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Friday, December 26, 2008

Magic, Spurs, Cavs and Mavs Each Post Christmas Day Victories

The Christmas Day quintupleheader provided an opportunity to see a third of the NBA's teams in action. I've already posted a detailed recap of the most anticipated game of the year, the Finals rematch between the Lakers and the Celtics. Here are some quick takes on the other four games:

Orlando Magic 88, New Orleans Hornets 68

The Hornets claimed to feel honored to play on Christmas Day but they sure looked like the least enthusiastic of the 10 participants, shooting just .333 from the field and trailing by as many as 31 points. The Magic did not score for more than eight minutes in the fourth quarter and still won easily. Dwight Howard shot just 4-15 from the field and only scored 12 points but he dominated the paint with a game-high 15 rebounds and he blocked three shots. Hedo Turkoglu led both teams in scoring (20 points) and assists (five), while Rashard Lewis had a nice all-around performance (18 points, six rebounds, four assists). David West led the Hornets with 13 points and seven rebounds, while Chris Paul finished with just 12 points on 5-14 shooting. Paul only had four assists and did not get a steal, snapping his NBA record streak of consecutive games with a steal at 108.

The Magic played very well in the first half, building a 61-31 halftime lead but they apparently could not muster quite the same energy in the second half. Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy offered an interesting analogy: "Our first half was our best offensive half of the year. The second half was easily our worst. When my wife wants me to do things around the house, I do just good enough of a job to not get yelled at. That's human nature."

The Hornets are now tied for fourth-fifth in the Western Conference but they are only a game behind San Antonio and Houston, who are tied for second-third. New Orleans plays Houston on Friday night. The Magic are securely in the third place in the Eastern Conference, four and a half games ahead of Atlanta. They have won six games in a row and nine of their last 10 but have not gained any ground on the two teams ahead of them--Boston and Cleveland--because both of those teams have also won nine of their last 10.

San Antonio Spurs 91, Phoenix Suns 90

Phoenix opened the game with an 11-0 run, led most of the way, perfectly executed an out of bounds play late in the game to score the go ahead layup--and still found a way to lose to their nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs. This time the dagger came in the form of a Roger Mason three pointer at the buzzer, delivering a 91-90 win for the Spurs. Tony Parker scored a game-high 27 points and tied Steve Nash for game-high honors with eight assists. Tim Duncan added 25 points and a game-high 17 rebounds. Amare Stoudemire led Phoenix with 25 points and 13 rebounds, while Shaquille O'Neal powered his way to 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots. O'Neal looked better than he has in quite some time; he opened the game with a spin move leading to a powerful dunk and a no look feed to Stoudemire for a slam dunk. Before he came to Phoenix, the Suns were routinely outrebounded and had trouble matching up with the Spurs in the paint; with O'Neal, the Suns beat the Spurs three straight times in the regular season prior to this contest and outrebounded San Antonio 50-43 this time around while outscoring the Spurs 34-20 in the paint.

For much of this game, the Suns showed that there does not have to be a conflict between being a running team and feeding the ball to O'Neal in the post. The reality is that Phoenix' problem has nothing to do with offense; the problem is being able to get key defensive stops. Amare Stoudemire can be a fantastic weak side shot blocker but his defense against his own man often leaves much to be desired. O'Neal did yeoman's work against Duncan--holding him to 5-13 field goal shooting in the first half--but he has never been a great screen/roll defender and it it not clear whether he is in condition to play at this level game after game. The Suns have enough talent to be a very dangerous team in the West but they don't seem to be able to execute well enough to consistently beat the upper echelon teams.

One interesting subplot emerged again near the end of the third quarter. The Suns led 71-66 with less than one minute remaining when Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich decided to resort to the Hack a Shaq (intentional fouling strategy); I have discussed this issue at length here, most recently in my post about the Suns' opening night victory over the short handed Spurs. The bottom line is that in the NBA a possession is worth roughly one point, so as long as O'Neal makes half of his free throws the fouling team cannot realistically expect to gain much of an advantage. Cavs assistant coach Hank Egan--who used to be Popovich's assistant coach in San Antonio--told me that Popovich knows this math but that he employs this tactic for psychological reasons. In this game, neither team gained an advantage from the Hack a Shaq: O'Neal made five out of six free throws but the Spurs were fortunate enough to score on two of three possessions so that Phoenix was still only up by five (76-71) going into the fourth quarter--but if the Spurs had not snared an offensive rebound and converted that extra possession into a Manu Ginobili three pointer they would have actually fallen further behind as a result of the intentional fouling.

Another interesting set of strategic moves took place after Duncan got his fifth foul at the 3:44 mark of the fourth quarter with the Spurs clinging to an 86-84 lead. Popovich elected to keep Duncan in the game, switching him from guarding O'Neal to guarding Stoudemire. The Suns could have then posted up O'Neal against Kurt Thomas but instead they elected to keep going to Stoudemire to try to draw Duncan's sixth foul. Stoudemire missed three consecutive shots but the Suns only trailed by one when Jason Richardson hit a three pointer to answer Parker's jumper. Nash tied the score at 88 at the 1:01 mark by making a free throw after Parker received a technical foul for arguing about a call. Neither team scored for the next :57 until Phoenix took the lead with a great inbounds play: Grant Hill passed to Amare Stoudemire and it looked like Stoudemire would go one on one but then Hill cut baseline and Nash set a back pick on Michael Finley, enabling Stoudemire to feed Hill for an uncontested layup. All the Suns had to do now was guard the three point line, not foul and make the Spurs shoot a contested jumper to try to tie the score. Instead, Richardson left Roger Mason open in the left corner in order to double team Parker and Parker passed to Mason, who calmly hit the game-winning shot. It is hard to understand how the Spurs could give up a crucial layup on a late inbounds play but it is befuddling that the Suns lost to a buzzer beating three pointer when they had a two point lead.

