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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tony Parker Leads the Way as the Spurs Dismantle the Suns with Clinical Precision

Tony Parker scored a career-high (regular season or playoffs) 41 points on 17-26 field goal shooting, dished off 12 assists and grabbed five rebounds as his San Antonio Spurs turned the Valley of the Sun into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, routing the Suns 115-99 to take a 3-0 series lead and essentially slam shut the window of opportunity for this Phoenix team to win a championship as presently constituted. The game was not as close as the final score. Tim Duncan scored 23 points on 9-15 field goal shooting and he had a team-high 10 rebounds. Manu Ginobili scored 20 points on 7-11 field goal shooting. Yes, those numbers are correct: the Spurs' top three players scored 84 points on 33-52 (.635) field goal shooting. ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy declared that in the playoffs you have to "take someone and something away" from the other team in order to have any chance to win. Instead, the Suns took away no one and nothing. As TNT's Kenny Smith has said repeatedly about Phoenix and Denver, they give up way too many easy shot opportunities to their opponents.

Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 28 points and 11 rebounds but he is very much like Denver's Carmelo Anthony: a prodigiously gifted offensive player who gives up even more at the defensive end than he provides at the offensive end. The only difference between the two players is that every once in a while Stoudemire will make a highlight-worthy blocked shot. Stoudemire's occasional swats do not change the fact that he is a poor one on one defender who also seems to have no clue where and when he is supposed to rotate on defense. Van Gundy could have simply made a tape recording saying "The other big (meaning Stoudemire) is late on the back side rotation" and spent the game at the concession stand eating a hot dog. Of course, Steve Nash (seven points on 3-8 field goal shooting, nine assists) should not be left out of any talk about the Suns' horrible defense; Parker won the point guard matchup over him in a landslide, outshooting, outscoring and even outpassing the two-time MVP. Granted, Parker scored a lot of his points off of screen and roll plays--which Van Gundy and Mark Jackson correctly noted must be defended by all five players, not just one--but has there ever been a two-time MVP who was outperformed this badly by his counterpart in a playoff game? Nash is not injured and his skills have not noticeably deteriorated from where they were when he won his MVPs but in this series he has been no better than the fourth or fifth best player on the court most of the time. In case you have forgotten (or don't know), the other players who have won at least two regular season MVPs are Duncan, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. So Nash is on that list but Kobe Bryant--pending the results of this year's balloting--has yet to win a single MVP. Could you imagine any circumstance in which Bryant would be so completely dominated by his opposite number, let alone in a playoff game?

Of course, most "experts" are going to look right past Nash, throw a few barbs at Stoudemire and then lay full force into Suns President Steve Kerr, Coach Mike D'Antoni and midseason acquisition Shaquille O'Neal, who finished with 19 points and six rebounds. The reality is that the Suns proved on several occasions that the Nash-Stoudemire-Shawn Marion trio was never going to win a championship. O'Neal was brought in to provide paint presence and shore up the team's staggering rebounding deficit and, after a brief adjustment period, he did just that. O'Neal is no longer a player who can dominate for four quarters but he can still have an impact on the game, as he showed even during the game three debacle: O'Neal posted a -5 plus/minus rating in 31:07, while Nash had a game-worst -26 plus/minus rating in virtually the same amount of playing time (32:19). In other words, even during this rout the Suns were competitive with the World Champion Spurs when O'Neal was in the game but they got slaughtered when Nash played. Nevertheless, after the Suns lose this series Kerr will be heavily criticized for making the O'Neal-Marion deal and Kerr will likely respond by firing D'Antoni and bringing in a defensive minded coach. Kerr played for championship teams in Chicago and San Antonio that were built around defense and it is obvious that his vision of how the game should be played does not quite mesh with D'Antoni's. The problem now for the Suns is that even if they bring in a different coach and try to become a defensive minded team several of their core players (Nash, O'Neal, Grant Hill) are getting older while the Western Conference is full of young teams on the rise. Even if another coach can get more out of this group it may not be enough to win a title. I should add that I don't think that D'Antoni is a bad coach--but I am not convinced that he is an NBA championship-level coach, either. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich always seems to be one step ahead of D'Antoni, but Popovich is one step (or more) ahead of a lot of NBA coaches.

There simply is no excuse for the Suns to not only lose this badly at home to the Spurs but to not even be competitive for most of the game. The Suns have now lost three straight games to the Spurs after being the only team this season to never have a three game losing streak--yet the Suns beat the Spurs twice in the regular season after acquiring O'Neal and they outplayed the Spurs for the better part of game one. There is absolutely no question that there is enough talent on the roster to at least be competitive with the Spurs. The problem is that the Suns to do not have a championship level game plan nor do they have championship level mental toughness. At halftime, D'Antoni told his team that they were not playing as if every possession matters. He was right, of course, but part of his job is to indoctrinate his team to play that way from the start of the season. As Mark Jackson said during the telecast, habits are formed throughout the season and cannot simply be created during a playoff series. Here are a couple examples from game three that indicate that the Suns do not value every possession: (1) they let Parker catch an inbounds pass and dribble all the way down the court to score a floater as time expired in the first half, an inexcusable defensive lapse; (2) at the end of the third quarter, Nash had the ball one on one versus Spurs center Fabricio Oberto (after a switch) with more than 10 seconds left but instead of creating a high percentage shot Nash ended up passing to Stoudemire for a three point shot.

Of course, it is not right to just focus on what the Suns did wrong. San Antonio is a marvelous team that probably played its best game of the season. Van Gundy offered a perfect summary of why the Spurs are the model NBA franchise: "I think that the best trait of the Spurs' organization is that from the owner to the GM to the coach to the best player they are a humble organization. They never think they have it figured out. That is why they stay sharp, that is why they stay urgent and that is why they stay selfless." Early in the game, Jackson noted that the Spurs will not outsmart themselves; they were killing the Suns by using Parker in screen/roll plays, so they kept running that action over and over. At various times, Van Gundy and Jackson both criticized how the Suns defended the play, saying that the Suns' defenders took bad angles, gave up too much ground and needlessly exposed O'Neal by switching instead of fighting their way through the screens. All of those things are true but how many times have you seen an NBA team score two or three times on a play and then go away from it and start doing something else? That always drives me nuts; if a play works, wear it out unless or until the other team stops it. That sounds simple but the problem that creeps in for some teams is that other players start clamoring to have touches and shot attempts; Jackson made an outstanding point when he said that Duncan did not start demanding to get the ball in the post but instead let Parker run the show and make the decision to either shoot the ball or pass to cutters.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:13 AM

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Friday, April 25, 2008

The "Other" Playoff Matchups

I have written in depth game recaps about the Cleveland-Washington, L.A.-Denver and San Antonio-Phoenix series and I touched briefly on how Tracy McGrady performed in the first two games of the Houston-Utah series but there are four other series going on as well. Let's look at what has happened so far in each of those matchups and update the status of the Houston-Utah series:

Eastern Conference

#1 Boston 2, #8 Atlanta 0:

The biggest single reason for the Celtics' remarkable turnaround this year is that the team plays stifling defense now. Kevin Garnett just received the Defensive Player of the Year award in recognition of the huge role he has played in turning Boston into a defensive powerhouse. Boston has held Atlanta to .382 field goal shooting while forcing the Hawks to commit 18.5 turnovers per game. None of the Celtics' Big Three--Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen--is averaging more than 18 ppg or shooting better than .450 from the field in this series but the Celtics are averaging 100 ppg versus the Hawks while giving up just 79 ppg.

#2 Detroit 1, #7 Philadelphia 1:

The team stats are skewed in this series because the 76ers won game one by four points and then got blown out in game two. The Pistons are a veteran team that wants to slow the game down and execute better than their opponents, while the 76ers are a young, athletic team that thrives in the open court. Although the Pistons are clearly superior overall to the 76ers, Magic Johnson rightly pointed out that Philadelphia matches up well with Detroit at certain positions; for instance, Chauncey Billups cannot post up or physically bully Andre Miller the way that he does against smaller guards on other teams.

The 76ers seized homecourt advantage with their surprise win but Detroit will most likely come back and win the series. The Pistons' game one lapse is symptomatic of a larger issue, though; for years the Pistons have been acting like they are entitled to call themselves the best team in the NBA but they have exactly one championship to show for their efforts. Granted, that is one more title than a lot of other teams have but if this era's Pistons only end up with one ring it could be argued that--relative to their talent level and their own expectations--they are one of the most underachieving teams ever.

#3 Orlando 2, #6 Toronto 1:

Most people agree on who the top four MVP candidates are: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett. From what I've seen, though, there is some disagreement about who should finish fifth (and presumably grab the final spot on the All-NBA First Team). My choice is Dwight Howard, the most dominant low post force in the game today. This season he led the league in rebounding (14.2 rpg), ranked third in field goal percentage (.599) and ranked fifth in blocked shots (2.15 bpg). Howard had 25 points, 22 rebounds and five blocked shots in Orlando's game one victory and he followed that up with 29 points, 20 rebounds and three blocked shots as Orlando won game two. On one play in game two, all five Toronto defenders collapsed into the paint when Howard caught the ball; I'm guessing that not too many players in NBA history have faced a quintuple-team. The Raptors won game three in Toronto after holding Howard to 19 points, 12 rebounds, numbers that would still be good for almost any other big man in the league.

Western Conference

#2 New Orleans 2, #7 Dallas 0:

Referring to seedings out West is a little deceptive because the eight playoff teams are only separated by seven games in the standings. I picked the Mavericks to pull off the "upset"--New Orleans won 56 games compared to Dallas' 51 wins--but I also said that I would not be shocked if the Hornets win, with the key issue being who emerges as the dominant player in the series. Right now that has clearly been Chris Paul, who is averaging 33.5 ppg, 13.5 apg and 3.5 spg while shooting .641 from the field. Needless to say, those numbers are insanely good. The Mavericks cannot live with Paul scoring 30-plus points and also getting 13-plus assists. In game two they tried to trap Paul but he repeatedly made them look silly by splitting the traps, after which their whole defense fell apart. I think that the Mavs should try to guard Paul one on one, rotating different players on him the way that Utah tries to wear down Tracy McGrady; the other four defenders should stay at home, which will cut down on Paul's passing opportunities. Make Paul score 40-plus points and don't let his teammates get involved. If Paul gets 40 points but only 5-6 assists then the Mavericks should be able to outscore the Hornets.

