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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Bryant Leads Lakers to First Western Conference Finals Berth Since 2004

Kobe Bryant had 34 points, eight rebounds and six assists as the L.A. Lakers beat the Utah Jazz 108-105 to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2004. Bryant scored 12 points in the fourth quarter--all of them in the last 4:54, including six straight free throws in the final 2:12--as the Lakers held off a furious late rally by the Jazz that featured a barrage of five three pointers in the closing 2:33 of the game. Each team placed all five starters plus one reserve into double figures in scoring but the difference for the Lakers, as it has been all season, is that they have Kobe Bryant and their opponents do not. Bryant showed little sign of being hindered by the back spasms that slowed him down during game four and affected him slightly in the fourth quarter of game five. Pau Gasol had a nice game (17 points, 13 rebounds, four blocked shots) and his length and mobility frustrated the Jazz at both ends of the court. Derek Fisher had a very efficient--or should I say "e-Fish-ent"?--performance, scoring 16 points on 4-5 field goal shooting and 7-8 free throw shooting. Even though Deron Williams finished with good numbers (21 points, 14 assists), Fisher made him work for everything he got and helped hound Williams into 9-21 field goal shooting--and an extra couple misses are huge in a close game like this one. Carlos Boozer had a game-high 14 rebounds but he only scored 12 points on 5-16 field goal shooting and the All-Star power forward watched the final 4:34 of the game from the bench after he fouled out.

With this victory, the top seeded Lakers accomplished something that number one seed in the East Boston and number two seed in the West New Orleans both failed to do: close out a tough series with a road victory in game six. Prior to the game, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson told his team, "Play with controlled abandon, all right? So you are playing hard, but you are under control. Let your instincts carry you to what you have to do--you've been trained in how to run this offense. Run the floor and follow your instincts. You know how to do that." The blending of preparation and instinct in basketball is very interesting, as Jackson suggests: a basketball team practices certain skills and actions in order to hone its players' instincts so that in crucial situations they will react properly and make the correct plays. Jackson's message to his team reinforces the idea that the players should feel confident that they can and will make good plays because they are well prepared to do so.

The Lakers took command right from the start, opening the game with a 7-0 run and leading by as many as 16 points in the first quarter. Utah cut the margin slightly to trail 33-20 by the end of the quarter. Bryant had 10 points and one assist in the opening stanza. He sat out the tail end of the first quarter and the first 3:45 of the second quarter but the Lakers still led 40-28 when he returned to action. He immediately faced up Matt Harpring, drove to the hoop, drew a foul and sank two free throws. As Hubie Brown put it, Harpring defends Bryant by "smacking him around," while Ronnie Brewer slides his feet and uses his athletic ability to try to stay in front of him and Andrei Kirilenko slides his feet, tries to stay in front of Bryant and then goes for the shot block. "What they (the Jazz) do," Brown explained, "is run these three different people at Kobe every quarter and force him into adjustments. Now, I would say, he is adjusting pretty good when he is scoring 33 a game and shooting 50 percent (from the field)...He is averaging 15 and a half free throws a game because he can beat anyone off the dribble to the rim and he can finish. More importantly, he will take the physical punishment to get the 15 free throw attempts."

On the next possession, Bryant again blew past Harpring and drew a foul. Brown said, "That is a smart offensive player being played by someone who is trying to intimidate him with physical play...Kobe set him up by calling for the pick and roll: no way was Kobe coming off that screen into the middle. He wanted that isolation on the baseline because after two bounces he's ahead of Harpring."

Bryant's ability to get by Harpring--and just about anyone else--at will opens up easy scoring opportunities for his teammates, which is why I keep saying that players should not be evaluated solely by their statistics but rather by their skill sets. Of course, doing that requires judgment and understanding about basketball that most people don't possess, which is why they rely too heavily on statistical crutches that should be used to buttress a skill-set based evaluation and not as the primary means of ranking players. For instance, Odom is thriving in his role as the third option in the Lakers' attack behind Bryant and Gasol but some people look only at his numbers and erroneously elevate how good he really is. After Bryant scored on the two previous possessions by easily driving around Harpring, the Jazz sent a trap at Bryant when he got past Harpring the next time down the court--and Bryant slickly fed Odom for an easy dunk. Odom's scoring average and field goal percentage are helped by playing with Bryant and Gasol. Sure, it could be said that Bryant and Gasol are also helped by playing with Odom--it is obviously better to play with skilled players than unskilled players--but anyone who watches basketball with understanding realizes that Bryant and Gasol help Odom more than he helps them. Brown said, "You cannot turn your head (defensively) when Bryant or Gasol have the basketball" because they will make great passes to cutters.

Fisher turned a steal into a three point play and then the Lakers got a stop, filled the lanes well and Fisher found Bryant for a double pump, two handed dunk during which he took off from outside the semicircle that designates the restricted area for block/charge calls. "By the way, the back is OK," Brown exclaimed after that play. "It looked like he came off a trampoline."

A bit later, the Lakers ran a great set out of a timeout, with Gasol setting a screen for Bryant at the top of the key and then rolling to the hoop. Bryant accepted the trap and fired a bounce pass that would make Steve Nash or Chris Paul proud and Gasol had an easy dunk that put the Lakers up 52-35. Bryant and Tracy McGrady are the only shooting guards in the NBA who possess the necessary passing skills to lead the NBA in assists. Of course, neither of them will ever do that because their primary skill is the ability to score the ball and they are more valuable to their respective teams doing that but their extraordinary passing skills amplify their ability to score because defenses have to account for that aspect of their games, particularly when Bryant and McGrady are playing alongside people who can catch the ball and finish plays. Bryant made an even better pass a couple possessions later, a pinpoint behind the back feed to Gasol, but Gasol did not go up strongly and C.J. Miles stripped the ball; Gasol had a good series overall but one problem he had against the Jazz was that he often did not protect the ball well enough against Utah's scrappy, physical defenders.

Utah made a small run to cut the lead to 56-43 but Fisher closed the quarter with six straight points: he hit a three pointer and then he sank three free throws after Williams fouled him on a three point attempt just before the halftime buzzer. Utah got no closer than 80-66 in the third quarter and a couple field goals by Bryant in the last 1:40 made the score 86-70 heading into the fourth quarter. The Jazz relentlessly chipped away at the lead in the fourth quarter, with Paul Millsap doing the bulk of the work with his inside power game; he scored 10 points in the first 5:37 of the quarter to help Utah get within 91-82. A minute later, two Harpring free throws made the score 93-86 but the last five minutes of the game belonged to Bryant. His three pointer pushed the lead back to 10. "That's what he does best," Brown said. "It's amazing how he can put a dagger in your heart." Bryant then nailed an amazing, double clutching fade away bank shot while Harpring fouled him; the resulting free throw put the Lakers up 99-86 but the resilient Jazz were not done yet. Williams made a runner and the Lakers had three empty possessions in a row: an Odom shot that was blocked by Millsap and turnovers by Odom and Gasol. Williams' three pointer at the 2:33 mark made the score 99-91. In the final two minutes, the Lakers answered Utah's three pointers with six Bryant free throws, plus two free throws by Odom and one free throw by Fisher. Fisher's missed free throw left the door open for Utah but the Jazz missed their last two three pointers, enabling the Lakers to beat the team that had the best home record in the regular season and move on to face the the winner of Monday's game seven showdown between San Antonio and New Orleans.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:52 PM

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Cavs "Grind it out" to Force Game Seven Versus Celtics

Cleveland's 74-69 game six win over Boston was even more "aesthetically challenged" than the previous five defensive battles in this basketball war of attrition. LeBron James struggled with his shot for most of the game but his 9-23 field goal shooting (.391) actually represents an improvement over his series average and he scored 19 of Cleveland's 32 second half points while shooting 7-14 from the field; add in his three second half assists and James accounted for virtually all of Cleveland's offense in the second half of an elimination game against the team with the best regular season record in the NBA. James finished with game-high totals in points (32), rebounds (12) and assists (six). He shot 13-15 from the free throw line and 1-3 from three point range, a decent percentage and the first time this series that he has attempted fewer than four three pointers in a game. The only blemish on his stat line is that he committed eight turnovers. James played nearly 47 minutes and while he received a brief rest in the first half the home crowd literally pleaded and shouted for Coach Mike Brown to put James back in the game; while he was out the Cavs split a pair of free throws and shot 0-3 from the field and as soon as he returned he snared a defensive rebound and went coast to coast for a score.

Delonte West is the only other Cav who reached double figures in scoring (10 points) and he needed a long buzzer beating three pointer at the end of the first half to do it. The other three Cleveland starters shot 5-25 from the field. Joe Smith made a strong contribution off of the bench, scoring nine points on 3-4 field goal shooting and grabbing five rebounds; he sank a pair of free throws with 14.4 seconds remaining to provide a much needed cushion for the Cavs. Cleveland won despite being without the services of sharpshooting reserve guard Daniel Gibson, who is sidelined with a separated shoulder that he suffered in game five.

Kevin Garnett led the way for the Celtics with 25 points and eight rebounds, shooting 11-21 from the field, but he did not have much help and with the game up for grabs he had just four points and one rebound in the fourth quarter. Paul Pierce was the only other Celtic to score in double figures (16 points) but he shot just 5-15 from the field and committed six turnovers. He was much less aggressive offensively than James, attempting six three pointers and just four free throws. Pierce scored four points on 1-3 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. Ray Allen continued to do his impersonation of the "Invisible Man," scoring just nine points on 3-8 field goal shooting; he was expected to have a huge advantage in his matchup with Wally Szczerbiak but at best this has been a draw overall during the series.

Cleveland outrebounded Boston 45-37 and James went to the free throw line more than the whole Celtics team, who shot 11-13 from the free throw line. Boston Coach Doc Rivers, trying to avoid a fine from the league while still making a point, obliquely criticized the officiating by saying that he thought his players drove to the hoop just as aggressively as Cleveland's but they did not hear any whistles. The reality, though, is that Garnett and Pierce took more than half of Boston's field goal attempts and they spent most of the game firing away from the perimeter.

