and four assists as the Houston Rockets beat the Charlotte Bobcats 89-80 to win their 21st straight game, the second longest winning streak in NBA history. The Rockets are now tied for first place in the Western Conference with the L.A. Lakers, setting up a dramatic showdown between the teams in Houston on Sunday.

McGrady's all-around excellence has fueled the Rockets' tremendous run, as I explain in my newest article for ProBasketballNews.com:

T-Mac Proves Worth During Streak (2/19/09 Note: the original PBN link has been destroyed, so I replaced it with a link to a 20 Second Timeout post that contains the complete, unedited text of the article as it appeared at PBN).

Here are links to game recaps that I have done during the Rockets' winning streak:

T-Mac Attack: McGrady Scores 41, Lifts Rockets Over Hornets (Win #18)

Rockets Pound Banged-Up Cavs (Win #9)

I actually covered one of the historic wins in person:

Landry's Big Fourth Quarter Lifts Rockets Over Pacers (Win #2)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:35 AM

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T-Mac Proves Worth During Streak

The Houston Rockets have put together the second longest winning streak in NBA history. Think about that for a moment: the 2007-08 Rockets will forever have a place in the record book next to some of the most storied teams in the history of the league: the Chamberlain-West-Goodrich 1972 Lakers (33 straight wins), the Abdul-Jabbar-Robertson 1971 Bucks (20), the O’Neal-Bryant 2000 Lakers (19), the Frazier-Reed 1970 Knicks (18) and the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman 1996 Bulls (18) each won championships, while the Bird-McHale-Parish 1982 Celtics (18) were defending champions who eventually lost to Julius Erving’s 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. In fact, the only team that is ahead of the Rockets—at least in terms of regular season winning streaks—is the 1972 Lakers.

The tight playoff race in the West—where it might take 50 wins to get the eighth spot—is unprecedented and the flurry of trades that happened after the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol is remarkable but at least those things can be explained in some fashion: West teams are winning a lot of games because they have accumulated a lot of talent and that led to an arms race to acquire more talent for the stretch run. However, Houston’s winning streak seemingly came out of nowhere and remarkably did not end even when All-Star center Yao Ming suffered a season-ending injury.

An undeniable part of Houston’s success is the team’s gritty, stingy defense. The Rockets currently rank second in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage and are tied for fifth in point differential. Their performances in both of those areas have been off the charts during the streak, during which the Rockets tied a single-season NBA record by winning 10 straight games by at least 10 points. The Rockets rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring and are in the middle of the pack in field goal percentage but they are fourth in points allowed, a strong indication that former coach Jeff Van Gundy and current coach Rick Adelman have a better idea what pace the team should play at than critics who have been insisting for years that Houston should speed the game up. Adelman is renowned for coaching fast paced, high scoring teams in Portland and Sacramento and it was widely assumed that he would guide his Rockets to play similarly but instead he has done what good coaches do: evaluate his personnel and tailor his system to accentuate their strengths and hide their weaknesses.

When Yao got hurt, many people assumed that the Rockets were doomed but anyone who has followed the team closely since Houston acquired Tracy McGrady in 2004 should have known better. There is a stark and dramatic contrast between the Rockets’ record when McGrady plays (162-83, a .661 winning percentage) versus their record when he is not in the lineup (19-46, a .292 winning percentage). Prorated over 82 games, the Rockets have essentially performed like a 54 win team with McGrady and a 24 win team without him. This year, the numbers read 36-13 (.735) with McGrady and 8-7 (.533) without him, which prorates to 60 wins and 44 wins respectively.

What exactly does McGrady do that has such an impact on his team’s success? The two-time scoring champion is a major offensive threat as both a driver and a long range shooter, which means that he regularly commands double-teams. This opens up scoring opportunities for teammates who cannot create shots for themselves. McGrady is also an excellent passer and this facet of his game is overlooked not just by fans but even by commentators who should know better. Van Gundy, who is now an excellent analyst for ABC/ESPN, has done his best to educate people about this, repeatedly praising McGrady’s playmaking skills and unselfishness. During the Suns' 94-87 victory over the Spurs last Sunday, Van Gundy declared that anyone who really understands McGrady’s game would never have predicted that the Rockets would collapse without Yao.

During that same broadcast, Van Gundy and fellow analyst Mark Jackson each listed who they consider to be the second through fifth best shooting guards in the NBA (Kobe Bryant is the clear number one, in case you had not noticed). Jackson left the second spot blank because he said that no one is even close to Bryant and then he mentioned Manu Ginobili, McGrady, Allen Iverson and Richard Hamilton. Van Gundy put McGrady second, followed by Ginobili, Iverson and Dwyane Wade, who he said is not having a great season but belongs on the list from a talent standpoint.

People who do not like Bryant for whatever reason have latched on to Ginobili as their candidate to be the best shooting guard in the NBA. One big problem with that is that he is not even the best player on his own team. Everything the Spurs do offensively and defensively revolves around Tim Duncan; he draws double-teams that create open shots for Ginobili, not the other way around, as Van Gundy astutely pointed out. Van Gundy added, “There is no way that Ginobili could win 18 games in a row (now 20 and counting) with that (Houston) roster.” ABC ran a graphic showing that Ginobili is having a career year this season in terms of scoring (20.4 ppg), rebounding (4.9 rpg) and assists (4.7 apg) and Van Gundy immediately noted, “If McGrady had those numbers you’d call it a down year”; indeed, McGrady is averaging 22.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 5.6 apg, outdoing Ginobili in each area but not coming close to his career-highs (32.1 ppg in 2003, 7.9 rpg in 2002, 6.5 apg in 2006).

Great team defense and an unselfish collective attitude on offense are twin pillars of Houston’s success but without McGrady’s scoring, playmaking and ability to take over a game down the stretch there is no way that the Rockets would have put together this historic winning streak. McGrady recently said of Yao, “We’re a great team with him. We’re a great team without him”—but the numbers show that whether or not Houston is great depends much more on McGrady than it does on Yao. With McGrady, the Rockets can be great; without him, they are mediocre at best.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:12 AM

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

One of the NBA's True Gems: Color Commentator Jim Barnett

Jim Barnett enjoyed a solid NBA career, averaging 11.7 ppg in 11 seasons, including a career-high 18.5 ppg for Portland in 1970-71. He kept playing hoops long after his NBA career ended and he still participates in AAU Master's tournaments. For the past 23 years, Barnett has been the color commentator on local Golden State Warriors' broadcasts and if you have not heard him do a game then you have missed a real treat: he is analytical, he does not get hyper and even though he clearly supports the Warriors he is definitely not a homer.

