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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lakers Limp Toward the Finish Line

The Lakers' season started out like a soap opera, looked like it might have a storybook ending after the acquisition of Pau Gasol and is now looking like a soap opera again: call it "As the Injured List Turns." Gasol and Andrew Bynum are both out of the lineup due to leg injuries, Lamar Odom is battling a respiratory infection and Kobe Bryant has a sprained ankle in addition to a torn ligament/broken bone in his right pinkie finger, an injury that will eventually need to be surgically repaired.

Now Derek Fisher can be added to the list of the walking wounded. I mentioned recently that Fisher seems to be breaking down physically; his shooting percentage has declined from its early season levels and he is having trouble on defense. It turns out that he has a partially torn tendon in his right foot. Although the tear apparently happened during Wednesday's loss to Charlotte, Fisher said that the foot has been sore for a couple weeks: "There was definitely something going on that just kind of flew under the radar that ultimately led to the tendon kind of popping a little bit." This injury typically takes six to eight weeks of rest to heal but Fisher plans to try to keep playing, following the example set by Bryant, who has played very well--and without either complaint or excuses--since mangling his finger.

In addition to the team's offensive woes, preventing dribble penetration has become a serious issue for the Lakers' point guards. As a frustrated Bryant said after the game, "Staying in front of the ball has been a big problem for us. If we can't solve that problem, then we'll just have to continue to get penetrated on until we get the big guys back and then they can bail us out by blocking shots to the basket."

Odom and Fisher combined to shoot 3-14 from the field in the Lakers' 114-111 home loss to Memphis on Friday, while Vladimir Radmanovic (nine points on 3-8 shooting) and Ronny Turiaf (six points on 3-10 shooting) also struggled; those four starters scored 21 points on 9-32 field goal shooting but Bryant singlehandedly kept the Lakers in the game by pouring in a season-high 53 points on just 37 field goal attempts, including 9-17 accuracy from three point range. He also had 10 rebounds, three steals and just one turnover. Critics will no doubt mention that Bryant only had one assist but you cannot get assists if your teammates are missing shots (Odom had 11 assists but six of them came from passing to Bryant). Bryant played just under 42 minutes and had a +1 plus/minus rating; that means that in the roughly six minutes Bryant was not in the game the Lakers were outscored by four points.

The Lakers trailed by two points with less than 30 seconds remaining when Bryant drove to the hoop and the entire Memphis team collapsed into the paint to stop him; check out the highlight of this play if you get a chance: it looks like an elementary school soccer game when all of the players converge in a blob around the ball. Bryant dished to Odom, who bricked a three pointer from the right baseline. There are only three reasons that a player would ever be quintuple-teamed:

1) That player is playing really, really well.
2) His teammates are playing really, really poorly.
3) The defensive team is not that good and several players abandoned their assignments to trap the ballhandler.

Check, check and check in this case: Bryant is the best player in the NBA, his teammates could not throw the ball in the ocean from the pier even when he created wide open shots for them and the Grizzlies are not a good defensive team.

The game ended with Luke Walton committing a turnover on an inbounds pass instead of calling a timeout. That script--Bryant having a positive plus/minus rating, the Lakers blowing a lead when he is on the bench, Odom bricking a three pointer late in the game and Walton making a poor inbounds pass--contains many elements that are disturbingly familiar to Lakers' fans: in the Lakers' 94-90 loss in Cleveland this season Odom missed a late three pointer from exactly the same spot after Bryant drew a double-team and passed him the ball. Bryant had a plus/minus rating of +8 that night despite being hobbled by a pulled groin muscle. This is also not the first time that Walton made a poor inbounds pass instead of calling a timeout. Walton is an unselfish player who is a skilled passer in the Triangle Offense but I wonder if anyone has tracked his performance as an inbounds passer; he does not seem to have a good sense of when/where to throw the ball and when to call a timeout because the play is not working as designed.

The Lakers are not a great team and I am mystified why so many so many people think so highly of the Lakers' roster. Granted, if Gasol and Bynum were on the court together with Bryant--which has yet to happen once--then the Lakers would have a nice team but right now that is a purely theoretical concept; the reason that the Lakers have been competing for the top record in the West this season is that Bryant is the best player in the league and he needs less help than any other superstar to turn a team into a contender. It's so funny: twice this season the Lakers added one player who can consistently catch Bryant's passes and score--Bynum before he got hurt, then Gasol via trade--and the Lakers zoomed to the top of the standings because teams could no longer double, triple, quadruple or quintuple-team Bryant. That does not mean that the Lakers are a great team; it just means that they have a few guys who sometimes make open shots if the defense has to deal with both Bryant and Gasol (or Bynum). If Bryant had missed as many games as Gasol and Bynum have then the Lakers would not even be a playoff team in the tough Western Conference. Instead, Bryant has carried them to the point that all they need now to get the top seed are for him to produce a few more 40 point games, a few bench players to make some open shots and/or the healthy return of at least one of the big guys; the Lakers are one game behind both San Antonio and New Orleans but they have home games remaining versus both teams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:06 PM

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Anthony, Iverson Combine to Sink Slumping Mavericks

Many NBA fans are familiar with the classic line that Micheal Ray Richardson delivered about the floundering New York Knicks (some things never change) in the 1980s: "The ship be sinking." However, his followup response to a question about how far the team could sink is not as well known but just as priceless: "Sky's the limit." Welcome to the world of the Dallas Mavericks, whose ship is definitely sinking and the "sky's the limit" in terms of how far it will fall. The Mavs built a 15 point lead at Denver on Thursday before scoring just 35 second half points in a 118-105 loss. They are now just a half game ahead of Golden State and one game ahead of Denver in the three team battle for the final two Western Conference playoff berths.

The Mavs dropped to 1-1 without 2007 MVP Dirk Nowitzki, who is sidelined indefinitely with injuries to his left ankle and knee. More significantly, they are now 0-9 versus winning teams since acquiring Jason Kidd, who had one of his best games as a Mav (19 points, 15 assists, four rebounds, five steals). That record is not Kidd's fault; it just indicates that Dallas has not been playing exceptional basketball for an extended period of time, something that does not figure to change as long as Nowitzki is out of action.

Carmelo Anthony led Denver in scoring (32 points), rebounds (10) and assists (eight) yet he had a plus/minus rating of just +1 in a 13 point win. That is an unusual stat line but I think that the explanation can be found in his defense--or lack thereof. Anthony is a gifted athlete and he is certainly physically capable of playing good defense but often he is out of position, not in a proper defensive stance and/or seemingly disinterested. He puts up gaudy offensive numbers on a nightly basis but he gives up plenty at the other end of the court as well and that sets the tone for the entire team. Josh Howard scored 20 of his 32 points in the first half, helping Dallas to build a 70-60 lead, and when TNT's Craig Sager asked him if Dallas scored so much because of good offense, bad defense or both, Howard refrained from even trying to sugarcoat the situation and honestly replied, "A little bit of both." In the second half, Dallas started throwing the ball away, igniting Denver's fast break and enabling the Nuggets to turn that 10 point deficit into a 94-86 lead by the end of the third quarter.

