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Friday, March 21, 2008

Lakers Snap Utah's Record Home Winning Streak

The Utah Jazz had not lost at home in 2008, tying a franchise record with 19 home wins, but the Lakers snapped that streak on Thursday with a convincing, wire to wire 106-95 victory. Playing without injured seven footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, the Lakers relied on strong performances from Kobe Bryant (27 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) and Lamar Odom, who notched his fourth straight double double (21 points, 12 rebounds, six assists). Deron Williams led the Jazz with 26 points and 12 assists and he tied for second on the team with seven rebounds. Carlos Boozer also played well (23 points, 15 rebounds) but the Jazz never mounted a serious threat after the Lakers opened the game with a 20-7 burst punctuated by an Odom dunk, an Odom three pointer (assisted by Bryant) and a Bryant dunk.

From an analytical standpoint, the main story of this game is that Utah could not contain Bryant's dribble penetration, which consistently led to defensive breakdowns that resulted in scores for Bryant, easy baskets for Lakers' bigs or wide open three pointers (the Lakers shot 10-22 from three point range).

Watching the Lakers dominate this contest, my thoughts turned to an interesting question: How many times have Bryant and the Lakers been counted out this season by the "experts"? The first time was before the season even began, when some people suggested that perhaps Bryant would hold out or not play hard if the Lakers did not either trade him or acquire some better personnel. Of course, anyone who understands anything about Bryant realizes how absurd those thoughts are. Bryant scored 45 points in a hard fought, two point loss to Houston on opening night and then led the Lakers to victories against Western Conference powers Phoenix and Utah in the next two games. That pretty much put an end to any talk that Bryant would give any less than his best.

When Andrew Bynum emerged as the first Lakers post player who can consistently catch and finish since the Shaquille O'Neal trade, the Lakers steadily moved up the Western Conference standings. Bynum was hardly dominating--his statistics (13.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 2.1 bpg) essentially match what Zydrunas Ilgauskas does for Cleveland (13.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.7 bpg), with Bynum shooting better from the field and Ilgauskas shooting better from the free throw line--but he did enough to convince some people that he is more valuable than Bryant. That notion is amusing to anyone who actually watched the Lakers play and understood that a substantial portion of Bynum's offensive production resulted from all of the defensive attention that Bryant attracts. Yes, Bynum displayed the rudiments of a back to the basket post game as the season progressed but for the most part he feasted off of lobs and offensive rebounding opportunities that came about precisely because the defense could not afford to focus on him as long as Bryant was on the court.

After Bynum got injured, the "experts" wrote off the Lakers for the second time this season, saying that in the tough West the Lakers would struggle to make the playoffs. Instead, Bryant shouldered more of the offensive load and the Lakers went 5-5 in the first 10 games that Bynum missed. That mark included losses to Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas and Detroit, the latter three on the road. Bryant averaged 35.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg while shooting .558 from the field in the last six games of that stretch, during which the Lakers went 3-3, including a road win in Toronto when Bryant scored 46 points and a one point loss in Detroit when Bryant scored 39 points. Despite being without Bynum for those 10 games the Lakers still had a 30-16 record, the sixth best mark in the league.

Enter Pau Gasol. Adding the one-time All-Star to a team that just 10 games earlier the "experts" said would not even make the playoffs turned the Lakers into a powerhouse. They went 14-3 in the next 17 games and moved into first place in the West. Then Gasol sprained his ankle during a win over Toronto and the "experts" wrote off the Lakers for a third time, declaring that a four game road trip to New Orleans, Houston, Dallas and Utah would send the Lakers plummeting in the standings. Instead, Bryant averaged 29 ppg in 42.5 mpg and led the Lakers to a 2-2 record, good enough to keep the Lakers on top of the standings in the West. The formula for top teams is to win half of their games on the road and at least 75% of their games at home, a combination that results in more than 50 wins overall.