Barnett made several interesting observations during Golden State's 117-106 victory over Toronto on Wednesday. Early in the game, the 7-0 Rasho Nesterovic caught the ball in the post with the 6-3 Baron Davis guarding him one-on-one. Barnett immediately said, "He shouldn't wait. He should go right up." As he uttered those words, Nesterovic dribbled, Davis timed the move perfectly and as Nesterovic tried to shoot Davis made a sensational block and went coast to coast for a layup to put the Warriors up 16-4. If this were an ESPN telecast, all we would hear is Stephen A. Smith screaming Nesterovic's name derisively. Instead, Barnett calmly explained what happened on the play as only someone who actually understands the game could do: "Nesterovic played into the hands of Baron. When you put it on the floor like that, you give Baron time to react and work his magic. He didn't need to dribble; he should have just gone up and shot the ball over Baron." This just shows how a "mismatch" is only a "mismatch" if you know how to take advantage of it. Nesterovic (or Dirk Nowitzki in last year's playoffs) should not pound the ball and try to get a little closer to the hoop; he is tall enough and has a good enough shooting stroke that if he shoots the ball right after he catches it there is no way that Davis can bother his shot. By trying to gain an "advantage" Nesterovic actually put himself at a disadvantage.

A little later in the game, the Warriors bungled a three on one fast break opportunity. Barnett commented, "A three on one should become a two on one--I've always said that. All you do is split the defender, coming in at a 45 degree angle. If you are going to be a trailer, you better be a late trailer. You should not be involved in the play."

After young Warriors guard C.J. Watson traveled while trying to take one dribble before shooting a pull up jumper, Barnett advised, "It is so important to understand and implement your fundamentals--and the first one ever is to establish a pivot foot and put the majority of your weight on it. Then it won't move."

Warriors' small forward Stephen Jackson shot just 1-6 from the field to start the game, with most of his misses coming on long jumpers, so Golden State Coach Don Nelson ran a play for Jackson to catch the ball in the post. Jackson was fouled and made both free throws. Barnett noted, "They took the ball out of his hands on the perimeter so that he would not launch a three or go one on one...Don Nelson is not upset with him; he's just saying, 'I'm going to make it easier on him' and put him in a position where he has a chance to succeed, not fail, because he had been struggling." That subtle move by Nelson paid dividends later on, because Jackson shot 6-9 from the field the rest of the way and he made several big shots in the second half to help the Warriors hold off the Raptors.

In the second half, 7-0 center-forward Andrea Bargnani caught the ball in the post against Davis and immediately made a turnaround jumper. Davis retrieved the ball after it went through the net and bounced it in frustration before the Warriors inbounded. Revisiting the theme of what a big man who is a face up shooter should do when he catches the ball with Davis guarding him, Barnett said, "He is much better when he doesn't put it on the floor and just turns and shoots."

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:00 PM

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Is the Effectiveness of Tim Duncan's Bank Shot Overrated?

During Phoenix' 94-87 victory over San Antonio last Sunday, ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy made an intriguing and counterintuitive assertion about one of the game's most fundamentally sound players, declaring that Tim Duncan's bank shot is "overrated." Van Gundy said that defenders should not worry about that shot at all and instead back off of Duncan to prevent him from getting into the paint. I wonder if Van Gundy or anyone else has some numbers that would prove or disprove this. Duncan shot .546 from the field last season--the second best mark of his career--and his field goal percentage this year (.504) is just a tad below his career norm (.508). I have not tracked or charted Duncan's percentage from specific areas but my subjective impression the past couple years is that Duncan has not shot quite as well on his bank shots as he did early in his career but that he has made up for that by finishing very well on his close-in shots, which kind of goes along with Van Gundy's statement. It also seems to me that Duncan shoots the bank shot better at home; he likes to tee it up from a particular spot on the Spurs' logo that is painted on the wing. If anyone has some statistics regarding Tim Duncan's field goal percentage on bank shots I'd be very interested to see them.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:40 PM

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Hall of Famer Bobby Wanzer Visits the NBA TV Set

Hall of Famer Bobby Wanzer appeared on NBA TV on Wednesday prior to the Warriors-Raptors game and he spoke with Pete Vecsey and Rick Kamla (fortunately, Vecsey asked most of the questions, while Kamla thankfully refrained from going off on a tangent about Minnesota or Kevin Garnett). Wanzer was one of the great guards in the early years of the NBA and he paired with Bob Davies to form a tremendous backcourt for the Rochester Royals, who beat George Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers in the 1951 Western Division Finals en route to winning that season's NBA title; Mikan's Lakers won the championship the two previous years and the three years after that. Wanzer played in five straight All-Star Games and made the All-NBA Team three straight times. His Hall of Fame bio states that he won the 1953 NBA MVP and an NBA TV graphic during his appearance mentioned that as well but the NBA did not officially start awarding an MVP until the 1955-56 season. It seems unlikely that Wanzer would have won the MVP if it had been awarded in 1953 because he only made the All-NBA Second Team, meaning that at least five players received more votes than he did for that honor.

Wanzer led the NBA in free throw shooting in 1952, becoming the first NBA player to shoot better than .900 (.904). He also ranked in the top ten in field goal percentage four times; the field goal percentage numbers from his era don't look great to today's eyes but there are several mitigating factors to consider, as I explained in a previous post: "The early NBA played its games in poorly lit arenas and dealt with travel and lodging accommodations that NBA and WNBA players of today could not even imagine. Also, forget 'no blood, no foul'—it was more like, 'no first degree assault, no foul.' Players did not dunk in games because leaving your feet was an invitation to a maiming—and yes, players back then could dunk the ball, as shown on old Minneapolis Lakers films displaying the team dunking during practice and pre-game lay-up lines. Even as late as 1959-60, Wilt Chamberlain’s rookie season, there was a 'Wild West' quality to the game. Sports Illustrated had a big story around that time about how Chamberlain planned to retire because of the cheap shots and rough play that he endured on a nightly basis."

Wanzer described to Vecsey and Kamla how the NBA game has changed: "Our game was much different than it is today. Today is a run, speed (game). We passed, went behind the picks, (ran) back door (plays). Possession was important--you had to get a good shot almost every time."

