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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Los Angeles Versus Utah Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 Los Angeles (57-25) vs. #4 Utah (54-28)

Season series: Los Angeles, 3-1

Utah can win if…their physicality and length enable them to control the paint and win their matchups with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and the other Lakers bigs. The Jazz will also need to have a big series from Deron Williams.

Los Angeles will win because… Kobe Bryant is no longer going into gun battles with "butter knives." If teams trap him too hard then Gasol and the perimeter shooters make them pay the price but if teams don't trap Bryant then he will drop 40 or more points on them--and sometimes he will drop 40 or more points on them no matter what they do. Derek Fisher played with Utah last year so he is very familiar with their personnel and their game plans; he will not outdo Williams statistically but he should be able to keep that matchup close enough on most nights that the Lakers will be able to prevail.

Other things to consider: Utah is a tough, physical team that had the best home record in the NBA this season. Williams shined in last year's playoffs and he came up big in crucial moments in the first round series this year versus Houston. Carlos Boozer's offensive game was not sharp versus Houston. It will be interesting to see how L.A. matches up defensively with Boozer and Mehmet Okur; Boozer is ostensibly the power forward and Okur is the center, but Boozer posts up while Okur shoots three pointers, so the Lakers may put Gasol on Boozer and Odom on Okur. The reason I say "may" is that the Lakers played three of their four games versus Utah before they acquired Gasol and Gasol missed the fourth game due to injury, so we can only speculate about how Coach Phil Jackson will deploy his two big men defensively. Although the Houston Rockets were woefully undermanned they still extended the Jazz to six games and when point guard Rafer Alston was healthy the Rockets were generally competitive with the Jazz; Kobe Bryant will be every bit as tough to guard as Tracy McGrady was and Bryant has a lot more weapons at his disposal than McGrady did, so it is difficult to believe that Utah can win this series unless the Jazz play much better than they did against Houston or the Lakers play very poorly and/or suffer an injury to Bryant or Gasol.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:36 AM

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Once Talkative Wizards Go Down Silently in Game Six

For such a talkative, confident and brash group, the Washington Wizards sure went down meekly in game six of their series with the Cleveland Cavaliers; the Wizards played smart, competitive basketball for about a quarter and a half and then fell apart, causing their initially boisterous home fans to gradually become silent and then begin slowly filtering out of the arena as the inevitability of the outcome became clear. LeBron James quieted the crowd's "overrated" and "crybaby" chants with another magnificent performance, notching his third career playoff triple double (27 points, 13 rebounds and a playoff career-high 13 assists) as the Cavaliers never trailed in the second half en route to a 105-88 victory. James achieved his triple double by the end of the third quarter. Wally Szczerbiak made the Wizards pay whenever they trapped James, scoring a playoff career-high 26 points while shooting 6-13 from three point range. Daniel Gibson (22 points, 4-6 shooting from three point range) also repeatedly punished the Wizards for leaving him open. Antawn Jamison led the Wizards with 23 points and a game-high 15 rebounds but he did not receive much help.

The Cavaliers double teamed game five hero Caron Butler, who was largely invisible for most of game six before padding his stats after the game was out of reach to finish with respectable totals (18 points, nine rebounds). Before recapping what happened in the game, it is worth revisiting the difference between being an MVP-level player and being an All-Star. There are rarely if ever more than five legitimate MVP candidates in a given season, yet media members and fans continually anoint numerous All-Star players as "superstars" and "MVP candidates." They did that with Gilbert Arenas early in the 2006-07 season and I even heard some talk about Butler being an MVP candidate when the Wizards played well without Arenas this season. I guess I just have a much higher standard for such things; unless you have an established history of being an MVP-level player, even having a great month does not make you an MVP candidate in my book. That is why I did not buy the idea that Brandon Roy was an MVP candidate just because Portland had a 13 game winning streak early in the season; you should have to play at least one full season at an MVP level before your name is mentioned in MVP discussions: that is why I ranked Chris Paul seventh (i.e., out of the top five and therefore not a serious candidate) in the first edition of the Blogger MVP/RoY rankings only to steadily move him up the charts after Paul demonstrated that he was in fact putting together an MVP caliber season as opposed to being an All-Star level player who had an early season hot streak.

Butler was phenomenal in game five, producing 32 points, nine rebounds and five assists and making the game-winning layup with 3.9 seconds left. However, it is worth noting that the 32 points were a playoff career-high for Butler and that he was not able to even come close to matching that performance despite playing at home in an elimination game. That is the difference between being an MVP candidate and being an All-Star: James puts up 32, nine and five on a regular basis, regardless of what defensive coverage he faces, but Butler is not able to do that. I don't think that Butler "choked," I just think that he is not the kind of player who is going to play at an MVP level night after night; over the course of a series, he will put up All-Star numbers and he may have a game in which he plays like an MVP. Butler averaged 18.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 3.8 apg in the series.

Szczerbiak hit his first two three pointers as Cleveland took a quick 12-6 lead but the Wizards played with energy, crashed the offensive glass and responded with a 25-11 run to go up 31-23, which would turn out to be their biggest lead of the game. Cleveland cut that margin in half in just 26 seconds after an Anderson Varejao layup and a coast to coast drive by Gibson that just beat the buzzer. James scored just two points but he had four assists.

The Wizards maintained their lead until midway through the second quarter when the Cavs went on a 21-3 run that effectively decided the outcome of the game; that put the Cavs up 56-43 and even though the Wizards answered with five points to end the period they never really seriously threatened again. There was a little bit of drama right before halftime when Gibson seemed to be fouled on a buzzer beating three point attempt but no foul was called. James said something to the notoriously short-fused Steve Javie, who instantly rang James up with a technical foul and then belligerently gestured to James to leave the court. James, who was waiting around to do a halftime on-air interview with Ric Bucher, wisely did not say anything further to Javie. Bucher asked James what he said to Javie prior to getting the technical and James insisted that he did not say anything disrespectful. James had 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds at the intermission, while Jamison led the Wizards with 16 points and seven rebounds and Butler had just five points on 2-6 field goal shooting.

Prior to the start of the third quarter, Butler--a .901 free throw shooter during the regular season--missed the free throw resulting from James' technical foul. After a James jumper and a Szczerbiak three pointer, Cleveland led 61-48. The Wizards' offense, which looked energetic and crisp in its execution in the first quarter, devolved into various players settling for long jump shots. The Wizards stayed in contact for a few minutes but then the Cavs started to pull away and Cleveland's 79-64 lead at the end of the period felt like a bigger margin because the Wizards' players were already hanging their heads and presenting the body language of a team that knew it could not come back.

Sure enough, the Wizards made no run in the final stanza as the teams simply traded baskets down the stretch. Both teams emptied their benches around the two minute mark. As far as I could tell, the Cavs engaged in no trash talking and no excessive celebrating; they did not rub their victory in the faces of the Washington players or their fans. I wonder if the same would have held true if the outcome had been reversed?

For the first five games of the Cleveland-Washington series, the Wizards had a lot to say, even if much of it was not worth hearing. DeShawn Stevenson, who scored 10 points on 2-9 field goal shooting and had an up close and personal view as James dominated game six, kicked things off a month ago by barking that James is "overrated." Wizards' supporters like to emphasize how long ago Stevenson said that--but Stevenson never backed off from that ludicrous statement. When he was not limping around like Fred Sanford or jacking up shots like the Agent Zero of old, Gilbert Arenas told his ghostwriter to announce to the world (via his blog) that "We want Cleveland," adding that he did not think that the Cavs were playing well and that they could not beat the Wizards in the playoffs three straight years. Then the Wizards upped the ante by becoming wanna be tough guys, not only giving James hard fouls on several occasions but being dumb enough to announce to the world that this was their game plan, thus bringing further negative attention on to their team. If they thought that this would rattle James and cause him to stop driving to the hoop and/or lose his cool then they were sadly mistaken.

The Wizards actually have a very classy owner, Abe Pollin, a good coach in Eddie Jordan and two hardworking, professional and classy All-Stars in Butler and Jamison; unfortunately for Washington, it took until game five--when Arenas shut himself down for the season--for Butler and Jamison to reassert control over their team's locker room, essentially telling their squad to shut up, calm down and let their play do their talking. As Jamison put it, "We just said, 'It's time to stop all the talking.' A lot of guys were trying to defend themselves as far as this and that. But it wasn't working. We said, 'The ultimate change around is for us to just be quiet and find a way to come back from 3-1 and win the series. I think they finally got it." Anyone who knows anything about the NBA realizes that Butler and Jamison wanted nothing to do with the trash talking and the sideshow antics that Arenas, Stevenson and Brendan Haywood--who started the "crybaby" nonsense--introduced into this series but Butler and Jamison had to walk a delicate line between supporting their wayward teammates publicly yet trying to steer the team as a whole in a positive direction. Butler finally spoke up prior to game five, telling a TNT interviewer that anything that did not come out of his mouth or out of the mouth of co-captain Jamison did not reflect what the Wizards as a team stand for or believe. You may have noticed during game six that when James collided with Butler or Jamison that he made a point of extending an arm and helping them up; although Pat Riley would decry offering assistance to the "enemy," James showed that he recognizes that Butler and Jamison are true professionals who are worthy of his respect.

It is only fitting to give James the last word: "Cleveland has advanced and we won the series 4-2. That speaks much louder than anything I can say about the fans here, anything about DeShawn Stevenson. Cleveland has advanced. That's all that matters."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:37 AM

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Detroit Versus Orlando Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#2 Detroit (59-23) vs. #3 Orlando (52-30)

Season series: 2-2

Orlando can win if…Dwight Howard is dominant, Hedo Turkoglu owns the fourth quarter, Rashard Lewis not only shoots proficiently but also contributes in other phases of the game and Jameer Nelson holds his own against Chauncey Billups (in other words, if the Magic essentially play perfectly for four games).