Are the Lakers as good without Bynum and Gasol as they are with them? Of course not. Can they win the championship without both of those players? Of course not--it is far from certain that they would win a seven game series against the Spurs even with those guys and 100% certain that they would not win such a series without them. However, that does not change the fact that Bryant is without question the driving force behind the Lakers' success. Al Jefferson is far more productive than Bynum--how well is his team doing? What track record of sustained success does Gasol have prior to playing with Bryant? Bynum and Gasol are good players who definitely ease the load on Bryant by providing size, length and skill in the paint but Bryant also eases the load on them by attracting extra defensive coverage.

Here is a good thought experiment: give Gasol and Bynum to Steve Nash and give Shaq and Amare to Bryant. What do you think would happen to each of those teams? Or give Gasol and Bynum to Ginobili/Parker in exchange for Duncan and either Kurt Thomas or Fabricio Oberto. How would that turn out? The answers to these questions should be painfully obvious but based on the way that the "experts" keep counting out Bryant and the Lakers apparently the answers are not so obvious.

It will be fascinating to see how all of this pans out in the MVP voting. For the past two seasons we have heard that Bryant was essentially disqualified from winning the award because his team did not win 50 games. So unless the Cavs go 11-2 the rest of the way then LeBron James is disqualified this year, right? Meanwhile, Bryant's Lakers have the best record in the West even though Bynum has only played in 35 games and Gasol has only played in 18 games as a Laker. Chris Paul has been mentioned a lot recently as an MVP candidate and some people say that Paul does not have as good a supporting cast as Bryant. Paul's All-Star big man, David West, has averaged 19.8 ppg and 9.2 rpg in 61 games and his other top big man, Tyson Chandler, has averaged 11.6 ppg and 12.3 rpg in 64 games. One could certainly make the case that they form a better duo than Gasol and Bynum do but even if you think that Gasol and Bynum are better they have only played half as many games as the Hornets' big men have--and the Lakers' two top big men have not even spent one second on the court together! While we are talking about supporting casts, it is worth mentioning that New Orleans' third leading scorer, Peja Stojakovic, is a three-time All-Star who finished fourth in MVP voting once and who currently ranks sixth in the league in three point shooting percentage. Injuries slowed Stojakovic the past couple seasons but he is healthy now and does not turn 31 until June.

LeBron James and Chris Paul are wonderful players. I'd rank James just behind Bryant and I'd put Paul third, albeit some distance behind Bryant and James. However, using the criteria that led to Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki winning the past three MVPs, it is hard to understand how Bryant could not win this year's MVP. Kevin Garnett perhaps merits mentioning but he is essentially playing the role this season that Detroit's Chauncey Billups played in 2005-06; he is the best player on the team with the best record but that team has multiple All-Stars, which resulted in Billups and Garnett not posting individual numbers that stack up with what the other MVP candidates are doing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:54 AM

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Guest Appearance on Gotham Hoops Live This Sunday

This Sunday, I will be interviewed by Mike Silva of Gotham Hoops Live starting at 9 p.m. Some of the subjects that we will talk about are Houston's winning streak, the exciting Western Conference playoff race, Part V of my Pantheon series and Dennis Johnson.

You can listen to the show by clicking here. If you are unable to listen live, check back here for a link to a recording of the show. Also, here are links to recordings of my previous two GHL appearances:

12/23/07 (1992 Dream Team versus 2008 Team USA, etc)

2/12/08 (Pantheon series, early take on Shaq and Gasol trades)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:40 AM

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cavs Use Old Formula to Beat Pistons With New Players

Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers eliminated the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals by relying on excellent team defense, strong rebounding and the brilliant all-around play of LeBron James. Several of the faces have changed in Cleveland--and things have not always gone smoothly since the big trade--but that tried and tested formula resulted in an 89-73 home victory over Detroit on Wednesday night. James did his part with 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists, shooting 11-19 from the field and producing a +15 plus/minus rating while playing a team-high 41 minutes. The Cavaliers outrebounded the Pistons 46-39. Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas each had eight rebounds and Anderson Varejao added six rebounds off of the bench. Ilgauskas also scored 20 points on 9-14 field goal shooting. Wally Szczerbiak (10 points on 4-7 shooting) was the only other Cav who scored in double figures but that did not matter because the Cavs held the Pistons to .397 field goal shooting.

