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Saturday, May 31, 2008

80s Flashback: Celtics Beat Pistons, Will Meet Lakers in Finals

Paul Pierce scored a very efficient 27 points (shooting 8-12 from the field and 10-13 from the free throw line) as the Boston Celtics rallied from a 70-60 fourth quarter deficit to beat the Detroit Pistons 89-81 in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics will now advance to the NBA Finals, where they will face the L.A. Lakers in a matchup of the two most storied franchises in league history. Ray Allen added 17 points and six rebounds; he did most of his damage in the first quarter but in these tight, defensive struggles every point counts. Kevin Garnett got off to a woeful start, making just 2 of his first 10 field goal attempts, but he anchored Boston's defense throughout the game and made some key second half shots, finishing with 16 points on 7-16 field goal shooting. He also had six rebounds and four assists. Rajon Rondo added 11 points, four rebounds (all of them on the offensive glass) and three assists. He shot just 5-13 from the field. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said that Rondo's best skill is rebounding, which is a strange thing to say about a 6-1 point guard; the funny thing is that this is probably true: Rondo is not a great shooter, he is only beginning to understand when he should pass versus when he should shoot and despite his athletic gifts (long arms, quick feet, jumping ability) he was burned repeatedly on defense by the stronger, wilier and more experienced Chauncey Billups. The one thing that Rondo did really well in this game was chase down offensive rebounds.

Billups did his best to try to carry the Pistons to a seventh game in Boston, scoring 29 points, grabbing six rebounds and dishing off six assists while not committing a single turnover. The big question before the game was about the status of Richard Hamilton's right (shooting) elbow but his injury was not an issue as he scored 21 points on 9-14 field goal shooting. Tayshaun Prince scored 10 points but shot just 3-10 from the field. For the most part, the other Pistons were--as Keith Olbermann used to say on SportsCenter--just watching. Jason Maxiell provided some energy (seven points on 3-4 shooting in 16 minutes) but that was not enough to offset the lack of production from starters Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess. Wallace shot 2-12 from the field and had fewer points (four) than fouls (five), though he did grab a game-high 10 rebounds. McDyess had six points and six rebounds.

Garnett and Wallace are each marvelously skilled players but for substantial portions of this series they seemed to be engaged in a contest to see who could spend less time in the paint on offense. Midway through the fourth quarter, Van Gundy exclaimed, "I want Kevin Garnett on the post right now!" Right as he said that, Garnett made a long jumper but Mark Jackson said that--even though Garnett hit that shot--"I couldn't agree more. You've got to go with the high percentage play." The reality is that Garnett and Wallace are never going to simply plant themselves in the post and go to work; it just is not in their nature to do that. The difference between them--and the reason that Garnett is an MVP candidate while Wallace is an enigma--is that Garnett is always fully engaged in the game defensively and as a rebounder and passer, while Wallace not only drifts to the perimeter offensively but frequently seems to drift out of the game altogether. If either of their teams depended primarily on those guys providing scoring in the paint then they would be in trouble but Pierce and Allen are the usual closers for Boston while Billups and Hamilton fill that role for Detroit.

In game six, Allen and Hamilton both went to work early, with each of them scoring 10 first quarter points. The Celtics led 24-21 after the first quarter. The Celtics maintained a small lead throughout the second quarter and were up 40-37 at halftime. Boston led 52-47 at the 7:16 mark of the third quarter when Garnett got his fourth foul. Boston Coach Doc Rivers left him in the game but the Pistons went on a 6-2 run anyway and after Rivers sat him down a couple minutes later Detroit closed the quarter with a 15-6 spurt to go up 68-60. Remember the Brent Barry/Derek Fisher play at the end of game four of the Western Conference Finals, the non-call that got all the conspiracy theorists working overtime? I said that I have seen similar plays be no-calls, offensive fouls or defensive fouls and near the end of the third quarter of this game we saw a great example of what I meant: Pierce faked a shot, Hamilton made contact with him outside the three point line and both players fell to the ground after Pierce fired a shot that went through the hoop. It looked like it would be a four point play opportunity for Pierce but Bennett Salvatore called an offensive foul on Pierce. How can the Fisher play be a defensive foul--the NBA issued a statement saying that a non-shooting foul should have been called on Fisher--but this play is an offensive foul on Pierce? The simple answer is exactly what I said in my post: depending on which referee is involved, sometimes this is a no-call, sometimes it is an offensive foul and sometimes it is a defensive foul. I'm not saying that this is right or wrong, I'm just making an observation.

If the Phoenix Suns had been on the wrong end of such a call I'm not sure that their delicate psyches could have handled the extreme trauma. How can a team possibly be expected to overcome such an obstacle with more than a full quarter left to play in a close game? Forgive my sarcasm, but my point is that there are good reasons that some teams that are very talented get over the hump and other teams do not; some teams make no excuses and find ways to get things done, while other teams seem to spend more time searching for explanations for why they lost than for ways to actually win. Hamilton's jumper at the 10:29 mark of the fourth quarter made the score 70-60 Detroit and it would have been very easy for the Celtics to give in to the moment, say to themselves that this was not their night and simply rely on winning game seven at home. Instead, they scored 10 straight points in less than three minutes. The teams then traded baskets before a three point play by Pierce put Boston up 75-74. That was the start of an 11-2 run that put the Celtics in the driver's seat. A three point play by Billups cut the margin to 83-79 and a pair of missed free throws by Garnett left the door open but Pierce and Allen made two free throws each in the last :30 to preserve the victory.

For most of the game, the teams were separated by five points or less. According to the conventional wisdom, this is the type of game that Detroit should be expected to win: a close playoff game at home against a team that has struggled on the road throughout these playoffs. Yet it does not surprise me at all not only that the Pistons lost but that they lost in precisely the manner that they did; after all, I predicted virtually this entire scenario in my series preview: I mentioned Boston's superiority in rebounding, I pointed out that Detroit never shot better than .410 from the field versus Boston during the regular season, I declared "the Celtics are an outstanding defensive team that will outexecute the Pistons down the stretch" and I concluded, "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." In the comment section to that post I made the additional point that since the departure of Coach Larry Brown and four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace the Pistons have had trouble defending the paint in the playoffs.

Let's look at how each one of those factors played out in this game and in the series:

1) Rebounding

The Celtics outrebounded the Pistons 38-36 in game six and in the fourth quarter with the game up for grabs (no pun intended) the Celtics enjoyed a 12-6 rebounding advantage. During the series, the Celtics outrebounded the Pistons 238-191, a differential of 7.8 rpg, and they enjoyed an edge in this category in every game except game one, when each team had 37 rebounds.

2) Boston's Defensive Field Goal Percentage

The Pistons shot .420 from the field in game six, including 6-18 in the fourth quarter--and the final basket was an uncontested shot with the outcome of the game no longer in doubt. In three of Boston's four wins the Pistons shot worse than .425 from the field. The Pistons shot .493 in their game two win and .514 in their game four win to boost their series percentage to .450 but the Celtics' ability to hold down the Pistons' field goal percentage proved to be a decisive factor in this series.

