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Friday, October 31, 2008

Chance Encounter After Game Shines a Different Light on Life

Does life consist of random events or is there some deeper meaning behind what seem to be chance encounters and situations? That may seem like a bizarre way to open a post on a basketball blog but, believe it or not, I think about a lot more than basketball--and I actually spend more time thinking about stuff like that than I do about hoops, which is saying something considering that I regularly produce 2000+ word articles about basketball (a normal person would probably say that I overanalyze everything, including hoops, but I'm not normal so that critique does not really make sense to me even though I can understand why someone else would have that perspective).

The reason that I posed the above question here is that on my way home from Cleveland's 96-79 victory over Charlotte I stopped at a rest area and met a veteran named Chris Wood; he is retired from active duty and works third shift as an attendant at the rest area. I don't know why he started talking to me in the middle of the night/morning and I'm not sure why I stayed to listen--but I did stay and listen as he told me about serving our country during the War on Drugs in Colombia and taking a bullet that went through his leg and into his back. He had to have fusion surgery in his back and although he is fully ambulatory now he is still dealing with the physical and psychological effects not just of his injury but of everything he experienced during his service. More importantly, three of his kids have taken ill with various problems that he attributes to the effects of Gulf War Syndrome; after recovering from his injury, he served in Operation Desert Storm and part of his duties involved handling canisters captured from the Iraqis--Wood does not know what was in those canisters but he is just one of thousands of veterans who have either become ill and/or had family members become ill after serving in Iraq. I am not an epidemiologist, so I have no way of knowing whether or not Gulf War Syndrome caused his children's illnesses but his and their suffering is very real regardless of what the cause is.

Before I spoke to Wood, my thoughts were focused squarely on LeBron James' "problem": he does not make a high enough percentage of his free throws.

Chris Wood's problems relate to life, death and the health of his children.

Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it? Is James' "problem" more significant because millions of people watch him on TV? If an alien flew here from another planet and observed Earth without contaminating his mind with our cultural constructs about what and who is important, would he be able to distinguish one person's "value" from another's? Would he come to the same conclusions that our society has regarding that question?

Wood seemed to need someone to listen to him and perhaps at that moment I needed to listen to someone. Many other people walked in and out of the rest area during that time without paying the slightest attention to either of us. I wonder if they thought that he and I were longtime friends instead of strangers who had just met? I wonder if they thought anything at all other than about whatever had been on their minds as they pulled into the rest area? Sometimes I feel like the more I learn and experience the less I understand--or the less things makes sense. What if I had arrived at the rest area five minutes earlier or five minutes later and never crossed paths with Wood? What if I had never stopped there at all? Does this interaction have a deeper meaning or is the significance that my mind attaches to these events simply the brain's way of attempting to explain something that is purely random? Optical illusions can occur when the mind tries to create order or "fill in the blanks" when the eyes convey information that does not make sense; is "meaning" a cognitive illusion that the mind constructs to avoid facing what would otherwise seem to be a random and at times cruel reality? To put things less abstractly--What is the meaning and purpose of Wood's suffering and the suffering of his children? What is the meaning and purpose of Wood telling me his story at the time and place that he did?

Just as Wood felt a need to share his story with me, I felt a need to share my reaction to his story. Maybe all of this seems to have nothing to do with basketball but it was such a powerful experience for me to have my mind and my emotions redirected so quickly from thinking about the Cavs game to thinking about everything that he has gone through and is still going through. This impacted me in a way that I don't quite understand but it will always be a part of my memory of this night--and now that I have shared Wood's story with you it will always be a part of your memory of this night as well.

After talking with Wood--really, I did more listening than talking--I told him that I hope that everything works out for him and his family. He confidently replied that he believes that it will. I spoke with him long enough to realize that he would not want anyone's pity but perhaps before you go to sleep tonight you might say a prayer not only for Chris Wood and his children but also for all of the servicemen and servicewomen who sacrifice so much so that we can have the freedom to concern ourselves with James' free throw percentage and all of the other things that seem so important to us most of the time but fade to insignificance in the face of real problems and real tragedies.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:07 PM


Cavs Cruise Over Bobcats in Home Opener

LeBron James nearly had a triple double (22 points, nine rebounds, nine assists) in just 30 minutes of action as the Cleveland Cavaliers improved to 1-1 by winning their home opener versus the Charlotte Bobcats, 96-79. Daniel Gibson scored a game-high 25 points, shooting 10-14 from the field; if he had not uncharacteristically missed three straight free throws in the fourth quarter after being fouled on a three point shot then he could have matched or exceeded his regular season career-high of 26 points. Mo Williams contributed 17 points, seven assists and four rebounds while only committing one turnover. Ben Wallace was a major force in the paint with 10 rebounds and five blocked shots. Jason Richardson led Charlotte with 24 points. Adam Morrison was Charlotte's leading scorer in the first half with seven points but he only scored two points in the second half.

As is often the case with Cleveland, rebounding and strong defense played a major part in this victory; the Cavs outrebounded the Bobcats 46-34 while holding them to 33.8% field goal shooting. The Cavs led 25-16 at the end of the first quarter and were up by as many as 19 in the first half en route to a 50-33 halftime lead. One lingering issue for the Cavs is that they often play very sloppily in the third quarter and that was again the case in this contest. Charlotte cut the lead to 62-57 at the 1:58 mark of the third quarter but the Cavs closed the quarter with a 6-2 run and then outscored the Bobcats 28-20 in the final stanza.

Although James shot a respectable 7-15 from the field he again struggled to consistently connect on attempts fired from outside of the paint; he did most of his damage in close with an assortment of excellent drives and dunks plus a few very nice postups. He shot 8-12 from the free throw line, right in line with his typical mediocre percentage. His speed, power and agility in the open court are breathtaking and his ability to fill up a boxscore in multiple categories is most impressive but the next step for James in his quest to lead the Cavs to an NBA title is to shore up his shooting stroke from 15 feet (the free throw line) and beyond (this subject is covered in greater detail in Notes From Courtside).

