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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Should We Believe in Magic?

The L.A. Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic own the four best records in the NBA. It is easy to believe that the first three of those teams are legitimate championship contenders: the Lakers and Celtics battled each other in the 2008 NBA Finals, while the Cavs made it to the 2007 NBA Finals and have a better, deeper roster now than they did then. What about the Magic, though? Their record suggests that they have become championship contenders but is that really the case?

Here is an analysis of the Magic are performing better than they did last year--and what they need to do to truly establish themselves as a championship contender:


It is easy to believe that the Boston Celtics, L.A. Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers are legitimate championship contenders; the Celtics and Lakers competed in last year's NBA Finals, while the Cavaliers made it to the Finals in 2007 and battled the Celtics for seven games in the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals.

This season, those three teams have been in a tight race to finish with the league's best record but they have some unexpected company: the Orlando Magic. Why are the Magic doing so well this season and are they truly a championship contending team?

Last season, the Magic won their first division title since the lockout shortened 1999 season and had their first 50-plus win campaign (52-30) since the brief-lived Shaq-Penny era was in full effect (60-22 in 1995-96). The Magic ranked sixth in scoring (104.5 ppg) in 2007-08 and fifth in point differential (5.5 ppg); the Magic not only could score but they also did a reasonable job defensively, anchored by Dwight Howard's menacing presence in the paint. Their weakness was rebounding: even though Howard led the league in that category with a 14.2 rpg average, the Magic ranked just 17th in rebounding differential.

The Magic do not pair Howard with a true power forward; instead, the rest of their starting frontcourt consists of Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, two versatile but slender 6-10 forwards who can shoot, pass and drive but are not dominant inside players.

This season, the Magic again rank among the league leaders in scoring (101.8 ppg, eighth) and point differential (8.1 ppg, fourth). Their rebounding differential has actually regressed slightly. So why is their record so much better? One big difference is that they are shooting three pointers even more prolifically than they did last season while also doing a better job of defending against the long ball.

TNT's Doug Collins often makes note of the differential between how many points a team scores on three point shots and how many points it gives up from behind the arc; this year, the Magic have made nearly twice as many three pointers as their opponents and that extra point per shot covers up a multitude of sins. A second big difference is that point guard Jameer Nelson has emerged as an All-Star caliber player, posting career-high numbers in scoring, field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage and free throw percentage.

This Magic team is constructed similarly to the Magic team that made it to the NBA Finals in 1995 and to the Houston teams that won championships in 1994 and 1995; all of those teams had a center who was dominant at both ends of the court flanked by several excellent three point shooters. If the center was single covered, he scored; if he was double covered, one of his teammates shot a wide open three pointer.

However, the 1994 Rockets and the 1995 Magic each had a power forward who did the dirty work in the paint (Otis Thorpe and Horace Grant, respectively); the 1995 Rockets used the versatile Robert Horry as the de facto power forward, trading away Thorpe's size/muscle for All-NBA swingman Clyde Drexler. The 1995 Magic also had an All-NBA swingman: Penny Hardaway, who made the All-NBA First Team that year, while O'Neal settled for a Second Team selection (people seem to forget that little detail when they act as if O'Neal simply carried Hardaway and the rest of the team-Hardaway's later injuries should not be used to obscure the fact that he was a top five player at one time).

The Magic do not currently have a power forward like Thorpe or Grant, nor do they have an All-NBA level swingman like Drexler or Hardaway. Therefore, it is reasonable to wonder how well they will perform in playoff games against elite teams when their three point shots are not falling and it becomes increasingly important to be able to control the boards.

Also, although Howard certainly provides a dominant presence in the paint, he is averaging 19.9 ppg on .559 field goal shooting-good numbers but not on par with O'Neal's 1995 production (29.3 ppg on .583 shooting) or Olajuwon's 1994 and 1995 outputs (27.3 ppg on .528 shooting and 27.8 ppg on .517 shooting respectively). During the postseason, O'Neal and Olajuwon would become almost unguardable for extended periods of time, O'Neal because of his great power and Olajuwon because of his amazing repertoire of low post moves. Howard has yet to show that he can carry a team offensively in that manner.

Orlando recently went out West and beat the three division leaders-Lakers, Spurs and Nuggets -- on their home courts. That is a most impressive accomplishment-but in order to face one of those teams (or someone else) in the NBA Finals the Magic will first have to make it out of the East. So far this season, the Celtics routed the Magic 107-88 in Boston on Dec. 1 and then beat them 90-80 in Orlando on Jan. 22.

In both of those games the Celtics outrebounded the Magic, contained their three point shooters and held Howard to fewer than 15 points. The Detroit Pistons beat the Magic 4-1 in last year's playoffs and are 1-0 against them this year; the Pistons have changed their head coach and point guard since last season but still seem to match up very well with Orlando. The Magic have yet to play the Cavaliers, but because of Cleveland's inside strength and good defense versus the three point shot the Magic do no match up well with the Cavs.

The Magic are playing very well overall but until they prove that they can beat Boston, Cleveland and Detroit it would not be accurate to label them a championship contending team; in order to make it to the NBA Finals they will have to beat at least one -- and possibly two -- of those teams in a seven game series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 AM

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Part III of an Interview with Dr. Charles "Chic" Hess, Author of "Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams"

"Life comes to you in a moment...each moment of your life can be perceived by you only if you are equipped imaginatively, equipped to dramatize your own role in it--to see yourself as a protagonist confronted by adversary circumstances"--Jerzy Kosinski

The greatest basketball coach you've never heard of led Passaic (New Jersey) High School to 159 straight victories from 1919-1925. Ernest Blood--better known as Professor Blood or simply Prof--was an innovator who valued the pass over the dribble and who developed a feeder system in the lower grade levels so that his high school squad had a steady supply of enthusiastic, top level talent. Blood won seven state championships at Passaic from 1915-1925 and he could have enjoyed a much longer run of success there but he ran afoul of shortsighted school administrators who were apparently jealous of his popularity. Blood resigned his post at Passaic and then coached at St. Benedict's Preparatory School (in Newark, New Jersey) for 23 seasons, leading them to five prep school state titles. Blood also coached at Clarkson University and the U.S. Military Academy.

Blood was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960 but his life story and accomplishments are not widely known. Enter Philadelphia native Dr. Charles "Chic" Hess, a veteran high school and junior college coach who first learned about Blood by reading about the 159 game winning streak in little filler blurbs in the local newspapers. Hess had always wanted to know more about the fantastically successful coach with the eye-catching name, so when he began working on his doctorate in his forties he also started assembling information about Blood's life and times. This turned into a 16 year project that culminated with Hess writing a 455 page book titled "Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams: The True Story of Basketball's First Great Coach." Published in 2003 and currently available for $29.95 plus $5 shipping and handling, Hess' biography of Blood is truly a labor of love, a thoroughly detailed account of Passaic's epic winning streak and the behind the scenes school politics that ultimately ended Blood's time at the school.

Dr. Hess is a very successful coach in his own right. His 1978 Lebanon (Pennsylvania) high school squad, anchored by future NBA first round draft pick Sam Bowie, made it to the 1978 Class AAA State Finals. Hess won three coach of the year awards in Pennsylvania, captured two NAIA District 29 Coach of the Year awards for his work at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and then earned the 1991 NABC Coach of the Year Award at Arizona Western College (NJCAA).

You can read Part I of my interview with Dr. Hess here, while Part II can be found here.

Friedman: "What stands out the most from your coaching career?"

Hess: "I remember an eighth grade coach telling me that I was capable of being a very good player. I was just a skinny little squirt in the eighth grade but I remember him having confidence in me. I remember being touched by a coach in a way that inspired me that I could be good at this game. I’m sure that he never gave it a second thought but it stuck with me and I often see kids (former players) who I inspired—I get emails from them all the time. Little did I know that I was inspiring them; I was just talking to them because I thought that they could be good and then I would show them some things to help make them better. They would keep coming back because they could learn.