# 5 Utah 2, #4 Houston 1:

The rugged Jazz wore down Tracy McGrady in the first two games of this series, throwing multiple defenders at him and winning both games in Houston. The Rockets seemed to be dead in the water but they kept their season alive with a 94-92 win in Utah on Thursday. Last year the Rockets went up 2-0 versus the Jazz only to lose in seven games, so Houston is trying to return the favor but that won't be easy to do with Yao Ming sidelined for the entire playoffs. Houston got a big boost in game three from point guard Rafer Alston, who missed the first two games of the series due to injury. As Kenny Smith said on TNT, having Alston enabled the Rockets to put players in their natural roles: McGrady did not have to do all of the ballhandling and Bobby Jackson once again came off the bench as a scorer. Smith also mentioned that since Houston could not beat Utah last year with Yao it is unreasonable to expect a better result for the Rockets this time around without their All-Star center.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:35 PM

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Hoop Magazine "Discovers" Connections Between Basketball and Chess

"On the chess board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."--Dr. Emanuel Lasker, World Chess Champion from 1894-1921

Basketball, chess and writing are three of my biggest passions. One major way that writing differs from the other two is that in basketball and chess there is an immediate reward for having superior talent, preparation and focus: you win the game. Success in writing, at least from a commercial standpoint, is affected by a lot of subjective factors, as is true in many art forms; that is why Van Gogh died poor but his canvases sell for tens of millions of dollars now. Basketball players and chess players can impose their will and their talent regardless of outside circumstances but artists do not always have such opportunities; critics can say whatever they want to about Kobe Bryant or Garry Kasparov but those critics have no impact on what happens between the lines of a basketball court or on the 64 squares of a chess board.

I recently read an article that quotes Indiana Pacers Coach Jim O'Brien talking about how important it is to control the middle in both basketball and chess. O'Brien also said that pro basketball is much more complex than college basketball, just like chess is more complex than checkers. Do those ideas sound familiar? They should; I wrote about them here:

Chess and Basketball

I also explored the connections between chess and basketball in two posts:

Basketball, Chess and Boxing

Basketball, Chess and Boxing, Part II

The problem is that I was not encountering the O'Brien quotes by re-reading my Chess Life Online article. No, a writer for Hoop Magazine decided that he liked my ideas so much that he would adapt them a little and then claim them as his own (in the May-June 2008 issue of Hoop). I contacted Hoop editor Ming Wong to see if the writer had even bothered to interview O'Brien at all or if he had simply reworded the quotes from my original exclusive one on one interview with O'Brien. Wong insisted that the writer did speak to O'Brien but Wong also admitted that the writer got the idea to do so from reading my article; that is obvious, since if you Google "Jim O'Brien and chess" the top three listings all relate to my CLO article.

What Hoop did is pretty slick--if the writer never bothered to ask O'Brien the same questions I already had asked him then it would be obvious that they plagiarized my work; so instead the writer obtained his "new" quotes by revisiting the same territory through which I'd already blazed a trail. Hoop uses more footnotes and parenthetical items than any other basketball magazine but somehow they neglected to mention my article or provide a link to it--what is known as a "hat tip" in blogging circles but could also simply be called common courtesy.

I'd be ashamed to just rip off someone's idea and try to pass it off as my own but obviously not everyone feels the same way. I suggested to Wong that Hoop should correct this oversight in its next issue by acknowledging that the author was influenced by my article but I have yet to hear back from him. That's just the lovely way this business works: in the past month I've dealt with a blogger making a derogatory post about me because I politely suggested that he correct inaccuracies in a post he made about a conference call that he did not bother to tape record and now I open a national magazine to find out that my original work formed the uncredited basis for one of their articles.

Unfortunately, I can't post up or checkmate people who lack professionalism, courtesy and grace; all I can do is continue to produce quality work.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:42 AM

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Wizards Bounce Back From Embarrassing Loss to Rout Cavs

Did the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards switch jerseys prior to Washington's 108-72 game three win? During the Cavs' 116-86 game two victory it looked like Cleveland could do nothing wrong and Washington could do nothing right but the tables turned completely on Thursday night; the Cavs went from setting a franchise playoff record for biggest winning margin in game two to establishing a franchise playoff record for worst loss in game three. This was also the largest winning margin in a playoff game in Wizards/Bullets history. I sat next to Boston Celtics' scout Dave Wohl during game two and as time wound down I said to him that the funny thing about the NBA playoffs is that as bad as the Wizards looked they could very well win game three at home. Wohl smiled and agreed. All that these back to back blowouts prove is that momentum can really steamroll within a given game during the playoffs but that this momentum does not necessarily transfer to the next game. Danny Ainge once noted that it does not matter how many points you lose by because you start out the next game 0-0, not down by the margin that existed at the end of the previous game. Anyone who has closely followed the NBA playoffs over the years is well aware that there have been many times when a team wins by blowout only to lose the very next game, though reciprocal blowouts are not so common.

DeShawn Stevenson finally made his presence known for something other than running his mouth and waving his hand in front of his face; after scoring 15 points on 5-16 field shooting in the first two games, he led the Wizards with 19 points on 5-9 field goal shooting. Roger Mason also had his best game of the series, scoring 18 points on 8-14 field goal shooting. As Charles Barkley said, some players' games don't travel well; Wizards' players who could not hit the broad side of a barn with their shots in Cleveland played and shot with confidence in the friendly confines of home, while the reverse held true for many of the Cavs.

All-Stars Caron Butler (17 points on 7-14 shooting) and Antawn Jamison (15 points on 5-10 shooting) had solid games, while LeBron James led the Cavs with 22 points on 10-19 shooting. James also had seven rebounds, three assists and four turnovers. His teammates combined to shoot 19-54 (.352) from the field.

Gilbert Arenas started for the first time since returning to action after missing most of the season due to a knee injury. He scored two points on 1-2 field goal shooting, converting on a nice drive to the hoop and missing a deep three pointer. Arenas did not force shots and he made several gorgeous passes; in other words, he played the way that the Wizards need for him to play in order for the team to be successful. The long term problem for the Wizards--aside from the question of when and if he will again be at full strength physically--is that he played this way because he is not healthy enough to play in his typical wild, out of control manner, as indicated by the fact that his balky knee forced him to sit out for good after only 10 minutes of action. The Wizards did OK while he was in the game--he registered a +3 plus/minus number--but they did their best work after he was sidelined, which is when they blew the game open, extending an 11 point lead to 16 at halftime and then pushing it well past 20 in the third quarter. In case anyone misunderstands my longstanding take on Arenas, here it is in a nutshell: Arenas, when healthy, is an All-Star level player but he has never been an MVP-level player and he is an erratic, shoot first point guard who is not well suited to being the lead player on a championship contending team. Some Wizards' fans have deluded themselves into thinking that Arenas can lead Washington deep into the playoffs--apparently on the basis of the fact that the Wizards briefly held on to first place in the East during the 2006-07 season--completely disregarding the reality that Arenas has been with the team since 2003-04 and the Wizards have won exactly one playoff series during that entire time while never winning more than 45 games in a season. It is true that Arenas has missed a lot of games due to injury but why should that make people confident that he can even stay healthy, let alone perform at an elite level during a long season and then lead his team through several rounds of the playoffs? It is wishful thinking to believe that this is going to happen.

In my Cavs-Wizards series preview article for CavsNews.com, I predicted that this series would start out 2-2 before the Cavs prevail in six games. I said that the keys for the Cavs, as always, are the brilliance of LeBron James supplemented by team defense and rebounding, while the Wizards must focus on teamwork and ball movement on offense while limiting James to near his average on defense, thus forcing other Cavs to perform very well. I also predicted that--contrary to all suggestions from the Wizards--Arenas would rejoin the starting lineup, most likely in game three. So far, the series has played out according to the script that I described. The Cavaliers stayed true to their recipe for success in the first two games while at the same time the Wizards displayed little teamwork or poise. In game three, Arenas got the start just as I expected, though his impact on the result proved to be minimal. The Wizards moved the ball very well on offense and though James had a decent game the Wizards held him below his average and only one other Cavalier even scored in double figures: Devin Brown had 10 points on 2-8 field goal shooting.

Some people in Cleveland make fun of Coach Mike Brown when he speaks of taking things "one day, one game, one play at a time" and emphasizes the importance of not getting too high after wins or too low after losses--but LeBron James buys what Brown is selling, which means that everyone else on the roster does, too. Brown is right; most playoff series contain a lot of peaks and valleys and the team that stays the most mentally focused is more likely to win. The Cavs will shake off their game three loss just like the Wizards quickly moved past their game two loss. Game four will probably be the best played, most hotly contested game of the series to this point. No one from either side will admit this but the Cavs are playing with house money; if they lose they still have the opportunity to win game five at home and put the Wizards on the brink of elimination but if the Wizards lose then game three will amount to nothing more than some additional highlights for the season in review DVD. The Wizards have to win game four just to turn this series into a three game mini-series during which the Cavs will enjoy home court advantage.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:53 AM

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Unstoppable: Kobe Drops 49 as Lakers Smash Nuggets, 122-107

Even in a career full of performances for the ages, this one stands out: Kobe Bryant scored 49 points on blistering 18-27 field goal shooting and he dished out 10 assists as his L.A. Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 122-107 to take a 2-0 lead in their first round playoff series. He shot 5-9 from three point range and 8-9 on his free throws, finishing one short of tying his playoff career-highs in both points and assists while becoming just the fourth player in the past 15 years to have at least 40 points and 10 assists in a playoff game (the others are Tracy McGrady, Kevin Johnson and Charles Barkley). Bryant shot 10-15 from the field in the first half and 8-12 from the field in the second half, producing 20 first quarter points and then closing out the game with 19 fourth quarter points, all of which were scored in a remarkable four minute stretch during which the Lakers pushed their lead from 100-93 to 120-101. Bryant tied Elgin Baylor and Jerry West for the fifth best single game playoff scoring performance in Lakers history; Baylor holds the mark with 61 points, which was the NBA record for 24 years until Michael Jordan's famous 63 point game versus the Boston Celtics in 1986. Bryant also just missed tying Baylor's franchise record for points scored in one quarter of a playoff game (22).

