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Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Importance of Coaching

There is a tendency among those who don't understand the NBA game very well to dismiss the importance of coaching. Phil Jackson is sometimes derided for winning titles with the Hall of Fame caliber duos of Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant but leadership, strategy and motivation are important elements for team success. Keep in mind that in order to win a championship it is vital not just to get the maximum out of the team's stars but also to squeeze as much productivity as possible out of the other players on the roster. While Jackson's star players could undoubtedly have had great individual statistical success playing for any NBA team, Jackson came up with offensive and defensive plans that made sure that his stars did not have to carry all of the burden by themselves.

Before Jackson took over in Chicago, many people thought that Jordan was too focused on his own scoring exploits to lead a team to a championship. Before Jackson took over in Los Angeles, O'Neal had a history of not working hard on defense and of getting swept out of the playoffs. Jackson did not just make those teams a little bit better; he turned them into powerhouses: the 1996 Bulls set the all-time record for regular season wins (72) and the 2001 Lakers set the all-time record for playoff winning percentage (15-1).

Of course, in this year's Finals Jackson's Lakers lost to Doc Rivers' Celtics. Just last season many people were saying that Rivers is a terrible coach and even now there are people who act like Rivers was some kind of accidental tourist along for the ride during the Celtics' championship run--but accidents don't last for 82 regular season games and four playoff series. Rivers is a very good coach. As a former All-Star guard he knows the game and he also has a good rapport with his players, which is very important. After the Celtics came back from 24 points down to win game four of the Finals--the turning point of the series--Kevin Garnett spoke about Rivers' leadership:

Doc is not afraid to tell us when we're messing up. I've been around for a while and I've seen some coaches sort of say the 'right thing.' He gives it to you straight, lets us know and he's probably one of the best motivators I've been around in a while. He gives up hope through his words and we believe it. We go out and try to do what is asked of us. He gave us confidence and just told us, 'Cut it to 10, cut it to 7, get it to 3.' We just continued to fight.

Garnett spent his whole career in Minnesota before joining the Celtics this season and while I suppose it is possible that the "some coaches" remark could have been in reference to Bill Blair's brief tenure or Kevin McHale's interim stint on the bench or the short reigns of Dwane Casey and Randy Wittman, I suspect that Garnett was referring to Flip Saunders. Saunders is a good NBA coach who designs some of the best out of bounds plays in the league. However, I see no evidence that he is the kind of coach who can lead a team to a championship. He inherited a championship team in Detroit and the Pistons spun their wheels for three years until Joe Dumars canned Saunders in favor of assistant coach Michael Curry. Check out what Curry recently told Jim Rome:

Give the Celtics a lot of credit. They played extremely well. They played extremely well the entire season. We have to figure out a way and we have to get better at playing harder, more focused and more consistent throughout the year--taking care of a lot of the little things as far as taking care of our bodies and little things out on the court so that when we do get into situations in which we are under duress when we are playing a team that is just as good or better then we can perform at a high level and hopefully we can take care of those situations when we get back to the Eastern Conference Finals again.

Rome asked Curry if the Celtics were better than the Pistons or just more focused and Curry offered a very telling reply:

I think that having focus is part of being the better team. Throughout the regular season the Celtics have shown that they were the best team in the league. They played with the focus, with the understanding and the desire of the importance of each game. They've done a tremendous job. Give the coaching staff credit, give the players credit--they've done a tremendous job. At the end of the season, everyone says that they want to win a championship but you want to be in a position where you feel you deserve a chance to win it because you've outworked everybody that you're playing against. We did not outwork them.

Rome asked Curry about the Pistons' reputation for acting as though they can "turn it on and off." Curry plans to change that:

That's a label I do not like and we're going to get rid of that label as far as the team turning it on and off...We're going to do it the championship way...We're going to have more accountability and do the little things to make sure that we can be a more consistent team. That starts with the way we practice every day, the way we prepare for games every day and the way we approach games during the regular season, understanding that if we want to be there in the end it will be because of all the work we have done along the way.

Basically, in those brief replies Curry summarized every criticism that I have had about the Pistons under Saunders' regime--and since Curry was on Saunders' staff he obviously knows exactly what was going on behind the scenes on a day to day basis. Clearly, Curry believes that the Pistons were taking shortcuts in their preparation and were not as focused as the Celtics were. Casual fans have the mistaken belief that the most important coaching takes place during games but the reality is that the most important coaching takes place during practices and in the interactions that take place before the game. It is the coach's job to prepare the players as well as possible and then it is the players' job to execute. Some of the greatest coaches of all-time--Jackson and John Wooden, to name just two--are renowned for having calm, placid demeanors during games. That is because they know that the most important work is done before the game and they were not interested in grandstanding for the TV cameras. Do you know why Red Auerbach started lighting victory cigars? He once explained that he never understood why other coaches were jumping up and down and making spectacles of themselves on the sidelines, particularly if one team had a big lead with very little time left; smoking the cigar was his way of saying that the game is over and there is nothing more that he needs to do.

Curry has no track record as an NBA head coach, so I don't know whether or not he will be able to implement the program he described to Rome--but Jackson and Pat Riley had no prior NBA head coaching experience when they took over in Chicago and L.A. respectively but their focus on doing things "the championship way"--as Curry called it--paid off quickly.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:10 AM

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Friday, June 20, 2008

The 2008 Playoffs: Where the Revival of the NBA's Two Flagship Franchises Happened

One year ago, the NBA's two flagship franchises appeared to be in total disarray. The Boston Celtics had just completed a demoralizing 24-58 season and their "reward" for posting the worst record in the Eastern Conference was the fifth pick in what was considered to be a two player draft. The L.A. Lakers earned the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs with a 42-40 record and got destroyed 4-1 by the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. Kobe Bryant had just won his second straight scoring title with a 31.6 ppg average and he poured in a playoff career-high 32.8 ppg versus the Suns but he did not look forward to wasting the prime years of his career going into battle with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker starting at the two most important positions, center and point guard. Bryant had always wanted to be a Laker for life but he also wanted to win championships, so he publicly blasted the team's management and demanded that they work as hard to put together a championship team as he worked at being the best player in the league.

What a difference a year makes! The Celtics packaged the fifth overall pick with other considerations and acquired All-Star guard Ray Allen from a rebuilding Seattle team. Now that the Celtics had two All-Stars on the roster, Kevin Garnett agreed to be traded from Minnesota to Boston and the remade Celtics were suddenly a bona fide threat to win the East and contend for a championship. Meanwhile, young Andrew Bynum emerged as a legit double double threat and the Lakers raced to a 26-11 start. Bynum went down with what turned out to be a season ending knee injury but Bryant held the team together until the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis in exchange for Brown and other considerations. The Lakers now had a legit second option, which meant that overmatched second option Lamar Odom could now become a solid third option.

The Celtics finished with the best record in the NBA (66-16), while the Lakers had the best record in perhaps the most competitive Western Conference race ever (57-25). The top two seeds have generally not both made it to the Finals in recent seasons but the Celtics and Lakers each vanquished tough foes to advance to the championship round, where Boston earned the right to hoist a 17th championship banner, denying Phil Jackson his 10th coaching title and Bryant his fourth ring as a player and in the process completing the one blank space on the Hall of Fame resumes of Garnett, Allen and 2008 Finals MVP Paul Pierce.

I correctly predicted the outcome of 12 of the 15 playoff series this year and I correctly predicted that the Celtics and Lakers would meet in the Finals; my three incorrect predictions were that the Lakers would beat the Celtics, the Suns would beat the Spurs and the Mavericks would beat the Hornets. Last year, I also went 12-3, including picking the correct Finals matchup and the eventual winner. In 2006, I went 10-5 but did not correctly pick either Finalist, while in 2005 I went 9-6, correctly picking both Finalists but picking the wrong champion. So, in four years of posting playoff predictions online I have a 43-17 record (.716) and I have correctly picked six out of eight Finalists, though I have only been right about one out of four champions.

Here are some final thoughts and observations about each of the 16 playoff teams:

1) My default position about players and teams is skepticism and there were plenty of good reasons to be skeptical about the Celtics prior to the start of the season. None of their "Big Three" had been able to lead their teams to the playoffs in 2007, the Boston bench was of questionable quality (Danny Ainge shrewdly strengthened it later in the season) and neither Pierce nor Allen had previously been known as great defensive players. However, once I saw the Celtics play during the regular season I began to modify my opinion of their team because they played so hard and so well defensively night after night. After their 5-0 start, I was already convinced that they could win more than 60 games, a significant departure from my preseason expectations. A couple days later, I saw them in person for the first time, observed that Pierce was playing at an elite level offensively and concluded, "I am impressed by how hard they played throughout the game, particularly on defense...Call it tenacity, heart or will to win, the great teams have it and that is how they win even when they are not at their best. The Celtics provided a glimpse of this against Indiana and it will be interesting to see if they can replicate such efforts at playoff time against the very best teams."