Here is how Wanzer evaluated his strengths as a player: "I was a very good shooter. I had what they called a 'case move,' where you make your move, faked and went in. I also liked to go in the post and take a couple hook shots."

Vecsey asked Wanzer to clarify what a "case move" is and Wanzer answered, "I think that every ball player should have a move where he can free himself up," adding that in today's game anyone who can do a good crossover dribble is virtually impossible to guard.

The 86 year old Wanzer said that he golfs three times a week but still keeps up with what is going on in the NBA. He likes the Nets' acquisition of Devin Harris for Jason Kidd because Harris is a young, talented player whose shot continues to improve but he also understands that Dallas did the deal in order to win now. Wanzer suggested that the Heat may let Shawn Marion leave after the end of the season and use the salary cap space to sign more players, prompting Vecsey to quip good-naturedly that the Heat should sign Wanzer as a consultant.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:42 AM

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

NBA Leaderboard, Part XVII

Boston and Detroit have already clinched playoff berths, a tribute to the fine seasons that they are having but also an indication of how weak the East is; only Miami and New York are out of contention for the last playoff berth, while the remaining teams are all within four games of earning the right to be swept by Boston in the first round.

Best Five Records
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1) Boston Celtics, 50-12--clinched playoff berth
2) Detroit Pistons, 46-17--clinched playoff berth
3) L.A. Lakers, 45-19
4) San Antonio, 44-19
5) Houston, 43-20

Two strong teams have clinched playoff berths in the depleted East but the biggest story in the league is the historic, ongoing 19 game winning streak that the Houston Rockets have put together. Although Dallas and Phoenix each put together 17 game winning streaks last year but failed to even make it to the Conference Finals, five of the previous six teams to win at least 18 games in a row in one season won the championship. The Rockets do not "look" like a contender in terms of their roster composition--after Yao Ming suffered a season-ending injury what remained was a lot of no-name players plus 40-plus year old former All-Star center Dikembe Mutombo flanking an oft-injured but highly talented Tracy McGrady. The Rockets do not "feel" like a contender because they still don't even have the best record in their conference and because, incredibly, they could very well miss the playoffs if they go on a three game losing streak at some point. However, regardless of how they "look" or "feel," the Rockets are playing like a contender; what I mean by that is that they are playing great defense (as measured by defensive field goal percentage, a very important stat), they are playing hard every night and they are sharing the ball on offense. McGrady was left off of the All-Star team--and deservedly so considering his early season injuries and the numbers produced by the players who made it--but he has a chance of joining Rod Strickland as a player who made the All-NBA team after not making that season's All-Star team. Strickland did it in 1998 when he led the NBA in assists; he averaged at least 17 ppg and 8.8 apg for five straight seasons but never made the All-Star team.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) LeBron James, CLE 30.8 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.2 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.9 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.8 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.6 ppg
6) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 24.0 ppg
7) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 23.6 ppg
8) Michael Redd, MIL 23.4 ppg
9) Richard Jefferson, NJN 22.9 ppg
10) Chris Bosh, MIA 22.6 ppg

12) Yao Ming, HOU 22.0 ppg

25) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.3 ppg

32) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.5 ppg

37) Kevin Garnett, BOS 18.8 ppg

40) Ray Allen, BOS 18.4 ppg

LeBron James has put up a lot of amazing numbers this season but chew on this one for a moment: he has scored at least 20 points in 41 consecutive games. Also, James' 24 point outing versus Portland snapped his streak of 21 games with at least 25 points and ended a four game stretch in which he scored at least 37 points in each outing, highlighted by his 50 point game at Madison Square Garden.

Kobe Bryant has not exactly been slacking off, though; he is averaging 32.4 ppg in five games in March, during which his Lakers have gone 4-1. Bryant and the Lakers now face a daunting four game road trip that could very well define their season: at New Orleans, at Houston, at Dallas, at Utah. Bryant has had four games since February 1 when he did not score at least 20 points: the game in which he injured his pinkie, the game after the injury happened and two blowout victories over the L.A. Clippers. Speaking of Bryant's mangled digit, when Brett Favre played with an injured thumb on his throwing hand a few years ago I thought that he was going to not only be immediately inducted in the Hall of Fame but possibly canonized as well--yet no one is really talking about the fact that Bryant is playing at a high level and perhaps leading his team to the best record in the Western Conference despite playing against doctor's orders. One reason that we don't hear much about Bryant's ailment is that he does not talk about it--unless someone asks--or use it as an excuse/crutch, unlike some star players who make sure that everyone knows exactly how badly they feel.

Dwyane Wade is shutting things down for the season--insert joke here about the Miami Heat shutting down before the season even started--which means that he will not be listed on the final regular season leaderboard because he did not play in 70 games or score 1400 points.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
----------------------

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.5 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 13.9 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.1 rpg
4) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.3 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.7 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.6 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.1 rpg
8) Yao Ming, Hou 10.8 rpg
9) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.6 rpg
10) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.3 rpg

14) Al Horford, ATL 9.8 rpg

22) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.7 rpg
23) Ben Wallace, CLE/CHI 8.7 rpg

31) LeBron James, CLE 8.1 rpg

33) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 7.7 rpg

Dwight Howard has been overshadowed a bit because of all of the trades out West, Houston's winning streak and the fact that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have basically turned the MVP race into a two man duel--but it is worth noting that Howard's ppg-rpg-bpg-fg% numbers (21.8-14.5-2.4-.603) are among the most dominant that we have seen in quite some time; Shaquille O'Neal never rebounded quite like that, Tim Duncan never rebounded or shot like that and rebounding/shot blocking specialists like Marcus Camby never scored or shot like that. Howard is still learning how to play offensively and he is already a force.

Side thought/question that I am not really sure how to answer but is interesting to ponder: Has Chris Kaman emerged as one of the league's top centers or is this just a fluky season in which he is padding his stats on a losing team that does not have the services of Elton Brand? The Clippers have become irrelevant again, so most people's answer would probably be "Who knows?" and/or "Who cares?" Considering Kaman's age and his more or less steady improvement since his rookie year, my suspicion is that he will be a very good center for years to come.

Top Ten Playmakers
----------------------

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.4 apg
2) Chris Paul, NOH 11.0 apg
3) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 10.4 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 10.2 apg
5) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.6 apg
6) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.4 apg
7) Baron Davis, GSW 7.9 apg
8) LeBron James, CLE 7.4 apg
9) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.2 apg
10) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.1 apg

If Steve Nash and Chris Paul maintain their March apg averages (10.8 apg and 12.2 apg respectively) then Paul can actually make a serious run at the assists title; the race is definitely not over.