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown singled Williams out for praise after the game, saying that when Charlotte closed to within five points, "Williams did a nice job of getting our team to believe that we had to get stops in order to get the win." Williams had not been known as a great defender prior to coming to Cleveland, so the fact that he has already bought into Brown's defensive philosophies to the extent that he is an on court leader in that regard is a great sign for the Cavs; defense starts with the point guard position, so Williams can play a crucial role in make Cleveland an even better defensive team than they have been in recent years.

After the game, someone asked James about the value of having a player like Williams who can create his own shot and create shots for other players, particularly in situations when James is on the bench resting or in foul trouble. James made a very shrewd reply, first stating that it is not up to just one player to pick up the slack when he is out of the game but then immediately adding that Williams is "a special player" who plays an important role on the team. The reason that I say that James' answer is shrewd is that he simultaneously gave credit to other players on the team while also acknowledging Williams' worth. Maybe that seems like a simple or obvious thing to do but in a similar situation Donovan McNabb completely blew it a few years ago; after Terrell Owens got hurt, McNabb emphasized that the Eagles could win without the All-Pro receiver, but neglected to mention that Owens is valuable or special--and that slight played a big role in all of the turmoil that later followed, culminating in Owens playing at an All-Pro level for a division rival. I have been present in pregame and postgame media standups with James since his rookie year and I have always been struck by his poise; he is able to make his point without denigrating his teammates or his opponents and without being nasty to reporters, even those who ask questions that he may not appreciate. He just seems to have an innate sense of what to say and how to say it. His answers may not always offer profound insight but that is not his job; his job as a team leader is to make sure that everything he says reflects positively on himself, his teammates and his organization.

Charlotte Coach Larry Brown succinctly broke down why his team lost: "They just killed us on the boards and they got every loose ball and every hustle play. Their guards played great and their whole team is so unselfish. And it starts with their best player (James). He tries to make everybody better and that's a huge factor." Brown added that his team shot too many jumpers and that when his players drove to the hoop they went in too far and got their shots blocked as opposed to collapsing the defense and then passing to open shooters the way that Cleveland's players did. Coach Brown always emphasizes the importance of playing the right way and he obviously has many reasons to be disappointed about just how wrongly his team played on this occasion.

Notes From Courtside:

In my recap of Cleveland's 90-85 opening night loss to Boston, I mentioned a key play that happened near the end of the game:

...the Cavs had a defensive breakdown: after the Celtics broke the initial trap, James rushed up to attempt to foul Pierce near midcourt but that left the hoop unprotected and Pierce passed ahead to Leon Powe, who dunked the ball just as Varejao raced back and fouled him. Without talking to the coaches, I don't know if the breakdown here is the fault of the guards, if James blundered by rushing forward or if Varejao (or someone else) was supposed to be the last defender at the hoop.

After Coach Mike Brown completed his pregame media standup and the rest of the media horde had scattered, I approached him and said that since I was not at the first game I did not know if he had already addressed this issue but I am curious to know exactly what went wrong in that sequence and what the Cavs were supposed to do. Coach Brown indicated that no one had asked him about this and then he told me, "It was a mixup in our press defense. We did not get matched up and he got free and got the dunk." I followed up by asking if a certain player was supposed to be protecting the rim and Coach Brown said, "It's not one person's fault; it's all five--whoever is on the court, plus me. You can hold me accountable. It's all my fault. We were trying to deny Ray Allen with two guys--the man guarding the inbounder plus the man who was guarding him. We didn't get matched up, so we didn't know who was guarding who, so we had three guys guarding Allen, which left two guys open plus the inbounder. They made the right pass and got the dunk." I asked Coach Brown if that was something that the players should have known how to handle on their own or if it was an issue that had to be covered in the next practice. Coach Brown answered, "Oh, no, no. That's my fault because I didn't do a good job communicating to the guys the matchups. We went over it the next day."

This exchange points out two things very clearly:

(1) Good defense truly requires having five players acting as one--"on a string," as coaches like to say.
(2) Regardless of what Coach Brown may have said to his players in the huddle or in practice the next day, for public consumption he is very careful to say, essentially, "The buck stops here" and not throw any player or players under the bus for missing an assignment. That fits in with the "no excuse team" culture he has created.


After LeBron James' pregame media standup, I went up to him to personally thank him for his part in bringing the Olympic Gold Medal back to the United States--not that he is waiting for me to validate the accomplishment but rather because I feel fortunate to be in a position where I can personally thank him for doing something that I consider to be significant not just for him but for basketball in this country in general. I told James how much I enjoyed watching the team play and how glad I am that Team USA won the gold. James slapped five with me and told me that when he was in Boston a Celtics fan had said something very similar to him. James said that this reaction from a fan on the road "shocked" him but I replied that I hope and expect that fans in every road city will respond to him that way with regard to the Olympics, even if they fervently root against James and the Cavs once the game begins.


After talking with the media, James did his pregame shooting routine; when the pregame standup ended earlier than usual, James told us he was happy that he would be able to get some extra shots up. He obviously is aware of his weaknesses--free throw shooting, outside shooting--and he is working hard to improve in those areas. I've watched James shoot before in pregame warmups but never really charted his makes and misses; my general impression has always been that he shoots in practice like he shoots in games: he can get on a roll and make several in a row but he also will miss several in a row, something that great shooters rarely if ever do in warmups. The two best shooters who I have ever seen warm up in person are Reggie Miller and Steve Nash and after you watch them for even a short time you are surprised when they miss and really surprised if they miss two in a row. James started out by shooting jumpers from the right baseline just inside the three point line. He had already begun before I got to the court, so I did not count those shots. Next he went to the free throw line, where he shot 4-9; he grimaced after one of the misses and did not seem happy at all with the overall performance. Then he made 5-8 three point shots from the right wing. He followed that by shooting 5-6 from the free throw line. Then he shot three pointers from the left wing but my count got messed up because several players were shooting at the same time on the same rim. James made a couple threes from the left baseline and shot a couple runners from the left baseline before returning to the free throw line, where he shot 9-11. This seemed to please him and he left the court with a bounce in his step.