The Celtics proved to be the best team in the NBA from start to finish, answering all questions about chemistry, defense and depth. The only question now is whether or not they can duplicate this high level of play next season. It is unlikely that they will win 66 regular season games, because that requires not only skill and tenacity but also good health, something that is hard to maintain two years in a row; the real issue is what level will the Celtics be playing at by the time next year's playoffs roll around. Are the "Big Three" satisfied with winning one title or will they pursue a repeat title with the same hunger that fueled their chase for the 2008 championship? My initial thought is, as usual, that I am skeptical; it is difficult to repeat, though the teams that have done so in the past 15 years were tough minded squads led by multiple All-Stars, a description that certainly fits the Celtics.

2) The blowout loss in game six of the Finals was without question a bitter pill for the Lakers to swallow but it should not lead to rash judgments or actions. The Lakers still have the same strengths that enabled them to not only post the best record in the West but also defeat three 50-plus win teams in the playoffs: they have a Hall of Fame coach, the best all-around player in the NBA and a high powered offense. The Finals highlighted the weaknesses that they overcame to have such a great season: a lack of toughness that manifests itself defensively and on the boards and the lack of a legit, top flight small forward who can make a significant offensive contribution and/or lock down the opposing team's high scoring small forward. If Andrew Bynum returns to health and is productive then he can start at center and Pau Gasol can shift to power forward. In that scenario, the ideal move for the Lakers would be to trade Lamar Odom for a quality small forward. Odom is not an ideal small forward, so a frontline of Bynum-Gasol-Odom is not feasible, despite what some people may try to convince you; the only way that those three players can effectively coexist is if one of them comes off of the bench. Gasol is the second best player on the team, so he is not going to be a reserve. Bynum is the best postup player, so it does not make sense to sit him either.

3) As long as the San Antonio Spurs have Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich they are going to be a formidable team. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are perfect complements to Duncan and the Spurs do an excellent job of finding veteran players who fit in perfectly to their system. Barring injuries or a marked decline by Duncan, the Spurs should be right back in the mix as a contender.

4) Joe Dumars finally figured out that Flip Saunders was never going to lead the Pistons back to the Finals, let alone win a championship. The question now is whether the team's championship-contending window is still open with the current nucleus of players or if Dumars is going to overhaul the roster. Until I see what happens on that front it is impossible to predict how good the Pistons will be in 2009.

5) The Utah Jazz have a dynamic young duo in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, plus a talented supporting cast that includes two former All-Stars, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko. They certainly have to be considered a Western Conference contender. If not for Kobe Bryant's heroics against them in the Western Conference semifinals (33.2 ppg, 7.2 apg, 7.0 rpg, .491 field goal shooting) they could very well have made it to the Finals for the first time since the Stockton-Malone era.

6) The Cleveland Cavaliers remain one of the most misunderstood and underrated teams in the league. All season long I heard "experts" talking about how the Cavs would not even make the playoffs, a ludicrous idea that I consistently rejected. The Cavaliers' formula for success is the brilliance of LeBron James, defense and rebounding. Everyone except Skip Bayless realizes that LeBron James is a great player but few people appreciate or respect the way that Coach Mike Brown has turned the Cavs into San Antonio East in terms of defense and rebounding. What happened to the Cavs in the playoffs is that they ran into a Boston team that matched their commitment defensively and on the glass and had three All-Stars to match James' offensive production. The Cavs need one more player who can create his own shot and/or create shots for other players but even if they don't add that player they still will be a serious Eastern Conference contender next year. Injuries or personnel moves around the league could change this but right now they are the biggest threat to knock off the Celtics in the East.

7) Chris Paul emerged as the best point guard in the NBA, David West is probably still underrated even though he made the All-Star team and New Orleans looks like a legit Western Conference contender. The playoff experience that the Hornets gained this year should serve them well in the future. The Hornets' defense is underrated and that defense--combined with the brilliance of the Paul-West duo--could very well carry them to the Western Conference Finals in 2009.

8) Dwight Howard is already the dominant low post force in the NBA and the scary thing is that he is still improving. I question whether Jameer Nelson is a championship level point guard and I think that the Magic need to still improve their overall talent base but Orlando is a team on the rise.

9) I've been saying for a couple years that the Raptors are the Phoenix Suns East: that means that they can win a lot of regular season games and be a tough playoff matchup but unless they become more stout defensively and on the glass they will not beat Boston, Cleveland, Detroit or Orlando in a seven game series.

10) The Philadelphia 76ers were one of the real surprise teams of the season--as opposed to a team like the Cavs that only surprised people who were foolish enough to not understand how good they are. No one expected the 76ers to be a playoff team. Whenever a young team comes out of the woodwork like that there is always a question of whether they were one year wonders or if this was the first step toward bigger and better things. I think that the Sixers took the first step toward bigger and better things but they won't be a serious contender unless they upgrade their roster a little bit and become a better half court team.

11) The Phoenix Suns were never going to win a championship with their previous nucleus, so I still think that trading for Shaquille O'Neal was a worthwhile risk to take, even though they still failed to beat the Spurs. New Coach Terry Porter will surely try to instill more of a defensive mindset in this team but if the Suns' championship window has not close the opening is very, very small: young teams have emerged in L.A., New Orleans and Utah and the Suns have yet to prove that they can beat their old nemesis San Antonio, let alone deal with the new kids on the block.

12) Point blank, it seems like the Mavericks have never recovered from blowing a 2 3/4 games to 0 lead over the Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals; one more good quarter and they might have swept Diesel and Flash but it's been all downhill for the Mavs since Gary Payton hit one of his few playoff field goals in 2006. The Mavs still have a very good team but it just seems like the rest of the top West teams are better than they are now.

13) Houston put together an amazing winning streak but everyone understood that the Rockets could not go far in the West playoffs without Yao Ming. If Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming can both stay healthy for a full season, this would be a very formidable team. Rick Adelman has proven that he can take teams deep into the playoffs, though he has yet to win a title.

14) The Atlanta Hawks almost rewrote the entire script of the 2008 playoffs, pushing the Celtics to seven games in the first round. The future looks bright but keep in mind that Golden State knocked off the defending conference champion one year and did not even make the playoffs (albeit in a very tough conference) the next season. As with the Sixers, there is the question of whether the Hawks are a team on the rise or a one year wonder.

15) The Denver Nuggets are the NBA's mystery team: they have a former MVP who is still playing at a high level (Allen Iverson), one of the premier scorers in the league (Carmelo Anthony), a former Defensive Player of the Year (Marcus Camby), a top sixth man (J.R. Smith)--and yet they simply cannot get out of the first round of the playoffs. Despite all of the talent on their roster, they have problems at both ends of the court: their defense is terrible and their offensive execution is wildly inconsistent, with Iverson and Anthony taking turns running the show while the other players pick up the table scraps that are left over. It is either entertaining or sickening to realize that ESPN pays "expert" Stephen A. Smith a lot of money for "insights" such as saying prior to the 2008 season that the Cavs won't make the playoffs and the Nuggets would win the West. Hey, I don't get everything right but I don't miss the mark that wildly either.

16) The Washington Wizards will never make it further than the second round of the playoffs as long as Gilbert Arenas is their primary offensive option. Period. I don't care how certain people crunch various numbers to "prove" his value and I don't care that the Wizards were once in first place in the East for a minute and a half almost two years ago when Arenas had some high scoring games. Arenas is a player who is primarily focused on scoring points and on settling old scores (being a second round pick, being left off of Team USA, etc.). It seems highly unlikely that he will ever change his mindset and that makes him ill equipped to lead a legit contender.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lakers Got Rondo'd in Game Six

While Finals MVP Paul Pierce, Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett and All-Star three point marksman Ray Allen clearly played significant roles in leading the Celtics to the 2008 NBA Championship, young point guard Rajon Rondo also made a valuable contribution to their title run, particularly in the clinching game of the Finals. Rondo's 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals in Boston's 131-92 game six victory showcased his ability to provide impact in many different phases of the game. At times, the Lakers took advantage of his suspect outside shot--particularly in games four and five and in the first quarter of game six--but Rondo answered back by using his speed and quickness to wreak havoc at both ends of the court.