Pau Gasol, fresh off of his spectacular game one performance, overcame a sluggish first half (four points on 1-5 field goal shooting) to finish with 18 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 6-11 from the field. Luke Walton (18 points, seven rebounds and five assists) and Derek Fisher (10 points) were the only other Lakers who scored in double figures. Foul trouble limited Lamar Odom to 22 minutes and he ended up with just four points, six assists and four rebounds. As usual, Allen Iverson (31 points, six assists) and Carmelo Anthony (23 points, five rebounds and one assist) led the way offensively for Denver but the Nuggets gave up at least 26 points in each quarter and allowed the Lakers to shoot .505 from the field, though a lot of that damage was obviously done by Bryant.

The Nuggets actually got off to a good start and they led 22-16 after Marcus Camby's tip in at the 3:59 mark of the first quarter. Then Bryant made a strong drive to the hoop from the left wing, splitting Kenyon Martin and Anthony and flipping the ball in with his right hand, the first two of 12 points that Bryant scored in the closing minutes of the quarter to propel the Lakers to a 33-32 lead. During a stretch that spanned the first and second quarters, Bryant made 10 straight field goals. Bryant scored 25 points in the first half and the Lakers led 59-49 at halftime.

In the third quarter, Bryant did not force the action, calmly accepting additional defensive attention and then distributing the ball to his teammates, racking up five assists and helping the Lakers maintain a 10 point edge, 89-79, going into the fourth quarter. He spent the first part of the fourth quarter in distribution mode as well before putting the game out of reach with his stunning 19 point outburst.

Bryant clearly took offense at the idea propagated by some people that Martin does a good job defending him. When TNT's Craig Sager asked Bryant at halftime what was the difference between being guarded by Martin and being guarded by J.R. Smith, Bryant replied that it did not matter. Martin and Smith both talked a lot of smack to Bryant. After Smith started yapping, Bryant drove right past him, scored and drew a foul from him. Bryant sank the free throw for his 49th point and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson then wisely took him out of the game since the outcome was decided. Bryant said of Smith, "Better learn not to talk to me. You shake the tree, a leopard's gonna fall out." Martin and Smith are two hotheaded players on a team full of guys who regularly lose their cool. Martin's tough guy persona is based more on bluster than anything else, as Tim Thomas pointed out years ago when he called him "fugazy." Martin has no back to the basket offensive game to speak of, he's a power forward who has never averaged 10 rpg in a season and he should be tithing a portion of his huge contract to Jason Kidd because Martin had his best years when Kidd was throwing him lob passes for easy scores. Martin's strategy for guarding Bryant in game one was to concede the jump shot and pray that Bryant (1) did not shoot well and (2) did not drive right past him; it worked for a half because Bryant missed shots that he normally makes but I wouldn't count on it working very often for the duration of this series. Smith is a good athlete but he is also too small, too slow and too weak to be anything but a speed bump as Bryant either elevates over him to shoot or simply drives right around him.

Bryant's 49 points are obviously going to be what most people focus on but his 10 assists are also noteworthy; he showcased a full repertoire of passes: no look dishes, bounce passes, lob passes, drive and kick passes to open shooters. Bryant is a highly skilled passer and that is probably the most underrated aspect of his game. Everyone knows that he can score and he annually makes the All-Defensive Team but for some reason his playmaking abilities are overlooked. Some people scoffed the first time I said this but I'll say it again: Bryant is a skilled enough passer to lead the league in assists. Of course, that will never happen because his greatest gift is as a scorer and because the Triangle Offense is not set up in such a fashion that one player will get a lot of assists, unlike some team's offenses that revolve around one player doing most of the distributing. Bryant annually leads the Lakers in assists and he was the primary playmaker on the three championship teams but the opportunity is not there for him to average 10-11 apg. Frankly, it would make no sense to turn an unguardable scorer like Bryant into a pass-first player.

The series shifts to Denver for two games now and it is rarely easy to win in the Mile High City. However, with Utah possibly heading toward a sweep of the injury-depleted Houston Rockets it would behoove the Lakers to close out this series as quickly as possible; the Lakers don't want to drag this thing out and then have to face a well rested Utah squad. The Nuggets' pattern is usually to play one really good game per series, so the Lakers have to be prepared for a dogfight in games three and four.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:13 AM

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part XI

The eleventh and final edition of the Blogger MVP/RoY rankings has just been published in two parts at We Rite Goode; the first part includes some additional rankings that were not tabulated in earlier polls (Coach of the Year, Most Improved Player), while the second part includes the MVP and RoY rankings plus the "seventh man" award (since many of the top sixth men are essentially playing starter's minutes):

Part I

Part II

Here are links to my posts about the previous nine 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

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part IX

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part X

Here is my complete ballot for the eleventh edition exactly as I submitted it. You can find my Coach of the Year and Most Improved Player selections here. Choosing a "seventh man" was optional and I did not do so. We Rite Goode supplied a survey form to fill out, so we simply listed our choices for MVP and RoY in descending order (keep in mind that I made my choices and comments before the playoffs began and that in any case playoff performances have nothing to do with these awards because the official ballots are due as soon as the regular season ends):

MVP

Kobe Bryant: As Tim Legler put it, he is the only player in the NBA who has no weaknesses. He is the only player since MJ who you would want to take the last shot and defend a player who is taking the last shot.

LeBron James: He is actually becoming underrated because he has gained ground on Kobe for best player in the game status but because of his team's record he is sinking on many people's MVP ballots.

Chris Paul: He is the best pg in the game today. However, wasn't the race for the first seed in the West supposed to be a referendum on the MVP race? Bryant outplayed Paul, the Lakers won the head to head encounter and captured first seed by one game. How is CP3 still in the discussion?

Kevin Garnett: "Changing the culture" has become a cliched phrase but he definitely played a major role in completely turning the Celtics around.

Dwight Howard: He is the dominant low post force in the game today, a terrifying dunker who led the league in rebounding and is also a ferocious shotblocker.

Tim Duncan: Groundhog Day, the Big Fundamental--whatever you call him, he is still getting it done for one of the top teams in the West.

Amare Stoudemire: He does not rebound or defend as well as the three guys I ranked above him but he is an amazing scorer. Now that he can shoot jumpers and free throws he is almost unguardable.

Dirk Nowitzki: If he had sat out after his leg injury then Dalals probably would not have made the playoffs. Now they are not only in but they have a chance to makes some noise.

Tracy McGrady: His skill set is similar to Kobe and LeBron's, the difference being that he is neither as healthy as those guys nor does he play at the highest level as consistently as they do.

Steve Nash: Statistically he took a bit of a back seat to Amare after Shaq's arrival but Nash's shooting stats are off the charts and his court vision is remarkable.

ROY

Kevin Durant: Improved greatly down the stretch; he posted career-highs in points (42) and rebounds (13) while shooting 18-25 from the field in his last game.

Al Horford: Solid near double double contributor to a playoff team.

Luis Scola: Has played a key role in Houston's success, particularly since Yao got hurt.

Al Thornton: This guy has big-time scorer written all over him. Great athlete whose game just needs a little polishing.

Jamario Moon: Solid rotation player for playoff bound Raptors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:55 PM

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Stifling Second Half Defense Lifts Spurs to 2-0 Lead Over Suns

The Phoenix Suns once again roared out to a double digit first half lead only to falter down the stretch, losing 102-96 in game two of their first round series versus the San Antonio Spurs. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 32 points and seven assists, Tim Duncan added 18 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots and Manu Ginobili--who received the Sixth Man Award prior to the game--contributed 29 points. Amare Stoudemire had a game-high 33 points but he completely disappeared in the second half, shooting 2-12 from the field. Steve Nash scored 23 points and passed for 10 assists but in the second half he had three turnovers and did not register an assist until just 14 seconds remained in the game. Shaquille O'Neal added 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots. O'Neal and Grant Hill--who was limited to fewer than 20 minutes due to injury--each had a team-best +3 plus/minus rating, while Stoudemire checked in at +1 and Nash registered a -3.

Nash won two regular season MVPs largely on the basis of his ability to make his teammates better but considering his own skill level and the talents of his teammates one would think that this should translate into more postseason success. Why is it that Nash gets the lion's share of the credit when things go right for Phoenix during the regular season but he is largely absolved of blame in the aftermath of their annual playoff breakdowns? The Suns are 3-10 versus the Spurs in the playoffs during the Nash era; during that period, Nash finished first, first and second in MVP balloting (with this year's result not yet announced) while Duncan finished fourth, eighth and fourth. Of course, Duncan won two championships and one Finals MVP from 2004 to the present.