In high school, I got cut in my junior year because a new coach came in and I was a badass. I was a street kid badass: give me some s--- and I would punch you, you know? He got rid of a potential problem but he cut someone who he just misjudged my real heart and love for the game. The following year, I came back and started; I came back as a senior in high school and started for the same coach who cut me the year before. He realized that I was a good player and he gave me a chance. Later, he often talked about the kid he cut who came back and became a starter and a good player for him. I remember that. Meeting Howie Landa—we went to the national junior college tournament and we won a lot of games and he was a basketball crazy guy. He is a one in a million coach. That is how outstanding this man is and how he could motivate you to want to be good and to love to play. He’s a Philadelphia boy, a Philadelphia city kid. He inspired me and taught me a great deal. We went to play in the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas. Then, 25 or 30 years later I took a team to Hutchinson and almost won the national title. We lost the championship game. Those types of memories of being a player and being coached by someone else (really stand out).

Look, I have a doctor’s degree and I’m financially independent now and I do what I want to do and it’s all because of basketball—and he gave me my start. So, what do you do? When a kid thanks me for something I did I say, 'Do it for someone else. Pass it on. It’s your time to pass it on now. It’s been passed on to me and I took advantage of it.' I took advantage of my opportunity and I have a doctor’s degree and obviously there is a little bit of prestige that goes along with being older and having a doctor’s degree. That commands a little bit of respect and it is because I had an opportunity given to me by a coach. What am I supposed to do with this? I’m supposed to pass it on. Help someone else; that is what we are here for. There are no secrets; don’t be stingy about what you know about the game. Share it. We’re all in this together. Share it. Pass it on. It’s for all of us."

Friedman: "You said that Howie Landa basically discovered you playing a pickup game on the playground. Have you ever wondered what might have happened if you had left that court five minutes before he showed up or if he had not been there that day? Do you feel like if you had not met him something else would have happened for you anyway and you would have ended up in a similar place? Or do you think that was really a watershed moment in your life, that if you had not met him your life would have turned out a lot differently?"

Hess: "The road to where I am today would have been entirely different. I don’t know if I would have ever gotten into college. I was lost. I was a kid who just lived to play basketball every day and didn’t give a crap about anything else. I hear about black kids in the inner city who have no direction in their lives at all and the adjustments that they have to make to go to college: I went through that. I was lost when I got to college. I learned nothing in high school academically and it was totally my fault. I thought that I was cool. Books meant nothing to me. I didn’t take any books home. I didn’t do any homework. I was a smartass, cocky and going nowhere. I found out that was a dead end. If that man had not been there to put an arm around me, point me in a different direction, I fear for what would have happened."

Friedman: "You coached Sam Bowie when he was in high school. Obviously, he went on to be a very successful college player and a high NBA draft pick who actually was not as bad an NBA player as some people say before he was struck down by the injuries. What was it like to coach Sam Bowie? What kind of player was he in high school?"

Hess: "I just saw Sammy three weeks ago. We spent some time together. I thought Sammy could have been the best basketball player who ever played. I thought he had that type of ability. His disadvantage was his environment. He lost his father when he was in the 10th grade and he lived on what you would call the wrong side of town, on the other side of the tracks. He hung out with kids who were going nowhere, some of whom may be in jail to this day. He had his head in his rear end. I had to get him out of there. During the summer, I would send him up to a camp run by Dave Bing and Howie Landa in the Pocono Mountains. I would send him up there for the summer so that he would have a chance to rub elbows with Dave Bing and Maurice Lucas and many other good black players who were in the NBA. They could see the potential, obviously--he was going to be a big kid, a seven footer. Of course, he looked up to those men and they were good role models for him. He was a typical 16-17 year old who had his head stuck in his butt and who looked at everything the wrong way. He couldn’t really make a good decision about choices to stay out of trouble; that was my job and three weeks ago I put my finger in his chest and I told him, ‘I did those things because I didn’t want you to blow it. It was my job to help you.’ If he didn’t get his 2.0 then he would have had to go to junior college. I went to junior college and I know there is a far difference between Division I and junior college.

There were other seven footers who blew it: Les Cason. That was how Dick Vitale got his start (by recruiting Cason). Of course, I was offered opportunities to go into college (as a package deal with Bowie) to be an assistant coach but there was no way I was going to do that: I can make it on my own. I’m capable; I can chart my own course. Yes, that would have gotten me into Division I and, who knows, with a few breaks I could have become a Division I head coach but God took care of me. I live right by the ocean. I have a beautiful setup here (in Hawaii). I’m home at night. I may go watch the University of Hawaii play Louisiana Tech tonight but after the game is over I drive home and I listen to the wrap up of the game on the radio with my buddies. I’m home in 20 minutes and those guys are still in the locker room and doing all those things. I count my blessings that I have what I have, because I have a good life. My children are grown up and I like what I have. I wouldn’t trade it. I wouldn’t want to be a Division I coach right now. I wouldn’t mind doing a little high school coaching right nearby where I can teach and get satisfaction.

So, anyway, Sammy did not appreciate it right at that time but when he went to Kentucky he came home at Easter and he latched on to me as I did all of my teaching and he followed me around all day and he told me, ‘Coach, everything you told me was true.’ He admitted that he had been a pain in the ass and I said, ‘Yes, Sammy, but I was no prize either when I was a kid.’ I was in trouble. I was a juvenile delinquent. I was on probation. I was just a bad ass kid."

Friedman: "So you saw something of yourself in him?"

Hess: "I knew what it was like. We were certainly different, him being seven feet tall and me being six feet tall, him being black and me being white—"

Friedman: "No, not those things but I mean in terms of being that age and making poor choices."

Hess: "Yeah. I’ve worked with a number of kids who were screwballs. You wondered what the hell was going through their heads. One of them called me up two days ago. Three times he called me up. This kid’s making $100,000 a year and after his next promotion he’ll be a warden at a prison. He said to me, 'I owe it all to you. People thought that I was going to wind up in jail but here I am making this outstanding money working at a jail.' He was in tears by the third phone call and he said, 'I don’t know if I can make it clear to you how much I appreciate what you did for me. No one else would have put up with me. No one else understood me but you took time and worked with me.' I think that maybe because I was one of eight kids and I was a screwball myself that maybe I have a little bit more patience with kids who have some heart and have a love for this game: let’s use this game to help you get somewhere. I haven’t touched the rim in about 15 years but no one cares that I can’t dunk a basketball; what you learn from playing basketball is what is going to be important. There will come a day when you are not even able to play anymore. I doubt if Oscar Robertson can still dunk a basketball. It’s what you’ve learned and what you’ve gotten out of this game (that matters) and if you don’t take advantage of it then you’ve wasted it. I don’t want kids to waste it. If you are going to put time into playing this game then make sure you get something out of it and what you get out of it is directly proportional to what you put into it."

Friedman: "The way that Coach Landa found you and put you on the right path, you responded by doing the same thing for the players you came across during your coaching career."

Hess: "I’m not wealthy but I’m independently satisfied with what I have and I’m fine. I don’t need any more than that, so whatever I can do to help someone else, that’s my pay. That’s my reward. That’s the way it always was in coaching and that’s the way it is right now. I still get asked to go help teach kids how to shoot. Last week I was at a playground here in Hawaii teaching a bunch of eighth graders how to shoot. I’m passing it on. That’s why I had to write Prof Blood’s story. I knew the story of Prof Blood, no one else knew it and I had to make it available. It became my responsibility. That may sound corny."

Friedman: "No, it doesn’t. Not at all."