Allen Iverson, the other member of the league's highest scoring duo, added 31 points and five assists and he had a game-high +16 plus/minus rating. Howard was largely silent after his big first half and the same was true of Jerry Stackhouse, who had 16 of his 18 points in the first half.

The Mavs gave up 60 points in the first half and 58 points in the second half, so the difference in the game happened at their offensive end of the court. Without the threat that Nowitzki represents they were not able to sustain their first half scoring performance, an outburst that was facilitated by Denver's lackadaisical defense. Denver Coach George Karl told TNT's Craig Sager that his team does not play good defense for 48 minutes but that they have the ability to play good defense at times. Apparently, they decided to make the second half one of those times; the Nuggets took their first lead of the second half after nearly forcing a 24 second violation, rebounding a Stackhouse miss and quickly converting that opportunity into a fast break dunk by Anthony that made the score 80-79. Dallas never seriously threatened Denver after that.

A lot of people doubted Houston without Yao Ming and Phoenix with Shaquille O'Neal and I correctly said that both of those teams would be fine. However, the people who are doubting Dallas now are correct. The Mavs were not doing so great even with Nowitzki. They have some talented players but the idea that Josh Howard is as valuable as Nowitzki is going to rapidly be revealed as erroneous. Kidd is a great leader but it seems that there is some kind of power struggle between him and Coach Avery Johnson--not so much that they don't like each other personally but rather that they have different ideas about how to play. Johnson wants to slow the game down and call his own plays, while Kidd is more effective in an uptempo game. The race for the last two spots is so close that Dallas could find a way to win a couple games and sneak in but they are obviously pretenders and not contenders this season, which is quite a drop from the status that they enjoyed in 2006 (NBA Finalists) and 2007 (best regular season record in the NBA).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:09 AM

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Technically Speaking, Kobe Bryant Needs to be Very Careful

Kobe Bryant received two technical fouls within 30 seconds in the Lakers' 108-95 home loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday. He was automatically ejected but, much more importantly, he now has 15 technical fouls this season, which means that if he receives just one more technical foul in the next 10 regular season games then he will automatically be suspended for the subsequent game--and if he gets that 16th technical foul in the last game of the regular season then he will be suspended for the first playoff game. If Bryant runs his total to 18 technical fouls in the regular season then he would automatically receive another one game suspension. The count resets once the playoffs begin, so as long as Bryant does not lose his cool in the final regular season game his full participation in the postseason is not in jeopardy--but every regular season game is extremely important in the highly competitive Western Conference and Bryant's previous technical fouls have now potentially placed his team's fate at the whim of a whistle-happy referee.

This could have implications in the MVP race as well. It seems like some voters are looking for reasons to vote for Chris Paul instead of Bryant; Paul has certainly legitimately moved himself into MVP contention with his torrid performance in March to top off an already impressive season and if a Bryant suspension results in a Lakers loss that moves New Orleans permanently ahead of L.A. in the standings that could be the deciding factor in the minds of some MVP voters. Frankly, I think that the way Bryant has carried the Lakers in each of their "three seasons" is a more significant qualification for a season-long award than what happens in one or two late season games but at least some voters will probably cast their ballots based on the playoff seeds that the Lakers and Hornets earn. The Lakers face the Hornets in the third to last game of the season and that game could very well turn into a one game playoff for not only the top seed in the West but also the 2007-08 MVP award. The Lakers will already be shorthanded for that game considering that Andrew Bynum will either be rusty after just returning to the lineup or else out of action altogether and Pau Gasol will also likely be rusty considering his ongoing injury-induced absence. That game could be a real opportunity for Bryant to showcase his talents to the MVP voters in a head to head duel with Paul. If Bryant happens to be suspended for that game it will no doubt cost him MVP votes regardless of the outcome: if the Lakers win without him that will be cited as evidence of the strength of his supporting cast and if the Lakers lose without him then he will be blamed for being suspended.

Excessive technical fouls are not good, whether they are received by Bryant, Rasheed Wallace (the usual leader who has 11 so far this season) or Baron Davis (who also has received 11). Interestingly, Paul is currently tied for fourth in the NBA with 10 technical fouls but unless he goes absolutely crazy in the last few games he will not come close to being suspended. Bryant only had four technical fouls as late as January 12 but he has been piling them up since then. In addition to the possibility of being suspended, Bryant is also setting a bad example for his younger teammates. It is not clear if there is any one reason that Bryant is receiving so many technical fouls all of a sudden but it is very important for both him and the Lakers that he is on his best behavior the rest of the way. Bryant could very well be tested by opposing players who will seek to agitate him in order to push him over the edge; a brief verbal or physical exchange involving Bryant that results in the usually innocuous double technical foul call would now be disastrous. There is also the possibility of a very bizarre scenario: if the Lakers beat the Hornets, win their next game and clinch the top spot at that point would they then sit Bryant out of the last regular season game to ensure that he does not get the one technical foul that would result in him being suspended for the first playoff game?

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:58 AM

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Carnival of the NBA #55 Hosted by Daily Basketball

Carnival of the NBA #55 is being hosted by Daily Basketball. The Carnival's theme is "make up your own holiday" and the hosts used an interesting calendar format to present each post. Not every contributor necessarily stuck with the (optional) theme but the result is pretty creative nonetheless.

My contribution is a post titled Cavs Use Old Formula to Beat Pistons With New Players. I did not create a holiday but my post was slotted in on April 16, when the Cavs and Pistons face each other in the last game of the regular season for each team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:39 AM

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The Dunk, the Commercial--and the Aftermath

I have already discussed Chris Webber's legacy from an analytical standpoint but no retrospective of his career is complete without considering the three part drama that could be titled "The dunk, the commercial--and the aftermath."

It all began in Webber's rookie season, when he was a lot more athletic than many younger fans probably realize. Webber had the ball on a fast break, took it behind his back and dunked right in Charles Barkley's face. Barkley, the reigning MVP, and Webber, the soon to be Rookie of the Year, were both Nike clients, so the shoemaker featured the play in one of their "barbershop" commercials. With the great background music, the use of the Superman cape more than a decade before Dwight Howard did it in the slam dunk contest and the witty punchline, it became an instant classic:

Webber and Sprewell in the barbershop

Of course, the "role model" quip was a reference to an earlier Barkley commercial in which he insisted, "I am not a role model."

