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Friday, August 29, 2008

Great Julius Erving Stories

Here are some great links about my all-time favorite player, the one and only Julius "Dr. J" Erving:

The Net-Ripping, Backboard-Shaking, Mind-Blowing Dr. J (Sports Illustrated, December 11, 1972)

Not even two months into Erving's second season, Peter Carry writes, "One school holds that he is already the best forward ever to play the game, another claims he needs a year or two more to polish up his defense and outside shot before he inevitably becomes the best."

Big Julie is Doing Nicely--Nicely (Sports Illustrated, January 14, 1974)

Peter Carry writes, "Julius Erving has brought his Dr. Nicely-Nicely routine back home to Long Island . He has done nicely on the floor, where he has led the youngest starting lineup in the pros—average age 22.6 years—back from a skitterish start and into title contention. He has done nicely off it as well, charming the clergy, his employers, the recently re-elected Nassau County Executive (whom he endorsed after extracting pledges for recreational programs for his hometown of Roosevelt), and even the Madison Avenue types who are after some endorsements of their own. Naturally enough, Dr. J. now spiels for Dr. Pepper."

The Doctor Opens His Medicine Bag (Sports Illustrated, May 17, 1976)

Pat Putnam offers this tribute to Erving's stellar play in the first four games of the 1976 ABA Finals (Erving's Nets went on to win in six games, claiming the final ABA title):

"Too bad, America, but you missed one of the greatest basketball shows on Earth. Or, rather, one just a few feet off the Earth. That was Julius Erving last week, launching himself from various points on courts in Denver and New York, soaring and scoring, passing, rebounding, blocking and stealing—all in the undeserved obscurity of the ABA championship finals. By Saturday night Erving and his underdog New York Nets had Denver down three games to one, which is what can happen when humans go five-on-one with a helicopter.

The games were not nationally televised, but they should have been. Dr. J's heroics merited more than just local exposure. In the first four games he scored 158 points, pulled down 51 rebounds, had 22 assists, blocked seven shots and had eight steals. Most of them came with the Identified Flying Object's feet well off the ground, his body twisting and turning. Even the Nuggets felt like applauding."

"I'll Never Play the Same Old Riff" (Sports Illustrated, May 17, 1976)

Erving tells John Papanek, "I can get a rebound and go. I'll give it off or, if I want, I'll go all the way myself. Once I get into the lane it's history. I'm like a jazzman. When it's my turn to solo, I'm not about to play the same old riff."

The Best the Game Offers (Time, May 24, 1982)

Tom Callahan writes, "It used to be said of Bill Russell, 'He improves every player on the floor.' Now it is said of Bird. And it should be said also of Erving, at 32 the other sublime forward in the game. Dr. J concurs with Bird that the pass means more than the shot and only gives the impression that the 'move' means most of all. Bird recalls Robertson's impeccability; Erving reprises Elgin Baylor's flamboyance. But the subtler moves of Dr. J are the ones the players note and appreciate."

Dr. J is Flying Away (Time, December 22, 1986)

Callahan again strikes the perfect notes, opening this great piece with the following lines: "On the playground, where the move counts as much as the basket, 'winners' out' is the rule. Score the hoop, keep the ball. Win the game, maintain the court. Hold out until dark if you can, or at least until twilight. Julius ("Dr. J") Erving, the most watchable basketball player of the past 16 years, has begun to say goodbye to cities: Portland, Seattle, Oakland, Phoenix. At final stops along the Philadelphia 76ers' way, home teams have been introducing their own players first in order to build a crescendo for Dr. J, the National Basketball Association star who plays for everyone."

Dr. J and Pistol Pete on the Same Team (Basketball Digest, October 2004; reprinted at 20 Second Timeout, November 9, 2006)

I have had the good fortune to interview numerous Hall of Famers, members of the 50 Greatest Players List and other legends but the opportunity to talk hoops with Erving will always be at the top of the list for me--and one of the many highlights of that conversation was when Erving told me the story of the brief time that he was Pete Maravich's teammate with the Atlanta Hawks. I knew the bare bones story before talking with Erving but when I asked him about it he delivered the heart and soul, starting with the earnest statement, "It really was one of the joys of my life to play with Pete, to be in training camp with him."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 AM

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Kevin Duckworth Remembered

Kevin Duckworth, a two-time All-Star center with the Portland Trail Blazers who won the 1987-88 Most Improved Player Award, passed away on Monday. He was a skillful, quality big man for two Portland teams that made it to the NBA Finals but the best tribute to him is that those who knew him best remember him as a joyful and caring human being, as recounted in this Portland Tribune article:

Blazers mourn Duckworth, who still considered the team his family

Former Blazer broadcaster Bill Schonely was in Pendleton with Duckworth and Kersey last month. “I’m just stunned,” Schonely said. “I can’t begin to tell you what a nice man he was. He loved people, and he was a big hugger. When you got hugged by Kevin Duckworth, you got a real hug. Duck was the unsung hero on those great Blazer teams in the early ‘90s. He was a big part of their camaraderie, an all-around great guy.”

