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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Big Performance by Boozer Powers Jazz to Victory

Carlos Boozer scored nine straight points for Utah in less than three minutes in the fourth quarter to help the Jazz hold off a late Lakers' rally in game three of their second round series. He finished with 27 points and tied a playoff career-high with 20 rebounds in Utah's 104-99 win. The Jazz also got good efforts from Deron Williams (18 points, 12 assists) and Mehmet Okur (22 points, seven rebounds, 4-7 three point shooting). Utah's three stars combined to shoot 26-47 from the field (.553) . Kobe Bryant got off to slow start but he ended up with a game-high 34 points plus seven assists and six rebounds; he shot 10-20 from the field and 14-17 from the free throw line. "He had a tremendous second half, took the game over and pretty much almost won it by himself because that's who he is and that's what he's done in his career," Utah Coach Jerry Sloan said of Bryant. Lamar Odom had 13 points and 12 rebounds, while Derek Fisher also scored 13 points but Pau Gasol had a very quiet game: 12 points, six rebounds, five turnovers; after the game, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson explained, "This is a game in which Pau was looking at the referees every time he got stripped there in the first half, feeling he got fouled."

The Lakers took a quick 6-0 lead after Fisher hit a jumper, Bryant fed Gasol for an easy hoop and Odom made a strong drive. Williams answered with a three pointer but after Bryant hit a couple free throws and Vladimir Radmanovic drained a three pointer the Lakers led 11-3, all five of their starters had scored and it looked like it might be a long night for Utah. It might sound odd to say that the turning point in the game happened at the 9:07 mark of the first quarter but after Fisher picked up his second foul at that time the entire tempo and tenor of the contest shifted. Jordan Farmar replaced Fisher and the Lakers lost all of their rhythm offensively and defensively; they began turning the ball over and Williams--who Fisher had done a pretty good job of containing in the first two games--started getting loose and making plays. The Lakers did not score for nearly four minutes after Farmar entered the game, a dry spell that ended when Bryant made a free throw after the Jazz committed a defensive three seconds violation--and then nearly a minute and a half passed before the Lakers scored again. Meanwhile, Utah went on a 10-1 run to take the lead and they were able to play from in front for most of the rest of the game.

Bryant took his customary rest at the start of the second quarter with the score tied 23-23. Jackson left Gasol and Odom in the game to play with three reserves but Gasol and Odom combined to commit three turnovers in the next 3:24 and the Lakers fell behind 32-27. Bryant reentered the game at that point but the Lakers' had lost any semblance of continuity while the Jazz had gained a lot of momentum; Boozer, Williams and Okur each were in a good flow after not having much success in the first two games in L.A. and once you let good players get their confidence going--particularly at home--it is difficult to reassert control over them. The Jazz led 51-43 at halftime. Boozer had 10 points, Williams had nine points and six assists despite suffering a wrist injury on his shooting hand that bothered him the rest of the game and Okur led all scorers with 12 points. Bryant had only eight points on 1-5 field goal shooting. ESPN's Mike Tirico asked Hubie Brown what the Lakers could do differently in the second half and Brown said drily, "Maybe they could get him (Bryant) the ball more often."

Of course, any time that Bryant only attempts five shots in a half there is probably going to be a Congressional investigation to unearth exactly why that happened. Asked about it after the game, Bryant replied that he was just reading the defense and getting the ball to the open man--the same thing that he always says because that is they way that he has been playing for years: great offensive players understand when to shoot, when to drive and when to pass. Bryant missed a couple shots in the first half that he normally makes, but other than that there was nothing unusual about how he played; I'm still trying to figure out why in both the pregame and halftime shows Jon Barry acted like he expects that at any moment now Bryant is going to stop playing team ball and simply start jacking up shots wildly. What went wrong for the Lakers offensively in the first half was that Fisher's early foul trouble disrupted their rhythm and altered their substitution patterns, plus the Jazz played defense more aggressively than they did in the first two games.

In his postgame comments, Bryant said that in the second half the Jazz stayed at home more on the Lakers' shooters, so he responded to that adjustment by aggressively driving to the hoop. Bryant had 14 points and three assists in the third quarter, shooting 6-8 from the field. During a timeout, ESPN played the clip from Bryant's MVP press conference when Jackson said, "I don't know anybody who has ever deserved this trophy more. I've never known anybody who has worked as hard to accomplish what he has accomplished in this game as Kobe has." Tirico asked Brown for his thoughts and Brown replied, "The coach knows your work ethic the best. It was great to hear him compliment him on that stage because that is going all over the world. It's good for young people to understand that he (Bryant) thanked his family because they allowed him the time away from home to get to that level."

After Bryant made six field goals in a row, the Jazz began trapping him more aggressively and Bryant responded by getting assists on consecutive possessions, first dishing to Luke Walton for an open jumper and then passing to Fisher for a three pointer that cut the Utah lead to 73-68. The problem for the Lakers was even though they finally got their offense going--mainly due to Bryant--they could not get enough stops to gain much ground. At the end of the quarter, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew the defense and made what Brown called "a gorgeous pass" to Ronny Turiaf for a layup and potential three point play but Turiaf missed the free throw; despite Bryant's offensive explosion, the Lakers only trimmed two points off of Utah's halftime lead and still trailed 79-72 going into the fourth quarter.

Bryant sat out the first 2:25 of the fourth quarter before Jackson hustled him back into the game after the deficit grew to 10; in five possessions without Bryant on the court the Lakers managed a layup by Walton, three turnovers and a missed three pointer by Farmar that he forced with plenty of time on the shot clock. People can cite all the regular season numbers that they want but I am not yet convinced that the Lakers' bench is truly a strength in the playoffs against good teams; the Lakers' best bench player so far in the playoffs has been Walton, who was often a starter in previous seasons, so I think that it is more accurate to say that the Lakers improved their starting lineup than anything else--Walton would never have been a starter on most playoff teams in the first place but he looked effective in that role relative to a couple other starters (Kwame Brown and Smush Parker) that the Lakers trotted out in recent seasons. Now the Lakers have replaced Brown with Gasol, Parker with Fisher and Walton with Radmanovic, so the Lakers actually have a legitimate playoff quality starting lineup as opposed to having three bench players masquerading as starters.

The Jazz briefly pushed the lead to 12 right after Bryant entered the game but then he answered with a three point play and the Lakers never trailed by double digits again the rest of the way. That three point play was interesting because it happened with Matt Harpring guarding Bryant on the perimeter. As I've emphasized previously, a major difference between Bryant and LeBron James is that Bryant must be guarded closely all the way out to beyond the three point line. That gives Bryant options that James simply does not have; in this case, Bryant took advantage of how close Harpring was playing him to sweep his arms through Harpring's, initiate contact to draw the foul and then make the jumper. Keep in mind that versus Boston James has shot 1-27 from the field outside of the paint--and Bryant has the skill and strength to make a long jumper while he is being fouled. Tim Duncan often uses this same move, although he is usually much closer to the basket when he does it. This is a great way to take advantage of a defender who is crowding you, particularly if you are an excellent free throw shooter like Bryant--but there is no need for a defender to get close enough to James outside of the paint for James to even have a chance to use this move.

Just like in the third quarter, Bryant carried the load (12 points, one assist) in the fourth quarter as the Lakers got into a nice rhythm offensively but they could not get enough stops, particularly in the paint--Boozer had 11 fourth quarter points and he did a lot of his damage at close range, including a killer sequence in which he split a pair of free throws, rebounded his miss and powered his way to the hoop for a layup that put the Jazz up 95-86 at the 4:40 mark. That came right after a remarkable sequence in which Bryant split a double team about 15 feet from the basket, jumped in the air, threw the ball off of the backboard, caught it and dunked it with two hands. Even Williams was awestruck: "That was an unbelievable play. I looked at (teammate) Jarron Collins and went, 'Wow!' And I was in the game. Sometimes you've got to give respect where respect is due." Bryant said of his improvisational move--which is reminiscent of a play that Tracy McGrady pulled off in an All-Star Game a few years back--"You know me. I'll try anything." The Lakers cut the lead to 95-92 at the 3:22 mark after Fisher split a pair of free throws but Boozer scored on the next three possessions to ice the game. The Lakers better hope that they have not awakened a sleeping giant in Boozer, because with his strength, footwork and shooting touch he can be a load for either Gasol or Odom to handle; Boozer inexplicably played without much confidence in the first round and in the first two games of this series but he seems to have his groove back now.

In the first two games, the Lakers took double digit leads only to be forced to survive fierce second half rallies and in this game the Jazz similarly withstood a strong Lakers' comeback from a double digit deficit. I never understood why there was any talk about the Lakers sweeping the Jazz; the first two games were competitive and Utah has the more physical team and the better overall roster even though the Lakers obviously have the best individual player. Each game in this series will be a struggle between Bryant and his pair of tall/finesse-oriented bigs (Gasol and Odom) versus Utah's deep and physical frontcourt; the other crucial matchup is Williams-Fisher, where the object for Fisher is not to produce better stats than Williams but rather to simply contain Williams to some extent and make him work for everything he gets. Bryant's production figures to be the one constant in this series, so the game by game outcomes will be heavily influenced by the finesse versus strength battle in the paint and the point guard duel. Another important consideration is that Utah plays much better at home than on the road, which is why it should have been obvious that after two close games in L.A. the Jazz were not going to lose both games at home. If the Lakers cut down on their turnovers and play a little tougher in the paint then they can win game four in Utah but otherwise this will turn into a six or seven game series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 AM

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Friday, May 09, 2008

The Spurs Aren't Dead Yet

In recent days it seems like everyone has come not to praise the San Antonio Spurs but to bury them but their 110-99 game three win over the New Orleans Hornets on Thursday suggested that such funeral plans are very premature. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich resorted to his tried and true tactic whenever things look dire for his team: he shifted Manu Ginobili from the bench to the starting lineup, changing the matchups and rotations for both teams. Ginobili finished with 31 points, six assists and four rebounds and his production proved to be the X factor in a game in which most of the other main players performed at their expected levels. Tony Parker had 31 points and 11 assists, while Tim Duncan had a lot more impact than his 16 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and four blocked shots might suggest. His game-high +15 plus/minus number (five better than Parker's and 10 better than Ginobili's) hints at the importance of his contributions: Duncan drew double-teams that opened up driving lanes and shot opportunities for his speedy sidekicks and on defense he protected the paint well.