3) Brutal Fourth Quarter Stretch Dooms Pistons

In addition to shooting 6-18 from the field in the fourth quarter of game six, the Pistons committed six turnovers, a staggering number for a team that is renowned for its ability to protect the ball--but, as I stated in my series preview, Saunders' "liberation offense" works a lot better in the regular season than it does in the playoffs against elite teams. The Celtics outscored the Pistons 29-13 in the fourth quarter of game six. The Pistons actually had some decent fourth quarters earlier in the series but at various times in each of their losses their offense went through some stagnant periods.

4) Celtics Beat Pistons on the Road Twice

Despite the Celtics' road woes in earlier playoff rounds, they beat the Pistons twice in Detroit, winning the series in six games exactly as I expected.

5) Points in the Paint

The Celtics outscored the Pistons in the paint 32-18 in game six and enjoyed a 206-130 advantage in this category during the series, an average of 12.7 more points in the paint per game. The Celtics won this department by at least 10 points in every game except their game four loss, when each team scored 24 points in the paint.

My final comment in that series preview post was that--although there is no way to prove it--if the Cavaliers had gotten past the Celtics then they would have beaten the Pistons. Considering that the Cavs forced the Celtics to a seventh game and had a chance to win that contest right until the end while the Pistons bowed out on their home court in game six, I remain confident that the Cavs would indeed have defeated the Pistons just like they did last year.

Perhaps readers who think that I "hate" the Pistons will now understand clearly that all I am doing is analyzing matchups; I identified specific reasons why the Celtics would beat the Pistons and the series went exactly as I predicted it would.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:59 AM

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Friday, May 30, 2008

A Performance for the Ages: Kobe Drops 39 as Lakers Eliminate Spurs

Attack like a cat when I'm trapped and I'm closed in
Sharp...claws, and I break all laws
In a while all jaws, cause I'm perfect, no flaws
Now I'm back to Farmers on some new improved
I'm makin' moves, not fakin' moves--"Farmers Blvd. (Our Anthem)," L L Cool J (and other artists)

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 39 points while shooting 16-30 from the field as his L.A. Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs 100-92 to eliminate the defending champions 4-1. He had 26 points in the second half, 17 points in the fourth quarter and eight points in the final 2:22. This outburst capped off a remarkable Western Conference Finals for Bryant, who averaged 29.2 ppg on 64-120 (.533) field goal shooting, the best percentage he has ever shot in a playoff series. One basketball player can have a much greater impact on the outcome of a game than one baseball player or one football player but Bryant takes that concept to a whole other level that very few players have ever reached: he plays his best against the best competition and when the most is on the line. In doing so, Bryant infuses his team with confidence and instills fear, doubts and confusion in his opponents.

While Bryant was conducting his heroics against premier perimeter defender Bruce Bowen and premier interior defender Tim Duncan, I immediately thought of LeBron James' 48 point effort versus Detroit in game five of last year's Eastern Conference Finals. Remember that James scored 30 points in regulation and then added 18 points in two overtime sessions. Considering the context, Bryant's game has to rank right up there with what James did: the Spurs were the reigning champs and in last year's Finals they shut down James but they had no answers for Bryant in this series. I can't honestly say that this surprises me, because I have emphasized repeatedly that a big difference between Bryant and James is that Bryant has a fully developed offensive repertoire in terms of footwork, free throw shooting and being able to shoot all the way out to three point range; for those reasons, a team cannot guard Bryant the way that the Spurs (and the Celtics this year) guarded James, playing him so softly on the perimeter that he had great difficulty driving or passing. Bryant's deadly midrange jump shot meant that the Spurs had to defend him closely on the perimeter but that opened up lanes for Bryant to drive and/or pass. Bryant said after game one that he can score whenever he wants to and no one could disagree with that after this series--and this game in particular: in the fourth quarter, Bryant repeatedly worked his way free from Bowen's sticky defense, caught the ball and even when he was forced out well past the three point line he used his footwork and dribbling skills to maneuver his way into high percentage scoring areas. Bryant put on an absolute clinic in terms of midrange jump shooting, he managed to get to the hoop on several occasions despite the Spurs' best efforts to keep him out of the paint and he used the three point shot judiciously and effectively, shooting 2-6 from long range in game five and 10-24 (.417) in the series.

TNT's Kenny Smith said, "Watching Kobe Bryant down the stretch, that was a special performance. That is one, if you are a basketball fan, you put in as a demonstration to show kids what to do because the composure he had down the stretch...in the last four minutes of the game there has only been one other player in my lifetime who I have seen do what he did in the last four minutes and his name is Michael Jordan. And now the comparisons do start because I've never seen anybody be that composed in that stressed environment besides him...This is one of the greatest performances I've seen." Magic Johnson added, "He didn't take a bad shot." I never thought that Bryant's shot selection was as bad as some people said--and even on occasions when it was questionable, a "bad" shot for Bryant was better than the alternative of passing to players who couldn't catch and/or couldn't shoot. That said, Bryant's shot selection during this year's playoffs is off the charts; he is shooting .509 from the field while leading the league in playoff scoring average (31.9 ppg). I have studiously refrained from comparing Jordan and Bryant other than to say that I consider Jordan to be the more accomplished player but Bryant is playing at a Jordanesque level in this year's playoffs. There is still one more round to go, so I won't say anything further on that subject until after the Finals but when the best player in the game somehow takes his game up to yet another level that simply must be acknowledged; as great as Bryant has been previously--and I am on record saying he should have won the 2006 and 2007 MVPs--in this year's playoffs he is definitely "on some new improved," as L L Cool J would say.

Other than Bryant, the Lakers shot 22-55 (.400) from the field. Lamar Odom is not Scottie Pippen by a long shot but he had a solid, quintessential Horace Grant-type game, scoring 13 points on 5-10 shooting and grabbing eight rebounds, plus he did a good job using his length and mobility defensively. Both Collins and Johnson said exactly what I have been saying about Odom all along: he is much more suited to being the third option than to being the second option. Pau Gasol showcased his strengths and weaknesses in equal measure: he is versatile enough to haul in 19 rebounds (a playoff career-high), pass for five assists and block four shots but he was very soft around the hoop in terms of finishing his shots, shooting just 5-15 from the field and only scoring 12 points. Sasha Vujacic (nine points, three steals) and Jordan Farmar (eight points, three assists) provided good energy off of the bench.

Tony Parker had a good game (23 points on 11-22 field goal shooting, four assists) but it is interesting that he had his best playoff performances by far this year in the first round against the Phoenix Suns and two-time MVP Steve Nash. During the Western Conference Finals, Parker produced at roughly the same level that he did during the regular season. Tim Duncan had a triple double (19 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists) but he shot just 7-19 from the field. The Lakers continually used different defensive looks against him throughout the series, sometimes going with single coverage from Gasol, sometimes double-teaming on the catch and sometimes waiting to trap until he put the ball on the floor. Duncan averaged 22.4 ppg, 17.4 rpg and 4.8 apg versus the Lakers but he shot just .426 from the field and was never able to put his stamp on a game at will the way that Bryant repeatedly did. Based on how much everyone talked about Manu Ginobili's injuries I expect him to check into a hospital for about a week now that the series is over. Did you know that he has a sprained ankle and a torn fingernail? Apparently, TV announcers must think that we have short attention spans, because these facts were brought up almost every time Ginobili touched the ball. I began to think that it was a miracle that the guy could get up and down the court. In case you forgot--and it would be easy to do so since no one talks about it--Bryant is playing despite the fact that his mangled right pinkie finger will require surgery and he recently had some fairly intense back spasms. Ginobili finished with nine points, seven rebounds and three assists. He was a complete non-factor and it will be interesting to hear the "stat gurus" tell us that our eyes deceived us and that Ginobili really is just as good as Bryant. I don't care if you give Ginobili a bionic ankle, Flo Jo's nails and Karl Malone's Rogaine, the likelihood that Ginobili could lead a team to the Finals with Gasol and Odom as his primary helpers is exceedingly small. Ginobili is a solid All-Star player who the Lakers match up with very well--he averaged 10.8 ppg on .311 field goal shooting versus the Lakers during the regular season and I don't think that he was on his deathbed for those games the way that everyone acts like he was during this series, when he actually improved on those numbers (12.6 ppg, .358 field goal shooting).