Nike contacted Barkley before they made the barbershop commercial and he was cool with the idea. As he regularly shows on TNT, he does not mind having a laugh at his own expense. Still, as a competitor you know that he did not enjoy getting dunked on like that, so matters could not end in the barbershop. Fast forward to that year's playoffs. Barkley's Phoenix Suns enjoyed a 2-0 lead over Webber's Golden State Warriors in a best of five first round series. Golden State Coach Don Nelson decided to not double team Barkley--and the rest is history:

Charles Barkley Versus the Warriors, Game 3, 1994 Playoffs

I like the title of that video--kind of like the old marquee that read, "George Mikan versus the Knicks." Barkley scored 27 points in the first quarter en route to 56 points--still tied for the third most in NBA playoff history--on 23-31 field goal shooting. He also had 14 rebounds.

Thanks for the memories, Chris Webber.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:21 AM

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Celtics Dominate Suns, 117-97

The Boston Celtics quickly patched up any chinks that may have been appearing in their armor. After looking sluggish in back to back losses to New Orleans and Philadelphia, the Celtics took a quick lead against the Phoenix Suns, withstood a strong second quarter rally and completely dominated the second half en route to a 117-97 victory. Kevin Garnett scored 30 points and he also had six assists, though his board work was subpar (just three rebounds). Paul Pierce repeatedly exploited mismatches to score 27 points on 9-16 shooting, posting a glittering, game-high +29 plus/minus rating. All five Boston starters scored in double figures and the Celtics enjoyed a 41-27 rebounding advantage. Center Kendrick Perkins had a game-high 10 rebounds but after him it was a real team effort on the glass as four Celtics had six rebounds each, including Pierce and point guard Rajon Rondo. Amare Stoudemire led Phoenix with a game-high 32 points on 11-16 field goal shooting, adding six rebounds. Steve Nash had a quiet game, finishing with 12 points and nine assists. Shaquille O'Neal scored 16 points on 6-9 field goals shooting and he had a team-high seven rebounds; at one point, ESPN commentator Hubie Brown said, "They're not helping Shaq on the glass. Rebounding is a total team effort."

The Celtics took a 13-6 lead at the start of the first quarter and they led for most of the first half. Stoudemire and O'Neal combined to score 32 first half points on 12-15 field goal shooting but the Celtics ripped the Suns' zone defense to shreds, either scoring on dribble penetration by Rondo and Pierce or running the high-low play to perfection with Garnett at the top of the key dishing to cutters on the baseline. Presumably, the Suns went to the zone to hide Nash and Stoudemire, both of whom struggled defensively early in the game in their one on one matchups. Pierce also gave fits to Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell at various times during the game. The problem with the zone is that even when the Suns stopped the initial shot they did a poor job of getting defensive rebounds. The easy, superficial response would be to blame O'Neal but, as Brown's comment indicated, it was not O'Neal's fault. The team's rebounding and interior defense has improved since his arrival, even though the team performed poorly in both areas in this game.

The Suns have actually done an excellent job of incorporating O'Neal's strengths at both ends of the court into their offensive and defensive game plans; they are now able to slow games down and punish teams inside by feeding O'Neal the ball on the block. The biggest concern for the Suns is one on one defense at the point guard and power forward positions (yes, this means you, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire). Many teams have point guards who can either overpower or outquick Nash and other matchups sometimes prevent the Suns from simply switching Hill over to point guard on defense (for instance, having Hill guard Rondo and putting Nash on Pierce would hardly be a good idea). Also, while Stoudemire's recent shooting and scoring exploits have been very impressive he has a tendency to give up nearly as much on defense as he provides on offense. People are still talking about how many points he scored versus Tim Duncan in the 2005 playoffs, apparently forgetting that Duncan also had a huge offensive series--and Duncan's team won. O'Neal has instantly reversed the Suns' negative rebounding differential to a positive one but he can't be expected to guard his man and Stoudemire's man at the same time.

It is hard to quibble with anything that Stoudemire is doing offensively. He has added a reliable jumper to his repertoire and he has turned into an outstanding free throw shooter. Deft Nash passes certainly help him to pad his scoring totals but he'd be a great scorer with or without Nash. O'Neal is actually helping Stoudemire now at least as much as Nash is, because when O'Neal is in the game he is attracting a lot of defensive attention, leaving Stoudemire free to slash and cut. As Brown explained, "If you leave him (Shaq) you are giving up a potential dunk. It is hard to double-team big to big." In other words, when Stoudemire gets loose, O'Neal's man cannot help because then Stoudemire could easily slip the ball to O'Neal for a dunk. Sometimes that plan works the other way, too; Stoudemire got a dunk early in the game when O'Neal set a screen for him on the baseline, forcing a switch. Now the Suns had two mismatches to exploit: the slower Perkins guarding Stoudemire near the free throw line and the lighter Garnett guarding O'Neal deep in the post. Stoudemire received the ball and went right around Perkins like he was not even on the court.

O'Neal has lost a lot of explosiveness but he is still is a 300-plus pound player who has a lot of skill. Brown observed, "If he catches it on that defensive circle, one bounce and it's all over." The only way to guard O'Neal is to force him to receive the ball outside of the paint but that is much easier said than done. After years of watching the Suns shoot tons of baseline three pointers, it is surreal to see them intentionally slow down, feed O'Neal and benefit from easy, high percentage shots in the paint. That extra offensive dimension will make them a tougher out in this year's playoffs than they have been in the entire Nash era.

The Celtics built a 15 point first half lead but the Suns rallied to briefly take the lead before settling for a 57-57 halftime tie. Mike Tirico and Jon Barry made a big deal about how poorly the Suns shoot when Nash is not in the game but most of the comeback happened with Nash on the bench (he had a -23 plus/minus rating in this game, second worst on the team). ESPN ran a graphic stating that this season the Suns shoot 52% from the field when Nash is in the game and 44% from the field when he is not in the game. Tirico and Barry said that this shows how much the Suns' players depend on Nash to provide them with open shots but that is hardly the only explanation for those numbers. For one thing, Nash is one of the best shooters on the team, so whoever comes in the game for him is going to lower the team's percentage--and that gets to the real heart of the matter: the Suns do not have a true backup point guard. When Nash is not on the court they either make Hill a point forward or they put shooting guard Leandro Barbosa at point guard. If the Suns had a backup point guard who could dribble penetrate and make good passes (Barbosa is excellent at doing the former but inconsistent at doing the latter) then there would not be such a dramatic difference in the team's field goal percentage with Nash and without Nash. Also, those field goal percentage stats do not indicate who is in the game with Nash and who is in the game when Nash is out. Presumably, when Nash is out there are reserves in the game across the board. Perhaps Tirico and Barry believe that Stoudemire and O'Neal cannot shoot a high percentage without Nash but I don't buy it.