Allen Iverson is considered a "gunner" and LeBron James is often called a "pass first" player. Iverson averages 26.9 ppg and 7.2 apg while attempting 19.6 FGA/game; James averages 30.8 ppg and 7.4 apg while attempting 22.4 FGA/game. If you ever wondered how powerfully the media shapes our perceptions, just look at those numbers again. This is not about which player is better or about "loving" one guy or "hating" the other; all I am saying is that there is a disconnect between what the numbers say and what a lot of people believe.

It is also interesting to look at their teams' records and prospects. Iverson's Nuggets are 37-26, including a 21-17 record against the Western Conference, but they may miss the playoffs; James' Cavaliers are 37-27, including a 17-12 record against the Western Conference, and they could very well return to the NBA Finals.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:47 AM

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Strong Second Half Effort Lifts Cavs Over Blazers

LeBron James posted his seventh triple double of the season (24 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) as the Cleveland Cavaliers overcame a 13 point first half deficit to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers 88-80 at Quicken Loans Arena. With starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas sidelined by a back injury, the Cavaliers needed their other bigs to pick up the slack offensively, defensively and on the glass. Joe Smith finished with 18 points, five rebounds and a game-high plus/minus rating of +13. Anderson Varejao scored a season-high 16 points while also grabbing nine rebounds. Ben Wallace started at center but had five rebounds and no points in less than 16 first half minutes; at halftime, the team announced that he had back spasms and would not return to the game, which opened up some more minutes for Smith. Wallace missed a two handed dunk and a couple layups, causing many members of press row to openly ask (amongst themselves) if Wallace has lost a step. Assuming that the injury is not a chronic condition, such speculation may still turn out to be premature.

LaMarcus Aldridge led Portland with 25 points and 10 rebounds. Brandon Roy had a quiet night (15 points on 5-13 shooting, seven rebounds, three assists) and no other Blazer scored in double figures. In the first half, Aldridge was the dominant player on the court, scoring 17 points on 8-12 shooting; he displayed the versatile repertoire that will likely earn him an All-Star selection soon, showing that he could score in the post as well as consistently knock down faceup jumpers. James had nine points on 4-9 shooting in the first half, adding five assists and four rebounds, but his Cavs trailed, 43-39. The Blazers started the game with a 12-2 run during which Aldridge made a layup and drained two jumpers.

While diagramming one of the Cavs' numerous defensive breakdowns early in the game, Cleveland TV analyst Austin Carr said, "It's a thought process (for new Cavs like Ben Wallace) instead of a reaction." When you are thinking instead of reacting on a basketball court you will often arrive a split second late. Carr also later noted that this unfamiliarity is taking a toll on the Cavs offensively: "The Cavs are searching, rather than knowing what they want to do."

The Cavs slowed Aldridge down in the second half by treating him as if he already is an All-Star; they fronted him in the post to deny easy entry passes and they sent double-teams when he put the ball on the floor. James forced some turnovers as the double-teamer, showing that he is willing and able to accept more responsibility on defense than he did in previous seasons. Meanwhile, Smith, playing in place of the injured Wallace, provided an offensive spark for the Cavaliers, who took their first lead of the game when Varejao received a pass from James, made a layup, got fouled and converted the free throw to put Cleveland up 62-61. Roy closed the quarter by splitting a pair of free throws.

The fourth quarter was the "Lebron James Show," as it has been in many games this season. James led both teams in scoring (nine points), rebounds (four) and assists (three) despite shooting just 1-3 from the field, all of the attempts coming from three point range (he did his damage by making six of eight free throws); in fact James led both teams in all three categories for the entire second half (15 points, six rebounds, six assists), though he tied for the honors in rebounds. The score was tied at 67 at the 8:30 mark and James produced all of his fourth quarter points after that time. His three pointer with 4:18 left put Cleveland up 78-74 but the backbreaking play was a screen/roll that he ran to perfection with Varejao, who cut to the hoop, received a pass from James and dunked to put Cleveland up 83-77 with 1:16 left.

Portland Coach Nate McMillan was understandably disappointed with his team's second half perfromance: "We've got to come out scrapping in the third and fourth quarter...Offensively, you've got to run your sets hard, you've got to set screens and you've got to get to your spots. You've got to work a little harder to get to your spots. I thought their defense took us out of what we wanted to run. We didn't get the ball in the spots we needed to. We need to work harder to get to those spots...Their double teams (against Aldridge) are going to give you open looks against the traps. You just need to spread and be ready to shoot the ball and you've got to knock down those shots when you get them."

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown had to juggle his lineup, particularly in the second half when he was without the services of three players who figure to be starters when the team is at full strength--Ilgauskas, Wallace and guard Sasha Pavlovic--and three point specialist Daniel Gibson: "In the first half, they (the Blazers) came out and played really well. We thought we had some good looks early in the game but the ball didn't go down. We felt we were OK, especially at halftime because of the good looks we had and we felt defensively we were playing OK. A couple things we did in the second half were step it up defensively and take care of the basketball." The Cavs had just one second half turnover--a shot clock violation--after committing nine first half turnovers, four of them by James, who termed those mistakes "unforced."

Although literally half of Cleveland's roster is different now than it was when the Cavs beat the Blazers 84-83 on January 30, the two big factors in that game prevailed once again: (1) James outdueled fellow All-Star Roy and (2) the Cavs took control of the game in the fourth quarter, using their experience and toughness to wear down a team that is younger and less battle-hardened.

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

During Coach Brown's pregame standup, I asked him about his thought process regarding how to rotate his bigs in light of the trade and Ilgauskas' injury: "There is a lot of talk about the disadvantages of playing Wallace and Varejao at the same time in terms of some of their offensive limitations. From your standpoint, what are the advantages of playing them together? Or is that something that you really hope to avoid doing for extended stretches once Z comes back?"

He replied, "If I thought that it was bad, then I'd start Joe (Smith) and I'd sit one of those two guys down. I think that combination can be a good combination. Defensively, in terms of getting us extra possessions, both of those guys are that type of player. Extra possessions in this league are really big. The thing that we have to get consistently (on offense) from either one of those guys--or both of those guys--is finishing around the basket. LeBron is going to draw a lot of attention and both of those guys are going to get some opportunities around the basket and they have to make sure that they finish those or get fouled in those situations in order for that floor to continue to open up not only for themselves but also for LeBron and the rest of their teammates. So, offensively, that has to happen. The thing that they have done and will continue to do is set solid screens. You have two guys who are going to set solid screens and then roll to the basket and finish and that is a big positive. Obviously, Z is a pretty good player and I think that he complements both of those guys extremely well but I think those guys can be effective together."