I thought that game one of this series set a new standard for U-G-L-Y basketball but game six featured fewer points, more missed shots and an even worse turnover/assist ratio (yes, those words are in the correct order--for the second time in this series the teams had more combined turnovers than assists): Cleveland shot 24-73 (.329) from the field, had only 10 assists and committed 14 turnovers, while Boston shot 27-68 (.397) from the field, passed for 19 assists and committed 17 turnovers. In one of the great understatements in basketball history, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown began his postgame standup by saying--with a straight face--"This was definitely a grind it out basketball game. I thought the start was a little rocky for both teams." This was not just "grind it out"--this was "slash it to pieces with a machete"--and it was "a little rocky" like Mt. Everest is a small hill. Both teams set the tone early--and it was brutally off-key: at the 2:59 mark of the first quarter, Cleveland led 11-10 as the teams had combined to shoot 9-29 (.310) from the field with a turnover/assist ratio (12/4) that would make a grade school team ashamed. The first quarter included seven lead changes and it took a late flurry for the teams to stagger to an 18-18 tie after each team's point total spent more than half the quarter in single digits.

The second quarter was just as brutal and with 2:22 remaining in the first half Boston led 33-32. The Cavs give away free tacos to their fans when their team scores 100 points but at that stage 100 combined points did not look like a certainty. Then, out of nowhere, a game-changing sequence took place as the Cavs ran off 10 straight points to take a lead that they never relinquished: James made two free throws, Zydrunas Ilgauskas buried a long jumper on a feed from James, Ilgauskas made a free throw after the Celtics committed a defensive three seconds violation, James made two more free throws and West made his late three pointer after Anderson Varejao stole Pierce's pass. Garnett had been the best player on the court in the first half (13 points on 6-9 field goal shooting, four rebounds) but his team trailed by nine; James had 13 points, six rebounds and three assists but he shot just 2-9 from the field and committed five turnovers. The Cavaliers stayed on top by dominating the glass (10 offensive rebounds and a 26-18 rebounding advantage overall in the first half) and playing aggressively enough to earn 18 free throw attempts (11 by James) compared to just five by the Celtics (Garnett went 1-2, spending most of his time shooting jumpers).

James opened the third quarter by hitting a three pointer, a short jumper and two free throws and it looked like Cleveland might rout the Celtics. Allen ended the run with a nice reverse layup after he rebounded his own missed jumper. After West made a jumper Cleveland's offense went into a deep freeze just as suddenly and mysteriously as it had heated up at the end of the second quarter. Cleveland did not score for 5:21 as Boston whittled a 16 point lead down to three. Naturally, James broke the ice with a driving layup and then the Cavs closed the quarter strongly to lead 59-50 going into the final stanza.

Cleveland briefly pushed the margin into double digits but the Celtics kept rallying back, twice coming as close as five points and eventually making it a one possession game (72-69) with 23.4 seconds left after Allen made two free throws. That is when Smith made his two huge free throws and the game quite fittingly ended with Pierce and James exchanging turnovers followed by Pierce missing a three pointer.

These are two defensive minded teams and while their games are not pretty their styles are obviously effective: Defensive Player of the Year Garnett keyed a defensive revival in Boston that played the major role in the Celtics pulling off the greatest one season turnaround in league history, while Cleveland's three-pronged strategy incorporating defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James has already resulted in an NBA Finals appearance in 2007 and a playoff run in 2008 that at the very least includes extending these Celtics to a seventh game.

James said that he thought the Cavs lost game five in part because he was not aggressive enough at the start of the second half, so he made a conscious effort be very aggressive in the second half of this game. Coach Brown echoed those sentiments: "The biggest thing that we wanted to do coming out of the locker room (before the second half) was stay aggressive. We felt in game five they were the aggressors coming out at halftime and that changed the tone. The crowd got behind them and we did a few things that were passive. This time around we wanted to be the aggressors, starting at the defensive end of the floor."

Before this series began, I picked the Celtics to win in seven games, with my only caveat being that the Cavs could triumph in six games if they captured game one. Analyzing this series and considering game seven history--in which home teams have a phenomenal winning percentage--the only logical choice is to say that Boston will win on Sunday and that is what I believe will happen. However, I've never trusted Garnett as a big game performer and James is decisively better as both a player and a closer than Pierce, who is Boston's best closer; those factors mean that if Cleveland can rebound and defend well enough to keep the game close then everything could come down to James versus Garnett (statistically) and Pierce (head to head) and if that is the scenario in the final five minutes or so I would not bet against James: even at his young age he has a presence and a command of the flow of a game that Garnett and Pierce have never had and probably never will, as evidenced by the fact that in just his second playoff run James carried a team to the NBA Finals, something that neither Garnett nor Pierce has ever done.

I thought that the Celtics looked tight early in their game seven win over Atlanta in the first round but the Hawks were even tighter, so that relieved whatever pressure the Celtics were feeling. I don't expect James to be tight in game seven and if his teammates are loose as well then it will be very interesting to see how Boston reacts in the early going. This Celtics team seems like they are frontrunners who do not always respond well to adversity; that is why they have been dominant at home and lackluster on the road during the playoffs. After Boston's 108-84 game three loss to Cleveland, Garnett and Pierce entered the postgame interview room looking like someone had died--even though they still enjoyed a 2-1 lead in the series. Garnett and Pierce did not even show up in the postgame interview room after their losses in games four and six, something that I cannot recall the stars from other losing teams doing in the playoff games that I have covered; being a leader means standing tall in victory and in defeat--James faced the media after he shot 2-18 from the field in Cleveland's game one loss and he accepted responsibility for how he played while at the same time expressing confidence that he and his teammates would bounce back. You often hear the expression about guys who you would want to have next to you in a foxhole--James, with his combination of confidence, preparation, focus and talent, definitely fits into that category. Someone asked James if he feels "added confidence" going into game seven because Cleveland came close to winning a couple of the earlier games in Boston. "I don't need extra confidence," James answered. "I know, as an individual, that I can prepare myself to help our team get a win. For some of the other guys, I'm not sure--that is a question that you'd have to ask them. I make sure my troops are ready. This is game seven and we can win--we know we can win, we just have to go out there and do it."

I don't know whether or not Cleveland will win on Sunday but when James said prior to game six that a LeBron James-led team "is never desperate" he spoke the truth and that means that the Cavs have a puncher's chance to get a rare game seven road victory.

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Notes From Courtside:

LeBron James has only played in one game seven so far in his career, a 79-61 loss to Detroit in 2006. James had a game-high 27 points on 11-24 field goal shooting in that contest and he tied for game-high honors with eight rebounds but his Cavs had one of the worst offensive performances in playoff history. Fairly or unfairly, this Sunday's game seven will likely be most remembered for what James and Garnett do--or don't do. With that in mind, after game six I asked James what he specifically learned from his game seven experience in 2006 that he can apply in game seven versus Boston. James replied, "I have learned so much--it's not just what happened in game seven against Detroit. I've learned so much going through the regular season, now being in the postseason. You learn a lot of things. I've learned how to close out games, I've learned how to prepare better for playoff games. I've learned so much and it's not just one game that prepared me, it's continuing to go through the postseason and continuing to win and when you lose you learn from that also. So I've learned a lot since that game seven loss against Detroit."

One thing that I have noticed while covering James since his rookie season is that he is a very effective communicator and he structures his answers very well, almost as if he has anticipated certain questions and prepared appropriate responses for them. This answer was a typical example of that--he first states that he has "learned so much," then he cites some examples of what he has learned (how to close out games, how to prepare) and then he concludes by restating his first sentence. Whether this is the result of media training or simply a reflection of how clearly James thinks and expresses himself, this differentiates him not only from many other players but even from prominent figures in other walks of life who seem to be incapable of clearly and succinctly answering a straightforward question. Sometimes James will lapse into cliches, but usually his replies are thoughtful; I have noticed that he always wants to have a boxscore in hand before he faces the media after a game and when he answers questions he often cites statistics to support what he is saying, much like coaches do. I have very much enjoyed having firsthand access to watch James evolve from hot rookie prospect to legitimate MVP candidate.

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Boston's 69 points are the fewest ever scored by a Cleveland opponent in a playoff game, breaking the mark shared by Detroit (May 15, 2006) and New Jersey (May 18, 2007). This is also Boston's second lowest scoring playoff performance in the shot clock era.

Some Cleveland fans may be frustrated by what they perceive to be inadequacies in Coach Mike Brown's offensive game plan but during this year's playoffs the Cavs are holding their opponents to 87.0 ppg and .422 field goal shooting. Brown's defensive-first philosophy--borrowed from his time with a Spurs' franchise that has won four championships using that approach--may not be pretty but Brown's playoff resume is excellent, particularly for such a young coach: he has a 26-19 record and the Cavs have won five of seven series; the two series losses came to a 2006 Detroit team that went 64-18 (best record in the NBA) after making it to the NBA Finals the previous two years (winning the 2004 championship) and a 2007 San Antonio team that won its fourth title in nine seasons. Even if the Cavs lose to Boston on Sunday Brown's record is still very impressive and if Cleveland bucks the odds and wins on the road in game seven then the Cavs will have knocked off the Eastern Conference's top seed two years in a row after trailing 2-0 to start the series. Anyone who thinks that the Cavs would be better off with a different coach--other than maybe Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich, who don't figure to be available on the open market--needs to slowly and carefully reread this paragraph until he completely understands exactly what Brown's Cavs have accomplished in a short period of time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:14 AM

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Seventh Heaven: Spurs Squash Hornets to Force Winner Take All Showdown

The bizarre theme of extreme mutual home court dominance continued in game six of the San Antonio-New Orleans series as the Spurs beat the Hornets 99-80 to force a game seven in New Orleans on Monday. A 3-3 series suggests that the teams are evenly matched and yet none of the games have been close; the home team has won every game this series by at least 11 points and five of the six games have been decided by 18 points or more. Tim Duncan scored 20 points and led the Spurs in rebounds (15), assists (six) and blocked shots (two). Manu Ginobili scored a game-high 25 points on 9-15 field goal shooting, Tony Parker added 15 points and four assists and Ime Udoka provided 13 points off of the bench, nailing all five of his field goal attempts. Chris Paul led New Orleans with 21 points and eight assists and he had six rebounds, as did every other New Orleans starter, which may be even more strange than the way that these teams have traded blowouts. Game five hero David West had just 10 points on 4-14 field goal shooting before a hard pick by Robert Horry reaggravated his back injury and forced him to leave the game.