Here are the impressions I formed from watching the whole routine:

1) James alternated game shots (three pointers or jumpers) with free throws, which is a good way to simulate game situations; in a game you will have worked up a sweat and then have to calm down, center yourself and shoot free throws. If you just go in a gym with a normal heart rate and shoot free throws you are not really preparing to shoot free throws in a game, though you are at least working on perfecting your form.

2) James shot 18-26 (.692) overall on his free throws. The cliche is that you play like you practice and, unfortunately, that percentage almost exactly matches his free throw percentage from last year. If James is going to become an .800 free throw shooter in games then he obviously needs to be able to shoot .800 in practice; realistically, he needs to shoot .850 or .900 in practice to be an .800 shooter in games.

3) Last year, James worked on his shooting with assistant coach Chris Jent but this time James was on his own, other than having someone (not Jent) retrieve the basketball for him; Jent was working with Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao. I don't know if there is any significance to Jent not being involved or if this was just a coincidence (I did not get a chance to ask anyone but will try to find out at some point).

4) Without Jent overseeing things, James' routine was a bit haphazard; he did not have the same amount of makes or attempts at each location, so it was not clear to me how he decided to move from one spot to the next. I suspect that James was not even counting at all, but simply going by feel.

5) James' shot release and technique is pretty consistent, though sometimes he fades away and sometimes his shooting elbow flies out slightly. I noticed two possible issues with his free throw shooting: he looks at the ground until right before he releases the shot and he tends to shoot a bit stiff legged instead of bending his knees. I may not be a shooting guru but I can consistently make 8 out of 10 free throws in a practice situation and I was always taught that it is important to focus on the rim throughout the entire shot preparation and it is important to bend your knees to provide the power so the shot does not devolve into a pushing motion.

My conclusion is that until James has a slightly more organized shooting routine in practice and until he tweaks his free throw motion as I described that his shooting percentages from the free throw line and from outside the paint will not improve significantly, though he will still have some games in which he gets hot and makes a very good percentage.


While the Bobcats shot around more than an hour before tipoff, Larry Brown sat on the sidelines and schmoozed with various people, several of whom (including Cavs assistant coach John Kuester) have some kind of North Carolina connection. Brown seems so happy to be back on the court again, though of course that may change after a few more losses like this one. Brown is a teacher at heart, one of those coaches who has frankly admitted that he enjoys practices more than games because in practices he has the chance to give out instruction and help players develop. Larry's brother Herb, an assistant coach for Charlotte, was working on post moves with rookie Alexis Ajinca while Larry was shooting the breeze but then all of a sudden Larry stood up and said, "No, Herb, no" and then walked over to Ajinca to correct something that Ajinca was doing with his elbow while he was shooting. Ajinca listened intently, then caught a pass from Herb Brown and executed the move according to Larry Brown's specifications. Larry Brown nodded approvingly and sat back down to resume his conversation. It has been said of Larry Brown that he can watch a play in a game or in practice and instantly recall where all 10 players were and what they did, a kind of athletic photographic memory perhaps akin to the way that a chess grandmaster can process numerous possibilities instantly because he has memorized thousands of standard positions/move orders. If the young Bobcats listen to their teacher and heed his guidance they should improve a lot--eventually.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:49 AM


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Balanced Lakers Blast Clippers, 117-79

Six Lakers scored in double figures and all 12 players contributed at least four points in a 117-79 rout of the L.A. Clippers. Kobe Bryant led the way for the Lakers with 16 points. He also had eight rebounds, three assists and two steals but it was hardly a vintage performance for the 2008 MVP considering his 5-12 field goal shooting and game-high five turnovers. Pau Gasol authored a nice all around effort (13 points, nine rebounds, six assists), while point guards Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar each scored 15 points. Al Thornton led the Clippers with 16 points. Baron Davis had 11 points, seven assists and four turnovers while shooting 4-13 from the field in his Clipper debut; he had a strong first quarter but was largely invisible the rest of the way.

The Lakers only led 30-27 after the first 12 minutes, in part because of the easy transition baskets that the Clippers scored after Bryant's four turnovers. As Hubie Brown said of Bryant's miscues, "That is a rare stat." At halftime, Bryant gave this explanation to Heather Cox: "I had to adjust to the little guys stripping (the ball) down low. I was angry at myself in the first quarter; I know that about this team." Apparently, Bryant made the necessary adjustment because he only had one turnover after the first quarter. Much like he did in Tuesday's season opener versus Portland, Bryant spent most of the game focusing on rebounding, pushing the ball and getting his teammates involved. On Tuesday, the Lakers needed Bryant to provide a key third quarter scoring outburst but against the Clippers such heroics were not required. In fact, Bryant sat out the entire fourth quarter and in the final 12 minutes the game often looked like a contest between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals as the Lakers delivered several fancy passes and on one occasion the crowd giggled as Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza passed the ball back and forth on the perimeter in the halfcourt set but no Clipper made any attempt to guard either of them (Odom eventually eschewed the open jumper to drive to the hoop).