Chris Paul once again put up awesome numbers (35 points, nine assists, 15-25 field goal shooting, one turnover), David West had a double double (23 points, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots) and Tyson Chandler did the dirty work in the paint (12 points, eight rebounds, 5-5 field goal shooting) but no other Hornets reached double figures in points and New Orleans shot just 2-11 from three point range after shooting 14-27 from long distance while winning the first two games of the series. Paul really is remarkable--he shoots a good percentage, makes uncanny passes, rarely turns the ball over and does not have to be hidden like a fugitive from justice at the defensive end of the court. That said, this game fits into the blueprint that I have described for how the Spurs can beat the Hornets: a New Orleans opponent cannot live with Paul scoring more than 30 points and having more than 15 assists and it may not be possible to stop him from reaching one of those totals, so it makes sense to stay at home on West, Chandler and the shooters in order to cut down on Paul's assists and force him to be a big time scorer. That is not to say that Paul is not capable of scoring 30-plus points while shooting a good percentage but it will take at least 85 points to win a game in this series, so if a single-covered Paul scores 35 then the other players have to find a way to score at least 50 without getting easy dunks and wide open jumpers. The other thing that is great about this approach is that Paul is a pass-first player by nature and his team's success is built around his passing skills, so he will not be comfortable taking a lot of shots game after game and his teammates will not be used to having to work harder to create their own shots. In the first half, Paul had 18 points and six assists while shooting 8-12 from the field; that 36-12 pace was a bit too much and the Spurs trailed 56-54 even after scoring five points in the last two seconds of the half. In the second half, Paul had 17 points and three assists while shooting 7-13 from the field; that 34-6 pace is just what the doctor ordered and the Spurs pulled away to claim the win. In the fourth quarter, Paul scored six points on 3-7 shooting and he only had one assist as the Spurs outscored the Hornets 27-21.

I'm not saying that Paul had a bad game or that his 15-25 shooting hurt the team--far from it: Paul had a great game. However, since it does not seem possible to shut down Paul completely it makes more sense for the Spurs to stay at home on the other players as opposed to trapping Paul; when Dallas trapped Paul in the first round he made the Mavs look silly by splitting the traps and then scoring or passing at will. As long as the lone defender on Paul makes him work throughout the game then the Spurs can live with him shooting 25 times, even if he shoots a good percentage--and even if his overall percentage is good he may miss more shots than usual down the stretch because he is not accustomed to shooting that much in a game. The Hornets should counter this approach by using a lot of pick and roll plays to force the Spurs to have to switch, thus creating mismatches and/or passing angles for Paul. The Hornets should also use screens away from the ball to free up their shooters, Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson. Stojakovic had just eight points on 2-7 field goal shooting, while Peterson scored three points on 1-3 field goal shooting; Stojakovic scored 47 points in the first two games of the series, while Peterson scored 20 points on 8-10 field goal shooting.

This does not specifically relate to game three but one of the most amusing sidebar stories in this series involves Popovich answering some of the "interesting" questions that he is asked by sideline reporters during the games and by various members of the media in his postgame press conferences. "Just don't ask me stupid questions and we'll be OK" is Popovich's mantra regarding the media. Reporters ask stupid questions all the time and most coaches simply resort to answering with bland cliches--but if you ask Popovich a stupid question, his response leaves little doubt about exactly how stupid it really was, as USA Today's Chris Colston notes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:46 AM

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The LeBron Rules: Celtics Contain James, Crush Cavs

For the second game in a row, the Boston Celtics contained LeBron James but this time the Celtics also generated enough offense to put the contest out of reach well before the final buzzer, beating Cleveland 89-73. James had a game-high 21 points plus six assists and five rebounds but he shot just 6-24 from the field and committed seven turnovers. Neither team shot well but Boston got solid performances from All-Stars Paul Pierce (19 points, six rebounds, 7-13 field goal shooting), Ray Allen (16 points, 4-10 field goal shooting) and Kevin Garnett (13 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, 5-9 field goal shooting). Sam Cassell has been a real factor off of the bench in both games; he finished with nine points and three assists and even though he shot just 4-12 from the field he played a big role in the surge during which the Celtics took the lead, after which they never looked back. Young guards should watch him closely to see how he continually gets open for high percentage shots despite not having blazing quickness or exceptional jumping ability--he is a real pro's pro. Zydrunas Ilgauskas scored 19 points on 9-12 field goal shooting, Wally Szczerbiak had 13 points on 4-11 field goal shooting but--except for James--no other Cav scored more than five points. Ben Wallace, who is not a scoring threat but does a good job crashing the boards and serving as a pressure release player who can catch a pass and reverse the ball to the other side of the court, left the game after just 3:40 in the first quarter due to dizziness; he was taken to the locker room for treatment and although he later returned to the bench he did not reenter the game.

Cleveland's three trumps are usually defense, rebounding and the brilliance of James but the Celtics won all three categories, holding Cleveland to .356 field goal shooting while shooting .403 themselves, outrebounding Cleveland 45-39 and doing an excellent job against James, the 2008 scoring champion (30.0 ppg). Amazingly, James has shot 8-42 from the field versus Boston so far, the worst field goal percentage (min. 30 attempts) posted by a player in the first two games of a playoff series in the shot clock era--that covers more than 50 years of NBA basketball! One tends to think that this cannot possibly continue for the whole series but keep in mind that the San Antonio Spurs held James to .356 field goal shooting and forced him to commit 23 turnovers when they swept the Cavaliers in last year's NBA Finals.

As I explained in my game one recap, the Celtics are essentially guarding James the same way that the Spurs did, something that ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned prior to game two: "They have one of the best defenses in the past 10 years because of the execution of a rock solid scheme and the versatility of the Defensive Player of the Year in Kevin Garnett. They took a page out of San Antonio's playbook in how they defended LeBron James." Basically, the Celtics are double-teaming James after every pick and roll, preventing him from driving into the paint and forcing him to shoot jump shots. James is fantastic when he gets up a head of steam and powers his way to the hoop but for a player of his ability he is shockingly inept not only as a three point shooter (0-10 in this series) but even as a midrange jump shooter: of the eight field goals he has made in this series only one of them, a 22 foot jumper in the third quarter of game two, came from outside of the paint. The reason that James' field goal percentage versus Boston is so abysmal is that he is also missing inside shots that he normally converts but that just shows how his prowess as an inside player usually masks his inability to shoot well from the outside. It is actually a testament to his talent and determination that he can lead the league in scoring despite not being much of an outside threat but Boston is showing that it will be tough for James to lead a team to a championship until he fixes this one glaring weakness in his otherwise complete skill set.

That said, I disagree with anyone who would say that James is "overrated." It takes an excellent, well coached defensive team to execute a very good game plan for 48 minutes in order to control James. Let's not forget that James has a 5-2 career record in playoff series and he has already led a team to the NBA Finals, while veterans Garnett, Allen and Pierce have yet to make it to the NBA's ultimate postseason stage. What we saw in the 2007 NBA Finals and what we are seeing again now is merely confirmation that James is not yet the best player in the NBA, despite what many numbers-crunching stat "gurus" say; the correct way to evaluate players is not by blindly looking at numbers but by observing players' skill sets, making note of their strengths and weaknesses. The fact that James has a higher career field goal percentage than Kobe Bryant is not nearly as important as the fact that Bryant is a scoring threat from anywhere on the court while James does most of his damage in the paint. As Doug Collins repeatedly pointed out during Wednesday's Lakers-Jazz game, Bryant is a "complete offensive player" who has "no weakness in his offensive game." Scoring averages, assists averages and other statistics are dictated by a player's minutes, his role on his team and other factors--but if you watch players with an informed eye you can properly evaluate their footwork, their ballhandling, their passing, their shooting range and so forth. Consider just a simple example that you can look for the next time the Lakers play and the next time the Cavs play: watch the completely different ways that defenders close out to Bryant and to James--the first defender will go chest to chest with Bryant to deny him the chance to shoot an open jumper, relying (hoping) that there will be a rotation to stop Bryant from driving but the first defender closing out on James will stop two or three feet in front of him, daring James to shoot while cutting off his driving and passing angles. That is just one example of how you can tell which player is more difficult to guard and has a more complete offensive game. A really interesting aspect of this is that James' poor shooting touch negatively impacts his ability to effectively pass the ball because it enables defenders to cheat into passing lanes, while in contrast Bryant's excellent shooting touch opens up angles for him to pass: not only is James shooting poorly against Boston but he is turning the ball over at a terribly high rate because even when he is double-teamed it is often hard for him to get the ball to the open man because the defenders are playing James for the pass more so than for the shot. Another thing that is clearly happening is that James is becoming frustrated, which in turn results in him either forcing long shots or trying to thread the needle with very difficult to complete passes.

During the regular season, teams do not have the time--and, of course, many teams do not have the proper personnel--to implement a detailed game plan to keep James from getting to the hoop but in the playoffs against elite teams even an outstanding player like James will have his weaknesses exposed. Please note the difference between what the Celtics are doing and the nonsense that the Wizards did in the first round: the Celtics are putting bodies between James and the hoop and delivering hard (but clean) fouls to stop him from shooting layups; the Wizards offered little resistance to James when he drove to the hoop and then delivered cheap shots once he was already in the paint. You could call it the difference between playing defense and simply being wanna-be tough guys who have big mouths but small games--or you could call it the difference between being a 66 win, championship contending team and being a mediocre, overhyped team that will not likely ever get past the second round as currently constructed.