The Spurs executed their offense almost flawlessly in the first quarter, outscoring the Hornets 36-24, shooting 15-21 from the field and committing just one turnover. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker combined to score 22 points on 10-14 field goal shooting. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, who is a real master at finding and exploiting matchup advantages, inserted Fabricio Oberto into the starting lineup in place of Kurt Thomas. Popovich later explained that he wanted to have a group on the court that has played together for a while and would be better able to react to certain situations (Thomas joined the team in midseason and was put in the starting lineup during the Phoenix series to help match up with Shaquille O'Neal). Duncan and Oberto worked some beautiful high/low plays, with Oberto receiving the ball at the top of the key and then hitting Duncan with crisp bounce passes that Duncan converted into layups; Oberto had four assists, all in the first quarter and all involving Duncan. Peja Stojakovic burned Bruce Bowen with nine first quarter points but he finished the game with just 13.

The Hornets played much better defense in the second quarter and cut the lead to 58-51 by halftime. A lot of attention is rightfully paid to the offensive skills of Paul and West but New Orleans is an excellent defensive team (the first quarter of this game notwithstanding). ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said that New Orleans' defense starts with Paul and center Tyson Chandler, noting that "Paul has got great lateral quickness and great instincts," while Chandler is a very good post defender, "the one guy who gave Yao Ming trouble one on one"--and Van Gundy should know, since he coached Houston last year. I've seen some nonsense statistics recently that purportedly show that Paul is not a good defensive player but the problem with these numbers is that they are very noisy and they involve comparing New Orleans' defense with Paul on the court to New Orleans' defense when he is not in the game--but if you don't account for what all of the other players are doing in their matchups then this method tells you nothing about Paul's ability as an individual defender. The All-Defensive Teams are voted on by the league's head coaches and this year they placed Paul on the Second Team as the seventh highest vote getter overall and the top ranked point guard by far. That is because the coaches actually watch games, watch video and prepare game plans for each team, so they know which players can be attacked defensively (hello, Steve Nash) and which players are good defenders. Anyone who thinks that Paul is not a good defensive player has no idea what he is talking about. Numbers can be massaged to tell you whatever you want to hear but let's look at Paul's defense the way that a coach or scout would:

1) Paul has excellent speed, quickness and lateral mobility.
2) Paul has tremendous hands, enabling him to get a lot of deflections and lead the league in steals.
3) Paul is feisty and stronger than he looks, so even though he is short he is not easy to post up.
4) The Hornets do not hide Paul defensively by having him guard lesser players (a la Steve Nash), nor do they have to provide him extra help (other than on screen/roll plays, of course).
5) Paul understands his team's defensive concepts and what he is supposed to be doing in various situations.

In order for a team to be good defensively it is imperative to have a good defensive point guard; look at the difference for the Lakers this year now that they have savvy veteran Derek Fisher starting at point guard instead of the immature and uncoachable Smush Parker, a player who has some of the requisite physical skills to be a good defender but not the right mental approach.

Defense is usually something that is fairly constant at home or on the road, so it is strange that two defensive-minded teams like San Antonio and New Orleans are both playing so much differently away from home. New Orleans started the third quarter by throwing away the inbounds pass to Parker, who scored a layup. Although West and Paul each scored baskets to cut the San Antonio lead to 60-55 things rapidly went downhill for the Hornets. In a 1:23 span, Paul was whistled for two fouls and West was called for three fouls plus a technical foul after he barked at one of the referees. Conspiracy theorists will certainly focus on this sequence but that makes about as much sense as the wacky numbers that say that Paul is not a good defender, because if you actually watched the game--and are not a Hornets homer--you realize that not only were each of those foul calls correct but they were blatantly obvious: Paul twice used his off arm as a club while he was dribbling the basketball; West tried to run over Ginobili as Ginobili set a screen, he hacked Duncan across the arm while Duncan was in his shooting motion and then he committed an offensive foul by extending his off arm while driving to the hoop. If there was a conspiracy then it was a conspiracy of stupidity by the Hornets to repeatedly commit obvious fouls in a game that they only trailed by five points.

Even though Paul and West each had four fouls, New Orleans Coach Byron Scott left both of them in the game, a decision that Van Gundy applauded; Van Gundy has always advocated avoiding the quick hook in such situations, particularly when there is a danger that the team could fall too far behind while trying to protect its players from fouling out. Scott's gamble paid off as both players finished out the quarter without picking up another foul. New Orleans stayed close for most of the quarter but the Spurs blitzed them with a 7-0 run in the last 2:26 to take a 78-63 lead into the fourth quarter. The Spurs made a couple adjustments that paid off: on defense they shifted Bowen off of Stojakovic and back on to Paul; the thinking in previous games had been to concede that Paul will score a certain amount of points but to shut down Stojakovic and the Hornets' other primary scorers. The problem is that if you give any great player a steady diet of the same defense he will adapt, so the Spurs switched things up in the second half and they also started trapping Paul on screen/roll plays but they did so aggressively and not with the weak traps like the Dallas ones that Paul torched in the first round of the playoffs. Van Gundy pointed out a subtle offensive adjustment that may have even just happened on the fly: on a Duncan post up, Udoka moved down toward the baseline so that the rotating defender would have to travel a greater distance to contest his shot. Duncan passed out of a double team to Udoka, whose three pointer kicked off the 7-0 closing run.

The Spurs blew the game open in the fourth quarter with three quick three pointers, two by Ginobili and one by Udoka. After that explosion, the outcome of the game was never again in serious doubt. Van Gundy made the important observation that the three point shooting barrage by the Spurs in this game stemmed directly from Duncan getting good post position and drawing double teams; without his work on the block, none of those shots would have been open. Van Gundy suggested that in game seven the Hornets should have Chandler cover Duncan one on one and stop using the double teams that open up Ginobili and the other three point shooters.

Van Gundy's comment about how Duncan's post ups set the table for his three point shooters is of course similar to the point that I make about the Lakers and how their three point shooting is heavily dependent on Kobe Bryant, whose dribble penetration has the same effect on opposing defenses as Duncan's post ups. Bryant and Duncan are MVP-level players because of how they distort opposing defenses (and because of their own prowess defensively: each of them made the All-Defensive First Team again this season). Other players may have "better" numbers according to various statistical systems but there is a big difference between a player who hits open shots that were created by others and a player whose skills create those open shots. Even though Van Gundy said during this game that he has a "man crush" on Ginobili, during a more sober-minded moment earlier this season he correctly said that Ginobili could not have led the Houston Rockets on the kind of winning streak that Tracy McGrady did and Van Gundy also noted that Ginobili's "career year" this season would be considered a "down year" for McGrady. That is not to say that Ginobili is not an excellent player but the foundation for the Spurs' success at both ends of the court is Tim Duncan, while the other players--including All-Star level performers like Ginobili and Parker--feed off the openings that he creates on offense and are aided defensively by the way that he protects the paint.

West's reinjury happened between the second and third San Antonio three pointers of the fourth quarter when the Spurs were already up 84-63. West was retreating from the wing to guard the paint on defense when he ran into an Horry back pick; Horry's forearms nailed West right in the lower back and West, who has battled a back injury since game five, crumpled to the court immediately and had to be helped to the locker room. Horry was whistled for an offensive foul. I don't know that this was a dirty play but when it is a 21 point game and you nail a guy who has a back injury right in his back it is not exactly a clean--or, more to the point, necessary--play, either. That said, the old mantra for boxers is "protect yourself at all times," so West should have had his head on a swivel for such picks, especially considering his condition. The fact that West jumped into the air right before the contact also changed where Horry's forearms landed, so it is possible that Horry was not intentionally aiming for West's lower back (normally, one would set a back pick by putting one's forearms at chest level, which would lead to contact in the middle of the back when both players are roughly the same height, and this was the posture that Horry was in right before West elevated and the contact happened).