The Lakers began the game with a very nice action, posting up Gasol on the left block and then having him deliver a bounce pass to a cutting Vladimir Radmanovic, who missed a layup; Gasol took advantage of the defense collapsing on Radmanovic, sneaking to the hoop for a tip dunk of the errant shot. TNT's Doug Collins said that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson must have anticipated that the Spurs would play pressure defense, so he ran what Collins called a "pressure release" play. Bryant can obviously score out of any offense, but the Triangle Offense does a great job of organizing the rest of the team, creating good spacing and presenting scoring opportunities to anyone who understands how to read the defense. Unfortunately for the Lakers, that opening sequence was the highlight of the first quarter. The Spurs shot 12-19 (.632) from the field to take a 28-15 lead after the first 12 minutes, while the Lakers shot just 7-24 (.292) from the field. Gasol shot 2-9 from the field and Collins kept a running tally of how many "soft shots" Gasol timidly offered. One time, Bryant drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and fed Gasol a behind the back pass that should have led to a layup and/or a foul. Instead, Gasol kind of flipped the ball weakly at the rim. "That is one of those (soft) shots that Phil Jackson complains about," Marv Albert commented. "Could not agree with you more," Collins replied. The paradox with Gasol is that he is seven feet tall, he has long arms and good hands, he is very intelligent, he passes the ball well and he is obviously willing and able to battle for rebounds--yet he does not consistently finish aggressively at the hoop; he does it sometimes, maybe even half of the time, but not as often as he should.

Jackson gave Bryant his customary rest at the start of the second quarter. The bench players only scored one point in the first 3:27 as the deficit swelled to 33-16 but then Farmar scored six straight points for the Lakers to trim the lead to 33-22. Bryant returned to the game at that point and scored nine points in the final 5:33 of the quarter as the Lakers pulled to within 48-42 by halftime. Considering that the Spurs blew a 20 point lead in game one and had led by as many as 17 points in this game, even a team as resilient as they are had to be pretty demoralized. George Foreman, Muhammad Ali's opponent in the famous "Rope a Dope" fight, once recalled that after he pounded Ali with body shots for the first several rounds Ali asked him, "Is that all you got?" Foreman remembered thinking to himself, "Yeah, that's about it" right before Ali knocked him out. Although the Lakers' slow start was surely more a result of their young players' overconfidence in the wake of winning in San Antonio than a deliberate "Rope a Dope" plan, the first half was like the "Rope a Dope" in the sense that the Lakers took the Spurs' best body shots and were still standing unscathed; once Bryant started throwing his punches, the fight was over.

The Spurs still had some punches left in the third quarter, briefly pushing the lead back to 10 points before Bryant went to work, hitting a couple jumpers and then driving to the hoop, drawing the defense and feeding Gasol for a dunk to make the score 58-56 San Antonio. "Here is Kobe imposing his will on the game," Collins said. The Lakers took their first lead since Gasol's tip dunk on the opening play when Bryant drilled a three pointer to make the score 60-59. On the Lakers' next possession, Bowen closed out so hard at Bryant to deny him the three point shot that Bowen slipped and Bryant dribbled past him and hit a midrange jumper. A Radmanovic three pointer put the Lakers up 64-63 heading into the fourth quarter.

Bryant began the fourth quarter by making another three pointer and as he ran back on defense he gestured to the Lakers' bench as if to say, "Keep feeding me the ball." Jackson normally rests Bryant at the start of the fourth quarter but he did not do this in game five or in game one when the Lakers made their big comeback. Building trust in the bench players is fine but Jackson knows better than anyone that his team rides or dies with what Bryant does. Collins said, "Phil Jackson recognizes that this is a time to strike for his team." The Lakers repeatedly ran the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play that was so effective throughout the series and Bryant hit a number of tough shots right in Duncan's face. Once when Bryant missed a jumper Gasol took advantage of being guarded by a smaller defender and easily tip dunked the ball into the hoop. Later, Bryant fed Gasol for what should have been a dunk but the much smaller Ginobili--apparently briefly healed--blocked Gasol's shot. However, the screen/roll play put San Antonio's defense into full rotation mode and Odom gathered the rebound and scored to put the Lakers up 83-76 at the 5:40 mark. The Spurs refused to die, cutting the lead to 83-81 after a Brent Barry three pointer and a Parker drive. Bryant then hit a tough floater over Duncan and a fadeaway jumper over Duncan to make the score 87-82 Lakers. Gasol blocked a Duncan shot and Bryant drove his way through the Spurs' defense to score a layup. Ginobili made a deft feed to Duncan for a layup to pull the Spurs within 89-84 with 1:41 remaining. Radmanovic missed an open three pointer that resulted from the Spurs rotating to stop Bryant but with the Spurs' defense scrambling Gasol got the offensive rebound. Bryant reset the offense and eventually drew a foul, making both free throws to put the Lakers up 91-84. While Bryant shot those free throws, Collins said, "I look at Kobe Bryant out there and I think: competitor, incredibly skilled, strong willed but Marv, is there a better conditioned player in the NBA?"As time ran down and the Lakers' victory was assured, Collins concluded, "The Lakers had the younger, fresher team and--more importantly--they had the best player on the floor in Kobe Bryant. When the game was in the balance, he took it and ran with it."

Hall of Famer Jerry West, who made the deal for the Lakers to acquire Bryant in 1996, presented the team with the Western Conference championship trophy. West said, "I would really be remiss if I didn't mention one player here. I've seen a lot of great players in my life but you people in Los Angeles are very privileged to see this young man here, Kobe Bryant. He's something special. For all you young kids out there who aspire to be something really special, look at his work ethic and dedication and what it does, the leadership ability he has."

If Bryant can carry a team to the Finals after losing one center early in the season (Andrew Bynum) and adding another center near the end of the season (Gasol), what would he have been able to accomplish the past several years if Shaquille O'Neal would have been willing to work hard and defer to Bryant the way that O'Neal deferred to Dwyane Wade in Miami? O'Neal may think that he one-upped Bryant in some fashion by winning a ring with the Heat in 2006 but if he had been as dedicated and focused as Bryant has always been then the two of them could have won three or four more rings together.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:12 AM

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Celtics Survive Late Detroit Rally to Win Game Five, 106-102

The Boston Celtics dominated the paint, built a 17 point second half lead and withstood a big fourth quarter rally by the Detroit Pistons to post a 106-102 victory in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics are one win away from making their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1987. Kevin Garnett scored a game-high 33 points on 11-17 field goal shooting. He only had seven rebounds, he committed a team-high five turnovers and he did most of his scoring by making jumpers instead of posting up but scoring that many points on that kind of shooting in a pressure-packed game--more than 80% of game five winners in 2-2 series advance--is very impressive. While Garnett poured in jumpers from all angles, Kendrick Perkins did the dirty work in the paint, scoring a playoff career-high 18 points on 8-11 shooting and grabbing a playoff career-high 16 rebounds. Ray Allen had his best game of this year's playoffs, scoring 29 points on 9-15 field goal shooting, including a blistering 5-6 from three point range. Add those numbers up and you will find that Boston's top three scorers in this game shot 28-43 (.651) from the field. Paul Pierce had a solid game as well (16 points on 5-11 shooting, six assists, five rebounds). Rajon Rondo scored seven points and he shot just 3-14 from the field but he played a well rounded floor game, accumulating 13 assists, six rebounds and four steals while only having one turnover. Boston's bench only scored three points in 30 minutes of combined playing time as Celtics Coach Doc Rivers shortened his rotation tremendously.