Paul Dalessio of Fleishman-Hillard shared this new Reebok video clip about Rondo:



Rondo shot .407 from the field, .250 from three point range and .691 from the free throw line during the playoffs. In order to become a top notch point guard on a night in, night out basis, he will have to improve those numbers to at least .450, .300 and .770 while continuing to be a good passer and rebounder and an active defender. Rondo shot .492 from the field, .263 from three point range and .611 from the free throw line during the regular season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:14 PM

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Thanks, Red: Reebok's Tribute to Red Auerbach

"You handle animals. You deal with people"--Red Auerbach's description of his interactions with his players.

Paul Dalessio of Fleishman-Hillard passed along a video clip tribute to Celtics' patriarch Red Auerbach:



Red Auerbach coached the Celtics to nine championships (1957, 1959-66) and posted a 938-479 (.662) regular season record and a 99-69 (.589) playoff record. For many years, he held the records for most regular season wins and most playoff wins. Thanks to Boston's Finals victory this season, he remains tied with Phil Jackson for the most championships won by an NBA coach. Auerbach engineered the trade that brought Bill Russell to the Celtics, a move that formed the cornerstone for 11 championship teams. Auerbach also played a role in building the teams that won the 1974, 1976, 1981, 1984 and 1986 titles. Although not directly involved in putting together the 2008 championship squad, he certainly influenced the thinking and basketball philosophy of current Celtics President Danny Ainge, a player who Auerbach acquired in the early 80s and who was a member of the 1984 and 1986 champions.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:56 AM

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Celtics Overwhelm Lakers, Claim 17th Championship

For the first five games of the NBA Finals, the heavyweight match between the Celtics' league best defense and the Lakers' high powered offense was a close bout but in game six the Celtics landed a stunning knockout punch, posting a 131-92 victory to claim the franchise's 17th championship. After a competitive first quarter, the Celtics completely dominated the Lakers in every conceivable way, finishing with a 48-29 rebounding advantage, outscoring the Lakers 16-2 in fast break points, demolishing the Lakers 44-29 in points in the paint and forcing 19 turnovers while only committing seven. The Celtics set a Finals single-game record with 18 steals and held the Lakers to a Finals record low two offensive rebounds, which is particularly remarkable considering that the Lakers shot just .422 from the field. The Lakers had absolutely no defensive presence, recording 0 blocked shots while letting the Celtics shoot .494 from the field, including 13-26 (.500) from three point range.

Kevin Garnett tied for game-high scoring honors with 26 points, ripped down a game-high 14 rebounds and added four assists, three steals and a blocked shot. Garnett shot 10-18 from the field and was the best all around player on the court. Ray Allen also scored 26 points, shooting 8-12 from the field, including 7-9 from three point range. Allen tied the single game Finals record with his seven three pointers and his 22 three pointers in the series shattered the old record of 17 that had been held by Dan Majerle (1993) and Derek Harper (1994). Rajon Rondo had a brilliant all around game: 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals, just one short of Robert Horry's single game Finals record. James Posey came off of the bench to score 11 points on 4-4 shooting and play excellent defense against Kobe Bryant, while fellow reserve Eddie House added nine points and five assists.

Here is all you need to know about how balanced and deep the Celtics are: Finals MVP Paul Pierce shot 4-13 from the field and was Boston's fourth leading scorer in the series clincher. Pierce finished with 17 points and a game-high 10 assists. He averaged 21.8 ppg, 6.3 apg and 4.5 rpg while shooting .432 from the field in the series. It is interesting how perception becomes reality and how winning alters perception: this is being called a breakout series for Pierce, yet those numbers are lower than his career regular season averages in every category except assists. Pierce certainly played well in the Finals, he would have received my vote for Finals MVP and he was the best player on the court at times but this series and Boston's entire playoff run did not reveal anything new about his game except, perhaps, his ability to play very good defense; what this series showed is how much a team can accomplish when everyone focuses primarily on winning and when a team has a defensive mindset. Pierce has been a great player for many years but now that the Celtics are a championship team people are more willing and able to recognize and acknowledge his abilities.

Frankly, no Laker played particularly well. The Celtics were determined to not let regular season MVP Kobe Bryant beat them and, other than a quick 11 point burst in the first quarter, they forced Bryant to take contested shots or pass the ball to teammates who lacked focus, discipline and purpose. Bryant finished with a hard earned 22 points on 7-22 field goal shooting, plus three rebounds, one assist and four turnovers. Bryant would never admit to being tired but Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said that Bryant seemed a little leg weary as the game wore on; that is hardly surprising considering that this team depends on him to score 30 points while shooting a good percentage, create scoring opportunities for players who cannot do so for themselves and have a major impact defensively by either guarding a top notch scorer such as Paul Pierce or Ray Allen or by being a Scottie Pippen-like help defender who roams around covering up the defensive shortcomings of his teammates. I've said my piece on the stupid and superficial Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant comparisons but any objective comparison of these two players has to begin with an incontrovertible fact: when Michael Jordan won six championships he played alongside a Top 50 player in Scottie Pippen, a guy who was the team's leading playmaker and who shouldered a major load defensively. In contrast, the Lakers essentially need Bryant to be Jordan and Pippen--scorer, facilitator, primary defender and help defender--while critics are interpreting Bryant's failure to be both guys to mean that he is not as good as Jordan was. I don't think that Bryant is as good as Jordan was but this series did not really shed any new light on that subject: the Celtics have three future Hall of Famers plus a number of excellent role players, while the Lakers have Bryant and a supporting cast that is not nearly as good as advertised, a point that I made repeatedly during the playoffs even as I correctly picked the Lakers to win the West precisely because I rightly expected that Bryant's greatness would be enough to mask the team's weaknesses.

Lamar Odom had quite possibly the least meaningful double double in Finals history, shooting just 2-8 from the field while compiling 14 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. He amassed 10 of his points and three of his rebounds after the Lakers already trailed by at least 24 points. Jordan Farmar scored 12 points off of the bench, but the Lakers trailed by between 27 and 40 points when he scored the last nine of them in the fourth quarter. Pau Gasol had an incredibly soft and indifferent performance, producing just 11 points and eight rebounds while committing five turnovers; the contrast between Garnett's strong presence in the paint and Gasol's meek, timid effort was stunning and that was probably the single biggest individual mismatch in this game, with Ray Allen versus Sasha Vujacic coming in second--the major difference being that Garnett dominated Gasol when the outcome was in doubt, while Allen rained three pointers versus Vujacic's clueless defense when the Celtics already enjoyed a large lead.

Nothing that happened in the first five games or the initial 17 minutes of game six gave any indication of how lopsided this contest would turn out to be. Keep in mind that in the past two games the Lakers ran out to huge first quarter leads and even when they trailed by 24 in game two they roared back to cut the margin to two points late in the fourth quarter. These teams seemed to be evenly matched squads that featured contrasting styles, a gritty and tenacious Boston defense battling a powerful L.A. offense--and then Boston simply steamrolled L.A. in the final 31 minutes.

The Lakers took a 4-0 lead after Bryant hit a long jumper and Derek Fisher sank two free throws. The Celtics missed their first four shots and the early moments of the game looked like a carbon copy of the first quarters of games four and five, when Bryant nominally guarded Rondo while roaming around disrupting Boston's offense. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said, "I love what Kobe's done on the first two possessions, the help he's given to force the ball to Rondo." An early sign that the other Lakers were not prepared to match Boston's focus and physicality came when Gasol received the ball in the post and absentmindedly allowed Rondo to simply rip it right out of his hands. Rondo burst down court and fed Allen for a transition three pointer. On the next possession the Lakers again gave the ball to Gasol in the post but instead of making a strong move he fired a wild pass that Bryant had to run out to half court to save. Allen and Kendrick Perkins double teamed Bryant at halfcourt as the shot clock went below 10 seconds and the possession ended with Odom bricking a three pointer. ABC's Mark Jackson observed, "That's the third time he (Gasol) caught the ball on the block--very passive, very tentative. He has to look to score." The Celtics defense has primarily focused on stopping Bryant anyway and once it became clear that no other Laker had brought any kind of game with him they attacked Bryant like a shark detecting blood in the water.

