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Saturday, May 24, 2008

No More Butter Knives: Kobe Bryant and His "Guns" Shoot Down Spurs

The L.A. Lakers never trailed for the fourth time in this year's playoffs en route to a 101-71 game two victory over the San Antonio Spurs, the worst loss by the defending champions in this postseason. Kobe Bryant had game-high totals in points (22), assists (five) and plus/minus rating (+24); he also had five rebounds and he shot 10-17 from the field. Lamar Odom continued to thrive as the third option, scoring 20 points on 7-10 field goal shooting and grabbing a team-high 12 rebounds. Odom also did an excellent job roaming on the weakside of the defense, amassing a game-high four blocked shots. Derek Fisher got off to a quick start (seven first quarter points) and finished with 11 points on 4-5 shooting while also having three assists and no turnovers. Pau Gasol had a quiet game (10 points, seven rebounds) but his length and mobility made him a factor on defense. The Lakers' bench made a significant impact, with Jordan Farmar providing scoring (14 points on 5-7 shooting), Luke Walton authoring a good all-around game (seven points, five rebounds, four assists) and Sasha Vujacic scoring seven points and being a real irritant on defense. The Lakers shot 39-71 (.549) from the field and won the rebounding battle 44-36. As TNT's Marv Albert said to Doug Collins long after the game entered "gar-bage time," it will be difficult for Lakers Coach Phil Jackson to find much to complain about.

The Spurs shot 30-87 (.345) from the field, including 6-23 (.261) from three point range. Gasol guarded Duncan one on one for the most part, though Odom or others sometimes trapped when Duncan put the ball on the floor; whether the Lakers' single covered Duncan or trapped him, they made sure that the perimeter players did not get open looks from behind the three point line, taking away a critical part of San Antonio's attack. Duncan had 12 points, 16 rebounds and four assists. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 13 points but he shot just 6-15 from the field and he had as many turnovers as assists (four). Manu Ginobili was largely invisible (seven points on 2-8 shooting, two rebounds, two assists). There is a lot of talk about his injured ankle but that did not seem to be an issue when he had a game-high 26 points in San Antonio's game seven win over New Orleans. To his credit, Ginobili refused to make any excuses, repeatedly saying simply that he was "terrible" and must be more aggressive next game. The reality is that Ginobili enjoyed a significant mismatch advantage against anyone on the Hornets who tried to guard him; that is why I said before that series that he would be the X factor. Ginobili does not have a similar advantage when facing the Lakers and that is why he has struggled all year against this team, not just in the first two games of this series.

The Lakers took early 7-2 and 11-6 leads, deftly using drives, screen/roll plays and postups to create easy scoring opportunities in the paint. I mentioned in my game one recap that Odom squandered several point blank scoring opportunities by missing layups, committing offensive fouls and losing the ball. After Odom missed a layup in the first quarter of game two, Collins said that Odom is "broad jumping" on his drives to the hoop and trying to draw fouls as opposed to going up strongly while focusing on finishing the play. There is an element of truth to that but I maintain that Odom is not an explosive leaper and is not great at finishing in traffic--perhaps that is why he is trying to draw fouls. Odom is at his best when he is posting up smaller players (or slower players who he can defeat with his quick spin move) and when he cuts to the hoop from the weak side to catch passes for easy finishes (as opposed to creating his own shot in traffic off the dribble). Again in game two Odom misfired on several easy scoring opportunities early in the game after driving to the hoop. Of his seven field goals, only two came on moves that he initiated (and one of those was a postup against a smaller defender); three of them resulted from alley-oop lobs and two of them were jumpers.

The Lakers led 21-16 after the first quarter and Collins spent a lot of time talking about how difficult it is for the Spurs to match up with the Lakers defensively and to score against them at the other end of the court. The second quarter had a strange rhythm to it, as Collins noted near halftime when he mentioned that if you did not look at the scoreboard you would swear that the Lakers were up by 10 points--they just looked like the better and more active team. Yet, when he made that comment the Lakers only led 37-35 and then a trademark Duncan bank shot tied the score. It looked like the Spurs might even eke out a halftime lead--but then the Lakers delivered a quick, sudden knockout blow, scoring nine points in the last 1:55, after which the Spurs never mounted a serious threat. Bryant started the run by driving to the hoop, breaking down the defense and spoonfeeding a gorgeous pass to Gasol for a layup. Then Bryant drew the defense and passed to Vujacic for a jumper, though I disagree with awarding Bryant an assist on the play because Vujacic used an escape dribble to elude a defender who closed out to him. Good ball movement led to a Vujacic three pointer and then Fisher went coast to coast to score a layup. In the first half the Lakers shot .543 from the field while limiting the Spurs to .348 shooting. As Charles Barkley said during the halftime show, "The Spurs have no margin for error" versus the Lakers.

Everyone understood that the first five minutes of the third quarter would be a critical time. Either the Spurs would come out strongly, take the lead and ultimately level the series at 1-1 or the Lakers would hold on and assume a commanding 2-0 lead. When Bill Russell was a CBS commentator he used to say that what is important is not just how many points a player scores but when he scores them. Bryant scored seven points in the first 1:55 of the third quarter, making a driving layup and two jumpers, plus a free throw after he was fouled on the second jumper. Bryant's outburst pushed the Lakers' lead into double digits, where it remained the rest of the way.

Bryant has mentioned with glee on a few occasions that we will all find out "what's up" now that he no longer has to go into gun battles with "butter knives." In case the meaning of that message is not crystal clear, allow me to translate: "How the hell could anybody reasonably expect me to lead the Lakers out of the first round with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker in the starting lineup?" To his credit, Bryant does not say this explicitly; in fact, in a postgame interview with TNT's Inside the NBA crew, Bryant said, "Kwame's my man" when Barkley and Kenny Smith talked about how the Lakers "swindled" Memphis into trading Gasol for Brown and other considerations (of course, the Grizzlies understood that they were not getting equal value in return and they simply wanted expiring contracts so that they can rebuild; that is why they did not trade Gasol to the Bulls, who made a better offer). Bryant has repeatedly praised his teammates for how hard they have worked and how well they have played--and they readily acknowledge how he has helped to shape and mold their mindset: as Farmar said after the game, "Killer instinct, that's right. We are starting to pick it up from Kobe, the guy who had the most killer instinct that's ever been. We're really trying to get that killer instinct of Kobe's, because we know that's the one thing that can help us grow into a championship team."

Magic Johnson told Bryant that he also had to wait a long time to win his first regular season MVP and he asked Bryant to describe how he felt about finally winning the award. Bryant responded that it means so much now because the standard that is being applied is making one's teammates better, something that Bryant had been accused of failing to do. Bryant also said that it is great that the Lakers are a close knit group with whom he can truly share this honor. An overlooked part of the Lakers' success this season is that the other players have followed Bryant's example in terms of preparation, work ethic and focus. A major reason that Bryant was at odds with Shaquille O'Neal is that O'Neal does not share Bryant's zeal for mental and physical preparation--but the current Lakers have bought into the importance of working hard before the game as opposed to simply showing up and trying to dominate based on talent alone.

There is a tendency to overreact after blowout losses, particularly in the playoffs. Keep in mind that the Spurs fell behind 2-0 versus the Hornets and that those teams traded blowouts several times before the Spurs ultimately advanced. Like most teams in this year's playoffs, the Spurs are a different team at home--where they have yet to lose a game in the postseason--than on the road, so anyone who is even thinking of uttering the word "sweep" needs to relax until we see how both teams react when this series shifts venues.

That said, there is a strategic difference between playing the Hornets and playing the Lakers. Against New Orleans, the Spurs were able to make an important adjustment, switching Bruce Bowen off of Chris Paul and on to Peja Stojakovic, with the idea being that the key to beating the Hornets was to shut down the perimeter shooters; the Spurs felt that Paul would put up certain numbers no matter who was on him but they decided that they could live with that if they contained everybody else. That approach won't work against the Lakers because Bryant can get his shot whenever he wants to and if he is trapped then he will feed Gasol, Odom or an open perimeter shooter. The Lakers are playing well as a group but let's not kid ourselves about the major reason for this: it is no coincidence that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson played Bryant for virtually all of game one--including all 12 fourth quarter minutes--and that Bryant hardly got a rest in game two until the Lakers had a commanding lead. Without Bryant on the court there are significantly fewer opportunities to throw lob passes to Gasol and Odom and it is much easier to cover the perimeter shooters--and there is no adjustment or switch that the Spurs can make that will affect Bryant's dominance in this series. The Lakers are 3-2 on the road in this year's playoffs, so I expect them to play well in San Antonio; still, the Spurs will shoot better and play with more energy at home so the Lakers will have to perform at a very high level to win there.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:12 AM

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Hamilton Scores 25 as Pistons Earn Split

Richard Hamilton (25 points) and Chauncey Billups (19 points, seven assists) led a well-balanced attack as Detroit beat Boston 103-97, handing the Celtics their first home loss in this year's playoffs. The Pistons played very efficiently on offense, shooting 35-71 (.493) from the field, converting 28 of 32 free throw attempts (.875) and passing for 21 assists while only committing nine turnovers. Although Boston won the rebounding battle 39-31, Detroit grabbed several key offensive boards down the stretch and that helped the Pistons to preserve their lead. All five Detroit starters played at least 32 minutes and scored at least 13 points. The one reserve player from either team who had a significant impact was Rodney Stuckey, who had 13 points and three assists while backing up Billups. Stuckey shot 5-8 from the field and the Pistons actually ran plays for him in the fourth quarter, showing a lot of confidence in the rookie point guard.