Rasheed Wallace led Detroit with 16 points but he shot just 6-17 from the field. ESPN's Mike Breen and Jon Barry repeatedly talked about how Wallace gets up for road games and big games but does not play with that intensity on a nightly basis. Well, this was a big road game against the team that eliminated the Pistons in the playoffs and Rasheed really did not deliver all that much, amassing the worst plus/minus total (-20) of any player in the game. Frankly, considering his bountiful talents, the amount of money that he makes and how vital he is to his team's success, it is not an endearing trait that he does not summon up a high degree of effort and production on a consistent basis. Barry compared him to Derrick Coleman but even Coleman had three straight 20/10 seasons and he made the All-NBA Third Team a couple times; Wallace has never done either of those things even once. There is no doubt that Wallace played a critically important role for Detroit's championship team in 2004 but does concentrating for half a season and one playoff run justify essentially sleepwalking through the better part of his career? Yes, Wallace has made the All-Star team four times but, as Charles Barkley and others have pointed out, he has the talent to be one of the very best players in the NBA but he is satisfied to just coast most of the time. That is not an admirable trait and no one is good enough to turn his game on and off at will--Wallace's shameful attitude filters through the team and is part of the reason that the Pistons have come up short in the playoffs the past several years. You may recall that it was his blown assignment that enabled Robert Horry to nail a crucial three point shot in the 2005 Finals; that is what happens when you are not in the habit of being mentally engaged in the game to the highest degree at all times.

That said, credit also has to be given to the players who checked Rasheed Wallace. Ben Wallace did a great job guarding him in the post for most of the game and Varejao also defended him well on several occasions. One time, Rasheed got so frustrated from jostling with Varejao on the block that he abandoned the low post altogether, drifted outside, received a pass and bricked a three pointer. That just shows up in the boxscore as one missed field goal but Varejao is a physical player who plays with an edge and that quality is very valuable, particularly in the playoffs. Another thing that Varejao does that does not show up in the boxscore is guard multiple players on one possession. For instance, he will defend someone in the post, "show" on a pick and roll to stop a guard from penetrating and then rotate to an open shooter as the ball is swung around. His mobility and aggressiveness played a significant role in Cleveland's playoff success last year.

Chauncey "Mr. Big Shot" Billups was largely invisible (10 points on 4-12 shooting, five rebounds, four assists) and Richard Hamilton had a good first quarter but finished with only 14 points, though he did have a team-high seven assists. Barry and Breen spent most of the game talking about how bad Cleveland's offense is but apparently they did not notice all of the shots that the Pistons were bricking. When the injured Daniel Gibson returns to the lineup the Cavaliers will have another shooter to pair with Szczerbiak to space the court and the offense will function more effectively. Meanwhile, James shoulders most of the load, leading the league in scoring while regularly attracting multiple defenders and thus providing open shots for his teammates. Tayshaun Prince told ESPN's broadcast team that James is the toughest player in the league to guard now, adding, "It's not even close." Prince said that when James gets up a head of steam his drives are impossible to stop. There is a lot of truth to that but the Spurs showed in last year's Finals that if you station two seven footers in the lane and force James to shoot perimeter shots that it is possible to slow him down. When the Pistons paired a younger Ben Wallace with Rasheed Wallace they could play that kind of defense but now that Rasheed is pretty much by himself back there (and is only sporadically paying attention) James can indeed seemingly get to the hoop at will versus this team, just like he did in last year's playoffs.