Allen made a couple free throws to put the Celtics ahead by one point but then Bryant sandwiched two three pointers around a couple Rondo free throws to put the Lakers up, 10-7. Allen made a technical free throw after a defensive three seconds call and after Perkins missed a layup, Odom grabbed the rebound and went coast to coast. As he crossed midcourt, I wondered aloud, "Missed layup, offensive foul or turnover?" This time it turned out to be the former, as Odom's layup attempt bounced wildly off of the backboard. As I have mentioned before, Odom's shots have no touch from any distance--they either go directly in or they miss badly, but he rarely benefits from a "shooter's roll," even on layups. Hubie Brown often says that when you miss a layup in the NBA the other team scores within a few seconds and, sure enough, Garnett Bogarted Gasol in the lane and made a layup to tie the score.

The next time down the court, Bryant and Gasol ran a screen/roll play. Bryant threw a behind the back pass to Gasol but Rondo again ripped the ball out of Gasol's hands. Bryant stole the ball right back and when Rondo grabbed his jersey Bryant flung the ball at the hoop from behind the three point line, trying for a four point play but no foul was called. Incredibly, the ball almost went in the hoop anyway. The next time the Lakers had the ball, Gasol posted up the much smaller Pierce and, instead of forcefully using his height and size advantage, missed a fadeaway jumper. Mark Jackson declared, "That's good defense but that's horrible offense...Phil Jackson got up, looked at Gasol and said, 'You have to play tough.' And he's 100% right. There should be 13 guys talking to him that way."

The Celtics made just three of their first 15 field goal attempts but they kept the score close by forcing turnovers and crashing the offensive boards. Bryant continued to try to get Gasol and Odom involved but that simply did not work. Bryant drove to the hoop, drew a double team and tried to feed Odom in the paint but Odom literally backed away from the ball and Pierce stepped in for the steal. A Rondo jumper gave the Celtics a 12-10 lead and the Lakers once again fed Gasol in the post. Gasol got nothing accomplished and passed the ball back to Bryant with just four seconds left on the shot clock. Bryant pump faked, used an escape dribble and buried a three pointer to make the score 13-12 Lakers at the 5:30 mark; he made four of his first five shots and scored 11 of the Lakers' points. After Bryant's shot went in, Van Gundy exclaimed, "That is incredible right here. Good close out by Ray Allen, good pressure on the shot." The problem for the Lakers is that you cannot beat a 66 win team when only one player came to play and the other players expect him to do everything for them offensively and defensively. Van Gundy said of Gasol, "Three turnovers, soft on the boards, soft on the post. The contact level is going to be higher in this game and Pau Gasol's got to play through it."

If the Lakers had a better, more complete team then Bryant would guard Allen but the Lakers had so many other defensive problems that they put Fisher on Allen and used Bryant to roam around and clean up everyone else's mistakes. While that helped to keep Pierce and Garnett quiet in the early going, Allen scored eight points in the first 7:30. The Lakers enjoyed their last lead of the game at the 3:31 mark when Luke Walton's two free throws put them up 18-16. Garnett made three straight shots and Pierce hit a jumper to give the Celtics a 24-20 lead at the end of the quarter. The Lakers' final six possessions of the quarter consisted of another steal by Rondo from Gasol, a missed layup by Bryant, a turnover when Farmar dribbled between his legs and lost the ball out of bounds, a missed jumper by Farmar, two free throws by Farmar and a missed three pointer by Bryant. Bryant finished the quarter with 11 points on 4-7 shooting, while Garnett led the Celtics with 10 points on 5-7 shooting. Michele Tafoya interviewed Coach Jackson after the quarter and he stated the obvious: "Pau's got to do a better job...He's got to be stronger."

Jackson substituted Ronny Turiaf for Gasol at the start of the second quarter and kept Bryant in the game instead of giving him his usual rest. The Lakers tried to post up Turiaf but Sasha Vujacic was unable to feed him the ball, so Bryant received a pass at the top of the key with 11 seconds left on the shot clock. While the other four Lakers stood around instead of cutting or setting screens, Bryant tried to create something against some excellent defense by Posey. Bryant finally ended up nearly making a contested jumper over Posey. The Lakers retained possession after a loose ball foul and Vujacic made a jumper to cut the lead to 24-22.

I thought that the most important offensive set in this series would be the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play but after some initial success early in the series Gasol became increasingly tentative and that set lost some of its effectiveness. Meanwhile, the Celtics gave the Lakers a taste of their own medicine by involving Pierce in a lot of screen/roll plays. Usually, Garnett set the screens but in game six House set the screens, forcing the Lakers to find a way to react without leaving him or Pierce open. The Lakers had a great deal of difficulty defending this play, as first House hit a jumper and then Pierce drained a three pointer. Odom actually had a productive coast to coast excursion, drawing a foul and making two free throws to pull the Lakers to within 29-26. Then Pierce missed a three pointer but after Odom got the rebound he threw a horrible full court pass that Posey easily intercepted. Pierce drove to the hoop and got his fifth assist on a nice feed to Leon Powe.

After Bryant missed a three pointer, another Pierce-House screen/roll led to Fisher switching on to Pierce, who took him into the post, drew a foul and split a pair of free throws. Bryant made a free throw after a defensive three seconds call and Gasol made perhaps his best move of the night, connecting on a hook shot for his first field goal of the game. The Lakers only trailed 32-29 at the 7:50 mark and no one could have imagined the onslaught that was about to take place. It began with the Celtics getting three offensive rebounds on one possession, a tremendous display of energy and hustle that led to a Posey three pointer. Then House hit a three pointer and two free throws and Posey drained a three pointer as the Celtics made an 11-0 run in just 2:21. The Lakers never got closer than 10 points the rest of the game.

After Vladimir Radmanovic missed a three pointer, he committed his third foul by bumping Pierce on an inbounds play. Van Gundy said, "That's an inexplicable play by Radmanovic. It's a hard enough matchup but to bail Pierce out at 20 feet knowing that you are in the penalty, that's just bad basketball." Pierce made the two free throws to increase the lead to 47-33. The Celtics closed the quarter on a 9-0 run in the last 1:59 to take a 58-35 halftime lead. Garnett had 17 points on 8-12 shooting plus six rebounds, while Pierce shot just 2-9 from the field but had 10 points and nine assists; the Lakers failed miserably to defend his screen/roll plays with House, repeatedly giving up open shots to Pierce, House or one of the Celtics' big men. Bryant had 14 points on 4-11 shooting, missing his last six attempts. Gasol had six points and four turnovers in the first half, while Odom scored just four points in the first half, missing all four of his field goal attempts.

If the Lakers took any solace from the fact that they had been able to cut a 24 point deficit to two points in game two, the Celtics quickly dashed those hopes in the third quarter. Van Gundy summed matters up nicely: "Indifferent defense by the Lakers as a team." The Lakers gave up 31 points in the third quarter and 42 points in the fourth quarter and did not even hint at making a rally. Allen hit six of his three pointers in the second half as Vujacic repeatedly failed to trail him on screens, leaving him wide open. Bryant made three of his first six field goal attempts of the half but after his driving layup at the 2:18 mark of the third quarter the Lakers still trailed 85-56. He missed his final five field goal attempts of the game.

The Celtics deserve a lot of credit for the tremendous commitment they displayed at the defensive end of the court from the first game of the regular season until the final moments of the NBA Finals. Coach Doc Rivers emphasized defense and he brought in assistant coach Tom Thibodeau to construct the team's defensive game plan; before ESPN.com's Bill Simmons dares to celebrate the Celtics' triumph he should have to write 100 times, a la Bart Simpson, "Doc Rivers is a very good NBA coach." Garnett set the tone at the defensive end of the court and everyone else followed. Pierce and Allen were not known as exceptional defenders prior to this season but they each rose to the challenge, especially in the playoffs. Anyone who thinks that one player should get all the credit or all the blame for what happens to his team must keep in mind that last season Pierce's Celtics, Garnett's Minnesota Timberwolves, and Allen's Seattle SuperSonics each missed the playoffs. Only by combining forces, sacrificing parts of their offensive games and committing to playing defense did these three future Hall of Famers finally win the championship that had eluded each of them for their entire careers. Another significant factor in the Celtics' success is the play of the team's bench, led by playoff tested veterans James Posey, Eddie House, Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown. Young big men Leon Powe and Glen "Big Baby" Davis also contributed at various times during the regular season and the playoffs. Finally, young starters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins were considered to be major question marks coming into the season but they proved their value on many occasions.