A 2002 Portland Tribune article about Duckworth titled "Duck had his day" provides some more insight about his personality:

Many former Trail Blazers have made their homes in the Portland area, but few have embraced it with the passion of Duckworth, both for the outdoor opportunities and the people. He has considered seeking employment with an NBA club in another city, "but I ain’t leaving Portland," he says.

"I love it here. I don’t want to go nowhere else. Portland has everything I want. If I have to die somewhere, this will be it."

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Team USA Olympics Report Card

After Team USA went 5-0 during the pre-Olympic exhibition tour, I wrote a report card for SlamOnline. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were the three "A" students. Not surprisingly, they also finished at the top of the class on my Olympics report card as well.

Players are listed in order of minutes played because that statistic provides a hint about Coach Mike Krzyzewski's evaluation. Wade, James, Bryant and Anthony were Team USA's four leading scorers, so I also included their box score statistics in the one and done medal round play (the final three games). It should go without saying--but I'll say it anyway--that it is not meaningful to compare a player's numbers in 40 minute games played under FIBA rules with his numbers in 48 minute games played under NBA rules. A better yardstick is to consider how the top players from the 1992 Dream Team performed. Charles Barkley led the 1992 Dream Team in scoring (18.0 ppg) while shooting .711 from the field. He averaged 4.1 rpg (tied with David Robinson for third on the team) and 2.4 apg. Michael Jordan ranked second in scoring (14.9 ppg), second in assists (4.8 apg), led the team in steals (37) and averaged 2.4 rpg. Jordan shot .451 from the field--worse than any player other than little used Christian Laettner--and just 4-19 (.211) from three point range. Karl Malone ranked third in scoring (13.0 ppg) and tied with Patrick Ewing for the team lead in rebounding (5.3 rpg). Chris Mullin (12.9 ppg) and Clyde Drexler (10.5 ppg) were the other double figure scorers. Scottie Pippen (9.0 ppg) led the team in assists (5.9 apg) and ranked second in steals (23).

The grades listed below represent how well a particular player filled his respective role on the team; obviously, some players had bigger roles than others, so a bench player's "B" does not mean the same thing as a starter's "B." Production when games were close is given a heavier weight than production that took place after the victories were already well in hand.

I recorded on court/off court data throughout the Olympics for five players: Bryant, James, Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Jason Kidd. These numbers simply indicate how many points Team USA scored and how many points Team USA's opponents scored when a given player was in the game; this data provides a very rudimentary indication of a player's impact but it does not include "game state" information such as which other players were on the court at the same time or how close the score of the game was: production is more significant when it takes place against the toughest opponents in close games, as opposed to statistics that are accumulated against reserves at the end of blowouts.

LeBron James (24.8 mpg, 15.5 ppg, 3.8 apg, 5.3 rpg, 19 steals, eight blocked shots overall; 26.7 mpg, 15 ppg, 2.7 apg, 6.7 rpg, 7 steals, one blocked shot in medal round play)

James led Team USA in steals and blocked shots, ranked second in scoring and assists and shot .602 from the field, including .464 from three point range. The only negatives on his ledger were free throw shooting (.458) and turnovers (a team-high 17). James put up the best overall box score numbers of any player on the team. As Doug Collins noted during several of the telecasts, James played terrific help defense on the back line, blocking shots and getting steals. Not surprisingly, James' minutes went up during medal round play and he continued to post excellent box score numbers.

Team USA outscored the opposition by 154 points overall when James was on the court and they outscored the opposition by 50 points when James was on the court during the medal round games.

Grade: "A"

Kobe Bryant (23.5 mpg, 15.0 ppg, 2.1 apg, 2.8 rpg, nine steals, four blocked shots overall; 28 mpg, 19 ppg, 2.7 apg, 3.3 rpg, three steals, three blocked shots in medal round play)

Bryant ranked third on Team USA in scoring, fourth in assists and steals and first in three pointers made. He finished right behind James in turnovers (15) and, like James, did not shoot very well from the free throw line (.583). Bryant shot .462 from the field and .321 from three point range but after his much celebrated 1-15 start from behind the arc in the first two games he shot 16-38 (.421) the rest of the way.

As soon as Bryant joined the team he immediately asked to be assigned the task of guarding the best perimeter player on each opposing team. That was Bryant's primary responsibility for Team USA and he did an excellent job in this regard. He often took a back seat offensively but when the chips were down in the medal round Bryant averaged a team-high 19 ppg while shooting .500 from the field and .375 from three point range. He dominated the fourth quarter of the 118-107 win over Spain in the gold medal game, scoring 13 points and adding two assists in that final stanza.