This was definitely the best all-around defensive performance by the "new" Cavs and it came at a very good time; Cleveland will not likely catch Detroit in the standings but it was important to show that the current version of the team matches up just as well with the Pistons as the previous version did. If the Cavaliers will continue to play this kind of defense and if they are able to finally get everyone in their rotation healthy then they can absolutely repeat as Eastern Conference champions. It won't be easy but they know the formula and have proven that they can do it.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:57 AM

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cleveland's Trade: A "Mid-Term" Report Card

Prior to tonight's game versus Detroit, Cleveland had played 14 games since trading away six players to acquire Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West and the Cavaliers had 14 games remaining before the end of the season. Therefore, now is the perfect time to issue a "mid-term" report card about the trade's impact on the Cavaliers:

The Trade: A "Mid-Term" Report Card

One of the most interesting things that I discovered while doing the research for this article is that, despite all the talk about how much work LeBron James has done to improve his outside shooting and his free throw shooting, his three point percentage has declined for the third straight season and his free throw percentage is below his career average. He has had some games in which he shot very well from one or both of those areas but, as a rule, he is a streak shooter from both distances and the cold streaks last longer than the hot ones.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:40 PM

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NBA Leaderboard, Part XVIII

Three Eastern Conference teams have now clinched playoff berths, as Orlando joined Boston and Detroit, but no one has clinched anything in the wild West. Houston's 22 game winning streak briefly moved the Rockets into first place in the West but their loss to Boston on Tuesday dropped them into a tie with the Lakers, though technically the Rockets are still on top due to owning the head to head tiebreaker over L.A. after beating them on Sunday.

Best Five Records
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1) Boston Celtics, 54-13--clinched playoff berth
2) Detroit Pistons, 49-18--clinched playoff berth
3-4) Houston Rockets, L.A. Lakers, 46-21
5) New Orleans Hornets, 45-21

Boston's rout of Houston on Tuesday showed us something about both teams. The Celtics are doing better than I expected this season and the reason for their consistently high performance level is that they are an outstanding defensive team; that, more than the offensive firepower of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen trio, is what has separated them from every other team in the NBA so far. It is unusual for a team to become so good defensively so quickly but Garnett and Coach Doc Rivers deserve a lot of credit, as do the other players on the team for buying into the system. As for Houston, TNT's Doug Collins put it best: the Rockets did not lose to the Celtics due to lack of effort, it was simply too difficult for them to score inside against a much bigger team. Dikembe Mutombo can only turn back the clock for about 15-20 minutes a night and when he is not on the court the Rockets are a small team, particularly with Carl Landry being out of action. Combine that with a down night by a tired Tracy McGrady and some poor three point shooting and the Rockets had no chance. The streak had to end some time but I don't buy into something else that Collins said, namely that the Rockets run the risk of losing confidence now that they have a few tough road games ahead of them. Like Boston, Houston plays hard and plays good defense game in and game out, so the Rockets are in good shape heading into the playoffs--or at least as good as they can be without Yao Ming.

Some people laughed when I said that the acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal makes Phoenix a dangerous team. The Suns went through a brief adjustment period and now they have won five straight games, tied with Orlando for the longest active winning streak in the NBA after Houston's loss. The Suns own the sixth best record in the NBA, a half game behind the Hornets and one game behind the Rockets and Lakers. People who don't know what they are talking about can chuckle all they want but I doubt that any Western Conference coaches are very amused about the prospect of facing the Suns in a seven game series.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) LeBron James, CLE 30.9 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.2 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.4 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.5 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.6 ppg
6) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 24.3 ppg
7) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 23.6 ppg
8) Michael Redd, MIL 23.3 ppg
9) Richard Jefferson, NJN 23.0 ppg
10) Chris Bosh, MIA 22.6 ppg

13) Yao Ming, HOU 22.0 ppg

25) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.0 ppg

30) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.6 ppg

37) Kevin Garnett, BOS 18.7 ppg

41) Ray Allen, BOS 18.3 ppg

After some movement early in the season this leaderboard has stabilized and there do not figure to be too many changes until Dwyane Wade and Yao Ming drop off due to not meeting the minimum requirements for points scored/games played. If there were an award for scoring the most points that had the least effect on winning during a season then Wade and Kevin Durant would be the runaway winners. Wade presided over perhaps the most epic losing streak ever experienced by a former Finals MVP during his prime, while Durant struggles to score more points than the margin his Sonics lose by each game. TNT's Charles Barkley made a couple excellent points on Tuesday: the Sonics showed no pride in letting the Nuggets drop 168 points on them and when Denver kept jacking up three pointers late in the game someone should have delivered a hard foul.