I followed up by asking, "Do you think that the value of setting screens is underrated because it does not appear in the boxscore and is not quantifiable like points are?"

Brown answered, "Yeah. You really can see that not only Ben (Wallace) but also Joe Smith--both of those guys are very, very good screen setters and not just in pick and roll situations but also in pin down situations or flare situations, they both set some tremendous screens that we see on tape. That has been very effective not only in getting their teammates open but also they have been the recipients of passes after setting some big screens (away from the ball)--especially Ben--and then stepping into the lane and dunking the basketball. That has to continue."

Even though Varejao and Wallace have limited shooting range they can still be effective offensive players by getting offensive rebounds, setting screens, cutting to the hoop and finishing with authority whether they get the ball via a pass or a rebound. Granted, the first quarter of the Portland game did not provide a shining example of that but Wallace's back injury may have had a lot to do with how tentatively and ineffectively he played--and Varejao's ability to play good screen/roll basketball with James led to some timely baskets, much like what happened in last year's Eastern Conference playoffs.

***

After James' big game in New York, he spoke of being 6-9, 260, which is taller and heavier than his listed size (6-8, 250). Asked about that before the game, James replied with a smile that he is 6-7, 240. A reporter joked that James was already that big in high school but James refused to budge, albeit with a huge smile on his face. I suppose that, like Bill Walton and others who did not want to be listed as 7-footers, James prefers to retain whatever mystique there may be about his listed dimensions as opposed to acknowledging what anyone who has seen him close up realizes: James is bigger than his listed size.

***

James has not only consistently said that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA but James will even remind questioners that he has consistently said that. Of course, many people take that statement with a grain of salt considering how competitive James is and how good he already is as a player. Does he really believe, in his heart of hearts, that Kobe--or anyone else--is better than he is? Obviously, we will probably never get a truthful answer to that question, so I took a different approach. Taking James' professed opinion at face value--that Kobe is better than he is--I asked James, "You've been very consistent about saying that you still think that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league. Everyone is talking about the MVP race pretty much being between the two of you. If you don't think that you are the best player right now, what do you think that you would need to do to have that title?"

James answered, "I don't know. I'm going to just continue to do what I do on the court every night and one day that title will come to me. Right now, with the MVP thing, I think that we are two players who just try to help our teams win ballgames and we do it at a high level every night. So we'll see what happens." In response to a follow-up question from another writer, James praised the fine season that Chris Paul is having, mentioning that the New Orleans guard could become the first player to average 20 ppg, 10 apg and 3 apg and saying that without Paul the Hornets might not be a playoff team even in the depleted East, let alone in the stacked West.

***

James also said that it is impossible to evaluate the results of the trade until all of the key players are active: "We can't find out how good a team we can be until we are injury-free...We are playing good basketball but we won't know how good we can be until we get everyone back. We are missing right now three of our top seven guys, two starters in Sasha (Pavlovic) and Z and then the sixth man in Boobie (Daniel Gibson). We'll see what happens but we'll be really good once we get healthy."

Outside observers have consistently doubted the Cavaliers and cast them in the role of underdogs, which is a big change for James, who noted that until he came to the NBA he had never been an underdog, that he was always used to stepping on the court and winning. He certainly is not fazed by the low expectations that many people have for the Cavaliers. "I'm looking forward to the postseason," James said with much conviction.

***

In the Cavs' locker room there are three bulletin boards displaying statistics. One of them shows the Eastern Conference standings and another one shows the league leaders in defensive field goal percentage, the key statistic monitored by Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich, his former college coach (and later his assistant with the Spurs before becoming an assistant to Mike Brown in Cleveland) Hank Egan and Mike Brown, who played for Egan in college. The third bulletin board lists "hockey assists," a term that refers to a pass that leads to the pass that is credited in the boxscore as an assist (in hockey, two assists can be awarded on one play); the concept works well in basketball, as I suggested in my article last year about Mark Aguirre. James leads the Cavs in "hockey assists" with 135, while Gibson ranks second with 80.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:52 AM

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MVP/RoY Rankings, Part VIII

The eighth edition of the Blogger MVP/RoY rankings has just been published at TWolvesBlog.

Here are links to my posts about the previous seven editions:

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part I

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part II

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part III

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part IV

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part V

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part VI

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part VII

Here is my complete ballot for the eighth edition exactly as I submitted it (MVP and RoY votes are scored on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 and 5-4-3-2-1 basis respectively, so Bryant is my top MVP pick and Durant is my top RoY pick):

MVP

10-Kobe Bryant: This has come down to a two-man race and I give the edge to Kobe based on his slightly more complete game; he is a better defender, outside shooter and free throw shooter than LeBron.
9-LeBron James: LeBron is having a fantastic season, better than the ones posted by several previous MVPs, including the last three winners of the award--but Kobe has been just a little bit better. Also, if one of the criteria is that a candidate's team win 50 games, LeBron is likely to come up short in this regard.
8-Chris Paul: The more I watch Paul, the more impressed I am with him. One downside for him until recently was that Deron Williams consistently ate his lunch head to head but Paul outplayed DWill in their last matchup.
7-Dwight Howard: He has been the most physically dominant big man this season, as shown by his field goal percentage, rebounding and shot blocking.
6-Kevin Garnett: He deserves credit as the primary factor in the Celtics' turnaround but his numbers and impact don't quite measure up to the four guys in front of him on this list.
5-Tim Duncan: As much as I respect Duncan and have praised him in various articles, I may be guilty of underrating his impact. He is the best player on a team that is contending for the best record in the Western Conference. Still, it seemed like he and the Spurs were on cruise control for part of the season, while Kobe and the players listed ahead of Duncan have more consistently put forth MVP level performances.
4-Dirk Nowitzki: His field goal percentage is lower but most of his other numbers are pretty close to what they were last year when he won the MVP. Of course, the field of candidates is deeper this year and his team is not going to win 67 games.
3-Amare Stoudemire: The Suns are still finding their sea legs but Amare's scoring has increased since Shaq arrived.
2-Steve Nash: As I mentioned in my comments for the last poll, he is within striking distance of putting up another .500-.400-.900 shooting season, a feat that he accomplished in '06 and narrowly missed in '07
1-Tracy McGrady: Most people predicted doom for the Rockets after Yao got hurt but T-Mac is showing once again that when he is healthy he is one of the very top players in the NBA..