Team USA came up short in the three previous major FIBA competitions (2004 Olympics, 2006 and 2002 FIBA World Championship) primarily because of a lack of on court leadership, poor defense and the inability or unwillingness of anyone to step up in crucial moments in medal round games. James and Wade each had superb tournaments in the 2008 Olympics--very similar to their performances in the 2006 FIBA World Championship--but the difference this time around was that Bryant provided precisely what Team USA had been missing in the three areas mentioned above.

Team USA outscored the opposition by 134 points overall when Bryant was on the court and they outscored the opposition by 52 points when he was on the court during the medal round games.

Grade: "A"

Chris Paul (21.9 mpg, 8.0 ppg, 4.1 apg, 3.6 rpg, 18 steals, 0 blocked shots overall)

Paul led Team USA in assists and free throw percentage (.917), tied for second in steals and he easily had the best assist/turnover ratio (3.67/1). Paul forced a lot of turnovers with his ball pressure but on occasions he let his man get by him off of the dribble, resulting in defensive breakdowns. He padded some of his numbers in the fourth quarters of blowouts but in several games he also provided a nice spark off of the bench to help Team USA build large leads.

Grade: "B+"

Carmelo Anthony (19.1 mpg, 11.5 ppg, .4 apg, 4.3 rpg, eight steals, two blocked shots overall; 22 mpg, 16.3 ppg, .3 apg, 3.3 rpg, two steals, one blocked shot in medal round play)

Anthony ranked fourth on Team USA in scoring and rebounding. He tied for the team lead in fouls committed. Only three players had fewer assists (Bosh, Boozer and Prince). Anthony led Team USA in scoring during the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament and the 2006 FIBA World Championship, so his scoring output in the Olympics has to be considered a major disappointment, particularly in light of his dismal field goal percentage (.422, lower than every other player except Redd). Anthony's .481 two point field goal percentage was also the second lowest on the team and he was the only player among the top seven scorers who did not shoot at least .600 on two point shots. Before the Olympics, Anthony vowed to average 10 rpg and to break the Team USA single game Olympic rebounding record but he never came close to doing either of those things. The main positive for Anthony is that he shot .828 from the free throw line, the one area where Bryant, James and Wade struggled.

Anthony increased his scoring to 16.3 ppg in medal round play but that number is deceptive: he shot .382 from the field in those three games and even though he led Team USA in scoring versus Argentina (21 points) he shot 3-14 from the field in that contest.

Team USA outscored the opposition by 86 points overall when Anthony was on the court and they outscored the opposition by just 25 points when Anthony was on the court during medal round play. Among the five players I tracked, Anthony is the only one who had a negative on court rating for an entire game--and this happened twice: Angola outscored Team USA 46-42 when Anthony was on the court and in the gold medal game Spain outscored Team USA 49-38 when Anthony was on the court. It is no coincidence that Anthony was not in the game for the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter of the gold medal game; throughout the Olympics, Anthony was often on the bench when Team USA made its best runs and when he was in games during such runs it was generally James, Wade and/or Bryant who shouldered most of the load.

Grade: "C-"

Deron Williams (19.0 mpg, 8.0 ppg, 2.8 apg, 2.3 rpg, six steals, 0 blocked shots overall)

Williams ranked second on Team USA in free throw percentage (.900) and third in assists. He did a good job of using his size and strength to penetrate opposing defenses. He made a few bad gambles defensively and was sometimes careless with his ballhandling but overall he did a very solid job.

Grade: "B"

Dwyane Wade (18.8 mpg, 16.0 ppg, 1.9 apg, 4.0 rpg, 18 steals, one blocked shot overall; 19.3 mpg, 15.7 ppg, 1.7 apg, 4.7 rpg, six steals, 0 blocked shots in medal round play)

Wade led Team USA in scoring, tied for second in steals and he ranked second in three point shooting percentage (.471) among players who attempted more than two three pointers. Wade shot a blistering .671 from the field overall, trailing only Howard and Bosh among players who attempted at least one shot a game (Kidd shot 6-7 from the field). Wade struggled a bit from the free throw line (.634) and at times made some risky defensive gambles but his overall play was superb. He clearly has healed completely from his injuries and regained--if not increased--his previous athletic ability and explosiveness.