Detroit will win because… the Pistons' playoff savvy and versatile starting five will be a little bit too much for the Magic to handle.

Other things to consider: This series could be a lot like the Detroit-Cleveland series in 2006; the Cavs had an excellent chance to prevail but they were playoff neophytes so the Pistons squeaked by even though their concentration and efficiency waxed and waned, sometimes even within games. Howard is already a matchup nightmare and once his offensive game becomes more polished he and the Magic will be very, very difficult to stop. One would think that Detroit would be fully engaged now after the lackluster way that they played early in their first round series versus Philadelphia but it is the nature of the Pistons to be complacent, to get fat and happy, and to lose playoff games to inferior teams. With Howard's power inside and an array of three point shooters on the wings, the Magic are a much more dangerous opponent than the Sixers were, so they should be able to compete with the Pistons even when Detroit is focused. I'm sticking with my original prediction (in my 2007-08 Playoff Preview) that Detroit will beat Orlando in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:52 AM

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San Antonio Versus New Orleans Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 New Orleans (56-26) vs. #3 San Antonio (56-26)

Season series: 2-2 (New Orleans has the higher seed based on a 34-18 record versus Western Conference teams, compared to 33-19 for San Antonio)

New Orleans can win if…Chris Paul is the best player on the court and the Hornets find an answer for the screen/roll plays the Spurs run for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

San Antonio will win because…they are the playoff version of the Grim Reaper: these silent, deadly assassins kill their opponents without mercy and without fanfare. Tim Duncan's impact outweighs his numbers (which are usually quite good) because his presence on defense deters players from driving and his presence on offense draws attention that creates openings for Parker and Ginobili.

Other things to consider: The point guard matchup between Parker and Paul will be fun to watch. I doubt that Parker will regularly drop 30 on Paul the way that he did on Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns. The power forward matchup between Duncan and David West will also be interesting. Expect Duncan's length and savvy to give him the edge at both ends of the court. Manu Ginobili may be the X factor in this series. Assuming that Parker will not score as much as he did last round, Ginobili may become the focal point of the Spurs' offensive attack for significant stretches of time. I picked Dallas to beat New Orleans in the first round but added, "I would not be shocked if New Orleans wins." The Hornets proved to be a little better than I expected--and Dallas proved to be a little worse than I expected--but playing the Spurs in a seven game series is a big step up in weight class and New Orleans is not quite ready to make that jump this season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:40 AM

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Butler Does It: Last Second Shot Staves off Elimination for Wizards

Caron Butler scored a playoff career-high 32 points--including the game winning layup with 3.9 seconds remaining--as the Washington Wizards escaped Cleveland with an 88-87 victory that cut the Cavaliers' lead to 3-2 in their first round best of seven series. Butler shot 11-22 from the field, grabbed nine rebounds and led the Wizards in assists (five), three pointers made (four) and steals (two). DeShawn Stevenson, a previously nondescript player whose incendiary comments have thrust him front and center in this series, backed up his words with solid play, at least to some extent: he was the Wizards' second leading scorer with 17 points but he shot just 5-14 from the field. Antonio Daniels, who got the start at point guard because Gilbert Arenas has been shut down for the duration of the playoffs due to his balky knee, was Washington's only other double figure scorer (12 points). Antawn Jamison had a subpar offensive game (eight points on 3-10 field goal shooting) but he did snare a game-high 11 rebounds. As usual, LeBron James did everything for the Cavs, leading them in minutes (44:05), points (34), rebounds (10), assists (seven) and blocked shots (two). He even shot uncharacteristically well from the free throw line (15-18); the only slight blemish on his otherwise sterling stat line is that he shot 8-21 from the field. Zydrunas Ilgauskas played very well (19 points on 8-11 field goal shooting, six rebounds, a +17 plus/minus rating that was easily a game-high number); it sometimes seems like the nights when he shoots well he does not get a lot of shot attempts, though that probably has more to do with the flow of the game than anything else--James has the ball most of the time and if he does not have a driving lane or an open shot then he passes to the open man and since the Wizards focused more attention on Ilgauskas that meant that the Cavs' three point shooters were open. The Cavs shot 9-25 from three point range, which is a very acceptable percentage (.360) but after the game a lot of conversation--at least among the media members who covered the game--centered around the idea that 25 three point attempts out of 75 total field goal attempts seems like too high of a ratio. Neither James nor Cleveland Coach Mike Brown necessarily agreed with that assessment; James insisted that other than one bad three pointer late in the game most of the long range attempts were good, open shots that resulted from drive and kick plays and Brown echoed that argument (subject to further review after he watches a tape of the game). The Wizards' defense is designed to slow down James and force the Cavs to make outside shots; if the Cavs pass up those shots then they may end up with shot clock violations or closer shots that are more heavily contested. Although there is some merit to both sides of this debate, I tend to agree with Brown and James that more significant than the total number of three point shots attempted is whether those shots are contested ones or whether they are open looks that resulted from drive and kick plays or ball reversals.

When--and at this point perhaps the correct word is "If"--Arenas becomes 100% healthy it will be interesting to reexamine whether or not the Wizards are better off replacing him players who are more coachable and more defensive minded/team oriented. However, in his current state when he is physically limited but still wants to be the center of attention there is no doubt that the Wizards play better without him. A group of us talked about this very subject in the media dining room before the game and I reiterated my assertion that the best thing that happened to the Cavs in this series is when Arenas came out hot in the first game, because he has been chasing the mirage that he is hot ever since then and that has resulted in missed shots and turnovers. Someone countered by bringing up the big-time shot that Arenas made near the end of game four. That is true, I conceded, but even that shot, like the long three pointer that J.R. Smith made against the Lakers late in game four of that series, was a bad shot: Arenas took a low percentage shot with plenty of time on the shot clock; it happened to go in but it still was a bad shot and the more he is on the court the more often he will take--and usually miss--bad shots.

In the first quarter, the Wizards outscored the Cavs 23-16 while shooting 9-14 from the field, led by Butler's 14 points on 5-6 shooting. The Wizards would likely have had an even bigger lead but they committed seven turnovers. Arenas' supporters often say that the statistics do not bear out that the ball movement is better without him, citing the team's lower assists numbers when he does not play. Indeed, the Wizards had just three assists in the first quarter. Nevertheless, the ball did in fact move around, all of the players were involved in the offense in some fashion and that is just a better way to play than standing around watching Arenas and waiting to see if he is going to shoot, pass or just keep dribbling. As Chris Webber said about the drawbacks for Denver players who are teammates of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, when one player monopolizes the ball the other guys don't know what to do or when to do it because they never know when they are going to get the ball. You can accumulate assists and still be a selfish, losing ballplayer--just look at Stephon Marbury for a prime example of that. Anthony has never won a playoff series, Iverson had his most postseason success when Larry Brown moved him off the ball (which minimized the problems that I am describing here) and Arenas has won exactly one playoff series in his entire career. Consider that in this series Washington's two wins are a blowout in which Arenas only played 10 minutes while uncharacteristically passing more than he shot and tonight's game that Arenas sat out entirely. After a while it becomes tiresome to even try to explain basketball to Arenas' supporters because it is like arguing with members of the Flat Earth Society. My position now is simple: talk to me when Arenas is the main player on a team that wins 50-55 regular season games and/or at least two playoff series in one season. Until then, Arenas is a higher scoring version of Marbury who happens to have a popular blog and a dedicated fan club.

Of course, no Cleveland-Washington playoff game this year would be complete without the obligatory incident featuring extracurricular contact and jawing by Wizards' players, with both the contact and the jawing generally directed at James. This time, Darius Songaila made a backhand slap to James' face after Songaila had already fouled him on a driving move. James simply rubbed his jaw and moved away but players from both teams congregated around each other and started woofing and posturing. For no apparent reason, Stevenson slapped down Anderson Varejao's arm. After the officials sorted everything out, Songaila, Stevenson and Varejao received technical fouls.

James steadfastly refuses to allow hard fouls and/or dumb comments to distract him from the task at hand. Asked after the game to describe what happened between him and Songaila, James said, "Nothing." That is one of the big differences between James and Arenas; James stays focused on doing what he has to do help his team win, while Arenas often creates and/or partakes in sideshows that cause unnecessary distractions both for him and for his teammates. If Arenas had been involved in such a play he most likely would say something "clever" that would draw more attention to it--and thus draw attention away from doing the things that have to be done to win games. By not commenting about Songaila, James effectively defused the situation. James knows that in this series he is the best player on the court and that on most nights if he does what he is capable of doing then Cleveland will beat Washington and that is all that matters to him.

The Cavs chipped away at Washington's lead in the second quarter as Ilgauskas scored 10 points on 4-5 shooting. Washington led 45-43 at halftime. Butler had 16 points on 6-10 shooting, Ilgauskas had 12 points on 5-6 shooting and James had only 10 points on 2-8 shooting. I joked that the Cavs should send their training staff to the Wizards' locker room and patch up Arenas just enough so that he could play in the second half.

Cleveland used a 9-0 run to take a 59-53 third quarter lead. It seemed like the Cavs were about to take control of the game and the series but that turned out to be Cleveland's biggest lead of the game. A Jamison layup, a Butler put back and three pointers by Jamison and Butler helped the Wizards tie the score at 63. By the end of the quarter, the Wizards were up 69-65. Down the stretch of that quarter, the Cavs missed open shots that they normally make, including three layups (two by Varejao, one by James) and a jump hook by Joe Smith.

