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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Faulty Comparisons: Career Legacies Are Not Defined by One Game

I touched on the subject of faulty comparisons in my previous post. Certainly a good case can be made that Michael Jordan was a greater player than Kobe Bryant but the way to prove that is by comparing their skill sets and overall accomplishments, not by making superficial generalizations on the basis of misunderstanding what happened in one NBA Finals game.

The easiest, color by numbers story to write in the wake of the Celtics' brilliant game four comeback victory over the Lakers starts with the words "Kobe Bryant should never again be compared with Michael Jordan." While I agree that Jordan was a greater player than Kobe Bryant, it is absurd to make a sweeping judgment about any player based on one game; if those two players are going to be compared then the standard should be a thorough evaluation of their overall skill sets combined with an objective assessment of their career accomplishments, one that places their championships, MVPs, scoring titles and other honors in proper context.

It seems like writers cannot wait to boldly declare someone or something to either be the best ever or to be horrible, with nothing in between. One minute we are breathlessly told that Bryant is as great as Jordan and then we are told that such a comparison must never again be made. "Never" is a very long time. Shortly before Jordan led the Bulls to six championships in eight seasons, there were plenty of people who thought that Jordan should never be compared to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. In The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith tells of a game in which Jordan did not pass to Bill Cartwright nine times when the former All-Star center was wide open. "At least he was under double figures," then Bulls Coach Phil Jackson joked. Cartwright had a less humorous take on Jordan at that time: "He’s the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen. Maybe the greatest athlete ever to play any sport. He can do whatever he wants. It all comes so easy to him. He’s just not a basketball player."

Some people are already saying that game four will be a career defining moment for Kobe Bryant. The series is not even over, so how can that game "define" anything, let alone an entire career that will most likely last for several more years? Is Jordan’s legacy defined by the above passage from The Jordan Rules or by his six championships? Great players tend to be remembered for their successes more than they are tainted by their real or imagined shortcomings. For instance, Magic Johnson performed so badly in critical situations in the 1984 NBA Finals that Kevin McHale mockingly called him "Tragic." Keep in mind that this was after Magic had already won two championships and two Finals MVPs. Magic went on to win three more titles—including two at the expense of McHale’s Celtics--and one more Finals MVP. It is safe to say that no one is calling him "Tragic" now.

All of the talk about Jordan and Bryant is just a convenient distraction from what really matters right now: analyzing what took place in game four—namely, how the Lakers built a big lead and how the Celtics came back to win. Many writers and commentators prefer to spout clichés and make sweeping generalizations about Jordan versus Bryant instead of either (1) really looking at that comparison analytically or (2) breaking down what is actually happening in the fascinating struggle between the Celtics’ league-best defense and the Lakers’ high-powered offense.

Far too many writers have predetermined storylines: if the Lakers win it is because Bryant "trusted his teammates" and if the Lakers lose it is because Bryant played selfishly and is not as great as Michael Jordan—and these writers cling to these storylines no matter what actually happened. People like to talk about the supposed ability of great players to "make their teammates better" but it is more accurate to say that great players put their teammates in the best possible position to succeed. Magic Johnson did not make James Worthy able to run fast and jump high but Magic fed Worthy with passes that enabled Worthy to utilize those skills to score. It used to be said that Jordan did not make his teammates better, a criticism that Jordan scoffed at by retorting, "You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken (bleep)."

Every time Jordan won a championship he had Top 50 player Scottie Pippen as a sidekick, plus at least one other member of the rotation who made the All-Star team at least once during his career. Jordan’s Bulls teams also had excellent role players who could be counted on to deliver in crucial situations. Jordan did not "make" John Paxson or Steve Kerr able to hit perimeter shots; Jordan attracted double teams and passed them the ball, putting them in position to take open shots that they could not easily obtain on their own.

Bryant has one one-time All-Star in Gasol. After that, his supporting cast consists of very solid point guard Derek Fisher, Lamar "confused" Odom, Vladimir "space cadet" Radmanovic and a vastly overrated bench that has been thoroughly outplayed by the Celtics’ bench. The ludicrous comparison that needs to be eliminated from serious basketball conversation is the one that asserted that Lamar Odom could even come close to being Bryant’s Scottie Pippen. Pippen is a future Hall of Famer who excelled as a scorer, rebounder, passer and defender. Odom has yet to make the All-Star team even once during his career and he is the classic third option player. If Odom is going to be compared to anyone from Jordan’s Bulls teams then Horace Grant is the correct name to mention but Grant played better defense and had a more reliable jump shot.

What happened to the Lakers after they acquired Gasol is that everyone in the rotation was now slotted into the correct role. Gasol is not quite good enough to be the first option on a championship-contending team but he is a very good second option. Odom is not good enough to be the second option but he is a good third option. This ripple effect helped out the entire roster. Gasol provided length, mobility and size that helped the Lakers out defensively and on the glass. Offensively, Gasol fit in seamlessly with Bryant and they immediately developed excellent chemistry on screen/roll plays. Unlike Kwame Brown, Gasol is a skilled player who can catch, shoot and pass. When Gasol sets a screen for Bryant and rolls to the basket, the defense is placed in a severe quandary: a switch creates two mismatches—a smaller guard checking Gasol and a slower big man checking Bryant—while trapping Bryant enables Bryant to use his great passing skills to find the open man, whether he is Gasol, Odom flashing to the free throw line or a shooter on the weak side. This Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action is a major reason that the Lakers' offense has been so good and it not only helped them make it to the Finals but it is why Gasol's field goal percentage with the Lakers is much higher than it had been at any previous time in his career.

While a lot of people picked the Lakers to beat the Celtics because of the coaching matchup or the supposed superiority of the Lakers' bench, I picked the Lakers because I did not believe that the Celtics could defend the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll without giving up open jumpers to Bryant, dunks to Gasol or wide open three pointers to the perimeter players on the weak side. The Spurs and Jazz made it to the 2007 Western Conference Finals but neither of those teams could successfully stop the Lakers’ offense in this year's playoffs.

The Lakers have not been able to execute their offense well on a consistent basis versus the Celtics in the Finals. The Lakers executed their offense well for some stretches in the first half of game one, in the fourth quarter of game two, during some stretches of game three and during most of the first half of game four. If you add all of that up, the Lakers have probably run their offense well for seven quarters out of 16 but of course they only have one win to show for it.

In the first half of game four, we saw the Lakers running their offense almost perfectly, even though Bryant did not make a field goal. The reason that Bryant did not make a field goal is that after Gasol set screens and rolled to the basket the Celtics trapped Bryant, who then made the proper passes (Bryant also made the correct passes when the Celtics double teamed him in the post). Perhaps the best example of good execution of the Bryant-Gasol screen play happened at the 10:06 mark of the first quarter: After Gasol set a screen for Bryant, Ray Allen and Kendrick Perkins trapped Bryant, Lamar Odom flashed to the paint, Bryant passed to him and Odom made a touch pass to Gasol for an easy dunk. Another excellent example happened at the :35 mark of the first quarter: After Gasol set a screen for Bryant, Bryant read the defense correctly and fired a crosscourt pass to a wide open Trevor Ariza, who drained a three pointer.

Compare those two plays to the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll that happened after Kevin Garnett’s free throws pulled Boston to within 83-82 with 4:45 left in the fourth quarter: Gasol did not set a good screen, so the defenders did not have to switch or trap, the other three Lakers stood around and Bryant had no good options. Eventually, Odom got the ball in the post and he took a wild shot that was way off the mark. Eddie House buried a jumper on the next possession and the Celtics never trailed again.

Bryant scored 10 points on 4-8 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter and he also had three assists, meaning that he accounted for 16 of the Lakers’ 18 points. ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy said that the Celtics changed their screen/roll coverage by playing the screener softer instead of trapping Bryant but that is only part of the story; if Gasol had set better screens then the Celtics would have been forced to trap or switch. Also, no Laker flashed to the high post (like Odom did in the first half), which would have forced the defense to react, created more room for Gasol to roll and provided Bryant with another passing option.

In the first half, the Lakers scored in the transition game and as a result of their screen/roll action. When House and James Posey came into the game, the Celtics got better offensive spacing and scored more frequently. The reduction in Boston’s missed shots and turnovers essentially killed the Lakers' transition game. That made it vitally important for the Lakers to get some productivity out of their screen/roll game. Paul Pierce deserves credit for accepting the challenge of guarding Bryant and making it difficult for Bryant to post up but, as Bryant said afterward, the Celtics sent bodies at him wherever he went because they were determined to not let him beat them.

After the game, the writers should have asked the following questions of Coach Jackson, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom: (1) "In the first half, Pau Gasol rolled to the hoop aggressively after setting screens for Kobe Bryant but in the second half he just kind of meandered around aimlessly, neither going to the hoop nor stepping back to shoot the jumper. What is the reason for this change?"; (2) "In the first half, after Pau Gasol set screens for Bryant, Lamar Odom flashed to the free throw line, forcing his defender to choose between guarding him and guarding Gasol as Gasol cut to the hoop. Why did Odom not continue to do that?" The answers to those questions would have formed the basis for a much more timely and relevant story than the tired Jordan-Bryant comparisons that are now dominating the headlines.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:48 PM

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Game Four Does Not Sway Kenny Anderson's View of Kobe Bryant

The cliche goes that the media builds you up only to tear you down. After years of not giving Kobe Bryant the MVP votes that he deserved when he was clearly the best player in the league, this season the media selected him as the MVP and began making the tiresome comparisons to Michael Jordan that everyone--including Bryant--is tired of hearing. The easiest, color by numbers story to write in the wake of the Celtics' brilliant comeback victory over the Lakers starts with the words "Kobe Bryant should never again be compared with Michael Jordan." As I have stated in this space many times, I give Jordan the edge over Bryant in terms of skill set and in terms of overall career accomplishments; however, Bryant is the closest thing to Jordan in terms of skill set and work ethic since Jordan retired. Nothing that I saw in game four of the Finals changed my opinion on either of those issues. As I wrote in my game recap, "The case for Jordan's superiority over Bryant should be made based on a comparison of their skill sets, not on the basis of Bryant not being able to lead an inferior supporting cast to victory in the Finals over the best team in the league...If this game proved anything it proved that Bryant needs more than one one-time All-Star to lead the Lakers to a series victory over a deep team that has three future Hall of Famers."