The one big positive for Boston is that Ray Allen returned to form: he scored 25 points on 9-16 shooting and looked like the sharpshooter that he has been for his whole career minus the past month or so. As this series progresses, that could prove to be the most important development from game two. Paul Pierce continued to play well (26 points on 9-16 shooting, five assists), while Kevin Garnett had 24 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. Rajon Rondo was all over the map: he nearly had a triple double (10 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) but he shot just 2-9 from the field, he seemed uncertain at times whether he should shoot or pass and he made some defensive gaffes.

What impressed me the most about the Celtics during the regular season is how hard they played on a nightly basis, particularly on defense. A little bit of that edge seemed to be missing in this game but more than effort I thought that Boston lacked efficiency and intelligence; during the telecast, Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly singled out the stupid fouls that the Celtics committed that just handed Detroit free points during stretches when the Pistons were not shooting well from the field. At one point, Van Gundy called Boston's defensive performance "substandard" and he said, "The Celtics have to be more disciplined with the Pistons' shot fakes." It seemed like every time a Detroit player pump faked he drew a foul. Detroit made six more free throws than Boston and won by six points. Another example of the Celtics' lack of concentration is that they allowed Billups to score an uncontested layup off of an inbounds pass with :18 remaining in a three point game.

We are sure to hear a lot of "the sky is falling" rhetoric about the Celtics until game three is played: the Celtics have not won a road game in this year's playoffs, the "Big Three" of Garnett, Pierce and Allen played great but the Celtics still lost, the Pistons seem to have a deeper bench, the Pistons have more collective playoff experience. All of those things are true but Boston is still going to win this series. The Pistons have now won nine straight game twos, the second longest such streak in NBA playoff history, and that is why I said in my game one recap that I would not be surprised if the Pistons won game two of this series; by the same token, I expect the Celtics to reciprocate with a road win of their own, probably in game three. For several years the Pistons have had a tendency to rise to the occasion when they think that their backs are up against the wall only to be curiously flat and lackadaisical once they seem to have control of a series. Some people get a little bit too caught up in overanalyzing what one or two players did in a given game and trying to derive some grand meaning from this for subsequent games; that is what leads to the train of thought that if Boston's All-Star trio scored 75 points at home and the Celtics still lost then they won't be able to win in Detroit. Every playoff game has a storyline of its own; some players are going to play better than they did in game two and some are going to play worse, so you cannot just cut and paste certain numbers from game two into a projected game three boxscore. Anyway, the important numbers to consider in this series (and in most series) are defensive field goal percentage, rebounding and points in the paint. The Celtics had some major slippage in defensive field goal percentage and that--plus the excessive fouling--is what cost them this game. Boston outrebounded Detroit and outscored Detroit 36-24 in the paint. Assuming that the Celtics regain their defensive edge while maintaining their scoring and rebounding advantages in the paint, Boston will soon regain home court advantage in this series.

It is worth remembering that the Celtics had the best road record in the NBA this season and that the Pistons lost a road playoff game to Philadelphia, won a playoff game in Orlando with the help of a Billups three pointer that should not have counted and won another playoff game in Orlando by just one point. If the Pistons simply win this series in routine fashion after obtaining home court advantage that would be out of character for the way that they have performed in the postseason in recent years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:00 AM

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bryant Dominates Second Half as Lakers Erase 20 Point Deficit to Edge Spurs

Kobe Bryant scored 25 second half points on 10-18 field goal shooting as the L.A. Lakers came back from a 65-45 third quarter deficit to beat the defending champion San Antonio Spurs 89-85. Bryant finished with 27 points on 11-21 field goal shooting and 4-4 free throw shooting and he had a game-high nine assists, five rebounds and just one turnover. Six of Bryant's assists went to Pau Gasol, who scored 19 points on 7-16 shooting in addition to having seven rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. Vladimir Radmanovic scored 10 points on 5-5 field goal shooting, with all of that production coming in the first quarter. Sasha Vujacic provided a real energy boost off of the bench with 10 points and five rebounds. Lamar Odom struggled mightily, missing numerous layups and scoring just eight points on 3-12 field goal shooting. He had a team-high eight rebounds but he also had a team-high three turnovers. Derek Fisher scored four points on 1-9 shooting from the field, had no assists and was repeatedly burned by Tony Parker in the first half.

Tim Duncan had game-high totals in points (30), rebounds (18) and blocked shots (four) as the Lakers went with single coverage on him for the most part. Duncan shot 12-25 from the field--which is a decent percentage but also one that the Lakers can live with because by staying at home on the perimeter they limited the Spurs to just 5-20 (.250) shooting from three point range. Parker had 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists but he managed just six points and one assist in the second half. Manu Ginobili had a terrible game, scoring just 10 points on 3-13 field goal shooting and committing four turnovers. TNT analyst Doug Collins mentioned that Ginobili might be fatigued after the heavy minutes that he logged in the previous series against New Orleans; that is why I disagree with people who prorate Ginobili's regular season production and conclude that he is in any way a comparable player to Bryant, who is highly productive game in and game out while playing 38-40 mpg or more. If Ginobili played as many minutes as Bryant does for a whole season Ginobili's numbers would drop and/or he would break down physically. Bryant does not enjoy the luxury of coming off of the bench and padding his numbers against second stringers nor does he get as much time to rest as Ginobili does. Ginobili is an All-Star level player--and I correctly picked him to be the X factor versus the Hornets--but he is not an MVP-level player.

This game perfectly illustrates the truth of what I have been saying for several years about Kobe Bryant: he is the best player in the NBA because he has no weaknesses and he therefore presents more problems to a defense than any other player (and he also is a perennial member of the All-Defensive First Team as voted on by the league's head coaches). LeBron James--the second best player in the NBA--has largely shored up his weaknesses on defense but he is a subpar free throw shooter who has an inconsistent three point shot and a poor midrange game. He also is not a great postup player despite his size and athleticism. James has an amazing ability to drive to the hoop, accept contact and score but because the other parts of his scoring arsenal are incomplete it is possible for a great defensive team that has the right game plan to slow him down. James shot .356 from the field and committed 23 turnovers (5.8 per game) in last year's NBA Finals versus the Spurs and he shot .355 from the field while committing 37 turnovers (5.3 per game) versus the Celtics in this year's Eastern Conference Finals. His poor shooting percentages and high turnover rates in those two series happened because both teams built a wall around the paint to minimize his driving opportunities while defending him softly on the perimeter, clogging his passing lanes and allowing him to shoot long jumpers that he missed with regularity. It can be said that James' passing ability makes his teammates better, though I prefer to say that a great player like James draws attention and thus gives his teammates opportunities to do what they do well. However, it can also be said that James' inability to make outside shots permits defenders to better guard against his passes and in that sense he is making his teammates worse or, as I would put it, not giving them as many opportunities to do what they do well.

That may sound like a radical statement, but this can be proven by contrasting how the Spurs guarded Bryant in game one with how the Spurs and Celtics guarded James. The bread and butter play that the Lakers repeatedly ran was a screen and roll with Bryant and Gasol. Each time, Duncan trapped Bryant hard to prevent him from shooting a jumper. Meanwhile, Gasol rolled to the hoop with a smaller player on his hip, Bryant tossed Gasol a lob and Gasol dunked or made a layup. As I mentioned above, six of Gasol's seven field goals came as a result of this play, with Bryant receiving assists on all six; for those who may be wondering about the scorekeeping in light of my recent analysis of Chris Paul's assists, five of those assists were clearly scored correctly but the last one--at the :26 mark of the third quarter--is a close call in my judgment: after Gasol received the pass from Bryant he made a quick fake and then dropped in a layup in one fluid motion. Since Gasol faked and then shot all in one motion the assist is not completely bogus--an assist can be rightly scored if the recipient makes an immediate scoring move--but it is not as clearcut as the other plays in which Gasol caught the pass and scored without any fakes at all. From the standpoint that Duncan was somewhat out of position due to having to cover Bryant on the play--meaning that Bryant's movement before he made the pass created the opportunity for Gasol--the assist can be justified.