The principles--you could call them the "LeBron Rules"--that the Spurs used and are being adapted by the Celtics would simply not work against Bryant; any team that concedes wide open midrange and three point jumpers to Bryant will watch him drop at least 40 points in a heartbeat. As Mark Jackson put it, "You look at Kobe Bryant and there is no way to defend him and comfortably sleep at night." Teams certainly prefer to have Bryant shoot jumpers instead of layups--that is just common sense--but they have to be contested jumpers, not open jumpers while defenders sag into the passing lanes.

The correct defensive game plan to deal with James sounds simple on paper but it is not so easy to do on the court, which is another reason why you don't regularly see teams shutting James down. In the early minutes of game two, James was able to make some good reads and effective passes that led to scores; Cleveland took an 8-2 lead, with Ilgauskas scoring all of the points, and James played a major role in this quick start even though he did not receive a single assist: on one play, James drew multiple defenders and passed to Wallace, who reversed the ball to Ilgauskas for a wide open jumper. Wallace had two rebounds and that one assist in his limited playing time and even though the Cavs briefly extended their lead in his absence it is fair to say that they missed him at both ends of the court during the rest of the game. James got his first basket by rebounding his own miss and putting it back in and not long after that he received a lob from Anderson Varejao and converted his only dunk of the series so far. James got open on that play by faking like he was going to use a screen to cut outside and then going back door. Van Gundy said, "Poor defensive position by Pierce. You have to make him a jump shooter instead of letting him catch at the rim." James' final field goal of the first half came on a drive at the 3:00 mark of the first quarter. That gave the Cavs their biggest lead of the game, 21-9. Cassell entered the game for the first time at that point and he scored five points and had an assist as Boston went on a 19-6 run in the next 7:19; the Celtics took the lead after James Posey stole a pass intended for James and raced in for a fast break dunk and Boston never trailed again.

The Celtics held the Cavs to 12 points on 2-17 field goal shooting in the second quarter. Boston led 44-36 at halftime and broke the game open with a quick 6-0 run at the start of the third quarter. Although the Celtics had a few defensive lapses after they built up a huge lead in the second half, they are a remarkably focused and disciplined defensive team--at least at home. As Van Gundy said, they have a good game plan and they execute it. Boston did not show much as a road team in the first round versus Atlanta and James did lead the Cavs to four straight wins versus Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals after he had subpar performances in the first two games of that series, so it is entirely possible that the Cavs will win the next two games in Cleveland to set up a very intriguing game five matchup in Boston--but if James does not start converting the few layup opportunities he is getting or go on a hot streak from long distance then this could be a shorter series than anyone expected. As improbable as it may look at this moment, I still think that my prediction of a seven game series (won by Boston) will come to fruition, because I don't believe that a James-led team will fall apart the way that the Suns did in the first round after losing a close game one to the Spurs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:12 AM

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

The NBA Finally Has an MVP Whose Game Does Not Shrink in the Playoffs

I make outs
I make other rappers have doubts
You're (messing) with the wrong man and the wrong clan--
"Flava in ya ear," Craig Mack (and other artists), 1994

Dirk Nowitzki seemingly received the 2007 MVP in a broom closet at an undisclosed location after his Dallas Mavericks were bounced out of the first round of the playoffs. We just saw the 2005 and 2006 MVP, Steve Nash, make Tony Parker look like the greatest point guard in the history of the NBA (funny, Parker does not look nearly that good versus Chris Paul). Kobe Bryant received the 2008 MVP trophy prior to game two of the Los Angeles-Utah series and then he spent the rest of the night clubbing the Jazz over their heads with it, to the point that Charles Barkley, Doug Collins and Utah assistant coach Phil Johnson all commented about how the Jazz could not match the Lakers' energy. Barkley flat out said, "They don't think they can beat the Lakers...They're not playing like a Jerry Sloan team. It's like they're there but they're not there." The Lakers certainly have a nice, well balanced team but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were leading the charge sans Bryant I don't think that a team that made it to last year's Western Conference Finals would be doubting its ability to win.

To paraphrase from the "Flava in ya' ear" lyric, Bryant is taking teams out and making the Jazz have doubts. Bryant is imposing his will on this series and he is seemingly in the process of imposing his will on this entire season: his much criticized public remarks before the season resulted in some much needed internal player development within the team as well as some great moves by the front office; his play during the season was so fantastic that he convinced a press corps that has disrespected him for years in the MVP balloting to finally grant him the award. Don't forget that Bryant is playing with a finger injury that will eventually require surgery; when the best player in the league puts off surgery because he believes that his team can win a championship you better believe that sends a message throughout the organization and makes sure that everyone--from the coaching staff to the 15th man--is working hard and staying focused.

Bryant had 34 points, eight rebounds and six assists as the Lakers beat the Jazz 120-101. He shot 11-18 from the field and 11-12 from the free throw line while leading both teams in scoring and leading the Lakers in assists. As Collins said near the end of the game, "His efficiency is off the charts." This is the most points an MVP has scored in a game right after receiving the award since Allen Iverson dropped 52 on Toronto in 2001. Bryant set the tone from the start of the game in word and in deed. After Commissioner David Stern handed Bryant the MVP trophy shortly before tipoff, Bryant told the Staples Center fans, "We're going to play until June. I love you, now let's get this party started." Bryant had the Bernard King game face going--he looked like he was about ready to kill somebody. He scored 10 points in the first 8:22 of the game as the Lakers took a 25-13 lead. The last three of those points came after Bryant got switched on to Utah center Mehmet Okur, flicked the ball away from him and Okur fouled Bryant to stop the fast break. Bryant made two free throws and tacked on a third one after an exasperated Utah Coach Jerry Sloan received a technical foul. The Lakers pushed their lead to 33-18 by the end of the quarter and the Jazz had to battle uphill the rest of the game.

Bryant picked up his second foul with :29 remaining in the first quarter, so he sat out until the 6:37 mark in the second quarter. Utah trimmed the Lakers' advantage to 43-32 during that time. He played more of a facilitator role in the second quarter, shooting 1-2 from the field but drawing enough defensive attention that three other Lakers--Gasol (15 points on 5-7 field goal shooting), Odom (13 points) and Derek Fisher (12 points)--scored in double figures in the first half. Gasol has always been a good shooter but since he started playing alongside Bryant he is shooting better than .580 from the field, well above his career norm. We hear a lot about various players who make their teammates better--do you suppose that Gasol's vastly improved field goal percentage is totally unrelated to the defensive attention that Bryant draws and Bryant's ability to feed the post? Apparently, the "experts" at most of the mainstream media outlets have missed this connection because I have yet to see or hear anyone mention it. On one second quarter play, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew four defenders and slipped the ball to Gasol for a dunk, a sequence that has become a common sight in Lakers games.

Gasol finished with 20 points on 6-11 field goal shooting. Odom had 19 points on 7-10 shooting and he snared a game-high 16 rebounds. Fisher scored 22 points on 7-10 shooting. Are we supposed to believe that Steve Nash made Amare Stoudemire into who he is, that Chris Paul created David West from scratch but that Bryant's teammates just happen to be playing the best ball of their lives in the second round of the playoffs purely by coincidence? It gets back to what I always say: "making teammates better" is a misnomer because what great players do is put other players in a position to do the things that they do well; great players need to have talented players around them in order for their teams to win and when they have such players around them they draw so much defensive attention that their teammates are able to slash to the hoop, make open jumpers or do whatever it is that they are good at doing.

Although Bryant's offensive impact is obvious and significant, it would be wrong to ignore his work at the other end of the court. Bryant is a perennial member of the All-Defensive Team and, while that squad has not yet been announced this season, Bryant finished fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting so one would assume that he will again make the All-Defensive Team. On most NBA teams, the defensive calls during the game are made by a big man, because he is stationed on the baseline and can see all of the action but earlier this season Lakers Coach Phil Jackson mentioned that Bryant fills that role for his team. Defense is a high priority for Bryant--earlier in this season I discussed how Bryant helped Andrew Bynum's development as a defensive player--and that mindset is contagious: the Lakers held Utah stars Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams to 0 points and three points respectively in the first half.

Naturally, Boozer and Williams tried very hard to bounce back in the second half, scoring 10 and 22 points respectively, but the Jazz had no answer for Bryant, who scored 15 points in the third quarter on 6-7 shooting from the field. Collins, a former number one overall draft pick (1973) who made the All-Star team four times and who coached Michael Jordan as a Bull and as a Wizard, marveled at Bryant's play: "Kobe Bryant is the most complete offensive player in the game. He can beat you off of the dribble, he can shoot the three, he can post you, he can get to the foul line and score--you cannot defend him with one player. That is why the Utah Jazz are in trouble in this series." After a play when Bryant slashed to the hoop and drew a foul, Collins said, "Kobe will put pressure on the defense at all times" and he contrasted this approach with how Houston's Tracy McGrady played in the previous round versus Utah, noting that McGrady is more apt to settle for the jumper (in McGrady's defense, he put up 40 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in game six and then ended up having knee and shoulder surgeries that will sideline him for up to three months).

On several occasions, Bryant posted up and made a quick move that led to either a score or a foul. Collins commented, "Complete offensive player: now he's in the post. We've seen him out on the floor driving, we've seen him pull up and shoot threes--there is no weakness in his offensive game." Contrast this performance with what we saw out of LeBron James in game one versus Boston: James is normally a relentless driver to the hoop and that works against most teams but it is possible to build a wall around the paint, concede the outside shot and make things difficult for him. James does not have Bryant's footwork in the post, nor does he have Bryant's shooting range, so he cannot attack defenses in as many different ways as Bryant can. After yet another Bryant basket, Collins said, "His footwork is impeccable. This doesn't happen by accident. He probably pays more attention to detail when he works than any player in the NBA. It is no accident that he is the most fundamentally sound player in the game right now. Michael Jordan was the most fundamentally sound player when he played." Astute readers will note that the specific traits that Collins singled out during this game--impeccable footwork, complete offensive game, unequaled work ethic--are the exact reasons that I have used for the past three years to justify saying that Bryant is the best player in the NBA. Fans are of course entitled to root for whomever they like and to think whatever they want but people who actually analyze basketball and understand the game appreciate that Bryant--from a technical standpoint--is a very special player who has honed his natural talent with a tremendous amount of hard work. Collins talked about how his son saw this firsthand last summer when he worked with the Team USA coaching staff. I know that this does not fit into the storyline that the mainstream media prefers to use regarding Bryant but do you suppose that this kind of work ethic and attention to detail just might possibly rub off on the rest of the team in some way? Is it remotely possible that the example Bryant sets might have something to do with the fact that so many players on the team have improved since last year? I know that must seem like a radical idea after years of being bombarded with the storyline that Bryant is a bad teammate but maybe it is worth at least considering a different perspective.