The player who for some reason always gets a free pass for the Suns is Steve Nash, their two-time MVP point guard. He controls the ball, so it is up to him to understand when to run and when to slow the game down but this season he seems more determined to complain about Coach Terry Porter's system than to find ways to make it work. Also, Nash has consistently been a defensive liability and that leads to various matchup problems/switches that invariably burn the Suns in close games against good teams. For instance, on the last play, the Suns put small forward Grant Hill on Parker instead of the natural matchup with Nash guarding Parker; how many teams have won championships when their best player cannot guard the opposing team player who plays his position? The Suns are blessed with a lot of talent now and they have had talented teams throughout the Nash era but no matter how well they play they somehow manage to come up just short. Nash is the only MVP in NBA history who has never played in the NBA Finals--and he is not only an MVP, he is in the select group of multiple MVP winners. For a time, Nash was the best point guard in the NBA but he was never the best player in the league and I still say that objective observers looking back on this era are going to be dumbfounded that Nash won two MVPs over a field of candidates that included (in various years) Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

Cleveland Cavaliers 93, Washington Wizards 89

The Cavs have been cruising along this season against the weaker teams but they were snoozing along for most of the game versus the Wizards before making just enough plays to win 93-89. Mo Williams led the Cavs with 24 points and also had six assists, while Delonte West added 18 points, a team-high seven assists and three steals. LeBron James had 18 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals. Antawn Jamison scored a game-high 28 points, while recently acquired guard Mike James had 26 points and shot 5-8 from three point range. Caron Butler put up a strange stat line: six points, six rebounds, 10 assists.

The Wizards opened the game with a 12-2 run and even though the Cavs quickly rallied to tie the score at 14 the Cavs never managed to gain any separation; they briefly built a 42-34 second quarter lead but by halftime they were only up 49-47. In the third quarter, the Cavs made eight field goals and committed nine turnovers; Washington led 71-68 going into the fourth quarter. If you let a bad team hang around long enough then that team can gain confidence and make a few shots in a row. The Cavs flirted with disaster all game long and it looked like that disaster had arrived at the 1:40 mark of the fourth quarter when Jamison made a three pointer to put Washington up 89-82. How does a team blow a seven point lead in such a short period of time? After the game, TNT's Kenny Smith said that bad teams just find ways to lose, recalling that when he played for the Kings they once blew a seven point lead in a similar amount of time by committing three technical fouls and giving up a four point play. The Wizards "chose" a similar method, starting by fouling LeBron James on a three pointer. After James' three free throws made the score 89-85, Jamison committed an offensive foul. Mo Williams then hit a three pointer to shave the lead to one. The teams traded misses and then Jamison fouled out with a loose ball foul. Anderson Varejao made both of the resulting free throws to put Cleveland up by one and then Washington committed another offensive foul, this time by Butler. Williams made two free throws, Mike James missed a three pointer and West closed out the scoring by splitting a pair of free throws. What could have turned out to be a very costly loss in the race for homecourt advantage became an ugly win but ugly wins count just as much in the standings as pretty wins.

I have not written much about the Wizards this year because the franchise has turned into a circus/disaster area. Their troubles began in the offseason when they grossly overpaid to re-sign Gilbert Arenas, who would not be worth a max level deal even if he did not have chronic knee problems. The Wizards apparently dreamed that a healthy Arenas could lead them to something other than the first round exits that they have been annually experiencing. Arenas has yet to play in a single game this season but that is not really the cause of Washington's misery; Arenas only played in 13 games last year--and the team did better without him--but the Wizards still went 43-39 and qualified for the playoffs. They have never won more than 45 games since Arenas joined the team, so that was hardly a bad record for them by recent standards, and their effectiveness without Arenas is why I thought that they could grab the eighth seed in the East this year even with Arenas missing at least half of the season. What I didn't count on is Brendan Haywood suffering what might be a season ending wrist injury and that Antonio Daniels--Arenas' steady if unspectacular backup in recent years--would be hobbled by injuries before being dealt to New Orleans. With no true point guard and little paint presence, the Wizards have been horrible despite having two All-Stars (Butler and Jamison). The Wizards responded to the rash of injuries by firing Coach Eddie Jordan but that makes no sense; if management believes that Arenas is truly a max level player and that Haywood is a key cog then how can they reasonably expect the team to do well with those two starters sidelined? Jordan guided the Wizards to four straight playoff appearances, so what did management learn about him in the first 11 games of this season that they did not know in the offseason? As I said, the franchise has turned into a circus/disaster area. Just a few months ago, Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson were mouthing off about how they would beat the Cavs in a playoff series and now the Wizards are battling the Thunder for the worst record in the NBA. Meanwhile, Arenas has said that it might not be such a bad thing if the Wizards lose a lot of games because then they can use a lottery pick to get a franchise player. The most amazing thing about all of this is that Arenas retains his popularity in Washington no matter what; he never played defense, his shot selection was horrible, he never led the team past the second round, he never showed that the team was actually significantly better off with him than without him and now he says that fans should happily accept all of the losing in order to get a franchise player (which is what he is supposed to be based on what Washington is paying him) but he is still a fan favorite. His popularity is no doubt a big reason why Washington re-signed him for such a steep price; management feared that there would be a backlash if they let Arenas walk.

Dallas Mavericks 102, Portland Trail Blazers 94

The final game of the quintupleheader featured two Western Conference teams with similar records but vastly different roster compositions; the veteran laden Mavericks are hoping/praying that they can put everything together to make one more Finals run, while the youthful Trail Blazers hope that this season they will make the first of many consecutive playoff appearances. The Mavs are led by 2007 MVP Dirk Nowitzki, who scored 24 of his game-high 30 points in the first half. Nowitzki's reputation has probably never completely recovered from Dallas' collapse in the 2006 NBA Finals and shocking first round upset loss to Golden State the folowing year but by any objective measure he is still one of the league's top players. The Mavs brought in veteran point guard Jason Kidd (six points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) last year to put them over the top but too many other Western teams had already surpassed them. Still, with a nucleus of Nowitzki, Kidd, Josh Howard (15 points before being ejected) and Jason Terry (19 points) the Mavs could still be a dangerous team in the playoffs. The Mavs started the year 2-7 but have won 15 of their last 19 games.

Portland is led by Brandon Roy (22 points versus Dallas), a smooth guard who last season made the first of what will be many All-Star appearances. Rookie center Greg Oden (four points, five rebounds in a foul plagued 25 minutes) missed all of last season due to injury and is still getting used to the NBA game but he has already shown that he can provide a physical presence in the paint. LaMarcus Aldridge had a quiet game (12 points) but he is a solid 17 ppg, 7 rpg player who is a good shooter. Young guards Rudy Fernandez (13 points) and Sergio Rodriguez (nine points) are already exciting, productive players and they are sure to become even better as they mature and get more used to the NBA game.