West's health status for game seven could turn out to be the biggest story in this series but since the game will not be played until Monday night one would assume that several days of around the clock medical care will enable him to perform effectively. Assuming that is the case, what outcome should we expect? The Spurs have played reasonably well for stretches in New Orleans but then they inexplicably fell apart in the third quarters of those games. I don't think that there will be such a third quarter collapse in game seven, so look for a game that is close the whole way. Duncan will be productive, either statistically or by drawing multiple defenders and thus opening up shots for his teammates. Paul will also be productive. As I said before the series, Ginobili may be the X factor; if he plays actively, creates havoc at both ends of the court and shoots a decent percentage then the Spurs will probably win. The key defensively for the Spurs is not to allow Paul to have 30-plus points and 12-plus assists; they can live with one or the other but not both. Game sevens are usually death for the road team but the Spurs are the defending champions so they have to be given a puncher's chance even though objectively the Hornets should be considered favorites at this point. I picked San Antonio at the start of the series and I still think that they will find a way to beat a New Orleans team that is definitely playing better in the playoffs than I expected. Maybe this will turn out to be another blowout for the home team like the other games in this series and like many of the game sevens in recent seasons but I think that this will be a one or two possession game going into the final couple minutes. A Ginobili three pointer made or missed could be the difference.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

David Thorpe Explains Why He Thinks J.J. Redick Can Be a Starting Shooting Guard for a Playoff Team

J.J. Redick wants the Orlando Magic to either significantly expand his playing time or else trade him to a team that will do so. Magic General Manager Otis Smith counters, "We do think he’s a pretty good player, but he’s a backup 2 (shooting guard)." Last year, David Thorpe wrote (ESPN Insider subscription required), "I've always believed Redick could become a starter for a playoff team, and he appears to be moving along that path now." I have done several posts disagreeing with Thorpe's contention that Redick is capable of being a starting shooting guard for a playoff team. Thorpe recently emailed me and during our exchange of messages I asked him point blank which starting shooting guards in the league he believes that Redick can effectively defend. Obviously, defense--particularly at the NBA level--is a team thing and not strictly a one on one deal but, as we have seen with Steve Nash in the NBA playoffs, when a starting player simply cannot guard his counterpart at all it places a great strain on his team's overall defense. Thorpe gave me permission to quote his reply verbatim in a post:

I find it absurd that you think JJ can not guard any starting two guard in the NBA. A good defender’s foundation is typically built on toughness, disposition, and intelligence. I have no doubt about his toughness and intelligence, and his disposition to defend should not be a problem if his coach tells him that he won’t be playing without trying to defend. But more importantly, most shooting guards need help in defending their opponent, when their opponent is a strong scoring threat. JJ would be no different. I do not think he would require much help (except on screens, of course) when he’s matched up with Rashad McCants, Ben Gordon, Maurice Evans, Larry Hughes, Willie Green, Michael Redd, Ray Allen, Ronnie Brewer, Richard Hamilton, Mike Dunleavy, Anthony Parker. Sure, some guys would post him up, and others can get shots over him. But they wouldn’t necessarily score efficiently in doing so. None of those guys would be a threat to just blow by him off the dribble all game. And none of those guys would love to chase him around screens all night, nor would they be able to just run and help on defense, leaving JJ open behind 3. A few years ago, when JJ was a senior in college, an All-Star two guard told me “I hope coach let’s us defend Redick with our point guard because that dude just runs too much for me. I have to save my strength to carry our team on offense”. Redick is a smart player, and would figure out how to be more effective as a defender.

The balance of offensive contributions to defensive liabilities is one that always must be measured. In Redick’s case, I think the balance scale would tip to the offensive side-meaning he would be more productive on offense than he would get “lit up” on defense. In many games. There are many, many players who play a lot, or start, in the NBA and are poor defenders. To single out JJ is a mistake.

Thorpe is correct when he says, "The balance of offensive contributions to defensive liabilities is one that always must be measured"--but I still disagree with his belief that Redick is a good enough offensive player to compensate for his defensive liabilities. From what I've seen of Redick, he will have trouble consistently getting open without having multiple screens set for him; that works fine in college with the longer shot clock and against the inferior defensive players/defensive game plans at that level but I doubt that any NBA team is going to build a significant portion of its offense around running Redick off of multiple screens the way that Duke did for him. Redick is not a Reggie Miller or Richard Hamilton; those guys are 6-7, long armed players who can get their shots off a lot more easily than Redick--who is generously listed at 6-4--can. As for his ability to defend starting shooting guards, Redick has less quickness/lateral mobility than every one of the players who Thorpe listed with the possible exception of Dunleavy, who is at least a half foot taller and can simply shoot faceup jumpers right over Redick. While it is true that "toughness, disposition, and intelligence" are important attributes for a good defender to have, a lack of lateral mobility is a serious problem, particularly for a perimeter player.

Obviously, if Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy thought that Redick could make a significant offensive contribution while also guarding Hamilton then he would have played Redick in the Magic's playoff series versus Detroit, during which Hamiliton was the leading scorer. Still, there are certainly cases in which a player has not received much playing time with his first team only to emerge as a valuable contributor with another team. I don't believe that this will happen with Redick for the reasons that I listed above and in my previous posts about him but it will be interesting to see what happens if Redick is indeed traded by the Magic.

I thank David Thorpe for taking the time to write a response to my previous posts and for granting permission to quote his response here; it is always interesting to hear from NBA talent evaluators, even though I disagree with him in this particular instance.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:18 PM

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Magic Johnson Receives Third Annual USA TODAY Hollywood Hero Award









Magic Johnson with L.A. Mayor
Antonio Villaraigosa


Magic Johnson recently received the the third annual USA TODAY Hollywood Hero Award in recognition of the work done by his Magic Johnson Foundation and his efforts to help underserved communities. Johnson firmly believes in opening businesses in urban areas and, as he put it in a May 2 Op-Ed piece in USA TODAY, redeveloping "underserved communities when few saw the value...Unfortunately, I can't say the same for much of corporate America when it comes to taking chances with underserved communities. Some see failure in the images of blighted cities with pothole-filled streets and scattered shops. But what if more businesses saw what I see--opportunity? Investment in these areas can create jobs, build the community and--yes--help a company's bottom line."

The Magic Johnson Foundation was established in 1991 shortly after Johnson found out that he was HIV positive. At first, the Foundation raised funds to help with HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs but it since has expanded its mission to "focus on developing programs and supporting community-based organizations that address broader educational, health and social needs of ethnically diverse, urban communities." You can find out more about the Magic Johnson Foundation by clicking here.

If you are over 30 years old then you surely remember that fateful day--November 7, 1991--when Johnson said that he had "attained" the HIV virus, an announcement that at the time seemed to foreshadow a rapid decline leading to his death. Instead, Johnson has not only survived but he has thrived and become the face of HIV/AIDS awareness. Magic Johnson is a very inspirational success story not only because he won five championships and established himself as one of the greatest basketball players of all-time but because he has parlayed that success into creating a business and philanthropic empire that literally impacts the lives of thousands of people.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 PM

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Efficient Bryant, Versatile Gasol and Aggressive Odom Lead Lakers to 111-104 Victory Over Utah

Kobe Bryant attempted just 10 field goals but scored a team-high 26 points as his Lakers beat the Utah Jazz to move within one win of the franchise's first appearance in the Western Conference Finals since 2004. Bryant shot 6-10 from the field and 13-17 from the free throw line while also dishing off for seven assists and tying for second on the team with six rebounds. While he did not seem to be quite as explosive as he normal is, Bryant did not show any serious adverse effects from the back spasms that hindered him down the stretch in game four. Lamar Odom added 22 points and a team-high 11 rebounds, frequently slashing to the hoop for soaring dunks. He certainly understands how much he and the other Lakers benefit from Bryant's presence: "Kobe is so good offensively that you have to expect to catch the ball in places where you can really be aggressive. The whole team leans toward him. When he's passing and looking for all of us, he makes us really hard to guard." Pau Gasol had 21 points, eight assists and six rebounds--all of them on the offensive glass, with the biggest one being a put back at the :20 mark in the fourth quarter to give the Lakers a 107-102 lead. All five Lakers starters scored in double figures and three of them attempted more field goals than Bryant, who did an excellent job of spreading the wealth. Deron Williams led Utah with 27 points and 10 assists. Carlos Boozer had 18 points and 12 rebounds but he shot just 6-16 from the field and in this game Gasol's length and mobility on defense trumped Boozer's strength and footwork in the post.

Bryant opened the game by making a jumper and a three pointer, sending a message to both teams that he would be a major factor throughout the game regardless of how his back felt: "I just had to pick my spots. I knew I wasn't 100 percent healthy, so I wanted to get us off to a good start, give us an emotional boost. Then in the third quarter, there were moments where I had to pick it up, and I was able to do that. And in the fourth quarter, Lamar and Pau took it from there." Bryant scored nine points in the first quarter as the Lakers took a 29-26 lead.

Gasol took over in the second quarter, scoring 15 points as the Lakers pushed their advantage to 61-54 by halftime. The Jazz responded with a strong third quarter to tie the score at 81 going into the fourth quarter. Bryant scored 10 of the Lakers' 20 third quarter points.

Bryant did not attempt a shot in the fourth quarter but his dribble penetration repeatedly broke down Utah's defense and directly or indirectly created open shots for his teammates. The Lakers maintained a small lead for most of the quarter but could not pull away. They were ahead 101-96 after Derek Fisher made a pair of free throws at the 2:43 mark but then reserve guard Sasha Vujacic foolishly got a technical foul (side note: the vaunted Lakers bench shot 3-17 from the field, "led" by Vujacic's 1-11--and this is with Bryant drawing multiple defenders and setting him up for wide open jumpers). The resulting Kyle Korver free throw followed by a Williams three pointer quickly made the score 101-100. The Lakers desperately needed a score and Bryant delivered on cue, drawing the defense and dishing to a cutting Odom for an emphatic dunk. Williams missed a three pointer but Mehmet Okur grabbed the rebound and scored. Then Gasol scored on a nice post move, Okur missed a three pointer and Gasol got his game-clinching tip in after Vujacic missed a three pointer--another open shot created by Bryant, though he obviously did not get an assist because Vujacic did not convert.

Home teams are now 19-1 in the second round of the playoffs but unless Bryant reaggravates his injury the Lakers should be able to finish this series on Friday in Utah; he refused to make excuses after game four but anyone who watched the game realizes that had Bryant not been injured he most likely would not have had his shot blocked twice down the stretch and the Lakers would have gotten the one road win they need to prevent this series from going the distance.

Bryant is taken for granted not only for his excellence--he is the only player in the league about whom it can truly be said that he has no weaknesses--but also for his toughness, as the L.A. Times' Mark Heisler explained in a piece that ran before game five:

Only one thing kept Bryant's performance in Game 4 from rising to the mythic level of Willis Reed limping out for Game 7 in 1970 and the flu-ridden Michael Jordan beating the Jazz in 1997

The Lakers didn't win.

Otherwise, it would have been one for the ages: Bryant looking like Charlton Heston in "El Cid" whose body was tied to his horse and sent back into battle, leading them back from a 12-point deficit in the last 3:59 of regulation.

If Lamar Odom had made his three-pointer to put them ahead with :13 left and they'd gone on to win, people would have talked about this game as long as there was an NBA.