The Celtics seized control of the game in the third quarter as the Suns managed to score just 16 points while committing seven turnovers. In the brief, post-third quarter interview, Boston Coach Doc Rivers told ESPN's Ric Bucher, "We didn't make any changes. We just did our defense better," adding that Stoudemire was "unaccounted for" on several screen/roll plays in the first half. The Celtics poured it on in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Suns 33-24 as Pierce produced 12 of the team's points.

After ESPN ran a graphic showing Boston's excellent record this season against the best Western Conference teams, Barry made an excellent observation when he said that it is wrong to read too much into East-West games like this because the teams only meet twice a year and there are often extenuating circumstances affecting those isolated games (injuries, back to back scenarios, etc.). That said, many people questioned how well the Celtics would do against the top West teams and throughout this season they have passed that test with flying colors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:51 AM

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Chris Webber's Legacy

Chris Webber's 15 year NBA career ended on Wednesday when he officially announced his retirement. Webber, who finished with career regular season averages of 20.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg and 4.2 apg, participated in just nine games this season with the Golden State Warriors; his balky left knee simply would not allow him to continue playing. He averaged at least 20 ppg and 10 rpg in six different seasons and he would have finished his career as a 20 ppg-10 rpg player if not for the 70 games that he played for three different teams in 2006-07 and 2007-08. Perhaps this is what ESPN's Rick Carlisle was referring to when he said that Webber could have "orchestrated" his retirement better; certainly, all Webber did in his last two seasons was lower his career averages. That is not entirely his fault--he can't help it that he was never the same after suffering a devastating knee injury in 2003--but, as Carlisle indicated, it is unfortunate when the last memory people have of your career is of you limping around the court.

Webber joins Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham and Kevin Garnett as the only players to average at least 20 ppg, nine rpg and four apg during their careers. The first four players are all Hall of Famers and members of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time list, while Garnett will definitely be a Hall of Famer after he retires. Webber's averages testify to his high level of productivity but no one seriously considers him to truly be in the same category as those players.

Webber's career is a classic example of the difference between putting up good numbers and having a Hall of Fame level impact. Stephon Marbury has averaged at least 20 ppg and eight apg in six different seasons, more than anyone other than Oscar Robertson, who did that 10 times; does anyone really believe that Marbury is a great point guard, let alone second only to Robertson on the all-time list? Of course not (other than perhaps the self-proclaimed "Starbury" himself). A player's role on his team, how often he handles the ball, the pace that his team plays at and other factors play a role in what statistics he accumulates. Webber was a very, very good player who had some moments of greatness but his time as an elite level player was brief. He only made the All-NBA First Team in 2000-01, when he averaged a career-high 27.1 ppg and finished fourth in MVP voting. He earned four other All-NBA Team selections and he made the All-Star team five times.

Webber only posted two 20 ppg-10 rpg seasons in the playoffs and his playoff averages (18.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 3.6 apg) were lower across the board than his regular season averages; that kind of decline is not unusual: the playoffs feature the toughest competition, the pace of the game slows and teams are really able to focus in on forcing players away from their strengths and toward their weaknesses. Still, it must be said that Webber's performances in clutch situations will not be remembered fondly by fans of his teams, dating all the way back to the infamous timeout that he called in an NCAA Championship Game when his Michigan Wolverines had no timeouts left. Prior to that fateful error, he appeared to commit a traveling violation, though nothing was called. The bottom line is that he often seemed to not want the ball in game deciding moments nor was he consistently productive in such situations. I'm not even specifically talking about buzzer beating shots, which are somewhat glamorized and overrated, but just his ability--or lack thereof--to put his stamp on big games down the stretch. Webber put up decent numbers the two times that he played in seventh games (20 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, 9-21 field goal shooting in the 2002 Western Conference Finals; 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists, 8-17 field goal shooting in the 2004 Western Conference semifinals) but his Sacramento Kings lost on both occasions, in no small part because the other team's star or stars outperformed him.

Webber did not make my list of the greatest power forwards of all-time. He had a very good career but--to answer the question that has been posed several times on air and in print--I do not consider him to be a Hall of Fame level player. As NBA TV's Pete Vecsey--who shares that assessment--said, there is no shame in that and it does not reflect poorly on Webber; there is nothing wrong with having a very good, 15 year NBA career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:24 AM

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Breaking Down the Lakers' Three Seasons

As of March 26, the L.A. Lakers are in a virtual tie with the New Orleans Hornets for the best record in the Western Conference. While on the surface it would seem like the Lakers have had a good season they in fact have had "three" good seasons: in their “first” season they went 24-11 with Andrew Bynum playing center, in their "second" season they went 15-4 with Bynum out and Pau Gasol playing center and in their "third" season they have gone 10-7 so far despite being without both Bynum and Gasol (the "third" season actually came in two parts, a 6-5 segment prior to acquiring Gasol and the most recent 4-2 segment with Gasol out of the lineup due to injury).

There is a lot of talk about what Chris Paul has accomplished in New Orleans with his supporting cast. He certainly deserves a great deal of credit for the fine season he is having, establishing himself as the league’s best point guard. However, there has been little if any acknowledgment of just how much Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have overcome this season. Consider these numbers:

Paul's top two inside players are All-Star David West and Tyson Chandler. West is averaging 20.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 1.3 bpg while shooting .475 from the field and .840 from the free throw line. Chandler is averaging 11.6 ppg, 12.2 rpg and 1.08 bpg while shooting .600 from the field and .597 from the free throw line.

Bryant's top two inside players are Gasol and Bynum. As a Laker, Gasol is averaging 18.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 1.6 bpg while shooting .581 from the field and .792 from the free throw line. Bynum is averaging 13.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg and 2.06 bpg while shooting .636 from the field and .695 from the free throw line. Gasol's scoring, rebounding and shot blocking averages would be a bit higher if you take out his last game, during which he only played three minutes before spraining his ankle.

Perhaps those two big men tandems seem fairly evenly matched—but here is the kicker: West has played in 63 of a possible 69 games and Chandler has played in 66 games, while Bynum has only played in 35 of 71 games and Gasol has only played in 19 games as a Laker. The Hornets' big men lead the Lakers' big men in games played 129-54! Moreover, for virtually the entire season the Hornets’ big men have been on the court together; Gasol and Bynum have never been on the court together as teammates in a regular season game. That means that the real comparison has to include centers Ronny Turiaf and Kwame Brown, who started 18 and 14 games respectively for the Lakers and whose numbers are of course much worse than those put up by Gasol and Bynum.