I don't think that the Clippers are quite as bad as they looked; they will play better once Marcus Camby returns and their various new players (including Davis) become acclimated to Coach Mike Dunleavy's system. However, even though this season is only two games old it is worth wondering just how good the Lakers really are. We won't know the answer until the Lakers face some better teams and deal with the adversity of an extended road trip but they are playing with a lot of energy and intensity, particularly on defense. Their bench is receiving a lot of credit and while that praise is certainly deserved it is important to recognize exactly how Coach Phil Jackson is setting up his rotations: until garbage time begins, the bench players are not left on their own--at least one starter is on the court with them, much like Jackson used to use Scottie Pippen to anchor the Bulls' reserves during their title runs (the Lakers don't have a player who is equivalent to Pippen but Jackson is applying the principle of using a starter to anchor the bench). Hubie Brown noted that as much as possible Jackson keeps two of his three top big men (Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom) on the court together at all times. As I have mentioned, that trio will likely never play together but Brown is correct that by rotating them in and out the Lakers constantly have a formidable inside duo: when Bynum is at center either Gasol or Odom can play power forward and when Bynum is on the bench Gasol can shift to center with Odom playing power forward.

The extensive garbage time provided ample opportunity for Brown to offer his thoughts on a wide range of subjects. Here is his take on Bryant's impact on the U.S. Olympic team's gold medal performance: "His hard work rubbed off on a lot of people. That was the number one thing...Then, let's face it, in the last eight minutes of the game against Spain for the championship that's when Kobe Bryant steps up and gets it done for you."

Although I will be participating again in the Blogger MVP rankings that will first appear in a couple weeks, I really think that you can't get a good bead on who truly deserves the MVP until the season is at least half over and most of the teams have taken a full tour around the league (that is also why it is silly for college football to publish a top 25 list so early but that is a different story to be discussed at a different time). However, I will be very interested to see what verdict the official MVP voters come up with at the end of the season if the Lakers win 60 or more games but Bryant's scoring average dips to the low 20s. When Bryant won back to back scoring titles he was widely acknowledged to be the league's best individual player but he was not voted the MVP because his team did not win 50-plus games; if Bryant leads the Lakers to the best record in the NBA but his individual numbers decline as he sits out during fourth quarter blowouts will the voters apply the same criteria that they used against him in 2006 and 2007 or will a new standard be invented? My methodology will not change: I have consistently said that the MVP should go to the league's best and most complete all-around player, with the only exception being when there is a post player who is so dominant that his value overcomes the relative narrowness of his skill set; in other words, I would have voted Shaquille O'Neal as the 2005 MVP due to his inside dominance even though he did not have the most complete skill set.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:22 AM


New-Look Suns Defeat Short-Handed Spurs, 103-98

The Phoenix Suns successfully opened the Terry Porter era with a 103-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, their main nemesis for the past several seasons. Amare Stoudemire scored 22 points on 8-11 shooting and added eight rebounds, Leandro Barbosa added 18 points off of the bench and Shaquille O'Neal controlled the paint with 15 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. Steve Nash had 13 points and 13 assists. The Spurs--playing without injured starters Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto--were led by Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, each of whom scored 32 points. Roger Mason (12 points) was the only other Spur who scored in double figures.

Under Mike D'Antoni's regime, the Suns focused on their high powered offense and only gave lip service to defense and rebounding but all of that is going to change now with Porter in charge: getting stops and controlling the boards are top priorities and only after those things are accomplished will the Suns look to run, provided that they have an advantage--otherwise, they will set up in the half court and take advantage of having O'Neal and Stoudemire as strong options in the post. Early in this game, ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy immediately noted that Porter had changed the way that the Suns defend various San Antonio half court sets: basically, the Suns are now defending side pick and rolls and middle pick and rolls by going under the screens, keeping the ball handler out of the paint and forcing the Spurs to make jumpers. Van Gundy wholeheartedly endorsed Porter's adjustments. This is only one game but it seems to me that Porter is also demanding that his team play straight up, man to man defense as much as possible, as opposed to getting involved in a lot of trapping, switching or cross matching (such as having Grant Hill or someone else guard Parker); perhaps now each Suns player will be held accountable for guarding his own man.

Van Gundy made another very cogent point by mentioning that the Suns' primary problem in recent seasons was not necessarily their initial defense but rather the way that they got dominated on the boards, thus enabling their opponents to get extra possessions. That is why it was so important for the Suns to pull the trigger on the deal that sent Shawn Marion to Miami in exchange for O'Neal; prior to acquiring O'Neal last season, the Suns were getting outrebounded by 5.9 rpg and had a 5-10 record against Western Conference teams with winning records. Shortly after the O'Neal trade was announced I wrote the following analysis:

For several seasons, Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni has tried to convince the world that the Suns could win an NBA championship without a dominant post player and without having the best player in the game (Steve Nash may have convinced the writers that he was the best player in the NBA but that was never the case and he was never the best player on the court when the Suns got eliminated twice by Tim Duncan's Spurs and once by Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks). Historically, championship teams have been anchored by a great post player; the Jordan-Pippen Bulls were a notable exception and there have been a few other teams that won a title as an ensemble cast that neither had a dominant post player nor the best player in the league--but the Bulls and those other teams (2004 Pistons, 1989-90 Pistons) were tremendous defensive teams, something that has never been true of the Suns. Without Kurt Thomas this season, the Suns have struggled against any team that has powerful inside players and it was unlikely that the Suns could avoid a fatal matchup with one of those teams in the playoffs.