By the way, has Bill Simmons written any columns lately about how Durant is the next great thing and that Portland should have taken him instead of Greg Oden? Portland's management seems to be doing a fine job running the team despite not having Simmons on the payroll. Contrary to the wild, uninformed praise that Simmons and several others delivered prior to the season, Durant is exactly what I said he was when I analyzed his game last summer: a talented but very raw player who needs to gain strength and work on his shot selection, dribbling, passing, rebounding and defense if he wants to even be an All-Star, never mind becoming the sensation that so many people prematurely called him. I don't discount the possibility that he can become great--though I am frankly a bit skeptical--but he absolutely has a lot of work that he needs to do. Durant's best skill right now is free throw shooting but he is not strong enough or skilled enough to draw enough fouls for that to really matter too much. As I wrote last summer, "...'everyone' seems convinced that he is going to be a 'superstar' even though there are some conspicuous red flags about his body and his overall game. Those red flags don't mean that he won't become a very good player, even a superstar in time--but just like we should not read too much into Durant's summer league play we should also not read too little into it, either...Yes, Durant is long and athletic and can get his shot off over most defenders but if he continues to shoot poorly and cannot post up, rebound or pass then I don't think that teams will be greatly concerned about him shooting a lot of faceup jumpers."

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
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1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.4 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 13.7 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.1 rpg
4) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.3 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.6 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.4 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.0 rpg
8) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.6 rpg
9) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.3 rpg
10) Zach Randolph, NYK 10.3 rpg

13) Al Horford, ATL 9.7 rpg

22) Ben Wallace, CLE/CHI 8.7 rpg

24) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.6 rpg

30) LeBron James, CLE 8.1 rpg

33) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 7.7 rpg

Yao Ming just dropped off of this leaderboard after ranking eighth last week, enabling us to discover that Zach Randolph and the Knicks apparently are still in the NBA as "Z-Bo" moved into the 10th spot. Al Horford continues to put up nearly a double double a night for a team that is in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt and he is increasingly looking like an appealing alternative to Durant for Rookie of the Year honors. Horford only scores about half as much as Durant does but he shoots much better from the field and has a greater impact on a better team.

February was Dwight Howard's worst month of the season in terms of rebounding but he has gotten back on track in March and, not surprisingly, his Magic have won eight of their nine games this month. Didn't Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy mention something about a connection between Howard's rebounding and shot blocking and the team's wins?

Top Ten Playmakers
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1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.4 apg
2) Chris Paul, NOH 11.3 apg
3) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 10.3 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 10.2 apg
5) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.5 apg
6) Baron Davis, GSW 8.0 apg
7) LeBron James, CLE 7.5 apg
8) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.2 apg
9) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.0 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.0 apg

As I correctly noted last week, Chris Paul had moved to within striking distance of wresting the crown from three-time defending champion Steve Nash--and this week Paul moved into a virtual tie with Nash even sooner than I had projected. Paul is averaging 13.6 apg in March, while Nash is averaging "only" 10.4 apg and has had fewer than 10 assists in three of his previous four games. This looks like it will be a photo finish but it could actually turn into a runaway victory for Paul.

Jamaal Tinsley had ranked sixth but he dropped off the list this week due to not meeting the minimum requirements.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:38 AM

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"Black Magic": Must-See TV

ESPN's four hour program "Black Magic" is truly must-see TV. It interweaves the story of the development of the basketball programs at historically black colleges with the Civil Rights' movement's struggles against racism and segregation. NBA stars Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Bob Love, Bob Dandridge and Dick Barnett all played at historically black colleges and they each tell their stories in this show. If you missed the broadcast on Sunday and Monday night then you definitely should try to see it when it is shown on ESPN2 next week. Meanwhile, here is an article that I wrote about the program:

"Black Magic": Must-See TV

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Dennis Johnson: "Airplane" Flew to Three NBA Titles

Dennis Johnson, perhaps the best defensive guard of his era, played on three NBA championship teams. Larry Bird called him the best teammate he ever had. Although Johnson did not shoot a great percentage from the field, he had an uncanny knack for hitting clutch shots in big games. He was one of those rare players who was consistently more productive in the playoffs than he was in the regular season.