The difference between Bryant and James is that Duncan had to trap Bryant hard to prevent the jump shot and that made it impossible to stop Gasol from rolling to the hoop. If you put James in Bryant's place to run this play with Gasol then Duncan would hedge back into the lane, preventing James from driving while also guarding against the pass to Gasol. James would then have to shoot a jumper that he would probably miss, force a pass that would likely be a turnover, keep dribbling as the shot clock winds down or pass to a teammate who is well covered because the screen/roll play was successfully guarded without having to rotate other defenders. This is where statistical analysis of basketball players breaks down unless it is paired with the trained eyes of an observer: no matter how someone crunches regular season numbers to determine who the best player in the NBA is, the reality is that it is easier to design a defensive game plan against James than it is to do so against Bryant. James can do many wonderful things on a basketball court and that is why I say that he is the second best player in the NBA--but Bryant's game has no weaknesses, so when you pair him with good players his team instantly becomes a championship contender. Remember that Gasol is a one-time All-Star who had never won a playoff game prior to this season. The Memphis Grizzlies are rebuilding their team and Gasol is young enough that they could have used him as the cornerstone of that process but they got rid of him precisely because Gasol is better suited to being a complementary player to an MVP-level player like Bryant than to being the first option who the defense is built to stop. The Grizzlies preferred to start over from scratch rather than top out with a Gasol-led team that would never get out of the first round.

Bryant spent the first half trying to get his teammates involved; he had five assists but only scored two points. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said both during the game and in the postgame press conference that he knew that in the first half Bryant was simply getting his teammates involved and that Bryant could start scoring at any point. The Lakers trailed 51-43 at halftime but TNT's Charles Barkley presciently predicted that the Lakers would win the game anyway. He said that the Lakers missed several layups due to being rusty but that overall they had played well and that Bryant would be more aggressive as a scorer in the second half. Barkley's overall analysis was right on target but I do not think that the missed layups were due to rust: Gasol missed two shots by going up soft instead of making a power move to ensure that he would either score or get fouled. Gasol has the ability to finish at the rim but he is a finesse player more than a power player and sometimes in traffic he shies away from contact instead of seeking it out. Odom shot 2-8 from the field in the first half and was responsible for most of the Lakers' missed layups. On several possessions he stormed to the hoop either on a coast to coast move or on an isolation play in the half court but those drives resulted in missed shots, blocked shots and turnovers; his only two hoops came when he tipped in his own miss and when Bryant spoonfed him for a close range shot. Although Odom does have a quickness advantage over Duncan and Fabricio Oberto that really is negated because Odom is not an explosive leaper and he shoots a hard, flat shot whether he is in close or on the perimeter; he does not finish well in traffic against length, so even when he gets half a step on Duncan or Oberto he is still likely going to miss the shot because he cannot complete such plays with a dunk. Instead of having the ball as the primary attacker he is much better suited to being a weak side cutter who receives passes from Bryant or Gasol. In the second half the Lakers smartly went away from trying to utilize Odom's alleged mismatch advantage. Imagine for a moment a team that relied upon Odom to be its first or second scoring option: such a team could never beat the Spurs in a seven game series because he does not have the necessary skill set to be the focal point of the offense. Collins correctly noted that Odom is best suited to being the third option, the role that he enjoys now and has thrived in since Gasol joined the team, this subpar game notwithstanding.

The real problem for the Lakers in the first half was that Parker lived in the paint, breaking down the defense by either scoring (12 points) or passing to open shooters after the Lakers rotated to him (five assists). Collins repeatedly said that for the Lakers to come back they would have to start playing better defense but things got worse for the Lakers before they got better; they began the third quarter by missing five straight shots and committing two turnovers on bad passes by Gasol and Fisher. They trailed 59-43 at the 7:52 mark before Bryant scored their first points of the quarter on a jumper. The Spurs countered with a 6-0 run to take a 20 point lead with 5:54 remaining and a smattering of boos could be heard in the Staples Center. Just when things looked hopeless, Bryant took over the game: he made a jumper, assisted on a Gasol layup, nailed a three pointer and sank two free throws as the Lakers trimmed the lead to 65-54. A Vujacic three pointer made the score 65-57 and then the last four Lakers' possessions of the quarter consisted of three Bryant lobs to Gasol for easy scores on screen/roll plays plus a stunning one on one move by Bryant against Ginobili: Bryant faced up Ginobili at the three point line on the right wing, dribbled behind his back, made a step back move, pump faked and then made a leaning bank shot. "Guard that!" Collins exclaimed. The Spurs had a scoring drought that last more than three minutes but they came out of it at the end of the quarter and still led 72-65 going into the fourth quarter.

During an in-game interview with Craig Sager after the third quarter, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson offered this whimsical explanation for Bryant not shooting a lot in the first half: "I thought Kobe went on vacation to the Bermuda Triangle instead of the sideline Triangle (Offense). But we got him this quarter." Bryant later said that perhaps he had let the game come to him a little too much in the early going but that once he sensed some "jitters" from his teammates he realized that he had to boost their confidence by taking over the scoring load.

Collins noted a key adjustment by Jackson at the start of the fourth quarter: normally Bryant sits out the first few minutes but this time Jackson kept him in the game (and Bryant ended up playing the whole quarter, logging a game-high 43:34 of playing time overall). Jackson also shifted Bryant to small forward and used Vujacic at shooting guard so that the Lakers would have a small, fast and energetic lineup. Bryant outscored the Spurs 14-13 in the final stanza and he gave the Lakers their first lead of the game (83-81) when he made two free throws at the 2:42 mark. On the next possession Bryant nailed a jumper to put the Lakers up 85-81 and Collins said, "This guy's unbelievable. Unreal second half, what this guy's done for his team." It is very important to understand that Bryant's complete skill set is what enabled him to make these plays down the stretch; he has to be guarded closely on the perimeter, which makes his jab step fake even more deadly: he created open jumpers several times against premier defender Bruce Bowen by facing up, using the jab step to back Bowen off and then raising up to shoot. When Bowen guarded James in last year's Finals he backed off James and thus in effect had an extra step as a head start to block James from driving. A jab step by James would have been useless because Bowen was already laying off of him, perfectly willing to let him shoot long jumpers.

Ginobili hit two free throws to cut the lead in half and then the Lakers had flashbacks from the first half as Odom missed a layup and Gasol missed a left handed dunk. After a wild sequence, Duncan scored on a tip in to tie the game at 85. Collins said that the Spurs should trap hard on the screen/roll and make anyone other than Bryant beat them. After Gasol set a screen for Bryant they did just that, with Duncan and Bowen trapping Bryant on the left wing but Bryant dragged them out away from the hoop and then attacked hard to the basket before pulling up for a midrange jumper to put the Lakers up by four. "He strung out the double team and took the ball right where he wanted it. That's just a brilliant play," Collins said. The Lakers then got a stop and Vujacic made two free throws to close out the scoring.

In the second half, the Lakers kept Parker out of the paint and held the Spurs to 34 points. Bryant not only scored 25 second half points but his four assists accounted for eight more points. Barkley correctly said of the gorgeous passes that Bryant threw to Gasol, "If he's making those passes to Kwame Brown they might end up in the third row." What has changed this season is not Bryant's ability or willingness to pass but the fact that he now has a capable post player to catch those passes.

Kenny Smith succinctly summarized the dilemma the Spurs face in trying to guard Bryant: "The game plan for the Spurs is trying to defend the indefensible...He (Bryant) scores from so many areas of the floor that all of a sudden the defensive game plan that you draw on the board doesn't even work...It's easier to have a game plan against Tim Duncan than Kobe because he (Kobe) scores in so many different areas...Chris Paul is (always) going into the pick and roll. Kobe is going to the block, he's going to the three point line, he's coming off the dribble, he's coming off screens." In other words, even for great players like James, Duncan and Paul defenses have some kind of remedy or at least they know which areas of the court they have to protect--but Bryant can attack from anywhere at any time as a scorer or a passer, so it is very difficult to come up with a comprehensive plan against him, let alone execute it successfully.

Of course, this was just game one of what promises to be a long series and I respect the Spurs far too much to count them out. That said, in NBA playoff history the game one winner advances 79% of the time--and Phil Jackson is 40-0 in seven game playoff series when his team wins the first game. The Spurs should not rely on being able to come back from a 2-0 deficit against the Lakers like they did against Paul's Hornets, so game two is a must win for San Antonio.

Bryant said before the playoffs that he no longer has to go into gun battles with butter knives, so now "we'll see what's up." "What's up" is that Bryant is demonstrating the veracity of what I have been saying about him for the past three seasons: he is the best, most complete player in the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:06 AM

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Playoff Scoring Champions

Most NBA fans know that Michael Jordan won a record 10 regular season scoring titles and that Wilt Chamberlain holds the all-time single season scoring record (50.4 ppg in 1961-62). The playoffs are where a great player’s legacy is truly established, yet you rarely if ever hear discussion about who won the most playoff scoring titles or who has the highest single season playoff scoring average. Jordan holds both marks: he won a record 10 playoff scoring titles (based on a minimum of 100 points scored in a single playoff season) and he averaged a record 43.7 ppg in the 1986 playoffs. Chamberlain—who for many years held the record with seven regular season scoring titles—only led the NBA in playoff scoring one time during his career, though he did post three of the top 20 single season playoff scoring averages.