Bryant sat out the first 4:10 of the fourth quarter, as he usually does, but the Jazz were only able to cut one point off of the Lakers' lead, making the score 98-89. The Jazz pulled to within 99-94 before Bryant drove to the hoop, drew several defenders and passed to Sasha Vujacic for an open jumper. A lot has been made of the idea that Bryant has become more unselfish this season and that he trusts his teammates more. Kenny Smith made an important point a couple nights ago when he said that those teammates have earned that trust this season in ways that they did not in years past; Smith said that he remembers Bryant making those same passes but not getting assists because the recipients did not complete the plays. Smith is of course correct about this and it really surprises me that no one else seems to remember this. Each of the past two seasons we heard the same stories about how Bryant was supposedly becoming more unselfish but then certain players got hurt, others did not maintain their productivity and Jackson told Bryant that the team needed him to score 35-40 points just to be competitive. Do people really have such short attention spans that they forget these details? Also, Bryant now has Gasol at center and Fisher at point guard and trusting those players makes a lot more sense than trusting Kwame Brown and Smush Parker; case in point, Bryant drove to the hoop at the 2:40 mark, drew the defense and made a gorgeous pass around Mehmet Okur to a wide open Gasol, who dunked the ball to put the Lakers up 109-99. Collins said, "That was brilliant. That was a brilliant, briliant play. He does everything but dunk it for him." Anyone who doubts that Bryant is capable of averaging 10 apg should look at some of the passes he made in this game; he is a very gifted passer who happens to be an even more gifted scorer. By the way, how likely is it that in a similar situation Brown would (a) cut to the open area, (b) catch the pass and (c) make the dunk? Bryant is making the same moves that he always has but the difference is that he has teammates who, in his words, have a "high basketball IQ" and thus know how to work in concert with him.

Earlier in the game, Collins made an important point that I have been stressing here for months: Gasol has now capably filled the role of second option, which slides Odom down to the third option where he is much more comfortable. I got so sick of hearing in previous years that Odom was going to be Bryant's Scottie Pippen, because it should be apparent that Odom is not that kind of player; if anything, he is Horace Grant with better handles, a player who rebounds, defends and can score in double figures. That is not an insult by any means; Grant was a fine player and so is Odom--but there is a huge difference between being one of the 50 Greatest Players of all-time and being a good third option on an excellent team.

Right before the end of the game, Collins noted that in 1992 Jordan won the MVP, led the Bulls to the championship, won the Finals MVP and won an Olympic gold medal, four things that Bryant has an opportunity to do in 2008. The first leg of that journey (winning the MVP) is already complete and the latter three will be difficult but certainly look to be attainable. During the postgame show, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley mentioned something that must send chills down the spines of coaches and players around the league: the Lakers look like the best team in the NBA right now and they could be even better next season if Andrew Bynum returns to health.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:47 AM

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Oh, No Mr. Bill(ups): Chauncey Billups Injured Early, Magic Rout Misfiring Pistons

Don't count the Orlando Magic out just yet. Rashard Lewis scored a playoff career-high 33 points as the Magic beat the Detroit Pistons 111-86 to cut Detroit's lead to two games to one in their second round series--but the most significant development in this matchup may have happened at the 8:11 mark in the first quarter when Chauncey Billups landed awkwardly, injured his right hamstring and had to miss the rest of the game. The Magic raced to leads of 16-2 and 24-6 and were ahead 30-16 at the end of the first quarter. The Pistons eventually rallied in the second half to pull within 70-66 before the Magic went on a 14-3 run and coasted to victory. While Lewis bombed away from long range, shooting 5-6 on three pointers, Dwight Howard controlled the paint, scoring 20 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking six shots. Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson each added 18 points. Richard Hamilton (24 points) and Tayshaun Prince (22 points) led Detroit in scoring, while Rasheed Wallace had a very quiet game (11 points on 4-15 field goal shooting, four rebounds, 0 assists, 0 blocked shots). Billups' replacement Rodney Stuckey scored 19 points but shot just 5-13 from the field and he only had two assists. The Pistons shot just 31-77 (.403) from the field.

This series is full of interesting individual matchups. Howard is the Magic's only legitimate inside player, so he is forced to battle against Detroit's deep frontline of Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Jason Maxiell and Theo Ratliff. Howard's forward tandem of Turkoglu and Lewis are good finesse players who can shoot from the outside, pass and drive but are not known for their inside play. Meanwhile, in the backcourt Detroit has a size and experience advantage with Billups and Hamilton going against Jameer Nelson and Maurice Evans--or, the Pistons had an advantage before Billups got hurt. The Magic rely heavily on making three point shots, while the Pistons' offense is based on ball movement, player movement and feeding the hot hand. Although Detroit shuffles in a lot of different defenders to guard Howard, the Pistons have largely eschewed double teaming him so that they can stay at home on the three point shooters. When the Magic are making their threes--they shot 11-24 from long range in game three after shooting just 13-41 on three pointers in the first two games--they are very tough to beat.

Of course, the biggest three pointer in this series so far is the infamous one that Billups hit at the end of the third quarter of game two after the clock never started on the final possession; videotape review confirmed--and the league office later admitted--that Billups did not get the shot off in time but game officials are not currently allowed to review such plays, so they were forced to consult with each other and guess how much time had elapsed while the clock was not running. They decided to score the goal and place .5 seconds on the clock. As Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy correctly noted, even though the final margin of that game was seven after some late free throws it was a one possession game for most of the fourth quarter so that was a huge play. The NBA simply must change this ridiculous rule and permit its game officials to take advantage of the available technology in such situations.

If Billups cannot play or is hindered by this injury the rest of the way then Orlando supporters will no doubt think that this is karma after Detroit benefited from Billups' shot in game three. The Pistons took 2-0 leads versus Cleveland in the playoffs in 2006 and 2007 before the Cavaliers won the next three games in each of those series; in 2006 the Cavs eventually lost in seven games but in 2007 the Cavs won game six and eliminated the Pistons. In my preview article about this series I suggested that this matchup could follow a pattern similar to the 2006 Detroit-Cleveland series, with Orlando having a chance to win but the Pistons surviving due to their veteran savvy; if Billups is not 100% the rest of the way that could tilt the balance in Orlando's favor, though one suspects that Billups will give it a go in game four. Detroit has the better and deeper team but Orlando--like Cleveland--has an advantage in that Howard is the best individual player on the court. It will be interesting to see if Howard has the ability to control a series against a team like Detroit the way that James did last year. In order for Orlando to match Cleveland's feat and win game four at home and game five on the road Howard will have to have a couple special performances and Turkoglu and Lewis will have to back that up by providing 15-20 points each.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:10 AM

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Garnett Carries Celtics as James Struggles

On a night when the other three All-Stars on the court combined to shoot 4-36 from the field, Kevin Garnett shot 13-22, scored 28 points and grabbed eight rebounds as his Boston Celtics escaped with a 76-72 game one victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. If this game were a building, it would have been condemned and torn down; if this game could have looked into a mirror, the glass would have shattered into a million pieces. This game was U-G-L-Y--unless you are a big fan of missed shots (the teams combined to brick, airball and otherwise misdirect 91 out of 143 field goal attempts) and turnovers (38). Rajon Rondo played a solid game, scoring 15 points (all in the first half) and adding six assists and five rebounds. Paul Pierce had five rebounds and four assists but he just shot 2-14 from the field, finishing with a playoff career-low four points; to his credit, he played good defense against LeBron James, drawing two second half charges and making things difficult for Cleveland's star. Ray Allen went scoreless for the first time since his rookie season, shooting 0-4 from the field and looking passive--if not downright invisible--for most of the game. Allen entered the game with a career playoff scoring average of 23.5 ppg, so his performance is simply bizarre. Boston Coach Doc Rivers said that the Celtics have to do a better job of providing open looks for Allen. Sam Cassell picked up the slack for Allen and Pierce, scoring 13 points on 4-8 shooting in 18 minutes of action.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas led Cleveland with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Wally Szczerbiak scored 13 points but shot just 5-14 from the field, which was about par for the course on a night when the Cavs shot 23-75 (.307) from the field. Other than the final score, the numbers that will most be remembered from this game belong to LeBron James, who became just the third player to have two field goals or less in a playoff game in the same season that he won the scoring title (Bob Pettit and David Robinson are the other two). James finished with 12 points on 2-18 field goal shooting, the worst shooting performance of his career, playoff or regular season. He had nine rebounds and a game-high nine assists but he committed 10 turnovers, tying his playoff career-high and matching the second worst total in playoff history. Several factors explain how such a talented player can shoot so poorly and commit so many turnovers:

1) The Celtics employed essentially the same defense that the San Antonio Spurs used against Cleveland in the 2007 NBA Finals: they built a wall around the paint by trapping James aggressively after every pick and roll that involved him and they sent waves of defenders in his direction any time that he tried to drive to the hoop. The idea is to force James to pass the ball or shoot long jump shots. In order for this to work, the defensive team has to have active, mobile big guys in the paint plus three perimeter defenders who understand the proper rotations and are committed to executing them. Few teams have the mental discipline and the right personnel to play this way for 48 minutes--the Spurs and the Celtics might be the only teams that can do this. It is important to understand that even the Spurs and Celtics don't play defense like this all game, every game during the 82 game regular season, because the schedule makes that mentally and physically impossible (plus, it is not necessary against most teams). James has had good regular season games against the Spurs and against the Celtics but in the playoffs teams can zero in on a player's weaknesses.