Hess: "It became my responsibility to share this story with the basketball community. I told these little kids you don’t have to do what I am saying—some of them wanted to keep shooting the ball their own quirky ways—but those of you who want to learn how to shoot, I have something for you. One kid I couldn’t help at all. He shot the ball perfectly."

Epilogue

"Eat the banana now"--Al McGuire

"Go down as you live"--"Super" John Williamson's motto, imploring his teammates to not let pressure-packed game situations alter their mindset or their approach; Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson, who was a teammate of Williamson's, has adopted that as a mantra that he often shares with his players

Generally, I keep my own personal business separate from my interviews but because of some things that I am currently going through I was really struck deeply by Dr. Hess' comments about the way that Howie Landa completely changed his life by simply believing in him and giving him a chance to succeed. Those thoughts were foremost in my mind as the interview drew to a close and that led to this exchange:

Friedman: "I appreciate very much the time you have taken for this very interesting interview. I enjoyed reading the book and as I read it, I made analogies and comparisons with aspects of basketball history and strategy that I know more about and I thought about how Prof Blood might coach if he were alive today. It was interesting to get your feedback about that."

Hess: "Thank you very much. As you know, when I first contacted you because of what you have at your fingertips, I asked if you could get some exposure for Prof Blood, because I think that it would make a good movie. I didn’t write the book for money. If a movie were made out of it I’d probably make some money but that is not my motive."

Friedman: "Right. I have no Hollywood contacts. I can tell you that right off the bat, so I don’t think that I can have anything to do with it becoming a movie but I can publicize the story and get our very interesting interview out there. I am always interested in analyzing things and looking at things in depth and the readership that I have is also interested in thinking about basketball that way, so I think that my readers will be interested in this kind of discussion, this comparison of Prof Blood to modern coaches and all of the issues that we talked about. From that standpoint, if I have a reader who has those kinds of connections then you never know what might happen. Howie Landa found you on a playground and look what happened."

Hess: "We need people like you who will analyze something and put a slant on something and inform people."

Friedman: "To be honest, I’m still looking for my Howie Landa, I’m looking for the person who can help me get to the next level in my writing career and get it to the point that it is a lot more financially stable than it is right now. I can relate to the story that you talked about and that is why I asked you the question about where you would have ended up if you had not met Howie Landa. You’d still be the same person on the inside: the same potential, the same talent would still be latent there but if there is not the right person there at the right time to bring all of that out then what kind of result happens? That is a question that interests me not only relating to you but also relating to a lot of other situations as well."

Hess: "Coaches are powerful people. We touch kids in ways that parents and other teachers can’t reach them. It’s a powerful tool. It’s something that should not be taken lightly."

Dr. Hess and I talked a little bit more about 20 Second Timeout and my efforts to expand my readership and he concluded, "You have time. It’s time for something to happen but you have time. Keep writing."

I replied, "Well, whenever someone says that, it reminds me of a story about Michael Jordan. One year with Michael Jordan and the Bulls, they had a painful loss to the Pistons in the playoffs and he was literally on the bus crying, wondering if he ever was going to win a championship. His father said to him to not worry, that he has time, that the team is improving. Jordan just looked at him and said, 'We might not have as much time as you think we do.' That is a really poignant statement if you think about what happened afterward; in one sense, his father was right because a year or two after that the Bulls won the championship but in another sense think about what happened just a few years later: Jordan’s father was shot and killed on the highway. So, on one hand, Jordan’s father was right in that Jordan had a lot of time left and he ended up playing about 10 more years—if you count his comebacks—and he won six championships but on the other hand he only had about four years left with his father. So, if you think about that statement, 'You’ve got time left,' it was true and it wasn’t true, depending on how you look at it."

Hess: "Remember what Al McGuire used to say? Eat the banana now."

Friedman: "McGuire had that approach. I remember that sometimes his team would be scheduled to have a practice and they’d get on the bus and they would go somewhere else, go to a museum or something; sometimes you just have to live for the moment.

Phil Jackson did something like that once after the Bulls had a painful loss in the playoffs. Everyone thought that they were going to practice for three hours but he took them to tour the Statue of Liberty or something. He said that his players needed to get away from the court and not think about all of the bad things that had happened—just do something else together as a group because nothing productive was going to happen in practice that day. That was his pulse of the team at the moment."

In the end, all anyone can do is, as McGuire put it, "eat the banana now"--savor whatever is good in your life at the moment, because you don't know what tomorrow will bring: you can go from being a "playground bum" to being a successful coach/published author or you can win 159 straight games and yet be forced out of your job due to small minded people who harbor petty jealousies. What ultimately matters is that you "go down as you live": Prof Blood never wavered from his principles despite the slings and arrows he suffered at the hands of fools and Dr. Hess worked on his "game"--in the classroom and on the court--until he became a successful coach in his own right and thus had the platform and opportunity to tell Prof Blood's story to the world.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM

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All-Star Starters Officially Announced

TNT devoted a one hour pregame special to announcing this year's All-Star starters. Here is the list:

2009 East All-Star Starters:

G: Dwyane Wade
G: Allen Iverson
C: Dwight Howard
F: LeBron James
F: Kevin Garnett

2009 West All-Star Starters:

G: Kobe Bryant
G: Chris Paul
C: Yao Ming
F: Tim Duncan
F: Amare Stoudemire

Charles Barkley is on a leave of absence from TNT because of his well documented legal problem, so Gary Payton sat in his chair literally and figuratively, channeling the zany spirit that Barkley usually provides. Payton declared that neither Tim Duncan nor Kevin Garnett should be All-Star starters this year, nominating instead Al Jefferson and Chris Bosh respectively. Payton argued that being an All-Star should be about an individual player's production in the first half of the season, not how well or how poorly his team is doing. Kenny Smith was flabbergasted that a future Hall of Famer who played on a championship team would not put more of an emphasis on winning.

Chris Webber said that he agreed with Smith in terms of Duncan and Garnett being starters but that he disagreed with Smith a little bit on the issue of how much individual statistics should matter. Webber apparently still has not recovered from 1997, when Webber said that Tom Gugliotta made the All-Star team and Webber did not; Gugliotta averaged 19.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 3.9 apg over the course of that season for a Minnesota team that went 40-42, while Webber averaged 18.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 4.2 apg for a Washington team that went 44-38. Of course, there are two rather obvious problems with Webber's story: (1) He and Gugliotta played in different conferences at the time and thus were not battling for the same All-Star slots; (2) Webber made the All-Star team in 1997--and that was Webber's first trip to the midseason classic, so one would think it would stick out in his mind! What happened to "there's nothing like the first time"?

Bosh is averaging more points and rebounds than Garnett but Bosh is also averaging six more minutes per game. Garnett has the edge in field goal percentage and blocked shots. Really, though, this is not about the numbers; Garnett anchors Boston's defense in a way that does not show up in his individual statistics. I don't have a problem with Garnett getting the starting nod over Bosh.

There was a consensus that Allen Iverson should not be starting and I tend to agree with that but I understand why the voting turned out the way that it did; two of the other leading candidates--Devin Harris and Jameer Nelson--are playing at an All-Star level for the first time in their careers. The voting starts so early in the season that it is tough for relatively unknown players to break through.

Webber suggested that perhaps Shaquille O'Neal should have gotten the starting nod over Yao. Interestingly, when the TNT guys interviewed Yao he admitted that he still feels awkward about starting ahead of O'Neal in All-Star Games, mentioning that it felt strange to do so in L.A. in 2004 (when O'Neal was still a Laker) and it will feel strange to so in Phoenix this year now that O'Neal is a Sun. Yao graciously--if inaccurately--called O'Neal the greatest center of all-time. There have been years when O'Neal should have started over Yao but this is really not an issue this time: Yao is more productive and, even more significantly, he plays every game while O'Neal only plays in about 75% of the games.