The reason that Chamberlain did not win more playoff scoring titles is that he played at the same time as Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, who won four playoff scoring titles apiece with some truly eye-popping numbers: Baylor led the NBA in playoff scoring from 1960-63, tying the second longest streak in NBA/ABA history, averaging 33.4 ppg, 38.1 ppg, 38.6 ppg and 32.6 ppg in those seasons. The Lakers made it to the NBA Finals in 1962 and 1963, losing to the Boston Celtics both times. Baylor won the most playoff scoring titles among players who never won a regular season scoring title. Chamberlain averaged 37.0 ppg in the 1961 playoffs (eighth best all-time) and 35.0 ppg in the 1962 playoffs (15th all-time), but finished behind Baylor both times; he won his only playoff scoring title in 1964 with a 34.7 ppg average (20th all-time).

West won his first playoff scoring title in 1965 with the second best average in playoff history (40.6 ppg); his teammate Baylor missed all but one game of the playoffs that year due to injury but West carried the Lakers to the Finals, where they again lost to Boston. West also won playoff scoring titles in 1966 (34.2 ppg), 1968 (30.8 ppg) and 1969 (30.9 ppg), leading the Lakers to the Finals each time only to be defeated by the powerful Celtics.

George Mikan was the first player to win four consecutive playoff scoring titles (1949-52), leading the Minneapolis Lakers to championships in three of those seasons (1949-50, 52). Despite playing in the pre-shot clock era, he still topped 30 ppg twice (30.3 ppg in 1949, 31.3 ppg in 1950) and on March 29, 1952 he set a playoff single game record by dropping 47 points on the Rochester Royals. That mark only stood for one season, though, and it was broken by a player who is not primarily known as a scorer but who led the NBA in playoff scoring from 1953-55: Bob Cousy, whose 50 points in Boston’s March 21, 1953 quadruple overtime 111-104 win over Syracuse stood as the single game playoff record for seven years until rookie Wilt Chamberlain had a 53 point outburst. After Cousy’s run and before Baylor and West dominated the playoff scoring charts, Hall of Famers Paul Arizin and Bob Pettit each won a playoff scoring title (in 1956 and 1957 respectively) and Pettit’s Hall of Fame teammate Cliff Hagan won a pair of playoff scoring titles.

Rick Barry is the only player to win scoring titles in NCAA Division I, the NBA and the ABA and he also won playoff scoring titles in both pro leagues. Barry averaged 34.7 ppg in 1967 as his San Francisco Warriors made it to the NBA Finals and then he won ABA playoff scoring crowns in 1970 (40.1 ppg) and 1971 (33.7 ppg). Barry is one of only three players to average at least 40 ppg in a playoff season (West and Jordan are the other two).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won five playoff scoring titles (1970, 72, 74, 77, 83) but none of those seasons coincided with his six NBA championships. Abdul-Jabbar holds the record for longest time span between his first and last playoff scoring title. For many years he was the all-time leader in career playoff points (5782); he currently ranks second to Jordan (5987). Abdul-Jabbar was the third rookie to win a playoff scoring title, following in the footsteps of Joe Fulks (1947 BAA, one of the forerunners of the NBA) and Connie Hawkins (1968 ABA, the league’s inaugural season).

The fourth and most recent rookie to win a playoff scoring title was Julius Erving, who averaged 33.3 ppg in 1972 for the ABA’s Virginia Squires. Erving won three more playoff scoring titles in the next four seasons, two of them while leading the New York Nets to championships, including a 34.7 ppg average in 1976 that ranks 19th on the all-time list. Erving never won a playoff scoring title in the NBA.

George Gervin is the only player other than Barry to win playoff scoring titles in both leagues. He interrupted Erving’s ABA run by taking the 1975 crown with a 34.0 ppg average that ranks 24th all-time and he later won five straight NBA playoff scoring titles from 1978-82. Only Jordan won more playoff scoring titles than Gervin and only Jordan matched Gervin’s mark with five consecutive playoff scoring titles.

Jordan won his first playoff scoring title in grand fashion, setting the all-time single season playoff record with a 43.7 ppg average in 1986. That of course included his famous 63 point game against Boston, which is still a playoff single game record. Jordan won the 1987 playoff scoring title (35.7 ppg) but then Hakeem Olajuwon captured the 1988 playoff scoring title by averaging 37.5 ppg, which ranks sixth on the all-time list. Jordan won the next five playoff scoring titles, leading the Chicago Bulls to championships in the last three of those seasons. Jordan’s streak was snapped when he went to play minor league baseball and Olajuwon won two straight playoff scoring titles--and two NBA championships—in 1994-95. Jordan closed out the Chicago portion of his career with three more championships and three more playoff scoring titles in 1996-98.

After Jordan, no one has won more than two playoff scoring titles, though Kobe Bryant is currently on pace to capture his third. Bryant (2003, 2007), Allen Iverson (1999, 2005) and Tracy McGrady (2001-02) are the only multiple winners since Jordan, while Shaquille O’Neal (2000), Dirk Nowitzki (2004) and Gilbert Arenas (2006) account for the other playoff scoring titles thus far in the 2000s. Jordan’s record of 10 playoff scoring titles is probably even safer than his record of 10 regular season scoring titles.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:53 PM

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Celtics Shut Down Misfiring Pistons

The Boston Celtics outscored the Detroit Pistons 44-22 in the paint and captured game one of the Eastern Conference Finals, 88-79. Kevin Garnett scored a game-high 26 points on 11-17 field goal shooting and he also had nine rebounds and four assists as he completely dominated Rasheed Wallace (11 points on 3-12 field goal shooting, five rebounds, four assists). Fresh off of his sensational game seven performance versus Cleveland, Paul Pierce authored an excellent all-around game, finishing with 22 points, six rebounds and six assists. He often served as the primary ballhandler in Boston's half court offense, taking pressure off of young point guard Rajon Rondo and creating easy scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Rondo had a very solid game (11 points, seven assists, five steals, one turnover) and he got the better of Chauncey Billups (nine points, two assists) in a matchup that the Pistons need to win in order to defeat the Celtics. Ray Allen continued to struggle, scoring nine points on 3-10 field goal shooting, with his three hoops consisting of a two handed dunk, a layup and a layup attempt that was goaltended. Allen showed that he still has some hops (something that I wondered about after he almost missed a one handed dunk a couple games ago versus Cleveland) but he just looked tentative and out of sorts, alternately passing up shots and launching airballs from areas where he was an automatic shooter as recently as the first round of the playoffs (when he shot .400 from three point range, 18-45). Tayshaun Prince led Detroit with 16 points and Antonio McDyess had a double double (14 points, 11 rebounds) but he did most of his damage in the first quarter (eight points, seven rebounds).

The Pistons were the well rested team while the Celtics had just survived a brutal seven game series against Cleveland but at the start of the game the Celtics seemed energized and the Pistons seemed like they were resting rather than rested. Boston jumped out to an 8-0 lead with Garnett, Pierce and Allen each scoring at least one basket. As this series progresses, pay attention to the difference between the shots the Celtics take and the shots the Pistons take: Boston's defense is forcing the Pistons to take difficult, contested shots outside of the paint, while at the other end of the court the Celtics are getting into the paint at will and either scoring from close range or kicking the ball back out to wide open shooters. Boston shot 36-69 (.522) from the field while limiting Detroit to 28-66 (.424) shooting--and that is actually better than the Pistons shot against the Celtics in three regular season meetings, so don't expect this trend to change any time soon. Anyone who thinks that Cleveland's Mike Brown is a bad coach should be aware that the Celtics did not once shoot better than .500 from the field versus the Cavaliers in the previous round and that Cleveland shot better than .424 in four of the seven games. Detroit had a much better regular season record than Cleveland and plenty of time to prepare for this game and yet the Pistons executed worse on both offense and defense than the Cavaliers did. It's too bad for the Cavaliers that LeBron James did not go 3-18 from the field in game one versus Boston instead of 2-18 because Cleveland could have won that series and then beaten Detroit in this round.

The Pistons rebounded from their slow start to cut the margin to 22-17 by the end of the first quarter. They even took a 39-35 lead late in the second quarter when the Celtics went through a 3:26 cold spell during which they only scored three points. However, the Celtics quickly turned that around and held the Pistons to just one point in the final 3:25 to go up 41-40 at halftime. The Celtics had 16 assists in the first half, which play by play man Mike Breen took to be a sign of good teamwork while analyst Jeff Van Gundy preferred a different explanation: "That means you are playing at home--good scorekeeper taking care of his guys." Van Gundy seemed to be half serious and half joking when he said that but--as I noted in my recap of game seven of the Spurs-Hornets series--some scorekeepers have an extremely liberal definition of what an assist is.