Wade did not start one game; he usually came off of the bench midway through the first quarter to replace Anthony, though sometimes foul trouble altered that rotation. Wade's on court numbers (not his own stats per se, but rather Team USA's scoring margin when he was in the game) benefited from not sharing minutes with Anthony, while Bryant and James' numbers were dragged down a bit in this regard. As a sixth man who played limited minutes, Wade had the advantage of being fresh and from playing against either reserve players or tired starters; after just two minutes of play in the second quarter of Team USA's 92-69 win over Greece, Wade asked to come out of the game because he was totally gassed. None of this diminishes how well Wade played but it goes a long way toward explaining why Wade came off of the bench instead of starting, why he did not play as many minutes as Bryant or James and why people should not be quick to assume that this performance means that Wade will be on the All-NBA First Team this season; in order for Wade to resume being an elite level NBA player he will have to be able to stay healthy and productive while playing 35-plus mpg over the course of an 82 game season.

Team USA outscored the opposition by 161 points overall when Wade was on the court and they outscored the opposition by 48 points when Wade was on the court during the medal round games.

Grade: "A"

Chris Bosh (17.3 mpg, 9.1 ppg, .3 apg, 6.1 rpg, two steals, six blocked shots overall)

Bosh led Team USA in rebounding and field goal percentage (.774) and he ranked second in free throw percentage (.862). He was perhaps the most pleasant surprise; Wade's performance was more a matter of him getting healthy than anything else, but Bosh supplanted Howard as Team USA's most effective big. Bosh not only played very well in the paint at both ends of the court but he also did a great job of helping to defend on the perimeter against screen/roll plays. His emergence relegated Boozer to mop up duty and further reinforced a theme that I emphasized all along, namely that Team USA did not need another big on the roster; USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo was right to bolster the team's size and defensive flexibility on the perimeter, fully realizing that Team USA would only play one traditional big at a time. In terms of FIBA play, Bosh proved to be a better big than Amare Stoudemire, who played in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament but decided to rest his knees this summer.


Grade: "A"

Dwight Howard (16.1 mpg, 10.9 ppg, .5 apg, 5.8 rpg, five steals, seven blocked shots overall)

Howard ranked second on Team USA in rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage (.745) and fifth in scoring. He was not quite as dominant or effective as he was in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament in terms of field goal percentage and blocked shots but Team USA faced tougher opposition in this event. Howard sometimes got caught up in retaliating against opposing players and he seemed to get into Coach Krzyzewski's dog house a couple times. Nevertheless, he started every game at center, scored in double figures and was a physical presence in the paint at both ends of the court. His screen/roll defense was not nearly as good as Bosh's.

Grade: "B+"

Jason Kidd (13.5 mpg, 1.6 ppg, 2.0 apg, 2.6 rpg, five steals, two blocked shots overall)

Despite his limited minutes, Kidd ranked fourth on Team USA in assists. He famously did not shoot frequently but he made his attempts count by converting six of his seven shots. The only downside for Kidd is that he forced a few passes, resulting in 12 turnovers. During the Olympics, Kidd somehow turned into the player that fan bloggers loved to hate. Yes, his boxscore numbers will not blow anyone away but he was USA Basketball's Player of the Year in 2007 after he put up similar numbers in the FIBA Americas tournament: 15.8 mpg, 1.8 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.3 rpg, 13 steals, five blocked shots). The way that Kidd and Team USA played in that event paved the way for this year's Olympics triumph. Although Kidd is a triple double king in the NBA, in FIBA play his value is not captured by numbers alone. Team USA struggled defensively in recent years, particularly in the backcourt, but the addition of Bryant and Kidd to the starting lineup not only fixed that problem but resulted in the rest of the players stepping up their defense as well. Kidd is a winner. I don't like to mix NBA or NCAA stats with FIBA stats but it is worth mentioning that there is a consistent pattern throughout Kidd's career that teams he joins increase their winning percentage and that teams he leaves experience a decline in winning percentage.

From a minutes standpoint, Kidd took a backseat to youngsters Paul and Williams, though it should be noted that Paul and Williams played almost all of the garbage time minutes; the minutes when games were up for grabs were pretty evenly split among that trio.

Kidd had a game-high seven assists in Team USA's 101-81 semifinal victory over Argentina. The semifinal round was the graveyard for Team USA in the 2006 FIBA World Championship and the 2004 Olympics but this time around Kidd made sure that this would not happen; early in the second half he did an excellent job of setting down Team USA's halfcourt offense, making sure that Howard got the ball in the paint.

Team USA outscored the opposition by 69 points overall when Kidd was on the court and they outscored the opposition by 31 points when he was on the court during medal round play.

Grade: "B+"

Tayshaun Prince (11.0 mpg, 4.3 ppg, .3 apg, 1.9 rpg, three steals, one blocked shot overall)

Prince, Redd and Boozer were clearly the last men on the bench for this team but Prince received more non-garbage time minutes than Redd and Boozer did. Prince led Team USA in three point field goal percentage (6-11, .545), though he obviously did not shoot nearly as many three pointers as Wade, James and several others. Prince shot .591 from the field overall but his real value is that he is a long armed defender who can guard multiple positions; that makes him a more valuable FIBA player for Team USA than a one dimensional shooter like Redd.