ROY

5-Kevin Durant: He shot .492 from the field in the first four games of March. His overall production still warrants putting him in the top spot, even though he is not yet as good as some "experts" expected him to be.
4-Al Horford: He is nearly averaging a double double for a team that still has a shot at a playoff berth.
3-Luis Scola: He has played a key role in Houston's big winning streak.
2-Jamario Moon: He has been a steady contributor to a solid playoff caliber team.
1-Carl Landry: He has been huge during Houston's winning streak, particularly since Yao got hurt.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:20 AM

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Monday, March 10, 2008

The Big Payback: Suns Outmuscle Spurs

No, it does not make up for years of playoff defeats and yes, it was just one game, but the Suns' 94-87 victory over the Spurs demonstrated why it is premature to dismiss Phoenix' chances in the playoffs. The missing ingredients for the Suns in recent seasons were defense, rebounding and paint presence. Shaquille O'Neal provided all of those things in abundance versus the Spurs, finishing with 14 points, a game-high 16 rebounds and two blocked shots. He shot 6-11 from the field and tied Steve Nash for game-high plus/minus honors (+21). Nash led the Suns in scoring with 19 points and he had a game-high 14 assists. Grant Hill added 18 points and six rebounds as the top six players in the Suns' rotation all scored at least 10 points. Manu Ginobili led the Spurs with a game-high 22 points but he shot just 7-19 from the field and committed a game-high five turnovers. Tim Duncan had 17 points and 10 rebounds but he shot just 6-19 from the field and posted a game-worst plus/minus number (-23)--that is a telling stat because he and O'Neal matched up for most of the game and Duncan did not control the paint at either end of the court the way that he typically does.

Before the game, ABC's excellent color commentator Jeff Van Gundy talked about what has happened to the Suns since they traded away Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks in exchange for O'Neal. The Suns went just 3-6 in O'Neal's first nine games, allowing 113.2 ppg and 51% field goal shooting, plummeting from first place in the Western Conference to sixth place. While many people are quick to blame everything on O'Neal, Van Gundy made two trenchant points. First, "Steve Nash has to do a better job on the ball (defensively)"; when the point guard allows dribble penetration then the entire defense is compromised. Second, "A little bit of that 37-16 record (before the trade) was fool's gold in that they played one of the weakest schedules in the league." I would take that a step further and say that the Suns' regular season success throughout the Nash era has largely been "fool's gold," because they piled up wins against the weak teams by running and gunning in a fashion that simply does not work consistently against legitimate contenders that have time to rest between playoff games.

O'Neal set a physical tone right from the start versus the Spurs, scoring eight points and grabbing three rebounds as the Suns took a 12-8 lead before he came out of the game at the 6:25 mark of the first quarter. The Spurs had one of their best stretches of the game with O'Neal on the bench, going in front 25-22 by the end of the quarter. Ginobili provided a spark during that run with six points but he found the going much rougher when O'Neal returned in the second quarter. One play in particular illustrates not only O'Neal's impact but also how essential it is for all five players to concentrate on defense: Ginobili blew by Raja Bell and got into the paint but O'Neal slid over and forced him to miss an off balance shot. Bell should have "sunk" into the paint and put a body on O'Neal's man--Fabricio Oberto--to prevent him from getting an offensive rebound. Instead, Bell stopped and watched as Oberto tipped in Ginobili's miss. This is why it is important to actually watch games in their entirety and analyze what happened; otherwise, you might reach an erroneous conclusion about where the problems are with the Suns' defense. As Van Gundy suggested, containing dribble penetration is vitally important--and as this example illustrates, even when the initial defense breaks down it is important to keep playing hard and keep rotating, picking up your teammate's man if he picks up yours (helping the helper, as coaches put it).

The teams battled to a 23-23 tie in the second quarter, so the Spurs held a 48-45 halftime lead but the story of the first half was O'Neal's performance: he already had a double double (12 points, 11 rebounds) and even though Duncan and Ginobili both scored in double figures neither player shot well from the field. Ginobili told ABC's Michele Tafoya, "I think I forced the issue a little bit" and he vowed to drive the ball to the hoop and kick to open shooters in the second half after making just 4 of his 12 field goal attempts and not producing a single assist. Meanwhile, a bit earlier, ABC's Mark Jackson declared, "If this Shaquille O'Neal shows up and the Phoenix Suns lock in defensively, they are a dangerous team. Shaq looks like he turned back the hands of time."In the first half the Suns shot 47% from the field while holding the Spurs to 38%. The main reason that the Spurs were in front was that they made five of their eight three point shots, while Phoenix only connected on 1 of 4 long range shots; it was almost like the teams had switched identities: the Suns were pounding the ball into the paint, while the Spurs were making treys.

The "old" Suns would often be competitive with the Spurs for significant stretches within games before the Spurs clamped down defensively and got a few key scores to prevail. This game had a similar script but the roles were reversed. The third quarter was as tightly contested as the first two. O'Neal thrilled--and momentarily scared--the home crowd by diving into the stands to try to save a loose ball and that effort not only prompted a standing ovation but seemed to inspire a run that put Phoenix ahead 65-57, the biggest margin that either team enjoyed in the game; however, although Jackson did not use the phrase this time, I would call what O'Neal did "fake hustle": that is when you dive after a ball that you really have little chance of saving or controlling. During his long career, Dennis Rodman probably led the league in both real hustle and fake hustle and O'Neal is not above engaging in some theatrics. Fortunately, no fans were seriously injured. O'Neal went to the bench for a brief rest when the score was 63-57 and when he returned the Suns were only up 67-65. Bruce Bowen's three pointer at the buzzer put the Spurs up 70-69 .

Despite their poor shooting, the Spurs were not only in the game but they had the lead, prompting Van Gundy to comment, "Championship teams find ways to stay in games and win games even when they are not shooting well." The quintessential example of this is game seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Bulls beat the Pacers 88-83. The Bulls shot 29-76 from the field--Michael Jordan shot 9-25 and Scottie Pippen shot 6-18--and 24-41 from the free throw line but grabbed 22 offensive rebounds, including six by Pippen, five by Jordan and three by Rodman; it was hardly artistic but the Bulls found a way to win. During the Nash era--at least in the playoffs--the Suns have been a team that finds a way to lose against the top teams, in no small part because they have relied heavily on their ability to score and have not been able to get key stops or key rebounds if they go through cold stretches. O'Neal's primary task is to change that, to add some muscle and grit and paint presence to the mix.