Adding O'Neal to the mix instantly makes the Suns a bigger, more physical team. He will improve the team's defensive rebounding and provide a solid option in the halfcourt offense when the Suns' running game gets slowed down. The other advantage of adding him to the roster is something that TNT's Kenny Smith talks about sometimes: it enables all of the players to return to their natural positions, most notably returning Stoudemire to his preferred spot at power forward. Of course, there are several notable downsides to this trade.
The Suns exchanged their most active and versatile defender for a player who has always been disinclined to defend the pick and roll play and may actually no longer be able to do so physically. O'Neal's presence in the paint is worth something but his individual defense is not nearly as good as Marion's and if O'Neal continues to get in foul trouble then he will spend long stretches anchored to the bench instead of patrolling the paint. Though the positive spin is that the Suns are now able to put all of their players in their natural positions, one could also argue that the Suns are replicating the failed recipe used by the turn of the century Portland Trail Blazers: stockpiling "name brand" talent (O'Neal, Grant Hill) without regard for how well the players will actually be able to work together. O'Neal and Hill do not bring the off court baggage that some of those Blazers did but it is reasonable to wonder if what they do best truly meshes with the way that D'Antoni likes his teams to play and the style in which Nash has thrived for three seasons.

With O'Neal in the fold, the Suns went 2-0 versus the Spurs in the regular season and outplayed them for most of game one in the playoffs before falling apart at the end of that contest and then melting down in the remainder of the series. For the first time in the D'Antoni era, the Suns finally had the strength in the paint to match up physically with the Spurs but they still lacked the necessary mental toughness and defensive focus to beat the Spurs in a seven game playoff series. Porter's challenge is to transform the Suns into a tougher, more defensive minded team without sacrificing too much of their ability to score in transition. It will be interesting to see if the players will embrace this approach throughout the season and into the playoffs. Obviously, one game does not a season make, particularly considering that the Spurs were hardly at full strength.

While Ginobili's absence clearly hurt the Spurs at both ends of the court, they also missed Oberto's presence in the paint. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich has used the intentional fouling strategy--generally referred to as Hack a Shaq--previously but in this game near the end of the first half he resorted to it out of necessity when Duncan was on the bench and the Spurs simply did not have enough bigs to check both O'Neal and Stoudemire. Phoenix led 44-40 with 1:26 left when Popovich instructed his team to intentionally foul O'Neal rather than try to play post defense short-handed. I have always been skeptical of the effectiveness of the intentional fouling strategy: statistically, an NBA possession is worth roughly a point, so as long as O'Neal makes one out of two free throws the opposition is not really gaining anything over the long haul. However, a few months ago, I spoke with current Cavaliers assistant coach Hank Egan, who was a member of Coach Popovich's staff in San Antonio for many years. Coach Egan explained the rationale behind the "Hack a Shaq":

It's not just mathematics; it's people. People get discouraged--they can't get into their offense and they lose the flow of the game, so it has a disruptive effect if nothing else. You get a psychological effect--are they going to take this player out because they are worried that he is going to be fouled all the time? It may cost you a point but you are putting pressure on him to perform at the free throw line and hoping that he does not make anything.

It is worth clicking on the above link and reading the entire post to check out Egan's in depth explanation of exactly why Popovich uses the intentional fouling strategy: the bottom line is that this is rooted at least as much in psychology as it is in statistics. Considering that psychology is such a big part of this, it is interesting to note how this game began: right after the opening tip, Popovich had Michael Finley intentionally foul O'Neal, an acknowledgment of O'Neal's accusation that the strategy is "cowardly." Popovich and O'Neal enjoyed a good laugh but I think that--like all humor--there was a deeper, underlying truth present here; yes, the farcical early foul broke some of the tension and provided a moment of levity but it also planted the seed that no matter how much O'Neal whines and complains the Spurs will not be dissuaded from doing whatever they think they need to do to win.

During the telecast, Van Gundy endorsed the intentional fouling strategy because it prevents the Suns from taking advantage of their good three point shooters. Again, though, it must be emphasized that the average NBA possession is worth roughly a point, so if O'Neal makes half of his free throws and the Spurs run their offense at typical point per possession efficiency then they will not come out ahead.

After the intentional foul at the 1:26 mark, O'Neal made both free throws but Mason then drained a three pointer, so the Spurs gained a point on that exchange. The Spurs fouled O'Neal again but before he could shoot his free throws Porter got a technical foul for arguing about a non-call from the Spurs' offensive possession. Mason made that free throw and then O'Neal split his pair of free throws. Parker missed a runner and the Spurs fouled O'Neal again. This time O'Neal missed both free throws and Parker answered by making a runner. After the Spurs fouled O'Neal for the fourth consecutive possession, O'Neal made both free throws and the Spurs airballed a three pointer. Phoenix led 49-46 at the half, so the Spurs outscored the Suns 6-5 while employing the Hack a Shaq--but one of those points was a gift because of Porter's technical foul, so the net result of the strategy was a wash, as one would expect based on an NBA possession being worth roughly a point and O'Neal generally making one out of two free throws (in this case, O'Neal shot 5-8).

Fast forwarding to the end of the game, the Suns led 101-98 with :39 left when Porter removed O'Neal from the game; it is not clear if Porter based that decision strictly on matchups or if he wanted to avoid the possibility of the Spurs intentionally fouling O'Neal but if the latter is the case then this is an example of the psychological effect of the Hack a Shaq: it can influence a team to alter its lineup. With O'Neal out of the game, the Suns ran 23 seconds off of the clock before Raja Bell missed a three pointer. The Spurs now had the ball and a chance to either go for the tie by shooting a three pointer or else score a quick two and extend the game by fouling (which is not a Hack a Shaq but simply normal end of the game strategy when trailing when there are less than 24 seconds left on the shot clock). In last year's playoffs, Duncan made a three pointer late in the first overtime to send game one into a second overtime before the Spurs eventually prevailed but this time Duncan's three pointer was off the mark and Barbosa closed out the scoring by making a pair of free throws.

Although the Spurs shot 50.0% from the field, the Suns played good defense; as Van Gundy mentioned more than once, the Suns largely kept the Spurs out of the paint, forcing Duncan and Parker to make jump shots. The Suns enjoyed a 39-38 rebounding advantage. That may not sound like much but for a team that used to get outrebounded by a significant margin that is very significant.