During the halftime show, ESPN's Mike Wilbon expressed concern that the Celtics had played so well and yet were only up by one point but that "logic" makes no sense: the Celtics had outshot the Pistons from the field (51% to 39%), outrebounded them 20-16 and outscored them in the paint 26-10. The score was close only because the Celtics committed a few unnecessary second quarter fouls that put Detroit in the bonus and enabled the Pistons to score some points from the free throw line. Which is the more likely halftime adjustment--Boston stops fouling which makes it very hard for Detroit to score or Detroit somehow cures its shooting, rebounding and paint presence problems? Naturally, in the second half the Celtics cut down on their silly fouls while the Pistons not only struggled in the same three areas that they had problems with in the first half but they also uncharacteristically turned the ball over seven times in the third quarter. The Celtics outscored the Pistons 47-39 in the second half and that margin would have been 11 if not for a meaningless three pointer by Prince just before the final buzzer.

Shortly before the end of the game, Van Gundy perfectly summarized why Boston won: "You can't underestimate the impact that this great Celtics defense has had on the Pistons. They have taken everybody out of their individual comfort zones and the team out of what they do best."

Detroit is billed as a great defensive team that has multiple All-Stars who run an excellent offense that features high percentage shots and a low turnover rate. Prior to this game, Van Gundy said that he thinks the Pistons are the best of the four teams that remain alive in the playoffs. Although Van Gundy is an excellent analyst whose insights I respect, I think that Detroit is the worst of the four remaining teams and is actually not better than Cleveland, either--at least in terms of being able to do what is necessary to win a playoff series against a strong team, which is all that really matters at this time of year. I predicted that against Boston the Pistons' "liberation offense" (the term some people initially used to differentiate Coach Flip Saunders' offense from the supposedly restrictive attack employed by his predecessor Larry Brown) would be ineffective, particularly down the stretch, and that Boston would be able to attack Detroit in the paint; the Pistons have not defended the paint well on a consistent basis against elite teams in the playoffs since the departure of Coach Brown and four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace. The Pistons also have a tendency to become lackadaisical for long stretches--even entire games sometimes--and that is not going to get it done against a Boston team that may play harder longer than anyone else in the NBA.

It would be foolish to say that a series is over after one game but it is worth noting that the game one winner advances 79% of the time; there is a cliche about a series not starting until someone wins on the road and an oft-stated idea that winning home games is just "taking care of business"--but both of those concepts are bogus: by that logic, the Boston-Cleveland series has not started even though it is already over. In most cases, if the underdog team is going to pull off the upset they need to steal homecourt advantage right off the bat. That said, it would not shock me if Detroit came up with a great effort at some point and won a game in Boston--perhaps even in game two--but I also expect the Celtics to win at least one game in Detroit and ultimately wrap this series up in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:42 AM

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Los Angeles Versus San Antonio Preview

Western Conference Finals

#1 Los Angeles (57-25) vs. #3 San Antonio (56-26)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

San Antonio can win if…Tim Duncan is dominant enough offensively against single coverage that the Lakers are forced to double team him, opening up opportunities for perimeter shooters to make three pointers. Another key factor will be how successful Tony Parker is at breaking down the Lakers' defense with dribble penetration. If Manu Ginobili can come close to offsetting Kobe Bryant's production/impact that will be huge.

Los Angeles will win because…Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA and he presents an extremely difficult matchup problem, all the more so now that he has enough help around him that teams cannot just throw waves of defenders against him without worrying about being burned. As Bryant put it, he is no longer going into gun battles with butter knives--and the biggest firearm in Bryant's arsenal is midseason acquisition Pau Gasol. It is risky for opposing teams to send a big man at Bryant when he gets into the paint because now he can simply feed the ball to Gasol for an easy dunk. Gasol never shot better than .538 from the field in a season prior to joining the Lakers but he shot .589 in 27 regular season games since teaming up with Bryant and Gasol has shot .568 from the field in 10 playoff games. Meanwhile, Lamar Odom is thriving as the third option while opponents focus on dealing with Bryant and Gasol. The Lakers are a good transition team but the Spurs' defensive philosophy has always centered around getting back quickly, protecting the paint and forcing the opponent to shoot contested shots, so the Lakers will have to force turnovers in order to run; they are not likely to get many transition opportunities solely off of defensive rebounds.

Other things to consider: The Lakers went through three different seasons in 2007-08--one with Andrew Bynum at center, one with Gasol at center and a couple different stretches without either player being available. They only played the Spurs once with their current team intact, winning 106-85 at the Staples Center on April 13, a victory that ultimately decided homecourt advantage in this playoff matchup. However, Ginobili did not play in that game.

This will be an interesting test for the Lakers' much ballyhooed bench, because the Spurs' reserves include Michael Finley (or Ginobili if he is shifted back to the bench), Ime Udoka and Kurt Thomas, each of whom has been productive during the first two rounds of the playoffs. Luke Walton (8.6 ppg, .544 field goal shooting, .538 three point shooting) and Sasha Vujacic (8.7 ppg, .458 field goal shooting, .459 three point shooting) are the only Lakers reserves who have been effective in the playoffs. Ronny Turiaf has hardly played (9.0 mpg) and Jordan Farmar has been miserable defensively and offensively (.265 field goal percentage).

These franchises have faced each other in the playoffs five times since 1999 (1999, 2001-04), with the Lakers winning 14 of 25 games and three of the series. The Lakers twice beat the Spurs en route to winning a championship and the Spurs likewise twice beat the Lakers in the same season that they captured a title (in 2004 the Lakers beat the Spurs but lost in the NBA Finals). The Lakers and Spurs have combined to win seven of the last nine NBA titles (the Lakers won in 2000-02, the Spurs won in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007). That history is interesting but will not have a direct bearing on the outcome of this series because the only principals who have been involved in this rivalry since 1999 are coaches Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich plus players Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher and Tim Duncan.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:32 PM

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Manu is the Man as Spurs Eliminate Hornets

Manu Ginobili scored a game-high 26 points as the San Antonio Spurs beat the New Orleans Hornets 91-82 to earn a rare seventh game victory on the road. Though a nine point differential may not seem like much it is actually tied for the third biggest margin in a seventh game road win since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. Ginobili missed five of his first six field goal attempts and shot just 6-19 for the game but he scored 11 points in the final 3:09 of the first half as the Spurs turned a 37-36 deficit into a 51-42 halftime lead. The Spurs never trailed after that, withstanding a furious rally by the Hornets late in the game. Ginobili also had five rebounds and he tied for the team lead with five assists. Tim Duncan finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds. He shot just 5-17 from the field but he had a huge impact on the game at both ends of the court: offensively he drew double-teams that enabled his wide open teammates to shoot 12-28 (.429) from three point range and defensively he helped the Spurs win the rebounding battle (51-42) and he sealed off the paint from dribble penetration, resulting in the Hornets missing a lot of contested jumpers, including a 4-17 (.235) tally from three point range. Tony Parker contributed 17 points and five assists. David West had 20 points and nine rebounds but he did most of his damage in the first quarter (10 points on 5-8 shooting, four rebounds) and shot just 3-11 from the field in the final 36 minutes. Chris Paul filled up the boxscore (18 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds, five steals) but he never really controlled the flow of the game. Jannero Pargo came off the bench to score 18 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter as he singlehandedly tried to bring New Orleans back from a double digit deficit.

Before delving into what happened in this game, I have to mention a scorekeeping issue that really bothers me--and a problem that Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Rick Barry have talked about for years. Robertson, at one time the career leader in assists (he currently ranks fourth), has repeatedly said that assists are doled out much more generously by scorekeepers than they were when he played. Barry told me that the only statistic he trusts is free throw percentage because every other number can be manipulated in some way either by the player (for instance, missing a shot to pad one's offensive rebounding totals) or by the subjective judgment of the scorekeeper, who has the final word in deciding whether or not a tap is an offensive rebound, who should get credit for a steal--and what constitutes an assist. In my post about game one of this series, I pointed out that even though Paul was officially credited with seven assists on passes to David West (and 13 total assists) three of those assists were clearly scored incorrectly (Paul did not even pass to West on one of the plays in question!) and one of them was marginal at best. For game seven, I tracked every one of Paul's 14 official assists and it turns out that he actually should only have been credited with nine assists (see the notes at the end of this post for a breakdown of what happened on each of these plays).