Chauncey Billups led Detroit with 26 points and six assists, while Richard Hamilton had 25 points and six assists but also committed a game-high six turnovers. Hamilton injured his right elbow late in the game and had his arm in a sling when he left the arena, although preliminary X-rays were negative. Rasheed Wallace shot 6-9 from three point range and finished with 18 points but he only had four rebounds. Billups and Antonio McDyess led Detroit with five rebounds each.

I have repeatedly said that the three keys for the Celtics to win this series are their defensive field goal percentage, their rebounding and their ability to outscore the Pistons in the paint. Perceptive readers will note that those categories are interrelated. In game five, the Celtics shot 37-73 (.507) from the field while holding the Pistons to 31-67 (.463) shooting. During the season the Celtics had a much better defensive field goal percentage than that; nevertheless, the Celtics still outshot the Pistons and in a close game between teams that are fairly evenly matched that is very important. The Celtics outrebounded the Pistons 42-25; at halftime, Perkins had more rebounds (13) than Detroit's entire team (11)! The Celtics outscored the Pistons 36-16 in the paint and they have enjoyed double digit leads in this department in four of the five games. Looking at those numbers, it would seem like the Celtics should have won game five by a more comfortable margin. Detroit made up some ground by enjoying an edge in free throws made (29-24), by shooting excellently from three point range (11-21) and by forcing 17 turnovers.

In a harbinger of things to come, the Celtics scored their first points of the game by completely breaking down Detroit's defense in the paint: Pierce passed to Kevin Garnett in the high post and Garnett fed Perkins on the low block for a dunk. Boston built a 21-16 lead but the Pistons closed the first quarter with a 7-2 run to tie the score at 23-23.

The Pistons opened the second quarter with a 10-2 run to take their largest lead of the game. Eight of those points came on dunks and free throws. Detroit benefited from a dubious flagrant foul call when P.J. Brown contested Jason Maxiell's dunk attempt at the 10:28 mark. A flagrant foul is supposed to be called when there is excessive contact that includes a windup, a significant impact and a follow through; if all of those conditions are met then a flagrant two foul--resulting in immediate ejection of the guilty party--will be called, otherwise it is a flagrant one foul, which means that the offended team is awarded two free throws plus possession of the ball. The Brown-Maxiell play did not include any of the required elements, which Van Gundy and Mark Jackson both immediately noted (though not in so many words). Mike Breen defended the call, saying that making contact with an airborne player is dangerous. I am sympathetic with Breen's concerns and the issue he mentioned is precisely why I thought that the fouls by DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood against LeBron James and the foul by Jason Kidd against Jannero Pargo all warranted the flagrant designation. However, Brown's play was simply a clean, hard foul. Van Gundy predicted that the league office will rescind the flagrant foul in this instance but he noted that if the Celtics were to lose as a result of the free throws and extra possession then such an admission of error would be of little value.

Detroit's second quarter run was fueled in part by several Boston turnovers. Once the Celtics got their ballhandling under control they closed the quarter by outscoring the Pistons 27-13. Several of Boston's turnovers in this game resulted from overpassing as players who were open for shots instead tried to feed their teammates; Van Gundy said, "Sometimes the most unselfish play is taking the open shot"--which is a point that I made regarding Kobe Bryant's 28 point, one assist performance in the Lakers' 93-91 win over the Spurs on Tuesday: "Bryant understands that when he is the open man he has to knock down shots; it is not unselfish to pass the ball when you are open and the player you are passing to is well defended." Van Gundy repeatedly admonished Garnett and Rondo for passing the ball when they were wide open. Some people ask why I often mention Bryant in posts about games in which he did not play but the answer to that should be obvious: Bryant is the best, most fundamentally sound player in the game, so it is often instructive to contrast the way that he plays with the way that other, less skilled players play. An uninformed person will look at a boxscore, see one assist by Bryant's name and 13 assists by Rondo's name and conclude that Bryant is selfish and Rondo is selfless--but an informed observer like Van Gundy understands that player evaluation must go a lot deeper than box score numbers. Statistics have great value but only when they are placed in proper context.

The Celtics extended their 52-46 halftime lead to 73-56 during the third quarter. Boston continued to punish Detroit on the glass and with points in the paint. Then, as Detroit scrambled to deal with those problems Allen suddenly found his shooting stroke and poured in 16 third quarter points. However, Van Gundy foreshadowed the close ending of the game when he observed that the Celtics began playing with less crispness on offense and less energy on defense after they got the big lead; he warned that such a loss of focus could let the Pistons get back in the game. Sure enough, the Pistons cut the margin to eight early in the fourth quarter and what could have been a Celtics rout turned into a real nail biter. It looked like the Celtics started playing not to lose rather than aggressively trying to win the game; Jackson said, "This is as poor an execution of pick and roll basketball to close out a game as I've ever seen." After Rodney Stuckey's three pointer at the 1:23 mark made the score 100-99 Boston, the Celtics seemed to be on the verge of a collapse like the one that Portland experienced versus the Lakers in the 2000 playoffs. The Celtics called a timeout and then ran a very nice play that led to Allen drilling an open jumper from just inside the three point line. Billups then missed two shots and Garnett missed a jumper. Rather than letting Detroit even attempt a tying three pointer, Rivers instructed his player to foul and essentially turn the final seconds of the game into a free throw contest. Stuckey made both of his free throws but Allen restored the three point advantage by also making two free throws. With the time remaining down to :04 and the Pistons out of timeouts, it became necessary for Detroit to try to make the first free throw, miss the second and then control the rebound. Ironically, Stuckey missed the first free throw while trying to make it and then made the second free throw while trying to miss it. Garnett closed out the scoring by sinking two clutch free throws to make it a two possession game.