It will be interesting to see how these themes--intentional fouling, Porter's emphasis on defense, the Suns' improved rebounding with O'Neal in the paint--play out during this season but the irony could be that by the time the Suns finally put together the right coaching staff and roster to beat the Spurs those efforts will be in vain because the Lakers are now the team to beat in the West.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 AM


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kobe Takes Over in Second Half, Lakers Topple Blazers

Kobe Bryant had 23 points, 11 rebounds and five assists as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in the second game of TNT's season opening double header. Bryant led both teams in scoring and rebounding and was just one assist shy of tying for game-high honors in that category as well. He shot 9-17 from the field. Pau Gasol added 15 points--all in the first half--and seven rebounds. Gasol shot 7-10 from the field and it is no coincidence that his field goal percentage has soared since he joined the Lakers; he has taken full advantage of the extra defensive attention that Bryant draws and has done a good job--except in the NBA Finals--of catching and finishing around the hoop when Bryant feeds him the ball. Trevor Ariza (11 points) was the only other Laker to score in double figures; Andrew Bynum had eight points, three rebounds, three blocked shots and five fouls in his much ballyhooed return to action, while Lamar Odom added nine points, seven rebounds and one assist as the Lakers' new sixth man. Jordan Farmar made a significant contribution off of the bench with nine points, six rebounds and six assists. The Lakers held the Blazers to 34.5% field goal shooting, sending a message that their commitment to improving their defense and being more physical is not just lip service. Coach Phil Jackson has emphasized that the Lakers must improve in those areas in order to avenge their loss to the Celtics in the Finals and his players seem to have eagerly embraced this task.

Travis Outlaw topped Portland with 18 points and Rudy Fernandez had a very solid NBA debut with 16 points, four assists and no turnovers. Brandon Roy finished with 14 points on 5-15 shooting and it took a hot streak with Bryant out of the game just for Roy to put up those numbers. LaMarcus Aldridge had just eight points on 4-12 shooting. Greg Oden contributed five rebounds but did not score in 13 minutes before leaving the game with what was later described as a midfoot sprain. X-rays of the injury were inconclusive and he is reportedly going to have an MRI on Wednesday. Oden missed all of last season after having microfracture surgery, so basketball fans everywhere can only hope for the best possible outcome for the number one overall pick from the 2007 draft; the fact that the X-rays were considered inconclusive is a worrisome development and I really hope that Oden does not have something serious like the dreaded Lisfranc fracture that often does not show up on X-rays but has ended the careers of some NFL players.

The Lakers jumped out to a 13-4 lead as Gasol scored nine points on 4-5 shooting, with Bryant assisting on two of the baskets. The battle between young seven footers Bynum and Oden mainly generated missed shots and rebounds before Oden's early departure; regardless of when Oden is healthy enough to return to action, it will be a long time before either player is the centerpiece (no pun intended) of his team's offense. While some people inexplicably exaggerate Bynum's importance and skill set, before the game Coach Jackson correctly defined Bynum's role: "He's still a young player on our team. We're not asking him to do anything but rebound and defend. That's basically his job out there." Bynum is not a franchise center at this stage of his career but his size and physicality can certainly be valuable assets for the Lakers.

It is worth noting that the Lakers started Bryant, Derek Fisher, Bynum, Gasol and Vladimir Radmanovic. People who don't understand basketball spent a lot of time talking about how the Lakers are supposedly going to trot out a frontline featuring Gasol, Bynum and Odom but--as I have said repeatedly for months now--that is a mismatched trio of players who should not be on the court at the same time because their skill sets overlap. Of course, Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson hardly needs me to explain that to him; he never put those three players in the game at the same time--constantly rotating them so that Bynum always played center and Odom always played power forward--and I would be willing to bet that barring injuries, foul trouble or some very strange circumstance (player suspensions or something else that is unforeseen) those three players will rarely be in the game at the same time this season. Bynum has to play center and it is natural to pair him with either Gasol or Odom at power forward. Gasol can play either position, so he can be paired with either player. Odom has a speed/quickness advantage when he plays power forward--and that advantage is only heightened when he is matched up with second unit players--so it makes no sense to play him at small forward where he enjoys no such advantage. If Odom accepts the sixth man role then he can still be a very productive player for the Lakers. He played 29 minutes--third on the team behind Bryant and Gasol--so the playing time and shot opportunities will still be there for him in this new role. It is a good sign for Lakers' fans that after initially balking at coming off of the bench Odom seems to have finally grasped the reality of the situation and decided to do what is best for the team.

Bryant did his best vintage Jason Kidd imitation in the first half, as he was on pace for a triple double with six points, eight rebounds and five assists. He was quite content to let Gasol and others carry the scoring load as the Lakers were up by as many as 22 before settling for a 49-34 halftime lead. However, Portland closed the half with a 7-0 run and then opened the third quarter with another 7-0 run to pull within eight points. Then, Blazer center Joel Przybilla delivered a hard (but clean) foul to Bryant and that seemed to ignite the 2008 MVP (asked after the game if the foul got him going, Bryant merely smiled and said, "Maybe a little bit"). Whatever the reason, Bryant proceeded to take over at just the moment that the Blazers were rallying and the Lakers were floundering; he scored all 11 of the Lakers' points in the next 3:39 to help build the lead to 60-43. "Clutch" is hard to define or quantify and most people tend to focus their attention on last second shots or plays made in the final minutes of a game but many NBA games are not decided in such an obvious fashion but rather by key runs that take place earlier in the contest, runs that shift the momentum decisively.

Later in the quarter, Bryant posted up on the left block, made a gorgeous spin toward the baseline and completed an up and under move, demonstrating footwork that is superior to that of most post players in the league. TNT's Doug Collins said, "He's the most fundamentally sound player in the game today." Bryant left the game shortly after that, with the Lakers leading 70-51 late in the third quarter.