Instead, the Lakers lost in overtime . . . and Bryant was critiqued for all the shots he took in overtime?

We're not getting a little hard-boiled, are we?

An ordinary player wouldn't have even seen the fourth quarter, much less found a way to lead the rally that forced the overtime.

Gee, haven't we been at this point before . . . annually? Or to put it another way, welcome to Bryant's career.

If you've ever had back spasms--and research suggests that the vast majority of people will get them at some point in their lives--try to imagine playing effectively at the elite level of professional sports while dealing with that kind of pain and stiffness. Heisler is right that Bryant's game four performance was special--and Bryant's game five effort just three days later was also special.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:39 AM

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Celtics Withstand Big First Half by LeBron James, Take 3-2 Series Lead

The Boston Celtics survived a 35 point performance by LeBron James to post a 96-89 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers and move within one win of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. Kevin Garnett had his best all-around game of the series (26 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots, two steals, zero turnovers and 12-19 shooting from the field), while Paul Pierce scored 29 points (his single game high in this year's playoffs) and Rajon Rondo had a Chris Paul-like line of 20 points, 13 assists, 9-15 field goal shooting and just one turnover. Perhaps Rondo and not Ray Allen should be considered the third member of the "Big Three"; Allen had a quiet 11 points on 4-11 field goal shooting--just a few months ago he almost won the All-Star Game MVP but against Cleveland he is averaging just 10.4 ppg on .340 field goal shooting, including a wretched .211 from three point range. Speaking of shooting woes, James' shooting percentage for the series has finally broken the .300 mark (.311) after his 12-25 effort in game five. James scored 23 points on 8-14 shooting in the first half but if you do the quick math you realize that means he only had 12 points on 4-11 shooting in the second half. The Cavs won two games in Cleveland with James shooting poorly but having excellent all around numbers but in game five he had series-low totals in assists (five) and rebounds (three). Delonte West (21 points) and Wally Szczerbiak (10 points) were the only other Cavs who scored in double figures. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who has shot better than .500 from the field in this postseason, inexplicably had just five field goal attempts and consequently finished with just six points.

After five games of trench warfare, these two teams are so locked in defensively that the soundtrack to this series could be crickets chirping as players futilely try to free themselves for open shots. Boston missed its first two shots of the game, got offensive rebounds on both occasions but then committed a 24 second shot clock violation. The Cavaliers trudged downcourt and promptly committed a shot clock violation as well. It looked like one of those late night games at the playground when it gets too dark, no one can see the hoop and someone says, "Next basket wins"--or, in this case, "First basket wins." The scoring drought was broken by, of all things, a jumper by James, whose successful attempts from outside of the paint prior to game five were few and far between. TNT's Mike Fratello termed this an "Uh, oh shot" for the Celtics, as in "Uh, oh, if James starts making those we are in big trouble." In fact, the Cavs built an 18-9 first quarter lead with James scoring most of the points but the Celtics closed the gap to 23-18 by the end of the quarter.

James scored eight straight points as the Cavs pushed their lead to 43-29 and it looked like he might be putting together a performance to rival his epic game five torching of Detroit in last year's Eastern Conference Finals--but then the Cavs' offense sputtered to a halt and the Celtics ran off 10 points in a row to get right back into the game. That was probably the decisive stretch in the game--and perhaps in the series--because if Cleveland had built a 15 or 20 point lead going into halftime I think that the Celtics would have been in big trouble, because they have one or two guys who try to do everything by themselves when things go badly and one or two guys who disappear offensively in such situations. Instead, the Celtics trimmed the margin to 46-43 by halftime.

Cleveland began the second half by committing turnovers on three straight possessions and the Celtics moved ahead, 47-43. The Cavs briefly regained the lead a couple times before a 22-8 run put Boston on top 71-59 with 1:03 remaining in the third quarter. James then made a jumper--his first and only two points of the quarter--and assisted on a Joe Smith jumper to bring the Cavs to within 72-63 going into the fourth quarter. The Celtics led the rest of the way, though they committed two turnovers in the last two minutes that kept things interesting. Pierce shot 5-6 from the free throw line in the final :15 to seal the deal.

Cleveland's three keys to victory, as I have said many times, are defense, rebounding and James' brilliance. Boston shot 37-77 from the field (.481) while Cleveland shot 29-65 (.446), so the Celtics clearly won that category; Boston also outrebounded Cleveland 38-30. As for James, he had a big scoring first half before struggling again with his shot in the second half and his floor game did not measure up to his usually high standards. Cleveland's shot distribution was poor--West was the only player other than James to attempt at least 10 shots--and James settled too often for long jumpers and three pointers (he was 0-5 from long distance).

If the Cavs gained any momentum from their rousing game four victory then it only lasted for the first half of game five, so there is likewise no reason to believe that there will be much of a carryover effect from this game going into game six; expect that contest to be another hard fought defensive struggle, expect James to miss perimeter shots but play a good floor game, expect most of the Celtics to disappear on offense in the fourth quarter except for Pierce--who will force matters--and expect Cleveland to prevail to force a seventh game back in Boston on Sunday, which the Celtics will almost certainly win.

Other than James' record setting--and not in a good way--field goal percentage, this series has followed the script that I predicted it would when I said that Cleveland's best shot to win in Boston would come in game one and that if the Cavs lost that game then the Celtics would eliminate them in seven. Nevertheless, it still would be interesting to see the Celtics pushed to the brink for the second series in a row and there is always the chance that James could do something remarkable in that circumstance. It certainly would be anticlimactic for the Celtics to close out the series in Cleveland on Friday, because any true basketball fan outside of Boston surely would like to see James battle the "Big Three" in a seventh game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:16 AM

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The Joy of Six: Detroit Advances to the Eastern Conference Finals Again

The Detroit Pistons beat the Orlando Magic 91-86 on Tuesday to win that series four games to one and thus advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the sixth straight season. The Showtime Lakers from the 1980s are the most recent team to make it to the Conference Finals at least six years in a row (they did it from 1982-89), so this is quite an accomplishment for the Pistons. On the other hand, the Lakers did a much better job of taking advantage of those opportunities than the Pistons have: the Lakers made it to the Finals seven times and won four championships during their run while the Pistons have only made two Finals appearances and won just one title during their streak. Basically, the Pistons of the 2000s are like the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s: perennial playoff contenders who won one championship. That is nothing to sneeze at but--at least in the Pistons' case--it seems like a talented team that has good roster stability among its core players should probably have won more than a single title and I'm sure that the Pistons' management, coaches and players feel the same way.

Orlando was competitive with Detroit in every game except the first one and could very possibly have won game two on the road if not for a bizarre clock malfunction at the end of the third quarter that ended up costing the Magic three points in a contest that was a one possession game for most of the fourth quarter. That said, this could possibly have been a Detroit sweep if Pistons' All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups had not strained his right hamstring early in game three, Orlando's only victory. The Pistons won the final two games of the series despite being without the services of Billups, who will now get a few days to rest before Detroit plays the winner of the Boston-Cleveland series.

The two key factors in this series turned out to be Detroit's frontcourt depth and Orlando's poor offensive execution, particularly down the stretch in close games. Detroit used four bigs--Rasheed Wallace (34.0 mpg), Antonio McDyess (27.2 mpg), Jason Maxiell (21.0 mpg) and Theo Ratliff (11.8 mpg)--to match up with Dwight Howard, who is the only legitimate big on the Orlando roster and thus had to play a series-high 42.6 mpg. Despite playing five mpg more than he did in the regular season, Howard's numbers were down across the board as he averaged fewer points and rebounds than he did in the regular season and shot much worse from the field and the free throw line: he averaged 20.7 ppg and a league-best 14.2 rpg while shooting .599 from the field and .590 from the free throw line in the regular season but those numbers dipped to 15.2 ppg, 13.4 rpg, .509 field goal percentage and .513 free throw percentage versus Detroit. Orlando must acquire another power player who can give Howard some support in the paint offensively and defensively.

Orlando averaged 15.2 turnovers per game versus Detroit while only forcing 8.0 turnovers per game; in tennis it is called an unforced error if you just hit the ball into the net and the Magic had a lot of turnovers that could rightly be called "unforced errors." Other than the game one blowout, their losses were by seven, one and five, which means that those turnovers and the squandered possessions that they represent were fatal for Orlando. In general I don't rely much on the assist/turnover ratio statistic because not every good pass is logged as an assist and not every turnover stems from making a bad pass but Orlando had 76 assists and 76 turnovers in this series and it is hard to beat a good team with those kinds of numbers (Detroit had 90 assists and 40 turnovers). Jameer Nelson had an acceptable ratio of 23 assists and eight turnovers but 23 assists in five games is a low number for a starting point guard. Orlando's primary playmaker is Hedo Turkoglu and his assist/turnover ratio of 28/21 was very poor. Orlando's other starting forward, Rashard Lewis, had 12 assists and 17 turnovers, which obviously is a terrible ratio. Howard had one assist and 14 turnovers, while starting shooting guard Maurice Evans had four assists and six turnovers, so none of Orlando's starters distinguished themselves in this area. Orlando really needs to get a reliable ballhandler/playmaker who can dribble penetrate and create scoring opportunities for Howard in the paint and for Turkoglu, Lewis and Nelson on the perimeter. Perhaps Nelson will grow into this role but he really seems to be more of a scorer by nature.