Here is a look at Johnson's great career:

Dennis Johnson: "Airplane" Flew to Three NBA Titles

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:10 PM

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Nuggets Try to Make Late Push for Playoff Berth

Before this season began, Denver players openly spoke about winning 60 games and contending for a championship. Now, with 16 games to go, the Nuggets are trying to make a late push to get the eighth and final playoff spot in the very competitive Western Conference. They have won their last three games, all at home, by at least 22 points, albeit against weak opposition: Memphis, Seattle and a Toronto team that is floundering without the injured Chris Bosh. On Sunday, the Nuggets scored the fourth most points in a regulation game in the history of the NBA, blasting the Sonics 168-116. That total obviously established a season-high for this year, smashing the mark that the Nuggets had set against the Sonics on February 27 in a 138-96 win.

Denver Coach George Karl did pull his starters out well before the end of both of those games but it is fair to wonder what, if anything, the Nuggets were trying to prove. Yes, the Sonics are a bad team that has had their share of blowout losses but the Nuggets took it to a whole other level in those two games. This is not the old CBA where you get a point in the standings for each quarter that you win, nor is this college football where the pollsters give you a boost for blowout victories. You may recall that last season's fracas in Madison Square Garden was at least partially caused by the feeling among Knicks' players and coaches that the Nuggets were running up the score and hotdogging against them. Granted, this is the NBA, not grade school, and one could retort that if you don't like what the other team is doing then play some defense but it would be more impressive if the Nuggets could do this kind of thing consistently against good teams or, more to the point, if they were not on the outside looking in at the playoffs even after these blowout wins.

The Nuggets trail the Golden State Warriors for the last playoff berth by a game and a half--and they are not gaining any ground despite beating down some hapless teams: the Warriors went 8-2 in their last 10 games while the Nuggets went 7-3 during their last 10 games. The Nuggets play 10 of their last 16 games on the road, including a five games in seven days road trip that begins tonight in Detroit. The Warriors finish the season with eight home games and nine road games. These teams do face each other two more times--once at home and once on the road--so if the race remains tight those will essentially be playoff games for both teams.

One thing that those lopsided victories did for Denver is tidy up--or, one could cynically say, muddle--some of the Nuggets' team statistics. The Nuggets rank third in the NBA in scoring and they have the ninth best point differential. Point differential is usually a reliable indicator of a team's strength but as of today the Nuggets are the only team in the league that has a positive point differential but is outside of the playoff picture. Perhaps Karl will point to those statistics at the end of the season to "prove" how well his team played but if they cannot even grab the last playoff spot then those numbers really don't mean a thing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 PM

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Monday, March 17, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 AM

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Rising Suns

The new-look Phoenix Suns are riding a four game winning streak that began with their impressive 94-87 win over the San Antonio Spurs last Sunday. Two of the other victories were against sub-.500 teams (Memphis, Sacramento) but on Thursday the Suns beat the Golden State Warriors, a team that had defeated them in both of their previous encounters this season. Prior to Thursday's game, TNT's Charles Barkley said that Shaquille O'Neal would likely not have much impact on the result because Golden State would force the Suns to play small-ball.

While O'Neal only played 14 minutes versus the Warriors, it would not be correct to say that he had no impact. He scored nine points and had four rebounds in his limited action. More significant than O'Neal's individual numbers is the fact that the Suns outscored the Warriors by nine when O'Neal was in the game. In other words, O'Neal was able to be productive and effective even against a team that really pushes the ball.