Like many other mainstream media lemmings, Jim Rome is going to run with the easiest story to tell until he falls right over the cliff. Interestingly, former All-Star guard Kenny Anderson refuses to fall for the company line. Today on "Jim Rome is Burning," Rome asked Anderson if he buys the comparisons of Bryant to Jordan and Anderson answered, "As far as individual (skills), Kobe is right there. He's a great player. But now you have to see the supporting cast. I didn't feel that the Lakers' supporting cast could match up with Boston's supporting cast and it's being proven now. Derek Fisher and Kobe (are) the guys that are playoff ready. These other guys--Pau Gasol, Farmar--they are inexperienced right now."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 PM

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Celtics Rally From 24 Point Deficit, Win 97-91 to Take 3-1 Series Lead

The Boston Celtics recovered from the largest deficit at the end of the first quarter in NBA Finals history to post a thrilling 97-91 victory that all but assures that they will win a record 17th NBA title. Paul Pierce led the Celtics with a game-high 20 points on 6-13 shooting but just as importantly he had a team-high seven assists and he played excellent second half defense against Kobe Bryant. Ray Allen had a very strong game, scoring 19 points and grabbing nine rebounds while playing all 48 minutes. Kevin Garnett added 16 points on 7-14 shooting and a game-high 11 rebounds. Unlike the Lakers, the Celtics bring playoff tested veterans off of the bench; James Posey, a key contributor to Miami's 2006 championship team, scored 18 points, shooting 4-8 from three point range. He helped to spread the floor in the second half, which opened up scoring opportunities for Pierce, Allen and Garnett. The Celtics' reserves outscored the Lakers' reserves 35-15 and held the L.A. bench scoreless in the second half.

Lamar Odom got off to a wonderful start and he had 15 points, eight rebounds and three assists at halftime after shooting 7-7 from the field; he was almost completely invisible in the second half, finishing with 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists while shooting 8-11 from the field. Kobe Bryant shot just 6-19 from the field but he had a game-high 10 assists to go along with his 17 points and four rebounds. Bryant scored 10 of the Lakers' 18 fourth quarter points and assisted on three of the other four field goals that the team made, accounting for virtually all of their offensive production in the final stanza.

Pau Gasol contributed 17 points and 10 rebounds; like Odom, he was much more active and effective in the first half than he was in the second half. Game three hero Sasha Vujacic scored just three points on 1-9 field goal shooting and he struggled just as much at the other end of the court, getting burned by Allen for a driving layup that gave the Celtics a 96-91 lead with :16 left in the game.

This series is a battle between Boston's league-best defense versus the Lakers' high powered offense. In the first half, the Lakers' offense had the upper hand but in the second half the tide completely turned; it is very instructive to examine why both of those things happened. First I will describe how the Lakers built their huge lead and then I will explain what factors enabled the Celtics to put together their record setting comeback.

Odom's struggles in the first three games of this series have been well chronicled, so the Lakers smartly decided to get him involved in the offense on the very first possession of the game with a quick hitting play. Bryant brought the ball up the court, handed off to Odom and set a screen on Garnett. Odom drove to the hoop from the top of the key; slowed down by Bryant's screen, Garnett arrived late and goaltended Odom's layup attempt. Meanwhile, the defensive adjustment that Coach Jackson made in game three continued to pay dividends as Kobe Bryant nominally guarded Rajon Rondo while roaming around and completely disrupting Boston's offense. There are two ways to deploy a great defender like Bryant: one is to assign him to lock down one particularly dangerous player and the other is to put him a on a non-threat, enabling him to be very disruptive to the other four offensive players. Coach Jackson did both things with Scottie Pippen in the 1990s, sometimes having him guard a Hall of Famer like Magic Johnson and other times putting him on someone like Utah's Greg Ostertag so that Pippen could use his long arms, quickness and anticipation to shut down Utah's offense. "Kobe might be the best help defender I've seen since Pippen," Coach Rivers said after the game.

The Lakers converted the Celtics' missed shots and turnovers into transition scoring opportunities, which led to two Derek Fisher free throws and a pair of free throws that Bryant split. After Bryant missed the second free throw, the Celtics committed a loose ball foul, enabling the Lakers to retain possession. They ran a screen/roll play with Bryant and Gasol. Allen and Kendrick Perkins aggressively trapped Bryant well beyond the three point line, Bryant fired a jump pass to Odom in the paint and Odom made a beautiful touch pass to a cutting Gasol for an easy dunk. "You trap Kobe Bryant, he takes the trap, hits the man at the free throw line and it's (a pass from) big to big," ABC's Jeff Van Gundy explained. This action is very difficult to stop if it is run correctly and this is an example of perfect execution by the Lakers: The threat of Bryant shooting a three pointer and/or driving to the hoop forced the aggressive trap, Odom stepped aggressively into the void to force Garnett to guard him and Gasol rolled to the hoop uncontested. As we will see, later in the game the Lakers did not run this action with nearly the same crispness.

Vladimir Radmanovic fed Odom for a dunk and Fisher passed to Odom for a layup to put the Lakers ahead 11-4 at the 8:32 mark. Although Odom is often praised for his ability to handle the ball in the open court, he is actually most effective cutting to the hoop from the weak side and receiving a pass for an easy score; when he is the primary attacker from the strong side he often commits offensive fouls, turns the ball over or attempts wild shots. Sure enough, Odom got a defensive rebound at the 7:01 mark, dribbled coast to coast and threw the ball away. Still, the Lakers were in a good rhythm offensively and defensively and they continued to extend their lead; with Bryant roaming around on defense the Celtics struggled to get off high percentage shots and each of their misses and turnovers fueled the Lakers' transition game. If the Lakers were not able to score in transition then they efficiently ran their half court offense; a screen/roll play involving Fisher and Gasol collapsed the Celtics' defense, resulting in an open three pointer by Radmanovic that gave the Lakers a 20-6 lead. The Lakers also had success running Bryant into the post, where he drew double teams and fed open shooters.

An interesting play happened at the 3:50 mark: Bryant and Odom ran a screen/roll play and Bryant passed to Odom, who danced around in place with his dribble before sinking a jumper. As I noted in an earlier post, Chris Paul was credited with several assists during the playoffs on plays like that; in this case, Bryant was quite correctly not awarded an assist because Odom did not make an immediate action to shoot after he received the ball from Bryant--but with this kind of scorekeeping subjectivity it is difficult to make meaningful comparisons between players' assist totals.

The Lakers continued to play at a very high level at both ends of the court and they took a 30-12 lead after a couple Gasol free throws that were made possible by Bryant passing out of a double team in the post. Another well executed Bryant-Gasol screen/roll led to a cross court pass by Bryant to Trevor Ariza, who buried a three pointer that made the margin 34-12. "Very few players can throw the diagonal skip pass on the money," Van Gundy said; I think that Bryant, LeBron James and Tracy McGrady are the three best current practitioners of that difficult play. The Lakers closed out the quarter with Bryant driving to the hoop, drawing a double team and passing to Gasol, who made one of two free throws after being fouled. The Lakers led 35-14, the biggest first quarter lead in NBA Finals history. They shot 11-17 from the field (.647) and held the Celtics to 6-22 (.273) field goal shooting. Bryant scored three points--all on free throws--but he had four assists and created several other scoring opportunities for his teammates. ABC's Mark Jackson declared, "Kobe has been the difference offensively. He puts the ball on the floor, almost like Steve Nash, once he leaves the floor he's looking to make the right play." When the Celtics trapped him he did not force shots but instead passed to the open man.

With the Lakers enjoying a big lead, Coach Jackson was able to give Bryant his usual rest at the start of the second quarter, as opposed to having to keep him on the court to prevent a collapse. The Lakers held their own for 3:47 with him out of the game and still led 40-19 when he returned. The play of Trevor Ariza at the end of the first quarter and during the early part of the second quarter deserves mention. Ariza was very active on the boards, played energetic defense and contributed not only the three pointer after Bryant's pass but also a putback dunk while Bryant was not in the game. The Lakers took their biggest lead of the game when Bryant drove to the hoop, drew all five Celtic defenders into the paint and kicked the ball out to Vujacic, who made his only shot of the game, a three pointer that put the Lakers up 45-21 with 6:45 remaining in the first half. Neither team scored in the next 2:04 and then the Celtics went on a 12-0 run in just 1:43. Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Posey each scored during that spurt, while the Lakers shot 0-3 from the field and committed a turnover. Just like the Lakers' defense helped fuel their offense early in the game, their inability to get stops prevented them from getting out in transition to score easy baskets. Although Fisher drove to the hoop and converted a three point player to push the lead back to 48-33, that Boston run provided the Celtics with a crucial confidence boost. Coach Rivers said after the game that he told his team at halftime that this spurt showed that they could mount a comeback in the second half.

After Allen missed a three pointer, the Lakers returned to the reliable Bryant-Gasol screen/roll and once again a trapped Bryant passed to Odom who fed Gasol for a dunk. The Celtics answered with a free throw after a defensive three seconds call and a Posey three pointer to make the score 50-37. The Lakers outscored the Celtics 8-3 in the final :59 to lead 58-40 at halftime after Jordan Farmar made a running three pointer at the buzzer.

The Celtics have outplayed the Lakers in the third quarter throughout the series and Coach Jackson told his Lakers at halftime to not settle for having the lead but rather to go out and win the third quarter. That proved to be easier said than done. The Celtics scored four quick points before Bryant made a jumper, his first field goal of the game. Baskets by Rondo and Garnett cut the lead to 60-48 but Odom hit two free throws, Radmanovic scored on a layup off of an Odom feed, Bryant made another jumper and Fisher hit a jumper to make the score 68-48. It seemed like the Lakers had weathered the storm but in fact that was their last hurrah. The Celtics made a couple adjustments that turned out to be critically important: Pierce took over the primary defensive assignment on Bryant and Coach Rivers put Eddie House in the game in place of Rondo. Pierce is bigger and stronger than Allen, so he can guard Bryant on the post without the Celtics having to send a double team. Although Bryant hit those jumpers early in the quarter over Pierce--and Bryant had a productive fourth quarter--this switch enabled the other Celtics to really focus on staying attached to their men. Pierce volunteered at halftime to take this defensive assignment and Coach Rivers and Allen readily agreed. Putting House--and James Posey--into the game greatly improved the Celtics' offensive spacing and prevented Bryant from roaming defensively the way that he did in the first half. These adjustments made the Celtics more efficient at both ends of the court; by improving their offense they shut down the Lakers' transition game and that helped the Celtics defense because the Lakers then had to score against the Celtics' half court defense.

The Celtics made a 23-5 run in the last 7:08 of the third quarter to cut the Lakers' lead to 73-71. How did they turn things around so completely? With Pierce making it more difficult for Bryant to post up, it was even more important for the Lakers to generate something with the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play that has been so successful throughout the series. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the last time that they ran that play well came at the 7:08 mark, when Bryant passed to Gasol, who fed Fisher for an open jumper. The Lakers still led 73-64 at the 1:41 mark when Bryant fed Gasol in the paint and Gasol missed a dunk. "You're too big and skilled to miss that shot," Mark Jackson exclaimed. After House hit a three pointer, the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll produced nothing because Gasol did not dive to the hoop aggressively and the other three Lakers stood around like mannequins, forcing Bryant to shoot a jumper right before the shot clock expired. Coach Jackson said afterwards, "We didn't have guys that stepped up and helped out in that second half." The Celtics outscored the Lakers 10-0 in the last 2:01 of the quarter, a run punctuated by an uncontested dunk by P.J. Brown after a defensive breakdown with :01 left.