The Lakers were a popular pick to win this series. I thought that the Lakers would win but not for the reasons that other people did, such as their supposed depth. Frankly, when I saw how many people were picking the Lakers--and who some of those people were--the thought occurred to me that perhaps I had made a mistake. I thought that the Lakers would win because of the very high level that Bryant played at during the first three playoff series, a run that included victories over the defending champion Spurs and the other 2007 Western Conference Finalists, the Utah Jazz. Both of those teams are more physical than the Lakers, who were outrebounded overall during their first 15 playoff games. Defense and rebounding win championships but the Lakers defended well enough in spurts and were so efficient offensively that I thought they could prevail over the Celtics even though I expected the Celtics to outrebound them. In the first three rounds, the Lakers made good use of the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action, constantly creating good shots for Gasol or for various Lakers on the weak side. Bryant averaged more than 30 ppg while shooting better than .500 from the field. Watching the Celtics struggle to knock off Cleveland despite LeBron James' inability to shoot from the perimeter, I assumed that the Celtics would have a great deal of problems containing the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll because Bryant is such a great perimeter shooter. What went wrong for the Lakers?

1) Although Bryant shot better than James did versus Boston and committed fewer turnovers, Bryant did not shoot .450 from the field, which I considered to be the benchmark for both he and the Lakers.
2) Gasol and Odom played timidly for most of the series.
3) No other Laker stepped up consistently on offense.
4) Collectively the Lakers lacked energy and toughness.
5) Bryant proved to be the only competent Laker perimeter defender, which necessitated using him as a roamer plus as the primary defender on Pierce or Allen at different times.
6) The Lakers got no production out of the small forward position.
7) The Lakers got outrebounded by 5 rpg, which is right at the edge of what I considered to be a working margin for them, but they failed to make up for this deficit with excellent offensive execution.

All of the talk about a Lakers' dynasty in the making is extremely premature. Andrew Bynum has yet to put together half a season's worth of productive NBA games, let alone prove that he can be a reliable playoff performer. When--if--he fully returns to health he can give the Lakers more paint presence but he will not singlehandedly correct all of the problems that the Lakers had in the Finals. Also, I have yet to hear serious discussion of the fact that he, Gasol and Odom cannot possibly play extended minutes together because none of them is a small forward. Bynum or Gasol can play center with Odom at power forward or Bynum can play center with Gasol at power forward but if Gasol and Bynum are on the court together then Odom will have to be on the bench in favor of someone who can play small forward. The ideal scenario for the Lakers would be for Bynum to quickly prove that he is healthy and productive so that the Lakers can trade Odom in exchange for a legitimate starting small forward; that is a position that is a glaring need for them, because Vladimir Radmanovic, Luke Walton and Trevor Ariza are each best suited to be bench players.

Also, while many people have said how great Gasol is--and some have ludicrously suggested that he is more valuable than Bryant--I have consistently and correctly insisted that Gasol is a good player, a one-time All-Star, but not a true franchise player. Everyone who mocked Memphis for trading him failed to understand why they made that move. Gasol had been their best player for many years and they never won a single playoff game--not a series mind you, but a single game. The Grizzlies came to the conclusion that they could never build a championship team around him, so they decided to get rid of him and stockpile draft picks and expiring contracts. Whether this works depends on who they draft and which free agents they are able to sign but the relevant factor in this discussion is that Gasol is emphatically not a franchise player and not an elite player, a designation that I reserve for the top 15 players in the league--members of the All-NBA Team, a distinction that Gasol has never earned even once (Garnett has made the All-NBA Team nine times, Pierce has made it three times, Allen has made it twice and Cassell made it once). Gasol's field goal percentage soared as a Laker because of all of the easy scoring opportunities he received as a result of the defensive attention that is focused on Bryant.

The reality is that the Lakers are not as good a team from players 2-12 as many people think and Bryant deserves even more credit for the team's success than he has received, although you can be quite certain that the story will be spun 100% opposite to that truth in the coming days, weeks and months.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:20 AM

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Finals Scouting Report: Paul Pierce

Depending on the outcome, Paul Pierce or Kobe Bryant will most likely win the 2008 Finals MVP. In my previous post I broke down Bryant's performance in the first five games of the Finals and compared his numbers in this series and the Western Conference Finals to the numbers that LeBron James posted against Boston in this year's playoffs and San Antonio in last year's Finals.

The Celtics have three future Hall of Famers--Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen--so they employ a balanced offensive attack that is not overly reliant on any one player. That is why Pierce is averaging a playoff career-low 19.8 ppg this postseason; Pierce's field goal percentage (.445) and three point field goal percentage (.366) are both higher than his career playoff averages (.422 and .325 respectively). In the Finals, Pierce has increased his scoring (22.8 ppg), field goal percentage (.453) and three point field goal percentage (.429). He enjoys a matchup advantage against every Laker defender other than Kobe Bryant. Pierce's mobility has been limited somewhat since he injured his knee in game one but that has not stopped him from driving to the hoop and scoring, drawing fouls or passing to open teammates (he is second on the team with a 5.6 apg average in the Finals).

The Lakers cannot commit waves of defenders to Pierce the way that the Celtics swarm Bryant, because such a plan would not work due to the presence of Allen and Garnett. Allen is averaging 19.2 ppg on .475 field goal shooting (including .455 from three point range) in the Finals. Garnett is only averaging 16.6 ppg on .402 field goal shooting but if the Lakers ignored him to trap Pierce then Garnett would feast off of wide open shots. Much like the Pistons in the 2004 Finals, the Celtics have shown a decided tendency to feature the perimeter scorer who is not being guarded by Bryant; Allen has scored most of his points while being checked by Sasha Vujacic and Derek Fisher, while Pierce has abused Vladimir Radmanovic and Luke Walton. Unless the Lakers clone Bryant prior to game six, this trend figures to continue. When Bryant has been on Pierce he has guarded him straight up except for screen/roll situations, when the Lakers' rotations have been weak or nonexistent. Bryant has sometimes received help when Pierce catches the ball in the post, though it is not necessarily clear that Bryant needs help in that situation.

Pierce has asked for and received the defensive assignment versus Bryant at key times during this series and he has done a very respectable job guarding the league's best player, just like he did a good job earlier in the playoffs defending against LeBron James, the league's second best player. Of course, Pierce has received plenty of help in both instances. So far, Pierce has been able to guard the smaller Bryant one on one in the post but when Bryant receives the ball on the wing and attacks Pierce there is always at least one help defender lurking nearby.

Here is a look at Pierce's game by game performance in the 2008 Finals:

Game one: 22 points, .700 field goal shooting, three turnovers in a 98-88 win.

Comment: Pierce had to be carried off of the court and wheeled to the locker room after injuring his knee in the third quarter but he quickly came back and made two big three point shots to give the Celtics the lead for good.

Game two: 28 points, .563 field goal shooting, five turnovers in a 108-102 win.

Comment: The Celtics built a 24 point lead and then held on for dear life as the Lakers roared back to get as close as 104-102 in the last minute. Pierce made all four of his three point shots and contributed eight assists.

Game three: 6 points, .143 field goal shooting, three turnovers in a 87-81 loss.

Comment: Pierce struggled throughout this game, leading to speculation that his knee injury might be worse than initially reported. Some suggested that the long cross country flight and short turnaround between games played a role in his poor performance; if that was really the case then Pierce may also struggle in Tuesday's game six as the series shifts back East.

Game four: 20 points, .462 field goal shooting, four turnovers in a 97-91 win.

Comment: The Lakers built a 24 point lead but unlike the Celtics in game two they could not completely hold off their opponent's furious comeback. Pierce had seven of the Celtics' 15 assists and he played good defense against Bryant, who still scored 10 points and had three assists in the fourth quarter; putting Pierce on Bryant late in the game was important because Pierce did not need double team help in the post, which meant that the other Celtics could stay at home on their men.

Game five: 38 points, .455 field goal shooting, five turnovers in a 103-98 loss.

Comment: Pierce's monster game was not quite enough to lead the Celtics to victory. He had eight of Boston's 20 assists and shot 16-19 from the free throw line. Bryant stole the ball from Pierce twice in the fourth quarter and both of those thefts led to key Lakers scores.

Summary:

Pierce has led the Celtics in scoring in three of the five games and has been their main playmaker other than point guard Rajon Rondo. He has made timely three point baskets and he has done a good job of getting into the paint to create shots for himself and his teammates. Pierce has been very deadly in screen/roll plays with Garnett, particularly in game five. Barring a scoring explosion by Allen in a series clinching victory, Pierce appears to have the inside track for the Finals MVP if the Celtics ultimately prevail over the Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:37 AM

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Finals Scouting Report: Kobe Bryant

Throughout this season I have repeatedly asserted that teams could not guard Kobe Bryant the way that the Spurs and Celtics guarded LeBron James in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs respectively because Bryant's outside shot is far superior to James'. James averaged 22.0 ppg, shot .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game during the Spurs' sweep of the Cavs in the 2007 Finals; the high number of turnovers were a direct result of the Spurs being able to sag off of James, daring him to shoot outside shots and positioning themselves to intercept his passes. In contrast, Bryant averaged 29.2 ppg, shot .533 from the field (including .333 from three point range) and committed just 2.4 turnovers per game as his Lakers beat the Spurs in five games in this year's Western Conference Finals.