The fourth quarter was tightly contested, with neither team leading by more than six points. Cleveland seemed to be in control after James blocked Butler's layup attempt and West raced downcourt to score a layup, draw a foul and complete a three point play. That put the Cavs up 87-82 with just 1:47 left. The Cavs just needed two or three defensive stops and perhaps one more score. Instead, James and Gibson sandwiched missed three pointers around a Butler put back. After Daniels sank two free throws to cut the lead to 87-86, the Cavs definitely needed a score but Smith missed a short hook and after Ilgauskas was unable to tip it in Butler controlled the rebound and the Wizards called a timeout with 11.2 seconds left. Washington Coach Eddie Jordan designed a nice play in which Jamison received the inbounds pass with the option of creating on his own or passing to Butler at the top of the key; Jamison's read convinced him that Butler had the better opportunity, so he passed the ball to him. Butler sized up James and drove to the hoop, scoring on a contested layup with 3.9 seconds left. Butler later admitted that he considered shooting a jumper but with the season on the line he did not want to have to look back and think that he bailed out the defense. If Arenas were playing the Wizards would not have run such a nice play with multiple options; they would have given Arenas the ball in a 1-4 set and let him go one on one.

Of course, everyone in the building knew that James would get the ball on the Cavs' final play. He drove past Stevenson, got into the lane, made some contact with Songaila and lofted a shot that rolled around and dropped out. A couple Cavs almost tipped it in but their efforts fell short and time expired. Cleveland fans naturally wanted a foul to be called on Songaila but there was some contact on both Butler's drive and James' drive and the officials deemed this contact to be marginal in both instances.

At first, James deflected a question about whether he was fouled on the last play by saying that Cleveland is a no-excuse team and that this one play is not why Cleveland lost. Pressed again to say whether or not he thought that he was fouled, James looked the questioner in the eye, simply said, "Yes" and did not elaborate.

In his postgame remarks, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown mentioned two of his tried and true mantras ("We're a no-excuse team" and "One day, one game at a time"). Asked about whether he thought that James was fouled on his last shot, Brown replied, "That's up to the referees to make that call. We're a no-excuse team. We know we're better than the way we played tonight. You've got to give Washington credit for doing what they needed to do to come in here and get a win. We've got to lace 'em up and get ready to go for game six."

Someone asked Brown if he thinks that the Cavs are still in control of the series. Brown said that he does not think in those terms: "For us it's one day, one game at a time. It doesn't matter if we're down 0-3 or if we're up 2-1, we've got to take the next game as its own separate entity and go out there and play the right way in order to win."

After a game like this it is easy to fall back on cliches and say that the Wizards played with desperation in a do or die game while the Cavs played with less urgency but that is not the overall impression that I got from watching the game in person. While the Wizards certainly displayed the concentration and focus that you would expect from a team fighting to avoid elimination, the Cavs also played hard: the rebound battle was virtually even and the turnover battle was a dead heat. Washington had six steals and three blocks, while the Cavs had five steals and seven blocks. There simply is neither an image nor a stat from this game that suggests that the Cavs played without effort. Make no mistake: they did not play well--but that is not the same thing as not trying. As many coaches are fond of saying, this is a make or miss league. James missed a point blank shot at the end and several Cavs missed shots late in the game that they normally make; if any of those shots go down then this series is over and the importance of this game would not be magnified in order to find out exactly what the Cavs did wrong. The bottom line is that neither team shot well and Butler nearly matched James shot for shot on this night, with the deciding factor being that Butler's last second shot went in and James' last second shot rolled out--that is what happens in a make or miss league.

All that matters now is what happens in game six. You may recall that I predicted that the Cavs would win this series in six games. After game four, someone asked James if he thought that Washington could come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series. He replied simply, "No." Naturally, after this loss someone asked James if he is as confident about that statement now as he was previously--and James quite naturally replied, "Yeah, of course. Why not? As long as I am on the court we have a good chance to win--matter of fact, we have a great chance to win. So of course I am confident."

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

Last year, the Cavs lost game five at home to the Nets in the second round before closing out the series with a road win in game six. During Coach Brown's pregame standup, I asked him if he specifically reminded his team about what happened versus New Jersey or if his remarks to the team focused primarily on the specific game plan for playing against Washington. He replied, "The focus is on this year and the Wizards. What happened last year in game five will hopefully benefit this year's team in this game five but we still have to go win it."

Well, if the Cavs ever face this situation again now they have two home losses in game fives from which they can try to learn something and benefit.

***

In game four there were a few plays in which James passed the ball to Ben Wallace, who then immediately reversed the ball to an open shooter; that is a pretty effective way to make sure that the defense has to account for a player who has limited shooting range. I asked Coach Brown if those passes from James to Wallace and from Wallace to the shooters were specifically in the game plan or if they were just spontaneous reads by those two players. Brown answered, "We've said it before: they're not guarding Ben and they're not really guarding Andy (Anderson Varejao), so we've got to get those guys as close to the basket as possible. They're really paying a lot of attention to LeBron by shifting their defense over to him when he has the ball. When those guys do touch the ball they either have to finish or if they're moving and working behind the basket and the defense loses vision (of where they are) then all of a sudden when they catch the ball everybody collapses (into the paint to prevent an easy layup) and it is just (a matter of) making the right pass. So it is by design that we have them down by the rim a lot of times but in terms of Ben being open it is just that the Wizards choosing to leave him open and he is making the right pass." In other words, Coach Brown is placing Wallace and Varejao in certain positions on the court based on their both their skills and their limitations and then the players are making the correct reads on the fly based on whatever the defensive coverage happens to be.

***

After hitting the game-winning three pointer in game four, Delonte West was asked about his big shot and he replied, "Hands down, man's down." There has been a lot of discussion since then about what exactly West meant by this but--as far as I know--no one actually bothered to go up to West and ask him directly. So, I approached West in the locker room before he was about to go out to do his pregame shooting and asked him to clarify the meaning of this phrase. He told me, "It means that if a guy comes out to you short or comes out to you with his hands down, man down, you know?"

Trying to make sure I understood, I replied, "Kind of like a knockout punch in boxing--if his hands are down, then you are going to knock him out by making the shot."

"Yes, uh huh," West immediately agreed. "That's exactly what it is--you come out with your hands down, you get man down. You run at a man with your hands down then you are going to get knocked out."

I then asked West, "Is that a philosophy that you take in reverse when you are on defense in terms of running out with your hands up to make sure that you don't get knocked out?"

"Yeah," he said, before adding shyly and almost apologetically, "It's just a saying. It wasn't anything too serious. It's just that I was feeling the excitement from the game and I needed a statement to go with the shot, you know what I mean?"

***

During a brief, informal ceremony in the locker room prior to the game, Cavaliers guard Damon Jones received the Austin Carr Good Guy Award. According to a press release from the Cavs, this honor, previously bestowed on Larry Hughes (2006) and Drew Gooden (2007), recognizes a Cavs player "who is cooperative and understanding of the media, the community and the public." Local members of the Professional Basketball Writers Association voted to determine the winner. Branson Wright, the Cavs' beat writer for the Plain Dealer, presented a plaque to Jones, who then spoke briefly to several media members who had gathered around him; Jones thanked everyone for voting for him, said that he understands and respects the jobs that the media members do and that they have treated him fairly, which is all he can ask for from them. He alluded to having a rocky start with the local media but said that since then everything has gone smoothly. He credited his parents for helping him to have the ability to effectively articulate his thoughts.

***

James now has 15 double doubles in 38 career playoff games. He is just the fourth player to post at least 34 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in back to back playoff games. The other three are Larry Bird (May 11-13, 1984), Oscar Robertson (April 6-7, 1963) and Dolph Schayes (March 29-April 1, 1959).

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:30 AM

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sloppy Suns Fall Apart in the Clutch, are Eliminated by the Spurs

Either team could have won game five of the San Antonio-Phoenix series--and, as usually happens when these teams play a close game, San Antonio made just enough plays to win while the Suns squandered several opportunities. Neither team shot well from the field but when the Spurs needed to score they either made a shot or drew a foul and then sank the free throws. Tony Parker once again led the way for the Spurs with a game-high 31 points and eight assists. Tim Duncan added 29 points and a game-high 17 rebounds. No other Spur scored more than eight points; Manu Ginobili shot just 2-11 from the field, finishing with eight points, three rebounds and no assists. The Suns found one matchup that really worked in their favor: Boris Diaw setting up shop on the low block and going to work against various defenders, including Ginobili, Parker, Michael Finley and Robert Horry. Diaw finished with 22 points on 11-17 shooting from the field, plus eight rebounds and eight assists. Supposedly this threw Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire out of rhythm but no one had a satisfactory explanation for how a player taking advantage of mismatches hurts the team. Meanwhile, Nash shot 4-16 from the field, committed five turnovers and had just 11 points and three assists. Stoudemire had 15 points and 11 rebounds. Shaquille O'Neal, whose next nickname will probably be the "Big Scapegoat" after this series, had 13 points and nine rebounds but shot just 2-8 from the field and 9-20 from the free throw line. Critics are sure to say that his free throw shooting cost the Suns the game while ignoring Nash's three fourth quarter turnovers (plus some miscues that were officially charged as turnovers to other players) and the fact that Parker completely dominated the point guard matchup in this game and in this series. O'Neal averaged 15.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 2.6 bpg in the series, which is about all one can reasonably expect from him at this point--and that should have been enough paint presence for the Suns to beat the Spurs but the Suns simply could not overcome their terrible late game execution and the decisive fashion in which Parker outplayed Nash. As TNT's Doug Collins said of the Suns, "Game one and game five, critical mistakes down the stretch: they didn't handle their business."