The Blazers faltered down the stretch versus Dallas, scoring just 14 fourth quarter points; the score was tied at 90 with 5:30 to go but Portland made just one field goal the rest of the way, while Dallas received a big lift down the stretch from bench players Terry, Jose Barea and Brandon Bass. It will be interesting to see how quickly the Blazers learn from these kinds of losses and figure out how to protect their homecourt against good teams. Even though the Blazers are not nearly good enough to win a title this year, it would be very valuable for them to qualify for the playoffs and get some postseason experience.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:07 AM

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Bryant Leads the Way as Lakers End Celtics' 19 Game Winning Streak

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 27 points on 13-23 field goal shooting, grabbed a team-high nine rebounds and added five assists as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics 92-83, ending Boston's 19 game winning streak. Pau Gasol spent most of the game reprising his soft performance in last season's NBA Finals versus Boston but he came up big in the closing minutes and finished with 20 points on 7-14 shooting. He also had five assists, several of them coming after he set a screen for Bryant, rolled to the hoop, received a pass from Bryant after Bryant was double teamed and then reversed the ball to an open shooter on the weak side. Gasol's three rebounds--a sad total for a mobile, athletic seven footer--are a glaring indication that he still needs to play bigger and stronger in the paint versus the physical Celtics frontcourt. Lamar Odom, who has been inconsistent this season as a bench player after spending most of his career being a starter, provided a nice lift with 10 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocked shots. Sasha Vujacic (10 points) was the only other Laker who scored in double figures. This game was supposed to be a signature moment for Andrew Bynum--who did not play in the Finals due to injury--but he finished with just nine points and seven rebounds in 36 minutes.

Kevin Garnett led Boston with 22 points on blistering 11-14 field goal shooting and he also had nine rebounds. Paul Pierce scored 20 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds. Ray Allen, Boston's leading scorer this season, finished with 14 points on 5-14 shooting, including 3-11 from three point range. Rajon Rondo has been playing very well this season--possibly well enough to be selected to the All-Star team--but he only had six points on 3-11 shooting, though he did contribute a game-high 12 assists. Rondo's floor game can be deadly but against the Lakers he only had three rebounds and one steal.

Bryant guarded Rondo for much of the game, conceding him the jump shot in order to harass other Celtics who are bigger threats as scorers; having Bryant guard Rondo worked well for the Lakers during the Finals and Bryant's ability to wreak havoc by roaming away from Rondo to double-team other players led to Boston Coach Doc Rivers saying last June that Bryant is the best help defender in the NBA since Scottie Pippen was in his prime.

Bryant played a game-high (and season-high) 43:04 minutes. Despite all of the talk about the Lakers' talent and depth, it has become increasingly obvious recently that the Lakers are very dependent on Bryant playing at a high level in order to win games, even against weak teams; in contrast, LeBron James has had the luxury this season of sitting out most or all of the fourth quarter in several games because his Cavs were winning so easily. Bryant has played 40 minutes or more in three of the Lakers' past six games and, after starting out the season with a scoring average in the 24-25 ppg range as he gave his teammates opportunities to carry the scoring load, Bryant has averaged nearly 31 ppg in the past eight games, during which time the Lakers went 6-2.

There is so much talk about who should be the MVP and what criteria should be used to decide this issue but Bryant's all-around performance versus Boston should not be forgotten when the official votes are cast a few months from now; Bryant provided a vivid demonstration of exactly what it means to play at an MVP level at both ends of the court against a dominant team that just set an NBA record by starting out the season 27-2.

Bryant's statistics in this game were very impressive but to fully understand Bryant's impact you had to watch the game with a clear understanding of what both teams were trying to do. For instance, the Lakers took an early 5-3 lead after Derek Fisher made a three pointer from the left baseline. The play by play sheet simply notes that Luke Walton earned an assist on the play but that does not really explain what happened. The play began on the other side of the court, when Pau Gasol set a screen for Kobe Bryant on the right wing. Both defenders trapped Bryant, who then passed to Gasol. Gasol swung the ball to Walton, who then reversed the ball to a wide open Fisher. Fisher was open as a direct result of the defensive rotations that began with the Celtics trapping Bryant and then scrambling to guard the other four Lakers with three defenders. The Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play was a highly effective action for the Lakers last season and throughout the Western Conference playoffs, including a convincing 4-2 victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. When Gasol sets a good screen and moves aggressively to an open area, the defense is severely compromised because of Bryant's ability to shoot, drive and pass. Hubie Brown often mentions that the second pass out of the trap leads to a wide open shot and the way that the Lakers run this action (when they do it correctly) is a perfect example of that. What broke down for the Lakers in last year's Finals was that the Celtics' physicality dissuaded Gasol from setting his screens and rolling in an effective manner, thereby leaving Bryant trapped 20 feet from the basket with no open teammates to pass to and the shot clock running down.

The Celtics answered Fisher's three pointer with a driving dunk by Pierce versus Luke Walton. This play epitomizes the poor defense that the Lakers have often played recently; instead of forcing Pierce toward the baseline (where a help defender should be waiting), Walton allowed him to get to the middle of the lane, a cardinal sin in any NBA defensive scheme.

A couple possessions later, the Lakers again ran the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action. This time, Gasol missed an open jumper after Bryant accepted the trap and passed him the ball. ABC's Mark Jackson said, "You can see the way that the Celtics are playing the pick and roll against Kobe Bryant, Gasol is going to have that shot." In other words, the core tenet of Boston's defensive philosophy versus the Lakers is to send two (or more) players at Bryant whenever possible and let anyone else shoot an open shot, even a former All-Star like Gasol who has good range and is shooting better than .560 from the field this season.

Rajon Rondo got loose for a couple layups as a result of poor screen/roll defense. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy, his voice dripping with disgust, said, "Every team struggles with the pick and roll in the NBA but the Lakers right there--inexcusable, two layups given up on the exact same play." What happened was Kendrick Perkins set screens against Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum did not offer enough help to keep Rondo out of the lane. You can rest assured that it was no accident that the Celtics involved Bynum in screen/roll coverage; Bynum's poor defensive rotations are part of the reason that he is often on the bench down the stretch in close games.

The Celtics led 13-10 before Bryant nailed a tough turnaround jumper. Van Gundy commented, "They shouldn't even give assists on plays like that. A guy goes into the lane, steps back and hits a fadeaway over a great contested hand. Man, he makes that shot look easy." Fortunately, the Lakers scorekeeper correctly did not award an assist on that play but I wonder how many assists are awarded around the league in similar situations? The fact that Van Gundy, a former NBA coach, thought that this was worth mentioning is quite revealing and when I have charted Chris Paul's assists in a few home games he has received assists when making passes on such plays.