The Suns traded away Shawn Marion to get O'Neal, figuring that he would provide the post presence that the team has consistently lacked. As noted above, the Suns have been the Spurs' punching bags for years but Phoenix beat San Antonio two times in the regular season after the O'Neal/Marion trade. Of course, those two victories are just distant, irrelevant memories now and in order to avoid elimination the Suns face the daunting task of beating the defending NBA champions four times in five games. What has gone wrong in the playoffs? What has changed since the Suns beat the Spurs in those regular season games? In game one, the Suns played very well overall but did not execute well or play with poise on a handful of late possessions that swung the outcome; in game two, the Suns played well for most of the first half before their offense completely died in the third quarter. Early in the contest, TNT's Doug Collins called this a "franchise-defining series" for the Suns and if that is the case then the defining moments of this series were probably those 12 minutes right after halftime. Despite blowing numerous chances to win game one, the Suns had a 61-54 halftime lead in game two and if they had held on to win this game then they would have enjoyed homecourt advantage as the series shifted to Phoenix. Instead, they shot 3-18 from the field, committed five turnovers and were outscored 27-11. Amazingly, five of those points came after Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich employed the "Hack a Shaq" strategy and O'Neal responded by making five out of six free throws; without those free points the Suns may not have reached double figures in the quarter. Meanwhile, throughout the game the Suns had trouble controlling the dribble penetration of Parker and Ginobili. Nash cannot guard either player, which forces the Suns to either use a zone or cross match, putting Nash on the small forward (usually Bruce Bowen) while the Suns' small forward (Hill or Boris Diaw) guards Parker. In previous games, Hill did a credible job filling Marion's shoes as the designated defender on Parker but Hill is hobbled now by a groin injury. Diaw and Leandro Barbosa contributed very little off of the bench, as each of them posted team-worst -18 plus/minus numbers.

If the Suns lose to the Spurs then that will be considered to represent a negative verdict on the O'Neal trade but I don't think that would be a fair or accurate assessment. As I said right after Suns' GM Steve Kerr pulled the trigger on this move, the Suns were never going to beat the Spurs without having some kind of post presence; adding O'Neal to the mix increased their chances of having postseason success. O'Neal has lived up to his end of the bargain, getting himself back in shape and accepting his role without question or complaint (Miami fans must be thrilled to see this after watching O'Neal lumber halfheartedly through the portion of the season during which he toiled for them but that is another story). With him in the mix they became a much better rebounding team and a much better defensive team in the paint. It could be argued that the Suns should have gotten him the ball more often in the second half to slow the game down; yes, the ironic thing about this game is that the supposedly stodgy Spurs employed a small lineup that decisively outperformed the Suns' small lineup.

The Suns made some questionable strategic moves during this game. For instance, I can understand using O'Neal as a decoy to free up Stoudemire--but why did the Suns repeatedly force feed the ball to Boris Diaw in the post in the second half? Diaw is a reluctant scorer, so the matchup advantage that he would seem to have over the shorter Ginobili or Parker is really not an advantage at all because it is not in Diaw's nature to have a shoot first mentality; that is why Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich defended Diaw that way in the first place. Popovich is outcoaching D'Antoni at every turn in this series. As Bum Phillips once said about Don Shula, "He could take his'n and beat your'n or he can take your'n and beat his'n"--one gets the distinct impression that if Popovich had Nash, Stoudemire and O'Neal at his disposal then he would find a better way to take advantage of what they do well. The Spurs' players have some obvious matchup advantages but the same can be said of the Suns' players versus their counterparts--and yet during the crucial moments of the first two games we are seeing the Spurs execute their plans calmly and efficiently while the Suns appear to be rattled and uncertain. Popovich is continually acting while D'Antoni is reacting; Popovich controls the tempo of the game by deciding to go with a small lineup or a big one and D'Antoni always seems to be a step behind.

Since 2006, five teams have lost playoff games after leading by at least 16 points--and Nash's Suns account for four of those five losses. Tuesday's loss to San Antonio almost made Phoenix five for six in this dubious category, because the Suns nearly pushed their advantage to 16 points, leading 26-12 in the first quarter before being outscored 90-70 the rest of the way. The ability to repeatedly get such big leads shows that the Suns have a lot of talent--and their propensity for squandering such advantages should raise questions about how D'Antoni and Nash are running the show. Particularly now that the Suns have a legitimate post up threat with O'Neal there is no justification for them to blow double digit leads; those situations are the perfect times to take the air out of the ball and let O'Neal pound the opposing big men into submission and/or foul trouble. Just like I think that Dallas made a mistake last year by trying to match up with Golden State in the first round of the playoffs, I think that it is incorrect for the Suns to always be reacting to the lineups that the Spurs use. The Suns should force the Spurs to bend to their will, not vice versa.

It is possible that the Suns will win two games at home to make this a competitive series once again but O'Neal's history in this regard is not promising; his teams were swept in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1999 and 2007, although his 2004 Lakers did rebound from a 2-0 deficit versus the Spurs to win four straight games. The most important thing for the Suns is to maintain their focus and intensity throughout the game; their players seem to be very apt to ride waves of emotion, whether those waves are positive or negative.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:46 AM

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Burden of Being Tracy McGrady

Tracy McGrady is one of the most underrated players in the NBA--and that does not figure to change after his Houston Rockets are eliminated by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, which seems almost certain to happen after Houston lost to Utah at home to fall behind 2-0 in their first round best of seven series. "I tried to do everything I could to get us going, energy-wise, execution-wise, rebounding and making them (his teammates) better. But come the fourth quarter, I didn't have enough (left). I had no legs. I was on empty," McGrady said after the 90-84 game two defeat. McGrady finished with 23 points, 13 assists, nine rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots, leading his team in every one of those categories in a performance reminiscent of the MVP level that Scottie Pippen played at after Michael Jordan retired for the first time. Unfortunately, the only statistic that a lot of people will look at is the fact that McGrady scored just one point in the fourth quarter.

"It's not their defense wearing him down, it's that he has to do so much for us. Look what he did tonight: 13 rebounds, nine assists. He carried us. That's going to wear you down after a while, especially against a physical team like this. They're going to keep coming at him," Houston Coach Rick Adelman added.

McGrady is going into gun battles with what Kobe Bryant would call "butter knives." McGrady's All-Star center Yao Ming is out for the season with a broken foot and his point guard Rafer Alston is also sidelined by injury. McGrady's Rockets are facing a Utah team that made it to the Western Conference Finals last season, beating a Houston team that was at full strength along the way.

I have often cited Bill Russell's dictum that what is most important is not how many points you score but when you score them, so how can I defend McGrady after he scored just one point in the fourth quarter of game two and no points in the fourth quarter of game one? McGrady has a skill set that is similar to Kobe Bryant's and LeBron James'. No, T-Mac is not at their level: he does not play at the highest of high levels consistently enough and he is not durable enough. Still, his gifts as a player are not fully appreciated by most fans (and many "experts"). His former coach Jeff Van Gundy insists that McGrady is perhaps the best passer in the NBA, a player whose size and court vision enable him to do special things with the basketball. Even though McGrady has very famously never won a playoff series it is undeniable that he steps up his game big time in the postseason: entering this year's playoffs, McGrady's career postseason averages were 28.8 ppg (fourth all-time behind Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Jerry West), 6.6 rpg and 6.1 apg, well above his career regular season averages (22.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 4.7 apg). His field goal percentage in the playoffs (.431) was virtually the same as his regular season field goal percentage (.437) despite the higher level of competition that one encounters in postseason play; McGrady's free throw percentage is also better in the postseason (.781 entering this season compared to a .747 career number in the regular season). McGrady has an 0-3 career record in seventh games but check out his numbers in those contests: 25.7 ppg, 8.7 apg, 5.7 rpg, .387 field goal percentage, .762 free throw percentage. The field goal percentage is obviously not great but that reflects how defenses are able to load up on him because he has never had teammates around him who will make defenses pay by hitting open shots after McGrady is double teamed.

McGrady's subpar performances in the past two defeats and his losses in previous playoff series stem not from a shortcoming in his game but rather from the fact that he simply does not have enough help around him. If he clearly had the better team (or even an equal team) to the squads that have beaten him and he still came up short in the fourth quarter then that would be on him--but if the Rockets rest him early in these games to keep him fresh then they will be trailing by huge margins in the fourth quarter. This is exactly the same problem that Bryant faced the past three seasons. Until McGrady has a better team around him he will carry the burden of being blamed for not advancing past the first round of the playoffs even though he has done everything in his power to lift his team. There is a bitter irony in the fact that McGrady carried the Rockets just far enough to get blamed for losing in the first round but that if he had not played so well then the Rockets would not even be in the playoffs in the first place.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:23 PM

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Stephen Curry's Dad Was a Great Sharpshooter Too

Better known now as Stephen’s father, Dell Curry was a great sharpshooter in his own right, first at Virginia Tech and then during a 16-year NBA career. Dell Curry led the NBA in three point shooting percentage in 1999 (.476) and won the Sixth Man Award in 1993-94. Here is my HoopsHype.com profile of the player who had perhaps the best stepback three point shot this side of Larry Bird:

Dell Curry: Stephen's Dad Was a Great Sharpshooter Too

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:18 PM

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Focused Cavs Rout Undisciplined Wizards, 116-86

The Washington Wizards made good on their vow to repeatedly hit LeBron James but James and his Cleveland Cavaliers kept their composure and hit back where it counts the most: the scoreboard. Cleveland's 116-86 game two victory exposed the Wizards to be a team that--in the words of their coach, Eddie Jordan--lacks "intensity, discipline and organization." Those deficiencies showed up in all facets of the game: the Wizards shot just 27-72 (.375) from the field, they were outrebounded 49-34 and they allowed the Cavaliers to shoot 42-81 (.519) from the field. LeBron James led the Cavs with 30 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, his 13th double double in 35 career playoff games. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had another strong game (16 points, nine rebounds), while Wally Szczerbiak (15 points on 6-9 field goal shooting) and Daniel Gibson (13 points on 4-8 field goal shooting) spread the court with their outside shooting. Ben Wallace (eight points, seven rebounds in just 18 minutes) played good defense and provided a lot of energy. Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson and Darius Songaila paced Washington with 12 points each. Gilbert Arenas finished with seven points, three rebounds, three assists, a team-high three turnovers and a team-high two shots blocked (not blocked shots, but his own shots blocked); Arenas shot just 2-10 from the field and had a -22 plus/minus rating in just under 24 minutes of action, tied for second worst on the team behind Antawn Jamison, who had a -30 plus/minus rating in 34:38, scoring nine points on 4-13 field goal shooting and tying James and Ilgauskas with a game-high nine rebounds.