Why does this matter? If you look at the boxscore and see that Paul had 14 assists then you might think that he had a great game. That is how David Berri and a lot of other stats gurus "analyze" basketball: by crunching unreliable numbers without ever watching a game. I love stats and numbers as much as anyone but, frankly, I am disgusted by this new wave of so-called "analysts" who think that a spreadsheet tells them all they need to know about basketball; they not only fail to realize the folly of this conception on a general level but they are oblivious to how subjective some of the "official" statistics are. Anyone who watched this game seven with understanding realizes that Paul played reasonably well, but not great. Paul got into the lane on a few occasions and made some passes that resulted in dunks but overall the Spurs did a good job of containing him--and that is one of the reasons that the Spurs won the deciding game in this series. Paul certainly did not dominate the flow of this game the way that Kobe Bryant does on a nightly basis or the way that LeBron James does even in defeat by forcing the opposing team to shadow him all over the court with multiple defenders.

Also, taking a broader view than just this game, Paul's assist totals are one of the major factors being cited by people who claim that Paul should have won the MVP and that he already ranks among the all-time great point guards. I think that Paul is the best point guard in the NBA today and that he was the third best player in the NBA this season behind Bryant and James but I also think that it is clear that assists are awarded much more liberally now than they should be or than they were in the past and that Paul is a big beneficiary of this largesse. I don't doubt that Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and other point guards also receive such help and I think that this kind of faulty scorekeeping is a major reason that Nash owns two MVP awards. If Nash had been credited with 8 or 9 apg instead of 11.5 apg and 10.5 apg in 2005 and 2006 respectively then the voters would have had a more difficult time justifying giving the award to a player who averaged less than 19 ppg each season and is a major liability defensively.

OK, back to the game: in my preview article about this series I wrote, "Manu Ginobili may be the X factor in this series. Assuming that Parker will not score as much as he did last round, Ginobili may become the focal point of the Spurs' offensive attack for significant stretches of time." Sure enough, after averaging 29.6 ppg in the first round versus Nash's Suns, Parker averaged 19.4 ppg versus Paul's Hornets. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich used Ginobili as his sixth man for most of this season and for the first seven games of the playoffs but after the Spurs dropped the first two games to New Orleans he not only inserted Ginobili into the starting lineup but he increased his minutes: Ginobili played 32 and 27 minutes in games one and two but in the Spurs' game three victory he scored 31 points in 39 minutes. He played 32 minutes in the Spurs' game four win and would surely have played more minutes if the score had been closer in the fourth quarter. Ginobili played 42 minutes in game seven.

Ginobili is not an MVP-level player like Bryant or James nor is he even the best player on the Spurs; without Duncan, it would be much easier for teams to defend Ginobili (and Parker) and the Spurs' defense would not be nearly as good--having Duncan lurking in the paint is like having your big brother nearby when you are in a schoolyard fight: you never have to worry about things getting out of hand because he will have your back and it is that sense of security that is the basis for how Ginobili, Parker and Bruce Bowen are able to guard their men. Ginobili is exactly what I called him in my preview: an X factor, a matchup problem for which the Hornets (and many other teams) have no good answer.

The teams traded baskets in the early going before the Hornets hit a couple hoops in a row to take a 14-11 lead. The Spurs closed the first quarter with a 12-6 run. Duncan scored eight points in the first quarter and the Spurs took advantage of the double team coverage against him to make three three pointers. Duncan only received an assist for one of the three pointers but a player who commands a double team forces the opponent to have to scramble defensively and that results in open shots; this is one of the reasons that guys like Bryant, James and Duncan are perennial MVP candidates: their very presence impacts the game, even in situations in which there are no statistics to quantify their impact.

The Spurs pushed their lead to 36-25 in the second quarter but the Hornets calmly answered with a 12-0 run to take their last lead of the game. This is when Ginobili made his presence felt by drilling three three pointers and a runner in the lane as the Spurs surged to a 51-42 halftime advantage. Ginobili scored one of the three pointers in transition but Duncan had a role in the other two, earning an assist on one of them and drawing the defense into the paint on the other (the defense was further collapsed on that possession by a penetrating drive by Parker).

San Antonio played horribly in the third quarters of each of the previous games in New Orleans but the Spurs cured that problem in game seven, outscoring the Hornets 20-14 while holding them to 5-17 field goal shooting. The Spurs led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter and carried a 71-56 advantage into the final 12 minutes. Then, the Hornets made seven straight field goals to open the fourth quarter, cutting the lead to 78-70. Pargo did most of the damage, hitting runners, three pointers and making his free throws after drawing fouls. Meanwhile, the Spurs went cold, shooting just 3-17 from the field in the first 11:10 of the quarter. By that point, a Pargo three pointer had made the score 83-80 San Antonio and all the Hornets needed was one stop and one score. Instead, the Spurs ran a screen/roll play with Duncan and Parker that resulted in Parker making a jumper to put the Spurs up by five. After that, Ginobili sealed the deal by making six straight free throws and West scored the Hornets' final points of the season on an uncontested dunk.

The Spurs are built around Duncan's impact as a low post scoring threat, a rebounder, a defender and even as a screener. Duncan's 16 points in this game are not like a regular player scoring 16 points because Duncan drew double team coverage for most of the game, opening up scoring opportunities for his teammates; regardless of how some people may interpret what the boxscore says, not all identical point totals are in fact created equal. Parker is an All-Star level point guard with a scorer's mentality but he has mastered the delicate balance of knowing when to shoot (and which shots to take) and when to pass. Ginobili is an All-Star level shooting guard whose grit, guile, clutch play and ability to score in a variety of ways make him a perfect complement to Duncan and Parker. Coach Popovich is one of the best coaches in the NBA and he may be the best at manipulating individual matchups to his team's advantage.

This young New Orleans team did a great job of pushing the defending champions to the brink of elimination. Paul has emerged this season as the best point guard in the NBA and West looks like he will be an All-Star for years to come. The ingredient in New Orleans' success that many people overlook is that the Hornets are a very good defensive team.

****
A Breakdown of Chris Paul's 14 Game Seven Assists

1: Stojakovic jumper, 9:22 1st q--Correct; Stojakovic caught the pass and went straight into his shooting motion.
2: Chandler dunk, 7:01 1st q--Correct; Chandler caught the pass and dunked it.
3: West jumper, 6:21 1st q--Incorrect; West caught the ball with his back to the basket at the 6:26 mark. Paul moved from the left wing to the top of the key as West turned and faced up Fabricio Oberto. West then dribbled, did a spin move and shot a tough fadeaway jumper. There is no conceivable way that this can correctly be scored as an assist. An assist is only supposed to be awarded if the pass significantly contributed to the score and if the player who received the pass made an immediate reaction to shoot. West executed multiple moves and fakes before he scored.
4: West jumper, 4:33 1st q--Incorrect; this one is so bad it is ridiculous: West received the ball from Paul at the right free throw line extended at the 4:40 mark. West pump faked Oberto off of his feet, took four dribbles, made a spin move into the paint, came to a jump stop, did an up and under move and then shot a jump hook. Seven seconds, four dribbles and multiple fakes happened between Paul's pass and West's shot! If Paul deserves an assist, then I think that West's point guard at Xavier should get one, too--he had about as much to do with West making this shot as Paul did.
5: Chandler dunk, 7:09 2nd q--Correct; Chandler caught the pass and dunked it.
6: Stojakovic three pointer, 5:22 2nd q--Correct; Stojakovic caught the pass and went straight into his shooting motion.
7: Peterson three pointer, 4:43 2nd q--Correct; Peterson caught the pass and went straight into his shooting motion.
8: Stojakovic jumper, 3:31 2nd q--Incorrect; Stojakovic caught the pass, pump faked, used an escape dribble and then shot. If the shooter does more than half of the work the passer is not supposed to receive credit and this basket would never have been scored without the fake and the dribble move.
9: Peterson driving layup, :24 2nd q--Incorrect; Peterson received the ball at the three point line at the :27 mark. If he had shot it at that point then Paul would deserve an assist, but Peterson took two dribbles, drove past Tony Parker, eluded Tim Duncan and made a layup. That is a one on one (or one on two) move, not an assisted field goal.
10: West dunk, :07 3rd q--Correct; West caught the pass and dunked it.
11: Chandler dunk, 10:15 4th q--Correct; Chandler caught the pass and dunked it.
12: Pargo driving layup, 8:34 4th q--Incorrect; Pargo caught the pass at the three point line at the 8:38 mark, faked a shot, drove past Tony Parker and shot a tough runner. If assists are going to be awarded on this play and on play number nine above then every single time someone passes the ball and the recipient eventually scores an assist should be awarded. Obviously, that is not within the letter or the spirit of what an assist is supposed to be, namely a pass that creates a scoring opportunity that otherwise would not have existed. If Pargo had caught the ball and shot, then Paul would deserve an assist but once Pargo created a shot then the pass lost any claim of being worthy of being designated as an assist.
13: Chandler dunk, 7:59 4th q--Correct; Chandler caught the pass and dunked it.
14: Pargo three pointer, 1:35 4th q--Correct; Paul back tapped an offensive rebound to Pargo, who caught the pass and shot it. Paul was rightly credited with both an offensive rebound and an assist on this play.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:47 AM

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Boston Versus Detroit Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

#1 Boston (66-16) vs. #2 Detroit (59-23)

Season series: Boston, 2-1

Detroit can win if…they can control the boards and find a way to score consistently against Boston's stifling defense; the Celtics won the rebounding battle in all three regular season games and held the Pistons to a field goal percentage below .410 in each of those contests.