Can anyone say with a straight face that Paul would have won as many games as Bryant has with the Gasol-Bynum-Turiaf-Brown group? On the other hand, how well do you think that a Bryant-West-Chandler trio would do over an entire season? I think that Bryant-West-Chandler (plus some quality reserves, which both the Lakers and Hornets have) would have the best record in the NBA (not just the West), easily winning more than 60 games in an 82 game season; the Bryant-Gasol Lakers without Bynum were winning games at a pace that projects to 65 wins in 82 games and that duo did not even have the benefit of a training camp, let alone playing together for a previous season the way that Paul-West-Chandler have.

It is difficult for a coaching staff to get one rotation of players to perform cohesively, let alone to make major adjustments to that rotation while a season is in progress. It is remarkable that the Lakers have the record that they do considering the frequent changes that they have had to make at the center position. Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson deserve a lot of credit for the Lakers’ success this season. Yes, Lamar Odom (14.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg) has played well for the Lakers most of the season, particularly recently, but Paul’s third option, Peja Stojakovic, has also been productive, averaging 16.0 ppg while ranking sixth in the NBA in three point shooting (.455).

Perhaps the most striking statistic is that the Lakers’ 10-7 record this season without both Gasol and Bynum projects to a 48-34 record over an entire season. That winning percentage is even more impressive when you look at the Lakers’ schedule in those 17 games: they went 7-4 on the road and 3-3 at home. The road losses were to the Spurs, the Mavs, the Pistons and the Rockets (during Houston's 22 game winning streak), while the home losses were to the Suns, the Cavs and the Warriors. There is not a weak team in that group. The Lakers' road wins during that stretch included the Raptors, the Mavs, the Jazz (snapping Utah's franchise-record home winning streak) and the Warriors. Considering how much the Lakers' schedule without Gasol and Bynum was heavily slanted toward road games against good teams, it is not unreasonable to suggest that they were playing like a 50-plus win team during that stretch; a 7-4 road record is very, very strong.

The Hornets travel to L.A. on April 11 for a game that may very well decide not only who gets the top seed in the West but also who wins this year’s MVP award. Even if Gasol and Bynum are both available for that game they will each have just come back from extended absences due to injuries. Regardless of what happens in that game, MVP voters should seriously consider how well the Lakers have performed during each of their "three' seasons. Unless they believe that Paul would have had the Hornets atop the West with Turiaf and Brown logging heavy duty at center then they should vote for Bryant, who has been by far the best player for each version of this year’s Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 PM

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NBA Leaderboard, Part XIX

The Celtics and Pistons have mixed in some rather indifferent performances along with some good wins recently. They are pretty much locked into their playoff positions but both teams have a lot to prove this postseason, albeit for different reasons; the Pistons are trying to return to the NBA Finals after disappointing playoff runs in 2006 and 2007, while each member of the Celtics' "Big Three" is seeking his first trip to the NBA Finals.

Best Five Records
-------------------

1) Boston Celtics, 55-15--clinched playoff berth
2) Detroit Pistons, 50-20--clinched playoff berth
3) New Orleans Hornets, 48-21
4) L.A. Lakers, 49-22
5-6) Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, 48-23

First place in the Western Conference literally changes on a daily basis. Right now, the Hornets are on top by .006 percentage points. It is interesting that when Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was asked who he thinks is the favorite to finish with the best record he picked his own team, perhaps because their remaining schedule is favorable (eight home games and three road games remaining). Still, the Lakers' success despite the injuries to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol is really quite remarkable. None of the other top teams has suffered a comparable loss of inside presence (Houston had Yao Ming for most of the season, while the Lakers have been without Bynum and Gasol for most of the season). Then again, maybe that statement is a psychological ploy by Jackson to try to get his players accustomed to playing with the pressure of high expectations, something that no one on the roster other than Kobe Bryant has experienced. Can anything that happens in the Western Conference playoffs this year truly be considered an upset when the top eight teams are separated by fewer than six games?

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

1) LeBron James, CLE 30.8 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.3 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.6 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.5 ppg
5) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 24.7 ppg
6) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.6 ppg
7) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 23.6 ppg
8) Michael Redd, MIL 23.3 ppg
9) Richard Jefferson, NJN 23.0 ppg
10) Corey Maggette, LAC 22.3 ppg

13) Tracy McGrady, HOU 21.8 ppg
14) Chris Paul, NOH 21.7 ppg

26) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.0 ppg

30) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.6 ppg

38) Kevin Garnett, BOS 18.8 ppg

41) Ray Allen, BOS 18.2 ppg

Amare Stoudemire moved past Dwyane Wade into fifth place. Stoudemire averaged 30.4 ppg in his last five games, four of which the Suns won, and he is averaging 28.3 ppg on .569 field goal shooting in March. Corey Maggette has had a solid season for the injury-riddled Clippers and he quietly slipped into the top ten.

Chris Paul averaged 24.4 ppg in his last five games and he is averaging 25.3 ppg on .587 field goal shooting (!) in March. His numbers and his team's success are attracting a lot of attention from MVP voters. LeBron James will win his first scoring title but talk of him winning the MVP this season has cooled because his Cavaliers will likely fall short of 50 wins. It increasingly seems like the MVP will either go to Kobe Bryant or Chris Paul and the determining factor may very well be which player's team finishes with the better record. Frankly, it does not make a lot of sense to decide the winner of an individual award based on one or two games in the standings but at least Bryant has a tangible, definable and reachable goal in sight: lead the Lakers to more wins than the Hornets and he will almost certainly get an award that he should have won the past two seasons. Bryant will have to do this without Bynum and possibly without Gasol, so it certainly will be hard to question his MVP credentials this season if the Lakers do in fact finish first in the West. Circle April 11 on your calendar: that is when the Hornets visit L.A. for a game that may very well decide not only the top seed in the West but also the winner of this year's MVP award.

I am pleased to report that the light seems to finally be coming on for Kevin Durant--and not the green light for him to shoot whenever and wherever he wants. His Sonics just endured an 11 game losing streak but he has shot much better in March than he did earlier in the season, averaging 21.1 ppg on .532 field goal shooting. He only has shot 3-10 from three point range in March but that is actually a good sign from the standpoint that his long range attempts are way down: he attempted at least 41 three pointers in each of the first three months of the season but that number dropped to 12 in February. Durant is not a great three point shooter at this stage of his career and it is good that he realizes that. One cautionary note is that the rest of his statistics are still at roughly the same pedestrian levels that they have been all season long (he is averaging 4.0 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.0 bpg and .98 spg for the season).