The Wizards actually got off to a good start, leading 15-7 by the 6:15 mark of the first quarter. Arenas made his first appearance of the game shortly after that with the Wizards still up 15-9. Within 1:14 he missed a jumper, committed a foul against Szczerbiak while defending against a post up move and then received a technical foul for pushing Szczerbiak after the whistle had blown. Arenas did not deliver a violent blow but it was just a stupid thing to do right in front of the referee. In five minutes of first quarter action, Arenas shot 0-3 from the field while committing two fouls, a technical foul and one turnover. The Wizards' 15-9 lead turned into a 27-22 deficit with Agent Zero on the case. James had nine points, four rebounds and four assists in the first quarter.

The Cavaliers outscored the Wizards 26-18 in the second quarter to take a 53-40 halftime lead. James was quiet in the second quarter (three points) but Ilgauskas (nine points, four rebounds) picked up the slack. The Wizards' alleged Big Three (Arenas, Butler, Jamison) came up small in the second quarter, combining to score 10 points on 4-13 field goal shooting. Arenas scored two points on 1-7 shooting in the first half, Butler had six points on 1-8 shooting and Jamison led the team with nine points on 4-11 shooting. James and Ilgauskas each scored 12 points.

At halftime, TNT's Magic Johnson stated the obvious: Arenas hurt the team not only with his ineffectiveness but because he took bad shots, something which Johnson noted that other Wizards then started to do as well. Kenny Smith said that last year when Arenas was "the hot player" the Wizards were like a "dictatorship" and everything ran through him. This season, though, the Wizards did well despite the fact that Arenas missed virtually the entire year, and Smith said that now the team functions more like a "democratic society and he has to understand that it (the offense) goes through a lot of different people and it's not just him." As TNT ran a clip of Arenas futilely trying to post up the much bigger James, Smith stated the obvious (or, rather, what is obvious to everyone but Arenas): "This is not a good matchup, him posting LeBron James up." Barkley wrapped things up by saying, "Gilbert is a guy who is ball dominant. When he is out, Caron Butler becomes an All-Star, Jamison is an All-Star. He (Arenas) hasn't figured it out. When you're not 100% you can't do the things you used to do. It's very simple. He has to get the ball to Caron Butler and Jamison because he is not 100%. He has to understand that; that is the reason he is a good player and not a great player--he worries about getting his instead of making the players around him better." That is exactly right--and precisely what I have been saying about Arenas for quite some time. He is a talented, skillful player but he is not a great player and he is not a franchise player--and even when he was healthy he was not a franchise player, because he does not have the mentality of a franchise player. The best thing that happened to Cleveland in this series is when Arenas made his first four three pointers in game one because Arenas is going to spend the rest of the series chasing the mirage that he is on fire, not realizing that the only smoke is coming from his team going down in flames. It's funny how his fans dwell on his few special moments but all of the forced shots that he misses seem to have been surgically removed from their memories.

Why focus so much on Arenas when he has just come back after missing so much time because of a knee injury? Simple--via his ghostwriter, Arenas stated in his blog that the Wizards wanted to face the Cavs because they think that the Cavs are very beatable. If Arenas is going to say such things then he has to be prepared to either back them up on the court or accept the criticism that comes from failing to do so. You don't call out a team and then make excuses for not playing well. If he didn't think that he was healthy enough to have an impact in this series then he should have kept his mouth shut. The reality is that James is by far the best player on either team and that Cleveland is more dedicated to team defense and rebounding than Washington is; those three factors are why I picked Cleveland to win this series and why I am mystified that so many people liked Washington's chances. I did not expect a game two blowout and I still would not be surprised to see Washington win as many as two games but Cleveland's superiority should have been apparent before the series to any objective observer.

All of the Wizards' fake toughness and empty bravado came to a head at the 6:59 mark of the third quarter. Cleveland already enjoyed a 65-50 lead when James drove to the hoop and elevated, only to receive a forceful two handed shove from Washington center Brendan Haywood, who did not even make a pretense of trying to make a play on the ball. James landed awkwardly out of bounds and the referees immediately--and correctly--assessed Haywood a level two flagrant foul, which carries with it an automatic ejection. Haywood may very well be suspended by the NBA for the next game as well because, as James said after the game, "It was definitely not a basketball play in no shape, way or form." James added that the last time he was on the receiving end of such a foul was in high school and that he broke his wrist when he landed. Anyone who has played basketball at any level knows that not only is what Haywood did completely uncalled for but if you do that in a park or rec league game you are 100% guaranteed to start a fight. That was pretty much the extent of the Wizards' plan to stop James: injure him or get him kicked out for fighting. The way that James reacted puts to shame Carmelo Anthony and the Phoenix Suns; remember when Anthony jumped into the middle of the fracas at Madison Square Garden, threw one sucker punch and then moonwalked his way out of range before he could get hit? That was supposedly his way of proving his toughness but all he did was look like a punk and hurt his team by getting suspended for 15 games. Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw got so bent out of shape when Robert Horry fouled Steve Nash in last year's playoffs that they bounded off of their bench and got suspended. Yet, James was on the receiving end of a total cheap shot but he simply got up, shook it off and shot his free throws--he did not throw punches or lose control and his team follows his lead (just like Anthony's team follows his, just like the Suns regularly lose their composure in late game playoff situations and just like the Wizards follow Arenas' lead in terms of being undisciplined and disorganized). James and the Cavs have been involved in several heated situations in the playoffs the past few years and they never do anything stupid because James sets a mature tone and everyone else falls in line.

After James made his free throws, Delonte West nailed a three pointer to put the Cavs up 20 and the rout was on. The Wizards never got closer than 20 points the rest of the way and the Cavs emptied their bench with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter: all 12 active Cavs scored at least two points--even Billy Thomas, who spent most of the season in the Developmental League.

The Wizards' defense was a mess for most of the game. Basically, they trapped James randomly, no one rotated and the Cavs feasted on easy cuts to the hoop and wide open jumpers as Washington looked like "Denver East." Their offense was not well organized either, consisting largely of one player dribbling until he found an opening to jack up a shot. I have always maintained that Arenas sets the tone in this regard; that is how he plays and then everyone follows suit. Some Wizards' fans swear that the numbers show that the team is more efficient offensively with Arenas than without him and I'm sure that they will chalk this loss up to just being one bad game for the team and that they will excuse Arenas because he is not 100%. Well, this one bad game was the most important game of the season because teams that have a 2-0 series lead virtually always advance; don't believe the misconception that all Cleveland did was "take care of business" at home and now Washington can do the same: Washington has to win four out of five games to avoid elimination and that is very difficult to do. After all, even if the Wizards do win the next two games that just puts them in a three game mini-series with two of the games in Cleveland.

The postgame quotes from both sides were absolutely fascinating. Arenas did not bother to show up at the podium, though he did tell a reporter in the locker room that "the fouls they're calling out there is like golf compared to what the Bad Boys (Detroit) used to do to Michael (Jordan). So, if it is getting out of hand, I must have been blind when I used to watch basketball when I was little." Again, it must be emphasized that undercutting an airborne player with a two handed shove poses a serious injury threat and is a no-no at any level of the game. The Cavaliers delivered some hard fouls in this game--Anderson Varejao received a level one flagrant foul--but they did not do anything as egregious as what Haywood did to James.

Coach Jordan personally took the blame for his team's poor performance, saying, "Cleveland did a great job tonight. They played with a lot more intensity, a lot more discipline. They executed a great game plan...We just lost our discipline, all the things we talked about for two days. I did a horrible job keeping our guys in an organized fashion...I did a horrible job trying to keep our guys playing with intensity and discipline and organization." Of course, even though Jordan is taking the bullet for his team he is also sending the players a message by blasting their lack of professionalism. It will be interesting to see how they respond. It is worth asking why Jordan felt like he had to keep emphasizing discipline and why his players were nevertheless unable to maintain their poise; the obvious answer is that Arenas and Stevenson did so much talking before this series that they got themselves and their teammates so hyped up that they could not concentrate on what they are supposed to be doing offensively and defensively. Arenas' declaration about how much the Wizards wanted to face the Cavs simply looks asinine and anyone with an IQ above room temperature realizes that Stevenson is an idiot for saying a month ago that James is "overrated." Jordan tried his best to put out the raging fires that Arenas and Stevenson stoked with their ill chosen words, saying this about James: "LeBron controlled the game. He's head and shoulders above a lot of people and sometimes he looks like a man playing among boys. He controlled the game with his intensity, with his leadership and his playmaking and just his presence." As for the Cavs, Jordan said, "We are playing the (Eastern Conference) champions and I know they changed their team but they still have the same coaching staff and, in a respectful way, the monster player (James) and he's taking over the series." Those two quotes are what the Wizards should have been saying publicly all along; if they wanted to play the Cavs or think that James is overrated they should have kept those sentiments to themselves. You don't see or hear any Cavalier players talking about Arenas being overrated or noting that the Wizards don't have much regular season or playoff success with their current group.

Jamison is a thoughtful, classy individual who must privately be appalled at the way that Arenas and Stevenson have acted. Jamison tried to distance himself from their comments, declaring that they took place a month ago and that he and his teammates absolutely did not underestimate the Cavs. Of course, Jamison is not entirely correct: while Stevenson's statement is a month old, Arenas stuck his foot in his mouth right before the playoffs began and specifically said that the Wizards wanted to face Cleveland. There must be some fascinating closed door conversations in that Wizards' locker room, particularly between the business-like captains Jamison and Butler and Arenas and Stevenson.

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown applauded the way that the officials managed the game: "I've said it time and time again: we know that this series is going to be physical. Washington has come out and said they're going to hit LeBron, they're going to hit LeBron, they're going to hit LeBron and you can't have grown men saying I'm going to hit somebody. If that's the case, we, the NBA, the officials, cannot allow anything to get out of hand and they have to keep control over both sides." Brown also noted that he did not have to give a halftime speech because James took the floor to speak to the entire team, telling them to stay aggressive and focused.