Towards the end of the game, Van Gundy offered this explanation for why the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll did not work as well in the second half as it did in the first half: "The Celtics have made some great adjustments in their pick and roll defense. They're softer on the screener, which has taken away that high-low pass that we saw in the first half." I agree with Van Gundy to an extent but I also think that the Lakers did not execute properly in several ways: Gasol did not set his screens with authority, he failed to roll aggressively to the hoop and no one popped to the free throw line the way that Odom had been doing. Gasol's passive play enabled the Celtics to simply stay on their own men instead of having to either trap or switch. Therefore, Bryant was left handling the ball with the shot clock winding down and no good options. After the third quarter, Coach Jackson told Michele Tafoya, "We just did things offensively that put us in bad situations. They got their transition game going and their half court game going."

Bryant and Turiaf ran a screen/roll to start the fourth quarter and Turiaf was fouled after receiving a feed from Bryant--but Turiaf missed both free throws. The Celtics tied the score at 73 after a post up move by Leon Powe. A Bryant drive put the Lakers ahead again but Pierce answered with a jumper. The teams continued to trade baskets--a Bryant jumper, a Garnett jumper, an Odom layup on a feed from Bryant--until Pierce missed a jumper, the Lakers pushed the ball up the court and Bryant's fast break dunk made the score 81-77 Lakers. Posey answered with a three pointer; the Lakers had real problems covering Posey and House at the three point line because they also had to keep track of Pierce, Garnett and Allen. A Gasol jumper put the Lakers up 83-80 with 4:55 left but then things fell apart for the Lakers. After Garnett made two free throws, a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll once again led to nothing after Gasol basically just stood around; Odom ended up with the ball in the post and he fired up a wild shot that did not even come close to hitting the target. A House jumper gave the Celtics their first lead of the game, 84-83. The Lakers again ran a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll; this time, Bryant passed to Gasol, who made a weak pass that Allen stole. Pierce missed a three pointer but Allen got the offensive rebound and later in that extra possession he scored on a sweet reverse layup to make the score 86-83 Boston with 3:16 left. Vujacic and Farmar each missed jumpers before Garnett caught the ball in the post, made a strong move and shot right over Gasol to put the Celtics up 88-83 with just 2:10 remaining. Bryant then made two free throws, so the Lakers needed a stop and a score. Instead, Pierce used a screen to get into the paint and draw a foul on Gasol. "That's bad defense by Gasol," Mark Jackson said, adding that after the screen it was Gasol's responsibility to zone the area and prevent Pierce from turning the corner. Pierce split his pair of free throws, so the Lakers were only down 89-87 after Bryant drove past Pierce for a tough layup in traffic--but then Posey stabbed the Lakers with a dagger three pointer. Bryant drove to the hoop, drew the defense and passed to Fisher, who nailed a jumper from just inside the three point arc. "That's a critical mistake by Fisher," Van Gundy said. "If you're going to shoot from that distance make it be a three."

Pierce drew another foul and made both free throws but Bryant fed Gasol for a dunk to cut the margin to 94-91 with :40 left. On the Celtics' next possession, Garnett came up to set a screen for Allen, who waved him off in order to go one on one versus Vujacic. With the other Laker defenders staying attached to their assignments, Allen got by Vujacic for a layup and a 96-91 lead. The Lakers then made a tactical error by passing the ball in before calling a timeout; by rule they now had to burn a second timeout in order to advance the ball. In the end that did not matter because the Lakers were not able to score anyway.


Game Summary:
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After scoring 58 first half points the Lakers scored just 33 second half points. With House and Posey spreading the floor, Bryant was not able to roam on defense, the Lakers were not able to get stops and their transition offense died. Meanwhile, putting Pierce on Bryant curtailed Bryant's post up opportunities and made it imperative for the Lakers to get something out of their screen/roll game--but when Gasol and the other Lakers played tentatively the task fell to Bryant to create something out of nothing. After their great first quarter, the Lakers shot 21-60 from the field (.350) the rest of the way to finish with a .416 shooting percentage.

Bryant struggled with his shooting overall but he shot 4-8 from the field in the fourth quarter and, as noted in the second paragraph, he accounted for 16 of his team's 18 fourth quarter points.

No team has ever recovered from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. The Lakers may bounce back to win game five at home on Sunday but it is very unlikely that they will win two straight games in Boston. This game will become a staple feature on ESPN Classic and NBA TV and will forever be a part of Celtics lore.

Postscript:
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I think that comparing Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan is pointless--I prefer to compare Bryant to other active players. However, it is wrongheaded for John Hollinger to say that this game proves that Bryant should never be compared to Jordan (although I do agree with Hollinger's main assertion in that article, namely that Rivers coached a great game). When Jordan won six championships he was paired with a Top 50 player and future Hall of Famer in Scottie Pippen, so he had another great player who could shoulder a big load offensively and defensively. The case for Jordan's superiority over Bryant should be made based on a comparison of their skill sets, not on the basis of Bryant not being able to lead an inferior supporting cast to victory in the Finals over the best team in the league. Jordan had playoff games during which he shot worse than 6-19 from the field and the Bulls won anyway because they had Pippen and/or because other members of the supporting cast stepped up. Here are three examples: Chicago 103, New York 83, Chicago 87, Seattle 75 and Chicago 75, Miami 68

In contrast, the only future Hall of Famers who are sharing the court with Bryant in this series are all wearing Celtic green: Garnett, Pierce and Allen. That means that the Celtics can target Bryant in ways that the Lakers cannot target any of Boston's "Big Three." Bryant is alternately asked to be a roamer defensively to disrupt Boston's offense and then he is asked to be a stopper against (at different times) Allen and Pierce. As detailed above, it is up to Bryant to create most of the Lakers' offense, while the "Big Three" not only share that load but also have veteran reserve players who can step up. So why did I pick the Lakers to win this series? I thought, based on how the Lakers played down the stretch of this season and in the first three rounds of the playoffs, that Bryant had just enough help around him to lead the Lakers to victory over the Celtics; it now looks like that is not in fact the case.

Just to make sure that I am being perfectly clear about this, I agree with Hollinger that Jordan was a greater player than Bryant but I disagree with his assertion that this one particular game proves that point. If this game proved anything it proved that Bryant needs more than one one-time All-Star to lead the Lakers to a series victory over a deep team that has three future Hall of Famers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:45 AM

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Observations About the First Three Games of the NBA Finals

After game four tonight, the rest of the NBA Finals will either be a best out of three series with the Celtics enjoying home court advantage or a victory lap for the Celtics before they raise championship banner number 17 to the rafters. I still don't understand why so many people thought that it was useful or informative to combine the statistics from game one of this series with the statistics from two regular season games that were played more than six months ago but I do think that it is worthwhile to take a look at the aggregate statistics from the first three games of this series.

The Celtics have scored 287 points (95.7 ppg) while shooting .427 from the field, .451 from three point range and .737 from the free throw line. They have scored 29 fast break points and 90 points in the paint. They are averaging 42.7 rpg. The Lakers have scored 277 points (92.3 ppg) while shooting .450 from the field, .388 from three point range and .722 from the free throw line. They have scored 24 fast break points and 90 points in the paint. They are averaging 37.7 rpg.

In my series preview, I wrote that the Lakers would win because "they have the best player in the game in Kobe Bryant and anything that the Celtics try to do to contain him will either fail and/or open up easy scoring opportunities for Pau Gasol in the paint and the Lakers' various perimeter shooters." I explained that in order for the Celtics to win they must "hold the Lakers' field goal percentage below .450, shoot at least .450 from the field and maintain a decisive advantage (greater than 10-plus ppg) in points in the paint."

I also added these comments:

I expect Boston to outrebound the Lakers but in order to win the series the Celtics must convert that advantage into a lot of points in the paint--by scoring on putbacks and/or creating fast break layups in transition after defensive rebounds.

The Lakers are not known as a great defensive team but their point differential (6.4 ppg) and field goal percentage differential (.045) in the playoffs are better than Boston's (4.3 ppg and .026 respectively). Athletic teams/players can cause problems for the Celtics, as we saw in the first round with Atlanta and even in the Detroit series with the contributions made by Rodney Stuckey and Lindsey Hunter. The Lakers are a long and fast team that is very formidable in the transition game. The problem with the Suns and the Warriors is not that those teams are high powered offensively but rather that they are terrible defensively; the Lakers play at a fast tempo and score a lot of points but they don't give up a lot of easy shots defensively.

Bryant is averaging 30.0 ppg on .464 field goal shooting, bettering his regular season averages in both categories. His screen/roll play with Gasol has been effective (Gasol is shooting .531 from the field, with a large number of his made field goals coming as a result of this action) and the Lakers should employ this as often as possible when they are in a half court set and don't have a better mismatch (such as Bryant posting up Rajon Rondo) to exploit. Gasol is the Lakers' second best player and he must score more than the 13.7 ppg that he is averaging; his scoring has dipped not because of a lack of opportunities but because he has not been aggressive enough: when he catches the ball in the post against one on one coverage he must make a strong attempt to score and when Bryant feeds him on the move after a screen/roll play he must make sure that he either scores or draws a foul. Also, when Gasol passes out of double teams he must do so crisply and not throw soft passes that are easy to intercept.

Sasha Vujacic (6-11 three point shooting), Vladimir Radmanovic (5-13) and Jordan Farmar (4-6) have been the primary perimeter beneficiaries of the extra defensive attention that Bryant is drawing. It is critically important for the Lakers that they continue to make three pointers to punish the Celtics when they trap Bryant. The Lakers' overall field goal percentage is right at the minimum number that I prescribed but their poor game one shooting (.416) is the main reason that they are down 2-1 instead of being up 2-1. Assuming that Bryant, Gasol and the perimeter shooters continue to produce at roughly the same levels that they have so far, the Lakers need to improve in two areas: (1) they need to score more fast break points and (2) they need for Lamar Odom (9.3 ppg on .419 field goal shooting) to be more productive.

The Lakers are a high powered offensive team that wants to play at a fast pace but after three games they have the same number of fast break points that the Celtics do. The Lakers must convert more of their defensive stops into transition points so that they are not continually operating against Boston's half court defense. Odom has taken several defensive rebounds coast to coast only to miss shots, commit fouls and turn the ball over; the Lakers would be much better served if he passed the ball ahead to Bryant or Derek Fisher, filled a lane and either received a return pass for a layup or crashed the boards after someone else shoots. Every transition situation is a chance for Bryant to get in the paint and score or get fouled and the Lakers cannot afford to have Odom continue to squander those precious opportunities.

The Lakers are getting outrebounded by 5 rpg. It would obviously be preferable to minimize that deficit but that number is acceptable provided that the Lakers shoot .450 or better and continue to hold down Boston's field goal percentage.

For some reason, many analysts are overlooking how poorly the Celtics are shooting. As I noted in my series preview, the Lakers are a better defensive team than some people may think; their half court defense in this series has been very good except for Leon Powe's 15 minutes--literally--of fame. On the other hand, the Celtics have thrived in the transition game, matching the Lakers in fast break points and getting a lot of three pointers in open court situations, taking advantage of Laker misses and turnovers. Ray Allen is averaging 20.3 ppg on .514 field goal shooting and .526 three point shooting; he has done a lot of his damage in transition or in situations when Vujacic was guarding him while Bryant was playing small forward and checking Paul Pierce, who is averaging 18.7 ppg on .450 field goal shooting and .583 three point shooting. Since Pierce came back in game one after his knee injury he has been moving a bit gingerly and relying very heavily on his jump shot and shooting three pointers in transition. The Lakers must run him off of the three point line and force him to operate on the move; that would not necessarily be the normal strategy against Pierce, who usually likes to drive and seek out contact, but it would be a good idea now because his mobility appears to be limited.