The Pistons only shot .424 from the field versus the Magic and were outrebounded slightly but they shot a much higher percentage from the free throw line than the Magic did and they took advantage of the extra possessions that they had because of the favorable turnover differential. Young Rodney Stuckey filled in capably for Billups, while Richard Hamilton had a very strong series (23.6 ppg). The nagging question about the Pistons is the same one that has existed ever since the departure of Coach Larry Brown and defensive stalwart Ben Wallace: will Detroit be focused night in and night out? They dropped two games in the first round to a sub-.500 Philadelphia team and they could have easily lost some more games versus Orlando if the Magic had not been so careless with the basketball; neither Boston nor Cleveland turns the ball over the way that Orlando does, so if the Pistons sleepwalk when they face one of those teams and end up in close games down the stretch they will not be able to rely on their opponent simply self destructing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:31 AM

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hornets Push Defending Champion Spurs to Brink of Elimination

The San Antonio Spurs have won four championships in the Tim Duncan era but they have never captured back to back titles or even won consecutive Western Conference crowns--and unless they can beat the New Orleans Hornets two games in a row they will once again follow a championship season with a year in which they did not make it back to the Finals. New Orleans broke open a close game five with a 20-4 third quarter run en route to a 101-79 victory, the Hornets' third convincing win over the Spurs in three home games in this series. David West established playoff career-highs in scoring (38 points), rebounding (14 rebounds) and blocked shots (five) despite battling back spasms after the second quarter. West shot 16-25 from the field and he also had five assists. Chris Paul missed his first four field goal attempts and shot just 6-18 from the field overall but he finished with 22 points, 14 assists and just one turnover. Paul singlehandedly outscored the Spurs in the third quarter, 12-11. Manu Ginobili led the Spurs in scoring (20 points) and assists (seven) but he shot just 5-15 from the field. Tony Parker had 18 points but he only passed for four assists while committing three turnovers. Tim Duncan grabbed a game-high 23 rebounds but he was out of sorts offensively from the beginning of the game until the end, shooting 5-18 from the field and scoring just 10 points.

You can't help but be impressed by New Orleans. I thought that the Hornets' lack of playoff experience would hurt them in postseason play, particularly since they are in the side of the playoff bracket that contains the 2006 and 2007 Western Conference champions (Dallas and San Antonio respectively); however, it has not turned out that way at all: New Orleans dispatched Dallas with ease and has outplayed San Antonio overall in this series, though of course the Spurs still have an excellent chance to win at home and send this series to a seventh game.

After the Spurs lost the first two games in New Orleans, San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich made a couple strategic moves that paid off handsomely in games three and four: he moved Ginobili into the starting lineup and he switched defensive specialist Bruce Bowen from Paul to Peja Stojakovic. Ginobili is one Spur who the Hornets really do not match up well with, while the idea behind the defensive change is that Paul is going to get his points regardless of what the Spurs do so it is very important to minimize the production that the Hornets get from other players. Those adjustments still worked in game five--Ginobili played well and Stojakovic only had nine points on 3-8 field goal shooting--but West's performance throughout and Paul's strong second half carried the day for New Orleans.

West is a beast and I don't understand why some people act like West would not be a great player without Paul; West has a good shooting touch out to about 18 feet, he is strong, he is quick and he has excellent footwork. Yes, he gets some open looks when Paul penetrates and draws the defense to him but West creates a lot of his offense with one on one moves. In fact, the best part of his offensive game is when he catches the ball about 15-17 feet from the hoop and goes to work: he'll bury the jumper if the defender backs off but if the defender plays him too closely then he will drive right by him and finish with force in the paint. In the second quarter, there was a sequence when West caught the ball on the left block, faced up Duncan, drove into the paint, Bogarted Duncan out of the way and scored a layup. There are not too many players in the NBA who have the combination of size, quickness and dribbling ability that is necessary to abuse Duncan in that fashion. I thought that Duncan's length would bother West in this series but West seems to be more physically powerful than Duncan and he uses that power to knock Duncan off balance and thus nullify the threat of the shot block.

Part of the reason that West still does not get all of the recognition that he deserves is that scorekeepers give Paul an assist nearly every time he passes to West and West makes a shot regardless of how many fakes, moves and dribbles take place between the time the pass arrives and the time the shot is launched, as I pointed out after game one. That leads people to believe that a large percentage of West's offense is dependent on Paul. The scorekeeper was up to the same tricks in game five. West scored 14 points on 7-9 field goal shooting in the first quarter and an assist was awarded on every one of his shots (six to Paul, one to Jannero Pargo); that is not an accurate representation of the division of labor between the passer and the shooter in those cases. There were some instances in which the passer created the shot by drawing the defense and then dishing but West also used an array of moves to free himself on more than one occasion.

The Hornets took an early 9-3 lead but the Spurs rallied to go up 23-21 by the end of the first quarter despite West's big numbers. In the second quarter the Spurs built a seven point lead a couple times but New Orleans trimmed the margin to 47-44 by halftime. West almost singlehandedly kept the Hornets in the game: at the 8:44 mark in the second quarter the Spurs led 31-24 and West had 16 of New Orleans' points on 8-10 field goal shooting while the rest of his teammates had shot just 2-17. West had 22 points on 10-14 shooting by halftime, while Duncan had four points on 2-11 field goal shooting. As Magic Johnson later noted, the Hornets made a subtle change by waiting to double-team Duncan until he put the ball on the floor; that led to some out of rhythm shots and passes by Duncan.

At halftime, Kenny Smith said that in the first half Paul had made "questionable decisions" for perhaps the first time this season. Specifically, Paul made some mistakes in terms of choosing when to pass and when to shoot. Paul more than made up for that slight lapse by elevating his game in the third quarter, scoring 12 points and dishing off three assists. At the 5:24 mark he connected with Tyson Chandler on an alley-oop play for the first time in quite a while, putting the Hornets up by 10 (61-51) for the first time in the game. I don't understand why the player guarding Chandler would ever leave him unless there is a team concept in place so that someone slides down to box out Chandler when his man confronts Paul in the lane; all Chandler does on offense is catch lobs and chase down rebounds, so his scoring can be drastically cut down just by being aware of where he is at all times.

It was quite strange to watch the Spurs' offense and defense implode simultaneously in the third quarter, as missed shots, poor shot selection and bad passes fed New Orleans' offense. The Hornets led 72-58 by the end of the third quarter and they maintained a double digit lead for most of the fourth quarter. Each of the Spurs' three losses in New Orleans has followed the same general pattern: a good first half followed by a wretched third quarter. Popovich frankly admitted that he does not know why his team has repeatedly come out flat after halftime but if he does not find the answer soon then he will have all summer long to ponder it.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:13 AM

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

James' Jam Punctuates Cleveland's 88-77 Win Over Boston

It's halfway to deja vu all over again for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last year, the Cavs lost their first two playoff games against number one seeded Detroit before ripping off four straight wins. This year, the Cavs lost their first two playoff games against number one seeded Boston but now they have bounced back with two home victories, including an 88-77 triumph on Monday. The Celtics dropped to 0-5 on the road in the 2008 playoffs, so there is a lot of pressure on them to win game five in Boston; they certainly don't want to be facing elimination when the series returns to Cleveland on Friday.

LeBron James had 21 points, 13 assists, six rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots. He shot just 7-20 from the field--and he only made two shots outside of the paint, a pair of three pointers--but James is the dominant player on the court in this series, a fact that Boston Coach Doc Rivers understands all too well. Asked after the game if he is surprised that the series is 2-2 considering that James has shot just .256 from the field, Rivers replied, "You think LeBron is struggling? He had 21 points, 13 assists, six rebounds. He probably forced 15 fouls. We don't look at LeBron as struggling. You only look at field goal percentage. We don't; we look at the way he's playing his total game and making plays. The (Daniel) Gibson threes and (shots made by other Cavs) don't happen without LeBron James."

Gibson's minutes were expanded a bit because starting point guard Delonte West had to go the locker room in the first half to deal with an eye irritation; West eventually returned to the game but he only had six points and one assist, a big decline from his game three performance. Gibson finished with 14 points, six rebounds, four assists and a game-high +19 plus/minus rating. He shot 5-9 from the field and he made a dagger three pointer with 2:38 left in the fourth quarter to put Cleveland up 82-75; the Cavs maintained a three possession lead the rest of the way. Wally Szczerbiak also had a strong shooting game (14 points on 6-11 shooting) and after he scored nine quick points in the third quarter the sellout crowd of 20,562 at Quicken Loans Arena began chanting, "Wally! Wally!" Anderson Varejao played stout defense in addition to scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds. The Cavs outrebounded the Celtics 42-38 and shot 35-77 (.455) from the field while holding Boston to 27-70 (.386) shooting. Cleveland's three keys to victory are rebounding, defense and the brilliance of LeBron James.

Boston's whole defensive strategy in this series revolves around making James take outside shots and also forcing his teammates to shoulder more of the scoring load than they are accustomed to handling. The Cavaliers almost won game one despite James' 2-18 field goal shooting and as the series has progressed Cleveland Coach Mike Brown and his staff have done an excellent job of countering how the Celtics are walling off the paint from James by finding ways to exploit the open spaces in the Celtics' defense. James, in turn, has applied these theories in practice, making pinpoint passes that enable his teammates to simply catch and shoot. During the first round of the playoffs, Washington Coach Eddie Jordan marveled at James' ability to throw laser-like crosscourt passes, saying that there really is no defense for that. We are seeing this weapon come into play versus Boston now that the Cavaliers understand how to properly space the court to respond to what the Celtics are doing. James had 15 assists and 17 turnovers in the first two games versus Boston but in games three and four he had 21 assists against just six turnovers.