Boston will win because…the Celtics are an outstanding defensive team that will outexecute the Pistons down the stretch.

Other things to consider: Boston's road woes during this year's playoffs have been much discussed but the bottom line is that this is the first go around in the postseason for this team collectively and they have won every must-win game so far--not only the two seventh games but also the two fifth games which, as Coach Doc Rivers pointed out, are also pressure packed situations. Detroit has a tendency to get lackadaisical during the course of a playoff series and that flaw has prevented the Pistons from returning to the NBA Finals since the departure of Coach Larry Brown and center Ben Wallace. Coach Flip Saunders' much vaunted "liberation offense" works a lot better in the regular season against overmatched teams than it does in the latter stages of the playoffs against elite teams. Look for the Pistons to have some brutal fourth quarter stretches offensively, look for the Celtics to finally win a road playoff game and look for Boston to win this series in six games. As a side note, there is of course no way to prove this--other than noting Cleveland's 4-3 Eastern Conference Finals win last year and how they forced the Celtics to a seventh game--but I think that Cleveland would have beaten Detroit, too.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 PM

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Jack McCallum on Kobe and the Bench Mob

Veteran NBA scribe Jack McCallum just wrote an interesting article titled "Kobe and the Bench Mob." It describes the relationship on and off the court between Kobe Bryant and Lakers reserves Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf and Jordan Farmar. Here are some highlights from the piece:

Vujacic: "If we win a championship we know it will be mainly because of Kobe. But we will have something to say about it too."

Vujacic on how he feels when Bryant yells at him for making a mistake: "I will give you an honest answer even if it sounds like a diplomatic answer. I know it looked like it was bad when Kobe was hollering and everything. But the idea that it was a big deal is just so overreacting that I can't even describe it. My relationship with Kobe was great from Day One."

Turiaf on the same subject: "It's very hard for people to know exactly what's going on inside a family. We don't look at things like people in the media do. Maybe that's why we're in the NBA and you're not."

McCallum writes that Bryant and Vujacic formed a bond in Vujacic's second season (2005-06) when they started working out together early in the morning. Vujacic says, "I have always been a fanatic about basketball and I had been frustrated in my rookie year. I wanted to get better. So did Kobe. Kobe always wants to get better. We are much alike."

Although national TV commentators have said that Vujacic dubbed himself "The Machine," Vujacic denies that he created that nickname.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:46 AM

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Celtics Edge Cavs as James and Pierce Stage a Duel for the Ages

Paul Pierce and LeBron James did their best to revive memories of the classic 1988 game seven Boston Garden showdown between Larry Bird (34 points, 20 in the fourth quarter) and Dominique Wilkins (47 points, 16 in the fourth quarter). Bird's Celtics beat Wilkins' Hawks 118-116 and the final result this time was very similar: the visiting player scored more points but the Celtics won the game. Boston advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals after a 97-92 victory over Cleveland in which Pierce scored 41 points on 13-23 field goal shooting (including 4-6 from three point range) and 11-12 free throw shooting. He also had five assists, four rebounds and two steals. Sam Jones is the only Celtic who ever scored more points in a seventh game (47). James scored 45 points on 14-29 field goal shooting (including 3-11 from three point range) and 14-19 free throw shooting; only three players have ever scored more points in a seventh game (Jones, Wilkins and Kevin Johnson, who scored 46). James led the Cavs in assists (six) and steals (two) and he had five rebounds, missing the team lead by one in that category.

Kevin Garnett (13 points on 5-13 field goal shooting) simply does not have the mentality or the skill set (i.e., a back to the basket offensive game that culminates in something other than a fadeaway jumper) to be a big-time, go-to scorer like James or Pierce but he had a game-high 13 rebounds and once again served as the anchor of Boston's defense. With about two minutes remaining in the first half, Garnett guarded James one on one and stopped his driving move, forcing him to pass to Wally Szczerbiak at the top of the key. Garnett then switched on to Szczerbiak, stole the ball, raced down court and drew a foul on Szczerbiak. No other Boston player can match Garnett's defensive skill and his ability to guard multiple players on one possession but his defensive energy and intensity are contagious and helped transform the Celtics into the best defensive team in the NBA. Sure, it would be nice if a player with Garnett's size and athleticism shouldered a bigger offensive load but he has rarely done that in his 12 season career so there is no reason to expect him to do it now--and being in a tandem with Pierce is actually perfect for both players, because Pierce definitely thrives in the role as a go-to scorer and Garnett's example at the other end of the court has resulted in Pierce playing better defense than ever.

It hardly makes sense to say that the Celtics have a "Big Three": although Ray Allen made the All-Star team and had a solid season he was outplayed by Szczerbiak for most of this series and he scored just four points on 1-6 shooting in game seven. Allen sat out virtually the entire fourth quarter, entering the game only near the very end when he knocked down a pair of free throws with :18 left to put Boston up 93-88. Despite Pierce's scoring and Garnett's defense and rebounding, the Celtics would probably have lost if not for key contributions made by reserve players P.J. Brown and Eddie House. Brown scored a season-high (playoffs or regular season) 10 points on 4-4 field goal shooting and grabbed six rebounds in 20 minutes. His putback gave the Celtics an 89-84 lead with 2:45 left and his jumper put them up 91-88 with just 1:21 remaining; those were Boston's final two field goals of the game--Pierce did not make a field goal in the final 6:03 (though he did make two big free throws to close out the scoring) and Garnett did not make a field goal in the last 3:43. Brown also slid over as a help defender and forced James to shoot an airball on a drive to the hoop with :25 left and Boston clinging to a 91-88 lead. House scored four points on 1-5 field goal shooting but his game-high plus/minus rating of +13 hints at the true magnitude of his contributions. As Boston Coach Doc Rivers said after the game, House played good defense, he scrapped for loose balls and he provided a huge energy boost in his 15 minutes of playing time; in one sequence in the second quarter, House dove head first for a loose ball and saved it from going out of bounds by flipping it to James Posey, who got fouled and made two free throws to extend Boston's lead to 34-23.

Delonte West was the only Cav other than James to score at least 10 points (15). No Cav other than James attempted more than eight shots and starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas (eight points), Ben Wallace (3 points) and Szczerbiak (0 points) were largely invisible for most of the game. Cleveland's winning formula is the brilliance of James supplemented by team defense and rebounding. James certainly came through with a great performance but Cleveland failed badly in the other two areas, allowing the Celtics to shoot 32-67 (.478) from the field and losing the battle of the boards 39-29.

Pierce got the Celtics off to a quick start, scoring their first two baskets on jump shots and then assisting on a Garnett jumper. The Celtics led 16-4 at the 4:33 mark of the first quarter. Although James played a fantastic game overall, it must be said that he also played a role in creating the double digit deficit that forced Cleveland to battle uphill all game long: he missed four of his first five field goal attempts, including some difficult, low percentage shots. At the 6:23 mark he missed a turnaround, fadeaway jumper from the left block. James actually landed out of bounds behind the baseline after he released the ball over Pierce, who raced down court and scored a fast break layup on a feed from Rajon Rondo (who finished with eight points, eight rebounds and eight assists). James jogged back in transition instead of sprinting as his man scored on a three on two fast break. After a close game, a lot of attention is paid to what happened in the final couple minutes but plays like that in the first few minutes have just as much impact on the result. During timeouts at Quicken Loans Arena, the big overhead scoreboard sometimes shows the famous film clip from "Any Given Sunday" when Al Pacino talks about how "life is a game of inches" and that the "inches we need are everywhere around us." Better shot selection and getting back faster on defense are some "inches" that James squandered in this particular instance. That said, James carried virtually the entire load for the Cavs in the first half when he and West were the only Cleveland starters who scored.

Throughout the telecast, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson repeatedly talked about Garnett's obvious reluctance to play a larger role offensively. One time, Garnett had the ball in the paint but passed to Rondo, who missed a jumper. Van Gundy said, "Kevin Garnett has to be hungrier to score. He had the ball in the lane versus (the much shorter) Delonte West." Boston led 18-13 after the first quarter, with Pierce scoring nine points on 4-8 shooting and James scoring nine points on 3-7 shooting. Garnett had just four points on 2-6 shooting--all of them jumpers--but he controlled the boards with six rebounds. Jackson and Van Gundy both said that Garnett should make Cleveland pay for using single coverage on him. On the one hand, I agree with them and this is part of why I have never considered Garnett to be as great as Tim Duncan but on the other hand, as I indicated above, after a while it almost does not even make sense to criticize Garnett any more about his passivity as a scorer. Obviously, this is a shortcoming in his game but he is not going to change; Garnett is a great defender, rebounder and passer who is unable or unwilling to be a dominant scorer, so the coaching staff and his teammates have to take that into account and play in a fashion that maximizes the impact of the many things that he does well and works around the fact that he is rarely going to score 40 points in a game or get 15 points in a quarter.