If the Lakers win this series I don't want to hear any sob stories about Kevin Garnett not winning a championship ring. He is paired with two future Hall of Famers on the best team in the league, a squad that enjoys home court advantage in the Finals--and he is shooting just .355 from the field, missing jumper after jumper when his team needs for him to get in the post and establish a presence in the paint. Garnett is rebounding very well and playing excellent defense but a former MVP who is so highly regarded--and who some people thought should win this year's MVP over Bryant--cannot expect to win his first title entirely on the shoulders of Allen and Pierce's offense. Garnett has to bring something to the table at that end of the court.

Rajon Rondo is leading both teams in assists (9.0 apg) but he is both a poor shooter (.409 field goal percentage in the series) and a reluctant one (just 22 attempts). Lakers Coach Phil Jackson made the most important adjustment in the series so far when he switched Bryant on to Rondo at the start of game three; that enabled Bryant to roam around defensively, disrupting the Celtics' offense, and it also created a great crossmatch that Bryant exploited at the other end of the court. When Eddie House or Sam Cassell are in the game for Rondo the Celtics can space the floor better on offense but they are not as good defensively and they miss Rondo's ability to dribble penetrate.

It is funny to listen to how some people overanalyze a game by underanalyzing it. For instance, they will say something like, "The Lakers barely won game three even though Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett shot poorly. If those two players just shoot a little better in game four then the Celtics will win." The problem with this kind of thinking is that it makes no sense to assume that Pierce and Garnett will shoot better but everything else will remain exactly the same. Each game has its own distinct tone and tempo. Leon Powe had 21 points in game two and when the series is over he probably will not have scored that many points in all of the other games combined. One of the few givens in this series is that Bryant is going to have the ball in his hands a lot and that no matter how the Celtics defend him he will be able to create open shots for himself or one of his teammates; the production and effectiveness of the other players is going to vary from game to game. If Pierce is not completely healthy and the Lakers cut down on his stand still jumpers in transition then he is not going to shoot well in game four; if Garnett continues to rely too much on his jumper then he will not be as effective offensively as he could be.

The key matchup in this series is the battle between Bryant and the Celtics' defense; if they single cover him then he goes into attack mode, like he did at the end of game three, and when they trap him he finds the open man. Jeff Van Gundy has mentioned more than once that the Celtics have struggled to defend the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play. It is important for the Lakers to continue to take advantage of that action because it not only creates opportunities for Bryant against a scrambling, rotating defense but it also opens up Gasol on the move as well as the Lakers' three point shooters. Gasol looked very tentative in game three when he received the ball in the post, which is yet another reason that it is better to have him screen for Bryant and then roll to the hoop; what a lot of people fail to understand is that the purpose of a screen is not always to free up the man with the ball but sometimes to simply force the defense to react in a way that opens up the screener or a player on the weak side. We all know that Bryant can get his shots and his points at any time but this is a way to get other players involved in the offensive attack.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:24 AM

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Tim Donaghy's Tales

I don't believe Tim Donaghy's assertion that NBA executives deliberately and maliciously altered the outcome of two playoff series; it strains credulity that such a large conspiracy could have taken place without already being exposed and it also strains credulity that the people who run the NBA would risk the credibility of a multibillion dollar enterprise for the sake of making a playoff series last longer or so that one team would beat another team. It is pretty obvious what is really going on here: the NBA asked the court to force Donaghy to pay the league $1 million in restitution, so he is trying to smear the league's name so that he will not have to pay the $1 million and in hopes that he will receive a lighter sentence for the crimes that he committed.

That said, it certainly looks foolish for the NBA to have made this restitution request: $1 million would hardly have a significant impact on the league's bottom line and Donaghy's retaliatory comments have certainly cost the league far more than $1 million worth of public relations damage. A few months ago when I was covering a game, some writers and I talked about how remarkable it is that the Donaghy story had all but disappeared from public view at that time; I had expected it to be in the headlines throughout the season. If the NBA had left well enough alone perhaps Donaghy would not have made these allegations and his story would have not become so prominent again.

Now that the Donaghy genie is out of the bottle once again, the NBA needs to be very proactive in addressing his charges. Donaghy and his lawyers very cleverly chose two playoff series that received a lot of attention and about which doubts had previously been raised. The NBA must once and for all explain to the general public exactly what did and what did not take place in both instances. Although the Donaghy document speaks in "code," everyone has figured out that he is referring to the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Kings and the 2005 Western Conference first round series between the Mavericks and the Rockets.

Donaghy asserts that in game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals--a contest worked by Bob Delaney, Dick Bavetta and Ted Bernhardt--two of the three referees were, in his words, "company men," who followed NBA orders to call fouls against the Kings and not call fouls against the Lakers so that the Lakers would win the game and extend the series. The Lakers won game six 106-102 and then won game seven 112-106 to advance to the NBA Finals, where they captured the third and final title of the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant era. Scot Pollard, a Boston reserve who played for the Kings at that time, told reporters at the Finals that he thought something was strange about that game back then but he added--in remarks that have not been nearly as widely reported--that the Kings could have won that series anyway if they had not allowed Robert Horry to hit a buzzer beating game winning three pointer in game four or if they had taken care of business on their home court in game seven. No questions have ever been raised about game seven, so what Donaghy is essentially suggesting is that the NBA risked having the entire sport being exposed as corrupt in order to get television revenue from one additional game.

In game six, 31 fouls were called against the Kings and 24 fouls were called against the Lakers; the Lakers attempted 40 free throws compared to 25 for the Kings. O'Neal, who was in his prime, and Bryant, who has always been excellent at drawing fouls, shot the majority of the free throws: O'Neal shot 13-17 from the free throw line, while Bryant shot 11-11. That game attracted attention because the Lakers attempted 27 of their free throws in the fourth quarter. It is worth mentioning that the last three fouls and last six Laker free throw attempts happened in the final 19 seconds when the Kings had to foul to stop the clock and get the ball back. Still, prior to that time there were several calls and non-calls that many observers thought were unusual.

The NBA reviews and grades its referees not only for every call they make but also for non-calls that they miss, so there is a simple way for the league to once and for all dispel the idea that this game was fixed: reveal exactly what its grading process said about that game, particularly in terms of certain calls/non-calls that have aroused suspicion. In the league's judgment, was this simply a poorly officiated game or does the league believe that the calls/non-calls were correct according to its interpretations of the rules?

Of course, the NBA is never going to disclose this information for a variety of reasons, including that the referees' association would have a fit. However, I thought that one of the best things the NBA did regarding its officiating is creating the short lived NBA TV program "Making the Call with Ronnie Nunn." Nunn, the league's director of officials, showed videos of various plays from the previous week and explained exactly why they had been called the way they were and he frankly admitted that some calls were wrong (which did not make him a particularly popular figure with some referees and is no doubt one of the reasons that the NBA took the show off the air). Most fans don't even know all of the rules regarding things like the "restricted area" and the "lower defensive box" and this ignorance only fuels their perceptions that their team is getting the short end of the stick even on calls that are routine and correct. Nunn's show was a wonderful educational tool. The NBA should put it--or something like it--back on the air and the first episode should be an examination of game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals: what did the referees see, why did they make the calls and non-calls that they did and what grades did they receive from the league? I don't believe that the NBA fixed this game or this series but the league is going to face a serious credibility gap with a lot of people until it addresses this issue forcefully and directly. Even if the answer simply is that the game was poorly officiated that would be better than having a cloud of suspicion hanging over it. Maybe the referees were out of position on certain plays and thought that they saw contact when there was no contact (or vice versa). Delaney and Bavetta are two of the league's most prominent and respected referees and the NBA is essentially tainting their names if it does not take action to clarify what happened in that game. As we have seen so many times in so many walks of life, the cover up--or, in this case, even the appearance that something is being covered up--is more damaging than the original offense. In this case, I'm not even convinced that there was an original offense, which is all the more reason for the NBA to resolve this matter as suggested above.

As for the 2005 Mavericks-Rockets series, Donaghy alleges that the NBA instructed its referees to change the way they were officiating a certain team's star player. Based on the information Donaghy provided, it is not hard to figure out that the player in question is Houston's Yao Ming. The Rockets took a 2-0 lead and then lost the series in seven games. Then Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy--who is now of course an NBA commentator for ABC/ESPN--was fined $100,000 during that series by NBA Commissioner David Stern. Van Gundy had said that an NBA "official" told him of the league's plans to call the games differently regarding how Yao Ming set screens. During halftime of game three of this year's Finals, Van Gundy reiterated what he has previously said about this situation: when he said "official" he was referring to someone from the NBA offices, not a referee, and that he was wrong to raise the matter the way he did at that time. Van Gundy stands by his statement that he was indeed told about the plan to call the games differently but he does not ascribe corrupt motives to the league. Instead, he sensibly said that the league should be more open and transparent about such matters: if one team complains about how a game has been called then the other team should be notified and the league should clearly tell both teams the result of its inquiry, particularly if the league decides that something had been called incorrectly and would thus be called differently going forward. Van Gundy puts no credence in Donaghy's allegations that the NBA manipulated the outcome of this series. Keep in mind that Dallas owner Mark Cuban has often been a very vocal and public critic of Commissioner Stern. Why would the NBA throw a series in Cuban's favor? It just makes no sense. Van Gundy's explanation is much more logical; the league made a determination about how Yao Ming's screens should be officiated but it did a poor job of communicating that determination to the Rockets so that they could adjust accordingly.

As for Donaghy's assertion that the NBA instructed its referees to not call technical fouls on certain players and to not eject them from games, I think that Donaghy is taking something out of context and trying to make it sound sinister; it is one thing for the NBA to remind its officials to be extra careful to not have quick whistles during playoff games and it is another thing entirely to simply say to not eject certain players no matter what. I suspect that if the NBA did anything it was the former and that Donaghy is portraying it as the latter in order to smear the league. If you are an NBA fan, do you want the referees to have quick whistles and eject star players left and right or would you think that it is a good thing to encourage the referees to defuse situations instead of escalating them? On his show, Nunn frequently talked about player/referee interactions and he said that he instructed his referees to disengage from players, to try not to add fuel to the fire and to only call technical fouls when absolutely necessary.