This game and this series provide enough fodder for a book, so bear with this post because it is going to delve deeply into several different subplots (you can go to the big budget sites for the quick, superficial and incorrect analysis). Let's start with the "Hack a Shaq" strategy:

"Hack a Shaq": Brilliant coaching move or overrated strategy?

Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich resorted to the "Hack a Shaq" strategy on several occasions during this game and he even did the "Hack a (Brian) Skinner" a couple times. For those who don't know what this means, it refers to an intentional foul away from the ball. This can only be done prior to the last two minutes of the game, because after that point the fouled team can select any player on the court to shoot one free throw and then retain possession of the ball. The theory behind this maneuver is that the fouling team will gain an advantage after poor free throw shooters like O'Neal or Skinner miss one or both free throws; as I have explained several times, there are some problems with that theory:

1) An NBA possession is worth approximately one point; so if the "hacked" player makes half of his free throws then the fouling team is not gaining any mathematical advantage.

2) Fouling results in a dead ball situation that enables the fouled team to set up a half court defense. The fouling team is supposedly disrupting the other team's offensive rhythm but in reality they are most likely giving up a free point while ensuring that they will not have any fast breaks or easy scoring opportunities of their own.

3) The "Hack a Shaq" strategy did not work in the 2000 playoffs when Portland and Indiana tried it, nor did it work when Dallas Coach Don Nelson tried it against the Chicago Bulls in 1997 and Dennis Rodman responded by shooting 9-12 from the free throw line. That is why the NBA has never legislated against this strategy other than not allowing it in the last two minutes; it does not work and it has been proven to not work so the league office is not worried that it will become widely used.

Gregg Popovich and Don Nelson are very smart coaches but I have no idea why they believe in the "Hack a Shaq." The Clippers' Mike Dunleavy is another good coach who believes in this tactic and he defended the approach when I asked him about it more than two years ago. I respect all three of these coaches for their knowledge of the game but I think that they are wrong about the "Hack a Shaq."

Let's look at how the "Hack a Shaq" played out in game five. Popovich first did it with 2:56 remaining in the first quarter and the Spurs leading 21-17. Collins explained that while some coaches try the "Hack a Shaq" when they are trailing (in order to stop the clock and lengthen the game), Popovich thinks that the strategy works even better when the fouling team is ahead. O'Neal split his pair of free throws. On the next possession, O'Neal blocked Duncan's shot but Duncan gathered the ball and scored. The Spurs hacked Shaq and he again split his pair of free throws. On the next possession, Parker tripped over O'Neal, who was called for his second foul. Parker made two free throws and Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni sat O'Neal down because of his foul trouble (D'Antoni has stated that he will not pull O'Neal to avoid the "Hack a Shaq," a wise choice because benching O'Neal late in game one hurt the Suns defensively and played a role in costing them that very important game). Parker made both of his free throws and then the Spurs hacked Skinner, O'Neal's replacement. Skinner made one of two free throws and then Parker scored on a drive, something that he was not so easily able to do with O'Neal patrolling the paint. The Spurs hacked Skinner again and this time he made both free throws. Horry made a three pointer but the Suns scored twice while the Spurs missed their last three shots of the quarter. The Spurs led 30-26 after the first quarter, so all that hacking did not gain them a single point on the scoreboard; the Suns shot 5-8 on the resulting free throws but they made just 39% of their field goals in the first quarter. Do the math and you will see that the Suns scored five points on four possessions while being "hacked" but if the Spurs had just played straight up and continued to hold them to 39% field goal shooting the Suns would have only scored three points on those possessions (39% x four possessions= 1.56 made field goals x 2 points per shot= 3.12 points). Maybe Popovich is doing this for some kind of psychological effect, because the raw numbers show that the "Hack a Shaq" is not effective.

With 4:09 remaining in the second quarter and the score tied at 43, Popovich went back to the "Hack a Shaq." This time O'Neal missed both free throws, which obviously makes the strategy look good. The Spurs answered with a jumper to take a two point lead. Here is where the psychological aspect may come into play: Raja Bell rushed up court and turned the ball over before the Spurs had a chance to foul O'Neal (if you watch closely you can see the Spur closest to O'Neal doing the universal "I didn't touch him" gesture once he sees the ball heading out of bounds). If the Suns would have kept their cool they probably would have gotten one point out of that possession just by letting the Spurs foul O'Neal. Why panic when the other team is giving you a chance to score free points? The Spurs did not capitalize on Bell's gift and the next time the Suns had the ball they fouled O'Neal but not as part of the "Hack a Shaq"; O'Neal had the ball in the paint and was going up for a shot, a situation where it definitely makes sense to foul him to prevent an easy two points. O'Neal missed both of those free throws. Then the Suns went through a stretch where they got stops but could not get the defensive rebounds. A Kurt Thomas tip in put the Spurs up 47-43 and the Spurs once again hacked Shaq, who split a pair of free throws. Parker missed a jumper, the Spurs hacked Shaq and he again made one out of two free throws. This business had been going on for almost three minutes and even with O'Neal shooting worse than his average (2-8, including his 0-2 on non-"Hack a Shaq" free throws) the Spurs had gained just two points to lead 47-45. Then, D'Antoni took O'Neal out for the last 1:20 and the Spurs closed the half on a 7-0 run. If you are looking for where the game was lost please don't buy the idea that "Hack a Shaq" won the game for the Spurs; look no further than the decision to take O'Neal out right before halftime plus Nash's turnover meltdown at the end of the second half (which we will examine more closely soon). Parker scored five of those crucial seven points, four of them on a pair of driving layups and one of them after splitting a pair of free throws that resulted from a strong drive to the hoop. The Suns' defense was not perfect when O'Neal was in the game but it certainly did not improve when he left; at least when O'Neal was in the game he discouraged some of the dribble penetration and he forced Duncan to shoot jumpers for the most part (Duncan made just six of his 15 field goal attempts in the first half, with a lot of his shots coming from outside of the paint).

Popovich revisited the "Hack a Shaq" with just 4:56 left in the game and the Spurs leading 79-76--and this time the strategy almost cost San Antonio the game. O'Neal made both of his free throws, ending a 6-0 Spurs run. Parker missed a jumper, the Spurs hacked Shaq and he split a pair of free throws to tie the score. The Suns had now gone more than three minutes without making a field goal yet they were able to tie the score because Popovich essentially gave them three free points with the clock stopped. The Suns played good defense on the next possession but Duncan bailed out the Spurs with an off balance running jumper that just beat the shot clock. The Spurs did not hack Shaq this time but ended up fouling him anyway to prevent an easy shot; O'Neal split the free throws to pull the Suns to within 81-80. The Spurs failed to score and then the Suns took the lead when Nash--who was largely invisible for most of the game--drilled a jumper. Then things got strange. Diaw fouled Kurt Thomas and Popovich subbed in Horry for Duncan; it became evident that Horry was in the game merely to foul O'Neal and that Duncan would then check back in after Horry delivered the foul. So D'Antoni responded by taking O'Neal out of the game. Then Popovich tried to sub Duncan back in for defensive purposes but by rule once a player checks out he cannot come back in until time has run off of the clock. The two coaches and the referees talked for a bit but Duncan and O'Neal both had to stay out of the game. Thomas made his free throws, Nash missed a jumper and Parker made a jumper to put the Spurs up 85-82. Nash answered with a three pointer to tie the score. Stoudemire blocked Parker's jumper but Nash lost the ball and then fouled Parker, who split a pair of free throws. Now O'Neal and Duncan both returned to action. The net result of this round of "Hack a Shaq" is that the Spurs lost two points on the scoreboard and ended up playing a few possessions without Duncan, their best player. Thanks to Nash's turnover and foul, the Spurs still had a one point lead but if the Suns had executed just a little better they not only would have gained ground during the "Hack a Shaq" period but they would have taken and kept the lead. We'll look at what happened in the last 1:25 a little later.

Manu Ginobili is not an MVP-level player and he is not as good as Kobe Bryant

Some of the stat "gurus" love to crunch numbers and then declare that Manu Ginobili is an MVP-level player who is on par with Kobe Bryant. I love Ginobili's game. He is one of my favorite players to watch. He has fantastic skills and a huge heart. That said, he is not on the same level as Kobe Bryant; nobody is designing their whole defense around stopping Ginobili the way that every team focuses on containing Bryant. Ginobili scored eight points on 2-11 field goal shooting in game five and he did not have an assist in 27 minutes of action.

The stat "gurus" need to answer two questions: (1) When is the last time Bryant had eight points in a playoff game? (2) Does Bryant have enough talent around him for his team to win a playoff game if he plays that badly? In case you are wondering, the answer to the first question is June 16, 2000 in the NBA Finals; Bryant's Lakers lost to the Indiana Pacers in that game five before clinching their first championship in game six (when Bryant had 26 points, 10 rebounds and four assists). Bryant sprained his ankle in game two of that series, sat out the Lakers' game three loss, saved the Lakers with his great play in a game four overtime win after Shaquille O'Neal fouled out and then had the subpar game five before bouncing back in game six.

If Bryant put up a stat line like the one that Ginobili did on Tuesday can you imagine how much criticism he would receive? No assists? 2-11 shooting? Ginobili's line will be overlooked because his team won anyway and because he is not truly an MVP-level player so he is not expected to have MVP-level numbers on a nightly basis; in contrast, if Duncan--who is an MVP-level player--comes up with a 2-11 night then the Spurs are in big trouble unless he also has about 20 rebounds and six blocked shots.