James explained his leadership role: "It definitely starts with me because I am the guy that they're throwing everything at. They're trying to play physical. They're sending double and triple teams at me. They're trying to get me out of my comfort zone. They're trying to get me to the point where I get frustrated. If I'm not mentally prepared as the leader on our team, I'm not going to be focused on what's at task. We're here to win a series, we're not here to talk. We've just got to play good basketball and move on."

This was undoubtedly the best performance by the "new" Cavs, the unit that has been playing together for fewer than 30 games since the big midseason trade. Obviously, beating this ragtag Wizards team does not necessarily translate into being able to defeat the league-leading Celtics but if the Cavs can consistently employ last year's winning formula--defense, rebounding, the brilliance of LeBron James--then they will have a puncher's chance to return to the NBA Finals. I am still skeptical that the trade significantly improved the team's ability to win in the playoffs but this was the first time that the "new" squad clicked on all cylinders.

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

Prior to the game, there was a moment of silence in honor of Darell Garretson, who passed away this weekend at the age of 76. Garretson was a referee from 1967-94 before serving 17 years as the NBA Supervisor of Officials.

***

Israeli hip-hip violinist Miri Ben-Ari performed the National Anthem and she was also the featured halftime act. The National Anthem is difficult for even talented vocalists to sing, so I imagine that it is very difficult to play it on the violin but her rendition brought down the house. The Grammy Award winner also performed at the 2005 All-Star Game in Denver.

***

The Cavaliers' performance in this game was really remarkable across the board. They set franchise playoff records for largest margin of victory (the old record, 27, was set versus Philadelphia on May 1, 1990) and most three pointers in one half (seven in the second half). The last time they scored more than 116 points in a postseason game was May 17, 1992, when they scored 122 versus Boston. The last time they had 27 assists in a playoff game was May 17, 1993.

***

The supposed rivalry between the Cavs and Wizards is looking more and more like the one that existed between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. The Cavs have now beaten the Wizards in eight straight playoff games over a span of three seasons. That is the longest postseason winning streak against one team since 1997 and the sixth longest one in NBA playoff history.

***

During his pregame standup, someone asked LeBron James what he thought of Chris Paul's playoff debut versus Dallas. James was very impressed and he opined that if the Hornets did not have Paul that they would not have made the playoffs even in the East, let alone in the West.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:34 AM

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gasol, Bryant Lead Lakers to Game One Victory Over Defenseless Nuggets

Pau Gasol set or matched playoff career-highs across the board with 36 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists as the L.A. Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 128-114 in game one of their first round playoff series; prior to this game, Gasol's playoff career-highs were 28 points, 16 rebounds and five assists. James Worthy and Elgin Baylor (twice) are the only Lakers who have ever put up at least 36-15-8 in a playoff game. Charles Barkley is the last player who had such a stat line in a playoff game (43-15-10 for Phoenix in 1993). The 36 points are easily the most points that Gasol has scored in a game since joining the Lakers, surpassing his 31 point effort in a March 4 victory over Sacramento; this is also Gasol's first 30 point game since his return to action after a sprained ankle sidelined him for nearly three weeks late in the season.

Kobe Bryant struggled with his shot in the first half but he made seven of his 16 field goal attempts in the second half and he poured in 18 fourth quarter points, including 14 consecutive points from the 5:29 mark to the 2:10 mark to ensure that the high-powered Nuggets would not mount a late comeback. Bryant finished with 32 points, three rebounds, one assist, two blocked shots and one steal, shooting 9-26 from the field and 13-14 from the free throw line. The Nuggets' entire defensive game plan focused on trying to contain Bryant; they started out the game by putting forward Kenyon Martin on Bryant, resulting in strange cross matches all over the court, including 6-0 (a generous listing) guard Allen Iverson checking 6-10 forward Vladimir Radmanovic. Martin, wary of being beaten off of the dribble by Bryant, gave him plenty of air space but Bryant missed several shots that he normally makes. Mark Jackson mentioned a few times that he thought that Bryant settled too much for the jump shot, though from speaking to Bryant on several occasions I know how he would answer that charge: any time a defender backs off of him or has his hands down Bryant is going to fire because that is a "money shot" for him (as he described it today to Michele Tafoya). Bryant is a very good outside shooter but it did seem like there were a few opportunities where he could have driven the ball. However, most of the shots he took are ones he normally takes and makes--and when the chips were down in the fourth quarter the ball was in his hands and he produced. The Nuggets also used a zone defense to try to clog Bryant's driving lanes but the net result of all of these gimmicks was that Gasol had a lot of opportunities to roam in the paint to catch and finish; late in the game, the Nuggets put Martin on Gasol and had J.R. Smith check Bryant but Smith is too small and too inexperienced to guard Bryant, who beat Smith every which way but loose, catching backdoor lobs, shooting jumpers over him and eventually fouling him out of the game (Bryant drew three fouls on Smith during his fourth quarter scoring outburst).

This season we have heard about how Chris Paul makes David West better and how the addition of Shaquille O'Neal to the Suns has made Amare Stoudemire better--and there is truth to both of those statements--but it is also clearly true that Bryant has made Gasol better in much the same fashion. Gasol had never won a playoff game before today, let alone perform this well in a postseason contest. He deserves credit for developing such a multifaceted skill set as a big man but he has had these abilities for quite some time; the freedom to display those skills resulted from the way that the Nuggets emphasized stopping Bryant--and Bryant went off in the fourth quarter when the Nuggets turned their focus to stopping Gasol. If the Nuggets use Smith or Iverson on Bryant for extended periods Bryant may very well give them 40 or 50 points. It is beautiful to watch the symbiotic relationship between Bryant and Gasol and to see how whoever has the open shot shoots the ball; there is no drama about whose team it is--they're just playing winning basketball and during timeouts they are laughing and smiling instead of staring off blankly in different directions. All Bryant has wanted for the past four years is for the Lakers to provide him with at least one player who can actually catch the ball and finish in traffic when defenses load up against him--and when the Lakers did not respond to Bryant's private entreaties he very famously made his complaints publicly known. That resulted in a lot of criticism being directed toward Bryant but the results speak for themselves: General Manager Mitch Kupchak got Bryant the kind of help he wanted and Bryant has responded by playing like an MVP, including his willingness to put off finger surgery until after the season because he realizes that the Lakers have an opportunity to do something special.

What about the fact that Bryant attempted 26 shots but only had one assist? Doesn't that prove that Bryant is a selfish gunner? This is why it is vitally important to actually watch basketball games to understand them. The Nuggets focused their defense on Bryant in the early stages of the game. When Bryant passed the ball the defense rotated to the recipient of his pass, who then passed the ball again, often to Gasol. As Hubie Brown always says, if you make the second pass out of the trap then you will get a wide open shot; the Lakers did that all game long. The Lakers' chemistry is obviously fantastic and that starts with Bryant, the best player, who sets the tone offensively and defensively. In contrast, look at Carmelo Anthony, one of the Nuggets' two All-Stars. Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly pointed out how poor his defense is, adding that a team will follow whatever its leader does. Right after the Lakers isolated Lamar Odom on Anthony and drew a foul, Jackson said that Anthony must take more pride in his defense, recognize that teams view him as a weak link there and do everything he can to prove them wrong. Instead, on the next possession, Anthony drove into the teeth of the defense and forced up a shot against three players, trying to make up for his bad defense by scoring points. He drew a foul but Van Gundy observed that Linas Kleiza was wide open in the corner for a three point shot. Don't think for one second that this does not have an effect on the team. Anthony's teammates see that he does not work hard on defense and that he forces shots on offense rather than move the ball to the open man. Do all great scorers force shots sometimes? Absolutely. Does Bryant force shots sometimes? Sure he does--but Bryant has also been the primary playmaker on three championship teams and he has proven over his entire career (not just this season as some would suggest) that he is willing and able to give up the ball when he has teammates who are willing and able to catch and finish. As Bryant said earlier this season, now he is no longer going into a gunfight with "butter knives."

Van Gundy said that Odom was the best player on the court in this game. Odom certainly played very well (17 points on 8-14 field goal shooting, 14 rebounds, six assists) but again it is important to understand his role in the pecking order: the Nuggets did not set up their defense to stop Odom or Gasol. Odom is perfectly suited to be the third option. There is a reason that he looked out of place and the Lakers were not nearly as successful when he was the second best player on the team, just like there is a reason that Gasol had lost each of his 12 playoff games prior to today. Gasol is a marvelous second option but he is not an elite (by which I mean top five or even top 10) NBA player. The Lakers have a perfect balance now with Bryant leading the way, Gasol as the second best player and Odom filling in the gaps as the third best player. Bryant, Gasol and Odom are each willing and able passers so the ball does not "stick," which is a problem that the Nuggets often encounter; the Lakers had 33 assists on 46 field goals, while the Nuggets had 20 assists on 43 field goals. Luke Walton (16 points, five assists, four rebounds) was the only other Laker who scored in double figures.

If the Lakers' top three players were Gasol, Odom and Walton then you can bet that the Nuggets would run the Lakers off the court and there is no way that Gasol would be putting up 36-16-8 with the defense focusing on him. As Mark Jackson noted during the telecast, "Part of the problem with the (Denver) defense is you have your best interior defender (Kenyon Martin) on Kobe." Bryant would be the top option on any team in the NBA and he has proven that he can be productive against any kind of defense. That is not true of Gasol and Odom. Bryant is fortunate to finally have a good supporting cast around him but it is important to understand exactly how and why things are working so well for the Lakers. Gasol certainly knows what is happening. He told Tafoya at halftime, "We're moving the ball so well and they're so concerned with Kobe we just have to find the open guys."

The Nuggets have a lot of offensive weapons. Carmelo Anthony led Denver with 30 points and 12 rebounds but he shot just 11-26 from the field and never put his stamp on the game; he's just out there "getting buckets" (to borrow a phrase from the similarly inclined Gilbert Arenas). Allen Iverson, who Denver Coach George Karl has correctly identified as the team's most valuable player, also had 30 points, shooting 11-24 from the field and leading the Nuggets with seven assists. He also had five rebounds but he had an off day from the free throw line, shooting just 7-13 (.538), well below his career playoff norm (.767). Kleiza (23 points) and Smith (15 points) provided plenty of production off of the bench.