Gasol struggled tremendously early in the game and his worst play of the game happened at the 3:02 mark of the first quarter. Bryant, stationed on the left baseline, fed Gasol a perfect bounce pass into the post; much like an NFL quarterback will throw a pass to lead his receiver away from defenders and into open space, Bryant placed the pass perfectly, leading Gasol into an open area in the lane. All Gasol had to do was catch the ball, spin into the middle and dunk. Instead, Gasol went into the middle slowly like he was tiptoeing into a dark alley and then he pump faked a few times before tossing up a soft layup that missed; his move was so soft that it looked like he instantly went from being seven feet tall to being about four foot two. As Hubie Brown might say, "When you get in the lane as a big man, would you please go up strong with two hands and either dunk the ball or get fouled?"

After missing his first four field goal attempts, Gasol got on the board late in the first quarter, draining a wide open jumper. The play by play sheet lists Odom's assist but does not really tell you what happened; Bryant caught the ball in the post and Kendrick Perkins left Gasol wide open to double team Bryant, who passed to Odom. Boston led 24-23 at the end of the first quarter, shooting 61% from the field but committing six turnovers; careless ballhandling has been a Celtic weakness this season and that is something that the quick, long armed Lakers used to their advantage, forcing 17 turnovers overall.

Bryant had 10 points on 5-8 field goal shooting in the first quarter. When you combine his scoring with the shots that he created for teammates because of the double teams he attracted, Bryant accounted for the majority of the Lakers' points even though he did not officially have any assists--but that kind of effectiveness is so much more significant than someone getting five assists in a quarter by passing to players who execute three fakes and take multiple dribbles before they finally shoot.

Usually, Bryant rests from late in the first quarter until the early to middle portions of the second quarter but that was not the case against Boston. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has publicly admitted that he trusted his bench too much early in the season. Recently, Laker Hall of Famer (and TV analyst) James Worthy went even further, saying that all of the Lakers other than Bryant were "dead weight" in the team's recent back to back losses against Miami and Orlando.

Early in the second quarter, Mark Jackson mentioned that Phil Jackson was "keeping first unit guys in, putting pressure on the Celtic bench"; the Lakers began the first quarter with starters Bryant and Bynum playing with reserves Odom, Vujacic and Trevor Ariza. That group, playing against Pierce and four Celtic reserves, helped the Lakers take a 32-26 lead. Bryant was involved in all nine of those Lakers points: he scored four points, helped Odom earn a trip to the free throw line by drawing a double team and feeding him the ball and then Bryant made a sensational play, tipping a ball ahead to Ariza in the open court. Ariza ran down Bryant's pass and fed Vujacic for a three point play. Bryant was credited with a defensive rebound on the play, while Ariza earned the assist.

The usually perceptive Van Gundy kept talking about how the Lakers are deeper than the Celtics but this run hardly proved it; Bryant, not the reserves, keyed the Laker attack, though Odom, Ariza and Vujacic certainly deserve credit for taking advantage of open opportunities.

The Lakers briefly took their biggest lead of the game--39-29--as Bryant stayed in the game until the 5:06 mark of the second quarter, getting his first rest while the Lakers enjoyed a 39-33 advantage. The Lakers could have had two more points but Perkins blocked Gasol's layup attempt after a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play led to a Bryant pass to Bynum and Bynum's feed to a cutting Gasol. Jackson barely rested Bryant for two minutes before putting him right back in the game with the Lakers up 46-39.

Garnett scored on two alley oop dunks and started out with 10 points on 5-5 shooting, prompting Van Gundy to scoff at Phil Jackson's pregame statement that Gasol is an "underrated defender." Van Gundy declared, "Are you kidding me? This is like a dunk fest."

After Perkins blocked another Gasol layup (Gasol had three of his shots blocked during this game) and Gasol complained to one of the referees about being fouled, Mark Jackson said, "Forget about the contact. You have to be a seven foot force. Look to put the Celtic defender in the rim by dunking the basketball."

Mark Jackson also had critical words for the Lakers' other starting big man after a Perkins dunk cut the Lakers' lead to 48-43: "My problem with Bynum on that last possession is you can be the helper but also get back in the paint and contest the shot of Perkins. Sort of quit on the play."

The Lakers pushed the margin to 51-43 after a well executed Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play resulted in Bryant passing to Gasol who then fed Walton for an open three pointer. Pierce answered with a pair of free throws to make the score 51-45 at halftime. Bryant scored 16 first half points on 8-13 field goal shooting. The Celtics stayed in contact by outscoring the Lakers 28-16 in the paint in the first half (Boston won that category 44-34 by the end of the game).

The Lakers went up 57-49 after Bynum' s dunk at the 9:07 mark of the third quarter but then the Celtics went on a 15-5 run keyed by Pierce's 10 points. During that stretch, Bryant went 0-3 from the field and no other Laker could get anything going offensively. Coach Jackson sat Bryant out for the final 2:48 of the third quarter but this time the Lakers bench did in fact provide a boost without the benefit of having Bryant around to draw double teams; Vujacic hit a jumper and Odom drained two three pointers. Gasol added a free throw after being fouled away from the play as Vujacic hit his shot and the Lakers led 71-67 heading into the final 12 minutes.

It is again worth noting that Coach Jackson only rested Bryant twice and for less than three minutes each time; Bryant played the entire fourth quarter. After Boston cut the margin to 75-73 at the 9:10 mark, neither team led by more than two points for more than seven minutes. Garnett hit a jumper and scored on another alley oop dunk to put Boston up 81-79 at the 3:56 mark and it seemed like maybe Bryant and the Lakers had run out of gas. Gasol had shot just 4-11 from the field up to that point, fully justifying Boston's strategy of swarming Bryant and daring anyone else to make a shot. With the shot clock winding down, Bryant hit a tough jumper to tie the score. Ray Allen missed a three pointer and then Bryant fed Gasol for a jumper. After Allen missed another three pointer, Bryant fed Gasol for a running shot in the lane. Garnett drained a long jumper but Bryant again drew the defense before feeding Gasol for a layup/three point play opporunity. Gasol made the free throw to put the Lakers up 88-83 with 1:28 left. Mark Jackson said, "We said it earlier. Kobe had to be great. Well, this is great, making the extra pass, realizing what is being most effective at the offensive end. They're double teaming him, he has to make the play. If you're Pau Gasol in Memphis you have to make all the plays. If you're Pau Gasol with the Lakers you can play off of a great player in Kobe Bryant."

Next, Gasol made a great defensive play, switching out on Ray Allen after a screen and then blocking Allen's three point attempt. Bryant grabbed the rebound and, just like he did in the first half, passed the ball ahead to Ariza in the open court. Ariza's reverse dunk made the score 90-83 and after a couple Boston misses Bryant finished the scoring with a driving layup.