James started taking better shots as the game wore on--eschewing long jumpers and fadeaways for drives to the hoop and shorter jumpers--but he still got very little help from his teammates; he played all but 1:12 of the game and when he got that brief rest in the second quarter Boston's lead grew from 29-23 to 34-23. The Celtics were up 50-40 at halftime. Pierce already had 26 points, while James had 23 points (but just one rebound and one assist).

The Celtics started the third quarter so drowsily it looked like someone had spiked their Gatorade. James got a steal, drove coast to coast for a layup and drew a foul. He missed the free throw but got the rebound. That possession eventually ended with him passing to West for a three pointer. After a Boston score, Ilgauskas hit back to back jumpers to cut Boston's lead to 52-49. The Celtics called a timeout during which Rivers lit into his team for their lackluster effort. They soon built the lead back up to 67-58 but Cleveland pulled to within 73-68 by the end of the quarter.

The Celtics briefly led by seven in the fourth quarter but during most of the final 12 minutes it was a two possession or one possession game, magnifying the importance of every shot, every pass and every turnover. At the 5:01 mark, James defended Pierce tightly above the top of the key, flicking the ball of Pierce's leg and out of bounds. Somehow, the referees missed the fact that James had tugged so hard on Pierce's jersey that he actually untucked it from Pierce's shorts. On the next possession, James drove to the hoop and hit a tough runner over Garnett to slice Boston's lead to 85-82. Garnett answered with his final points of the game, his patented fadeaway shot from the block. West sank a couple free throws and then Brown stepped into the spotlight with his putback of Rondo's missed jumper. Ilgauskas made two free throws and then things got very interesting when James stole the ball from Pierce and raced down court for a dunk that made the score 89-88 Boston, the first time that Cleveland had been within one point since the opening moments of the game. Garnett then missed a jumper and James missed a three pointer before Brown hit a jumper to put Boston up three.

After West missed a wide open three pointer there was a scramble for the ball and Ilgauskas ended up in a tie up with James Posey. Naturally, the much taller Ilgauskas controlled the resulting jump ball but Pierce smartly stepped in front of James and grabbed the ball. Van Gundy said that this was a huge mistake by James, who neglected to box out Pierce--again, more "inches" squandered in a very close game. The Celtics did not get any points out of this possession but they used up nearly the full 24 seconds on the shot clock. James rebounded Garnett's missed jumper and dribbled down court, eventually shooting an airball from inside the paint after Brown challenged his shot. Van Gundy noted that James could have shot an open three pointer, going for the tie and giving the Cavs a chance to have a two for one (two of the last three possessions of the game, since the shot clock would prevent the Celtics from holding the ball). Instead, Garnett rebounded the miss and Allen ended up making two free throws, his only points of the second half. James drove to the hoop on Cleveland's next possession but only made one of two free throws after Pierce fouled him. Trailing 93-89 with :16 left, the Cavs obviously had to foul. House made two free throws but Sasha Pavlovic kept Cleveland's hopes alive by making a three pointer when Pierce inexplicably left him open to challenge a driving James, who smartly passed to Pavlovic. Boston inbounded to Pierce, who was promptly fouled. His first free throw bounced high off the rim before coming back down and falling through the hoop. Pierce had a big smile of relief and then he swished the second free throw to put Boston up 97-92. James missed a three pointer and seconds later Cleveland's season was over.

Garnett and Pierce were no shows in the interview room after two of Boston's three losses in Cleveland but of course they hammed it up in the interview room after this win, with Garnett uttering a few profanities that were audible during NBA TV's live feed and giddily saying that Boston's strategy was, "Get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out the way." It sure is nice to have a great player to carry the scoring load when you are unable or unwilling to do so yourself.

James shows up in the interview room win or lose. He praised Pierce's performance, adding, "Paul Pierce is one of my favorite players" and saying that Pierce's footwork is second only to Kobe Bryant's. Cleveland made a big midseason trade but fell in the second round this year after making it to the 2007 NBA Finals. Several times during his postgame remarks James said, "We need to get better" and though he did not specify what he meant by that he indicated that personnel changes may be necessary, citing the examples of teams like the L.A. Lakers, Boston, Detroit and Orlando, each of whom upgraded their rosters in the past year. When Bryant (rightly) asked for more help last offseason he was roundly criticized but James will not likely face the same backlash--nor should he: it is only natural for an MVP-level player who is highly competitive to want to have the best possible roster around him so that he can contend for championships.

As Rivers noted during his postgame interview session, the Celtics conserved some of Pierce's energy by having Posey guard James but James guarded Pierce for virtually the entire game; Rivers had hoped that by having Pierce go right at James that James would get fatigued but Rivers said that this did not appear to work because, if anything, James seemed to be getting stronger as the game continued. In previous seasons, James' defense was not a strong suit but after the game he said, "I made a change this year that if I want to be the best I have to guard the best." Of course, that is taking a page out of what Michael Jordan used to do and what Bryant does now. This process really began in last year's playoffs, when James guarded Detroit's Chauncey Billups during some key late game possessions. It is great to see James embracing this challenge.

I hate it when I hear some players whose teams have been eliminated from the playoffs say that they won't even watch any of the remaining games. I remember when Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre used to go to NBA Finals games as young players before they played on championship teams and I have always felt that this is the right approach to take: soak in the environment of the NBA at its highest level and see what it really takes to win a championship. So I was delighted to hear James declare that he will follow the rest of the playoffs closely: "I'm a fan of the game. You might even see me at a few of the games."

After Cleveland was swept in last year's NBA Finals, James said, "I’ve got a lot of things to work on to get better for next year. There’s no one thing that I want to focus on intensively, it’s just everything. I definitely need to get better and once I get better our team will automatically get better. I have to do everything that I’ve done well and continue to improve in order for us to be a better team next year." I was a little surprised to hear his current take on the same subject; he said that for the most part he is satisfied with his game now, concluding, "I need to fine tune the rest of my game," as opposed to making any radical changes. I cannot recall a great player--let alone a young player who has yet to win a championship--express satisfaction with his game; Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan all added something new to their games each summer, whether it was better outside shooting, improved strength, a three point shot or something else. James has taken a big step forward defensively but his outside shooting is a glaring weakness and his free throw shooting is not as good as it should be for someone who gets fouled as often as he does; he is also a turnover prone player in the postseason, particularly against good defensive teams that concede the jump shot and deny good passing angles.

James shot .476 from the field and committed 3.2 turnovers per game in the 2006-07 season but he shot .356 from the field and committed 23 turnovers (5.8 per game) in last year's NBA Finals versus the Spurs; this season he shot .484 from the field and committed 3.4 turnovers per game but against Boston he shot .355 from the field while committing 37 turnovers (5.3 per game). San Antonio and Boston successfully employed the same defensive strategy against James: wall off the paint to minimize his driving opportunities while sagging off of him on the perimeter, conceding the jump shot and hindering his ability to complete passes. James shot 4-20 (.200) from three point range in the 2007 Finals and he shot 9-39 (.231) from three point range versus the Celtics. Even more significantly, he shot a poor percentage in both series on midrange jumpers. In other words, it is wrong to say that James merely had a shooting slump against San Antonio or Boston; those teams scouted him and came up with a game plan that forced him to make outside shots, something that he is not able to do on a consistent basis.

Sometimes, James makes his jump shots and often he is able to get to the hoop even when defenders sag off of him; it is actually pretty remarkable that despite his limitations as a shooter he scored 48 points in a playoff game last year versus Detroit and 45 points in this playoff game versus Boston. Nevertheless, until James develops a better, more consistent outside shooting stroke the elite defensive teams will use this same plan against him in the postseason and he will continue to shoot below .400 from the field and commit more than five turnovers per game in playoff series against such teams.

James is a marvelously gifted player, a superb passer and rebounder who drives so strongly and relentlessly to the hoop that most teams cannot contain him. I rank him as the second best player in the NBA behind Kobe Bryant--but until James develops a more consistent shooting stroke from the free throw line and the perimeter it will be tough for him to lead the Cavs past the best of the best. I consistently--and correctly--rate the Cavaliers higher than most other analysts do but I also correctly picked the Cavs to lose to the Spurs and to lose to the Celtics, in part because those teams have the necessary game plan and personnel to do just enough to sufficiently contain James and thus beat Cleveland. While it certainly would not hurt if the Cavs added some more talent, if James had a consistent outside shot then teams would have to guard him more closely and that would open up driving lanes and passing angles for him--and that would have been just enough to help the Cavs beat the Celtics this year. If James wants to be the best player in the NBA and lead the Cavs to a championship, then it is clear exactly what he must do this offseason.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:51 PM

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