Smith said that Carmelo Anthony should have been named a starter over Stoudemire but I disagree. Stoudemire is a more productive and dominant player, plus he has been healthy all season while Anthony has been out of the lineup.

There is an annual debate about whether or not the fans should be permitted to vote for the All-Star starters. My position on this issue, as I wrote last year around this time, is simple:

Some people get all worked up about who the fans pick but starting in the All-Star Game is largely a ceremonial honor; if you look in the NBA Register, no indication is given about whether a player started an All-Star Game or was selected as a reserve. The only problem that could arise with fan voting is if a player who does not even deserve to make the team gets selected but I honestly cannot ever remember that happening. Over the years, we've seen Dan Issel get a starting nod over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and A.C. Green get more votes than Karl Malone, but Issel and Green were worthy All-Stars and Abdul-Jabbar and Malone still made the team as reserves. Basketball fans deserve the right to choose who will start in what is, after all, an exhibition game, and they have not abused this opportunity, unlike fans in some other sports in years past who stuffed the ballot box for hometown favorites who did not belong in the All-Star Game.

This year we came relatively close to having some starters who don't even belong in the game this season, namely Yi Jianlian in the East and Tracy McGrady and Bruce Bowen in the West, but late surges enabled Garnett, Paul and Stoudemire to claim those spots. As long as the fans vote for players who actually deserve to make the team everything is cool because the coaches will vote for the remaining seven players on each roster. Bosh will certainly--and deservedly--make the team but Jefferson will probably miss the cut because there are so many good forwards in the West who are playing for winning teams.

Next week we will find out who the coaches select to be the seven reserves in each conference. They are supposed to choose two guards, two forwards, one center and two wild cards but the problem is that in some years one position is much more stacked with All-Star level talent than the others. The TNT analysts announced their choices:

2009 East All-Star Reserves (analyst choices--not official):

Kenny Smith: Devin Harris, Joe Johnson, Danny Granger, Paul Pierce, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ray Allen, Michael Redd

Chris Webber: Harris, Johnson, Granger, Pierce, Redd, Rashard Lewis, Chris Bosh

Gary Payton: Harris, Johnson, Granger, Pierce, Bosh, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu

The first thing that you should notice right off the bat is that Smith is the only one who adhered to the selection requirements by picking a center. He pointed this out to the others and Webber denied that this is a rule; Payton said that Bosh can slide over to center. Webber used to be teammates with Turkoglu and he calls him the Turkish Michael Jordan, so it is interesting that he went with Lewis over him.

My choices most resemble Smith's: Granger and Pierce at forward, Harris and Johnson at guard and Ilgauskas at center. There are many players worthy of being wild cards but this year I'd take Vince Carter and Mo Williams.

2009 West All-Star Reserves (analyst choices--not official):

Kenny Smith: Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups, Dirk Nowitzki, Shaquille O'Neal, Brandon Roy, David West, Pau Gasol

Chris Webber: Parker, Billups, Nowitzki, O'Neal, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Al Jefferson

Gary Payton: Parker, Billups, Nowitzki, O'Neal, Roy, Jefferson, Paul Millsap

My ballot would look exactly like Smith's. I find it a little odd that in one segment of the show Smith said that Anthony should be the starter over Stoudemire but in this segment he left Anthony off of the roster.

Isn't it interesting that just three years removed from winning two MVPs--and in his first year not playing in Mike D'Antoni's uptempo system--Steve Nash is no longer even considered an All-Star, let alone an elite, top five player? I've said it all along and I'll say it again: 10 or 15 years from now, anyone who objectively looks back at this era of NBA basketball is going to be astonished that Steve Nash won his MVPs over Shaquille O'Neal (who should have won in 2005) and Kobe Bryant (who should have won in 2006). Nash has been an outstanding point guard but that page in the record book is just going to look silly to anyone who is being objective and is not caught up in side issues, bias or other distractions.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:00 AM

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bynum Scores Career-High 42 Points, Thanks "Kobe Nash"

Andrew Bynum scored a career-high 42 points and grabbed 15 rebounds as the L.A. Lakers beat the L.A. Clippers 108-97. Bynum exceeded his previous career-high by 14 points; in fact, he nearly matched that total in the first half, when he had 25 points and 10 rebounds. Bynum scored in a variety of different ways, which is a tribute to his improving skill set, but he also enjoyed two important advantages: 1) the Clippers' two best big men, Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman, were sidelined by injuries; 2) Kobe Bryant dished out a game-high 12 assists. As Bynum said after the game, "It feels very good to go out there and play the way I did. I was able to get a lot of easy buckets. Kobe was 'Kobe Nash' out there." Bryant was credited with assists on five of Bynum's 17 made field goals and each of those feeds resulted in dunks or layups.

Although Bynum's scoring outburst will attract a lot of attention from casual fans--and from a certain stat guru who is convinced that he is more valuable than Bryant--the most significant number was Bynum's 15 rebounds, two more than he had gathered in the previous four games combined. Still, there is always room for improvement and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who is never shy about making his points through the media, scoffed a bit at the suggestion that this was a breakthrough game for Bynum, noting that seldom-used DeAndre Jordan had career-highs in points (23) and rebounds (12) versus Bynum: "Offensively, yeah (this was a breakthrough for Bynum). But there's two ends to the game still. Don't forget that, right? That was his (Jordan's) career high too."

Speaking of career-highs, Bryant has dished out 45 assists in his last four games, his highest total ever in such a span. He had his second triple double in the past three games (18 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds) after going more than three years without having a triple double at all. Bryant will likely have to play the rest of the season with his dislocated right ring finger taped to his pinkie finger, a digit which still has not been surgically repaired in the wake of the avulsion fracture he suffered around this time last season.

It is worth recalling that last year LeBron James sat out six games with a jammed (not dislocated) finger. Bryant did not miss any games (other than sitting out most of the All-Star Game) after suffering the avulsion fracture last season and it does not appear that the dislocated ring finger will cause him to miss any games this season. Bryant has a remarkable capacity to not only play through injury but to do so while performing at a high level. He adjusts to whatever his body allows him to do and quickly figures out how to be just as effective as usual. Last season, Bryant shot 3-13 from the field in the game in which he injured his pinkie and then shot 4-16 from the field in the next game--but then he shot 11-26 (just slightly below his normal field goal percentage) in the following game and by the end of the season his field goal percentage was slightly above his career average. Bryant shot 9-22 versus Cleveland in the game in which he dislocated his finger and then shot 5-15 against the Clippers but I suspect that tonight against the Wizards Bryant's field goal percentage will head back into the mid to high .400s. Prior to the injury Bryant was gaining ground on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the race for the scoring title while also markedly increasing his assist totals (reaching double figures in that category in five of his last seven games). It will be interesting to see how long it takes for Bryant to have a 40 point game with his current mangled digit; last season he dropped 36 points in the aforementioned 11-26 shooting night and 12 days later he scored 41 points on 16-25 shooting in a road win versus the Suns.