James averaged 26.7 ppg, shot .355 from the field (including .231 from three point range) and committed 5.3 turnovers per game during Boston's seven game victory over the Cavs in this year's playoffs. Bryant has had a rougher time versus the Celtics than he did against the Spurs but after five games he is averaging 26.4 ppg, shooting .422 from the field (including .316 from three point range) and committing 3.8 turnovers per game. Obviously there is at least one more game left in the Finals but so far Bryant has matched James' scoring average versus Boston while bettering his shooting and turnover numbers by a significant margin. It is also worth noting that James greatly increased his averages with his outstanding game seven effort (45 points on 14-29 shooting--including 3-11 from three point range--and just two turnovers); in the first six games, James averaged 23.7 ppg on .325 field goal shooting (including .214 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game.

While Bryant's Finals numbers are down from the tremendous numbers that he put up in the first three rounds of the playoffs, they are within shouting distance of the regular season averages that earned him his first regular season MVP: 28.3 ppg, .459 field goal shooting, .361 three point shooting, 3.1 turnovers per game. The Celtics are a great defensive team that presents a formidable challenge to Bryant and the Lakers but--despite whatever spin is being rotated 24 hours a day, seven days a week from various media outlets--Bryant is not performing terribly in the Finals and the Celtics have not shut him down.

Scoring averages and field goal percentages tend to go down in the playoffs, even for the greatest players of all-time. Michael Jordan is a rare player who increased his scoring in the postseason but even he shot worse in playoff competition than he did in the regular season: Jordan averaged 30.1 ppg on .497 shooting in the regular season, 33.4 ppg on .487 shooting in the playoffs and 33.6 ppg on .481 shooting in the Finals; Jordan did not make the playoffs during his two year comeback with the Wizards and if you don't count those seasons he averaged 31.5 ppg on .505 shooting in regular season play. Larry Bird averaged 24.3 ppg on .496 shooting in the regular season, 23.8 ppg on .472 shooting in the playoffs and 23.1 ppg on .458 shooting in the Finals. Magic Johnson was remarkably consistent: 19.5 ppg on .520 shooting in the regular season, 19.5 ppg on .506 shooting in the playoffs and 19.4 ppg on .516 shooting in the Finals.

Here is a look at Bryant's game by game performance in the 2008 Finals:

Game one: 24 points, .346 field goal shooting, four turnovers in a 98-88 loss.

Comment: Bryant tied Kevin Garnett for game-high scoring honors and tied Derek Fisher with a team-high six assists. The Lakers led 51-46 at halftime but scored just 37 points in the second half.

Game two: 30 points, .478 field goal shooting, four turnovers in a 108-102 loss.

Comment: Bryant led both teams in scoring and once again led the Lakers in assists (eight). The Celtics built a 24 point second half lead but the Lakers pulled to within 104-102 before the Celtics escaped with a 108-102 win.

Game three: 36 points, .600 field goal shooting, three turnovers in a 87-81 win.

Comment: Bryant led both teams in scoring and even though he only had one assist his dribble penetration and postups created open shots for his teammates.

Game four: 17 points, .316 field goal shooting, two turnovers in a 97-91 loss.

Comment: This is without question Bryant's worst playoff game this season and the only time in the 2008 playoffs that he failed to score at least 22 points. Still, he had a game-high 10 assists and he accounted for 16 of his team's 18 fourth quarter points (10 points, three assists). The Lakers built a 24 point lead but scored just 33 second half points.

Game five: 25 points, .381 field goal shooting, six turnovers in a 103-98 win.

Comment: Bryant's 15 first quarter points set the tone for the Lakers early in the game and his seven points and three steals sealed the deal in the fourth quarter.

Summary:

Bryant has done a very good job of drawing the defense and creating open shots for his teammates. He is the only Laker defender who has had any success against Paul Pierce and his two fourth quarter steals from Pierce in game five preserved that win for the Lakers. However, Bryant's most important defensive contribution has been as a roaming help defender nominally assigned to check Rajon Rondo at the start of games four and five; the disruption that Bryant caused to the Celtics' offense played a major role in the Lakers building huge first quarter leads in both of those games.

Bryant is sometimes accused of "forcing shots" but I have yet to see an objective explanation of what this means. Bryant is the Lakers' leading scorer and the only player on his team who can consistently create a shot for himself and for others; he is averaging 26.4 ppg on 21.8 field goal attempts per game in the Finals but his 5.8 apg average is 2.2 apg higher than anyone else on the team and that number does not reflect how many plays he created by making the pass that initiated a sequence that led to a score but did not qualify as an assist. It is certainly possible to put together a highlight reel from these games that will show Bryant making--and missing--some difficult, contested shots, but a difficult shot is not the same as a "forced" one. I would classify a "forced" shot as a low percentage shot that is taken with more than 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The classification of a low percentage shot depends on the player; a midrange turnaround jumper is not a low percentage shot for Bryant but may be a low percentage shot for someone else. The significance of the time remaining on the shot clock is that most of the other Lakers cannot create a shot for themselves and they certainly cannot do so with time winding down; unless one of his teammates is wide open, when the shot clock is winding down the Lakers are probably better off with Bryant shooting the ball than with him passing it. A combination of excellent Celtics' defense and poor Lakers' offensive execution has resulted in Bryant having to take a lot of shots late in the shot clock but he has not taken many low percentage shots early in the shot clock.

The Celtics led this series 3-1 after four games and currently enjoy a 3-2 lead and home court advantage the rest of the way, so there is a perception that they have dominated the Lakers and shut down Bryant. The reality is that none of these games have been decided by more than 10 points--with four of them being decided by six points or less--and Bryant's numbers are only marginally worse than they were during the regular season. There is every reason to believe that Bryant will play well in game six and that the final score will be close. Bryant's performance against elite defensive teams--San Antonio and Boston--in the 2008 playoffs is significantly better than LeBron James' performance against those two teams in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:36 AM

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Carnival of the NBA #57 Hosted by Raptors HQ

Carnival of the NBA #57 is being hosted by Raptors HQ. The theme of the Carnival was planned to be the upcoming NBA draft but other submissions were also included.

I contributed my recap of game four of the NBA Finals: Celtics Rally From 24 Point Deficit, Win 97-91 to Take 3-1 Series Lead

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:55 PM

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Lakers Advance From "Elite Eight" to "Final Four"

No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals but prior to game five Kobe Bryant compared the Lakers' situation to the NCAA Tournament, suggesting that they must win in the Elite Eight (game five), the Final Four (game six) and the Championship Game (game seven) in order to be crowned the 2008 NBA Champions. The Lakers advanced past the "Elite Eight" on Sunday night with a 103-98 victory. Bryant led the Lakers with 25 points and a game-high five steals. He also had seven rebounds and four assists. Lamar Odom provided the type of performance the Lakers desperately need from him, scoring 20 points on 8-10 field goal shooting, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking four shots. Pau Gasol contributed 19 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots. The Lakers got very little out of their bench players with the notable exception of Jordan Farmar, who scored 11 points on 5-9 shooting. Paul Pierce had an outstanding performance in defeat, scoring 38 points, passing for a game-high eight assists and grabbing six rebounds. He set a Finals record by making 10 free throws in the fourth quarter. Kevin Garnett's minutes were limited by early foul trouble and he finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds and no assists. Ray Allen scored 16 points but shot just 4-13 from the field.

Kendrick Perkins was unable to play due to his shoulder injury. Leon Powe started at center in his place but he only played 4:59. P.J. Brown scored four points in 24:53 and for the rest of the time the Celtics used a small lineup.