It did not look good for Phoenix early in the fourth quarter. Ginobili nailed a three and Kurt Thomas made a jumper to put the Spurs up 75-69 but the Suns battled back and only trailed 77-76 at the 8:09 mark after a Raja Bell three pointer. That play provided another great example of why basketball can only be understood by intelligently watching the entire game and not just by crunching numbers or watching part of the game or checking out some highlights (which may be edited by someone who did not know enough to pick the most important plays). The reason that Bell was wide open was that his defender, Michael Finley, had been camped out in the lane double-teaming O'Neal; the paint presence that O'Neal established in the first half affected how the rest of the game was played, even in sequences where there are no box score numbers to document his impact. In previous years, the Spurs stayed at home on the Suns' three point shooters, neutralizing a big part of Phoenix' attack; in this game, the double-teams that O'Neal drew created a lot of open three point shots and, even though the Suns actually shot a poor percentage overall from long range, the fact that O'Neal still commands that kind of defensive attention bodes well for Phoenix (Miami fans, feel free to grit your teeth at this point as you remember the lack of energy that O'Neal showed not too long ago when he wore a Heat uniform).

After Duncan split a pair of free throws, Nash hit a jumper to tie the score at 78. On the next possession, Duncan missed a shot in the paint but grabbed the rebound and dunked the ball. Van Gundy said, "That can't happen. O'Neal defended him well, made him miss. That has to be a gang rebound. You can't be able to follow up your own shot." The play by play sheet credits Amare Stoudemire with a block on the initial shot, which surprised me because I did not think that Stoudemire touched the ball and none of the announcers mentioned it, either. In fact, I went back and replayed that sequence to be sure and I still think that even though Stoudemire dropped down to help he did not make contact with the ball. In any case, the point is that instead of Duncan overpowering Stoudemire or Marion as in years past, O'Neal forced him into a tough shot and Stoudemire had the freedom to roam in as a weakside defender, a role that suits him much better than one on one post defender; another point, as Van Gundy and Jackson both mentioned, is that the guards have to anticipate that miss and get the rebound after the initial stop.

The Spurs pushed their lead to 85-80 after another Thomas jumper; one weakness that O'Neal had even in his prime is that he is unwilling/unable to get out of the paint and effectively contest shots by centers who have the ability to shoot face up jumpers from 15-18 feet. During the Phoenix possession prior to that shot we got to glimpse a bit of the chess match between the two coaches as Jackson noted a change in strategy by the Spurs; instead of fighting through the pick or switching, the Spurs trapped Steve Nash after a high pick and roll. Caught by surprise, Nash threw a bad pass and the Suns eventually committed a shot clock violation. Jackson added that the Spurs could trap Nash because with O'Neal and Stoudemire on the court at the same time the Suns had fewer three point shooters to spread the floor.

Suns' Coach Mike D'Antoni got a technical foul at the 5:03 mark but Ginobili missed the free throw. Van Gundy said, "I would never tolerate a fourth quarter technical foul from a player so as a coach you can't tolerate it from yourself." While D'Antoni ranted and fumed during a close game, I thought back to last year's playoffs when Stoudemire and Boris Diaw lost their composure for a split second, left the area of the bench and earned suspensions; championship teams must remain focused at all times.

The teams exchanged some missed shots and turnovers before Nash's pullup three pointer pulled the Suns to within 85-83. Marion often had the job of guarding point guard Tony Parker during key possessions but now that task falls to Hill, who blocked Parker's jumper on the next possession. Stoudemire tied the game with a jumper and after Duncan missed another shot in the paint it was the Suns' turn to make a strategic move. Instead of screening for Nash and letting him get trapped, the Suns had Nash set a middle screen for Stoudemire, who drove to the hoop and got fouled. He split the free throws to put the Suns up one. Earlier in the game, Van Gundy mentioned that Nash, like John Stockton, is an excellent screener but he also pointed out that referees let smaller players get away with fouls when they set screens. Van Gundy said that Nash's screen on this play was illegal and if you watch the play closely (i.e., look at Nash and not Stoudemire) you can see that Nash did not establish position but instead moved so that the defender could not recover.

After Ginobili missed a three pointer, the Suns ran the same play again and this time Stoudemire made both free throws after he was fouled, putting the Suns up 88-85. Ginobili hit a tough runner in the paint to cut the lead to one and the Suns answered with the same play yet again. This time, the defense rotated to stop Stoudemire's drive, so he passed to Hill for a wide open jumper that made the score 90-87 Phoenix. Although O'Neal never touched the ball on these plays, the Spurs had to account for him on the post as well as deal with the threat he posed on the offensive glass, so his presence limited their options defensively.

Ginobili missed a jumper but the Spurs got the ball back and Ginobili drove to the hoop. O'Neal met him in the paint, contested the shot and forced a miss. There appeared to be some contact on the play but Jackson said, "When you play with force and aggressiveness you get away with more." Van Gundy wryly asked what happens when both teams play with force and aggressiveness, noting that Ginobili's play was also forceful and aggressive. After missing the shot, Ginobili fouled Bell, which was not a smart play since the Spurs only trailed by three with :46 left. Bell made both free throws and then O'Neal thwarted Duncan's drive to the hoop on the next possession. As Jackson put it,"Really great defense by Shaquille O'Neal to seal the deal."

The Suns were the worst rebounding team in the NBA before O'Neal arrived but in this game they outrebounded the Spurs 52-44. Some people assumed that O'Neal would slow down the Suns' running game but even though this was not a high scoring contest the Suns produced 23 fast break points while holding the Spurs to five. No longer overly reliant on contested outside shots, the Suns outscored the Spurs in the paint 38-24.