O'Neal only played eight minutes in the first half against Golden State because he got into early foul trouble, not because of how he was playing. The Suns trailed 62-59 at halftime but with O'Neal on the court in the third quarter they took a 78-75 lead before he got his fifth foul. The Suns continued to play well even after O'Neal went to the bench, so Coach Mike D'Antoni never brought him back into the game. Some people might look at that and say that O'Neal did not have much to do with the outcome of the game but that misses the point on two levels. One, as I noted, the Suns performed very well with O'Neal in the game, so if in future games versus this team he cuts down on the senseless offensive fouls then there is every reason to believe that he could play very productively against the Warriors for 25-30 minutes, which is something that a lot of people may have doubted; two, the supposed downside of trading away Shawn Marion to acquire O'Neal is that the Suns would no longer be able to play an uptempo game but this victory goes a long way toward refuting that notion: the Suns still have a good "speed" team with Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash, Leandro Barbosa, Grant Hill and Raja Bell and now they also have a "power" team when O'Neal is in the game--and not only that, but they can even play the "speed" game with O'Neal serving as a rebounder/defender/outlet passer.

The two teams that made it to the Western Conference Finals last year--San Antonio and Utah--are often thought of as half court teams but they both showed the ability to successfully play at different speeds during their playoff runs; that is why San Antonio was able to eliminate Phoenix and Utah was able to eliminate Golden State.

O'Neal adds physicality to the Suns. He will wear down the opposing team's inside players in a seven game series in two ways: he will pound on them when they drive to the hoop or try to post up and they will have to use a lot of energy and force when they guard him to prevent him from getting good post position. Many people apparently have written off the Suns and that lack of attention may help the Suns as well; instead of being favorites who carry the weight of other people's expectations they will likely enter this year's playoffs as underdogs carrying chips on their shoulders. This is the perfect situation for O'Neal: he is on a very talented team that does not need him to dominate and he is at a stage in his career during which he no longer feels compelled to engage in ego battles about whose team it is. If he helps the Suns to reach the NBA Finals then he will have capped his career off in grand fashion but if the Suns fall short O'Neal will get a pass because of his age and past accomplishments; the real pressure is on Coach D'Antoni and Steve Nash to make this work, while General Manager Steve Kerr will bear the brunt of the flak if the trade eventually is perceived to be a mistake. Considering that the alternative for O'Neal was to finish out his career putting up career-low numbers for the worst team in the league, he should be the happiest man in the NBA that circumstances have placed him in a situation where he can have a significant role in determining who wins this year's championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Six Reasons the NBA Playoffs are Better than the NCAA Tournament

The NBA playoffs will begin in a little more than a month. I realize that the whole country is in the throes of "March Madness"--which can only be cured by engaging in "bracketology"--but here are six reasons that the NBA playoffs are better than the NCAA Tournament:

1) A seven game series is a strategic chess match packed with adjustments and momentum swings.

2) The NBA has the sport's best athletes and coaches by far. As the great Hubie Brown explains, "...this is a game played a foot above the rim, at the top of the box above the rim--because we have the greatest athletes playing at this level (the NBA). Things are erased because of athleticism, shot blocking, defensive quickness and rotation. I want you to understand that. This is not college basketball. This is not FIBA basketball. This is a game called roller ball. It’s played by the greatest athletes and it’s played under complete duress and duress is the key. Now, are you a man enough to play at this level and, more important, to stay at this level? You’ve got to be a tough person and you must have a lot of courage."

3) Teams earn their way into the NBA playoffs by winning; there is no mysterious "committee," no dubious "selection process" and no mythical "bubble."

4) Amazing individual performances: "63 points and you're looking at an all-time record."

5) Great duels: "You are watching what greatness is all about."

6) As Kenny Smith once said, "The regular season is where you make your name. The postseason is where you make your fame." That was true for NBA Pantheon members Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving and it will continue to be true as long as the game is played.

Do you prefer to watch the NBA playoffs or the NCAA Tournament? Post a comment explaining your choice. Also, be sure to click here and read my "Five Reasons the NCAA Tournament is Better than the NBA Playoffs."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:50 AM

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