Starting point guard Rajon Rondo only played 14:32, scoring three points on 1-7 shooting, passing for three assists and compiling a -15 plus/minus rating. Boston Coach Doc Rivers candidly admitted that Rondo was benched not due to injury but rather because of his ineffectiveness. Basically, Kobe Bryant has taken Rondo out of the series and forced the team with the best record in the league to change its rotation; in both game four and game five, the Lakers built big early leads in no small part because Bryant was nominally assigned to guard Rondo but in fact served as a roving help defender, much like Scottie Pippen did during his glory days. That left the Celtics playing four on five offensively and thus fueled the Lakers' transition game. Using a small lineup, the Celtics mounted a historic comeback in game four but in game five the Lakers weathered the storm, thanks to better play from Gasol, Odom and Farmar.

The Lakers quickly dispelled any notion that their game four loss had broken their spirits. Gasol made an aggressive move the first time he caught the ball in the post and connected on a hook shot to put the Lakers up 2-0. Leaving Rondo unattended, Bryant stole the ball from Garnett and nailed a three pointer in transition. The Celtics did not get on the board until Garnett made a jumper at the 9:18 mark. Derek Fisher hit a three pointer after Bryant collapsed Boston's defense with his dribble penetration and then Bryant's turnaround jumper put the Lakers up 10-2 with 8:38 left in the first quarter. It is difficult to separate the Lakers' scoring prowess from their defense because the two are connected, particularly against a great half court defensive team like Boston; when the Lakers don't get stops and have to inbound the ball they have to go against Boston's entrenched defense and naturally it is much more difficult to score in that situation. It will be interesting to see if Coach Rivers takes Rondo out of the starting lineup to nullify the impact of Bryant's help defense, because the Celtics will truly be tempting fate if they keep facing 17-20 point deficits after the first 12 minutes.

After Garnett drained another jumper, ABC's Jeff Van Gundy pointed out a flaw in Gasol's defensive technique: "That's poor defense by Gasol. Kobe has cushioned Rondo. Why is he (Gasol) coming in to help?" When Gasol left Garnett to bother Rondo it freed up Garnett to make a jumper. Obviously, the Lakers' defensive plan is based around letting the ball "find" its way to Rondo, so leaving Garnett open to attend to Rondo is a major mental mistake by Gasol. If you want to play a good drinking game while watching game six, take a swig every time Van Gundy or Mark Jackson either describe Gasol as soft or point out how bad his defense is. This is why I keep making the point that numbers lie--or at least they can mislead if they are used without considering the proper context. Gasol had 10 defensive rebounds and two blocked shots but if you watched game five with an educated eye--or simply listened as Jackson and Van Gundy described what their educated eyes saw--then you understand that Gasol made numerous defensive lapses. Similarly, although Gasol's offensive numbers were good his play at that end of the court was inconsistent. For instance, at the 7:01 mark, he made a weak move in the post and put up a soft shot but then he made up for this lapse by getting the offensive rebound, scoring, drawing a foul and making the free throw.

Bryant made back to back three pointers to put the Lakers up 24-10 with 4:55 remaining in the first quarter. He already had scored 14 points. The Lakers pushed their lead to 39-22 by the end of the quarter, nearly mirroring their first quarter performance in game four. The difference this time was that Bryant was the dominant scorer (15 points in the quarter) while in game four he served primarily as a playmaker in the first half and did not make a field goal. Van Gundy said that it is "Russian roulette" for the Lakers to play like they did in game four because it is unreasonable to expect Bryant to hardly shoot at all for a half and then flip a switch and be a big time scorer in the fourth quarter.

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson took advantage of the 17 point first quarter cushion to get Bryant some rest but it is often dicey for the Lakers when Bryant is out of the game, particularly against good teams. Sure enough, by the 9:19 mark the lead had been cut to 43-32 and Bryant reentered the game. Pierce only scored five first quarter points but he had the Celtics' first eight points of the second quarter and once a great player gets rolling it is tough to cool him off. The Lakers' problem is that they have no one who can effectively guard Pierce other than Bryant but at various times they also need Bryant to guard Allen or to serve as a roaming help defender while nominally checking Rondo. In game five the Lakers did not put Bryant on Pierce too much until the fourth quarter because Bryant experienced some early foul trouble. Van Gundy openly questioned whether Laker defenders--other than Bryant--had read scouting reports or watched enough film to even know what Pierce's tendencies are. Van Gundy said that instead of crowding Pierce the Laker defenders should force him to shoot pullup jumpers. I have often mentioned the importance of the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play to the Lakers but the Celtics also run a deadly screen roll/action with Pierce and Garnett. The Lakers do a very poor job of flooding the paint with bodies defensively, something that Van Gundy mentioned several times, and because of this Pierce repeatedly got all the way to the front of the rim on his drives and/or earned free throw attempts.

The play that happened right before Bryant checked back in provides a good example of the severe defensive lapses that plagued the Lakers in this game. Allen scored a wide open layup on a baseline out of bounds feed from Pierce. Van Gundy said, "That's a total team breakdown"; the play was so poorly covered by the Lakers that Van Gundy could not even tell for sure how the Lakers were supposed to defend it. Van Gundy was incredulous when the Lakers made the same coverage mistake on an inbounds play early in the third quarter and they also had this problem late in the game, a lapse that could have ended the series.

Even with Bryant back in the game, the Celtics maintained the momentum that they began building in his absence and they cut the lead to 43-39 after Pierce hit a three pointer at the 6:44 mark. Much has been said about Bryant's leadership style, body language and his method of interacting with his teammates--but little time is spent actually analyzing those moments when Bryant is perturbed and trying to ascertain what is really happening in those situations. If you look at the play by play sheet, at the 5:44 mark of the second quarter you will see "Bryant turnover: bad pass." If you looked at the court at that time you saw Bryant grimacing at Gasol and motioning with his hands. What was that all about? Gasol set a screen for Bryant and after the two defenders trapped Bryant he whipped a pass to Gasol--or, rather, to where Gasol should have been to catch the ball and dunk it. As Mark Jackson explained, "Pau Gasol soft rolling to the basket looking to pop (out to shoot a jump shot) as opposed to rolling and Bryant says, 'This (game) is for all the marbles.' You have to be aggressive and with mean intent roll to the basket and look to finish. Pau Gasol has to make the proper adjustments." I made the same observation about Gasol in my game four recap: "Gasol did not set his screens with authority (and) he failed to roll aggressively to the hoop...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."

Someone who does not know anything about basketball may form a negative impression of Bryant while watching his reaction to that play but in fact Bryant is being a good leader because he is impressing upon Gasol the importance of the moment and reminding Gasol exactly what he is supposed to be doing--and for those of you who insist on bringing up Michael Jordan's name every other minute, Jordan used to run down court screaming to his coach to get certain teammates out of the game because they kept messing up plays. You can interpret that as evidence of Jordan's great leadership/killer instinct or as an indication of how hard he was on his teammates but Bryant's interactions with his teammates are mild compared to Jordan's.

Incredibly, after scoring 39 first quarter points the Lakers went scoreless for a 6:57 stretch in the second quarter. They finally got on the board again by returning to the old reliable Bryant-Gasol screen/roll. This time Gasol rolled to the hoop more aggressively, Bryant passed to him and Gasol passed to Odom for a layup. It is fine to look at Bryant's shooting numbers (8-21 from the field), assist total (four) and turnover total (six) but you do not have a complete picture of the imprint he left on this game unless you also consider the numerous plays in which he got the "hockey assist" by making the pass that led to the assist. The Celtics are determined to not let Bryant's scoring beat them but he is smart enough, patient enough and skilled enough to accept the trap and make the correct pass. A significant portion of the Lakers' half court offense in this series is a result of Bryant-Gasol screen/roll plays and the ensuing defensive rotations that leave various players open. Here is how Mark Jackson describes the importance of this play: "You put so much pressure on the defense because you have a home run hitter with the ball in his hands. You look to trap, he has to be a willing passer--he does it to Gasol, lob pass to Odom, everybody touches it. A high percentage, quality possession."It is worth noting that Odom generally operates on the weak side when Bryant and Gasol run this action; Odom is much more effective there than he is when tries to create something with the ball on the strong side.

The Lakers pushed their lead to 50-42 after another Bryant-Gasol screen/roll resulted in a bounce pass from Gasol to Odom, who converted a three point play. Next time down court, Farmar shot an airball from three point range instead of swinging the ball to an open Bryant. An Allen three pointer made the score 50-45 and the Lakers answered with a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll that resulted in Bryant passing to an open Farmar, who drained the three pointer this time. Mark Jackson commented, "Kobe Bryant continues to make the right plays. Farmar shoots an air ball prior to that. Trust your teammates to make the play and Farmar rewards his faith."The thing that Farmar and Sasha Vujacic need to understand is that there is absolutely no reason for them to force shots when Bryant is on the court because all they have to do is pass the ball to him, wait for him to be trapped and then be ready for the return pass. That is the message that Bryant delivered to Vujacic during a timeout before Vujacic hit his dagger three pointer in game three.