By the same token, it will also be interesting to see if Bynum's game is truly a breakthrough or if it was merely a harmonic convergence of the Clippers' lack of quality bigs combined with Bryant's pinpoint passing and ability to draw double teams. Bynum is obviously not going to even come close to scoring 42 points on a nightly basis but this was the first time in two weeks that he reached double figures in rebounding; during that time he had five, six, one, three, three and six rebounds, totals that are not acceptable for an athletic 7 footer who played between 27 and 37 minutes in each of those contests.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:14 AM

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Part II of an Interview with Dr. Charles "Chic" Hess, Author of "Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams"

"Life comes to you in a moment...each moment of your life can be perceived by you only if you are equipped imaginatively, equipped to dramatize your own role in it--to see yourself as a protagonist confronted by adversary circumstances"--Jerzy Kosinski

The greatest basketball coach you've never heard of led Passaic (New Jersey) High School to 159 straight victories from 1919-1925. Ernest Blood--better known as Professor Blood or simply Prof--was an innovator who valued the pass over the dribble and who developed a feeder system in the lower grade levels so that his high school squad had a steady supply of enthusiastic, top level talent. Blood won seven state championships at Passaic from 1915-1925 and he could have enjoyed a much longer run of success there but he ran afoul of shortsighted school administrators who were apparently jealous of his popularity. Blood resigned his post at Passaic and then coached at St. Benedict's Preparatory School (in Newark, New Jersey) for 23 seasons, leading them to five prep school state titles. Blood also coached at Clarkson University and the U.S. Military Academy.

Blood was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960 but his life story and accomplishments are not widely known. Enter Philadelphia native Dr. Charles "Chic" Hess, a veteran high school and junior college coach who first learned about Blood by reading about the 159 game winning streak in little filler blurbs in the local newspapers. Hess had always wanted to know more about the fantastically successful coach with the eye-catching name, so when he began working on his doctorate in his forties he also started assembling information about Blood's life and times. This turned into a 16 year project that culminated with Hess writing a 455 page book titled "Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams: The True Story of Basketball's First Great Coach." Published in 2003 and currently available for $29.95 plus $5 shipping and handling, Hess' biography of Blood is truly a labor of love, a thoroughly detailed account of Passaic's epic winning streak and the behind the scenes school politics that ultimately ended Blood's time at the school.

Dr. Hess is a very successful coach in his own right. His 1978 Lebanon (Pennsylvania) high school squad, anchored by future NBA first round draft pick Sam Bowie, made it to the 1978 Class AAA State Finals. Hess won three coach of the year awards in Pennsylvania, captured two NAIA District 29 Coach of the Year awards for his work at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and then earned the 1991 NABC Coach of the Year Award at Arizona Western College (NJCAA).

You can read Part I of my interview with Dr. Hess here.

Friedman: "In the book, you point out that Prof Blood very much emphasized the importance of passing and that he discouraged excessive dribbling. I have a big interest in the NBA, so I am curious to hear you compare Prof Blood’s philosophy to the philosophies of two coaches in particular: Paul Westhead, the ‘guru of go’ who coached in college and the NBA, and then also Mike D’Antoni, who has employed the ‘seven seconds or less’ philosophy in Phoenix and now with the Knicks. How would you compare Prof Blood’s ideas about passing and not dribbling too much with what you know about the philosophies of those two coaches?"

Hess: "I’m much more familiar with Paul Westhead, because he’s from Philadelphia too. It comes down to talent. You want to play a style of play (that fits your talent), whether you’re totally in the entertainment business or you’re really just teaching kids. Paul got to be in the entertainment business and the NBA is the entertainment business—people come to the games to be entertained. If you have the right talent, there is nothing wrong with doing that. It’s fun. Is it Grinnell College in Iowa that scores 100+ points per game almost every year? They just put it up, put it up, put it up. It’s amazing to watch them play and it’s fun and entertaining. He recruits kids for that system.

There was a time in basketball that was called the ‘dribble game.’ Before the development of helping defense, a good dribbler could beat his defender and get all the way to the basket. Then, when helping defense developed it was pretty hard for a dribbler to get all the way to the basket. Now, they reward the three point shot. What’s it called? Dribble-drive motion offense."

Friedman: "Right, in Memphis with John Calipari."

Hess: "Yeah. You dribble in, you penetrate and if the defense helps out then you kick the ball out to a three point shooter. The game has evolved. But, back then, Prof Blood said that the ball would move quicker than the defensive players could move and if you move that ball quickly enough then you are going to get very good shots. It’s a team game, everyone is going to be touching the ball and everyone has to be able to handle the ball; you can’t hide a player. They’re all involved. I just like that better. Hey, I’ve been in the game long enough—if I had the players would I ever think of doing what Paul Westhead did? Yeah, what the hell, it would be fun. Give it a try. There is more than one way to skin a cat but you have to look at how much talent you have available. How many players do you have? You may look at your bench and not have one kid who can play; all your good players may be on the court. So, then you can’t substitute a lot.

I believe in the pass—pass the ball, move the ball, hit the high post, kick it outside. The ball is being moved all around. People aren’t catching the ball and dribbling and catching and dribbling—move the ball, move the ball. I believed in that before I read about Prof and then reading about him just made me more set in my ways. I’d rather have a kid save his dribble and catch and pass the ball right away then do anything else but then whoever is open, take the shot. That is why we are passing the ball: to get someone an open shot. That is why we work all year round on shooting the ball, so that when you get an open shot you will hit it. As Hubie Brown says, shooting covers up a multitude of sins."

Friedman: "You seem to be making a distinction between Prof Blood’s philosophy and Paul Westhead’s philosophy but I’m not sure that I understand the distinction that you are making. You seem to be saying that there was some kind of difference between what Prof Blood was doing and what Coach Westhead was doing but from my perspective—and maybe I’m wrong or maybe I’m not understanding something—it seems like what they advocated is similar. The main difference that I see is that in Prof Blood’s era there was a jump ball after each made basket, so there was not the same kind of non-stop fast break that Westhead uses. That has more to do with a rules difference than with a difference in philosophy, because Westhead’s philosophy is to advance the ball up the court as quickly as possible and the first guy who is open should shoot. He is not going to tell anybody not to shoot; I interviewed him a while ago and he told me that he would never discourage a player from shooting because he did not want to mess with his confidence. He would always encourage players to advance the ball up the court and then shoot the first open shot. To me, it seems like there is a certain parallel between that idea and my understanding of your explanation of what Prof Blood’s teams were doing: pass the ball, pass the ball, pass the ball and when you have an open shot then shoot it with confidence. Maybe I’m misunderstanding your answer but your answer seemed to be that if you have the personnel then you can use Westhead’s system, so if there is a distinction in your mind between what Coach Westhead did and what Prof Blood did then please explain it to me so that I can understand it better."

Hess: "Let me try. Paul got fired at La Salle right before he moved out west. At La Salle, he used to have one guy cherry picking underneath the basket while the other four guys played defense. He was an innovator. He tried different things. He was entertaining and it was fun to watch. He got a couple good Philadelphia players (to go to Loyola Marymount), Hank Gathers from Dobbins (high school in Philadelphia) and who was the other player?"

Friedman: "Bo Kimble. Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble were his two key players at Loyola Marymount."

Hess: "I think that they were both from Philadelphia, public school kids there."

Friedman: "Yes."

Hess: "He turned it into a sideshow. I studied his fast break and I even still have all his notes about how he ran it numbers-wise, who was in what position and what they did, that ball got down the court and the kid on the wing or slightly in the corner shot the ball right away with other people crashing the boards. If he couldn’t shoot it right away then the ball went somewhere else and he shot it if he could. He wanted a shot in seven seconds."

Friedman: "Similar to D’Antoni."

Hess: "Yeah. He wanted the shot taken right away. Prof Blood wanted to get twice as many shots up as the other team. He worked on shooting and he figured that his team would shoot better than the opposing teams but he knew that the quality of the shot was dependent on the quality of the passes. Instead of dribbling the ball, he believed in passing the ball rapidly, no matter how many passes it would take—three, four, five quick passes, six, seven or eight if you had to, but if it is done quickly you are going to get a shot. Of course, obviously then you have to crash the boards and get second shots but those kids were firing away at the basket. The number of shots that they took in some games, I wondered how did they take 75 shots in a high school game? But they did it and it was a sight to be seen. I talked to old people and they used to say that when they watched this they knew that they were seeing the future of basketball. There are obviously some similarities (between Blood and Westhead) but because of the differences in era and the way that the game was evolving and the courts that they used—hey, Paul Westhead’s basketball did not catch on, everyone is not doing it, although the (shot) clock has almost forced it. He (Westhead) was adapting a good method (to take advantage of the shot clock and the three point shot) and he had the players to do it. Look what he pulled off and if they were on TV people tuned in to watch because they were extremely entertaining. They filled up that gym there in L.A. and there hasn’t been anything like that there since then.”