Obviously, this is just one regular season game. Both teams will no doubt make some adjustments in the event that they face each other in the playoffs. Still, this game provided a good illustration of the value that O'Neal adds to the Suns and it also showed that Hill can pick up the slack in terms of some of the things that Marion used to do (guard players at multiple positions, rebound, shoot a good percentage). The West may be as tough as it ever has been and I still consider the Spurs to be the favorites but the Suns are better equipped to play playoff basketball than they were before they acquired O'Neal.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:48 AM

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

T-Mac Attack: McGrady Scores 41, Lifts Rockets Over Hornets

Tracy McGrady played all 48 minutes and scored 41 points on Sunday as the Houston Rockets defeated the New Orleans Hornets 106-96, running their winning streak to 18 games. That is the longest winning streak in the NBA this season and tied for the fourth longest single-season winning streak in NBA history (the '70 Knicks, '82 Celtics and '96 Bulls also won 18 straight games). If the Rockets beat New Jersey on Monday then they will tie the '00 Lakers and trail only the '71 Bucks (20 games) and the '72 Lakers (33 games); although most press reports do not mention this, the NBA Guide lists one other winning streak among the all-time leaders: the Washington Capitols won 20 straight games in 1948, spanning the final five games of the 1947-48 season and the first 15 games of the 1948-49 season. The Capitols were coached by none other than Red Auerbach, who guided them to the 1949 Finals, where they lost in six games to Minneapolis. The '70 Knicks, '71 Bucks, '72 Lakers, '96 Bulls and '00 Lakers all won championships, while the '82 Celtics lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the 76ers.

McGrady shot 17-27 from the field and he had nine assists, six rebounds and two blocked shots. Rafer Alston (20 points) and Shane Battier (10 points) were the only other Rockets who reached double figures but four players scored between six and nine points. Chris Paul led New Orleans with 37 points and 11 assists, many of which came on gorgeous lob passes that Tyson Chandler (15 points, 16 rebounds) converted into slam dunks. Paul really played a splendid game, showcasing his full array of skills: the quickness that enables him to get steals on defense and blow by defenders on offense, tremendous ballhandling, a deft shooting touch and the ability to accurately deliver a wide range of passes even against defensive pressure. That said, in general I still favor the skilled bigger perimeter players (Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, McGrady when healthy) over the skilled smaller perimeter players (Paul, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson); that extra size enables the bigger player to cover more ground both offensively and defensively and does not leave him exposed to as many mismatches in pick and roll situations.

Both teams were missing an injured All-Star big man: Houston's Yao Ming is of course out for the rest of the season, while New Orleans' David West missed his third game in a row due to a sprained ankle. Houston's rookie forward Carl Landry, who had scored in double figures in five straight games, missed the game due to a knee injury.

How have the Rockets been able to keep their streak going even after Yao's injury? It is important to realize that prior to this season the Rockets were just 11-39 in games that McGrady missed but 126-70 when he played; prorating those numbers over an 82 game schedule, that means that with McGrady the Rockets played like a legitimate title contender (a pace better than 50 wins per season) while without him they played like a lottery team. In general, the Rockets' record has been much more sensitive to McGrady's absence than Yao's absence. Last season the Rockets did very well even when Yao missed 34 games. McGrady is capable of playing at or close to the level that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James operate at regularly but in recent years he has not been able to sustain that level of performance for an extended period of time, largely due to recurring injuries. As I wrote earlier this season, "In plain English, with McGrady the Rockets are an elite team and without him they are one of the worst teams in the league. McGrady is rarely mentioned as a top five MVP candidate but if winning is the ultimate 'value' one could make a case that McGrady is the most 'valuable' player because his presence or absence has such a direct, immediate impact on whether or not his team wins. The flip side of this, the reason that McGrady is not often thought of as an MVP, is that McGrady has never taken a team past the first round of the playoffs. However, if you look at each one of the teams that McGrady has carried to the playoffs--and 'carried' is not too strong of a word for it, as the above numbers show--none of them were better or deeper than their opponents. Even last year's Rockets team, which lost a game seven at home to Utah, was not a better squad from top to bottom than the Jazz; McGrady--with help from Yao Ming--took a team with no point guard and a suspect bench much farther than it otherwise would have gone."

Since that time, injuries hobbled McGrady, which led to Yao assuming a dominant position on the team, causing many people to assume that Yao's injury would be a fatal blow to the Rockets. What we are seeing now is a healthy McGrady once again playing at an MVP level, though of course he cannot be a serious contender for the award in light of the fact that Bryant and James have played at an even higher level for the entire season. I respect the accumulated knowledge and experience of former players--particularly the all-time greats--but TNT's Charles Barkley is simply wrong when he says that McGrady does not make his teammates better. As I have explained before, I am not fond of the phrase "making your teammates better," preferring to discuss how "great players create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well."

For example, McGrady is a very difficult one on one matchup for most players in the NBA and when he draws double teams that creates wide open shots for spot up shooters. McGrady does not make Alston or Battier better but he puts them in position to do what they do well. McGrady is a great scorer and a willing/skilled passer and that combination is deadly. Early in the game, he drove strongly to the hoop and scored a layup. Color commentator Clyde Drexler noted, "When he does that he is impossible to guard because he passes the ball so well." In other words, the threat of a pass that would lead to an easy dunk by a cutter makes it difficult to defend McGrady when he gets a step on his man and drives to the hoop; this is also true of Bryant and James.

McGrady is 6-8 and that provides another advantage that he shares with Bryant and James (and Magic Johnson): the ability to see right over the defense. On several occasions, Chuck Hayes came up like he was going to set a screen for McGrady only to "slip" the screen at the last second and dive to the hoop; both defenders trapped McGrady but that kind of trap is not effective because McGrady can see right over it and make an easy (for him) pass. As Drexler said of McGrady as he put on a scoring and passing clinic during the fourth quarter, "When he's healthy, he's one of the premier players in the game today."

In addition to McGrady's brilliance, the Rockets have an excellent rotation of big men who understand their roles and perform them well. The ageless Dikembe Mutombo provided rebounding and defense in his 18:29 of action and for the rest of the game the Rockets successfully used a smaller lineup with Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes and Steve Novak serving as the "bigs." Scola has all-around skills, though on this night he was mainly a banger (eight rebounds in 24:51), Hayes is a banger (nine rebounds in 29:31) who also dives well to the hoop on pick and rolls (a la Cleveland's Anderson Varejao) and Novak is a spot up shooter who spreads the court (eight points in 9:17).

The Rockets have moved up to third in the Western Conference standings. Despite their impressive winning streak, it is difficult to believe that they can go very far in the postseason, particularly considering that McGrady and Yao together did not lead Houston out of the first round last year. Keep in mind that both Dallas and Phoenix posted 17 game winning streaks last season but that neither team even made it to the Western Conference Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM

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