Prior to the game, many people said that this showdown was more important to the Lakers than it was to the Celtics and I agree with that perspective: the Lakers were playing at home and they lost to the Celtics in the Finals so the onus was on the Lakers to show that they can stand up to Boston's physicality. However, this game was obviously important to Boston, also; all three members of the "Big Three" played more minutes than usual and it is obvious that this game could have implications down the road, both in terms of home court advantage and from a psychological standpoint. The Lakers still have a lot to prove about their defensive intensity and their overall toughness but this was a big win and something that they can use as a reference point and a building block for the rest of the season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:08 AM

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cavs Wear Down Rockets for 14th Straight Home Victory

In a matchup of two defensive minded teams with legitimate championship aspirations, Cleveland defeated Houston, 99-90. LeBron James bounced back from a sluggish first half (eight points, two rebounds, two assists, five turnovers) to finish with game-high totals in points (27) and rebounds (nine). He also had five assists, three steals and one very impressive block. Mo Williams once again ably filled the role of James' trusty sidekick, contributing 23 points, four assists and four rebounds. Rafer Alston led Houston with 20 points on 8-11 field goal shooting in his first game back after missing four games due to a strained left groin. Yao Ming had 19 points and five rebounds but he shot just 3-10 from the field. Tracy McGrady, hobbled by various injuries throughout this season, was completely worn down as the Rockets played their fourth game in five nights; Houston Coach Rick Adelman rested him for nearly half of the fourth quarter and then put him in the game for less than two minutes before shutting him down the rest of the way. McGrady ended up with just four points on 2-7 shooting, later admitting that he did not have the legs to shoot over the shorter defenders that the Cavs used against him. McGrady still managed to drive, draw double teams and dish off a game-high six assists.

The score was tied at 47 at halftime, with both teams shooting well over .500 from the field; the Cavs clamped down defensively in the second half, holding Houston to .333 shooting while shooting a respectable .463. The flow of the game was marred by several questionable calls by the officials; partisans for both teams probably felt that their squad was singled out but the total number of fouls and free throws ended up being pretty close: I thought that it was a poorly officiated game, as opposed to a game with biased officiating favoring one side or the other.

LeBron James and Ron Artest guarded each other for significant portions of the game. Both players are used to pushing around whoever is matched up with them but the strength factor seemed to be canceled out in this encounter; each player did his share of bumping, pushing, slapping down the other guy's arm and other tactics to gain a physical or psychological advantage. Neither player seemed to crack until the last minute, when it was clear that Cleveland would win. Artest grabbed an offensive rebound and tried to score but Anderson Varejao fouled him. James was involved in the play defensively as well and Artest gave him a shove after the play was over, prompting an immediate technical foul call against Artest. Officials stepped in between Artest and James but James is far too smart to do anything that would get him suspended. After Mo Williams made the technical free throw and Artest split his pair of free throws, James grabbed the rebound with the Cavs up nine points and just :17.9 remaining. Artest hounded James defensively all the way up the court and James eventually stepped out of bounds. Artest missed a long jumper as time expired. He walked over to greet James after the game and James responded much the way Bill Belichick does when he encounters Eric Mangini at midfield; James is not going to go off half cocked because of Artest's antics but he is not going to share hugs and kisses after the game with him, either.

Ben Wallace finished with six points and six rebounds in 29 minutes, while Anderson Varejao had six points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes. It is easy to look at those numbers and conclude that neither player contributed much--but that would be a serious mistake. Along with Zydrunas Ilgauskas (11 points, three rebounds in 27 minutes before fouling out), they comprise a three headed power forward/center monster that anchors Cleveland's formidable defense; the Lakers may have a frontcourt stocked with players who are better known and/or more highly regarded at this stage of their careers, but Cleveland's bigs play an integral role in the team's success. When the Cavs began to build a working margin late in the third quarter, Varejao was in the middle of one of the key plays. Artest was hounding James all over the court, so Varejao set a solid back pick near the top of the key, freeing James to score a layup. That play is not recorded in any fashion in the boxscore but it is much more valuable than just two points:

1) Varejao turned the tables on Artest by delivering some punishment to him instead of letting Artest deal out punishment without response; this is something that the Laker bigs never did in last year's Finals. Pau Gasol set strong screens and rolled aggressively to the hoop in playoff series versus San Antonio and Utah but versus Boston he treated the paint like he was one of those dogs being chained by an invisible electric fence. Ilgauskas, Varejao and Wallace are not afraid to set screens and get "dirty" (in the best sense of the word, meaning to play with mental and physical toughness, an edge that shows they will not be pushed around).

2) Doug Collins often mentions that when a scorer is struggling one layup or a couple free throws can get him off; just seeing the ball go through the hoop works wonders. In this particular instance, James had already gotten himself going after his quiet first half, but Varejao's willingness and ability to set these kinds of screens means that on occasions when James is struggling there will always be a simple way to get him an easy hoop or a trip to the free throw line.

Cleveland led 73-66 after the third quarter and pushed that margin to 82-68 early in the fourth quarter but the resilient Rockets made a run to cut the deficit to 86-85 by the 5:34 mark. They did this by making Yao the centerpiece--literally and figuratively--of their offense. Yao shot 1-7 from the field in the fourth quarter but he made all 12 of his free throws, scoring 14 of Houston's 24 points in the final stanza. Cleveland answered with a couple of three pointers by Daniel Gibson, both of which were assisted by James. The Rockets never got closer than five points the rest of the way. Cleveland led 96-89 at the 1:05 mark of the fourth quarter when James made the most spectacular play of the game. James timed Yao's move perfectly (a la Michael Jordan versus Patrick Ewing back in the day) and came over from the weak side to pin his shot to the backboard. Houston retained possession but Alston missed a three pointer after the inbounds pass and then Cleveland sealed the victory by making free throws.

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown's postgame comments are always well prepared and well thought out (see Notes From Courtside): "I thought that was a tough-played ball game. Both teams showed toughness. I like that down the stretch we defended. I think that in the fourth quarter one of my coaches told me that they ended up shooting 21% from the field and obviously they missed some looks, they had a couple of looks but I thought that our guys hung in there and kept trying to rotate and protect one another throughout the course of the ballgame and even in the fourth quarter when both teams were fighting through the physicalness of the game. I thought that the energy that Ben (Wallace) gave in the beginning of the game was huge; he played terrific for us, in the beginning especially. I thought that Daniel Gibson played big for us; he hit a couple of big shots for us late (in the game) but at his size to come up with six rebounds in this ballgame is phenomenal. He boxed out guys that are twice his size, basically, to stop them from getting rebounds, so he played a terrific floor game for us. Mo (Williams) was big for us down the stretch to increase the lead. We went to him in pick and roll situations and he created good shot opportunities for himself and his teammates. The last guy I'd like to mention, obviously, is LeBron. LeBron showed a lot of toughness tonight. He had to guard a lot of different types of players from Tracy McGrady to Shane Battier to Ron Artest to sometimes Luis Scola. His ability to be versatile at the defensive end of the floor was huge. I've said it time and time again: people need to start looking at him for the All-Defensive Team because he's having a heck of a year at that end of the floor and he's not getting enough credit for it."