The reason that I have always dismissed NBA conspiracy theories is that you can come up with a "conspiracy" to fit any eventuality. For example, if LeBron James plays his whole career in Cleveland you could say that there is a "conspiracy" to place him on his hometown team and thus boost the prospects of that franchise--but if he goes to New York you could say that there is a "conspiracy" to turn the Knicks into a great team. By the way, how is that "conspiracy" working out? The Knicks have not won a championship in 35 years and have only made two Finals appearances in that time; if the league is trying to rig things in the Knicks' favor then it has been bungling for decades. Here is a tongue in cheek article that shows how you can "prove" that there is an NBA conspiracy against the Lakers. The point is that depending on your perspective as a fan you can think that "they" are "out to get" any team, something that Boston Coach Doc Rivers alluded to when he mentioned that during his time as a broadcaster he discovered that every team's fans thinks that the referees are biased against them.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bryant's Big Performance Saves Lakers in Game Three

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 36 points on 12-20 field goal shooting, willing the Lakers to an 87-81 game three win over the Celtics. Bryant earned 18 free throw attempts with his aggressive play and the only blemish on his performance is that he missed seven of them. Still, he set the tone for the Lakers right from the start, scoring 11 first quarter points, and he scored nine points in the final 6:55 to seal the deal. Sasha Vujacic was the only other Laker who scored in double figures and his 20 points on 7-10 field goal shooting were very important, particularly since Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were almost completely invisible offensively; Gasol had a game-high tying 12 rebounds but he only scored nine points on 3-9 shooting, while Odom contributed nine rebounds and four assists but only scored four points on 2-9 shooting, committed five turnovers and made numerous boneheaded plays. Ray Allen led the Celtics with 25 points on 8-13 shooting but Kevin Garnett (13 points on 6-21 shooting) and Paul Pierce (six points on 2-14 shooting) had miserable offensive performances, though Garnett did have an impact in other areas (12 rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots).

There has been so much talk about how well Boston defends Bryant--including the laughable assertion that Ray Allen can stop him one on one--but after three games in this series Bryant is averaging 30 ppg on 32-69 field goal shooting (.464), slightly better numbers than he posted during the regular season, when he won his first MVP. People need to forget about two regular season games that took place more than six months ago when the Lakers had a different roster and start to understand that what happened in game one of this series is that Bryant missed a lot of shots that he normally makes; he has shot 23-43 from the field (.535) since then and that kind of Finals performance against the best defensive team in the league is most impressive. As Jerry West presciently said prior to game three, "You shouldn't worry about Kobe Bryant. His effort is always there. That's not the person. You should look at everyone else and what their effort and contribution is going to be." Lakers Coach Phil Jackson echoed that theme, telling NBA TV's David Aldridge before the game, "I think the other guys have to carry their weight."

TNT's Kenny Smith, making a guest appearance during NBA TV's pregame coverage, said that before the series he expected that either Gasol or Odom would be able to have a huge advantage--whichever one was not being guarded by Garnett. He noted that this was not the case in the first two games. The reality is that Bryant has a lot less help around him than many people seem to believe. The Celtics have three perennial All-Stars who are most likely future Hall of Famers, plus a bench that is loaded with veterans who have a lot of playoff and Finals experience; the Lakers have one one-time All-Star in Gasol and, essentially, a bunch of role players. Without Bryant holding everything together like he's MacGyver the Lakers would be fortunate to win 40 games in the tough Western Conference--yet they are now just three wins away from winning the NBA championship. No NBA team has ever won a championship with a roster that contains only two players who made the All-Star team at least once (the 2004 Pistons had two players who had already been All-Stars and three more who would later make the All-Star team at least once, including Chauncey Billups, who won the Finals MVP that season).

Coach Jackson made what turned out to be the key strategic move in the series so far, switching the defensive assignments of his starting backcourt; he put Bryant on point guard Rajon Rondo and Derek Fisher on Allen. The Fisher-Allen matchup is not a great one for the Lakers and Allen is the only player who was really productive for the Celtics offensively in game three but the brilliance of Jackson's decision is that it had a great impact at both ends of the court; Rondo is not a great outside shooter, so Bryant was free to roam around and disrupt whoever had the ball and this contributed to the slow starts that Garnett and Pierce had. Meanwhile, this crossmatch situation meant that whenever the Lakers got a stop and pushed the ball in transition Rondo had to guard Bryant, which is of course a tremendous advantage for the Lakers. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned this point immediately and the crossmatch led to the Lakers' first field goal when Bryant caught the ball in the post against Rondo, spun baseline to avoid Kendrick Perkins' double team and scored right over the top of Garnett at the rim; it would be good for the Lakers if Gasol and Odom were able to complete plays that forcefully against Garnett instead of acting like they are scared to death of him.

Bryant got fouled after snaring an offensive rebound and made two free throws to put the Lakers up 8-2 at the 8:05 mark of a very choppy first quarter; both teams missed a lot of shots and committed careless turnovers. On the next possession, Bryant got a defensive rebound and went coast to coast, forcing Rondo to foul him. Again, a big difference between Bryant and Odom is that when Bryant goes coast to coast he generally scores, draws a foul or passes to a teammate for a wide open shot. Odom's open court skills are very overrated: he repeatedly makes poor decisions that result in wild shots, bad passes or charging fouls. Bryant only split those free throws, the beginning of a difficult night at the free throw line for someone who consistently shoots well over .800 on his free throws. Fisher stole a pass by Pierce and fed Bryant, who missed two free throws after Allen fouled him.

The Celtics have repeatedly burned the Lakers this series with transition baskets after the Lakers take bad shots or make turnovers. After Odom got a defensive rebound, dribbled coast to coast and made a terrible pass to Gasol that was stolen by Rondo, Allen made a transition three pointer to cut the Lakers' lead to 9-5. A little bit later, Gasol set a screen for Bryant at the top of the key and then dove to the hoop. Bryant read the defense, found an angle to attack and made a left handed layup to put the Lakers ahead 17-12; his ability to finish well with either hand has been crucial in this series, because at least one big man usually challenges him every time he drives and in several of those situations a right handed shot would have been blocked. The next time the Lakers had the ball, Bryant drove to the hoop, attracted the defense and made a gorgeous behind the back pass to Gasol, whose soft attempt was snuffed by Garnett--don't talk about Bryant only having one assist in this game unless you also mention how many of his great passes to Gasol and Odom became blocked shots, soft moves and turnovers.

The Lakers did not utilize the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play that much in the first quarter because they scored a lot of points in transition and when they were in the halfcourt they often took advantage of the Bryant-Rondo mismatch. However, one time that they ran the action and did not score provides an instructive example of how everyone must be on the same page for this play to work: with less than a minute remaining in the first quarter, the Celtics trapped Bryant after a Gasol screen, Gasol rolled to the hoop and Bryant swung the ball to Jordan Farmar, who was open because the defense sagged into the paint to deal with Gasol. Gasol seemed to flash open for a split second but then Turiaf dove into the post, bringing his defender into the paint and thus allowing him to, in effect, guard two people at once--if Turiaf had waited, then Gasol would have had a clear path to the hoop. Instead, Farmar fed the ball to Turiaf in the post and Turiaf missed a turnaround jumper.

So much has been said about Bryant's field goal percentage--which, as noted, is now above his regular season average--that few people seem to have noticed how terribly Garnett is shooting: Garnett has shot just 16-53 from the field (.302) since the first half of game one and the overall trend for him in this series is spiraling downward, from 9-22 (.409) in game one to 7-19 (.368) in game two to 6-21 (.286) in game three. Obviously, if Bryant performed that way the Lakers would get killed--and he would then get killed in the media--but the Celtics are strong enough defensively and have enough firepower elsewhere to be competitive despite Garnett's disappearing act. Bryant scored 11 first quarter points while Garnett was scoreless and missed all five of his field goal attempts, but the score was tied 20-20 at the end of the quarter. Celtics Coach Doc Rivers quite accurately told ABC's Michele Tafoya, "We weathered the storm early."

Odom committed his third foul at the 11:37 mark of the second quarter but the Lakers played better after he went to the bench. The key factor was that Coach Jackson did not give Bryant the rest that he normally gets at the start of the second quarter and instead left him out there to stabilize the reserve players; the Lakers' bench performs much better with Bryant on the court than they do when they are left to their own devices, which is why Jackson played Bryant a game-high 45:15. Bryant scored the first points of the quarter after he caught the ball at the three point line, dribbled to the midrange area and drilled a pullup jumper. That may sound simple but Van Gundy explained that it is not: "People don't understand just how hard that shot is. He caught the ball, put the ball down at full speed to his right, balanced up, went straight up and down to avoid the charging foul and knocked it in...It's the hardest shot to defend in the NBA--the pullup jump shot. Very few people have that shot because it is very difficult to balance after picking up the dribble." That is a shot that LeBron James does not consistently make, which is why his shooting percentage was so awful in the 2007 Finals versus the Spurs and in the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Celtics. I've made this comparison between Bryant and James before, but it cannot be emphasized enough because it highlights the difference between being the best player in the NBA and being the second best player; this is one of the reasons that Van Gundy said that Bryant is so far ahead of the rest of the league that "LeBron James is number three. There is no number two."

Bryant hit a couple free throws after a postup move to make the score 24-20 and then a play happened that beautifully illustrates how important it is to the bench players to have Bryant on the court with them. Bryant received a pass near the hoop, causing the defense to collapse to him, so he passed to Ronny Turiaf in the lane, Turiaf swung the ball to Luke Walton, Walton passed to Farmar and Farmar kicked the ball to Vujacic, who drained a wide open three pointer. In the boxscore, Farmar gets an assist and there is no statistical evidence that Bryant did anything but if he is not in the game that play most likely never happens because all of the defenders would have stayed at home; that is another reason why Bryant's assist total in this game is a poor indicator of how much "assistance" he actually provided to his teammates.

Bryant again showed off his left handed skills by taking a defensive rebound coast to coast and finishing strongly with his off hand. That may sound easy but he weaved his way through the entire defense and completed the play against bigger defenders at the hoop, while most of Odom's long distance forays in this game ended in disaster. Soon after that a Farmar three pointer put the Lakers up 34-25, their biggest lead not only in the game but in the series up to that point. After Walton's weak layup was blocked by P.J. Brown, Allen fed Garnett an alley-oop for a transition dunk, Garnett's first field goal in eight attempts and another example of Hubie Brown's oft repeated maxim that when a team misses a layup the opponent will often score an easy basket within a few seconds. That is also an example of how bad offense leads to defensive breakdowns; many times in this series we have seen Gasol, Odom and other players make weak plays in the paint that the Celtics turned into wide open shots. The Lakers' halfcourt defense has actually been good for most of the series but they have been hurt in transition and the blame for that goes squarely on the shoulders of players who are not finishing strongly enough in the paint on offense.

Now that Bryant had helped the reserves to build a working margin, Coach Jackson took advantage of a timeout situation at the 5:49 mark to give Bryant a rest for several minutes while only having him out of the game for 1:38 on the clock. As soon as Bryant returned he faced up Allen in an isolation and drained a pullup jumper over him. Van Gundy said, "Picture perfect execution of the pullup jump shot. Stops, on balance, great follow through--that's textbook, young people." Mark Jackson added that this is not an accident, that Bryant's skill is the product of all of his offseason work on his game. It is worth noting that this is the same kind of shot that went in and out for Bryant on several occasions in game one; we'll see how many of them he misses the rest of the series.