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

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.5 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 13.5 rpg
3) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.2 rpg
4) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.6 rpg
5) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.5 rpg
6) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.7 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.7 rpg
8) Lamar Odom, LAL 10.6 rpg
9) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.3 rpg
10) Shawn Marion, MIA/PHX 10.2 rpg

12) Al Horford, ATL 9.9 rpg

22) Dirk Nowitzki, DAl 8.8 rpg

24) Ben Wallace, CLE/CHI 8.7 rpg

28) LeBron James, CLE 8.2 rpg

31) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 7.6 rpg

Dwight Howard has all but clinched his first rebounding title and when he does so he will break Dolph Schayes' record for being the youngest player to lead the league in this category. Chris Kaman dropped off of this leaderboard due to all of the games that he has missed. He had been a top five stalwart since the beginning of the season. His absence enabled Tim Duncan to move into the top five. It has been a "quiet" season for Duncan, yet in addition to his rebounding prowess he ranks fourth in double doubles, eighth in blocked shots, 30th in scoring and 36th in field goal percentage.

Lamar Odom averaged 16.8 rpg in his last five games and he is averaging 13.1 rpg in March, enabling him to move all the way up to eighth place.

Shawn Marion has not played for the last four games but with Kaman, Yao Ming and Zach Randolph being dropped due to not meeting minimum requirements he moved into the top ten. If Marion does not return to the lineup soon then he too will be dropped from the list.

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

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.2 apg
2) Chris Paul, NOH 11.2 apg
3) Deron Williams, UTA 10.3 apg
4) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 10.1 apg
5) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.4 apg
6) Baron Davis, GSW 7.8 apg
7) LeBron James, CLE 7.3 apg
8) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.3 apg
9) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.0 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.0 apg

It's a photo finish! Steve Nash and Chris Paul are in a dead heat for the assists title, but Paul is picking up steam while Nash is cooling off: Nash is averaging 9.9 apg in March, including 8.2 apg in his last five games; Paul is averaging 12.8 apg in March, including 11.2 apg in his last five games. The rest of the top ten stayed the same other than Deron Williams and Jason Kidd switching spots.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:02 AM

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sixers Edge Celtics, 95-90

Houston's winning streak, the exciting battle for MVP and the tight Western Conference playoff race have dominated NBA headlines recently, enabling the Philadelphia 76ers to fly under the radar--but the Sixers' 95-90 win over the Boston Celtics on Monday improved their March record to 10-2, including victories over Phoenix, San Antonio and Detroit. The Sixers currently own a 36-35 record and they have recovered impressively after starting the season 5-13. After a seven game losing streak to start off January dropped the Sixers to 14-24 it did not seem likely that they would make the playoffs even in the weak Eastern Conference but they currently own the sixth playoff berth and they are just one game behind the fifth place Toronto Raptors.

Andre Iguodala scored a game-high 28 points, including 10 straight points when the Sixers took over the game with a 19-0 fourth quarter run. He shot 10-17 from the field but just 8-15 from the free throw line, adding four rebounds, four assists and three steals. Andre Miller had 20 points, six assists and six rebounds. The Sixers have a young, athletic team and they outscored Boston 20-5 in fast break points.

Kevin Garnett led Boston with 18 points but he only had five rebounds as the Sixers enjoyed a 42-34 advantage in that department. Ray Allen (14 points, 1-8 shooting from three point range) and Paul Pierce (12 points, three rebounds) also had quiet games. This was the Celtics' first home game after their great 4-1 road trip, which included an impressive 3-0 tour of the "Texas Triangle." NBA lore says the first home game after a road trip can be tough, but Celtics announcer (and Hall of Fame forward) Tommy Heinsohn said that is "baloney." He attributed the loss to Boston trying out some different lineup combinations in an attempt to work the newly acquired Sam Cassell into the fold. Heinsohn said that this is dangerous because the Celtics could play the Sixers in the playoffs and you don't want to give a team confidence that they can beat you, especially on your home court. Cassell finished with five points and three assists in 19 minutes, shooting 2-6 from the field.

In the postgame show, we had the obligatory Andre "I don't know what the heck is going on" Aldridge moment when the perpetually confused NBA TV studio host asked 76er Thaddeus Young about his experiences playing high school basketball in Atlanta--which might be an interesting question except for the fact that Young played his high school basketball in Memphis, Tennessee, something that Aldridge would know if he looked in the NBA Register that is available free of charge to members of the media or if he read the game notes. Anybody can make a mistake but there is no excuse for repeatedly making simple, obvious errors. If you want to ask a player about his high school experiences and you don't know for sure where is he from then take 30 seconds to look it up. That is the thing that irritates me about Aldridge. He could have just stuck with straightforward questions about the game but he is always trying to prove how much extra information he knows and this usually backfires because he does not know what he is talking about. I wonder how Aldridge's co-host Billy King--who Aldridge called "Billy Knight" earlier this season--kept a straight face during that exchange; of course, King was the 76ers' GM who drafted Young.

Speaking of mistakes, it turns out that the oft-criticized King did not do such a bad job of building this Sixers team after all. Is it possible that a basketball lifer like King actually has a better idea how to run a team than ESPN's Bill Simmons, who said that King only got 35 cents on the dollar in the Allen Iverson-Andre Miller trade? Miller has turned out to be a steady veteran leader for the young Sixers; Iverson's Nuggets are on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture right now, though Dirk Nowitzki's injury may open a backdoor to the postseason for Denver. It must be bittersweet for King to watch others reap the rewards of the moves that he made when he ran the Sixers but during the postgame show he consistently took the high road, praising Coach Maurice Cheeks and the players for how well they have performed this season. The only subtle jab that King took at his vocal critics was when he said that some of the team's success this year stems from the way that the players and coaching staff ignored pleas from some fans that the 76ers should "tank" some games at the end of last season to try to get a better draft pick. King noted that you never want to create an environment where losing is acceptable; the effort to build a winning culture last season is paying off now and it certainly looks like the Sixers acted prematurely by canning King. Toronto Coach Sam Mitchell narrowly averted a similar fate to King's; critics--including Bill Simmons, who apparently really believes that he could run an NBA team better than people who have devoted their lives to the sport--sniped that he was the worst coach in the NBA when the Toronto Raptors struggled early in his tenure but management did not fire him and he went on to win the 2007 Coach of the Year Award.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 AM

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Monday, March 24, 2008

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part IX

The ninth edition of the Blogger MVP/RoY rankings has just been published at Hornets247.com.