Coach Brown also talked about two in game strategic adjustments but he did not take credit for either one; he said that when Cleveland's offense went stagnant against Houston's zone defense, assistant coach Mel Hunt suggested that the Cavs run one of their man to man plays versus the zone; this resulted in a wide open three pointer that Gibson made and that success discouraged the Rockets from continuing to play the zone. Late in the game, LeBron James suggested that the Cavs not double team Yao, thereby forcing him to score or draw fouls instead of simply kicking the ball back out to wide open three point shooters. Brown followed James' advice and the Cavs extended their lead. Not every coach is so open to receiving input from his coaching staff and players, much less to publicly give them credit when their advice works. Like all successful people, Coach Brown surely has a healthy ego but he does not allow that ego to get in the way of doing what is right for the team, both in terms of listening to other people and in terms of making those people feel appreciated by publicly acknowledging the input that they had in tweaking the game plan.

James explained his thinking about how Cleveland should defend Yao late in the game: "It didn't really seem that Yao was in the flow of the game offensively. He was baiting us to come down on the double team and he would throw it back out for them to make threes. We were up 14 and they hit a couple threes, which hurt us. We wanted to try and dig in and if Yao gets going we could double team him but we wanted him to make tough shots."

In the Rockets locker room after the game, Artest held court in front of a small group of reporters, at times barely speaking above a whisper while trying to put this defeat into context. I asked him, "From your perspective, what happened on the play at the end with LeBron where they gave you a technical?" Artest replied, "They just gave me a technical and that was it." I thought that Artest might try to plead his case or say that James had been pushing him also but Artest apparently decided that the best route to take is to simply defuse the whole situation.

Someone asked Artest why he guarded James so closely right up to the very end, when the outcome of the game had long since been decided. Artest said, "Play hard. If you're going to lose, lose with dignity. If you're going to lose, just go hard. I'm happy when I'm winning and I'm emotional and I still play hard, so when I'm losing I try to be the same way."

Artest relishes the opportunity to battle James one on one, though he laments that with Houston he does not have the same chances to go back at James on offense that he enjoyed when he played for Indiana and Sacramento (at every stop in his career, Artest has always craved a larger offensive role then the one that the coaching staff designates for him). Artest added that the challenge of guarding the young guys like James, Kevin Martin and Joe Johnson "keeps me going."

The Rockets have lost their games versus the league's three top teams: Boston, the L.A. Lakers and Cleveland. Asked what this says about the gap between those teams and the Rockets, Artest said, "That is not good. That is not good--but we have a lot of room to look for improvement and we have a lot of games left, so time will tell what those losses to the three top teams meant."

I followed up by asking Artest what specific areas the Rockets needed to improve in order to compete with those teams and he said, "To me, I think tonight we were challenged. With Mac (McGrady) going out, with my new role coming off of the bench, four (games) in five nights, Yao's fouls. We were challenged by many different means--Rafer's first game back. Playing against a really good team with our whole team for the first time this year, we stepped up to the challenge and we came up short."

Based on Artest's prior conduct, I know that some people might expect him to be some kind of raving lunatic. This is the first time that I've interviewed him. He is pleasant, soft spoken to the point of almost being inaudible and not the least bit overbearing, intimidating or menacing. Some players make it very clear that they are not interested in being interviewed and cannot wait for the process to be over and, intentionally or not, they position themselves in ways to accentuate their height and size; Artest was very approachable and did not do any of those things. That said, I think that there are hints of trouble in two of his answers. When he wistfully talks of formerly being able to go at James offensively, I sense the seeds being planted for complaining about not having a bigger role in the offense; Artest attempted 14 shots--more than anyone on his team and more than anyone in the game other than James--and he only made five of them, shooting 0-7 in the second half after going 5-7 in the first half. When/if McGrady is fully healthy, there will be fewer shots for Artest and he is not likely to willingly accept that. The second hint of trouble is his answer to my question about what specific improvements the Rockets need to make. If I were to ask that question of Coach Brown or LeBron James after a Cleveland loss, the response would likely focus on getting more defensive stops and playing with greater energy; they both have repeatedly said that the Cavs are a "no excuse team" and they would never mention injuries, scheduling or anything else as factors in a defeat. Everything that Artest said is true, to a degree, but great players do not look for excuses for losses--even excuses that have some validity to them. It is easy to picture Artest giving a similar kind of answer after the Rockets have been eliminated from the playoffs. Houston has most if not all of the pieces in place--from a talent standpoint--to make a run at a title but the onus is on the players to prove that they are mentally and physically tough enough to withstand the long grind of the regular season and the pressure packed moments of a playoff series; in contrast, there is no reason to have similar doubts about Coach Brown, LeBron James or the rest of the Cavaliers.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

By league rule, NBA coaches have a 10 minute grace period after the game's final buzzer before they have to face the media for their postgame standup. This gives a coach an opportunity to briefly speak to his players in the privacy of a closed locker room, look at the boxscore and give some thought to what message he wants to deliver to the media (and thus, by extension, the team's fans, opposing teams and, basically, anyone who follows his team for any reason). Some coaches almost always preface their postgame question and answer sessions with an opening statement about what they thought were the key factors in the game; other coaches show up in front of the media and basically say, "Fire away."

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown has a very well organized and well thought out routine. When he emerges from the locker room after the game to answer questions from the media, he is always carrying a boxscore that has various notations scribbled on it, including key phrases. Coach Brown singles out which Cavs played well, often mentioning players whose contributions would not be immediately noticeable simply by looking at the boxscore. He will give the players credit for things that went well and only occasionally mention criticism of things that the players need to do better; generally, if something went wrong he will say that it was his fault (whether or not this is really the case).

Brown's method is very intelligent for a number of reasons:

1) He writes down his thoughts beforehand to make sure that in the heat of the moment he does not forget to mention an important point.