The Pistons have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for six straight seasons but unless they can win two games in a row against the team with the best regular season record in the NBA this will be their third consecutive defeat in this round of the playoffs. Their only two Finals appearances during the past six years came with Larry Brown as the coach and a young Ben Wallace patrolling the paint. Without Brown's leadership and Wallace's paint presence, the Pistons have simply not been the same team in the playoffs: they do not defend the paint well on a consistent basis against elite teams and their "liberation offense" is unproductive for long stretches.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 AM

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bryant Lifts Lakers to Within One Win of Returning to the NBA Finals

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers in scoring (28 points) and rebounds (10) as they beat the San Antonio Spurs 93-91 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals. He scored eight points on 4-4 field goal shooting as the Lakers raced out to a 22-8 first quarter advantage and he contributed six of the Lakers' 16 fourth quarter points, helping them to build up a big enough margin to hold off a late comeback attempt by the defending champions. Lamar Odom bounced back nicely from a subpar game three to post 16 points and nine rebounds. Pau Gasol did not score much (10 points, eight of them coming in the first half) but he added 10 rebounds and six assists. Tim Duncan had game-high totals in points (29) and rebounds (17) but he shot just 10-26 from the field. Tony Parker contributed 23 points and nine assists while committing just one turnover. Manu Ginobili was not only ineffective--seven points on 2-8 shooting, six assists, one rebound--he was largely invisible during his 36 minutes of playing time. Brent Barry picked up the slack for Ginobili with 23 points, including five three pointers. This Lakers' victory snapped San Antonio's 13 game winning streak in home playoff games.

The Lakers held the Spurs to 30-75 (.400) field goal shooting and outrebounded them 46-37. Bryant's impact was felt on the boards as he not only tied Gasol for the team lead but he had twice as many rebounds as every Spur not named Duncan. So how did the Spurs keep the game close? They took care of the ball (committing just eight turnovers) and made 24 out of 26 free throw attempts. Bryant attempted no free throws in this game after shooting just one free throw in game three; he has only shot six free throws in the entire series. This comes on the heels of a series against Utah in which he never attempted less than 10 free throws in a game and he averaged 16 free throw attempts a game. The Jazz foul more than any other team and the Spurs emphasize defending without fouling but those numbers are still bizarre; it's not like Bryant has become passive offensively; he shot 14-29 from the field. After the game, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson drily said, "It's pretty impossible to take 29 shots and not be fouled. Tonight was one of those exceptions, I guess."

It is true that a lot of Bryant's points are coming on jumpers but I disagree slightly with the idea that the Spurs are "giving" Bryant the jumper. It is more precise to say that the Spurs are trying to deny Bryant the opportunity to drive and then contesting his jump shots; that is why Tim Duncan trapped Bryant very aggressively early in the series when Bryant ran screen/roll plays, something that Duncan did not do versus LeBron James in last year's NBA Finals. This series vividly demonstrates just how much better Bryant is than James; one NBA scout (see Postscript below) says "The difference between him and LeBron is like (the one between) a Maserati and a Volvo." Specifically, one difference is that Bryant has a deadly jump shot, so even in a game when his forays to the hoops were limited and he shot no free throws he still had a major impact by hitting jumper after jumper against perhaps the best perimeter defender in the NBA, Bruce Bowen. I have repeatedly said that the Spurs' defense that shut down James would never work against Bryant and it is quite obvious now that I was correct about that: Bryant is shooting 48-90 (.533) from the field against the Spurs, with his primary weapon in this series being the midrange jumper--the same shot that James missed at an alarming rate not only versus the Spurs but also against the Celtics in this year's playoffs.

Bryant's efficiency has simply been off the charts, even by his standards. The Spurs have no answers for Bryant's ability to make shots from anywhere on the court and whenever they double-team him he spoonfeeds Gasol and Odom for dunks or he swings the ball to perimeter players for wide open shots. The Spurs are now trying a little bit of the Chris Paul treatment--guard him one on one, stay tight on everyone else--but the wrinkle that stymied Paul and his New Orleans Hornets does not work against Bryant because he continues to shoot so well and he has no qualms about shooting a high volume of shots. Unlike James, who piled up turnovers by repeatedly forcing passes against the Spurs and the Celtics, Bryant understands that when he is the open man he has to knock down shots; it is not unselfish to pass the ball when you are open and the player you are passing to is well defended. Bryant had just one assist in game four and the Lakers only had 17 assists as a team but none of that matters--Bryant has proven that when he is double-teamed he will not only give up the ball but that he will make a play, a pass that leads to an easy score. In this game, Bryant was the open man and the ball movement that he facilitated primarily consisted of putting the ball into the hoop. Also, in light of my recent analysis of the faulty scorekeeping regarding Chris Paul's assists, it is worth noting that Bryant made several passes that would be scored as assists for Paul; for instance, at the 9:36 mark of the first quarter, Bryant drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and passed to Vladimir Radmanovic, who took one escape dribble and made a jumper. Bryant did not get credited with an assist but Paul was awarded several assists on plays like that in the game footage that I analyzed. The NBA really needs to zealously enforce one universal standard for assists.

In Bryant's scoring burst during the first quarter, he made three jump shots and one fastbreak layup. The Lakers crisply executed their offense, seemingly grabbed every rebound and loose ball and played defense with tremendous energy but also with good attention to detail in terms of making proper rotations. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich burned two timeouts to try to settle his team down but in both cases they turned the ball over on the ensuing possession. However, the Spurs eventually settled down, closing the quarter on a 15-6 run. The Spurs shot 6-6 from the free throw line in the final 4:23 of the quarter, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Jackson, who offered this response when TNT's Craig Sager asked why the Lakers had not been able to maintain their early lead: "You want me to be honest with you? The guys with the whistles. They (the Spurs) went to the foul line on some inconsequential fouls and that got them back in the ballgame."

Jackson took advantage of the Lakers' lead to rest Bryant for nearly the first four minutes of the second quarter. By the time he returned to action the reserves had increased the Lakers' lead to nine. The Lakers briefly went up by 10 but the Spurs went on a 12-2 run to tie the score at 43. After the teams traded baskets, the Lakers closed the quarter out with an 8-2 run that included a couple Bryant jumpers. The third quarter was very much a nip and tuck affair, with the Lakers building an eight point lead only to have the Spurs quickly tie the game again. The Lakers closed the quarter with a 6-0 run to lead 77-70 going into the fourth quarter.

Bryant sat out the start of the fourth quarter as he typically does, but he had only rested for two minutes before he came back in the game with the lead slashed to 77-75. He immediately hit back to back jumpers to stabilize matters and put the Lakers up, 81-77. Neither team scored for more than two minutes after that until Ginobili made a jumper. Then the Lakers went on a 7-0 run with Odom providing five of the points and Bryant seemingly icing the game with a fast break dunk. However, the Spurs had one final run left: Barry made a three pointer, Duncan and Parker scored layups and after Gasol missed two free throws Ginobili knocked down a three pointer to make the score 93-89 Lakers with :42 remaining.

At that point, Bryant committed a gaffe, driving all the way to the hoop instead of pulling the ball out and forcing the Spurs to foul. Bryant later said that he thought that he had a clear lane but he ended up missing a contested shot and Parker almost immediately scored a layup to pull the Spurs to within two points with :28 left. San Antonio had gone from being dead in the water to only needing one stop and one three pointer to win the game. The Lakers ran down most of the time on the 24 second shot clock before Derek Fisher missed a jumper. The ball clearly hit the rim before bouncing off of Robert Horry and going out of bounds but the officials ruled that the ball had not hit the rim, which meant that the shot clock would not be reset. Instead of being able to hold the ball and wait for the Spurs to foul, the Lakers had to inbound quickly and try to beat the clock. Bryant missed a fadeaway jumper and the Spurs called timeout to advance the ball and set up their final shot of the game. Even if you did not watch the game you have probably seen/heard about what happened next. Barry received the pass, traveled (which was not called) and then leaned forward, which resulted in contact between Barry and Fisher. Barry then fired a shot that was not even close. Did Fisher commit a foul? It depends who you ask. If you are a Spurs fan, then you definitely think it was a foul. If you are a Lakers fan, then you definitely think that it was not a foul, that Barry traveled first anyway and that if not for the blown call seconds earlier none of this would have happened anyway. The reality is that depending on who is officiating the game and which players are involved that play could be a no-call, a defensive foul or even an offensive foul. The offensive player is supposed to go straight up, not "invade" the defender's space, though he is rarely punished for doing so. I hate plays in which an offensive player makes a fake, the defender jumps and the offensive player throws himself into a defender who is doing the best he can to avoid contact; I have always thought that this should be called an offensive foul.