I gave Prince an "I" (incomplete) in my previous report card but since his non-garbage time minutes increased during the Olympics he showed enough to get a regular grade this time.

Grade: "B+"

Michael Redd (9.1 mpg, 3.1 ppg, .5 apg, 1.1 rpg, two steals, 0 blocked shots overall)

Redd was the darling of many so-called experts, the player whose outside marksmanship would supposedly be vital for Team USA to win the gold medal. Last year, I did a post titled Team USA Needs Bruce Bowen More Than it Needs Michael Redd and I have consistently and repeatedly stated that Redd--who is a very good NBA player--would be nothing more than a spare part on this squad for the following reasons: Team USA's primary focus has to be defense, Team USA has several players who are better perimeter defenders than Redd who can also make the shorter FIBA three point shot and it is much more important for Team USA to defend opposing three point shooters than it is for Team USA to make three pointers.

Redd shot .323 from the field in the Olympics, including .278 from three point range. He rarely appeared on the court before the victory was completely secured; in the gold medal game he did not check in until the final seconds.

Considering that Redd is a pure shooter who had by far the worst shooting percentage on the team it is tempting to give him an "F" but that would not really be fair considering his limited playing time. However, can we please stop hearing about how Team USA needs pure shooters like Redd, Mike Miller and (I hope no one is serious about this) J.J. Redick?

Grade: "I"

Carlos Boozer (6.0 mpg, 3.3 ppg, .3 apg, 1.9 rpg, two steals, 0 blocked shots overall)

I thought that Howard would play about 20 mpg and that Boozer and Bosh would average roughly 10 mpg each but Bosh played so well that he grabbed some minutes from both Howard and Boozer. Contrary to the dire predictions that Team USA did not have enough size up front, the reality proved to be exactly what I predicted: Team USA's versatile perimeter defenders wreaked havoc, James and Anthony took turns playing power forward and Team USA only needed one true NBA big on the court at a time; sometimes Team USA went with a small lineup with no true NBA bigs.

Boozer was a spare part for this team and any other big (Tyson Chandler is the name that came up most often) that people wanted to add either in his place or instead of one of the perimeter players would also have been a spare part.

Grade: "I"

Final thoughts:

Anthony (19.9 ppg), Wade (19.3 ppg) and James (13.9 ppg) were the three leading scorers on the 2006 version of Team USA that settled for the bronze medal in the FIBA World Championship. Howard and Elton Brand split the starting duties at center, while Bosh came off of the bench. Chris Paul started six of nine games at point guard and led the team in assists.

Anthony played much worse in this year's Olympics than he did for Team USA in 2006, while Wade and James performed comparably offensively and better defensively this time around. Bosh received more minutes in 2008 and played better defensively. However, if you compare the rosters, the statistics and the visual evidence, the obvious difference between this version of Team USA and the previous versions came at the defensive end of the court. In 2006, Team USA opponents shot .462 from the field and .349 from three point range; in 2008, Team USA opponents shot .403 from the field and .299 from three point range. The defensive improvement began when Colangelo added Bryant and Kidd to the roster: Colangelo says that, Krzyzewksi says that, the team's scouts say that and the players say that.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:40 PM

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Monday, August 25, 2008

The Difference for Team USA Was Kobe Bryant

I'll be posting my final report card for Team USA's gold medal performance soon. Meanwhile, check out these two quotes about Kobe Bryant's importance to Team USA:

The L.A. Times' Mark Heisler writes:

In its stunning loss to Greece in 2006, the young U.S. players broke down completely on defense as the Greeks scored on pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll. In the very first play of last summer's Tournament of the Americas, Bryant tipped the ball away from the Venezuela point guard, dived on the court trying to get it, got back up, stole the next pass and started a fastbreak. They've defended like banshees ever since. "That's the clip Coach K [Coach Mike Krzyzewski] always uses, Kobe diving on the floor," says U.S. scout Tony Ronzone. "You're talking about an MVP player in the NBA who just made a statement to USA basketball...And what that did is it took our defense to another level. What you're seeing is something that started last summer in Las Vegas, which is amazing."

Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski declares:

Once Kobe Bryant let that Shaq rap go, he wished that he had resisted responding to so much else throughout his tumultuous 20s...As Kobe reshapes his image here with American flags, Jordanesque ferocity and the warm, welcoming touch of a grateful guest, O’Neal is back in the United States facing a restraining order for allegations of stalking an Atlanta woman after several disturbing e-mails and phone threats surfaced. The old images of the brooding, immature Kobe and the gregarious, life-of-the-championship-party Shaq have turned inside out. Somehow, Kobe’s become the grownup and Shaq the screw-up...These Olympics have been the most remarkable three weeks of Kobe Bryant’s basketball life. He disdains the marketing "Redeem Team" title, calling it "kind of cheesy" because let’s face it: Those weren’t his international failures over the past eight years. Nike tried so hard to make LeBron James a co-star of these Games but failed miserably. He’s riding shotgun and doesn’t seem terribly thrilled about it. There’s no usurping Bryant in China. Bryant has won the respect of his teammates, but he doesn’t run in the big cliques on the team. LeBron is the ringleader of the young players, and Kobe goes his own way. He’s won his teammates over with his ferocity, his insatiable need to win, but no one ever gets close to Bryant. He’s a loner, but he learned to lead. When all hell was breaking loose in the semifinal victory over Argentina, it was Bryant working with Jason Kidd to bring his teammates back from the brink of losing composure. "We didn’t come to tussle," Bryant said. "We came to win a gold medal."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:02 AM

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Carnival of the NBA #59 Hosted by A Stern Warning

Carnival of the NBA #59 is being hosted by the good folks at "A Stern Warning."

I contributed Five Observations About Team USA Heading Into Medal Round Play.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:48 AM

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Kobe Takes Over in the Fourth Quarter, Team USA Defeats Spain 118-107 to Claim Olympic Gold

Kobe Bryant had 13 points and two assists in the fourth quarter as Team USA survived a gritty, determined performance by Spain to win the gold medal game, 118-107. Bryant began his onslaught with 8:13 left in the game and Team USA clinging to a 91-89 lead; in the next 2:11 he scored five points and assisted on a Deron Williams three pointer and a Dwight Howard dunk. Later, Bryant drained two three pointers, including a four point play. Bryant finished with 20 points, a game-high six assists and two blocked shots in 27 minutes. Dwayne Wade scored a game-high 27 points on 9-12 field goal shooting and added a game-high four steals, providing a vital boost off of the bench, especially in the first half when he scored 21 points while Bryant and LeBron James were saddled with foul trouble. James contributed 14 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals. Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul scored 13 points each. Rudy Fernandez led Spain with 22 points, while Pau Gasol had 21 points and six rebounds. Juan Carlos Navarro scored 18 points and led Spain with four assists.

Due to the early foul trouble and the disjointed nature of this game, the on court point differential numbers that I have been tracking for Bryant, James, Anthony, Wade and Jason Kidd do not paint an entirely accurate picture of the ebb and flow of this game but let the record note that Team USA outscored Spain 93-68 when Wade was in the game, 73-71 when Bryant was in the game, 73-71 when James was in the game and 25-22 when Kidd was in the game; Spain outscored Team USA 49-38 when Anthony was in the game and Anthony spent the last 8:13 of the game on the bench. Wade certainly played a crucial role with his first half scoring when Bryant and James were on the bench and he did hit an important three pointer late in the game but Wade had just six second half points. Point blank, without Bryant stepping up in the fourth quarter Team USA would have lost, just like the two previous versions of Team USA that included James, Wade and Anthony--but did not include Bryant--lost.

Early in the game it did not look like Bryant would emerge as the hero and there was good reason to doubt whether or not Team USA would win. In my preview for this game I suggested that Team USA could get off to a big start if Bryant and James avoided foul trouble but instead they both got two quick fouls and had to head to the bench with Team USA trailing 13-9. The officiating in this game was very ragged--not biased, but ragged; both teams complained about calls at various times because there was absolutely no consistency: sometimes a player would be thrown to the floor and nothing would be called while other times the slightest contact drew a whistle. Bryant got his second foul when he contested a Navarro three pointer and the Spanish guard crumpled to the ground as if he had been shot. At one point, NBC commentator Doug Collins said, "This is a gold medal game. Are we going to watch free throw shooting or basketball?"

Navarro could make a training DVD featuring all of the running shots he hit in this game; his first one put Spain up 19-14, the biggest deficit that Team USA faced during the entire Olympics. Paul then converted a three point play but Spain quickly pushed the lead back to five, 22-17, before Team USA went on a 9-0 run that included another three point play by Paul, two pairs of free throws by Chris Bosh and Deron Williams respectively, a steal and reverse dunk by Wade and a layup by Tayshaun Prince. Team USA's depth really paid off during that stretch.