I love statistics; I've been crunching basketball numbers literally my whole life but nowadays some people have gotten so caught up in their spreadsheets that they don't know (or even care to know) how to watch a game and evaluate personnel. Players like Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas and Carmelo Anthony are considered stars (or at least Marbury used to be) and you can look at their assist totals and conclude (wrongly) that they are good passers--but they don't consistently play in a disciplined, unselfish way that is conducive to team success and that is why they rack up a lot of points but very few playoff victories. If you understand basketball then you know that there are some players who will only give up the ball if they know that they will get the assist; they are not interested in facilitating ball movement or playing winning basketball. Why do you think that Cleveland Coach Mike Brown is emphasizing the "hockey assist" (the pass that leads to the pass that is credited as an assist, a subject that I discussed here and here)? Brown wants his players to know that he and the coaching staff recognize and appreciate the importance of making such passes. Great players and great teams don't care who gets the points or who gets the assists as long as the team gets the win.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:33 PM

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Duncan's Dominance, Ginobili's Clutch Shot Carry Spurs to Victory

ESPN Classic should be showing the Spurs-Suns game on 24 hour rotation for about the next week. If those teams can serve up six more games that are even half as exciting as that one then basketball fans are in for a real treat. In case you missed it--and shame on you if you did--San Antonio beat Phoenix 117-115 in double overtime. Tim Duncan strengthened his case for being considered not only the greatest power forward of all-time but also the dominant NBA player of the post-Michael Jordan era. He finished with 40 points and 15 rebounds, the fourth time he has had a 40-15 game in his playoff career; he is tied for fifth-seventh (with Hakeem Olajuwon and Bob Pettit) on the all-time list. Naturally, Wilt Chamberlain (13) is the leader, followed by Elgin Baylor (9), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (8) and Shaquille O'Neal (7). Duncan also had five assists; he, Chamberlain and Baylor are the only players in NBA history who have had multiple 40-15-5 games in the playoffs. Included in Duncan's point total is an extremely rare occurrence: a made three pointer--and this was not just an end of the quarter heave; Duncan drained a coldblooded trey to enable the Spurs to survive the first overtime.

After the first 19 minutes or so no one would have guessed that the game was headed for extra sessions, let alone that the Spurs would eventually win; Phoenix built a 43-27 lead even though Shaquille O'Neal was stuck on the bench due to foul trouble and Duncan was well on his way to having a huge night. Duncan scored 20 points on 7-9 field goal shooting in the first half but the other Spurs shot just 7-28 from the field. In the second half and the two overtimes, Duncan continued to be effective and the two other key Spurs--Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker--asserted themselves as well. Parker finished with 26 points and five turnovers, while Ginobili added 24 points, five assists, four rebounds, three steals and the game winning drive to the hoop.

It is easy to compare Duncan's numbers to O'Neal's (11 points, five rebounds, four blocked shots) and conclude that the O'Neal trade did not fulfill its primary objective, at least in this playoff game. However, the truth is that Duncan did a lot of his damage against Amare Stoudemire and that even when O'Neal was on the court there were times that he played tentatively on defense because he was trying to avoid fouling out. When O'Neal picked up his fifth foul at the 6:14 mark of the fourth quarter the Suns led 82-77; O'Neal made it the rest of the way without being disqualified but he was less aggressive than usual when he challenged players who were driving to the hoop. One could make the case that O'Neal will spend this whole series in foul trouble and therefore not be effective but I don't believe that; it is true that he is more foul prone now that he is older and not as mobile as he used to be but he proved during two regular season wins versus the Spurs that he could effectively play against Duncan without getting in foul trouble.

In the second half we got some glimpses of some of the things that the Suns can do with O'Neal that they could never have even dreamed of doing without him. As I expected, the Suns opened the second half with a steady diet of feeding the ball to O'Neal in the post, a strategy that leads to high percentage shots and could potentially get the Spurs in foul trouble. Paraphrasing what Jeff Van Gundy said during that stretch, the value of having a post up game is that it stabilizes momentum during a game when a team can get an easy, high percentage shot and not have to rely on shooting jumpers.

This game was loaded with plays that seemed huge at the time but were then surpassed by subsequent plays. For instance, with 6:28 left in the fourth quarter O'Neal completed a three point play to put the Suns up 82-76. However, O'Neal never had the opportunity to further assert his dominance in the post for two reasons: (1) he soon picked up his fifth foul, which limited his aggressiveness at both ends of the court; (2) Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich reacted to the Suns' success in posting up O'Neal by employing the "Hack a Shaq" strategy--intentionally fouling O'Neal away from the ball, ensuring that each Phoenix offensive possession would result in two O'Neal free throws (this can only be done prior to the two minute mark, after which time if a team fouls a player away from the ball then the offended team can choose any player to shoot one free throw and they retain possession of the ball). I have always been skeptical of the value of the "Hack a Shaq" strategy because each possession is generally considered to be worth a point. That means that if O'Neal makes one of two free throws then the opponents are not gaining anything. Furthermore, the stoppage of play enables O'Neal's team to set up a good half court defense. Normally, Popovich does not employ this gimmick but after the game he said that he went with a hunch. After O'Neal missed both free throws the first time that he was fouled Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni took O'Neal out of the game, which I think was a mistake; if the Spurs want to slow the game down and get in the bonus early (increasing the likelihood that the Suns' excellent free throw shooters will also get some attempts) then I would let them do it if I were the opposing coach. More to the point, I would not let the other coach dictate to me how I deploy my personnel; without O'Neal in the game the Suns not only lost their post presence on offense but also the anchor of their defense in the paint. The Suns led 82-79 when D'Antoni benched O'Neal and they trailed 88-86 when D'Antoni put him back in the game.

With O'Neal back in the paint for the closing couple minutes, the Suns took a 93-90 lead. They got a stop and had possession of the ball with :44 left. One more score would have all but clinched the game. Instead, Steve Nash dribbled around but never created a good shot for himself or a teammate, resulting in a shot clock violation. Then the Suns had a defensive breakdown, enabling Michael Finley to hit the tying three pointer. Even after that, the Suns had the ball with 15 seconds remaining but they did not get a shot off until Leandro Barbosa made an off balance fling with one second left. Steve Nash's numbers the past few seasons are wonderful but MVPs and legends are supposed to be made in these kind of moments; he runs the show and he simply has to make sure that his team at least gets off a good shot during those two crucial possessions. In the first overtime the Suns twice took five point leads but again they were unable to seal the deal, leaving Duncan wide open for the tying three pointer near the end of the extra session. The Suns never led in the second overtime and after Nash hit a three pointer to tie the score at 115 the Spurs wisely eschewed calling a timeout, preventing the Suns from bringing O'Neal back in to protect the paint; that enabled Ginobili to get all the way to the rim to score the game-winning layup. At the end of the fourth quarter, O'Neal was on the court in a similar situation and he blocked Ginobili's shot, leading to a transition opportunity that resulted in a Barbosa layup and that 93-90 Phoenix lead that the Suns were not able to maintain.

It is certainly incumbent on O'Neal to try to avoid foul trouble in the remaining games but the reality is that the Suns blew several golden opportunities to win this game. Particularly glaring, in my opinion, are D'Antoni's decision to immediately bench O'Neal in response to the "Hack a Shaq," the shot clock violation at the end of regulation and the defensive breakdowns that led to open shots for the Spurs at the end of regulation, the first overtime and the second overtime. O'Neal is no longer going to regularly put up 30 points and 15 rebounds; he is in a good role now as the third or fourth most important player on the Suns but the inside presence that he provides should be just enough for the Suns to get past the Spurs, provided that the Suns have the mental toughness and awareness that is necessary to close out playoff games. After the game, Popovich said that he was most proud of his team's mental toughness, prompting ESPN analyst Jalen Rose to observe that not only is this trait a San Antonio strength but it is also a Phoenix weakness. That deficit, more than other factors that Suns' backers like to use as excuses, explains why the Suns have yet to win a title--and if the Suns lose to the Spurs again this year it will be a primary factor, particularly since O'Neal has shored up the team's main technical weakness (lack of paint presence).

It is important to remember that each playoff game is a separate entity and that despite O'Neal's foul trouble and Duncan's epic performance the Suns still had several chances to win. Over the next couple weeks we will find out if this is a good sign for Phoenix or simply an indication that the Spurs will continue to win most of the close games in this matchup because of their superior mental toughness and focus.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:43 AM

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Well Done is Better Than Well Said: Cavs Silence Wizards, 93-86

The Washington Wizards talked trash, delivered hard fouls and muscled their way to an 11 point first half lead--but the Cleveland Cavaliers had the last word because they have LeBron James and the Wizards don't. James scored a game-high 32 points on 12-19 field goal shooting, leading the Cavs to a 93-86 game one victory at Quicken Loans Arena. James also had six rebounds, four assists and just one turnover. The Cavaliers' three part recipe for success is defense, rebounding and James' brilliance. Cleveland enjoyed a slim 43-42 rebounding edge and neither team shot well from the field so James proved to be the difference, as he did several times when these teams met in the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a strong game (22 points, 11 rebounds, four assists), carrying the offense early in the game before James got going. Delonte West shot just 3-10 from the field but in the fourth quarter he made a big jumper and shot 4-4 from the free throw line. He set playoff career-highs in points (16), rebounds (five), assists (five) and blocked shots (two), including a block of a Gilbert Arenas jumper with less than a minute left and the Cavs only leading by four points.