Allen made a three pointer to cut the margin to 43-37 at halftime. Bryant scored 19 first half points on 6-10 field goal shooting and 7-12 free throw shooting. Gasol shot 0-3 from the field and had two points and four rebounds while Odom had 0 points and four rebounds. Allen led the Celtics with 12 points, Garnett had two points on 1-9 shooting and Pierce had two points on 1-7 shooting.

In the third quarter, Odom picked up right where he had left off. He turned the ball over the first time that he touched it and then after Bryant made a steal and spoonfed him for a layup his shot was blocked by Perkins. Bryant made a runner, missed a jumper and then hit another pullup jumper to put the Lakers up 47-39. Van Gundy said, "You want a term for indefensible? Right there. Drive it left, spin back right, balance up, elevate, great defense by Ray Allen. There's nothing he can do. There's nothing anyone in this world can do." That is the important point: it is true that from a fundamental standpoint Allen plays sound defense against Bryant--but to suggest that he can stop him one on one is absurd.

Rondo left the game early in the third quarter after spraining his ankle. He was replaced by Eddie House and that changed things for the Lakers offensively and defensively. A defender must stay attached to House at all times because he is a great shooter, so that opened things up for the Celtics offensively and the Lakers no longer enjoyed the crossmatch advantage of Bryant on Rondo. The Celtics' offense came alive and the Lakers hit a dry spell during which they made only one shot in the 4:17 after Bryant's pullup jumper. Meanwhile, Garnett scored five points and assisted on a House three pointer as the Celtics took a 51-49 lead. The Celtics pushed that edge to 61-56 before the Lakers returned to the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play. This time, Bryant accepted the trap, read the defense and found an angle to drive to the hoop and hit a running bank shot. Coach Jackson took Bryant out at the 1:07 mark in order to let him rest during the break between quarters. The Celtics led 62-60 going into the fourth quarter after Odom blew yet another layup after getting a defensive rebound and going coast to coast.

Naturally, Coach Jackson put Bryant right back in at the start of the fourth quarter instead of giving him the rest that he would normally get at that time. Each team made a three pointer to open the final stanza and then neither team scored for more than two minutes. With 9:36 left, Odom picked up his fourth foul with yet another charging foul; he has yet to understand that the Celtics led the league in taking charges and that you cannot simply drive straight into the teeth of their defense. The difference between Bryant and Odom in that regard is that Bryant is much better able to read the defense, see where the proper angles of attack are and know when to try to get all the way to the hoop and when to shoot a pullup jumper. Of course, Odom does not have a reliable pullup jumper, so that is not really an option for him. A couple James Posey free throws put the Celtics up 68-66 but that would turn out to be their last lead of the game.

A defensive breakdown left Bryant wide open behind the three point line and he drilled that shot to put the Lakers ahead 69-68. Derek Fisher and Bryant each made a pair of free throws to extend that margin to 73-68. Odom had been out of the game since committing his fourth foul but he returned at the 6:27 mark and soon made his presence felt by missing a layup, turning the ball over and missing a dunk. Gasol flailed at the rebound of Odom's miss and seemingly accidentally tipped it in without having inside position but that was an important play because it put the Lakers up 77-70 with 4:17 left. The Lakers went through a strange stretch during which they apparently forgot that Bryant is on the team and they had several possessions during which he did not receive the ball in a scoring area. At one point, Van Gundy said, "There can't be a possession in the last three minutes of a game that means so much where Kobe Bryant doesn't touch the ball." Not surprisingly, the Celtics trimmed the lead to 78-76. After the teams traded misses, the Lakers had the ball with less than two minutes left and they made the biggest play of the game. The Celtics trapped Bryant just inside the frontcourt and he passed to Odom, who swung the ball to Vujacic for a wide open corner three pointer that put the Lakers up 81-76. Mark Jackson said, "That's a shot created by Bryant--takes the double team, willing passer." Yes, Odom got the assist but Bryant made the play, because if he had not been on the court then the Celtics would not have double teamed anyone, Vujacic would not have been open and Odom would have most likely turned the ball over, missed a shot or committed yet another charging foul--that has basically turned into his signature move. A bit later, play by play man Mike Breen recited Vujacic's numbers and said, "What a game by Vujacic" and Mark Jackson immediately replied, "But the play is made by Bryant."

After a defensive stop, Fisher made two free throws to put the Lakers up by seven but the Celtics quickly cut it to five after the Lakers played terrible defense on an out of bounds play and let Garnett waltz to the hoop for an uncontested dunk. With the game and the series on the line, the Lakers used their best play, a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll. This time, Bryant went away from the screen and hit a jumper. Bryant seemed a little more reluctant to pass to Gasol in this game than he usually does but one can hardly blame him considering how softly Gasol has been finishing plays.

House's three pointer made the score 85-81 Lakers with :59 left. For most of the series, the Celtics have been tilting the floor toward Bryant but we have seen that throughout this game he repeatedly burned them not only with his scoring but also by creating open shots for his teammates, even if he did not get assists on those plays. Therefore, they decided to do something that they have rarely done: ask Allen to guard Bryant one on one with no help. Bryant worked Allen into the lane, gave him an up and under move worthy of Kevin McHale and dropped in a short jumper. Mark Jackson said, "What I don't understand is playing him straight up. You are saying to Ray Allen it's your job to stop Kobe Bryant. It's not going to happen in our lifetime. He can't guard Kobe Bryant one on one." Perhaps during a timeout Mark Jackson could educate some of the media members who are at the game about this and then we would not be subjected to stupid articles about how the Celtics are guarding Bryant one on one (they didn't for the most part until this play) and how well Allen is stopping Bryant (he can't, as Jackson quite correctly said).

Of course, this game would not have been complete without another offensive foul by Odom. This one was strange even for him. After the Celtics missed a shot and got an offensive rebound, Garnett was whistled for an illegal screen. Mark Jackson mentioned earlier in the quarter that illegal screens by Garnett were freeing up Celtic shooters, to which Van Gundy had quipped that it is not illegal if it is not called. Those illegal screens were the only way that the Celtics could loosen Pierce from Bryant's defense but this time the referees called the foul. So the Lakers now had the ball with a six point lead and :21 left. For some reason, the Celtics made no attempt to foul to stop the clock, so the Lakers could simply have dribbled the clock out but instead Odom bulled into the lane and committed a charge with :06 left. Pierce then missed a three pointer and the game was over. What if Pierce had made that shot, stole the inbounds pass like Reggie Miller and hit another three pointer? Odom's stupid move opened the door, however slightly, to the possibility of the Celtics forcing overtime. As NBA TV's Pete Vecsey said, now we can all understand why Coach Jackson called Odom "a confused player" after game two.

This was a big win for the Lakers, because a loss would have meant that a Boston championship would just be a matter of time. That said, the Lakers must put together two more similar efforts just to get the series back to Boston without facing elimination and then they will have to figure out how to win a game there. It would be most helpful if Gasol would start playing with more aggressiveness and if Odom would actually check in to the series mentally.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:32 AM

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Curt Schilling, Kobe Bryant and Biased Media Coverage

You probably have seen or heard about Curt Schilling's blog post that talks about Kobe Bryant's demeanor during Laker timeouts in game two of the Finals. Here is the excerpt that has been most frequently quoted and discussed:

What I do know is what I got to see up close and hear, was unexpected. From the first tip until about 4 minutes left in the game I saw and heard this guy bitch at his teammates. Every TO he came to the bench pissed, and a few of them he went to other guys and yelled about something they weren’t doing, or something they did wrong. No dialog about “hey let’s go, let’s get after it” or whatever. He spent the better part of 3.5 quarters pissed off and ranting at the non-execution or lack of, of his team. Then when they made what almost was a historic run in the 4th, during a TO, he got down on the floor and basically said ‘Let’s f’ing go, right now, right here” or something to that affect. I am not making this observation in a good or bad way, I have no idea how the guys in the NBA play or do things like this, but I thought it was a fascinating bit of insight for me to watch someone in another sport who is in the position of a team leader and how he interacted with his team and teammates. Watching the other 11 guys, every time out it was high fives and “Hey nice work, let’s get after it” or something to that affect. He walked off the floor, obligatory skin contact on the high five, and sat on the bench stone faced or pissed off, the whole game. Just weird to see another sport and how it all works. I would assume that’s his style and how he plays and what works for him because when I saw the leader board for scoring in the post season his name sat up top at 31+ a game, can’t argue with that. But as a fan I was watching the whole thing, Kobe, his teammates and then the after effects of conversations. He’d yell at someone, make a point, or send a message, turn and walk away, and more than once the person on the other end would roll eyes or give a ‘whatever dude’ look.

If you did not go to Schilling's blog and read the whole post then you probably did not see the part that the media left out:

Let me reiterate that this is from a complete basketball newbie, so for all I know this could be exactly how these guys play this game and interact with each other.

So, while Schilling frankly admits that he does not know whether or not Bryant's actions were typical--either for Bryant or for NBA stars in general--the media intentionally frames this story as "World Series hero Curt Schilling calls out Bryant as a bad leader."

Baseball is a slow, leisurely game. There is plenty of dead time to sit around and calmly talk about things--which is not to say that we have not seen more than a few heated dugout conversations, including a recent one involving Schilling's Red Sox. In contrast, basketball is a fast paced game that only has short breaks in the action. There is not time to have a half hour discussion in which you politely ask your teammates to play harder and be more focused. Anyone who actually follows the NBA knows very well that most superstars will get right in the faces of their teammates if they think that those players are not performing up to par. We've seen Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and many others do that. Kobe Bryant demands excellence from himself in his workouts, his practice sessions and during games and he asks no less of his teammates. That, more than anything else, is the real source of his conflict with Shaquille O'Neal when they were teammates, because O'Neal has never had that kind of fire, intensity or work ethic. This new Lakers team that has been built around Bryant mainly consists of young players who look up to Bryant for leadership and direction. Pardon my French here, but in the first round of the playoffs, Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin said, "Pissed off is better than pissed on." In other words, it is better to get angry, be aggressive and act with a purpose than, well, get pissed on. That is the message that Bryant was conveying to his teammates--and the best proof that his leadership worked is that he led the Lakers to a fourth quarter rally that very nearly stole game two from the Celtics. This season, Bryant has generally toned down some of the more demonstrative aspects of his leadership but this was a case when his teammates really needed to understand just how poorly they were playing and just how dissatisfied he was with their effort. I did not see any instances in which his teammates "rolled their eyes" at Bryant and based on Lakers games that I have been to I have yet to see that reaction, so I suspect Schilling misinterpreted or misread their body language. As he frankly admitted, he is a "complete basketball newbie," which makes one wonder why his comments are getting so much play. It is interesting that if you closely read what Schilling wrote he says that he is making no judgment about Bryant but every mention of Schilling's post that I have seen portrays his comments as being critical of Bryant. This is a classic example of people hearing what they want to hear and believing what they want to believe as opposed to examining an issue with a critical mind.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:58 PM

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Do or Die Time for the Lakers

The Lakers are already facing long odds in the NBA Finals and if they lose game three to the Celtics tonight the only question will be when--not if--a 17th NBA Championship banner will hang in Boston. Home court advantage has seemed to mean more in this year's playoffs than ever before but the Lakers cannot fall into the trap of believing that simply returning to L.A. will solve their problems; in order to beat the Celtics they will have to have a sound game plan and they will have to execute it well. They must play better half court defense, they must be tougher and more physical on the glass and their bench players must make some kind of impact offensively and defensively.