Friedman: "Yes and he did the same kind of thing with the Nuggets, obviously with much less success—but, as he said to me, he didn’t have the players. He won a WNBA championship in Phoenix with basically the same approach. He’s called the 'guru of go.' When I read your book about Prof Blood, it seemed to me that if Prof Blood were alive today then he would be doing something like what D’Antoni is doing or what Westhead did. There might be some fine points that would be changed—you seem to be decrying what you consider to be a sideshow aspect of what Westhead did, that maybe he took things to far or that his approach was maybe a little bit too extreme."

Hess: "The reason that I say 'sideshow' is that I know what he did at La Salle. How many coaches would ever have one guy stand underneath the basket at the offensive end and never leave to keep the other team off balance while they’re on offense, because if they miss then they have to hurry to get someone back on defense? He used to do things to disrupt other teams. He wasn’t as successful and I don’t know all the politics behind it, but he eventually got fired (at La Salle); that’s no slight and I don’t mean it as such, because what coach in the business hasn’t been fired? It’s part of the business. He is entertaining and there are obviously some similarities and you are probably right, if Prof Blood were coaching today he probably would be doing something to stay ahead of the curve of what is going on."

Friedman: "When I was reading your book—and when anyone reads a book or goes through any life experience, you relate it to your own life experience and your own knowledge—I made analogies to my experiences and what I’ve seen and I thought that Prof Blood seems like Coach D’Antoni and Coach Westhead. All of the things that you wrote about Prof Blood’s emphasis on passing the ball and getting shots up sound just like the way that D’Antoni and Westhead coach. I’ve interviewed both of those coaches. Also, you mentioned in the book how much Prof Blood instilled confidence in his players and that is very much a D’Antoni approach or a Westhead approach. As you know, there are some coaches who are critical—obviously, that is an important aspect of coaching and every coach has to be critical at some point if the players mess up--but there are certain coaches who are constantly involved in building up their players’ confidence. Westhead and D’Antoni definitely fall more on that side of the spectrum than, say, Bobby Knight. You can be a great coach the other way but there are a couple different approaches you can take and you don’t often see Westhead or D’Antoni screaming at their players or berating them. They are always telling their players, ‘Keep shooting. I want you to shoot the ball’ and that sort of thing.

Denver Coach George Karl has this phrase that he uses—and I’ve heard other coaches use it, too: ball stopper. He does not want his players to be ball stoppers. He constantly says to his players that he wants them to shoot, pass or drive as soon as they catch the ball. Do not stop the ball. He does not want them to stop the ball. He almost literally would rather that they take a bad shot than hold the ball—he doesn’t want them to take a bad shot, but, given a choice, he’d prefer that they take a bad shot right after they catch the ball as opposed to holding the ball. Do you see some similarity between that mentality and Prof Blood’s emphasis on the pass and on quick hitting action?"

Hess: "I think you’re hitting the nail right on the head. Yes. Prof had different jargon—his press was called 'offensive defense.'"

Friedman: "That was going to be my next question."

Hess: "I think that was exactly what they did—pass, pass, pass, pass and as soon as the first guy was open he either shot it or took it to the basket. Shots were going up and it was quick, quick, quick. As John Wooden said, 'Be quick but don’t hurry.' The ball would be moving quickly. I wasn’t familiar with that term—'ball stopper'--but I’ve had great respect for Coach Karl throughout his career. That makes an awful lot of sense and that is what Prof’s team was doing."

Friedman: "I’ve heard other coaches use that phrase since I heard Coach Karl use it, so I’m not sure where it originates. I don’t know if he created it; for all I know, maybe he learned it from Dean Smith somewhere along the line with that North Carolina coaching tree. The first time I heard him say it, they had this show—I think that it was on NBA TV—during which they miked up Denver’s practice. One of the players caught the ball, held it, dribbled and was not really doing anything and Coach Karl blew his whistle, stopped the practice and he said, ‘Don’t be a ball stopper. When you catch the ball, shoot it, pass it, drive it.’

You and I talked a little bit about Iverson and this also relates to Carmelo Anthony, who is guilty of this. At one point in time, Coach Karl was coaching two players who are very talented but who are both ball stoppers. They both are guys who get the ball, they massage it, they are looking around—because they are one on one players. They are very good one on one players but Coach Karl was pulling out what little hair he has left when those guys did that because that does not fit in with his approach."

Hess: "I understand completely what you are saying and as a coach that would drive me nuts. It really would. I’ve had some outstanding players, some who I was able to get through to and some who I just could not run an offense with them; they’d get the ball and then it’s their time and the offense goes to heck because, as you said, they start massaging the ball and they think about doing their thing and our thing has just gone out the window."

Friedman: "The thing that is interesting to me in terms of watching different coaches and their philosophies is that what Phil Jackson has been able to do very successfully with the Bulls and the Lakers is that he had Jordan and now he has Kobe, fantastic players who do things that could be considered 'ball stopping' at some points. He puts in the Triangle and somehow he finds a happy medium between running the Triangle to get everyone involved while also having a certain degree of toleration, understanding the necessity that in certain situations those guys will isolate and go one on one and do some of that. Jackson found some kind of compromise position. A cynic could say that it is easy to find a compromise position when you have arguably the best player in the game in either of those eras but not every coach would be able to adjust to that and find some happy medium there.

You mentioned 'offensive defense.' That is an interesting phrase in your book and I would like for you to expound on that and explain how it relates to the modern game. What does that approach mean and how could it be used under today’s rules?"

Hess: "As the game has evolved, Prof was not known for his defense. He was known for his offense. His teams were going to shoot the ball well and they were going to shoot it frequently. That’s a given. After pass-pass-pass the shot was going to go up and everything was going to be done quickly. Well, to get more shots, as soon as they lost possession of the ball they would start playing defense right away. They would be on them full court. In 1936, the rules changed and they started taking the ball out of bounds after a made free throw, which eventually led to taking the ball out of bounds after every made shot, eliminating the center jump (which used to be held after each made field goal). Of course, there were a lot of people who argued that the human body was not capable of running non-stop that way; that is what the medical profession and even the coaches thought, until they tried it and they found out that the human body was much more capable than they thought.

I mentioned in the book that Frank Keaney of the University of Rhode Island—or Rhode Island State College as it was called at the time—had a former Passaic student—Bill Mokray—as the manager of the team. Sure enough, Frank Keaney started doing a lot of the things that Prof was doing: pressing full court and putting the ball up rapidly. They were famous for the two points a minute teams that scored more points than any team in the country because they were shooting so much. I thought that it was a real coincidence that they were doing this and they had a former Passaic High School student who had seen all of Prof’s games and who I think probably influenced Keaney to do that full court style of basketball where more points are being scored, that wide open style; that was uncharacteristic of East Coast basketball, especially the St. John’s Wonder Five that they had in the early 1930s. Prof Blood’s idea was passing the ball quickly until you got an open shot and then pressing on defense."

Friedman: "So the idea is that you put a lot of pressure on the opposing team by how quickly you are shooting and how many shots you get up and then when you don’t have the ball you are primarily trapping and being aggressive and trying to get the ball back to put up more shots."