As for the play in question, I think that a no-call is the best call but I have seen defensive players be whistled for far less contact. Again, just like with the scorekeeping for assists, it would be nice if these calls were made in a consistent manner--and if the NBA would not pretend to be oblivious to all the discussion about such plays and actually issue a statement giving its official perspective on what happened. I will never forget Scottie Pippen's "foul" against Hubert Davis in game five of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals; still photos showed that Pippen's hand was not even close to Davis' by the time the ball was long gone, yet Pippen was whistled for a foul by Hue Hollins and Davis calmly sank the winning free throws. If that was a foul then what Fisher did certainly is a foul but Darell Garretson--Hollins' partner that day who later became the chief of officials--frankly admitted a few months after the game that it was a horrible call. Ronnie Nunn used to do an excellent job of breaking down the game from a referee's perspective in his short lived show on NBA TV and it would be great to see him or someone from the NBA go on TV and give a definitive answer about the Fisher call, whether the league thinks that it was right or thinks that the officials missed the call.

Popovich said that if he were the referee he would not call a foul on such play, while Jackson conceded that there was contact but agreed with the no-call. Barry said that it was not a foul, though his initial on court reaction was a bit different. Fisher explained that he thought he had maintained his verticality and Bryant scoffed at the very question, saying that with everything the referees let go that could not be deemed to be a foul.

As for the ebb and flow of the game after the Lakers' quick start, Jackson said, "We responded every time that they came in and tied the ballgame. Most of it was Kobe responding to it." Odom echoed those sentiments: "There's something Kobe has that even some of the great ones don't have. It's just like he can will the ball into the basket." Odom calls Bryant "Kobe-Wan Kenobi." Keeping with the Star Wars theme, Bryant has admiringly called Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter "Yoda." In that same interview, Bryant said, "He actually teaches momentums--how to build momentums and how to break momentums." In the first half of game one of this series, Bryant got his teammates involved and calmly assessed the Spurs' defensive scheme--and then in the second half he scored 25 points and rallied the Lakers to victory from a 20 point deficit. That is a truly remarkable accomplishment but he did a similar thing, albeit less dramatically, in game four; Bryant's 28 points came in several staccato-like outbursts that either began a Lakers' run or quelled a Spurs' run. Bryant has become a Jedi Master at building his own team's momentum and breaking the opposing team's momentum.

I read and heard a lot of nonsense by various pundits early in the playoffs on the subject of whether or not it was too late to change their MVP votes and select Paul; in that vein, is it too late to go back and make Bryant the unanimous choice for MVP? Bryant is so obviously the best player in the game that only the foolish or the obstinate would try to argue otherwise. The one alleged flaw in Bryant's game was that he supposedly did not make his teammates better--although I'm still waiting to see another star lead a team to the playoffs twice with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker as starters--but now Bryant is the undisputed leader of the team that won the regular season Western Conference race and is one victory away from returning to the NBA Finals.

************
Postscript:

Sports Illustrated's
Chris Ballard just wrote a wonderful article that provides some insight into just how driven Bryant really is to be the best and to perfect his game. This article was published before game four was played but it gives some great context to how Bryant has not only elevated his game but brought his team to the brink of the fourth championship of his career. Here is an excerpt:

He unveils a spin move or a crossover or something else he has picked up watching tape and does it over and over and over. "The crazy thing about it is, he has the ability to put new elements in his game overnight," says (Devean) George, a Laker from 1999 to 2006 and a frequent target of Kobe's requests. "He might say, 'Stay after and guard this move. Let me try it on you,' and he'll do it the next day in the game." George pauses to let this sink in. "Most of us, we'll try it alone, then we'll try it in practice, then in a scrimmage, and only then will we bring it out for a game. He'd do it the next day--and it would work."

It's 2003, and Bryant is getting worked up in an interview while talking about a variation on a move: a jab step-and-pause, where you sink deep, hesitate to let the defender relax and, instead of bringing the jab foot back, push off it. Soon enough, Bryant is out of his chair and using the reporter as a defender on the carpeted floor. Then he has the reporter trying the move. Some people are
Star Wars nerds; Bryant is a basketball nerd. "I think Kobe's actually a little bit embarrassed by his love of basketball," says (Gregg) Downer (Bryant's high school coach). "People called him a loner, but it's just that basketball is all he wants to focus on. I think he's part of a dying breed that loves the game that way."

That's why Bryant gets so excited to meet kindred souls. Asked last week about Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Bryant's face lit up as he remembered the time he played for Pop. "I was really hoping he'd run us through one of those rigorous practices he does," said Bryant, who got his wish. By the way, Kobe was talking about practice for the '05 All-Star Game.

Now it's 2008, the Western Conference finals. Bryant is finally where he wants to be: an MVP playing on his team, no behemoth Hall of Famer to get in the way of post-ups, within reach of a title. He is also, by almost all accounts, the best player in the league. "It's not even close," says one Western Conference scout. "The difference between him and LeBron [James] is like [the one between] a Maserati and a Volvo."

The scout has other things to say about Bryant. For example, on his weaknesses: "Um, let me think . . . (long pause) . . . No, I don't think he has any." On his athleticism: "There are probably 10 (with more) in the league"--he names Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith, Dwight Howard and J.R. Smith as examples--"but no one uses his as well as Kobe. Just watch his footwork sometime." And on his focus: "There's a difference between loving basketball and liking basketball. There are only about 30 guys in the league who love it, who play year-round. Allen Iverson loves to play when the lights come on. Kobe loves doing the s--- before the lights come on."

This thing, this freakish compulsion, may be the hardest element of the game to quantify. There are no plus-minus stats to measure a player's ruthlessness, his desire to beat his opponent so badly he'll need therapy to recover. One thing's for sure: You can't teach it. If so, Eddy Curry would be All-NBA and Derrick Coleman would be getting ready for his induction ceremony in Springfield, Mass. But people know it when they see it. G.M.'s, coaches and scouts cite only a few others who have a similar drive--Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginóbili, Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Deron Williams--though they make clear that none of those stars are in Kobe's league. (In an SI poll earlier this season Bryant was a runaway winner as the opponent players feared most, at 35%.)

Even some of the great ones lacked it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that when he was young, rather than challenging everyone as Kobe does, he "just wanted peace." "I think it's a quirk of personality," says Abdul-Jabbar. "Some of us are like Napoleon, and some are Walter Mitty."

Idan Ravin, a personal trainer who works with Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas and Elton Brand and is known by some in the league as "the hoops whisperer" for his effect on players, has even broken killer instinct down into components: love of the game, ambition, obsessive-compulsive behavior, arrogance/confidence, selfishness and nonculpability/ guiltlessness. He sees them all in Bryant.