2) Before anyone has asked a question, Brown frames the story of the game the way that he believes that it should be portrayed; that often leads to follow up questions about themes he has mentioned, enabling him to further elaborate about those subjects.

3) He establishes a climate of accountability for the team by immediately taking the blame for most things that went wrong; that increases his credibility with the players and makes them more likely to listen to and accept criticism when he delivers it to them privately.

I think that there are a lot of aspects of Coach Brown's coaching style--from his successful implementation of a stifling defensive game plan to the positive relationship that he has developed with young superstar LeBron James to how well organized and professional he is--that are not sufficiently understood and appreciated by Cavs fans, let alone national NBA fans.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:55 AM

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Has the NBA Ever Had Three Teams This Dominant at the Same Time?

Through the first quarter of the 2008-09 season, the NBA has been a three horse race: the Boston Celtics, L.A. Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers are way ahead of the rest of the pack by almost any statistical measure. How unusual is it for three teams to lap the field to this extent? There are a number of ways to evaluate dominance but one of the most reliable is point differential; since 1990, nine of the 19 NBA champions ranked first in the league in this category and 16 of them ranked in the top five.

A point differential greater than five ppg generally signifies that a team is a legitimate championship contender, few teams have point differentials better than eight ppg and any team that wins by an average of 10-plus ppg is playing at a historically significant level of greatness. As of December 19, the Cavaliers (13.1 ppg), Lakers (10.4 ppg) and Celtics (10.0 ppg) have point differentials that would rank among the best of all-time if they maintain those numbers over 82 games. There has never been a season in NBA history in which three teams had point differentials of at least 10 ppg. In fact, only twice in NBA history have three teams achieved point differentials of eight ppg or more in the same season: in 1971-72, the Lakers (12.2 ppg), Bucks (11.1 ppg) and Bulls (8.3 ppg) led the way and then the next season the Lakers (8.5 ppg), Celtics (8.2 ppg) and Bucks (8.2 ppg) dominated regular season play.

The 1971-72 Lakers are one of the greatest teams of all-time. Led by Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, they won 33 regular season games in a row (a streak that may never be matched) en route to posting a 69-13 record that has only been surpassed by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (the 1996-97 Bulls also went 69-13). Chamberlain ranked first in field goal percentage (.649) and rebounds (19.2 rpg), West led the league in assists (9.7 apg) while finishing seventh in scoring (25.8 ppg) and the sharpshooting lefty Goodrich ranked fifth in the NBA in scoring (25.9 ppg). The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks went 63-19 as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—who won his second consecutive MVP—led the NBA in scoring (34.8 ppg), shot .574 from the field (second to Chamberlain) and grabbed 16.6 rpg (third in the league). Forward Bob Dandridge (18.4 ppg) and Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson (17.4 ppg) were the second and third offensive options.

Dick Motta coached the Bulls to a 57-25 record in 1971-72, third best in the league and the most wins ever by a Bulls team until the Michael Jordan era, but Bob Love (25.8 ppg), Chet Walker (22.0 ppg), Jerry Sloan (16.2 ppg) and the rest of Motta’s hard nosed crew were no match for the Lakers or the Bucks—and at that time, the Bulls were in the Western Conference with those two teams. In the regular season, the Bulls went 2-4 versus the Bucks and 1-3 versus the Lakers, who swept Chicago 4-0 in the Western Conference semifinals. That set up an epochal Western Conference Finals matchup between the Lakers and the Bucks; most analysts would agree that four of the 10 greatest players in league history (Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Robertson and West) shared the court during this series. The Bucks beat the Lakers 4-1 in the 1971 Western Conference Finals and blew out the Lakers 93-72 in game one in L.A. in 1972 but the Lakers won four of the next five games to advance to the NBA Finals.

Only two of the eight Eastern Conference teams won half of their games in 1971-72, the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics. The Knicks eliminated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Lakers dropped the first game versus New York but won four straight as West obtained his first and only championship after several frustrating losses in previous NBA Finals. Chamberlain suffered a fractured wrist but still dominated the glass during the series (23.2 rpg), earning the Finals MVP.

The Celtics were the dominant team in the NBA in 1972-73, finishing eight games ahead of the Lakers and Bucks with a 68-14 record. Bill Russell had retired in 1969 after leading the Celtics to their 11th title in his 13 seasons but the rebuilt Celtics were the class of the league, led by 1973 MVP Dave Cowens and fellow Hall of Famer John Havlicek. Meanwhile, the Lakers and Bucks dominated the West while the Bulls, though still a good team, fell off a bit both in terms of wins (51) and point differential—but Chicago proved to be very formidable in the playoffs, pushing the Lakers to the limit in the Western Conference semifinals before losing 95-92 at L.A. in game seven. The upstart Golden State Warriors—boosted by the return of Rick Barry after four seasons in the ABA—shocked the Bucks in the other semifinal series but the Lakers dispatched Golden State 4-1 to return to the NBA Finals to face the Knicks. The Knicks and Lakers had met in two of the previous three NBA Finals, with each team winning once. In the rubber match, the Knicks defeated the Lakers in five games, taking advantage of their remarkable offensive balance—their five starters each averaged between 15.6 ppg and 18.6 ppg versus the Lakers.

What happened to the Celtics? Havlicek injured his shoulder in the Eastern Conference Finals and even though Boston managed to force a seventh game at home the Celtics simply could not get over the hump with Havlicek essentially playing with one arm tied behind his back. If there is a cautionary tale about how a team that seemed destined all year to win the title can find its dreams shattered, this is it; perhaps that sounds like hyperbole but the Celtics went on to win two of the next three championships, forever leaving their fans to wonder what might have been in 1973 had Havlicek stayed healthy.

The 1972 Bucks and 1973 Celtics are two of the best teams that did not win championships and they were clearly better than several teams that won championships in other years when the NBA did not have any truly dominant teams. The 2008-09 NBA season is likely to produce at least two of the strongest teams to not win a championship (or three, if somehow the Celtics, Lakers and Cavs all fail to reach the summit).