The line for returning undeserved MVPs begins right behind David "Mr. 1995 MVP" Robinson

David Robinson is a fine gentleman and a great NBA player but he was not really the most valuable player in the NBA in 1995 even though he has a 1995 MVP trophy with his name on it. After Robinson received that trophy, Hakeem Olajuwon undressed him about a million times in the ensuing playoff game before demolishing him throughout the entire series. Olajuwon and his teammate Clyde Drexler had a nice chuckle about that at the post-game podium when someone asked if Olajuwon should have won the MVP that year. Kobe Bryant dropped 50 points on Nash's Suns in game six of the first round of the 2006 NBA playoffs but Bryant could not really have an Olajuwon moment at that time because he did not have a Drexler-like sidekick or any kind of real team around him; as he puts it, he was going into gun battles with "butter knives." However, every year in the playoffs we are getting the slow, drawn out version of the Olajuwon moment as we find out that Nash is not the best player in the league, that he cannot take over playoff games down the stretch against top teams--let alone an entire playoff series--and that even though he a gentleman and a fine player, just like Robinson, he should not be on the roll call of NBA MVPs.

I don't know if Tony Parker will eventually be a Hall of Famer or not but if he makes it they probably will be playing highlights from this series at his induction ceremony. He only scored 30 or more points in a game four times during the regular season but he had three 30 point games in this series alone; Parker averaged 29.6 ppg in the series while shooting .523 from the field. He completely outplayed two-time MVP Nash. Doug Collins said at one point, "Tony Parker has such confidence against Steve Nash." Parker's confidence in this situation is not like the false bravado displayed by Gilbert Arenas or Carmelo Anthony before their teams annually lose in the first round; Parker is confident because he knows that he can go by Nash at will and there is nothing that Nash can do about it. Name another two-time MVP about which that could be said while he was at or near the top of his game.

We cannot even exactly call this an Olajuwon moment because Parker is not the best point guard in the NBA, let alone an MVP candidate. I realize that the Olajuwon analogy does not work 100% because Nash is most likely not going to win the MVP this year but the fact is that his statistics this season are basically the same ones that he put up when he won his MVPs. He's the same player now that he was then--and just like he is not the MVP this year he should not have been the MVP in 2005 or 2006 either.

Let's look at what happened in the last 1:25 of the game after O'Neal and Duncan returned to action. The Spurs led 86-85 and the Suns had the ball. Nash drove to the hoop but made a bad pass to Stoudemire that Parker stole. Duncan missed a jumper and the Suns went to Diaw in the post. Note that with the game on the line their best matchup does not involve using their two-time MVP but focuses on a guy who might not even have been in the game if Grant Hill were healthy. Diaw backed down into the lane but instead of shooting he inexplicably jumped in the air and threw a pass to no one in particular that sailed out of bounds. Parker made a jumper to put the Spurs up 88-85. The Suns again went to Diaw in the post and this time he scored. Ginobili left the door open by splitting a pair of free throws but on the ensuing possession Nash fumbled Raja Bell's inbounds pass out of bounds. On the play by play sheet, Bell was officially assigned the turnover but Nash had both hands on the ball before he lost control of it. Ginobili then iced the game with two free throws and Duncan wrapped up the scoring by splitting a pair of free throws after the Suns missed some desperation three pointers.

Parker and Nash did not always go head to head but that is mainly because Nash cannot guard Parker. In the last 2:13 of the game, Parker scored five points and stole the ball from Nash once; Nash made a three pointer but he committed two turnovers, lost the ball a third time (after Bell's pass) and was not his team's primary go-to option in an elimination game.

One thing Nash deserves credit for is that he is a stand up guy who does not avoid the microphones after losses. He answers questions and accepts the blame for defeat. Here is what he said after game five: "I think on paper we have more talent than they do but I think their experience and their commitment and understanding of what they are trying to do is greater than ours." Nash is right on both counts: on paper the Suns have a more talented team than the Spurs do but the Spurs are more poised and focused during critical late game situations. Nash took the blame for the Suns' late game miscues: "We should have probably calmed down a little bit. I'll take responsibility for that. I know I made a couple key turnovers that cost us."

This should have been an epic six or seven game series. Game one showed that these teams are pretty evenly matched and we saw that again in game five. The problem is that the Suns went into a funk after their mental breakdowns cost them the first game and that funk resulted in them falling down 3-0 before they really started playing up to their capabilities for extended stretches. Can you imagine the Spurs falling apart that way if they had lost game one?

It will be very interesting to see what the future holds for D'Antoni, O'Neal, Nash and the Suns franchise as a whole. I agree with Collins that this series was a very significant moment in Suns' history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:18 AM

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The Next Top 40 Hit: Josh Howard Sings "Because I Got High"

I was gonna clean my room, until I got high
I was gonna get up and find the broom, but then I got high
My room is still messed up and I know why, (why man) 'cuz I got high
--"Because I Got High," Afroman (2001)

Josh Howard has a lot of time on his hands now that his Dallas Mavericks have been eliminated from the playoffs by the New Orleans Hornets. Howard recently explained what he likes to do to unwind during the offseason but this could be a great time for him to rent some studio time and remake Afroman's classic 2001 hit, "Because I Got High"--and if Howard decides to do so, it might go something like this:

I was gonna help my team win in the playoffs, until I got high
I was gonna play like an All-Star in the playoffs, until I got high
I was gonna be my team's second leading scorer in the playoffs, until I got high
I played so badly that I was benched for the last 9:08 in a do or die game and I know why (why man) 'cuz I got high

I was gonna finish strongly at the hoop versus New Orleans, until I got high
I was gonna hit open jumpers versus New Orleans, until I got high
I shot .292 from the field versus New Orleans and I know why (why man) 'cuz I got high.

I was gonna be a long-armed defender in certain situations versus Chris Paul, until I got high
I was gonna play with energy and hustle versus New Orleans, until I got high
My team depends on me but I let them down and I know why (why man) 'cuz I got high

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:53 AM

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Bryant's Fourth Quarter Scoring Lifts Lakers to 107-101 Win, Series Sweep

Kobe Bryant produced another fine all-around game (31 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals, two blocked shots, 12-24 field goal shooting) as his Lakers defeated the Nuggets 107-101 to complete the only sweep in the first round of this year's playoffs. Bryant scored 14 of his points in the final 5:31 of the fourth quarter. Pau Gasol added 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists, though he scored just three points in the second half. Lamar Odom, thriving as the third option in the Lakers' attack, contributed a double double (14 points, 12 rebounds). J.R. Smith led the Nuggets with 26 points, including several spectacular dunks and three three pointers but, as Magic Johnson and Kenny Smith both noted after the game, even though a lot of his long jump shots went in they were still bad shots and you cannot beat a good team when you consistently take bad shots (which is exactly what I said about Gilbert Arenas more than a year ago when some people foolishly touted him as an MVP-level player). Of course, Smith is far from the only Nugget who takes bad shots. Allen Iverson finished with 22 points on 10-22 shooting from the field but he had just two assists, an uncommonly low number for him in that department. Carmelo Anthony scored 20 points on 8-20 shooting before fouling out; Anthony missed a staggering number of dunks, layups and shots in the paint in this series, particularly in games three and four.

Anyone who still believes that Anthony is an elite NBA player needs to get some tapes of this series and compare his performance to Bryant's--particularly in the fourth quarters of each game--and it should be pretty obvious exactly what the differences are between being an All-Star who can score and an MVP-level player who impacts the outcome of a game in multiple ways: Bryant averaged 33.5 ppg while shooting .500 from the field and .333 from three point range. He also averaged 6.3 apg and 5.3 rpg while getting six steals and six blocked shots. Anthony averaged 22.5 ppg while shooting .364 from the field and .250 from three point range. Anthony averaged 9.5 rpg--half of his boardwork came on the offensive end where he was cleaning up his own misses--and 2.0 apg. He had two steals and one blocked shot. I'm not a big believer in the NBA EFF stat but Bryant came out at 30.75 in this series while Anthony registered 16.5 and that seems about right based on their relative influence on the outcome of these games.

Of course, as I always stress, there are a lot of things that the numbers simply can't quantify. For instance, consider a play that happened at the 7:29 mark in the second quarter. Bryant drove to the hoop but was cut off by his defender. He faked a shot, pivoted, attracted more defenders and then dropped off a perfect pass to D.J. Mbenga for an easy dunk to put the Lakers up 45-34. Mbenga had four career playoff points prior to this season. After Mbenga's dunk, Reggie Miller said of Bryant, "See what happens when you are the best player on the planet? You draw so much attention to yourself--three players came over." Marv Albert added, "Those are the kind of plays that Kobe was able to (do) with (Andrew) Bynum." There is a reason that Bryant can complete such plays not just with Bynum but also with Mbenga: any big man who can catch the ball and finish is going to have a lot of opportunities to score when he is on the court with Bryant. Unfortunately for the Lakers the past few years, Kwame Brown is not particularly good at catching and finishing. There is a lot of talk about how Bryant is more unselfish this season but I'm not buying it; the difference this season is not with Bryant but with the quality of his supporting cast. To put it bluntly, now he has some guys who can actually catch the ball and put it in the basket. If Bryant had dropped off a similar pass to Brown it would not likely have resulted in a score. After Brown fumbles such passes several times is it really unselfish and in the best interests of the team to continue to pass it to him? Don't tell me that Steve Nash is making Amare Stoudemire better or that Chris Paul is making David West better unless you also have something to say about Bryant's effect on Pau Gasol. If another star player or point guard takes a team to the playoffs with Kwame Brown as his starting center the way that Bryant did then we have some real news in the "making players better" department. Based on the Lakers earning the number one seed in the West despite only having Andrew Bynum for 35 games and Pau Gasol for barely a fourth of the season, I'm confident that Bryant would do just fine if he had Stoudemire or West at his side for the entire season as Nash and Paul did respectively.