2) James is the second best player in the NBA behind only Kobe Bryant but James is an erratic free throw shooter and a below average midrange and long range shooter. He made his free throws (8-10) in this game but he shot 0-6 from three point range and he missed several midrange jumpers. James' only two made baskets were a layup at the very beginning of the game and a layup midway through the fourth quarter. Although the kind of defense that the Celtics played would make Bryant work for his points, Bryant's ability to make midrange and long range shots makes it unlikely that he would have a 2-18 shooting performance. TNT's Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Chris Webber blamed Cleveland's coaching staff for supposedly putting James in bad positions on the court, saying that James should have been receiving the ball at the foul line extended or in some of the "sweet spots" where Bryant operates but James is not that kind of player: his game is based on attacking off of the dribble, not on setting up in the midpost area; if James catches the ball there it will be easier to trap him and recover to the shooters and James does not have the footwork or shooting prowess that Bryant uses to free himself and score in that area of the court. The one thing that was unusual was that on a few occasions when James managed to break through the wall and get to the hoop he missed layups, including one that could have tied the game with less than 10 seconds left; he is perhaps the best finisher in the game but those misses could have been the result of how much mental and physical energy he was forced to exert throughout the game, plus the fact that even those close shots were well contested by bigger players.

3) Many of James' turnovers resulted from poor decisions and trying to force things. He seemed to be frustrated because he missed so many shots and he also seemed anxious to try to beat the traps by threading the needle with his passes. One way that the coaching staff and his teammates can help James is by making sure that they space the floor in a way that creates a shot for someone in the area of the court where the Cavs have a four on three advantage when James is being trapped.

Bashing Cleveland Coach Mike Brown for his allegedly bad offensive game plan is a popular pastime but let's look at this objectively. Brown is a defensive-minded coach whose philosophies derive from his time spent working in San Antonio under Gregg Popovich; building a team around defense and rebounding has worked pretty well for Popovich, wouldn't you say? Everybody loves to watch Phoenix, Golden State and Denver but Brown's Cavs have won five playoff series while losing just two, so his team gets it done when it counts--in the postseason--better than any of those squads have the past couple years. This season, James led the league in scoring while shooting a good percentage and he ranked in the top ten in assists. The Cavs dealt with holdouts, injuries and a big trade and still earned the fourth seed in the East; then they beat a team with three All-Stars who many "experts" thought would be a tough out (those were probably the same "experts" who predicted that the Cavs would not even make the playoffs--like Stephen A. Smith, who had the no-defense Nuggets going to the Finals and the Cavs going to the lottery). Brown's formula for success is to keep the game close by playing great defense and by rebounding well so that James--one of the game's great finishers--has an opportunity to take over at the end. Although game one was hardly aesthetically pleasing, it actually went according to plan for Cleveland more so than for Boston, whose Coach Doc Rivers repeatedly stressed that he wanted his team to play more of an uptempo style. Mike D'Antoni or Don Nelson or George Karl may have drawn up a looser, more fun to watch offensive game plan for Cleveland (though that may not be possible with their current personnel, something that the pundits don't seem to understand) but that would likely have resulted in a 110-100 loss, not a game that was winnable until the very end. As Herm Edwards famously said, "You play to win the game." Brown's overall philosophy results in Cleveland being in a lot of close games in which James can make his imprint felt at the end; if Brown opened things up and got into uptempo shootouts then some of his slow footed Clydesdales (Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, Joe Smith) might fall out in the middle of the game.

This game had a strange feel right from the start. Neither team scored for nearly a minute and a half until James broke the ice with a fast break layup. Who would have imagined that he'd make only one more field goal the rest of the game? Cleveland and Boston each missed six of their first seven field goal attempts, but Boston then made eight straight shots, going ahead 25-15 by the end of the first quarter. The Celtics pushed their lead to 29-17 but the Cavs chipped away even though James was on the bench; there is a widely believed myth that James is leading a cast of nobodies but the fact that he could play so poorly and his team could still stay in contact for 48 minutes with a 66-16 Boston team refutes that notion (a point that TNT's Mike Fratello made during the telecast): when the Cavs are healthy they actually go 10 deep in terms of players who can play at least 20-25 productive minutes on a given night. The Cavs defended well and made some timely shots to trim the margin to 29-22 while James rested for more than four minutes. After Cassell committed a flagrant one foul against James, James made two free throws to cut the lead to 30-26. Boston led 41-37 at halftime.

Two Garnett baskets in the first minute of the third quarter made the score 45-37 and it seemed like Boston might pull away but instead Cleveland went on a 14-0 run in the next 6:06. The Celtics closed the quarter with an 8-2 burst to make the score 53-52 Boston going into the fourth quarter. Fratello helpfully reminded any viewers who tuned in late that this was not a halftime score.

Cassell really made his presence felt in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 points, including eight points in a three and half minute stretch during which Boston built a 66-60 lead; he also made the two free throws with :52 left that put the Celtics up for good. Garnett, who is not known as a go-to scorer or a particularly great late game performer, had eight fourth quarter points. James had two points and two assists in the fourth quarter, shooting 1-8 from the field, including 0-4 in the final :55. His inability to consistently make jumpers means that when defenders build a wall around the paint they don't have to get right on top of him; play that kind of defense against Bryant and you are asking for a barrage of three pointers and long jumpers and a 50 point explosion. While James did hit some long shots in his tremendous game five tour de force last year versus Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals, the real problem for the Pistons was that they repeatedly let him get all the way to the hoop and dunk, something that the Spurs and Celtics prevented.

Each team can create a positive spin about this game: the Cavs can say that this was a winnable game despite James' bad numbers and that if they get the same defensive effort combined with just a little more production from him then they will win game two; the Celtics can say that they won despite horrible shooting performances from two of their three All-Stars and that this was Cleveland's best chance to steal a game in Boston. The reality is that for the Cavs to have a good shot to win this series they needed to win game one. Kenny Smith astutely said that in every series there is a game that you have to win--it could happen at any point but when it happens you cannot miss that opportunity. The Cavs just missed that opportunity and I suspect that they will spend all summer thinking about it after this series is over. Yes, Cleveland came back from a 2-0 deficit versus Detroit last year but these Celtics play with much more effort and consistency on a nightly basis than the Pistons do, so instead of the Cavs putting the Celtics in a must win situation the Cavs are now in that unenviable position; I don't know who started the myth about teams merely "holding serve" by winning the first two games but the truth is that when the home team wins the first two games they win the series 94% of the time, so Cleveland's season is very much on the line in 48 hours. It would have been interesting to see Garnett, Pierce and Allen have to deal with that kind of pressure, particularly after a game in which Pierce and Allen shot so poorly. We just saw the Suns almost beat the Spurs in game one and then fall apart after that; I suspect that Cleveland will demonstrate much more resiliency and toughness than the Suns did but that does not change the fact that they now must win four times in six games against the team with the best record in the NBA.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:07 AM

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Best Player is Finally Recognized as the "Most Valuable"

The worst kept secret in the NBA was officially confirmed at about 5:45 p.m. when the NBA held a press conference in order to announce that Kobe Bryant has won the 2007-08 regular season MVP award. Bryant received 82 first place votes and 1100 total points, easily outdistancing second place finisher Chris Paul, who received 28 first place votes and 894 total points. Kevin Garnett (15; 670) and LeBron James (1; 438) rounded out the top four.

For several years, Bryant has been widely acknowledged to be the best player in the NBA, the player who is most feared both taking the last shot and defending an opposing player who is taking the last shot. However, despite holding that unofficial title, Bryant had never even finished second in MVP voting and by winning his first MVP in his 12th season he tied Karl Malone's record for most years played before winning an MVP.

Before Bryant was presented with the trophy, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson spoke briefly, saying, "I don't know anybody who has ever deserved this trophy more. I've never known anybody who has worked as hard to accomplish what he has accomplished in this game as Kobe has."

Although in years past Bryant understandably downplayed his disappointment at not winning the MVP, he was clearly very happy and excited that his hard work and excellence have finally received official recognition; Bryant literally could not wipe the smile off of his face and he later admitted, "I'm nervous and I don't usually get nervous."

After receiving the trophy, Bryant said, "I really don't what to say, to be honest with you. I think that this is really such a blessing and such an honor to be here and receive this award. I can go through a list of thank yous, starting with my family; they enable me to be the best I can be by training every day and they give up so much--sacrifice so much--for me to be able to train and prepare and focus on games. I am just very honored and very blessed for them to be here, see my kids sitting there in the front row and my agent Rob Pelinka and my friends from the league and my teammates and the man who brought me into the league, Jerry West. This is a beautiful day, this is a very special day for me. I am just deeply, deeply honored to be here."

He concluded, "I couldn't have won this award without my teammates...These are my guys, these are my brothers. We won MVP." Later, in response to a question from a reporter, Bryant reiterated this point, calling the MVP a team award, adding "I couldn't have done it without them."

There is a false perception among the general public that Bryant is not a likable person and/or is not well liked around the league. Frankly, I've never understood why that should have any bearing on the MVP voting, but at this press conference the public got a glimpse of a side of Bryant that they have probably never seen before: his teammate Luke Walton took a microphone and jokingly asked Bryant if he planned to get anything for his teammates since this is a "team award." Bryant laughed, quipped about "spoiled athletes" and jokingly asked, "What ever happened to the pat on the back, the 'atta boy?'" before saying that of course he plans to get something for his teammates. A Spanish reporter asked Bryant a question in Spanish and requested that he answer in that language. Bryant seemed to be doing OK for a minute but then threw in some English words and said with a smile, "That's Spanglish. I should have asked Pau (Gasol) for a cheat sheet."

Longtime Lakers assistant coach Tex Winter took a microphone and said that there is something he has always wanted to ask Kobe: "How do you like the Triangle (Offense)?"