Hess: "You are making conditioning an aspect of the game. If you are in better condition than your opponent, take advantage of it. Make them build up an oxygen debt. Make them hurry. If they have to hurry, they won’t be as efficient; if they’re tired, they won’t be as efficient. So, get them playing at a different pace than they’re used to. Coaches do this today but of course many of the teams are in superior condition—except for the high schools. I’m seeing some of the high schools out here—Hawaii is not known for basketball. I’m reading in the paper right now that coaches are talking about how the football players are coming out for basketball and they’re not in shape yet. At St. Anthony’s, where Bobby Hurley is coaching, the kids are in shape in October. They’re always in shape and they’re always ready to play. Here it’s a little different and conditioning can be a factor in winning games."

Friedman: "If you have that approach, then you are going to make sure that your players are conditioned to do it and, like you said, if the other teams are not training that way then your conditioning becomes an advantage and the other team will not only be physically fatigued but they will also become mentally fatigued and make mistakes. That is where, in the totality, I see a comparison between Prof Blood and Westhead and D’Antoni and Karl—all three of those guys are known for coaching teams that play at a fast tempo. They are not necessarily known for having teams that play great defense, although Karl had a good defensive team in Seattle but in Denver that is something that has been questioned a little bit. All three of them are known for coaching teams that get up a lot of shots, are well conditioned, try to outrun opposing teams and, as you said, make conditioning a real advantage for their teams and a disadvantage for opposing teams."

Hess: "I think that what you are seeing and what you are saying is that the game has evolved and you mentioned some of the great coaches that we have today and what they do. There is a similarity to what Prof Blood was doing 70, 80 years ago. This is a fact. Before those coaches came along, there were other coaches—like Clair Bee and Nat Holman: those guys were the pioneers and that’s what Prof Blood was. He was a pioneer who started doing different things that caught on. Clair Bee and others came to watch his (Prof Blood’s) teams play—college coaches came around to see his teams play. During an after banquet speech, Clair Bee mentioned Prof Blood. The same thing with Nat Holman, who referred to Prof Blood being the best coach of his era, for sure. They learned from him and then it branches out. We all have our mentors. Naismith wasn’t a basketball guy. He only played the game twice. He invented the game, but basically that was it. Other people took it and refined it. It’s almost like there’s nothing new. This dribble-drive motion offense is really nothing new. Other people have become famous because of the stage that they were on but they learned what they did from someone else."

Friedman: "Coach Westhead told me that he did not invent a lot of the principles that he used in his offense. He borrowed a lot of things from Sonny Allen, who coached at Old Dominion. Like you said, there is a whole tradition or legacy that gets passed on from one generation to the next. Calipari borrowed the dribble-drive motion offense from some other coach (Vance Walberg, a high school and community college coach in California) and I’m sure that coach got it from somewhere else and so on down the line.

You’ve addressed this a little bit in terms of talking about the feeder system but I noticed that Prof Blood’s teams won a lot of blowouts. How much of the dominance of those teams—not just how many games in a row that they won but the large victory margins—was a result of his coaching strategies and techniques and how much simply had to do his teams having more talent than the opposing teams did? How would you assess that?"

Hess: "There is no doubt that he had more talent than most of the teams that he played against but Prof understood what it took to win games. He would shake the bushes, look through the school and get the kids with athletic ability to come out for the team. I remember that when I was in college, one professor said to me, 'If you want to be a winner as a coach, find the natural athletes.' I remember feeling a little indignant about that, because I am only an average athlete and I know that I was probably an overachiever (as a player) with the ability that I was given. I was thinking that I would work with kids like myself and teach them how to play—instill a love of the game so they can play and get better, become good shooters and know how to score. Prof understood this and he would look for kids who had athletic ability. Of course, he motivated them and they played. Not only that, he knew that you needed to control the center tap (because at that time there was a jump ball after every made basket), so he always looked for tall kids. He would go into the elementary schools and start identifying who the tall kids were and making sure that he exposed them to the game so that they would become smitten with the love of the game and want to play. He was very successful in doing that and always having some big kids and that was a decided advantage, getting the center tap.

As you know, by the rules at that time he could not coach the kids from the bench during the game; you had to wait until timeouts and halftime to talk to them. From everything I’ve researched, I visualize him as a complete package. He understood the psychology of the game and how athletes think. He understood the game of basketball and he could see things that were going on out on the court and make adjustments; during more than a handful of games during the streak, he had to do that. As you know, he often put his second and third teams in and they were also coached to be able to do different things. Obviously, if you are in a lot of close games then you will lose some of them. The ball will not bounce your way every time and you will inevitably lose a game. People are going to catch up to you. I tried to theorize what would have happened if he had stayed there. Well, eventually he would have lost and losses would have come more often but he had something going on there that I think that he could have won 99% of the next 150 games if he had been able to be there that much longer. He would have continued to win with maybe an occasional loss and it would have taken another 10-15 years for the rest of the world to start to catch up with him if someone cared to try to build a (comparable) program somewhere else. I thought that he was a complete package."

Part III of my interview with Dr. Hess will look more closely at his coaching career, including the time that he spent mentoring future first round draft pick Sam Bowie.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 AM

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Part I of an Interview with Dr. Charles "Chic" Hess, Author of "Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams"

"Life comes to you in a moment...each moment of your life can be perceived by you only if you are equipped imaginatively, equipped to dramatize your own role in it--to see yourself as a protagonist confronted by adversary circumstances"--Jerzy Kosinski

The greatest basketball coach you've never heard of led Passaic (New Jersey) High School to 159 straight victories from 1919-1925. Ernest Blood--better known as Professor Blood or simply Prof--was an innovator who valued the pass over the dribble and who developed a feeder system in the lower grade levels so that his high school squad had a steady supply of enthusiastic, top level talent. Blood won seven state championships at Passaic from 1915-1925 and he could have enjoyed a much longer run of success there but he ran afoul of shortsighted school administrators who were apparently jealous of his popularity. Blood resigned his post at Passaic and then coached at St. Benedict's Preparatory School (in Newark, New Jersey) for 23 seasons, leading them to five prep school state titles. Blood also coached at Clarkson University and the U.S. Military Academy.

Blood was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960 but his life story and accomplishments are not widely known. Enter Philadelphia native Dr. Charles "Chic" Hess, a veteran high school and junior college coach who first learned about Blood by reading about the 159 game winning streak in little filler blurbs in the local newspapers. Hess had always wanted to know more about the fantastically successful coach with the eye-catching name, so when he began working on his doctorate in his forties he also started assembling information about Blood's life and times. This turned into a 16 year project that culminated with Hess writing a 455 page book titled "Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams: The True Story of Basketball's First Great Coach." Published in 2003 and currently available for $29.95 plus $5 shipping and handling, Hess' biography of Blood is truly a labor of love, a thoroughly detailed account of Passaic's epic winning streak and the behind the scenes school politics that ultimately ended Blood's time at the school.

Dr. Hess is a very successful coach in his own right. His 1978 Lebanon (Pennsylvania) high school squad, anchored by future NBA first round draft pick Sam Bowie, made it to the 1978 Class AAA State Finals. Hess won three coach of the year awards in Pennsylvania, captured two NAIA District 29 Coach of the Year awards for his work at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and then earned the 1991 NABC Coach of the Year Award at Arizona Western College (NJCAA).