I have repeatedly mentioned one element that I think should be a bigger part of their half court offense: a screen/roll play involving Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy pointed out during game two that the Celtics have struggled to defend that action and late in the fourth quarter we even saw the Lakers successfully run a screen/roll with Bryant and reserve center Ronny Turiaf.

Why is this play so effective? In general, a well executed screen/roll is difficult to defend, particularly if the two main offensive players who are involved are smart and skilled; no matter how the defense reacts, there is a counter that should lead to a high percentage shot. For instance, say that the defense tries to anticipate the screen and trap the guard before the screen is set; the screener can then "slip" the screen and dive to the hoop uncovered and the guard can either feed him the ball or pass to a teammate who then passes quickly to the screener as he cuts to the hoop. We have seen this happen several times in games one and two: Gasol moves toward Bryant as if he is going to set a screen, reads that the defense is overplaying Bryant and dives to the hoop, "slipping" the screen instead of setting it. As ABC's Mark Jackson noted during game one, Larry Bird and Robert Parish ran that play for years. One of the prettiest plays in game two was when Gasol slipped to the hoop, Bryant passed to Lamar Odom in the paint and Odom shuffled the ball to Gasol for an easy dunk.

The Celtics are cutting off Bryant's driving lanes by tilting their defense toward him. It is asinine to suggest that Bryant should simply put his head down and drive to the hoop, because Boston's defense is specifically set up to stop him from doing that (side note: if Bryant in fact started to do this, those same critics would then say that Bryant is selfishly forcing the action instead of running the offense). The best way to punish the Celtics for how they are playing defense is to get the other offensive players in motion and force the Celtic defenders to make quick decisions and rotations. Having Gasol set a screen for Bryant is an excellent way to do this; with Gasol rolling to the hoop, Odom lurking on the weak side and two good perimeter shooters spacing the court, the Celtics would have to pick their poison. However, it is very important to state that the primary reason that this play is effective for the Lakers is that Bryant is impossible to guard in a screen/roll situation because he has no weaknesses as an offensive player: he can shoot the three pointer, he can shoot the midrange jumper, he can split defenders and get to the hoop and he can make a variety of passes from many different angles. Bryant's offensive versatility is just one reason why Van Gundy and Jackson agree that Bryant is the best player in the NBA. As Jackson recently said, "It's hard to make a case for another guy when the other guy himself says Kobe is the best." Someone asked Van Gundy who the second best player is and Van Gundy replied, "LeBron James is number three. There is no number two." It is amusing to hear some writers and fans act like there should be some big debate about who the best player in the NBA is, because if you talk to coaches and players around the league most of them will say that Bryant is the best player.

Most offensive players have weaknesses or tendencies that the defense can exploit. For instance, LeBron James is a suspect outside shooter who often is looking to pass the ball in screen/roll situations, so in the 2007 NBA Finals the Spurs played off of him, daring him to shoot jumpers and sagging into the passing lanes; this resulted in James shooting a poor percentage (.356) and committing a lot of turnovers (5.8 per game) as the Spurs swept his Cavs. The Celtics essentially defended James the same way in this year's Eastern Conference Finals, with the same result: poor shooting (.355) and a lot of turnovers (5.3 per game) by James as the Celtics beat the Cavs in seven games. After falling down 2-0 to the Hornets, the Spurs finally realized that the best way to defend Chris Paul is to stay at home on his shooters and force him to be a scorer.

Neither of those approaches will work against Bryant: he will punish a soft, sagging "LeBron" defense by burying jumpers and, needless to say, forcing the league's deadliest scorer to score is not a good idea. Therefore, what the Celtics have done when Gasol sets a screen for Bryant is have Gasol's man and Bryant's man trap Bryant to try to discourage him from shooting the jumper or driving to the hoop. Someone else is then supposed to rotate to Gasol and the other two defenders have to guard three players. Bryant has shown that he can defeat this type of defense several ways: sometimes he splits the two defenders and shoots a pullup jumper or gets all the way to the hoop if the other defenders are spread out in their rotations; sometimes he strings out the two defenders and then hits Gasol with a pass for an easy score; sometimes he passes to Odom and then Odom has an easy pass to a wide open player, either Gasol on the move or a shooter on the weak side. Even if the Celtics do everything that they are supposed to do the Lakers can still get a good, open shot if they are patient and precise. The Lakers ran this screen/roll several possessions in a row in the third quarter of game two and they scored every time, quickly cutting into the Celtics' lead, but then they lost their discipline: Vladimir Radmanovic made two bad plays on possessions in which Bryant never even touched the ball, then Radmanovic made a couple poor defensive plays and Boston's lead quickly ballooned. If the Lakers run this play five or six possessions in a row it will be very demoralizing for the Celtics because they won't be able to stop it and they will be inbounding the ball after made shots instead of getting out in transition after defensive rebounds. In order for this play to work it is important not only that Bryant and Gasol make good reads but also that the other Lakers position themselves correctly and are ready to shoot or make the extra pass if they end up getting the ball.

Gasol is the perfect player to be the screener in this scenario because he is a mobile 7-footer who can catch, finish, pass and shoot; this versatility enables him to roll to the hoop after the screen or fade to an open area to shoot the jumper. He can also reverse the ball to an open man if the defense rotates to him. Bryant clearly understands that this action is a good one for the Lakers, because I have noticed several occasions when he waved off whatever the Lakers were originally doing and motioned to Gasol to come up and set a screen. During the third quarter of game two, Van Gundy praised the Lakers for abandoning the Triangle in favor of running the sideline screen and roll with Bryant; he also advocated posting up Bryant and isolating Bryant but I think that the screen/roll play is more effective than trying to post up Gasol or Bryant. The Celtics do a good job of swarming the post and rotating to shooters and other than two or three good moves by Gasol early in game two the Lakers did not get much out of their efforts to post players up. When the team is properly spaced, the screen/roll really stretches out the Celtics' defense and creates gaps that can be exploited.

Prior to game two, I listed three keys for the Lakers to win and three keys for the Celtics to win. The Lakers shot better than .450 from the field and kept their rebounding deficit to less than 10 but those two keys were canceled out by their abysmal failure in the third area: instead of holding the Celtics to sub-.450 shooting they allowed Boston to shoot .529 from the field. Successful execution of the screen/roll play can help in all three areas: it will raise the Lakers' field goal percentage and by doing so it will cut down on the Celtics' easy scoring opportunities in transition and the resulting improvement in overall floor balance should help the Lakers on the boards.

Not surprisingly, in game two the Celtics did well in the three key areas that I mentioned: Paul Pierce seemed to be fully healthy and he was very productive, the Celtics got a lot of easy points in the paint--particularly by reserve Leon Powe--and they slowed the Lakers' transition game to a crawl for most of the night. The Lakers' late run skewed a lot of the final numbers but the Celtics built up their big cushion because of Pierce, points in the paint and limiting the Lakers' transition game.

The same keys will be vital for both teams in game three. I expect the Lakers to execute their offense more crisply, to play with more energy and to get their first win of the series, probably by double digits.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:42 AM

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Celtics Build 24 Point Lead, Survive Huge Lakers Rally to Win Game Two, 108-102

The Boston Celtics led the L.A. Lakers 95-71 with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter but the Lakers pulled to within 104-102 before the Celtics escaped with a 108-102 win. Paul Pierce, showing no ill effects from his game one knee injury, led the Celtics with 28 points on 9-16 shooting from the field. He also had eight assists and four rebounds. Leon Powe came off of the bench to contribute a playoff career-high 21 points in just 14:39, shooting 6-7 from the field. Kevin Garnett controlled the boards with a game-high 14 rebounds but scored just 17 points on 7-19 field goal shooting. Ray Allen had an efficient 17 points on 6-11 field goal shooting. Rajon Rondo only scored four points on 1-4 field goal shooting but he had 16 assists, six rebounds and just two turnovers. P.J. Brown did not have huge individual numbers (six points on 3-4 field goal shooting, three rebounds) but he had a +20 plus/minus number, easily a game-high total, and that reflects not only his impact but also how completely the Celtics' bench outplayed the much vaunted--and overrated--Lakers' bench. Kobe Bryant finished with 30 points, eight assists and four rebounds, shooting 11-23 from the field. He had 13 points and two assists during the Lakers' 31-9 fourth quarter run that almost turned into the biggest comeback in Finals history. Pau Gasol had decent numbers (17 points on 8-12 shooting, 10 rebounds, four assists) but for the second game in a row he was very quiet offensively in the second half (four points). Vladimir Radmanovic struggled terribly for most of the game but he scored seven points during the late comeback, finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Lamar Odom added 10 points and eight rebounds but he made a lot of bad plays at both ends of the court and he was the only Lakers starter who had a negative plus/minus number (-13). Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of Odom, "He looked like a confused player out there at times."

The Celtics only outrebounded the Lakers 37-36, which frankly is hard to believe because while watching the game it seemed like the Celtics got every loose ball and key rebound. The Lakers outrebounded the Celtics 9-3 during the late run, so that is part of what made the final numbers closer. The Lakers shot 41-83 from the field (.494), including 10-21 from three point range (.476), but of course those numbers were also skewed a bit by the late rally, during which the Lakers made five of their Finals record-tying seven fourth quarter three pointers. The Celtics shot 36-68 from the field (.529), including 9-14 from three point range (.643). The Lakers' defense was horrible, particularly in the second and third quarters when they gave up 63 points. Another huge factor was the incredible free throw disparity: the Celtics shot 27-38 (.711) from the free throw line, while the Lakers shot just 10-10, the fourth fewest free throw attempts ever in an NBA Finals game. Some of that can be attributed to the Celtics being more aggressive and opportunistic but there were several times that various Lakers--particularly Bryant--drove to the hoop and seemed to be fouled but nothing was called; I don't think that this was a conspiracy or anything deliberate, those are just the breaks of the game and Bryant said after the game that you have to play through such situations without losing your aggressiveness. In a game in which the rebounding and points in the paint battles were pretty even it strains credulity a bit to believe that one team was fouling that much more often than the other; the fouls called on the Lakers seemed to be correct and mostly stemmed from them being out of position and thus reaching with their hands instead of sliding their feet but the Celtics also did a lot of reaching and grabbing that was not called. The free throw situation was a factor in the game but it did not decide the outcome. As Bryant said, "What we have to do is get those loose balls, get timely rebounds and stop them from knocking down those transition threes and we'll be fine." Then, he added with a smile, "A free throw or two wouldn't hurt."