Team USA led 38-31 at the end of the first quarter; their defense broke down numerous times, perhaps due to Bryant and James being on the bench, but Team USA obviously found a lot of different ways to score. All of the starters returned to action at the start of the second quarter and it briefly looked like Team USA would break the game open. Marc Gasol committed an offensive foul by elbowing Anthony and then Bryant drained a three pointer to give Team USA a double digit lead for the first time. Howard then committed a hard foul on Pau Gasol, resulting in two free throws plus Spain retaining possession. Collins said, "Dwight Howard just had a mental lapse there in a couple ways. He lost Pau Gasol, their best player, defensively, and then he compounded it with the foul. This is where you have to have poise." That was a theme that Collins emphasized not only during this game but throughout the Olympics and poise was one of the three keys to victory that he listed for Team USA (the other two were "defense leads to offense" and "three point shooting--defending it and shooting it"). Spain could have turned Howard's gaffe into a five point play but instead Gasol missed both free throws and then Ricky Rubio's missed three pointer led to a fast break dunk by Bryant to put Team USA up 43-31. After another miss by Spain, Bryant went for the dagger three pointer but it wouldn't go down. Marc Gasol scored inside, followed by Bryant breaking down the defense and dishing to Anthony for a three pointer to make the score 46-33.

Team USA stretched the lead to 58-44 after back to back three pointers by Wade and James but Spain simply would not back down, answering with five quick points to get the margin below 10. Coach Mike Krzyzewski prudently sat Bryant and James down for the last few minutes of the half so that neither player would pick up his third foul and Team USA only led 69-61 at halftime. That kind of scoring may be fun for fans to watch but it is definitely not part of Team USA's defense-first game plan. Prior to the third quarter, Kidd told Collins that Krzyzewski's halftime directives were that Team USA had fouled too often and that they needed to play better containment defense on Spain's guards. Coach Krzyzewski also urged his players to relax.

Felipe Reyes hit a jumper to cut the lead to six at the start of the third quarter. Then Team USA had a series of horrible offensive possessions. Bryant shot an airball three pointer during which there seemed to be a lot of contact but no foul was called. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James each committed turnovers and then James missed a layup after a no look feed from Bryant. It was not clear if James' shot was blocked or if he just shot it off of the back of the rim; he complained that he was fouled on the play. Team USA did not score for 1:36 until Howard's put back increased the lead to 71-63 but Reyes answered with a layup. Bryant drove to the hoop, made a layup and was seemingly headed to the free throw line to complete a three point play but instead a late traveling call was issued, nullifying the basket. Bryant, who had landed on the floor after his shot, had a bemused look on his face after the call. Pau Gasol made a sweet left handed hook to pull Spain to within 71-67. Kidd fed Howard in the paint but Howard missed both free throws after he was fouled. Anthony tipped in the second miss and was fouled but he missed his free throw and Bryant received his third foul while trying to get the rebound.

Team USA's lead fluctuated between four and six points for most of the third quarter until James made a gorgeous touch pass to Bosh, who was fouled and made both free throws to put Team USA up 83-76. Then Team USA finally got a defensive stop and Bryant fed Wade, who split a pair of free throws after he was fouled. After Wade hit a turnaround jumper to make the score 86-76, Bryant and James went to the bench for the last couple minutes of the quarter. Navarro accounted for six quick points on two driving shots plus a lob to Pau Gasol for a score and Team USA was only up 91-82 going into the fourth quarter.

Throughout the Olympics, Collins made the point that in a close game the coaching staff will let you know who they trust by who they put on the floor. Team USA began the fourth quarter with a lineup consisting of Bryant, James, Anthony, Bosh and Deron Williams. Just like in the third quarter, Team USA got off to a slow start offensively and Spain used a quick 7-0 run in the first 1:47 to shave the deficit to just two points. After a timeout, Coach Krzyzewski replaced Anthony with Wade. With the game very much up for grabs, the last 8:13 became "Kobe time." I've said all along that the most important move USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo made was adding Bryant to the roster because Bryant has set the tone defensively but down the stretch in the gold medal game Bryant took over offensively. First, he made a strong move to the hoop and hit a tough shot in the lane to make the score 93-89. After that play, Collins commented, "One of the things LeBron has said is that we know that there is one guy on this team who will take big shots and that's Kobe Bryant. That's a big shot coming out of the timeout to sort of stem Spain's run."

After Fernandez missed a three pointer, Bryant drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and passed to a wide open Williams for a big three pointer. "That's a gigantic shot," Collins said. "Great play by Kobe Bryant. I thought that he was going to take the shot but instead the dribble kick (pass). That's what I always talk about--that's how you get those threes in rhythm."