"If he's a ruthless s.o.b., I kind of respect that," says Ravin. "Why should he be passing up opportunities? Why pass it to a guy who doesn't work as hard, who doesn't want it like you do?"

So, you see, this is Kobe, all of this. Sometimes childish, sometimes regal, sometimes stubborn, always relentless. This is a guy who, according to Nike spokesperson KeJuan Wilkins, had the company shave a couple of millimeters off the bottom of his signature shoe because "in his mind that gave him a hundredth of a second better reaction time." A guy who has played the last three months with a torn ligament in the pinkie of his shooting hand. A guy who, says teammate Coby Karl, considers himself "an expert at fouling without getting called for it." (Watch how Bryant uses the back of his hand, not the front, to push off on defenders and a closed-fist forearm to exert leverage.) A guy who says of being guarded by the physical Bowen, "It'll be fun" -- and actually means it. A guy who, no matter what he does, will never get the chance to play the one game he'd die for: Bryant versus Jordan, each in his prime. "There'd be blood on the floor by the end," says Winter, who has coached them both.

This is Kobe Bryant, age 29, in pursuit of his fourth NBA title. Even if it's hard for us to understand him, perhaps it's time that we appreciate him.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:34 AM

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

McDyess Leads the Way as Pistons Beat Celtics, 94-75

Antonio McDyess had a flashback to how he played before knee injuries limited his athleticism and now Pistons fans are partying like it's 1999--that was when McDyess made the All-NBA Third team for the first and only time, averaging a career-high 21.2 ppg and 10.7 rpg. McDyess had 21 points and 16 rebounds as Detroit defeated Boston 94-75 to even the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2. Those numbers, once routine for McDyess, represent playoff season-highs in both categories. McDyess is the only Detroit starter who was not a member of the 2004 championship team and he is one Piston whose effort and focus are constantly at a high level; his mind and heart are always willing, though his body may fail him from time to time. In this game, the Pistons fed off of his energy and played harder than the Celtics, whose trademark this season was playing harder than their opponents, particularly on defense. Richard Hamilton added 20 points and seven assists. Chauncey Billups struggled with his shot (10 points on 3-12 shooting) but he had seven assists and no turnovers; his backup Rodney Stuckey also did not shoot well (three points on 1-4 shooting) but contributed five assists against just two turnovers. The lack of scoring from the point guard position did not hurt Detroit because Boston's Rajon Rondo and Sam Cassell were even less productive, combining for four points on 2-11 shooting plus four assists and two turnovers.

Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce led Boston with 16 points each but Garnett shot just 6-16 from the field and Pierce was even worse (3-14). Ray Allen's game two reemergence as a deadeye shooter seems like it happened a long time ago; he scored 11 points on 2-8 shooting. The Celtics shot a rim bending 21-66 (.318) from the field but they made 32 of 39 free throws and that parade to the charity striped enabled them to stay in contact for most of the game.

The Celtics led the NBA in defensive field goal percentage this season (.419) but you sure could not find much evidence of that in this game. The Pistons shot 36-70 (.514) from the field, with McDyess (8-14), Hamilton (8-10), Rasheed Wallace (14 points on 6-9 shooting) and Jason Maxiell (14 points on 6-6 shooting) leading the way. The Celtics held a slight edge on the glass (38-34) but points in the paint were dead even (24) after Boston enjoyed double digit margins in that category in each of the first three game of this series. The Celtics' blueprint for success in this series involves having an edge in each of those three areas.

So what are we to make of this series? The teams have alternated wins four straight times and both teams have achieved a road victory. If that form holds then the Celtics will need a third straight game seven triumph at home in order to advance to the NBA Finals. However, I am going to stick with my original prediction of Boston ending the series in six games because I believe in the logic that led me to that conclusion: the Pistons are a maddeningly inconsistent team that follows up great wins with flat, indifferent performances and their defense in the paint has not consistently held up against elite teams in the playoffs the past few years. Despite shooting a terrible percentage and playing subpar defense, the Celtics were still in contention in game four well into the fourth quarter--the final margin is a bit deceptive because the Pistons scored 11 points in the final 2:18 to break open a game that was well contested for the first 46 minutes. At home, the Celtics' shots will fall and their defensive intensity will be much greater. In this year's playoffs more than ever we have definitely seen that, to borrow a phrase from the financial markets, "past performance does not guarantee future results"--a team can win by a double digit margin only to lose in similar fashion in the very next game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:12 AM

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Manu the Magnificent: Ginobili Stars as Spurs Roll in Game Three

The high energy version of Manu Ginobili finally showed up in the Western Conference Finals--and not a moment too soon for the San Antonio Spurs, who are still very much alive after his 30 points in 31 minutes propelled them to a 103-84 victory over the L.A. Lakers, L.A.'s worst loss of the 2008 playoffs. Ginobili's injuries have been the subject of much discussion--though to his credit he has consistently refused to make any excuses. In any case, Ginobili certainly did not look like someone who is nursing a variety of ailments; the difference between this game and the previous two had nothing to do with Ginobili's physical condition and everything to do with his mental state and the mental state of the players who guarded him. Ginobili had a determined, aggressive attitude right from the start. Tony Parker also had a strong game (20 points, five assists); he and Ginobili each shot 9-15 from the field. Of course, it is always easier for the little brothers to slash to the hoop and make open jumpers when big brother provides a physical presence in the paint: Tim Duncan had 22 points, a game-high 21 rebounds and five assists.

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 30 points on 13-23 field goal shooting but it was all "butter knives" and no guns for Bryant in this game: the other Lakers shot 22-59 (.373) from the field, including 14-41 (.341) by starters Pau Gasol (7-18), Lamar Odom (2-11), Derek Fisher (1-4) and Vladimir Radmanovic (4-8). Gasol is marvelously skilled but he is a finesse player who sometimes bails the defense out with soft moves when he is in traffic--or, as Lakers Coach Phil Jackson described them to TNT's Doug Collins prior to game three, "weenie shots." Bryant probably set Gasol up for half a dozen easy shots that Gasol botched. Odom also sometimes has a problem finishing point blank shots in the paint, something that we have seen throughout the first three games--and the few times that he made strong moves and drew fouls in game three he missed the free throws (3-8). Although Odom had team-highs in rebounds (11) and assists (six), his missed shots and turnovers (a game-high five) really hurt the Lakers. Opposing defenses will always focus on Bryant and they have to be mindful of Gasol as well, so it is vital that Odom take advantage of being the third option. To his credit, Odom was brutally honest about his role in this debacle: "I put this one on myself. I take the blame, totally, for this game."

In game one, Bryant got his teammates involved in the early going before erupting for 25 second half points. Perhaps sensing that his teammates were not quite ready for the challenge of playing the defending champions in their home arena, Bryant did not wait to look for his shot in game three; he scored eight points on 4-7 field goal shooting in the first 7:03 as the Lakers took a 15-8 lead. Then Ginobili answered with back to back three pointers and by the end of the quarter the Lakers were clinging to a 24-21 advantage.

Bryant got his customary rest at the start of the second quarter and by the time he returned to action the Spurs were up 27-26. He immediately made a strong move to the hoop to put the Lakers ahead 28-27 but that turned out to be their last lead of the game. Ginobili scored nine points in a 1:04 stretch to put the Spurs on top for good. By halftime Ginobili already had 22 points and San Antonio was up 49-39.