Of course, Bryant--like Michael Jordan before him--has sometimes chafed at running the Triangle but he also understands that overall the Triangle Offense has been very good for him. Bryant replied, "I love it, Tex." Bryant then recalled how he met with Winter right after Jackson first became the Lakers coach and he said of Jackson and Winter, "They are responsible for me seeing the game differently than most of my peers do. That is why I call him (Tex Winter) 'Master Yoda.'"

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:46 PM

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Boston Versus Cleveland Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Boston (66-16) vs. #4 Cleveland (45-37)

Season series: 2-2

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James continues to play at an MVP-level, the Cavaliers win the rebounding battle and their defense performs at least as well as the Celtics'.

Boston will win because… over the course of this season they have more consistently been committed to playing playoff caliber defense.

Other things to consider: A lot of interesting questions will be answered by the end of this series. Are Boston's three stars better than Cleveland's one star? Does Cleveland's collective playoff experience from last year's run to the NBA Finals (and Ben Wallace's two trips to the NBA Finals as a member of the Detroit Pistons) give the Cavs an advantage over team whose three top players have never been to the Finals? Was the Atlanta series a wakeup call for the Celtics that helped them regain the necessary focus to make a title run or did it simply reveal fatal weaknesses in the makeup of Boston's team?

Based on what I've already seen from James I'd rather have him than have Boston's three stars, particularly in a playoff series; James can take over a game in a way that none of Boston's stars can. Cleveland's collective playoff experience was more of an edge for the Cavs before they traded away half of their roster; in some ways the Cavs are going through training camp and the playoffs at the same time as they try to familiarize their new guys with the Cleveland way of doing things. I think that the Atlanta series was both a wakeup call and a revelation; winning a seventh game together is a big step for Boston but at some point the Celtics will need to win a road playoff game and they have yet to play well on the road in the playoffs, let alone win a game there.

At the beginning of the season I definitely thought that Cleveland would be able to beat Boston if the two teams met in the playoffs. Then the Celtics turned out to be better than I had expected while the Cavs struggled to deal with holdouts and injuries before literally trading away half of the roster. Before the playoffs began I picked Boston to win the East and I still expect that to happen. However, Cleveland has a puncher's chance to beat Boston and the blueprint for that to happen revolves around winning game one to put immediate pressure on the Celtics to have to win at least one road game in the series. If the Cavs win game one then I think that they have an excellent chance to win the series but I expect the Celtics to prevail in seven games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:42 AM

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Hornets Rout Spurs Again to Take 2-0 Series Lead

On ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown show, Chris Berman is fond of repeating the line, "Once is an accident, twice is a trend, three times is a problem." New Orleans has blown out San Antonio two games in a row, so the Spurs are one loss away from having a serious problem and two losses away from taking an early vacation. New Orleans' 102-84 victory on Monday night was a very impressive display of teamwork at both ends of the court. Chris Paul led the way with 30 points, 12 assists and just one turnover. His three most important skills are quickness, court vision and good decision making; he has a very highly developed sense of when to shoot and when to pass and that is why his field goal percentage is high and his turnovers are low. He is already better now than two-time MVP Steve Nash ever was because Paul has more foot speed and he is not a defensive liability. David West had 10 rebounds and five assists but he shot just 2-11 from the field, finishing with 10 points; Peja Stojakovic (25 points on 8-13 field goal shooting) and Morris Peterson (12 points on 5-5 field goal shooting) teamed with Paul to pick up the slack.

Naturally, the media and fans will tend to focus on the masterful way that Paul choreographed the Hornets' offense but the job that New Orleans is doing on defense is at least as impressive: the Hornets held the Spurs to 31-73 field goal shooting (.425), containing each of the team's three stars without letting any of the role players get loose. Tim Duncan bounced back from his disastrous game one performance to put up solid numbers (18 points, eight rebounds) but he never controlled the action and he actually had the worst plus/minus number (-32) of anyone in the game, which has to be a pretty rare occurrence for him. Manu Ginobili scored 13 points on 4-10 field goal shooting and his seven assists were nearly offset by his game-high five turnovers, several of which were the result of good on the ball pressure by the Hornets. Tony Parker played like a Hall of Famer versus Nash's Suns but he looked very ordinary in this game, scoring 11 points on 5-14 field goal shooting and having as many turnovers as assists (three).

Why are the playoff-neophyte Hornets having more success against the Spurs than the Suns ever did? The first reason is that the Hornets don't have to crossmatch in order to guard Parker; unlike Nash, Paul can stay in front of him and, when necessary, steer him toward his shotblockers (as opposed to letting Parker go wherever he wants to go, which is what the Suns kept doing no matter who had the primary defensive responsibility to check him). The second reason is that the Hornets are much more committed to their defensive scheme than the Suns have ever been; prior to game two, West told a TNT interviewer that the Hornets will never hang a teammate out to dry: if there is a matchup that is troublesome for a given player then another Hornet will slide over to help. You see that repeatedly with the way that they swarm Duncan in the post and then rotate quickly if Duncan swings the ball to an open man. Phoenix has a lot of quick and athletic players but the Suns seem to move to the ball much faster on offense than they do when they are rotating on defense; as West explained after game two, New Orleans has a totally different mindset than that: "We're trying to make sure our defense is where we want to start. We don't worry about what we're doing on the offensive end. We stuck to what we do." The third reason is that Tyson Chandler and West do an excellent job of protecting the paint, shutting off dribble penetration and blocking shots. When a team has a solid defensive point guard, a commitment to play energetically on defense and big guys who guard the paint then it can make life very miserable for opponents.

New Orleans Coach Byron Scott is just the latest example of a Coach of the Year who has been wrongly blasted for years by fans and media members who don't know the first thing about evaluating whether or not a coach is doing a good job; you cannot go strictly by wins and losses because some teams simply don't have enough talent in place to win a lot of games. A well coached team plays hard, plays together at both ends of the court, executes well (which still may not result in wins if the opposing team is much more talented) and demonstrates improvement over time both individually and collectively. Greg Anthony once made a great point about Phil Jackson: his teams never underachieve--when Jackson has had great talent he has won championships (which is not easy to do) but even when his teams were not good enough to win it all they played up to their maximum potential. Scott's New Jersey Nets improved from 26 wins in 2001 to 52 wins and an NBA Finals berth in 2002; granted, trading Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd played a big role in that transformation but there are no "headless horsemen" in the NBA: a team has to be well prepared and well coached to have success, especially in the playoffs. Scott's Hornets improved from 18 wins in 2005 to 38 wins in 2006 and after an injury-riddled 2007 they jumped to 56 wins this season. Unless you are foolish enough to believe that Scott either (1) has suddenly gotten much smarter or (2) had nothing to do with either team's improvement then you have to recognize that he is a very good coach.

Don't interpret this post to be some kind of eulogy for the Spurs. This is not the time for that--yet. Although history shows that teams that win the first two games of a playoff series at home virtually always win the series, the veteran-laden defending champions should not be counted out. The Spurs have led at halftime in both games only to get blitzed in the third quarter on each occasion. They must find a way to avoid the offensive dry spells that have plagued them right after halftime and they must tinker a bit with their defensive game plan: Paul is a pass-first player, so I think that the Spurs should stay at home on guys like Stojakovic and Peterson and force Paul to shoot more often; of course, that plan won't work if Paul gets into the paint and shoots layups, so the Spurs must build a wall around the paint the way that they did against LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in last year's NBA Finals.

If the Spurs "hold serve" in games three and four then there will obviously be a lot of pressure on the Hornets to win game five at home to avoid facing an elimination game on the road.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:19 AM

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Carnival of the NBA #56 Hosted by The On Deck Circle

Carnival of the NBA #56 is being hosted by The On Deck Circle. This Carnival does not have a particular theme but it features several interesting contributions.

Most of what I do here is straight up analysis and commentary but I decided to submit a humorous post this time around (though there is actually some analysis in it if you pay attention): The Next Top 40 Hit: Josh Howard Sings "Because I Got High."

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:00 AM

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Will the Real Cavs and Celtics Please Stand Up?

The Boston Celtics won an NBA-best 66 regular season games and then almost lost in the first round to a 37 win Atlanta team. The Cleveland Cavaliers made it to the 2007 NBA Finals and then traded away half of their roster, with mixed results thus far. Do we really know who either of these teams are? In about two weeks, one of these teams will be playing in the Eastern Conference Finals and the other one will be trying to figure out what went wrong:

Will The Real Cavs and Celtics Please Stand Up?

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:13 PM

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The "25-5-5" Club

A triple double is considered to be a benchmark for measuring a player’s versatility. According to the Full Court section at BasketballReference.com, in the past five seasons there have been 171 regular season triple doubles in the NBA. Most of these triple doubles were compiled by stars but that list also contains the names Charlie Bell, Kenny Thomas, John Salmons, Earl Watson and Bob Sura (twice!); no disrespect intended toward those fine NBA veterans but it is clear that you do not have to be an all-time great to reach double figures in three categories in an NBA game. However, the list of players who have averaged at least 25 ppg, five rpg and five apg for an entire season (with the standard NBA minimum requirement of 70 games or 1400 points scored) is much smaller and more exclusive than the triple double list: in 62 years of NBA history and nine years of ABA history this feat has only been accomplished a total of 66 times by 24 different players, each of whom made the NBA or ABA All-Star team at least four times.

Many members of the “25-5-5 Club” are “midsize” players (i.e., small forward/shooting guard types) who at some point in their careers vied for the subjective title of best all-around player in the game, a lineage that could be said to run from Oscar Robertson and Jerry West in the 1960s to John Havlicek (late 1960s-early 1970s) to Rick Barry (mid 1970s) to Julius Erving (mid 1970s) to Larry Bird (1980s) to Michael Jordan (late 1980s-mid 1990s) to Grant Hill (late 1990s) to Tracy McGrady (early 2000s) to the current contenders for that crown, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson founded the “25-5-5 Club” in 1960-61. Baylor averaged 34.8 ppg, 19.8 rpg and 5.1 apg that season. At that time, league leaders were ranked by totals, not averages, and he finished second in scoring, fourth in rebounding and ninth in assists. Baylor never had another 25-5-5 season, though he narrowly missed the mark in 1962-63 (34.0-14.3-4.8) and 1968-69 (24.8-10.6-5.4).