Coach Brown has repeatedly emphasized that the Celtics are a great "strong side defensive team," meaning that their defense is excellent on the side of the court where the ball is: the only way to break that defense down is to have a lot of player movement but that movement must be with a "purpose," as Brown puts it, and the ball must quickly move from strong side to weak side. Brown says that sometimes the ball must be reversed two or three times in order to create a good shot against Boston. Obviously, with the 24 second shot clock ticking down it is imperative that the ball and player movement be precise. Cleveland had some beautiful chain reaction plays in game four, bang bang sequences that led to easy baskets: for instance, the Varejao layup that put Cleveland up 68-65 at the end of the third quarter happened after James drew the defense and passed to Joe Smith, who immediately found a wide open Varejao right underneath the basket. Such plays are only possible, as Rivers indicated, because James attracts so much attention. The other thing that must be said is that James is most assuredly not playing with "trash," as Stephen A. Smith has asserted more than once. In fact, after the game, James said that what he likes most about Cleveland's big mid-season trade is that the Cavs now have "explosion" off of the bench: "We can play 10 guys and not slack off." Not too many teams can accurately say that but in addition to starters James, West, Szczebiak, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace, Mike Brown can call upon 2007 playoff hero Gibson, solid veteran big man Smith, rebounder/defender Varejao, shooter/scorer Sasha Pavlovic, slashing scorer Devin Brown and three point specialist Damon Jones. The latter two are the odd men out at the moment as Coach Brown goes with an eight man rotation but Devin Brown and Damon Jones each averaged at least 19.9 mpg during this season, so they both had a lot of meaningful playing time, which is not usually the case with your ninth and tenth players.

What Cleveland lacks is a bona fide All-Star duo or trio like Boston has with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen but James is the best single player on the court in this series and the untold story to date is that Pierce and Allen are shooting poorly (.346 and .333 respectively) without having the impact in other areas that James is having. That places the burden on Garnett to carry the load but he has never been that kind of player; after scoring nine points on 4-4 shooting in the first quarter of game four he had just six points on 2-11 shooting the rest of the way. Wallace and Varejao have done a great defensive job against Garnett.

Garnett contributed 15 points, 10 rebounds and four assists but he did not come close to controlling the game the way that James did; Cleveland usually defended Garnett one on one, while it seemingly takes a village--to borrow a phrase--to try to even slow down James. Pierce ended up with 13 points on 6-17 field goal shooting and Rivers candidly admitted that Pierce forced matters, particularly in the fourth quarter. Allen had 15 points on 4-10 shooting as the Celtics continue to be inexplicably unwilling or unable to exploit the fact that the slow-footed Szczerbiak has the primary defensive assignment on him. Magic Johnson aptly asked before this game, "Where is the leadership now? One of those guys has to step forward and say, 'We're not playing well now and here's why we're not playing well' and correct it." To this point, Garnett, Pierce and Allen have not done that. Rajon Rondo scored 15 points on 7-14 shooting but the Boston point guard had just four assists while committing three turnovers.

Neither team led by more than eight points in the first three quarters. The fourth quarter spread was not greater than five points until James hit a three pointer with 3:17 remaining to put Cleveland up 79-73. Pierce made a tough jumper and then Gibson answered with his huge three pointer off of a feed from James.

The defining moment of game four--and the series so far--is James' dunk over Garnett with 1:45 remaining in the fourth quarter. The boxscore says that this play put Cleveland ahead 84-75 and was worth just two points--but the boxscore lies: this play had a greater impact than a mere two points. Consider the visual evidence:



The Celtics have limited James' field goal percentage to record low levels so far but James has still found a way to lead his team to two victories; this play embodies how James and the Cavaliers have broken loose despite the Celtics' best efforts to hold them down. How much of an impact did this play and this win have? Garnett did not even show his face in the main interview room, nor did any other Celtic save for Rivers; I cannot recall covering a playoff game when no players from the losing team stopped by the main interview room to be interviewed on television. After Cleveland's game three win, I wrote, "Garnett and (Paul) Pierce entered the postgame interview room looking like someone had just died." The Celtics have been frontrunners all season but it is obvious that these two losses to Cleveland have rattled them and shaken their confidence. Granted, the Celtics may just be one home win away from restoring order--they are 6-0 at home in the playoffs--but it is important to keep in mind that James has already led a team to the NBA Finals, something that Garnett, Pierce and Allen have never done during their long careers.

James' dunk instantly reminded me of one of the greatest dunks of all-time and a personal favorite of mine--Julius Erving's 1983 "rock the cradle" slam over Michael Cooper. Both dunks involve fantastic verticality and awesome extension of the dunking arm, with the main difference being that Erving's happened on a fast break from the left hand side while James' took place out of the halfcourt set on the right side. Here is Erving's dunk:




This is a dangerous time for Boston. The series has now been reduced to a three game set. That means that if James can break out offensively and come up with a 40 point performance then his Cavs can steal game five on the road and play the series clincher at home, just like they did last year versus Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals. Before the series began I suggested that Cleveland's best chance to win in Boston would be game one but even though the Cavs squandered a golden opportunity in game one they have the Celtics so discombobulated that it would not surprise me now if the Cavs win game five.

History still suggests that Boston will win this series--and a seventh game on the road would be tough even for James and his Cavs--but if James can come up with a sublime 48 minutes on Wednesday he could shatter whatever remains of Boston's confidence; it is almost impossible to imagine the Celtics winning on the road in game six if they drop game five at home.

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

Just before tip-off, a fan encouraged legendary Cavs broadcaster Joe Tait to call a good game. Tait replied the he would do his best but it's not up to him. After the fan walked away, I said to Tait, "You'll call what you see, right? It's up to the players to make it a good game." Tait acknowledged that this was exactly what he meant.

Tait has seen all of the great players of the past four decades. I told him that when James soars to the hoop with his arm fully extended and then hammers home a dunk I think that he very much resembles Erving--and I said this a couple hours before James posterized Garnett. Tait agreed with this comparison.

***

Commissioner David Stern held court for the media about a half hour before tip-off, offering his thoughts on a wide range of subjects. One of his pet peeves is the oppressive sound and light extravaganzas that have become standard fare in NBA arenas: "I think that what has happened is that very well-intentioned people feel that it's their obligation to root their team on to victory, to urge them. But what they do is, they think if you turn up the loudspeaker it's going to help them perform better--even though there are babies in the building. I think we should have it as a time capsule item, because in some future century people are going to look and say, 'What were they thinking about?' And I'm positive that Red (Auerbach) is watching and getting ready to call me, because I think we've gone over the top."

Stern did not comment specifically about the O.J. Mayo case but he pointedly said that he would like to see the NBA Players Association take a proactive stance regarding agents who are involved in nefarious activities, much the way that the NFLPA has banned agents who engage in improper conduct.

Asked what he most likes about the NBA right now and what he would most like to improve, Stern cited the great competitiveness of the games as the biggest positive: fans are getting to watch a very good product. On the other hand, Stern wants to do whatever it takes to discourage excessively hard and/or dangerous fouls and get the players focused primarily on playing basketball.

The Boston contingent of reporters wanted Stern to elaborate about the fine that Pierce received for making "menacing gestures" during the Atlanta series. There has been speculation that Pierce threw up a gang sign but Stern emphatically said that his office never accused Pierce of that and the media simply ran with that account on their own. Stern explained that Pierce was fined because he walked over to "the wrong bench" and Stern wryly added that he did not believe that Pierce did so with "peace and love" on his mind. Stern concluded that the NBA fined Pierce and moved on but that if Pierce or the media want to continue to drag the story out then there is nothing that the NBA can do about it.

***

The All-Defensive Teams were just announced. James did not make the cut but he did receive two second team votes and one first team vote in balloting conducted among the league's 30 coaches, who are not permitted to select their own players. Garnett, who previously won the 2007-08 Defensive Player of the Year award (selected by the media), and Kobe Bryant tied for the most points, with each receiving 24 first team votes and four second team votes; it is stunning that one coach did not vote for Garnett at all and it is a bit odd that one coach left Bryant off of his ballot as well.

Coach Brown said that he expects that James will soon attain first team status and that once he gets there he will be there for years to come. Brown said that James' on ball defense was solid from the beginning and that he has made great strides in terms of his off ball defense and his understanding of team defensive concepts.

James said that making the All-Defensive Team is one of his goals and that he believes that he is on track to do so.

***

Late in the second quarter, LeBron James and his mother Gloria had a moment for which Hallmark has yet to design a card. At the 4:13 mark, Pierce wrapped up James to prevent a layup and the two players ended up tumbling out of bounds near where James' mother sits. She immediately stood up and said something to Pierce. Garnett tried to calm her down and then James emphatically told her, "Sit your ass down."

James' retort was the main subject of discussion in the media room at halftime and naturally James was asked about it after the game. He explained, "All I was thinking about at that time even though it was my mother is the commissioner doesn't care if it's your mother or your kids or anybody--you can't allow fans and players to get involved with each other. I can't afford for my mom to not be at every last one of my games. I told her to sit down with some language I shouldn't have used. Thank God today wasn't Mother's Day. All I could think about was--I know my mother. We're fine, we're good."

The Pierce foul looked flagrant at full speed from a certain angle but on the replays you could clearly see that he merely wrapped up James around the shoulders, as opposed to going after the head or neck. Some players foolishly respond to such fouls with macho posturing and then get needless technical fouls but James remained calm and offered a friendly pound on the chest to Pierce to indicate that he had no hard feelings about the play. TNT's Doug Collins commented, "LeBron is wise beyond his years...You don't hear him complaining or moaning. He just plays and his team follows suit. This is a 'no excuse' team and he leads that charge."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:39 AM

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Balky Back Slows Bryant as Jazz Beat Lakers in Overtime

Deron Williams had 29 points and 14 assists as his Utah Jazz beat the L.A. Lakers 123-115 in overtime to even their second round series at 2-2. Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur got off to slow starts, combining to score just five points on 2-12 field goal shooting in the first half, but they finished with 14 and 18 points respectively. Andrei Kirilenko added 15 points and he played strong defense, particularly late in the game when he blocked two shots by Kobe Bryant, who finished with 33 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. Lamar Odom had an excellent game (26 points, 13 rebounds, three blocked shots) and Pau Gasol bounced back from his subpar game three to post 23 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Derek Fisher scored 15 points and shot 4-5 from three point range.