For a while it seemed like the Laker reserves would not need Bryant's help to maintain that substantial bulge but then they began playing sloppily and Portland steadily whittled the margin down. Roy, who only made two field goals in the first three quarters when Bryant had the primary assignment of guarding him, began to heat up and the Blazers closed to within 83-69 midway through the period. Bryant usually returns to the game earlier than that, so the fact that he was still on the bench makes me think that Coach Jackson really hoped that he could rest Bryant for the whole fourth quarter, particularly with the Lakers playing again on Wednesday night--but with Portland threatening to come back Jackson had no choice but to call on Bryant to restore order. Bryant stemmed the tide by hitting a fadeaway jumper and then he scored his final points of the night on a two hand slam dunk; if all you see is the highlight of the end of that play then you miss what really made it special: Bryant caught the ball on the wing with Outlaw guarding him and proceeded to make four fakes--two jab steps and two pump fakes--to manipulate Outlaw and get him off balance. Only after Bryant gained an advantage with his footwork did he drive past Outlaw and get into the lane. The finish was spectacular and belies any speculation that Bryant has lost much explosiveness in his legs but that play would be great even if Bryant "merely" laid the ball in off the glass: what makes that play great is not the athletic explosiveness that Bryant displayed at the end but rather the footwork and basketball IQ that he employed to get the step on his defender in the first place. If you can comprehend that distinction--and then proceed through Bloom's Taxonomy to the point that you can synthesize that understanding with an awareness of how this differs from how LeBron James plays--then you will be able to see exactly why--even though James is a fantastic player who may one day reign for many years as the best player in the league--right now Bryant is still the best player in the game, the player who 63% of the NBA's GMs say forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments. Collins said, "This is what Kobe does. When the game (can go) either way for your team he's going to take over and tonight he's been brilliant."

Before the game, Collins listed four keys:

1) Tempo
2) Frontline matchups
3) Bench play
4) Who closes...Roy or Bryant?

The Lakers enjoyed advantages in the first three areas: They controlled the pace of the game by outscoring Portland 15-4 in fast break points, they outrebounded Portland 49-44 while outscoring Portland 42-22 in the paint and their bench outscored Portland's bench 36-27. However, the decisive factor in the game was Collins' fourth key: during the key third quarter stretch and again during his fourth quarter cameo appearance, Bryant made sure that the Lakers maintained control of the game. The Blazers are a talented team that will win a lot of games this year and they might very well have rallied to win this game if not for Bryant's efforts, which Collins rightly compared to how Bryant saved the day for Team USA down the stretch in the Olympic gold medal game this summer; obviously, this game was not nearly as significant as Team USA's victory over Spain but both contests are vivid examples of Bryant's ability to take over in key stretches.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 AM


Celtics Ring in New Season With 90-85 Victory Over Cavaliers

Paul Pierce scored a game-high 27 points as the Boston Celtics earned a hard fought 90-85 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on "ring night"--the season opening game before which the Celtics received their 2008 NBA Championship rings. Pierce openly wept when he got his ring and held it over his head as he waved to the cheering Boston fans. Once the game began, though, he had his emotions completely under control and he played very well, looking lighter, faster and bouncier than he did even when he won the Finals MVP. The Celtics are very fortunate that Pierce was the best player on the court, because the other two members of the "Big Three"--Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen--were largely invisible; Garnett finished with 11 points and six rebounds while shooting just 5-15 from the field, while Allen had eight points, four turnovers and just one assist while shooting 2-9 from the field. Rajon Rondo (14 points on 4-5 shooting, six assists, five rebounds, three steals) and Leon Powe (13 points on 5-7 shooting) picked up the slack for the two struggling All-Stars.

LeBron James led the Cavaliers with 22 points and six assists in addition to having seven rebounds and two steals but it was not a great performance for last season's scoring champion; he shot 9-21 from the field--missing most of the shots that he took outside of the paint, including all four of his three point attempts--and 4-8 from the free throw line, including 2-6 in the final 6:44 when the game was up for grabs. He showcased his breathtaking athleticism with several unbelievable dunks but in order to lead the Cavaliers past elite teams he must develop a consistent jump shot and a reliable free throw stroke; it would also be beneficial if he had a game on the post beyond simply overpowering defenders, a game based on footwork, finesse and positioning--you don't have to be big and athletic to be effective on the block, as guys like Gary Payton and Sam Cassell have shown over the years, and if James added those low post skills to his already formidable game it would make him and the Cavs even better.

As usual, the Cavs did a good job on the boards, outrebounding the Celtics 41-36, and the Cavs also played very well defensively, particularly in the first half when they held Boston to 41% field goal shooting (the Celtics shot 44.6% from the field overall). Zydrunas Ilgauskas contributed 15 points and eight rebounds and Anderson Varejao scored nine points and grabbed a game-high nine rebounds. In his first regular season game as a Cav, Mo Williams scored 12 points and passed for two assists but he had five fouls and four turnovers.

Season opening games sometimes have an awkward feel to them and that is doubly true of "ring night" games; often the defending champions come out flat, while their opponents are fired up, and a little bit of both of those elements was evident in this game as Cleveland raced to a 14-4 lead. In the early going, the only things clicking for the Celtics were Pierce's offensive game--he had 11 first quarter points--and Kendrick Perkins' energy on the offensive boards. Pierce repeatedly drove by James and/or rotating defenders to get into the lane and either score or draw fouls. The Cavs really had trouble staying in front of him. Eventually the Celtics got some more players involved and by the end of the first quarter Cleveland only led 28-22.

With James out of the game for the first portion of the second quarter, the Cavs actually extended the lead to 41-30 as they continued to play good defense but by halftime the margin was back down to single digits, 50-43. Cleveland led for the entire first half but the tide turned early in the third quarter: Pierce and Allen drilled back to back threes, Perkins made a layup and then a Rondo layup put the Celtics ahead for the first time; Cleveland only scored two points (a Ben Wallace put back dunk) in the first 4:42 of the quarter. The Cavaliers briefly went up by as many as four points in the third quarter but the Celtics held the advantage the majority of the time the rest of the way.