After another Fernandez miss, Bryant again drove into the paint, collapsed the defense and made a great feed, this time to Howard for a dunk. That pushed Team USA's lead to 98-89 and Collins noted, "Who's been on every play? All three plays--Kobe Bryant. He hit the big shot and he's had two assists in this stretch." Fernandez answered with a three pointer but Bryant retaliated with a three pointer to reestablish a nine point bulge. The teams then traded misses before Fernandez drove to the hoop, dunked on Howard and made a free throw after Howard fouled him. Collins criticized Bryant for gambling for a steal on the play, saying that this turned Fernandez loose. There is some truth to what Collins said, but Howard could also have taken a different angle, cutting off Fernandez and making him pick up his dribble as opposed to ushering him to the hoop and then fouling him; Team USA's defense is built around ball pressure to force turnovers and that means that sometimes a guard will gamble and get beaten and in those situations there should be some kind of defensive rotation that forces the other team to at least make a couple passes to get an open shot. A guard going for a steal behind the three point line should not automatically result in a dunk and a three point play opportunity. As perennial All-Defensive Team member Bobby Jones once told me, "In the type of defense that we (the 76ers of the late 70s and early 80s) played, if one person gambled it was kind of like a spider web type of thing--the web stretches. If one guy goes, the other four sort of cheat and leave their men a little bit to help out in case the ball moves and a guy becomes open. You just keep rotating around. I don’t think it (going for steals or blocks) is selfish at all. I think that it’s good. You have to put pressure on the offense because shooters are so good. The offense has such an advantage because it can initiate what takes place, so as a defender you have got to try to instigate something to throw them off and make them do something they don’t want to do. The old term, 'pressure will bust the pipe,' is very true. It will make people change what they want to do."

Bryant missed a three pointer on the next possession and Collins criticized that decision as well, saying that the shot was from too far out. Collins had previously noted that Bryant is more comfortable shooting three pointers from NBA range than from the shorter FIBA three point line, so this critique seemed a little odd. That said, it would have been preferable for Bryant to drive and kick like he did on some of the earlier possessions.

Whatever one thinks of Bryant's defensive gamble or his missed three pointer, he proceeded to ice the game in the next couple minutes. First he leaped high in the air to deflect a pass away from Pau Gasol above the rim, nullifying what would have been an easy layup or dunk. Then, after Howard split a pair of free throws and Gasol scored four straight points to cut Team USA's lead to 104-99 with 3:34 left, Bryant drilled a three pointer, was fouled and made the free throw, coming full circle from his first quarter foul on Navarro's three point attempt. After Bryant made the three pointer he put his left index finger to his lips as if to say, "Shh. Don't say a word." Collins said, "Is there anybody in the NBA who loves these moments more than Kobe Bryant? He's been called upon to play defense but this could be a gigantic four point play. Not only that--Rudy Fernandez has just fouled out of the ball game." In one fell swoop, Bryant nearly doubled Team USA's lead and forced Spain's leading scorer to go to the bench. Before Bryant shot the free throw, Collins noted, "You think about it. The United States was up two, Coach K took that timeout. How many points has Kobe Bryant had his hands in? Remember he had 10 straight points where he either scored or had the assist."

Spain deserves a lot of credit because they responded to Bryant's dagger with five quick points before Wade hit a three pointer. Team USA led 111-105 with less than two minutes left. There has been a lot of speculation about who would shoot the ball for Team USA in a do or die late game situation; of course, that had never been an issue prior to this game but on this possession we found out that the answer to that question is Kobe Bryant. After his runner gave Team USA a 113-105 lead and basically clinched the gold medal, Collins concluded, "You see why Kobe Bryant's on this team--money under pressure."

Spain lost their composure in the last minute and Ricky Rubio was whistled for a technical foul, resulting in two free throws for Team USA. Collins said, "Interesting enough, Chris Paul is the best free throw shooter on the United States team. Kobe was shooting 44 percent going into this game but who wants to shoot these under pressure? Kobe said, 'I'm shooting these free throws.' If the United States holds on to win this game, Kobe Bryant took over this game when the lead was cut to two. That's why he's the MVP of the NBA and could be walking out of here with a gold medal to add to his three NBA championships."

Naturally, Bryant made both free throws and then Paul split a pair of free throws because he had been fouled prior to the technical foul. Coach Krzyzewski took Bryant out of the game, enabling Michael Redd to make his first appearance of the game. Team USA players took turns hugging each other and their coaches and then Bryant doused Coach Krzyzewski with some bottled water in a mini version of the Gatorade bath that winning football coaches receive. After the final buzzer, Team USA shook hands with the Spanish team, went over to the broadcast table to shake hands with Collins and play by play announcer Mike Breen and then they went to the center of the court and jumped around in unison like a college team celebrating an NCAA Tournament win. The pure joy that they obviously felt at that moment was wonderful to see. These players committed to a multi-year plan to bring the Olympic gold medal back to the United States and they deserve tremendous credit for doing just that.

After the game, Collins recalled what he said to Team USA when he spoke to the players in Las Vegas during their training camp: "There's a huge difference between being a winner and a champion. Once you're champions, you're champions together forever. No one can ever take it away from you. This moment the guys will relish the rest of their lives."

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:33 AM

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