Prior to the game, Hubie Brown talked about how exceptionally well Bryant is playing during the postseason. Brown said that in addition to the great numbers Bryant is putting up, his decision making is off the charts; Brown broke down 48 possessions from game three in which Bryant was the primary ball handler and determined that Bryant made only three questionable decisions. Bryant is just the fourth Laker to start a playoff series with four straight 30 point games; Jerry West (twice), Shaquille O'Neal (twice) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the others. Bryant, a member of the elite "25-5-5" Club, is now the only player to ever have at least 30 points, six rebounds and six assists in five straight playoff games; Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson each did this in four straight playoff games, though both of their streaks spanned two separate playoff seasons.

Unfortunately, we did not get to see Bryant's game in full flower because he injured his back early in game four and his condition got progressively worse, robbing him of his usual quickness and explosiveness; he made 11 of his first 20 shots before connecting on just 2 of his last 13 attempts. If you like Bryant then you will say that he gamely tried to take over down the stretch despite being hurt; if you don't like Bryant then you will say that he selfishly forced the action. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who certainly has not minced words in the past when he felt that Bryant should play differently, offered an interesting take on what happened in the overtime: "I was angry at his teammates for dropping the ball off in his lap when he was in the situation he was at (with his back injury). When he was making plays and we had things going at the end of the fourth quarter that was what we wanted to see him doing. I felt guys just bailed out on him." In other words, Gasol, Odom and the rest of Bryant's supporting cast have to step up and carry some of the weight, too--particularly when Bryant is clearly not 100%--instead of relying on him to do everything by himself.

Before delving fully into how the game ended, let's take things in order and examine what happened in the first three quarters. Just like in game three, Fisher picked up two quick fouls and had to sit out for most of the first quarter. Fisher cannot stop Williams but they were teammates last year and the crafty, physical Fisher is at least able to make things difficult for Williams. Without Fisher on the court, Williams is able to completely abuse Jordan Farmar, whose -19 plus/minus number in just 18:43 of playing time was nine points worse than any other player in this game. The Lakers' bench has been highly praised this season but Utah's reserves outscored them 39-16 in game four; this is another example of how regular season statistics can be misleading without the proper context. I am not really interested in how many points the Lakers' reserves racked up at the end of blowout victories against weak teams, but most statistical ranking systems don't account for when and how a player gets his numbers; I evaluate players based on their skill sets and their strengths and weaknesses. The Lakers have some solid bench players but this group is not as awesome as some people would lead you to believe and that becomes very evident when Utah brings in guys like Matt Harpring, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver; the first two are tough-minded, physical players who push the Lakers around, while Korver is a deadeye marksman.

With Williams running wild, the Jazz raced to a 31-21 lead by the end of the first quarter. During the little interview segments between quarters, Jackson summarized his team's problems succinctly: "We have to get some production out of our bench." I don't mean to say "I told you so"--well, actually maybe I do--but I've been saying all season that the Lakers' bench is not as good as it is cracked up to be. The Lakers' Western Conference-leading record is a product of, in order, Kobe Bryant's brilliance, Pau Gasol's versatility, Lamar Odom fitting in as the third option much better than he did as the second option and Derek Fisher shoring up the point guard position. Also, Andrew Bynum made a solid contribution during the first 35 games of the season. Sasha Vujacic has had some good moments, Farmar has improved since last year and the bench was bolstered when Luke Walton was moved from the starting lineup to a reserve role, but the Lakers' reserves have benefited from playing while ahead in most games and they also often have either Bryant or Gasol on the court with them. Head to head against the reserve units from other elite teams they will consistently have problems.

Of course, one factor in game four is that reserve players tend to perform worse on the road than at home and a second factor is that the Lakers' bench took a hit when Ronny Turiaf--the primary big player on the bench and a player who provides a lot of energy--was ejected because of a flagrant two foul at the 10:07 mark of the second quarter. Ronnie Price drove to the hoop and Turiaf aggressively went for the shot block; the resulting contact sent Price tumbling hard to the court, where he banged his head with such force that he needed four stitches to close the gash above his left eye. Flagrant fouls are supposed to be determined by windup, impact and follow through, with contact above the neck area a definite no-no--but Turiaf's foul was a blow delivered directly to Price's arms in the area where Price was holding the ball; the tremendous size difference between the players is what caused Price to fall so fast and hit his head. There was no real windup or follow through and Turiaf neither hit Price in the head nor did he undercut him in midair. I could see this being called a flagrant one based on the impact but this play was definitely not worse than DeShawn Stevenson's blow to LeBron James' head or James Posey's clothesline of James on Sunday, both of which were determined to be flagrant one fouls.

Although Williams had a monster first half (19 points on 7-9 field goal shooting, five assists), the score was tied at 55 after Bryant caught a long inbounds pass from Walton right before the halftime buzzer and did his version of the famous Christian Laettner shot. Bryant had 17 first half points on 7-14 field goal shooting. Gasol (13 points, 6-9 shooting) and Odom (11 points, 4-6 shooting) were also in double figures. The Lakers seemed to be in prime position to take this game and assume a commanding 3-1 advantage in the series.

Bryant's back clearly got stiffer as the game progressed and Hubie Brown observed that Bryant started operating mainly in the low post area on offense as opposed to playing on the perimeter where he would have to move around more. When Bryant was on the perimeter he used his footwork and various fakes in order to get his defender off balance in order to create an opening to shoot the jumper. On one play, Bryant jab stepped to get Ronnie Brewer off balance and then drilled a jumper right in his eye. Brown commented, "That's difficult on the defender. Ronnie Brewer just shook his head. He (Bryant) stared you down and gave you that jab step move. If you do not move and he has space he will elevate and now he's feeling it." Bryant scored eight points in the quarter but the Lakers had trouble getting defensive stops and the Jazz led most of the way. Near the end of the quarter, Bryant drew the defense to him and passed to a wide open Gasol but Gasol stepped on the baseline. Bryant was visibly frustrated by this lapse in concentration and Brown said, "Gasol never created a passing lane. It's your job when I get double teamed to create the pass." That is an example of why Brown is such a great analyst; instead of giving some nonsense diatribe about Bryant's reaction Brown explained the technical reason why Bryant--the game's most fundamentally sound player--was upset: Bryant did his job by attracting the defense to him and if Gasol had been more alert then he would have had an easy dunk. When you are trying to beat a good team on the road you simply have to convert those kinds of opportunities. Although Gasol's field goal percentage has been good in this series, at times he has been soft with the ball, enabling Utah players to get deflections and steals. Gasol has spent a lot of time whining about these plays and Jackson has publicly said that this has affected Gasol's concentration. Gasol's skills and versatility are secondary considerations down the stretch of competitive playoff games if he is not going to have a tough enough mindset to complete plays. It is pretty easy to see both why Gasol has been able to put up good numbers during his career and why he had never won a single playoff game until teaming up with Bryant on the Lakers.

The key moment in the game took place with :48 left in the third quarter. The Lakers trailed 76-73 and Jackson took Bryant out of the game so that Bryant would get the extra rest during the timeout between quarters; this is a normal move but the difference this time is that Bryant was clearly laboring with a stiff back. I think that Jackson should have considered leaving Bryant in the rest of the way. Sure, there is a chance that Bryant could have fatigued down the stretch but it was nearly certain that after five or 10 minutes (in real time) on the bench that his back would tighten up more than it would if he kept playing. The worst case scenario for the Lakers took place: the bench, even with Odom on the court as an anchor, let the Utah lead balloon to 90-80 and Jackson had to put Bryant back in at the 9:04 mark of the fourth quarter. Kyle Korver scored eight points in less than four minutes with Vujacic guarding him; the gimpy Bryant held him scoreless the rest of the way until Korver made some free throws to ice the game near the end of the overtime.

Not only did the deficit quickly climb with Bryant out of the game but when Bryant came back he obviously had become much stiffer and less mobile. Brown almost immediately said, "You can see there's no quickness in Kobe's game." Bryant adjusted to his limitations by taking on the role of facilitator. With the Lakers trailing 92-84, he snared a defensive rebound and fired a long outlet pass to a wide open Walton but Walton went up softly, enabling Price to do a Tayshaun Prince imitation and swat his shot. The Lakers retained possession but Odom missed a jumper and the Jazz scored to go back up by 10. In the first three games, Bryant relentlessly drove to the hoop and either scored or drew fouls but after he came back in the game in the fourth quarter he had great difficulty getting all the way to the rim--but he managed to be just active enough with his dribble to draw double teams and then pass to the open man, racking up six assists in the fourth quarter as the Lakers rallied from a 12 point deficit to eventually force an extra session. Bryant assisted on three Fisher three point shots during a 1:17 stretch and he assisted on an Odom three pointer that tied the score at 106 with :54 remaining. After two Boozer free throws made the score 108-106, Odom missed a three pointer but Gasol got the rebound and the Lakers called timeout. Odom inbounded to Bryant, who got to the rim but did not have his normal elevation; his layup attempt rolled out, but Boozer had stepped over to contest the shot, which gave Odom room to slip through and tip in the miss. On Utah's last possession during regulation, Fisher correctly anticipated Williams' step back move and blocked his jumper as time expired.

Bryant missed his first four shots in overtime; two of them were three pointers and two of them were drives during which he had no lift and on both occasions Kirilenko swatted the ball as soon as Bryant released it. The Lakers did not score in overtime until Bryant converted a left handed drive at the 1:21 mark. They only trailed 112-110 at that point and they got a stop on the next possession but could not secure the defensive rebound. Kirilenko's three point play at :35 put Utah up five. Jackson drew up a nice inbounds play to free Bryant, who caught the ball and drove all the way to the hoop only to miss the layup. The Jazz shot 8-8 from the free throw line in the last :28 to seal the win.

Obviously, the primary concern for the Lakers heading into Wednesday's game five is the status of Bryant's back injury. However, the Lakers also have to address some matchup concerns that have cropped up in the past two games: Williams has gotten loose whenever Fisher is not in the game and Utah's frontcourt has been more physical and more aggressive than the Lakers' frontcourt in the second halves. The home team has won the first four games but these contests have been close in the fourth quarter so the Lakers better not just complacently assume that they will win game five simply because it is a home game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:17 AM

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