Any idea that Allen is primarily guarding Bryant one on one was refuted on the very first possession of the game. Bryant caught the ball in the post and Kendrick Perkins all but abandoned Odom on the perimeter in order to step into the paint and dissuade Bryant from getting into the middle. Bryant made the right read and passed to Odom, who countered the Celtics' rotation by swinging the ball to Radmanovic, who missed a jumper. The only way for the Lakers to punish the Celtics for the extra defensive attention that they are giving to Bryant is for his teammates to make open shots. That is why it is not optimal to have Odom on the same side of the court as Bryant when Bryant posts up; Odom is not a knock down shooter, his driving ability is overrated and, as Coach Jackson noted during his pregame standup, the Celtics led the league in taking charges. That is why it is asinine to make a general statement like "Bryant should drive to the hoop and not settle for the jumper"; it only makes sense to drive against the Celtics from certain angles and against certain matchups. When Bryant posts up it would be best to have a three point shooter in the corner, a three point shooter at the top of the key and Odom crashing the boards from the weak side. Or the Lakers could put Gasol around the top of the key, ready to shoot an 18 foot jumper if his man traps Bryant in the post. Gasol is a much better faceup shooter than Odom. Odom has never completely grasped how to play in the Triangle and how to properly read situations and this is just one example of the "confusion" that Jackson mentioned.

The Lakers scored their first points of the game when Derek Fisher lobbed a pass to Odom, who cut to the hoop and dunked; Odom is much, much more effective offensively as a pressure release player coming in from the weak side than he is as a primary option on the strong side. Garnett missed a jumper on the next possession but Perkins got the offensive rebound and passed to Pierce, who drained a wide open three pointer. Coaches and students of the game know that one of the best times to shoot three pointers is right after an offensive rebound, because the defense is scrambling around.

In what may turn out to be a recurring theme in this series, Radmanovic picked up his second foul very early--this time at the 10:06 mark of the first quarter. Coach Jackson tweaked his rotation, electing not to go with regular substitute Luke Walton or his game one choice of Sasha Vujacic; instead, Jackson deployed Trevor Ariza, a midseason acquisition who has spent most of his time with the team sidelined by injury. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy questioned this move, saying that Ariza's inability to hit an outside shot would hamper the Lakers' offensive attack. In fact, Jackson later conceded that putting Ariza in the game messed up the Lakers' offensive rhythm. Ariza only played a total of 7:19, missing his only shot, grabbing two rebounds and committing two fouls and one turnover while compiling a plus/minus number of -6. Pierce went right at Ariza as soon as he came into the game but he missed a jumper and Bryant grabbed the rebound and went coast to coast to make a running bank shot for his first points. That was an excellent opportunity to drive because the Celtics' defense was not set, so Bryant did not have to worry about committing a charging foul or having his shot blocked. The teams exchanged baskets and then Pierce drove to the hoop, was fouled by Ariza and converted the free throw for a three point play. Van Gundy noted that Ariza had a miscommunication about how to defend that play.

Gasol made a nice left handed hook shot over Garnett to put the Lakers up 10-8 and then Allen missed a three pointer. On the next possession, Bryant posted up Allen and Perkins again double-teamed Bryant. This time, Bryant spun away from the trap, drove along the baseline and passed to Gasol, who let the ball go right through his hands. Gasol pointed to the floor to indicate that he preferred for Bryant to give him a bounce pass but ABC's Mark Jackson retorted, "Give me a catch," saying that Bryant did his job by drawing the defense and that Gasol should have caught the ball and finished the play. To his credit, Gasol posted up the next time, did a nice drop step move against Garnett and dunked the ball. After a Bryant free throw and an Odom tip in the Lakers were up 15-8, which would prove to be their biggest lead of the game. The Celtics answered with an 11-4 run and then Bryant picked up an offensive foul, his second foul of the game. Van Gundy immediately said, "I don't like that call," arguing that there was only marginal contact of the kind that could be called on every play and that it is not right to make such a call unless the officials are truly going to blow their whistles for every such infraction. A good indication of how bad the call was is that Mark Jackson actually agreed with his former coach instead of arguing with him. Bryant sat down at the 1:59 mark with the Lakers leading 19-18. Jordan Farmar hit a late three pointer to give the Lakers a 22-20 lead at the end of the quarter.

The Lakers' bench has been highly praised this season but I have consistently maintained that they are overrated. For one thing, the statistics for reserve players are highly context dependent because they play limited minutes and are able to pad their numbers in garbage time situations. Also, the Lakers' reserves often play alongside Bryant and they are much more effective in that case than they are when they are simply dueling head to head with other reserves. Obviously, with Bryant on the bench in foul trouble the reserves were on their own to start the second quarter--and the result was not pretty: in just 2:20 they committed four turnovers, Vujacic missed a jumper and Farmar missed a wild running shot in the paint. Coach Jackson told ABC's Michele Tafoya between quarters that he planned to keep Bryant out until the 8:59 official timeout--but he had to burn a timeout at the 9:40 mark just to get Bryant back in the game because the Celtics had already made a 10-0 run. Bryant immediately hit a jumper to make the score 30-24 Boston. However, once a team goes on a run and gets confidence and momentum--particularly at home--it is not so easy to get the game back under control. The Lakers briefly got as close as 41-37 but then Pierce and Allen opened things up again with back to back three pointers. Bryant assisted on a Radmanovic three pointer that made the score 47-40 Celtics at the 2:06 mark but right after that Bryant picked up his third foul and went back to the bench; the Celtics closed out the half with a 7-2 run in the last 1:53 as Bryant sat and they led 54-42 at halftime. In the second quarter the Lakers outscored the Celtics 18-17 with Bryant on the court and were outscored 17-2 in the less than four minutes that he was out of the game due to foul trouble. Understandably, during the halftime show Van Gundy said, "The biggest factor in the first half was Bryant's foul trouble."

At the start of the third quarter the Celtics pushed the lead to 58-42 before Odom hit a jumper and Bryant scored on a sensational, twisting drive through the heart of the Celtics' defense. Bryant thought that he was fouled and said so in no uncertain terms to referee Dan Crawford, who immediately hit him with a technical foul. Van Gundy commented, "I love the fire of Kobe Bryant. That is what greatness is all about. An incredible spin move, thought he got hit. Sometimes there is a good time to take a technical foul and make a point." Allen made the technical free throw and then Pierce hit a three pointer to put the Celtics up 62-46 but Bryant scored six points and had an assist in a 13-6 run as the Lakers cut the margin to 68-59. The Lakers had finally found an offensive rhythm by using the one set that has been most consistently effective against Boston, a screen/roll play involving Bryant and Gasol; virtually every time the Lakers run this action they get an open shot for Bryant, Gasol or a player on the weak side. If you want to know the difference between watching a basketball game and understanding it, contrast the post-game "analysis" of Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry with what Van Gundy said during this third quarter stretch: Wilbon and Barry said that the Lakers got in trouble offensively because they went away from the Triangle Offense, while during the flow of the game Van Gundy correctly said, "I love the adjustment by Phil Jackson. No more Triangle. Side pick and roll with Bryant, post Bryant, iso Bryant. Bryant is the one who is going to bring you back in the game. Plays he makes, free throws he makes, shots he creates for himself and his teammates." The Lakers scored three straight baskets in a 1:14 stretch by playing this way: first, Bryant ran a screen/roll with Gasol, passed to Odom and Odom passed to Gasol on the move for an easy dunk; second, Bryant ran a screen/roll with Gasol, split the trap and elevated for a jumper; third, Bryant drew the defense and passed to Gasol for an open jumper.

Unfortunately, Radmanovic--who Coach Jackson has publicly referred to as a "space cadet"--mysteriously got the strange idea that the Lakers' best offensive play is for him to isolate one on one off the dribble and this brainstorm resulted in him missing a jumper and throwing an awful pass that Garnett stole. To make things worse, on each of the ensuing defensive possessions he got burned by Pierce. Mark Jackson said, "Four straight bad possessions by Radmanovic, two on offense and two on defense." Coach Jackson took Radmanovic out at the next stoppage of play but Radmanovic had already effectively killed the Lakers' rally and jump started a Celtics' run that pushed their lead to 83-61 by the end of the quarter.

Bryant assisted on three straight Lakers baskets to start the fourth quarter, the last of which was a Ronny Turiaf dunk after he ran a screen/roll with Bryant. Van Gundy again noted the effectiveness of that play, saying "The side pick and roll has really hurt the Celtics" and adding that even though the Celtics were winning handily that was something they would need to address. Although the Lakers' offense was once again clicking, they could not gain much ground because they were not getting defensive stops. The low point came when Leon Powe received an inbounds pass, dribbled coast to coast and scored an uncontested layup to make the score 93-71 Celtics. Garnett soon made a jumper to put the Celtics up 95-71, their biggest lead of the game. Then Bryant took over and the Lakers almost pulled off a most improbable comeback. First he hit a jumper, then he drew a foul and made both free throws and then he drew the defense before passing to Radmanovic for an open three pointer. Later, in a 1:03 stretch, Bryant made a three pointer, scored on a drive and scored on a tough left handed drive to make the score 104-95 Boston at the 1:50 mark. Fisher stole the ball from Pierce and Vujacic hit a transition three pointer to bring the Lakers within six points and then Radmanovic stole Pierce's pass and raced to the hoop for a dunk that cut the lead to four points. The next time the Celtics had the ball it looked like no one wanted to shoot and Rondo ended up missing a jumper near the end of the shot clock. Bryant got the rebound, drew a foul on Pierce and sank two free throws to pull the Lakers to within 104-102 with :38 left. Amazingly, all the Lakers needed was a stop and a score. Pierce drove to the basket, drew a foul on Fisher and made both free throws. The next sequence is a little hard to understand: after a timeout, Bryant inbounded the ball with :22 left and the Lakers never got the ball back to him. Instead, they wasted eight seconds before Vujacic took a three pointer that Pierce partially blocked. Bryant had popped open at the top of the key before Vujacic shot the ball and there was still enough time for Bryant to score a two pointer, have the Lakers foul, take a shot and then foul again if necessary. Understandably, Bryant did not seem real happy about not getting the ball back in that situation. Two James Posey free throws closed out the scoring.

Someone asked Coach Jackson after the game if the Lakers can carry the momentum from their late rally into game three but he immediately said, "No," quipping that L.A. is 2500 miles away and they cannot carry the momentum for that distance. The last team to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the Finals was the 2006 Miami Heat, who trailed for most of game three before Gary Payton hit what turned out to be the game-winning shot; Dwyane Wade performed marvelously in that contest and played at a high level as the Heat swept the next three games. For the Lakers to duplicate that feat they will need to play better defense, keep the rebounding margin close and have a much better understanding of what their offensive strengths are.

I picked the Lakers to win this series because I thought that the Celtics would not have an answer for the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play and that their success with this action would be enough to cancel out the slight rebounding deficit that I expected them to suffer. As Van Gundy noted during the telecast, the Lakers have in fact enjoyed success with that set. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they have not run it enough and their rebounding (in game one) and defense (in game two) have been poor. We have seen many instances in these playoffs of teams performing much differently at home than on the road, so the likelihood is that the Lakers will win game three and probably game four--maybe even by large margins. However, there is no way around the fact that the Lakers face a steep uphill climb to win this series because they will have to beat the team with the best regular season record in the NBA four times in five games. That is not impossible but history suggests that it is not very likely, either.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM

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