Here are links to my posts about the previous eight 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

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part VIII

Here is my complete ballot for the ninth 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: With Gasol out and Bynum still sidelined, Kobe came up big and kept the Lakers in first place in the tough Western Conference.
9-LeBron James: LeBron is having a great season but Kobe's team is in first place in the stronger conference while LeBron's Cavs are locked into the fourth spot in the East. How can LeBron get this year's MVP when Kobe did not win the MVP last season when he not only was even more dominant offensively than LeBron is this season but he also made the All-Defensive First Team ?
8-Chris Paul: Paul may take the assists crown from Steve Nash and it is becomingly increasingly obvious that Paul has already taken the crown as the league's best point guard.
7-Dwight Howard: He became a forgotten man somewhere in the MVP race around the time that Orlando's record dipped a bit and his coach blasted him publicly but Howard is the most physically imposing player in the league.
6-Kevin Garnett: His individual statistics are not eye-popping but he has helped to completely change the team culture of the Celtics.
5-Tim Duncan: The Spurs hit a couple bumps in the road but Duncan is still the key to everything they do offensively and defensively.
4-Tracy McGrady: His scoring, passing and ability to draw double teams helped Houston put together a historic winning streak. When he is healthy, he does those three things nearly as well as Kobe and LeBron do but he has not been as healthy or productive as they have throughout the entire season.
3-Amare Stoudemire: Shaq's arrival has really opened up scoring opportunities for him and he is taking full advantage.
2-Dirk Nowitzki: His numbers are solid but something seems to be missing in Dallas.
1-Steve Nash: His shooting percentages have gone up and his assists have gone down since the Suns acquired Shaq.

ROY

5-Kevin Durant: He finally picked up his field goal percentage, otherwise I would have voted for Horford.
4-Al Horford: He recently had 15 rebounds and six assists in back to back games for a team that is contending for a playoff berth.
3-Luis Scola: He has responded well to the additional playing time he has received since Yao got hurt.
2-Carl Landry: Very productive player whose absence has definitely been felt recently in Houston.
1-Al Thornton: Excellent athlete whose numbers have been going up throughout the season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 PM

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Is Dallas Done? Lackluster Performances, Nowitzki's Injury Cast Doubt on Mavs' Playoff Chances

The Dallas Mavericks' season may have ended with 3:18 remaining in the third quarter of their 88-81 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday. That is when Dirk Nowitzki landed awkwardly after blocking a shot, his left leg crumpling at a grotesque angle under his body. Nowitzki had to be helped off of the court and he was unable to put any weight on the injured leg. Early word out of Dallas is that he will miss at least two weeks but a more detailed announcement is expected from the team later today. The Dallas Mavericks were hardly tearing up the Western Conference even with the 2007 NBA MVP playing at a high level and losing Nowitzki for the bulk of the remaining regular season games could very well make the Mavericks the odd team out in the nine team race for eight Western Conference playoff berths. Amazingly, the Mavs have yet to beat a team with a winning record since acquiring Jason Kidd, the All-Star point guard who was supposed to be the missing ingredient to fuel a championship run for a team that made it to the 2006 NBA Finals and had the best regular season record in the NBA last season (67-15).

After hearing about Nowitzki's injury, Hubie Brown said, "Nowitzki is taken for granted. He comes to play every night." Brown added that Nowitzki contributes scoring and rebounding while shooting a high percentage both from the field and the free throw line but for some reason a lot of critics "nitpick" his game. I agree completely. We all know that Nowitzki is not going to go down to the low post on a regular basis but as a face up player who is seven feet tall with almost unlimited range he is incredibly difficult to guard. He is also a very underrated rebounder whose work on the glass is even better in the postseason than it is in the regular season. He has been a very durable player throughout his career, so the games that he misses now in this most critical part of the season may very well turn into an instance of absence making the (fans') heart grow fonder; Nowitzki's critics are most likely going to get a demonstration of just how valuable he really is. Dallas Coach Avery Johnson tried to put the best possible spin on the situation, telling ABC's Michelle Tafoya that several of his players have been requesting more playing time so now they will have opportunities to show what they can do.

The Spurs played solid defense throughout the game but they looked terrible on offense. They shot 30-91 from the field (.330), with Tim Duncan shooting just 7-21, including 1-10 in the first half. Duncan finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Manu Ginobili shot 2-8 in the first half but he really stepped up in the second half, shooting 4-7 and finishing with 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists. He was the driving force behind a 19-0 San Antonio run that lifted the Spurs from a 54-42 deficit at the 6:24 mark of the third quarter to a 61-54 lead with 1:45 remaining in the third quarter. Although most of that comeback happened before Nowitzki got hurt Nowitzki's injury seemed to suck all of the life not only out of the Dallas crowd but also the Mavericks' team. Dallas stayed in contact the rest of the way but never managed to tie the score.

The Spurs have now won three games in a row after going through a stretch where they lost six out of seven games. Their 47-23 record is just three games worse than their mark at this time last season but the West is so tough that they would only be the sixth seed if the playoffs started today. Of course, the standings are so tightly bunched together that they could easily be the top seed by the end of the season. It seems like many "experts" spend most of the regular season either ignoring the Spurs or trying to make the case that they are too old to win the championship again--and then after the playoffs are over they have to backtrack from their earlier remarks. The reality is simple: unless Tim Duncan sustains a serious injury, the Spurs are still the team to beat. There are a few teams that have a decent chance of doing that this season but the onus is on those teams to prove that they can beat the Spurs four times in a seven game playoff series. The Spurs' defense is so stifling that even with Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker all shooting terrible percentages in the first half Dallas only enjoyed a 40-36 halftime lead. Parker never did find his stroke and the 2007 NBA Finals MVP finished with just 13 points on 4-21 shooting. How many teams play good enough defense to overcome that kind of bricklaying by one of their key players? The Spurs may not shoot that poorly again the rest of the way but they will play that kind of defense night in and night out.

The Spurs' main advantages over their rivals are, in order, Tim Duncan, great team defense, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. However, a fourth advantage is their great composure. They are mentally tough and do not get rattled by anything that happens, from poor shooting to hard fouls by the other team to any other kind of adversity. For instance, late in the third quarter, Dallas swingman Jerry Stackhouse did not like the way that Ginobili was boxing him out so he threw Ginobili to the ground and then delivered a glancing blow to Ginobili's face with an open hand. The referees inexplicably called a foul on each player, a ruling that ABC's Jeff Van Gundy rightly criticized, because Stackhouse clearly was the only one who committed a foul; Van Gundy went so far as to label the play "dirty," though Mark Jackson felt that it was simply a foul but not a dirty play. Stackhouse also received a technical foul on the play. Ginobili did not hop to his feet and do the macho posturing that is so common in the NBA and he certainly did not throw a punch and run like Carmelo Anthony did last year when Anthony escalated a situation that did not even initially involve him in the first place. No Spurs' players did any macho posturing and no one from the team left the area of the bench. The idea that if everything does not go exactly your way that you have to completely lose control of your emotions is false. The Suns sure could have used that kind of composure during last year's playoffs, when their overreaction to a foul by the Spurs' Robert Horry led to suspensions for Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw. When the Spurs come on to the court their one and only objective is to win the game, not to prove how "tough" they are and not to receive recognition for their individual achievements.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:41 AM