Robertson ranked third in scoring and first in assists in 1960-61 but did not crack the top ten in rebounding. He holds the all-time record with nine 25-5-5 seasons and he is also the only player to begin his career with eight straight 25-5-5 seasons; of course, in his second year (1961-62) Robertson averaged a triple double (30.8-12.5-11.4), something that no other player has ever done—and Robertson actually averaged a triple double overall for the first five seasons of his career! In six of Robertson’s 25-5-5 seasons he averaged at least 30 ppg and in five of them he averaged at least 10 apg, so it could be said that his 25-5-5 numbers were “larger” than anyone else’s, with the exception of Baylor’s lone effort and Wilt Chamberlain’s two 25-5-5 seasons. Robertson, Rick Barry, John Havlicek, Alex English and Larry Bird are the only players to have at least one 25-5-5 season after the age of 30.

Chamberlain averaged at least 33.5 ppg and 22.3 rpg in each of his first seven seasons but he did not reach the 5.0 apg mark until his fifth campaign (1963-64), when he averaged 36.9 ppg, 22.3 rpg and 5.0 apg. He ranked first in scoring, second in rebounding and fifth in assists that season. Chamberlain’s assists dropped in 1964-65 but in 1965-66 he averaged 33.5 ppg, 24.6 rpg and 5.2 apg, ranking first, first and seventh respectively in those categories. He never had another 25-5-5 season but his production in 1966-67 and 1967-68 is worth mentioning anyway: 24.1-24.2-7.8 (ranking third, first and third respectively) and 24.3-23.8-8.6 (ranking third, first and first, the closest anyone has come to leading the league in all three departments in the same season).

Jerry West had the first of his five 25-5-5 seasons in 1961-62, averaging 30.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 5.4 apg. Only Robertson, Michael Jordan (seven) and Kobe Bryant (six) have had more 25-5-5 seasons than West did and West was on track for a sixth one in 1967-68 but injuries limited him to 51 games.

Rick Barry is the only player to win scoring titles in the NCAA, ABA and NBA and he is also the only player to have a 25-5-5 season in the ABA and the NBA. Barry had a total of three 25-5-5 seasons, including his wonderful 1974-75 season (30.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.2 apg) when he led the Golden State Warriors to a 4-0 sweep of the Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals.

Julius Erving holds the ABA record with three 25-5-5 seasons, 1974-76, and he led the New York Nets to championships in two of those seasons (1974 and 1976). Erving won the scoring title in both of those championship years, finished second in scoring in 1975 and he ranked no lower than eighth in either of the other two categories during those three years. The closest Erving came to having a 25-5-5 season in the NBA happened in 1979-80, when he averaged 26.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 4.6 apg.

Larry Bird had four straight 25-5-5 seasons, winning his second and third MVPs the first two times (1985-86) he reached those numbers and then finishing third and second in the voting the next two times. Bird missed the mark in his first MVP season (1984) because he averaged 24.2 ppg. Bird averaged at least 5 rpg and 5 apg in 10 of his 11 full seasons.

Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and Charlie Scott are the only players to average 25-5-5 in their rookie seasons; Scott did it as a Virginia Squire in the ABA in 1970-71 (27.1-5.2-5.6) and after narrowly missing the mark in his second season he never came close again. Jordan did not reach the 25-5-5 level for a couple seasons--injury shortened his second year and in his third season he averaged 37.1 ppg but only 4.6 apg—before having six straight 25-5-5 campaigns, the longest streak other than Robertson’s. In 1988-89, Jordan joined Robertson and Chamberlain as the only players to average at least 25-8-8; he led the league in scoring (32.5 ppg) while also averaging exactly 8.0 rpg and 8.0 apg. Jordan’s first retirement in 1992-93 marked the end of his 25-5-5 days, though he did reach those numbers in his 17 game cameo appearance in 1994-95.

Just before a series of ankle injuries short-circuited Grant Hill’s career, he had his lone 25-5-5 season, averaging 25.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 5.2 apg in 1999-00, his sixth and final season with Detroit. Hill reached the 5-5 levels in each of his first five seasons, so if he had stayed healthy and continued to develop as a scorer he may have put up several more 25-5-5 seasons. Hill has literally spent half of his career battling injuries and many people may have forgotten just how good he really was in his prime.

Tracy McGrady had four straight 25-5-5 seasons, spanning three years in Orlando and his first season with Houston. The albatross hanging around McGrady’s neck is that his teams have never won a playoff series but that is hardly his fault: his teams have never been good enough to advance and he has put up great numbers in both the regular season and the playoffs. At his best McGrady did many of the same things that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are doing now and McGrady still plays that way during short stretches but, like Hill, his body often betrays him as injuries prevent him from consistently being an elite level player now.

In 2000-01, a 22 year old Kobe Bryant tied Robertson and Scott as the second youngest players to have a 25-5-5 season (McGrady joined that group in 2001-02); Jordan had his first such season at age 21 and in 2004-05 James broke that record by doing so at age 20. As noted above, Bryant has had six 25-5-5 seasons, the third most all-time behind Robertson (nine) and Jordan (seven). James (one), Bryant (one), McGrady (two), Jordan (six), Pete Maravich (one), Erving (two), George McGinnis (one) and Chamberlain (one) are the only players who won a scoring title while also averaging 25-5-5.

Hill’s misfortunes illustrate the hazards of trying to predict the future but James certainly seems to be on track to break many records, including Robertson’s mark for most 25-5-5 seasons; James has done this four times in his first five seasons. Robertson said years ago that James is the one player he thinks could match his feat of averaging a triple double for an entire season. I don’t think that anybody is going to do that but barring injury or a drastic restructuring of the Cavaliers (i.e., the acquisition of a dominant rebounder or a point guard who would cut into James’ rebounding or assists numbers respectively) it certainly looks like James will be putting up 25-5-5 (and then some) for many years to come. No one who is older than 31 has had a 25-5-5 season; Bryant would be 32 by the time he would have a chance to match Robertson’s nine 25-5-5 seasons but if James keeps up his pace until he is 32 then he will have amassed 13 such seasons (and possibly be making a run at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record as well).

A player who can get a triple double is nice to have around but a player who can average 25-5-5 for a season can carry a team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:24 PM

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38 Special: Lakers Ride Kobe Bryant's Scoring Outburst to a 109-98 Win Over Utah

Kobe Bryant's 38 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the Lakers' 109-98 game one win over the Jazz were actually only slightly above his playoff averages in those departments, an indication of just how high of a standard he has set for himself. Bryant shot 8-16 from the field and 21-23 from the free throw line, setting a franchise single game playoff record for free throws made. Pau Gasol chipped in nicely with 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, while Lamar Odom once again posted solid numbers (16 points, nine rebounds, three assists) as the third option. Ex-Jazz point guard Derek Fisher only scored five points but he had six assists and six steals while helping to force his counterpart and former teammate Deron Williams to shoot just 5-18 from the field, though Williams finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. Mehmet Okur had 21 points and 19 rebounds and Carlos Boozer added 15 points and 14 rebounds as the Jazz outrebounded the Lakers 58-41; the Lakers overcame that deficit by holding the Jazz to just 36-95 field goal shooting (.379).

Bryant has become such a master of reading and reacting to various defensive alignments that Odom calls him "Kobe-wan Kenobi." Bryant saw opportunities to attack right from the start, so he scored 15 first quarter points while shooting 4-6 from the field and 6-6 from the free throw line. Despite Bryant's high efficiency scoring, the Lakers only led 25-24 at the end of the first quarter because the rest of the team shot poorly from the field.

Bryant took his normal rest at the start of the second quarter and Sasha Vujacic picked up the slack off of the bench, dropping in nine quick points. When Lakers Coach Phil Jackson helmed the Chicago Bulls he often liked to play Scottie Pippen alongside four reserves while Michael Jordan rested, ensuring that there was a steadying hand to anchor the bench players while they were on the court. Jackson now has the luxury of using Gasol in that role and Gasol assisted on two of Vujacic's field goals. Several of the Lakers' bench players have improved this season but those players also benefit from often being able to play alongside either Bryant or Gasol.

The Lakers led 34-28 when Bryant returned to action. Bryant promptly converted a three point play, scored a fastbreak layup and made a nice lob pass to Gasol for an easy score to put the Lakers up 41-28. By that time, Bryant had scored 20 points on 6-8 shooting from the field while the rest of the team had scored 21 points on 8-26 shooting from the field. The Lakers maintained that margin for the rest of the quarter and led 54-41 at halftime. Bryant had 24 points in the first half, shooting 6-8 from the field and 11-11 from the free throw line. Factor in his two assists and the extra defensive attention that he attracted and Bryant accounted for significantly more than half of the Lakers' offense.

In addition to Bryant's sterling offensive numbers, another thing that helped the Lakers to build and maintain their lead is that they forced a lot of turnovers and converted them into easy baskets; Bryant of course played a major part in that defensive effort, too. The Jazz took much better care of the ball in the second half, which in turn choked off the Lakers' transition game.

Utah is a very physical team that pounds the glass and pounds opposing players and that relentless pressure tends to wear teams down over four quarters, as we saw in the first round when the Jazz beat the Rockets into submission. In the second half, Bryant missed several jumpers that he normally makes but he also continued to take the ball to the hoop, absorb contact and make his free throws. Still, the Jazz chipped away at the lead and eventually they pulled to within 85-80. The Lakers desperately needed a score and Bryant provided it, drawing a foul and making both of his free throws.