There is also a lot of talk about how deep the Lakers' roster is but that is another concept that I am not completely buying. It is true that some of the younger players have improved and I have already mentioned on several occasions that having Gasol as the number two option means that Odom can slide over to the number three slot where he is much more suited--but the Lakers' bench looks a lot better when Bryant is on the court than when they are left to their own devices, particularly against good teams. Bryant took his first rest of the game with the Lakers leading 52-40 at the 5:32 mark of the second quarter. When he returned to the game with 3:07 left the Lakers were only up 56-50 but with him in the game they pushed that margin back to 64-54 by halftime. Why exactly are we supposed to believe that a team led by Gasol and Odom with the players that the Lakers bring off of the bench would be any better than Gasol's Memphis teams that got swept out of the playoffs every year? I just don't see it. The Lakers' opponents devote so much energy and so much manpower simply trying to contain Bryant that his teammates have a much easier task than they otherwise would. That does not mean that those players have no skills nor is it meant to denigrate how much some of them have improved--but Denver is a 50 win team with two All-Stars, a former Defensive Player of the Year and one of the league's top sixth men: they might very well sweep a Bryant-less Lakers team; after all, the Nuggets spent a good part of the season running up the score against teams that could not match their firepower.

Bryant had 15 points, six rebounds and four assists at halftime, while Gasol scored 18 points, taking ample advantage of the defensive attention that Bryant drew. The third quarter was a sloppy mess that should have been accompanied by some circus music; both teams missed shots, turned the ball over and looked out of whack. The Lakers' only points in the first 6:49 of the quarter came on a jumper by Bryant at the 10:16 mark. The Lakers stayed in front for most of the quarter before Denver ran off 10 straight points to take a 73-71 lead. Kenyon Martin got very excited whenever the Nuggets made the score close and earlier in the game he screamed to the crowd, "It's not over," the Nuggets' rallying cry for this game. The Lakers managed to inch in front, 79-77, by the end of the quarter.

Bryant sat out the first 3:56 of the fourth quarter. This time the bench did a good job and actually increased the lead slightly to 85-81. For the first 42 minutes or so of this game, Bryant was just having an average game by his standards--meaning that he was leading the Lakers in scoring and assists but he had not completely put his stamp on the game. Then Bryant was called for a foul while J.R. Smith attempted a three pointer--a call that Bryant frankly admitted after the game was entirely correct--and it seemed like a gong went off in Bryant's head. Smith's three free throws tied the score at 88 but Bryant reeled off seven straight points--a turnaround jumper, a three pointer and a sweet left handed layup--to put the Lakers up 95-90. Bryant was fouled on that play but he missed the free throw (he uncharacteristically made just four of his 10 free throw attempts). Smith answered with a deep three--one of the shots that Magic Johnson and Kenny Smith said was a bad shot even though it went in--and then he stole Bryant's crosscourt pass, scored a fastbreak layup and completed the three point play after Odom fouled him. Denver led 96-95 and the home crowd believed for a moment that the Nuggets would win--and then Bryant cut their hearts out. First he nailed a jumper over Martin despite Martin defending him about as well as is humanly possible. Then Bryant drove to the hoop, drew the defense and passed to Odom, who swung the ball to Luke Walton for a wide open three pointer (the kind of shot that would never be wide open without Bryant drawing so much attention). That put the Lakers up 100-96. Then Bryant proceeded to foul out Martin and Anthony by drawing three fouls on them in about a minute; that removed the Nuggets' best defender and best scorer from the game. Bryant split a pair of free throws after Anthony fouled out. Iverson launched a contested three pointer but Odom fumbled the rebound into the hands of Nene, who slammed the gift home to cut the lead to 101-98. Bryant answered with a running bank shot, Marcus Camby sank a three pointer and then Gasol dunked--his only field goal of the second half--after Bryant once again drew the defense and passed to Odom, who fed the unguarded Gasol. That made the score 105-101 with :22 left. Bryant secured the victory by stealing the ball and sinking both free throws after he was fouled.

The Lakers are now in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since trading Shaquille O'Neal after the 2004 season and this is the first time the Lakers swept a playoff series since they beat the Nets in the 2002 Finals. They will face the winner of the Utah-Houston series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:13 AM

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J.J. is Dynomite!

Joe Johnson has averaged at least 20 ppg each of the last three seasons but the two-time All-Star's skills are just a rumor to many NBA fans because he has spent that time toiling in Atlanta--but if he keeps having performances like Monday night's he will become a household name very quickly. Johnson poured in 35 points on 14-24 field goal shooting as his Hawks stunned the Boston Celtics 97-92 to square their series at 2-2. Johnson was especially deadly in the fourth quarter, outscoring Boston 20-17 by himself while shooting 7-10 from the field. He showed off an array of moves, including a crossover dribble that shattered Leon Powe's ankles before Johnson dropped in a long jumper.

I have been very impressed with Boston this year, not just by the performances of the Big Three--Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen--but also by the team's commitment to playing great defense on a nightly basis. There were valid questions about starting point guard Rajon Rondo, how much the bench could contribute and who would take the shots/make the plays down the stretch in close games but a 66-16 regular season record refuted most of those concerns. However, several of those issues came to the forefront during Monday's loss: the Celtics got virtually nothing from their bench, their defense fell apart in the fourth quarter and despite having three All-Stars the Celtics' offense fizzled in the final stanza. Allen had the strongest game of the Big Three--21 points on 8-14 field goal shooting. Garnett added 20 points, nine rebounds and six steals but he only had one assist and shot just 9-21 from the field. Pierce had 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists but he shot just 5-14 from the field. Joe Johnson and Josh Smith scored all 32 of Atlanta's fourth quarter points yet Boston found no way to either stop them or force someone else to shoot; the Hawks repeatedly ran a screen/roll play with Johnson and point guard Mike Bibby so that if Boston switched or doubled with Rondo then Johnson would be able to pass to Bibby for an open jumper but the Hawks never even had to go to that second option because Johnson always had either a clear driving lane or an open shot. After one play when Johnson blew past Allen and scored on a drive the TNT cameras panned to Boston Coach Doc Rivers just in time to catch him yelling in disgust; I could not tell if he was saying "Ray" or "Rajon" but Rivers was clearly not pleased with his team's defensive execution.

This series is obviously a long way from being over and the Celtics will have two of the final three games at home if necessary but there is absolutely no pressure on the Hawks--who have the worst record of the 16 playoff teams--while there is a ton of pressure on the Celtics because none of the Big Three players has a particularly glittery postseason resume in terms of team success. Game five could very well be the defining moment in the careers of Garnett, Pierce and Allen--and you can bet that they know it. They may never have a better chance to win a championship than they do with this team but if they lose this game they could very well exit the playoffs in the first round. That would be a much more shocking upset than Dallas' loss to Golden State last year because the Celtics have been a dominant defensive team all season long and that is usually a recipe for championship-level success.

Will the Celtics stay true to their motto of "ubuntu" and trust the defensive principles and offensive game plan that helped them to post the league's best regular season record? Or will each star try to win the game on his own? Garnett has never been the kind of player to try to take over offensively but after Pierce's poor shooting night it will be interesting to see how he performs and what kind of shots he takes in game five. Bench players tend to perform better at home than they do on the road, so that factor alone could prove to be the difference but if Boston's defense once again breaks down late in the game it will be very interesting to see how the Big Three react not only at that end of the court but also on offense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:17 AM

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Howard's Way: Orlando Eliminates Toronto

Dwight Howard scored 21 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and blocked three shots as the Orlando Magic defeated the Toronto Raptors 102-92 to win their first round series four games to one. This is Orlando's first playoff series victory since 1996. Howard is rapidly making it clear that he is the dominant low post force in the NBA. During the regular season, Howard shot .599 from the field (third in the league) while averaging 20.7 ppg (21st in the league), 14.2 rpg (first in the league) and 2.2 bpg (fifth in the league). Some players put up good regular season statistics only to disappear in the playoffs but Howard increased his numbers across the board versus the Raptors, shooting .638 from the field while averaging 22.6 ppg, 18.2 rpg and 3.8 bpg. Howard had three 20-20 games, becoming the first player to do that in one series since Wilt Chamberlain accomplished this feat versus the Knicks in the 1972 NBA Finals. Since the NBA began recording blocked shots in 1973-74 this is just the fourth time that a player averaged at least 22 ppg, 18 rpg and 3 bpg in a playoff series; Moses Malone did it for Houston in the first round in 1979 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it once as a Laker (1977) and once as a Buck (1974).