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Suns Shoot Down Rockets

The Suns literally shot down the Rockets on Saturday night, connecting on 76% of their first half field goal attempts as they built a 74-57 halftime lead and cruised to a 122-113 win. Amare Stoudemire had 38 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots. He set a franchise single-game record for free throws made without a miss (20), tying Richard Hamilton for the second best such performance in NBA history (Dominique Wilkins holds the NBA record--23). Shaquille O'Neal had his highest scoring output as a Sun--23 points--and he also had 13 rebounds. O'Neal shot 8-10 from the field and 7-9 from the free throw line in just under 36 minutes. Steve Nash had a relatively quiet game (15 points, five assists, four rebounds), but he made some timely baskets to stymie Houston runs. Tracy McGrady led Houston in scoring (30 points), rebounds (eight) and assists (nine) and he tied for the team lead in blocked shots (one).

The Rockets were playing their fourth game in five nights and each of those games were against quality teams. This is what is known in NBA circles as a "scheduling loss"--a tough game at the end of a brutal road trip. Nevertheless, we still learned some useful things about both teams. The Suns are a load to handle now. They own the longest current winning streak in the NBA (seven games) and they have the fifth best record in the NBA. The team that some "experts" said might not make the playoffs in the wake of the Shaquille O'Neal trade only trails the Lakers by one game for the top spot in the Western Conference. Most significantly, the Suns have recently beaten several teams that have winning records, including Boston, San Antonio, Golden State and Houston. The "old" Suns used to pad their record against weak teams, do poorly against good teams and then lose in the playoffs. These Suns are capable of beating anybody because O'Neal not only gives them the inside presence that they previously lacked but he enables Stoudemire to play his natural position, power forward. Stoudemire was very good before O'Neal arrived but he is turning into a beast now; O'Neal predicted that this would happen and O'Neal is quite predictably taking credit for this but O'Neal is right in this instance, at least to a certain degree. Stoudemire deserves the credit for rehabilitating his knee injury and for developing his skills--most notably his shooting touch--but O'Neal's presence does indeed free things up for Stoudemire.

The Suns' rebounding differential has improved by nearly 10 rpg since the O'Neal trade, swinging from well in the negative area to significantly in the positive area. When you get outrebounded on a nightly basis, as used to happen to the Suns, that puts tremendous pressure on you to be nearly perfect in all other facets of the game. Another area that O'Neal's presence affects is free throw attempts. He draws fouls that get the opposing team into the bonus situation early in the quarter; of course, that also gets the front court players on the other team in foul trouble. The Suns outrebounded the Rockets 41-35 and they had 40 free throw attempts compared to 27 for Houston; those two advantages enabled the Suns to overcome the fact that they committed 16 turnovers while forcing only five.

The Suns used to just run up and down the court and count on making a lot of three pointers and fast break layups. They had no paint presence offensively or defensively. Now, they can still run when they have the advantage but when they don't then they can set up in the half court and feed the ball to O'Neal. The idea that O'Neal would slow down their fast break was silly; no team runs a five man fast break, so having one player on the court who is not a runner is not a problem, particularly when that player gets defensive rebounds and makes good outlet passes. In the first quarter, the Suns had a very unique fast break the likes of which I don't think I have ever seen before. A defensive rebound bounced out near Nash around the free throw line but he tapped it to O'Neal using a motion like a volleyball player setting someone up for a spike. O'Neal then rifled an outlet pass to Leandro Barbosa, who streaked down court for a layup. I'm not sure if Nash thought that a bigger player was about to take the rebound from him or if he just thought that O'Neal was in a better position to deliver the outlet pass. Nash made another great rebounding play later in the game, deftly tapping an offensive rebound with his left hand to a wide open Boris Diaw for a layup that pushed the Suns' lead back to 89-76. The vision and dexterity that Nash showed on this play were Larry Bird-like--not because they are both white players but because Bird had a knack for making snap, touch passes in which he seemed to barely touch the ball before redirecting it perfectly to an open teammate; I've seen other players do such things occasionally but I've never seen anyone make that particular kind of pass as well or as frequently as Bird did.

In the half court offense, O'Neal occasionally sets a high screen and rolls to the hoop but in general that task is better suited for the more mobile and explosive Stoudemire. For the most part, O'Neal is planting himself on the block and receiving the ball there. The Suns are much more fluid now in terms of what the other four players are doing when O'Neal catches the ball in the post. Instead of standing around, they are cutting through the lane, forcing the defense to react. Sometimes, after multiple players cut through O'Neal is left with a one on one situation where he can make a quick move and score or get fouled. Other times, O'Neal is double-teamed and thus able to make a pass to an open teammate. The one thing that O'Neal used to be able to do that he cannot do anymore is drop step and make a power move resulting in a dunk. He is only dunking now when he can gather himself and no one is contesting his shot. Otherwise, he shoots a jump hook or tries to muscle in a layup off of the glass. He loses the ball more often than he used to but when he maintains control he shoots a high percentage. The other main drawback to O'Neal's game now is that he is a "streak fouler." Some guys are streak shooters--if they make one jumper, the next several are going in as well. When O'Neal gets a little fatigued, particularly in the second half, he picks up fouls in quick bursts. That should not be as big of a problem in the playoffs when there is more time off between games.

The Rockets were clearly fatigued, not only from the four games in five nights but also from the accumulated wear and tear from their remarkable 22 game winning streak. In any case, without the injured Yao Ming they had no way of effectively handling O'Neal inside, particularly after O'Neal drew two early fouls on Dikembe Mutombo. Phoenix jumped out to a 17-7 lead and dominated the first half but the Rockets did not quit, trimming a huge margin to just 93-85 after McGrady fed Bobby Jackson for a three pointer. The Rockets gave forth a good effort but just did not have quite enough energy or inside power to deal with the Suns. Houston is a quality team; they did not win those 22 games with smoke and mirrors and they will be a tough out come playoff time. Their lack of size is evident but in the playoffs they won't have to play four games in five nights, so they will have the necessary energy to play the scrappy defense that characterized their winning streak. It is hard to say how far they will go in the playoffs because it is not certain who they will play in the first round. They don't match up well with Phoenix or San Antonio because they have no one who can guard O'Neal or Tim Duncan. If Pau Gasol and/or Andrew Bynum are healthy then they don't match up well with the Lakers but they probably won't have to face L.A. in the first round anyway. On the other hand, they match up reasonably well with Dallas and Golden State.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:32 AM

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