The Jazz answered by closing to within 91-87, prompting Jackson to call a timeout to set up a beautiful play: Bryant ran a screen/roll with Gasol and the defenders naturally trapped Bryant, who passed to a cutting Gasol, who drew a defender and then passed to a cutting Odom, who scored and drew a foul (Odom missed the resulting free throw). That was a wonderful sequence to watch and it was made possible because the Jazz had to trap Bryant to get the ball out of his hands; if a less dangerous guard ran that play, the Jazz could respond differently and not compromise their defense in the paint. This is why assist numbers and PER and EFF only tell part of the story; it is essential to watch the action in order to see how the offense attacks and how the defense reacts.

On their next possession, the Lakers ran a similar action but Bryant's pass to the cutting Gasol was just a bit too fast and too high, resulting in a turnover. The next time the Lakers got the ball, Bryant drove to the hoop, attacking Boozer and drawing his sixth foul. Bryant split the pair of free throws to give the Lakers a three possession lead (94-87) with 3:28 remaining. Bryant missed a jumper and a layup the next two times that the Lakers had the ball, but Gasol slipped to the hoop behind Bryant and tipped in the missed layup to put the Lakers up 96-89. After Ronnie Brewer made one free throw the Lakers again ran the Bryant/Gasol screen play, this time ending up with Bryant threading the needle with a bounce pass that Gasol converted into a layup for a 98-90 lead. ABC's Hubie Brown said, "They've been wearing out that pick and roll on the left side in the second half and it was a great pass to a guy who made the catch and delivered for you." Each element of that play is important: you need an offensive threat like Bryant who must be trapped by the defense--and who is an excellent passer--and you need a big guy who is mobile enough to roll to the hoop and who has good enough hands to catch and finish.

Although many members of the media love to beat their established storylines into the ground, it is not accurate to say that Bryant has become more unselfish this season; he started making winning plays--shots and passes--in the playoffs and the NBA Finals years ago. The change is that now Bryant has someone with whom he can actually play the two man game--I realize that this is not the first time that I have made this point but it bears repeating because so many people are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge the simple truth that Bryant did not learn how to play the team game this year; he was the leading playmaker on three championship teams, so passing the ball effectively is not a new skill for him--the Lakers simply went through a period during which he did not have many good targets who were capable of receiving passes and finishing plays.

Bryant provided the coup de grace with less than a minute to go when he corralled a defensive rebound and whipped a Wes Unseld-like outlet pass to Gasol for an easy layup and a 101-90 lead. Keep in mind that Bryant and Gasol have developed their marvelous on court chemistry despite playing less than half a season together.

This was a very solid win for the Lakers but they can hardly afford to get complacent; after the Jazz stopped turning the ball over they essentially played even with the Lakers in the second half (trailing 57-55) and the Jazz murdered the Lakers on the glass throughout the game, grabbing 25 offensive rebounds. Of course, part of the reason that so many offensive rebounds were available is that the Jazz missed a lot of shots but Phil Jackson cannot be pleased that Utah's starting frontcourt of Boozer-Okur-Andrei Kirilenko outrebounded the Lakers' starting frontcourt of Odom-Gasol-Vladimir Radmanovic 39-22. The Jazz outscored the Lakers in the paint 56-52 and when Utah's players made the right reads in their offensive sets they often got easy baskets inside.

As the series progresses it will be very important for the Lakers' long and lean bigs to not get overpowered by Utah's stockier bigs. In my preview article about this series, I wondered how Phil Jackson would choose to deploy Gasol and Odom defensively. In game one, Gasol guarded Boozer while Odom checked Okur; I assume that Jackson wants to use Gasol's length against Boozer in the post while leaving Odom the task of chasing Okur around the perimeter and keeping him off of the boards (Odom did a much better job of the former than he did of the latter).

It will be interesting to see which adjustments Coach Jackson and Utah Coach Jerry Sloan make from game to game and how well their players implement these changes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 AM

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Celtics Pride: Stifling Defense Grounds Hawks, 99-65

In most cases, seventh games are death for the road team and that was certainly true on Sunday when Boston hammered Atlanta 99-65. The 65 points are the second fewest scored in a seventh game in the shot clock era and the Celtics also held the Hawks to .293 shooting from the field, the best defensive field goal percentage performance in a seventh game in the shot clock era and the third best in NBA history. Paul Pierce led five Celtics double figure scorers with 22 points and Kevin Garnett contributed 18 points and 11 rebounds. Ray Allen never found his groove and he was the only Boston starter to not score at least 10 points (seven points, 3-12 field goal shooting). Joe Johnson was Atlanta's high scorer with just 16 points on 5-17 field goal shooting and no other Hawk reached double figures until Salim Stoudamire came off of the bench to score 10 points in 15 minutes of garbage time action.

I agree with Jeff Van Gundy that it is wrong to say that Atlanta had nothing to lose in game seven; the Hawks had an opportunity to advance in the NBA playoffs and no matter how young and talented your team is you are not guaranteed to have that chance again. That said, the legacies of each of Boston's "Big Three" players hung in the balance and the tension and pressure that both teams felt during the early going was palpable. After Johnson opened the scoring with a three pointer and Kendrick Perkins put back an Allen miss, the teams traded an assortment of missed shots and turnovers before a strong Allen drive gave Boston a 4-3 lead. Garnett is not a go-to scorer and he did not even attempt a shot until he canned a jumper at the 5:40 mark but Pierce and Allen were both aggressive right from the start. In one 38 second stretch, Pierce committed a turnover, missed a layup and missed a three pointer but he continued to look for opportunities to score. If the Hawks had truly played as if they felt no pressure they could have definitely taken an early lead and really put the screws to the Celtics but the Hawks looked tentative, nervous and uncertain, shooting jumpers when they had openings to drive and missing layups when they did go to the hoop. Atlanta Coach Mike Woodson called two first quarter timeouts to try to settle his team down but Johnson was the only Atlanta player who even came close to playing his normal game in the first 12 minutes, scoring nine points on 3-6 field goal shooting. Pierce also had nine points as the Celtics led 27-16 at the end of the quarter. Boston held Atlanta to 6-23 field goal shooting and outrebounded the Hawks 17-8. Only a pair of Johnson three pointers late in the quarter kept the game from getting completely out of hand.

Atlanta only scored four points in the first 5:17 of the second quarter and the Celtics steadily increased their lead. Remarkably, Boston led 44-26 at halftime. It is not often that an NBA team scores just 26 points in a half; the playoff record low in the shot clock era is 23 points and it took a Johnson three pointer with 3:49 remaining to avoid tying that mark.

It is worth emphasizing that the Celtics were hardly burning up the scoreboard either; this game is an excellent demonstration of the truth of the saying that defense wins championships. The Celtics looked a little tight on offense--particularly right at the start of the game--but their defense was on point from tip-off to final buzzer and their relentless effort and execution at that end of the court made all of the difference. Allen had an awful shooting game and Pierce missed 13 of his 20 field goal attempts, so if the Celtics relied primarily on their offensive skills to win games then they would have had nothing to fall back on in this do or die situation--but this team wisely hangs its hat on defense, as most championship teams from the past have done. The Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors might want to look at the tape of this game and see how hard Boston played on defense.

The only slight drama in the second half came at the 9:09 mark of the third quarter when Marvin Williams committed a flagrant two foul on Boston's starting point guard Rajon Rondo. Williams said afterwards that he and Rondo are close friends and that he was not trying to hurt Rondo but regardless of his intent the play certainly looked like a total cheap shot and Williams can expect to be suspended for the start of the 2008-09 regular season. The NBA might want to consider taking some preemptive action--such as increasing the fines or making the suspensions longer--to discourage defenders from fouling players who are in mid-air in such a fashion that the fouled player comes crashing to the ground; NBA players are bigger, faster and more powerful than ever and you'd hate to see someone get seriously injured. The Brendan Haywood foul on LeBron James, the Jason Kidd foul on Jannero Pargo and the Williams foul on Rondo were all dangerous plays that could have had disastrous consequences and the same could be said of DeShawn Stevenson's wild swing at James' head, which fortunately was about as accurate as a Stevenson field goal attempt and thus did not connect squarely.

The Williams-Rondo play once again made me think of the Suns and Nuggets; Rondo crashed to the ground and briefly lay motionless under the basket that is right in front of Boston's bench but no Celtics' players left the area of the bench and none of the Celtics who were in the game at the time threw punches, talked trash or even did anything to warrant receiving a technical foul, proving once again that--contrary to what some Suns and Nuggets tried to make people believe last season--it is possible to keep control of your emotions even during a very heated moment in an NBA game. Near the end of the quarter, Garnett delivered an illegal screen to Zaza Pachulia, who had confronted Garnett earlier in the series; this was a hard foul but not a cheap shot and there is no question that Garnett did this quite deliberately--Mark Jackson noted that this is the old school way of getting a message across without injuring someone or getting suspended. The Celtics led 73-39 at that point and Boston Coach Doc Rivers wisely sat Garnett down for the remainder of the game. The Celtics doubled the Hawks' score on a few occasions during the third quarter, pushed the lead to as much as 79-41 and were up 79-43 going in to the fourth quarter as both teams began emptying their benches.

The Celtics' performance is impressive not only because of their total dominance of the Hawks but also in light of the considerable pressure on the team's three stars prior to this game, because they would have borne the brunt of the substantial amount of criticism that the Celtics would have received had Atlanta beaten them. However, the reality is that the Celtics should have never been in this position in the first place, pushed to within 48 minutes of elimination by a 37 win team that would not have even come close to making the playoffs in the Western Conference. Granted, it is hard to sweep anybody but there is no excuse for Boston to lose three games to this team--and the Celtics' easy victory in game seven only reinforces that point: the Hawks are simply no match for a fully focused Boston team, which makes one wonder why the Celtics were not that focused on a nightly basis during this series and why they were unable to sustain their concentration level at all in the three games played in Atlanta, particularly in the fourth quarters of those contests. Boston won the series, so perhaps we should not make too much of these lapses but we should not make too little of them, either: since the NBA expanded the first round series from five games to seven in 2003, no team that was pushed to seven games in the first round made it to the NBA Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 AM

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