Here is the scariest stat of all about Howard: he is just 22 years old. That means that he has the potential to improve for several more seasons and then to continue to be dominant for several more seasons after that. The Magic most likely will not win a championship until they find a legitimate power forward to take some pressure off of him down low but they are already a dangerous team with Jameer Nelson at point guard, Rashard Lewis spreading the court with his three point shooting touch and Hedo Turkoglu--this year's winner of the Most Improved Player Award--proving to be a better all-around threat and fourth quarter closer than many people thought he could be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 AM

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Suns Avoid Sweep but Still Face Uphill Climb

The Phoenix Suns raced out to a 34-13 first quarter lead and never looked back, beating the San Antonio Spurs 105-86 in game four of their first round playoff series. The Spurs still enjoy a 3-1 lead and can close out the Suns with a victory in San Antonio on Tuesday night. Despite the large margin of victory, history suggests that this was almost certainly too little, too late for the Suns: no NBA team has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit to win a best of seven series and, barring injury to a key player, the defending champion Spurs do not seem likely to be the first team to squander such a lead. The box score numbers from this game are more than a little peculiar: both teams shot worse than .430 from the field, Amare Stoudemire only scored seven points and Steve Nash had just four assists. Raja Bell (27 points, six rebounds, five assists, 5-7 shooting from three point range) and Boris Diaw (20 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists) did much of the damage for the Suns, particularly when the game was still close. Shaquille O'Neal (14 points, 12 rebounds, two blocked shots in 23:35) did a good job of controlling the paint. Game three hero Tony Parker shot 7-17 from the field and finished with 18 points and three assists. Tim Duncan nearly matched O'Neal's production (14 points, 10 rebounds), while Manu Ginobili had 10 points and four rebounds in spot duty (21:11).

Phoenix opened the game with an 11-1 run and the Suns led 20-5 midway through the first quarter. San Antonio closed to within 20-9 when Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich elected to use the "Hack a Shaq" tactic, providing Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy a perfect opportunity to talk about Nash's comment that "Hack a Shaq" disrupted his rhythm during game three. Jackson said, "I completely disagree." Van Gundy went even further, declaring, "They only used it on four or five possessions in the whole game, so that's rubbish...You don't need mental weakness. You need mental strength." Bingo! The Suns spend too much time looking for excuses for their losses and not enough time trying to figure out how to win the next game. This lack of mental strength is a big reason why they come up on the short end in close games against the Spurs. The reality is that the Suns should be happy to see a team resort to the "Hack a Shaq." An NBA possession is worth approximately one point, so as long as O'Neal makes half of his free throws the Suns are not losing anything. Moreover, this moves their opponent closer to getting into the penalty and allows the Suns time to set up their half court defense.

O'Neal split the first pair of free throws, the Spurs missed a shot and then Nash drained a three pointer. After a Spurs turnover, they hacked O'Neal again. This time he made both free throws to push the lead to 26-9. After another Spurs turnover Leandro Barbosa scored a fast break layup to make the score 28-9. The Spurs tried the "Hack a Shaq" again when the score was 30-11. O'Neal committed a lane violation on the first free throw and made the second free throw. That was the end of the "Hack a Shaq" in this game: O'Neal made four of the six free throws he attempted after being intentionally fouled (he shot 6-10 overall from the free throw line) and the Suns increased their lead from 20-9 to 31-11 during the period that Popovich used this tactic. I agree with fouling O'Neal to prevent him for scoring a dunk or easy layup but why should a great defensive team concede free points and put the other team in the bonus without even trying to play defense? I just don't think that coaches really understand the math that is involved here, because the only way this works is if O'Neal shoots no better than .500 and the other team scores on at least half of its ensuing offensive possessions; otherwise, the fouling team loses ground. I don't know if anyone has kept stats on this, but I have the distinct impression the O'Neal shoots at least a little bit better after he has been intentionally fouled than he does normally, meaning that his "Hack a Shaq" percentage is above the .500 level; I also think that the fouling team tends to not perform that well offensively during these stretches. The "Hack a Shaq" did not materially affect the outcome of this game, though it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if the Spurs had played things straight after cutting the lead to 20-9.

Van Gundy pointed out that the big difference in this game is that the Suns subtly changed how they defended the Parker screen/roll play that killed them repeatedly in game three. Van Gundy said during game three that the Suns were giving Parker too much air space to get a head of steam going on his drives to the basket; in game four, Diaw checked Parker for most of the time and he bodied up to Parker, preventing him from going anywhere that he wanted to go. This proved to be very effective but it raises some questions: (1) Why didn't the Suns do this at some point in game three? (2) Do the Suns have the mental and physical discipline to play this way for several more games or was game four about nothing else other than avoiding the embarrassment of being swept in front of their home fans?

Only Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni can answer the first question. We won't know the answer to the second question until after game five. If the Suns win that contest then perhaps there will be some reason to believe that they are fully accepting the mental and physical challenges inherent in trying to knock off the defending champions; if the Suns get blown out then we will know that game four was just window dressing.

In previous years, the Suns did not have the right personnel to beat the Spurs; Phoenix lacked sufficient inside presence and could not play well enough in the half court set. That is no longer the case now; the Suns beat the Spurs twice in the regular season after acquiring O'Neal in exchange for Shawn Marion and the Suns showed in game four that they have the capability to play defense against Duncan, Parker and Ginobili--now the Suns must prove that they are mentally tough enough to summon forth this same kind of effort and execution for three more games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:50 AM

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Overrate This! LeBron James Keeps His Cool, Carries Cavs to 3-1 Lead Over Wizards

LeBron James produced game-high totals in points (34), rebounds (12, tied with teammate Ben Wallace) and assists (seven), carrying his Cleveland Cavaliers to a 100-97 win in Washington and a 3-1 series lead. James inserted daggers into the mouthy Wizards throughout the game before delivering the death blow at the end, drawing a double-team and passing to Delonte West, who delivered the game-winning three pointer from the left baseline. West finished with 21 points and five assists, shooting 5-8 from three point range. West and Daniel Gibson (12 points, 4-7 three point shooting) repeatedly made the Wizards pay for trapping James. Wallace's contributions will probably go unnoticed by most people but in addition to his 12 rebounds he had the Cavs' only two blocked shots while compiling a game-high +14 plus/minus rating. Even though Wallace did not attempt a single shot from the field and did not score a point, he put the lie to the idea that he is an offensive liability by grabbing four offensive rebounds and serving as a good pressure release when James was trapped, receiving passes from James and then immediately swinging the ball to the other side of the court; Wallace finished with two assists but even on plays when Wallace did not get the assist he played an important role in breaking down Washington's defense by making them scramble to guard the recipients of his passes.

Cleveland's three part recipe for victory is defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James. Cleveland played reasonably well on defense, holding the Wizards to .457 field goal shooting, but the Cavs outrebounded Washington 51-31 and James--as Doug Collins would say--had his fingerprints all over the game. Wizards' guard DeShawn Stevenson called James "overrated" a month ago and during the two games in Washington the fans thought it was amusing or cute to chant "Overrated!" at James, apparently oblivious to how completely ridiculous they are making themselves look to the rest of the nation, though Mike Tirico wryly noted that the chants seemed to noticeably die down after the Cavs took a second half lead. Tirico said of James, "He's staying away from the garbage...and just playing basketball." The ironic--and hilarious--thing about Washington fans chanting "Overrated!" is that perhaps the most overrated All-Star in the NBA--Gilbert Arenas-- plays for the Wizards. There is nothing wrong with fans booing the best player on the opposing team but when he is playing at a high level and simply killing your squad screaming "Overrated!" is not only childish but also ineffective. Great players "love being the enemy," to borrow the title of Reggie Miller's book, so antagonizing James in that fashion really did not do the Wizards any favors.

Antawn Jamison led Washington with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Caron Butler had a solid game (19 points, four assists). Gilbert Arenas got his second consecutive start, with decidedly mixed results in 32 minutes of action, the most time that he has played since returning from his knee injury: he scored four points in the final minute to help the Wizards tie the score before West made the game-winning shot but Arenas also had a game-high four turnovers and looked out of sync most of the time, scoring 10 points on 3-8 shooting from the field, adding two assists and two rebounds. Arenas had a -4 plus/minus rating, while Antonio Daniels--who started in Arenas' place for most of the season--had a +5 plus/minus rating in 17 minutes, contributing seven points and three assists while committing just one turnover.

The Wizards took an early 13-8 lead but they trailed 18-15 at the 3:39 mark of the first quarter when Daniels replaced Arenas, who had already committed four turnovers. The last of Arenas' miscues was stolen by James, who raced down court for a fast break dunk. Hubie Brown said simply that it was a "bad pass, bad decision" by Arenas, indicating that both the idea and the execution of the play were flawed. With Daniels running the show, Washington closed the quarter with a 13-6 run.

The Wizards played with much more defensive intensity and offensive efficiency in their game three win than they did in the first two games of the series and they continued to play well in the first quarter and a half of game four, building a 39-31 lead. Then things started to go downhill for them. Arenas missed a forced jumper and James converted a dunk. The Wizards missed a couple more jumpers and James passed to Wally Szczerbiak for a layup. Butler missed another jumper and on the next Cavs' possession Cleveland got three offensive rebounds, Wallace snaring the final one and passing to West for a three pointer that cut Washington's lead to 39-38. The Wizards no longer displayed good ball movement on offense, their defensive intensity had dropped off and the Cavaliers owned the boards. Still, it seemed possible that on their home court they could regroup themselves and win--but then the loud mouth Stevenson decided to become a wanna be tough guy, bopping James upside the head when James drove to the hoop. James went tumbling to the ground in one direction and his headband went flying in another. James immediately stood up and moved toward Stevenson but James has already shown that he is way too smart to do anything that will get him suspended, though James noted after the game that if Stevenson had pulled such a punk move (my term, not James') in the park then the situation would have "escalated"; that is why I say that Stevenson is a "wanna be tough guy," because it is easy to hit somebody in an NBA game when there are a bunch of people who are going to step in and make sure that there will not be a fight. The Wizards have never been known as a tough or physical team and their flagrant fouls on James in this series will do nothing to alter their reputation; real tough guys on a basketball court get rebounds, play defense, stay focused enough to execute and make winning plays, none of which the Wizards do on a consistent basis.