The current Celtics most resemble the Lakers from the early 1970s: both teams acquired an older big man who focused on defense/rebounding (Chamberlain for the Lakers, Kevin Garnett for the Celtics) and both teams faced questions about whether their trio of future Hall of Famers would function well together during the season and under the crucible of playoff competition. In one sense, the current Lakers parallel the 1973 Celtics: Havlicek won multiple championship rings playing alongside Russell but had yet to capture a title without him, much like Kobe Bryant teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to claim three championships but has not won a ring since O’Neal’s departure; even that comparison falls short a bit when you consider that Havlicek was arguably still not the best player on the team—Cowens won the 1973 MVP and Havlicek never received that honor—while Bryant has no future Hall of Famers (and only one former All-Star) playing alongside him. There is not really a good analogy to be made between today’s Cavs and any of those teams from yesteryear. Like he has done in many other ways, LeBron James is charting a unique path to the top, leading a team that is very good defensively and on the glass but that does not have a Hall of Fame or All-Star sidekick for him, unlike the early 1970s teams that all featured duos or even trios of Hall of Famers and/or All-Stars. However, James’ Cavs are a deep team that includes three former All-Stars (Ben Wallace, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Wally Szczerbiak) and one player who may be a future All-Star (Mo Williams).

You may be wondering about the three teams that ruled the NBA a couple decades ago and how their dominance compares both to the trios from the 1970s and today’s top teams. In the 1980s, the Celtics, Lakers and 76ers won nine of 10 championships and accounted for 17 most of the 20 participants in the NBA Finals but they never approached the kind of ppg differential domination achieved by the elite teams in 1972 and 1973; no team in the 1980s had a point differential of 10 ppg or more in one year, let alone having three such teams in a single season. This is not necessarily a reflection of their relative greatness compared to either the great teams of the early 1970s or today’s best teams but rather an indicator of the overall competitiveness of the NBA in various eras; the three great teams in the 1980s faced tough opposition from (at various times) the Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons and the Houston Rockets, three franchises that made multiple Conference Finals appearances during that decade. TNT’s Charles Barkley often laments that the general state of the NBA has declined since that era, griping that there are a lot of bad teams now. This ppg differential data tends to support that idea; part of the reason that the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Bucks put up their gaudy numbers in 1972 and 1973 is that the NBA had added three expansion teams in 1970-71, thereby diluting the overall talent base. The 1973 season also saw the 76ers compile the worst record in league history, 9-73, a mark that the Oklahoma City Thunder may threaten this year—and the Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards also have dismal records. In effect, those three franchises are de facto expansion teams this year, even though they have existed for quite some time.

If the 1973 Celtics had capped off their great regular season with a championship then they would have been considered one of the greatest teams of all-time. Instead, they fall into the category of teams that won a lot of games but did not get the ultimate prize, squads like the 2007 Mavericks, 1994 Sonics and 1990 Lakers, each of whom led the league with at least 63 regular season victories but did not win championships. It will be very interesting to see what the ultimate storyline of the 2009 season becomes. It could be a dynastic coronation for the Celtics if they win 65-plus games and a second consecutive title. Maybe LeBron James is about to put together a Jordan-like string of championships. Perhaps the Lakers’ rebirth last season was the prelude to Phil Jackson breaking Red Auerbach’s record by winning a 10th championship, allowing Kobe Bryant to silence any remaining critics by capturing a title without Shaquille O’Neal. Or it could turn out that a key injury/unexpected upset writes a story that none of us could even imagine right now.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:49 PM

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Lakers Lose Second Game in a Row Despite Bryant's Season-High 41 Points

After a 106-103 setback in Orlando on Saturday, the Lakers have now lost consecutive regular season games for the first time since last March. Kobe Bryant scored a season-high 41 points versus the Magic and tied for team-high honors with eight rebounds but his efforts were not enough to cancel out fine performances by Jameer Nelson (27 points, five assists), Rashard Lewis (22 points, five rebounds) and Dwight Howard (18 points, 12 rebounds); other than Derek Fisher, who scored 27 points (just two off of his regular season career-high), the rest of the Lakers were MIA, scoring just 35 points on 13-40 field goal shooting.

The Lakers have been called the deepest and most talented team in the NBA. As I wrote in my article about the difference between talent and depth, the Lakers are certainly a deep team in terms of having 10 players who can competently play at least 10 mpg if necessary--though the same thing could also be said of the Cavs--but the Lakers do not have the same amount of talent contained on the rosters of previous teams that won 65-plus games (as the Lakers are on pace to do). The reality is that Kobe Bryant is the only Laker who is among the top 20 players in the NBA and the Lakers are more dependent on him for their success than many people are willing to acknowledge; there have been several games this year that the Lakers would have lost without clutch play by Bryant down the stretch, while Cleveland's LeBron James has been able to sit out entire fourth quarters and Boston's Big Three Plus Rondo take turns taking over games. Here are recaps of just a few of the games in which Bryant had to save the day:

Kobe Takes Over in Second Half, Lakers Topple Blazers

Lakers Edge Mavs, Improve to 6-0

Lakers Slip Past Energetic Knicks

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has been so dissatisfied with the play of his bench that recently he has shuffled his lineup, shortened the playing time of his reserve players and increased Bryant's minutes. Sometimes people superficially judge Bryant's playmaking prowess by his assist totals but that does not take into account three things: (1) Even when the Lakers are playing well, Bryant often makes the pass that sets up the assist (delivering the so-called "hockey assist") rather than directly feeding the player who scores; (2) players have to make shots in order for anyone to get credit for an assist, so many of the times that Bryant feeds teammates are not noted in the boxscore because they missed shots (or got fouled and went to the free throw line); (3) although it is often assumed that Bryant is a gunner who forces shots, the truth is that throughout his career there have been many times when Bryant tried to be a playmaker only to have his teammates pass the ball right back to him because they don't want to shoot (this happened a lot in the 2008 NBA Finals and the contested shots that Bryant was therefore forced to take with the shot clock winding down lowered his shooting percentage).

Issue number three was a major problem in the loss to Orlando but you don't have to take my word for it; here is what Coach Jackson said after the game: "I was yelling at the guys, they kept giving the ball back to Kobe after he'd hit somebody in an open situation. He was dead-legged out there and really gave us a great effort for three quarters, but that fourth quarter, he was tired." After Bryant scored 25 first half points while carrying the Lakers to a 58-49 lead, the Magic quite logically sent multiple defenders at Bryant in the second half; unfortunately for the Lakers, Bryant's teammates proved to be unwilling or unable to take advantage of the wide open opportunities that Bryant's presence created.

The way things are going, even though the Lakers are clearly both deeper and more talented than they were in 2006 and 2007--which is actually not saying much when you recall that Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Luke Walton frequently started for those teams--it seems that the Lakers will need Bryant to go on one of his patented scoring sprees in order to maintain possession of the top spot in the West; the other players simply are not getting the job done, at either end of the court--and in that regard it is worth mentioning that in addition to leading the Lakers in scoring and assists Bryant also takes the toughest perimeter defensive assignment on a nightly basis.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:47 AM

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