Seventh Heaven: Bulls-Celtics and Hawks-Heat Go the DistancePerhaps the two greatest words in sports are "game seven." NBA fans will enjoy the privilege of watching two game sevens this weekend: Chicago will visit Boston on Saturday night and Atlanta will host Miami on Sunday afternoon.
Although both series went the distance, they did so in very different ways: the Celtics and Bulls have set playoff records for most overtime games (four) and most total overtime sessions (seven) in one series, while the Hawks and Heat have traded blowouts. For Boston, Rajon Rondo is averaging a triple double (21.5 ppg, 11.7 apg, 10.0 rpg), Ray Allen (23.5 ppg) dropped a playoff career-high 51 points in game six (including a playoff record tying nine three pointers), Paul Pierce has shown the value of possessing a deadly midrange game and big men Kendrick Perkins and Glen "Big Baby" Davis have done yeoman's work in picking up the slack for the injured Kevin Garnett. For Chicago, Ben Gordon (22.8 ppg on .405 shooting) has kept both teams alive with his hot and cold shooting, Derrick Rose has played well (20.0 ppg, 7.0 apg, 6.7 rpg) but he has yet to match his game one heroics and he turns the ball over too much, John Salmons (19.2 ppg) has been a revelation and big men Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas and Brad Miller have held their own in the paint. Everything that has transpired so far points to Sunday's game seven turning into a closely contested instant classic but I have to sound a cautionary note: game sevens on the road have historically been tantamount to death in the NBA--particularly for young teams that have little playoff experience--and even when earlier games in a series have been close there is a tendency for game seven momentum to snowball into a rout.
If game seven in the Atlanta-Miami series is a rout no one will be surprised. As several commentators have noted, there has not been a single lead change in this series after the first quarter in any of the games, which is really an astounding statistic when you consider how evenly matched these teams have proven to be--but neither team has displayed the necessary poise and maturity to stage a comeback in the wake of early adversity. The Hawks figure to take a first quarter lead in game seven at home and ride that momentum to victory. Of course, the big X factor that could flip the script on that scenario is that the Heat clearly have the best player on the court, Dwyane Wade, and any time a series boils down to one winner take all game it is certainly possible that the best player will go nuts and refuse to let his team lose. That said, just three years ago we saw both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James--the two best players in the game today--get blown out in game sevens on the road. Wade shot 32-64 (.500) in Miami's three wins and 26-66 (.394) in Miami's three losses; look for a sub-.450 shooting performance from Wade and a double digit loss for Miami on Sunday.
I cannot write about the Hawks without saying something about Josh Smith, because this highly talented player is really getting on my nerves. People keep making excuses for him by saying that he is young but he is a 23 year old grown man who is a five year NBA veteran making $10 million per year. He shot .588 from the free throw line and .299 from three point range this season. His rebounding average has declined for two straight years. LeBron James entered the NBA just one year before Smith did and James had some of the same skill set weaknesses but James has improved every season and this year he shot .780 from the free throw line and .344 from three point range, career highs in both departments. No one is expecting Smith to be as great as James overall but is it too much to ask that he attack one weakness per summer, particularly in the early stages of his career? At this rate, in another five years Smith will be the Lamar Odom of his era, a gifted player who tantalized fans at times but never made an All-Star team. Smith frequently exercises poor judgment, as demonstrated by his incessant feuding with his coach, his poor shot selection and his showboat, between the legs missed dunk at the end of game five. That low rent move reminded me of a conversation that I had with Julius Erving several years ago. Erving's words of wisdom are well worth repeating (just to be clear, he was responding to a question from several years ago and not talking about Josh Smith specifically, though Erving's sentiments obviously are directly applicable to what Smith did):
Erving: "My thoughts are, if you haven’t perfected it, then you shouldn’t be trying it in a game. Good defense forces an offensive player to maybe go outside of their capability a little bit and experiment, but a one-on-none breakaway, trying to do a blindfold or go between the legs—you’ve got to get the two points. You have to go down and get the two points. You have to understand what the priority is. Trying to make the highlight films--that gets into guys like Rodman diving eight rows into the stands just to get on the highlights. That became sort of his thing. There is an identity issue and players are doing more things to try to get recognition outside of sticking with the game plan and sticking with the abilities they are blessed with and the skill training that they put a lot of hours into perfecting. Coaches have their hands tied in terms of what to do. Do I take the guy, bring him over and sit him down or just let him play through it? Do I talk to him in private after the game? I remember Billy Cunningham—you know, Steve Smith used to have this thing, bouncing the ball off the backboard and dunking it. So they’re up like 30 points in a game and he bounces the ball off the backboard and catches it and dunks it on a one-on-none fast break. You know, guys in my generation used to think that was just trying to embarrass the other team and that there shouldn’t be a place for that in professional basketball."
Friedman: "Is that when Smith was with the Miami Heat?"
Erving: "Yes and Billy was in the front office. And right after he (Cunningham) told him (not to do it), he (Smith) did it in the next game."
Friedman: "Sometimes they don’t listen. You tell them, but they don’t listen, right?"
Erving: “He was like, ‘Well, we’re a different generation. In this generation, this is what we do.’ And I guess maybe to a degree you have to accept some of that. There are certain things in the game that do need to be preserved. Putting your second team in when you’re up a lot of points is really what you should do. I mean, those guys want to play, too. To just run it up to 125 so the crowd can get hamburgers or whatever, that’s not good."
Friedman: "That leads me right into my next question when you’re talking about just playing for a stat--"
Erving: "Yeah, putting a guy back in the game so he can get an assist for a triple double or whatever, that’s crass. It’s just crass."
posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 AM