Stevenson received a level one flagrant foul, though at halftime Jon Barry said that he thought Stevenson should have been ejected. TNT's Charles Barkley did not go that far but he emphasized how dangerous it is to foul a player by hitting him in the head with such force. James made one of the two resulting free throws. James missed a jumper on the next possession but West stole the ball and passed to James, who nailed a deep three pointer to put the Cavs up 42-39. Cleveland closed the half on a 16-5 run after Stevenson's flagrant foul, with James scoring 10 points. By halftime, Cleveland led 54-44 and would never trail again, though the Wizards did tie the score late in the game.

In the third quarter, Hubie Brown suggested that a big problem for the Wizards is that they had started playing too much "one on one." As he said that, Arenas drove to the hoop and scored his first two points of the game on a reverse layup. "There's another example of a one on one play, but they converted," Brown noted. It is funny how Wizards' fans will exult when Arenas scores but for some reason they cannot figure out that he takes too many bad, low percentage shots and that his misses take his team out of games at least as often as his makes shoot the Wizards into games. The other problem with having a player like Arenas as a point guard is the corrosive effect it has on the rest of the team. During TNT's pregame show later in the day, Chris Webber talked about how frustrating it would be to play for the Denver Nuggets because Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson monopolize the ball; the other players go so long without having the ball, Webber said, that when they get it they are out of rhythm and don't know what to do. Arenas has the exact same effect on his teammates and it is sheer foolishness to not be able to recognize this.

The Cavs pushed the lead to 67-52 in the third quarter but the Wizards made one last run to cut the margin to 97-93 with less than a minute left in the game. The Wizards look their best when Arenas is either not in the game or when he plays within the context of their motion offense instead of trying to go on solo scoring missions. Washington fans were no doubt thrilled when a stumbling Arenas was bailed out because a foul was called on West with :57 left in the game. West did make contact with Arenas but it seemed like Arenas was losing his balance--and the ball--before the contact happened. Still, it was the correct call and Arenas drained both free throws. After James missed a jumper, Arenas got the rebound, dribbled downcourt and again seemed to lose his balance before launching a fadeaway shot off of one foot. I imagine that Washington Coach Eddie Jordan was thinking, "No, no...yes!" as Arenas' fling hit the backboard and went in. I give Arenas credit for wanting the ball in that situation and making the shot but let's be honest: it was a bad, low percentage shot in a tie game with plenty of time left on the shot clock.

On the Cavs' final possession, Arenas left West alone in the corner to trap James. I would assume that is what Arenas was instructed to do, though Arenas did cost the Wizards a game this season in Milwaukee when he left a shooter unattended in the left corner. After West made what turned out to be the game-winning shot, the Wizards called timeout to advance the ball to halfcourt. Arenas received the inbounds pass but his three point shot fell short. Barkley later suggested that the play should have been called for Butler or Jamison since Arenas is not yet completely healthy. This is the Catch-22 that Arenas presents: he wants to play even though his presence is not helping the team and whenever he plays sooner or later he feels the need to dominate the ball, even if he goes through pass-first stretches. The only thing that will change next season when he is 100% healthy--assuming he does become 100% healthy, which I think is not a sure thing at this point--is that he will revert to dominating the ball even more; when he plays a pass-oriented style now I get the sense that this is not because his nature has changed but because he is not physically able to go out and jack up 20 shots. As long as Arenas is considered to be the main guy on the squad the Wizards will never be a legitimate contender; they will always simply be the "Gilbert Arenas Show."

After Cleveland's game one victory over Washington, LeBron James responded to a question about Washington's trash talking by saying, "93-86 (the final score) is the only words I need to say." In the same vein, "100-97" and "3 games to 1" are really all he needs to say now, although "34-12-7" also speak quite loudly.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:01 AM

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mile High Malaise: Lakers Flatten Listless Nuggets

Kobe Bryant passed early (six first quarter assists) and scored late (11 third quarter points) as the L.A. Lakers dismantled the Denver Nuggets 102-84 to take a 3-0 series lead. Bryant finished with game-high totals in points (22), assists (eight) and plus/minus (+21, tied with Derek Fisher) while tying for the team lead in rebounds (seven). He shot 9-19 from the field. Even more significant than Bryant's impressive numbers is the way that he controlled the game--and has controlled the entire series so far--with his scoring and passing; the Nuggets have tried several different defensive schemes but nothing they have done has stopped him individually or slowed down the Lakers collectively. Bryant simply reads the situation, shoots when he has the open shot, drives when he has the opportunity and feeds his teammates whenever the Nuggets try to trap him. Four other Lakers scored in double figures: Luke Walton (15 points on 6-7 field goal shooting), Pau Gasol (14 points on 5-9 field goal shooting), Derek Fisher (14 points on 5-8 field goal shooting) and Lamar Odom (12 points on 3-9 field goal shooting).

The Nuggets shot just 32-86 (.372) from the field, with their All-Stars Carmelo Anthony (16 points on 5-22 field goal shooting) and Allen Iverson (15 points on 5-16 field goal shooting) leading the way in both points and missed shots. After the game, Anthony bluntly stated what anyone watching the game could plainly see: "We quit." He hastened to add that he included himself in that assessment and that he was not singling out anyone in particular but just like there is something wrong with the Suns laying an egg in game three at home versus the Spurs there is something wrong with the Nuggets just quitting in game three at home versus the Lakers. The issue is not even so much the outcome of the game or the series but just the total lack of professionalism and personal/collective pride. We know that the Lakers are the superior team and would almost certainly win the series even if the Nuggets played their best but how can an organization develop a championship-level mindset with the kind of attitude that leads to such a dismal performance? When fans in Denver are serenading Bryant with "MVP" chants during the second half of a playoff game something has gone terribly wrong from the Nuggets' perspective.

This game will no doubt be misunderstood by people who try to analyze basketball exclusively by crunching boxscore numbers. I don't know how Bryant's performance would be rated by PER or EFF or Wages of Wins but I do know that it cannot be adequately quantified by numbers alone. The Nuggets had no answer for Bryant; if the score had been closer then he would have scored more points and/or dished off more assists, depending on how the Nuggets chose to set their defense. Regardless of what any statistical system might say, if Bryant were not on the court then this series would be completely different; the Nuggets would be able to focus in on Pau Gasol, who had never led a team to a single playoff game victory prior to joining the Lakers. Odom would then have to step into Gasol's role as the number two option and open shots would be very hard to come by for any of the Lakers. These things should be obvious to anyone who watches the game with understanding but all a statistical system can tell you is what numbers each player produced; it does not explain that the Nuggets have been forced to use forward Kenyon Martin to try to guard Bryant, which opens up things inside for Gasol, Odom and others, nor does it indicate that the Nuggets have also had to try zones and traps against Bryant, both of which leave gaps into which Bryant's teammates cut so that he can find them for layups or open jumpers. Numbers can tell a lot if you know how to interpret them but they never tell the whole story. Bryant is a threat to post up, drive, shoot midrange jumpers and shoot three pointers (although his three point shot was off during this particular game), which is why it is very difficult to come up with a defensive plan to effectively deal with him; he can post up or shoot over quick defenders and he can drive by bigger, stronger defenders. He also is an outstanding free throw shooter, so fouling him is not a good option. Bryant can beat traps either with a quick shot or a deft pass. PER, EFF, WoW and all the other stat acronyms do not adequately explain a player's skill set and the challenges that he poses to the other team's defense. LeBron James and Chris Paul are wonderful players but as difficult as they are to guard they do have weaknesses; James is an erratic three point shooter and a subpar free throw shooter, while Paul is a smaller player who is not a post up threat, who can be jostled physically when he ventures into the lane and who can have poor shooting games if the opposing team shuts down his driving lanes and forces him to shoot jumpers: Paul shot 10-37 from the field when the Hornets lost three out of four games late in the regular season when they were still battling for the top seed in the West and he shot 4-18 from the field in the Hornets' game three loss to the Dallas Mavericks. You will rarely if ever see teams defend Bryant with the idea that it is OK to give him an open shot from any range, so he puts constant pressure on the opposing defense no matter where he is on the court.

I would also disagree with anyone who would say that Bryant's eight assists in this game and his 10 assists in the previous contest prove that he has become a better passer or a more unselfish player; the difference this season is that Bryant, as he so aptly put it, is now going to war with guns instead of "butter knives." You get more assists passing to Derek Fisher than Smush Parker; moreover, after a certain point it does not even make sense to pass to Smush Parker because Bryant has a better chance scoring one on three than Parker does of making anything other than an uncontested layup or dunk. Bryant was the leading playmaker on three championship teams, so acting like he suddenly learned how to pass the ball is just silly. It will be a long time before anyone else carries a team to two playoff berths with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown (or equivalent players) in the starting lineup. In recent seasons, most Western Conference playoff teams have had two All-Stars in the starting lineup, not two guys who are closer to Developmental League status than they are to being All-Stars.

It is not easy to take a 3-0 lead in a series because even underdog teams tend to fight relentlessly to prevent that from happening; this year, only the Lakers and the defending champion Spurs have won the first three games in their respective series. Even the league-leading 66-16 Boston Celtics lost their game three versus the Atlanta Hawks, a team that had a sub-.500 regular season record. MVP candidates LeBron James and Chris Paul played very well in leading their teams to two home wins each only to lose their game threes on the road; James had a decent game three individually, while Paul played well below his usual standard. On the other hand, Bryant set the tone for his team with his approach to game three and he backed up that attitude with his efficient play.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:23 AM

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