The Lakers led 55-52 at halftime. Pierce had scored 21 points, while Bryant led the Lakers with 15. Considering what happened in game four and that the Celtics had already all but erased a 19 point lead, it felt like the Lakers were holding on for dear life in the third quarter. Pierce split a pair of free throws at the 9:59 mark to give the Celtics their first lead of the game, 58-57, but Boston never led by more than two points. Bryant picked up two charging fouls--his third and fourth fouls overall--in the third quarter but he still played the entire second half other than the last :53 of the third quarter. The sequence that resulted in Bryant's second charging foul is interesting. Bryant and Gasol ran a screen/roll and Bryant passed to an open Gasol around the free throw line but Gasol did not take the shot, instead passing back to Bryant. With the shot clock dying, Bryant drove into the paint to try to create something (after he already had created an open shot for Gasol) and he was called for an offensive foul. Mark Jackson said, "Pau Gasol had a foul line jump shot. In the Triangle Offense that's where Phil Jackson has made his money. Bill Wennington, Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue--guys are ready to knock down jump shots. Pau Gasol is turning those shots down." Am I "blaming" Gasol for Bryant's foul? No. What I am saying is that basketball is a team sport and there is a delicate balance involved in various on court interactions. Turning down an open shot is neither a good thing nor a selfless act; it hurts the team and it can lead to problems, such as a worse shot being taken as the shot clock winds down, a turnover or an offensive foul. Garnett is also a player who often turns down open shots.

The Lakers made a 14-6 run to close the quarter and Bryant was heavily involved even though he did not score a point and only had one assist during that stretch. First, Bryant drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and passed to Fisher, who made a jumper, got fouled and finished off the three point play. Then Bryant drove to the hoop and passed to Fisher, who swung the ball to a wide open Vladimir Radmanovic, whose three pointer gave the Lakers a little breathing room (71-64). Odom ended that run by trying to go one on one from the top of the key and losing the ball; he belongs on the weak side as a finisher of plays, not on the strong side as the initiator. Odom did make a positive contribution to the late quarter surge, converting a layup off of a feed from Gasol. The Lakers led 79-70 going into the fourth quarter.

Pierce scored 12 fourth quarter points as the Celtics outscored the Lakers 28-24 in the final stanza. The Celtics tied the score at 90 with 4:35 left but never took the lead. Gasol raised Mark Jackson's ire when he missed a very tentative looking shot not quite midway through the quarter: "That's a weak move when you're trying to take this series back to Boston. KG's in foul trouble. Make a big time, aggressive move."

Van Gundy pointed out several times during the game that the Lakers go for shot blocks while the Celtic defenders get in position, sacrifice their bodies and take charges. A vivid illustration of this happened at the 2:56 mark, when Pierce got loose in the lane and Farmar twisted his body sideways trying to block Pierce's shot instead of squaring up his body and taking a charge.

Bryant had seven points and three steals in the fourth quarter. His two free throws at the 2:14 mark put the Lakers up 97-93 right after Garnett missed two free throws that could have tied the score. Pierce answered Bryant's free throws with a pair of free throws of his own a minute later and then the Lakers had a bad possession that ended with a missed Fisher three pointer. A little earlier, Van Gundy declared, "The ball has got to be in Kobe Bryant's hands right now and it's got to be in Lamar Odom's hands against Posey. Anything else is not good enough." I'm not convinced that Odom posting up Posey is such a great matchup for the Lakers but I definitely agree that in late game situations Bryant should be the primary ball handler.

With less than :40 left, Bryant made the biggest play of the game, poking the ball away from a driving Pierce, receiving a lob pass from Odom and cruising in for a two handed dunk that put the Lakers up 99-95. A three pointer by House cut the lead to 101-98 with :14 left but Fisher sank two free throws and stole the ensuing inbounds pass to seal the deal.

Whatever happens in this series, this was the final Lakers home game of the 2007-08 campaign and after the team grew so much in such a short period of time it would have been a terrible ending to have the Celtics celebrating a championship victory in the Staples Center. Instead, both teams will make the long journey back to Boston to decide matters. It is only natural to think that it is unlikely that the Lakers will win both games in Boston--not only has no team come back from a 3-1 Finals deficit but no road team has won games six and seven in the Finals. However, the Lakers are 48 minutes away from forcing a winner take all showdown. Although Pierce was magnificent in game five he did not look so great in the first game in L.A. after the long flight and the short rest. The Lakers must guard against being satisfied just to extend the series and they must not only continue to fine tune their pick and roll execution but also find some defensive answers for the Garnett-Pierce screen/roll that did a lot of damage in game five.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:28 AM

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Minute by Minute, Inch by Inch

Minute by minute by minute by minute
I keep holding on--"Minute by Minute," The Doobie Brothers, 1978

The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second.
On this team, we fight for that inch.
On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch.
We claw with our fingernails for that inch.--Al Pacino's "Inches" speech in "Any Given Sunday."

For the Lakers, game five of the NBA Finals is all about minutes and inches. No one has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals but the Lakers don't have to win three games on Sunday; they only have to win one game--and they don't have to win that game all at once. If you follow the NBA, you know that Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich often tells his team to not be in a hurry to win. There are even echoes of this philosophy in what Bjorn Borg said it would take to beat Rafael Nadal on clay in Paris: the patience and tenacity to battle with him shot for shot, to not take shortcuts or try to cut points short by attempting to hit spectacular winners.

For the Lakers, their focus has to be reduced from the daunting task of winning three games to the manageable task of winning one game to the reality of fighting every minute for each inch: fight for each inch, minute by minute, for all 48 minutes. Then repeat that process two more times. Kobe Bryant expressed the attitude that all of the Lakers must have: "This is the Elite Eight right now." Carrying the NCAA Tournament analogy all the way through, that would make game six the Final Four and game seven the Championship Game.

From a technical standpoint, several things stand out about this series. The Lakers' much vaunted bench has been outscored in three out of four games. Not surprisingly, the Lakers won the only game in which their bench outscored the Celtics' bench. An advantage in this category--or at least a draw--will be vitally important for the Lakers in game five.

The Lakers must play with more force and more purpose. Pau Gasol must set screens aggressively for four quarters and when he gets the ball he must play like a seven footer--every time he touches the ball in the paint he has to have the mentality that he will score or get fouled. There can be no more flip shots and bailouts.

Lamar Odom must go to work on the boards and on defense and make his offensive contributions by attacking from the weakside, while leaving strong side attacks to Bryant, Gasol and Derek Fisher; Odom must avoid making hasty, poor decisions that result in missed shots, offensive fouls and turnovers.

As for the Celtics, they must not be complacent, relying on the fact that games six and seven will be at home if necessary. They are banged up physically and somewhat worn down from a grueling postseason. The longer this series is extended, the more the Lakers will gain confidence, and the more run down the Celtics will become. If the Celtics let this become a one game series then they will really be tempting fate that one of their injured players does not go down for the count or that one of their stars does not have an off night. The pressure is on the Lakers now but one L.A. win shifts a little bit of that pressure back to the Celtics.

Game five is all about force and will. The Lakers must play with force and demonstrate a collective will, refusing to be pushed around, mentally or physically--and, of course, the Celtics must do likewise.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:28 AM

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A Simple Question for Those Who Doubt That a Double Standard is Applied to Kobe Bryant

We have just spent the past 48 hours or so hearing that Kobe Bryant should never be compared to Michael Jordan because Bryant's Lakers lost game four of the Finals after leading by 24 points.

Many people--including this author--consider Tim Duncan to be the greatest power forward of all-time. He led the Spurs to four championships in a nine year stretch.

If having one's team lose a 20 point lead in one playoff game is the sole determinant of greatness, how come no one suggested that Tim Duncan could no longer be considered the greatest power forward of all-time after Duncan's Spurs--the defending NBA champions--lost to Bryant's Lakers after blowing a 65-45 lead with just 17:54 remaining in the game?

The answer, of course, is that it would be absurd to judge Duncan's entire career on the basis of one game during which his teammates shot 22-59 from the field, including a combined 10-30 performance from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. I doubt that anyone thought for one moment about writing such a stupid, slanted article about Duncan in the wake of that game. So it is worth asking why so many people--from heavy hitting mainstream writers to Joe Blogger--instantly had such a visceral anti-Kobe Bryant reaction to game four.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:52 AM

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