Arenas led the Wizards with 24 points in just 27:47 of playing time; he is still coming off of the bench instead of starting because the medical staff has restricted his minutes while he recovers from knee surgery and Coach Eddie Jordan feels like he can better control Arenas' minutes if Arenas operates in a reserve role. Jordan only played Arenas 10 minutes in the first half so that he could use him for most of the second half. Arenas scored 14 points in the first half, making all four of his three pointers, but he faded badly down the stretch and completely disappeared in the latter stages of the fourth quarter. Antawn Jamison had 23 points and a playoff career-high 19 rebounds. Brendan Haywood had a double double (15 points, 10 rebounds) but, like Arenas, he did most of his damage in the first half. Caron Butler had a solid but quiet game (14 points on 5-10 shooting, four rebounds, four assists, three steals). DeShawn Stevenson, who made headlines a month ago by saying that James is "overrated," scored three points on 1-9 shooting. He also had five assists and played tough defense on James--but not tough enough to stop James from taking over when the outcome of the game was in the balance.

The Cavs jumped out to a 13-6 lead even though James missed his first three field goal attempts. Arenas entered the game at the 3:42 mark with Cleveland still up 17-12 and after shooting an airball on his first attempt he sank four straight three pointers in less than six minutes. The second of those bombs, launched from 35 feet as time expired in the first quarter, put Washington up 24-19. His fourth trey gave the Wizards their biggest lead of the game, 30-19. The thing about Arenas is that he is a streak shooter; when he's on he can shoot his team into a game but when he's off he can shoot his team right out of it--and Arenas displayed both of those traits in this game. Cleveland settled down after this initial Arenas onslaught and James finally got going, scoring eight points on 4-5 field goal shooting in the second quarter after missing all four of his field goal attempts and scoring just four points in the first quarter. The score was tied at 46 at halftime.

Washington's strategy for dealing with James became apparent right from the start of the game: hit him constantly and foul him every time he goes to the hoop, forcing him to shoot free throws instead of making layups. Andray Blatche smacked James across the face when James drove to the hoop near the end of the first quarter. James missed the shot and tumbled to the court but no foul was called. The Wizards scored a fast break layup while James slowly stood up. Free throw shooting and three point shooting are James' only weaknesses (he shot 8-14 from the free throw line and 0-2 from three point range in this game). Washington's game plan is the same one that the "Bad Boys" Pistons used in the late 1980s versus Michael Jordan, who responded by hitting the weight room in the offseason so that he could deal with the punishment--and deal out some punishment of his own. James is listed at 6-8, 250 and has spoken of being 6-9, 260, so he is the same size as Karl Malone; as James put it after the game, "There is a difference between a foul or a hard foul or just when LeBron James goes to the hole, hammer him. I was built for this. I'm not 6-9, 260 pounds to shoot jumpers all night. I go to the hole and I create contact. Don't ever think at one point that I am the only person feeling that contact."

James got his revenge against Blatche by giving him an inadvertent (but not really) elbow a little bit later in the game as James drove to the hoop. James repeatedly showed that he is willing and able to deliver physical punishment. Just before halftime, Haywood nailed James with an illegal screen, again sending James sprawling to the ground. Haywood stood over James--"in a very disrespectful manner," as James later put it--so James hopped up and elbowed Haywood's arm aside. The players who were in the game for both teams rushed to intercede in the midcourt altercation but no one left the bench area and no punches were thrown. James, Haywood and Jamison each received technical fouls. Maybe the Wizards thought that they were setting a physical tone--employing the "intimidation factor" as James described it at halftime--but the second half proved that this did not work.

James scored 12 points on 5-6 shooting in the third quarter. After he converted a dunk that put Cleveland up 53-50, James subtly waved his hand in front of his face, mocking a celebration that Stevenson sometimes does. However, Jamison (nine points) and Butler (eight points) also had strong third quarters and Washington carried a 69-65 lead into the fourth quarter. The score remained close for most of the final period. Cleveland briefly went up 80-75 with 7:10 remaining but the Wizards capped off a 9-2 run with an Arenas reverse layup to take an 84-82 lead with 4:38 left. That would prove to be his last field goal, as he missed his last four shots, all of them attempted between the 2:13 mark and the :32.9 mark. Meanwhile, James scored six points in the last 1:37 of the game, including two strong drives to the hoop that made the score 86-84 and then 88-84, after which the Cavs never trailed again. His free throw nemesis popped up as he only split his last four free throw attempts, but the Wizards were stuck on 84 points until Butler tacked on a meaningless layup as time expired.

The trash talk from Arenas and Stevenson did not distract James or make him do anything out of character; he maintained his focus and led his team to victory. "93-86 is the only words I need to say," James explained after the game. "The series is not going to be won between LeBron James and DeShawn Stevenson...For me as an individual, I can't go out there and make it an individual challenge because that takes away from our team efforts and what we have at task. It's never going to be between me and DeShawn, it's going to be me and my team against Washington."

This game is a wonderful example of how statistics do not tell the whole story about teams or players. The numbers say that Arenas had a great game but Bill Russell once sagely observed that what matters is not just how many points you score but when you score them. James scored throughout the game but he put his fingerprints all over the final outcome with his six late points, especially those two hard drives to the hoop in defiance of all of the Wizards' earlier physical play. That is why James is an MVP-level player while Arenas is simply a talented All-Star but not a franchise player. It is also worth noting that while Arenas got his points several of his teammates who were productive during his absence in the regular season struggled mightily: Stevenson, Roger Mason and Darius Songaila combined to score six points on 2-19 field goal shooting. Is that Arenas' fault? Not directly, but the point is that some people look at Arenas' gaudy individual numbers and view him as an indispensable player while the reality is that the team did roughly as well in almost a full season without him as the team did last season when he played 74 games. Arenas dominates the ball when he is on the court, so his value is not proven simply by citing his statistics; there is a delicate balance involved here because as his touches and numbers go up other players' touches and numbers go down. Arenas' advocates are convinced that the Wizards are significantly better with Arenas than without him but there is no proof of that; the team's record the past several years is much more affected by Butler's absences than by Arenas' absences and Arenas has yet to lead the team to either 50 regular season wins or two playoff series victories in one season, benchmarks that would support the claim that he is truly a franchise player.

Yes, this was just game one and the Wizards may very well win game two and seize homecourt advantage but the point is that we have years of evidence from the regular season and the playoffs about both James and Arenas and that mountain of evidence shows that James is a franchise player and that Arenas is not. That does not mean that Arenas has no value or that he makes the team worse or that he can't have a big game and carry the Wizards to a win or two in this series--but it does mean that, barring evidence to the contrary, he cannot lift the Wizards the same way that James lifted the Cavs last season.

After the game, Arenas offered all kinds of explanations and excuses for the decline in his play in the second half: "It usually happens since I've come back. I'll start off hot in the first half and cool off in the second half. It comes from sitting. They're trying to manage my minutes and it's kind of difficult to get my rhythm." He later added, "I was tired and didn't have my legs under me. Still I should have made those shots." Arenas had some success posting up West but did not do that late in the game: "We have to take advantage of the little guards but still it's my fourth game back. It's not the old Gil. I have to learn to take advantage of the post up opportunities earlier in the game when I'm fresher. The first five minutes of the game are when I'm at my best, because I'm fresh. I have to take advantage of it and that's why I was shooting threes earlier, because I had my legs under me. As the game goes on, I start to get tired and fatigued a little bit, so I tried to shoot pullup jumpers."

Arenas may very well be limited physically since he has just come back from injury, but the old rule used to be that if you are injured then you can't play and if you can play then you aren't injured--in other words, no excuses. Kobe Bryant is playing with a broken finger that will require surgery but you never hear him mention that. The Cavs pride themselves on never making excuses. James has been dealing with back spasms for quite some time now but when he was asked before the game how his back feels James answered simply, "I'm ready to play." James obviously is not 100% healthy; his gluteal and hamstring muscles tightened up late in the game, which probably has some relationship to the back spasms, and James spent a longer time than usual out of the game during the fourth quarter, lying on his back while the trainer stretched him out. Yet James never used his back injury as an excuse, before or after the game.

Arenas fouled out of the game with 13 seconds left and the outcome already decided. Yet, he was not done talking. As he sat down on the Wizards' bench he engaged in a heated exchange with assistant coach Phil Hubbard, with Arenas looking very much like Chad Johnson arguing on the field with quarterback Carson Palmer last year. That is another thing that you rarely--if ever--see James doing: arguing with his coaches or teammates. Arenas has a lot of talent and he put on a breathtaking show for about six minutes in the first half but James controlled the outcome of the game and James will control the outcome of the series.

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

Prior to the game, I asked Coach Brown who would draw the primary defensive assignment against Arenas in light of the fact that Arenas is coming off the bench now as opposed to being a starter. Brown replied, "There is not going to be a primary guy on him. Devin may guard him some, Delonte West may guard him some, even LeBron may guard him some. Daniel Gibson may guard him some. I don't have in my mind that I am going into the game saying 'This guy is going to be the main defender on Gilbert Arenas.' (Wizards Coach) Eddie (Jordan) may bring Gilbert in in the first three minutes of the ball game. If I said Devin is going to guard him--Devin probably is not going to be in the game in the first three minutes, so it is going to depend (on the situation) and be based on feel more than anything else."

As Coach Brown predicted, several players took turns guarding Arenas. James can perhaps bother Arenas the most because James is much bigger and just as quick. Gibson and West have decent quickness but can be overpowered by Arenas close to the basket; it is also easier for Arenas to shoot over either of them than it is for him to shoot over James.

***

Entering this year's playoffs, James had career playoff averages of 27.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 7.1 apg in 33 postseason games. No other player in NBA history who has played in at least 20 career playoff games has averaged more than 25 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 6.0 apg. James has the highest playoff scoring average in the NBA since the time he made his playoff debut in 2006.

***

Before the game, James admitted that he felt "jittery" prior to his first career playoff game in 2006; that did not stop him from notching a triple double (32 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) in a 97-86 victory over the Wizards. "I'm more calm. I am able to control my energy a little bit," James said of the difference between his pregame mindset before the playoffs now versus then. "I am excited about it as we get close to game time...(Back then) I couldn't really focus as much as I wanted to because I was so excited just to play in my first postseason game."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 AM

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