A James alley oop dunk off of a Williams feed pulled the Cavs to within 83-80 with 2:11 remaining in the game but the Cavs squandered several opportunities at both ends of the court in the last couple minutes. After Garnett's jumper put the Celtics up by five, James bricked a three pointer with 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock. It is questionable whether the Cavs even needed to take a three pointer at that juncture but James simply has to do one of two things: improve his jumper to the extent that it is a bona fide late game threat or else use his ability to draw defenders to create an opening for one of his better shooting teammates to shoot that shot. James is obviously the best player on his team but that does not mean that he should be the guy shooting late game three point shots.

Garnett split a pair of free throws after Ilgauskas committed a loose ball foul and on the ensuing possession the Cavs ran a much better offensive set: Varejao set a great screen for Williams, who buried a three point shot to cut the lead in half, 86-83.

Varejao made a very good defensive play after the Celtics ran a screen/roll with Pierce and Garnett; James switched on to Garnett, while Varejao forced Pierce to miss a tough fadeaway jumper. James outbattled Garnett for the rebound and the Cavs called timeout with 15.5 seconds left. That sequence demonstrates Cleveland's impressive defensive flexibility, as a backup power forward/center successfully guarded a top flight small forward while a small forward--albeit a "large" small forward--outrebounded one of the league's top rebounding power forwards.

As Mike Fratello correctly noted, the Cavs still did not have to take a three point shot; getting a quick score and then fouling the Celtics is the high percentage play. Obviously, James is the best candidate to try to get a quick score but the problem in such situations--particularly against the elite teams--is James' balky free throw touch. James may simply drive and dunk against the mediocre teams (or the Cavs may be ahead by enough against such teams that this situation won't arise too frequently) but smart teams are simply not going to let James score down the stretch, preferring to foul him if they cannot keep him out of the paint. James only made one of his two free throws and then the Cavs had a defensive breakdown: after the Celtics broke the initial trap, James rushed up to attempt to foul Pierce near midcourt but that left the hoop unprotected and Pierce passed ahead to Leon Powe, who dunked the ball just as Varejao raced back and fouled him. Without talking to the coaches, I don't know if the breakdown here is the fault of the guards, if James blundered by rushing forward or if Varejao (or someone else) was supposed to be the last defender at the hoop. All I do know for sure is that the combination of missing one free throw and then giving up a layup sealed the Cavs' fate in what was a very winnable game. Powe missed his free throw but then James again only made one out of two free throws, leaving the margin at four with just four seconds left. Ray Allen closed out the scoring by sinking two free throws.

We did not see the best out of either team on this night but we did see two teams that define themselves by rebounding and playing good defense. The Cavs brought in Mo Williams and re-signed Daniel Gibson and Delonte West in order to provide offensive support for James, so it would be a good idea to incorporate those players into the offense to a greater extent: James attempted 21 shots while Williams only attempted 10 shots and no other Cav shot more than eight times. Although James is a playmaking small forward, his offensive game is primarily based in the paint, so to balance things out the Cavs need to be able to make some outside shots. Those shots do not necessarily have to be three pointers; they can be 15-20 foot jumpers. With Williams running the point now, it should be possible to create higher percentage shots for James and his teammates than the ones that the Cavs took during this game (the Cavs shot 42.6% from the field).

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:22 AM


Monday, October 27, 2008

Kevin Garnett Will Unveil New adidas Team Signature Commander Shoes at Boston's Home Opener

Only 17 pairs of Kevin Garnett's new adidas Team Signature shoes will be made--one for each NBA championship that the Boston Celtics have captured. The shoes will be auctioned off at www.celtics.com/shop starting at 8 p.m. EST on October 28 (opening night), with the proceeds benefiting the Boston Celtics Shamrock Foundation, a charity that funds education and community support programs for children in Boston. "Our amazing run to the NBA Championship was a complete team effort including the fans so I wanted to do something for the people of Boston," said Garnett. "The Celtics brotherhood goes far beyond the court. The Boston fans are the heart of our team, so it’s nice to be able to give back to the community that’s given us so much."

The insoles of the shoes include the dates and scores of each 2008 NBA Finals game and the NBA Champions logo. The shoes also include tributes to Garnett's close friends/mentors Kirby Puckett (the baseball Hall of Famer who passed away in 2006) and Malik Sealy (Garnett's Minnesota teammate who died in a car accident in 2000).

Here are a couple photos of the shoes:

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:12 PM


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Phillies, Rays Utilize "Old School" and "New School" Talent Evaluation Approaches

I recently did a post over at Best Ever Sports Talk that is primarily about this year's two World Series teams but makes some points about statistical analysis that will also be of interest to NBA fans:

Rays and Phillies Combine Old School Wisdom With New School Thinking

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM


Southeast Division Blogger Previews

The regular season will begin soon and the blogger preview project is nearing completion. The Southeast Division blogger previews are listed below. In case you missed them, here are the previous division links:

Atlantic Division

Southwest Division

Central Division

Northwest Division

Atlanta Hawks
Matt McHale: Basketbawful
Hoopinion: Peachtree Hoops

Charlotte Bobcats
BrettL: Queen City Hoops
Ziggy: BobcatsPlanet

Miami Heat
Darren Heitner: SportsAgentBlog.com
Gregory Broome: The Peninsula is Mightier

Orlando Magic
Ben: Third Quarter Collapse

Washington Wizards
Rashad: Hoops Addict
HoopsAvenue: HoopsAvenue
Mike Prada: Bullets Forever
Truth: Truth About It Dot Net

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:10 AM