Duncan opened the second half with a strong move against Gasol in the low post but Gasol answered by scoring six straight points, helping the Lakers cut the margin to 56-47 but that is as close as the Lakers would get in a low scoring third quarter. The Spurs led 69-57 heading into the final 12 minutes.

Before the fourth quarter, Collins wondered whether Jackson would give Bryant his normal rest or if he would try to ride Bryant to the finish line as he did in game one. Collins has mentioned several times during this series how important it is for the Spurs to take advantage of whenever Bryant is not in the game. Jackson elected to rest Bryant this time and when Bryant first stepped on the court in the fourth quarter the Lakers trailed 77-60. On Bryant's first offensive possession, Odom drove to the hoop and committed a charging foul. On the next two possessions, Odom missed a jumper and split a pair of free throws and the Spurs pushed their lead to 81-61. Bryant then missed a jumper but Odom converted a nice putback; Odom is much better coming in for weakside scores then he is when he initiates the attack. I never understood why people ever compared Odom to Scottie Pippen; the Jordan-era Bull who Odom's game most resembles is Horace Grant, a good defender and rebounder who was not a primary offensive option. Odom has a better--or at least more flashy--handle while Grant had a more reliable 15 foot jump shot.

After a Parker shot again put the Spurs up 20, Bryant apparently decided that he had seen enough of the Gasol and Odom brickathon and he drilled three three pointers in a 1:12 stretch to put the Lakers in striking distance. He even had a four point play opportunity after Bowen fouled him but Bryant missed the free throw--his only free throw attempt of the game; the Spurs' mantra is to defend without fouling, which is a lot different from the hands-on approach taken by the Jazz in the previous round--or the fouling without defending approach that the Wizards tried against LeBron James in the first round. Bryant added one more trey to make the score 88-76 with 5:00 left but Duncan answered with five points in a :55 stretch to end the Lakers' comeback hopes and Jackson pulled the plug at that point, sitting down Bryant and Gasol

Although the Lakers' offensive problems in game three were obvious, there were some important defensive lapses as well. The Spurs shot 38-74 (.514) from the field, including 10-18 (.556) from three point range. The Lakers had their best offensive quarter of the game in the final stanza (27 points) but could not gain any ground because they gave up 34 fourth quarter points.

It really is remarkable how much homecourt advantage means even to an experienced championship team like the Spurs. I said after the Lakers' big game two win that the Lakers "will have to perform at a very high level" to win in San Antonio; obviously, the Lakers did not even come close to bringing the energy and efficiency that it takes to win on the road in the playoffs, let alone to beat the Spurs. The tendency after each game in a playoff series is to overreact to what we have just seen, a fallacy that I studiously try to avoid; the Lakers' 2-0 start did not make me believe that they would sweep the Spurs and this loss does not make me think that the Lakers are in trouble. Obviously, the Lakers squandered an opportunity to put a stranglehold on the Spurs but I expect that Gasol will play much better in game four and that it will be a closer contest down the stretch. If Odom can cut down on his miscues the Lakers will have an excellent chance to take a 3-1 lead heading home.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:44 AM

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Big Payback: Boston Reasserts Control Over Detroit With Dominant Road Victory

I don't know karate, but I know KA-RAZY!!
Get ready, that's a fact--get ready for the big payback--James Brown, "The Payback"

Detroit's fans showed up at game three of the Eastern Conference Finals ready to cheer for their conquering heroes after the Pistons' road win in game two but by the second half the Pistons trailed by 24 and boos echoed through the Palace of Auburn Hills. The Pistons made a late run but never got closer than nine points as the Celtics regained homecourt advantage with a 94-80 victory. Kevin Garnett made big plays at both ends of the court, leading the Celtics in points (22), rebounds (13) and assists (six). Ray Allen struggled with his shot again (5-16 from the field) after seeming to break out of his postseason slump in game two but he still finished second on the Celtics with 14 points while also playing a good floor game (six rebounds, six assists). Paul Pierce had a curiously quiet game, scoring just 11 points on 4-6 shooting and committing a game-high five turnovers. He did play good defense on Tayshaun Prince, though, holding him to four points on 2-11 shooting. Richard Hamilton scored a game-high 26 points but the other Detroit starters left a lot to be desired in terms of energy and execution. Rodney Stuckey scored 17 points and had four assists in 28 minutes off the bench and Coach Flip Saunders kept him on the court for significant fourth quarter minutes in place of the ineffective Chauncey Billups (six points, four assists, 1-6 field goal shooting).

The Celtics set the tone immediately with an 11-0 run to start the game. How those points were scored is very significant: Pierce dunk, Kendrick Perkins dunk, Garnett jumper, Rajon Rondo layup (three point play), Allen reverse layup--that is a veritable layup drill and the Celtics outscored the Pistons 34-24 in the paint overall but that should not surprise anyone because they have owned a double-digit edge in that category in each of the games in this series. Garnett picked up his second foul at the 7:00 mark in the first quarter and after he went to the bench the Pistons went to work, using a 13-4 run to take a 17-15 lead--their biggest (and only) lead of the entire game. The Celtics closed the quarter with a 10-0 run.

The second quarter was essentially a rerun of the first quarter once Garnett checked back into the game. Saunders' vaunted "liberation offense" produced 32 first half points on 12-38 (.316) field goal shooting as Boston enjoyed an 18 point lead that was supposedly "shocking"--anyone who was that surprised really needs to check out the previews and game recaps at this site: while many "experts" acted like the sky was falling for the Celtics after Detroit's game two win in Boston, I calmly explained why Boston would win game three:

I expect the Celtics to reciprocate with a road win of their own, probably in game three...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.

I already talked about Boston's points in the paint advantage in game three. The Celtics also outrebounded Detroit 44-28 and held the Pistons to 28-73 (.384) field goal shooting--including 1-13 (.077) from three point range. The Pistons cannot win this series while they are leaking so much oil in those three categories and it is not at all clear what adjustments they can make to fix those problems.

The Pistons did enjoy some success in the fourth quarter by going small and using a 1-2-2 zone to put pressure on ballhandlers and force turnovers. That generated some transition points, something that Detroit really needs since it is so difficult to score against Boston in the halfcourt set. However, don't expect the 1-2-2 zone to be nearly as effective the next time the Pistons use it. You cannot beat good NBA teams with a steady diet of zone defense; that is why even teams that regularly use a zone go in and out of it and don't play it for extended stretches of time. It can be a good surprise weapon in short bursts but eventually a good NBA team will get the ball to the middle of the zone, collapse the defense and then reverse the ball to open shooters. Each time the Celtics did that they obtained open shots but a few times they rushed things and turned the ball over. If Detroit opens game four with that zone expect to see Boston expose so many holes in it that it will look like the Swiss cheese defense--and that is the very reason that I think Saunders will not use the zone at the start of the game but instead selectively employ it later in the game, possibly against the second unit.

The easy assumption is that now that the Pistons are facing some adversity they will bounce back and win game four and that may very well happen but there are two important things to consider: one, Boston's formula--winning the points in the paint battle, posting an excellent defensive field goal percentage and controlling the boards--is a good recipe to win on the road, a recipe that can overcome offensive slumps by one or two players (witness Pierce's subpar scoring and Allen's erratic shooting); two, even if the Pistons win game four they will still have to win another game in Boston in order to advance to the Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:21 AM

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