I recently spoke with Dr. Hess for more than an hour about a variety of subjects ranging from his own humble start in the sport to the time he spent coaching Sam Bowie to his fascination with Prof Blood. Before I could even ask a question, Hess enthusiastically described his passionate interest in Prof Blood's story:

Hess: "This may sound corny but it got to the point that I felt it became my obligation to inform the basketball community that this really took place, because the story had been lost. No one knew what I knew. It sounds egotistical but it’s true. No one knew what I knew. I talked to a number of 90 year old people and they would say to me, 'How do you know that?' and I would say, 'Well, I researched it and I’m getting all of this information.' Some of the stuff is from behind the scenes—like the records from the high school—and I was very privileged to get my hands on those old memos that were written and letters of recommendation and stuff. I just took this subject and expounded on it so the history of this is made known to everybody, for a number of reasons. This is human nature, the psychology and sociology of sports. Not only that, but how he as a coach built winning teams with feeder programs and a philosophy and being ahead of the game with anatomy and physiology of exercise and how training methods and motor learning and all of the things that go into developing skills—he made a science of it, early (in basketball history)."

Friedman: "How did you first learn about Prof Blood?"

Hess: "I got my start in the city of Philadelphia. I’m from southwest Philadelphia, where basketball is the only game besides street touch football, hoseball, stickball and all those games that city kids play. When I was in high school, we moved right outside into the suburbs, into Levittown, and I remember seeing little things in the newspaper (about Prof Blood). Back then, whenever a newspaper story ended and they had another inch or two to fill they some put trivia in there about something and I remember reading about Professor Blood, coach of the Passaic Wonder Teams—and at the time I didn’t know where Passaic, New Jersey was—who won 159 games in a row. I remember thinking, 'What is this? This is incredible. Back in the 20s? Who the hell is Professor Blood?' That stuck with me and from time to time I remember seeing bits and pieces about him. When I went to school to get my doctorate I used to live in libraries doing research and just to maintain my sanity I started looking up this topic and I started to find out more and more. Back then, they used to put people’s addresses in the newspaper, just as a matter of course. So I wrote to all of these former players and I got a response from some of them; I wrote to about 25 former Wonder Team players and I got a response from three or four of them—their sons or daughters responded. They eventually gave me some information. As the story grew, I became more and more fascinated with it. I was still heavily into coaching and I wanted to learn the secrets to winning but then (I became fascinated with) the story itself and the problems that he developed, that came with the winning, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Eventually, I had to take two and a half weeks, fly back to New Jersey and I locked myself in the Passaic City Library. In fact, they used to let me in and stay there even when the place was closed. I went through the microfiche of all the old newspapers and I got two or three versions of each game from the perspectives of different writers. I thought that I had enough but the following summer I had to go back and do it again—and each time I went I had to extend my stay because I wasn’t finished yet getting everything that I needed.

When I came back to Hawaii and put it all together a picture was forming in my mind of what was going on. Then, from time to time I’d still have questions and I’d have write to the librarians in New Jersey and ask them different things. I’d say that I knew where to find the information but that I didn’t have it—like the photocopies of the newspapers I took, maybe I missed part of the article (when copying it). They’d send me what I needed. I think that there is not a heck of a lot that I missed. A story unfolded and I had to tell the story, because I figured what good is it now that I know it and I’m satisfied—this should be shared with the basketball community. There would be people who would be interested--and not just in New Jersey--and who would find this story beneficial, philosophy-wise, for coaches. That is why I think that this should be mandatory reading for all coaches, male, female, all levels. This actually took place and these are some of the things that can happen.

I coached at a high school where we had Sam Bowie and we won a lot of games. We went five years without losing a home game; that is the only streak of note that we had. We created a monster. People were lining up outside of the school at 3 o’clock when I’m going home—the school day’s over but I had to come back for a game—but they’re lining up to get in the game because our 3500 seat gymnasium wouldn’t hold any more than that. It just builds and builds and builds and then you have a monster on your hands. Of course, there are some people who don’t want you to win and then when the administration changed the hate was starting to be put on me about different picayune things. So, I could relate to this story very much and that is why I felt compelled to tell it; writing the book was a labor of love and I used as many pages as it took to tell the story."

Friedman: "The labor of love aspect that you mentioned very much comes through, not just in how you are talking about it but the way that you wrote the book—the thoroughness of it and the passion with which you describe several of the situations that Prof Blood went through. You mentioned that part of your initial interest stemmed from the fact that Prof Blood had been so successful and at the time you started your research you were still coaching. What aspects of Prof Blood’s methodology did you apply to your own coaching? Obviously, some of the rules were different in his era compared to the modern era, so you could not directly apply everything, but what things did you learn from your research that you applied to your coaching?"

Hess: "I could relate to Prof. We are physical educators. That was my profession. That’s why I went to college; initially I played for Howie Landa at Mercer County Community College but I went to college to play basketball and then after junior college was over I went to East Stroudsburg. I was an average student because all I wanted to do was graduate, get a teaching job and coach. That’s all, but I spent umpteen hours in the library reading books that were of interest to me as a coach, things about how to teach and how individuals learn, whether it be physiology of exercise, how to develop strength so that you can jump higher, studies on shooting, the best ways of shooting—I mean, I was totally, totally submerged in those things and I saw in Prof someone who came along 60-70 years before me as a coach and who was fascinated by the same things. As much as the profession was known, he was right there on the cutting edge learning it as it was just starting to take place. I just fell in love with the guy. That is exactly what you are supposed to do (to train to be a coach)—understand the body, know how the body works, know how to train the body so you can play at an optimum level.

The feeder system—I always believed in that: develop the younger kids so that you have a never ending supply of players. Prof was doing that long before they were doing it in baseball. Branch Rickey was often called the father of the farm system, because he started all of those minor league baseball teams and then his major league team reaped the benefits from it because they had a pool of players to pick from; they didn’t have to scrounge around for players because they were developing players. Develop your own! I did that, in all the schools I was at. My players talk about what I did for them, always developing the younger players, the farm system of kids coming up.

Wherever I was, I attacked the problem of coaching holistically. I just wasn’t a defensive coach or an offensive coach. I was into it totally. Every day was either a game day or a practice day. That was it for 365 days a year, year after year after year. I couldn’t get enough of it. Here I am, 65 years old, and obviously other things have taken me away from it but I hope to get back into it next year. I’ll be retired and all I’ll be able to do is just coach basketball. Like, get the hell off of my cloud, I’m having fun. That’s what I learned from Prof, a reaffirming of what I already had learned as a coach but there he was doing it on the cutting edge when it all started."

Friedman: "It’s been said of Larry Brown—and I think that he has even said this himself—that in certain respects he almost enjoys coaching practice more than he enjoys coaching games, because the practice situation is really a teaching situation, a situation in which he can help players to improve. Whereas in a game situation, his job is almost done in a sense because he’s already prepared the players and either they are up to the task or not. From your standpoint with all of your experiences as a coach, did you have a similar attitude, where you almost enjoyed coaching practice more than coaching games, or did you really get into the competitive aspect of trying to win the game and enjoying the game while the game was going on? Or was it some combination of both for you?"

Hess: "I’ve heard or read a couple different times Larry Brown expressing those thoughts and I agree with him 100%. You can’t lose a game in practice, so to speak, and that’s where I can help my players. That is where I can leave my mark. This is where I am teaching you now and, basically, with very, very few exceptions, the game will be won or lost in practice by what the kids allow you to do and what you are can get into their heads. That’s why it was such a big thing with Allen Iverson when he said it was only practice. S---, I can relate to Larry Brown—being a 76er fan—you want to strangle the kid, because he is handicapping the brilliant mind of Larry Brown if you don’t let him get across what he needs to get across in practice. I thought Larry Brown adjusted rather well to a hopeless situation with Allen Iverson by making the best of the situation and then getting the hell out of there. That was frustrating for him but I think he got the very most out of that situation. He realized that he could not change him, so he squeezed the lemon and got as much as he could out of him but he did not stick around to put up with him for the rest of his career because that would have driven him nuts."

Friedman: "The two of them obviously had different approaches. The one thing that I would say slightly in Iverson’s defense is that I don’t know that he was objecting so much that he did not want to practice but rather the idea of why this entire press conference is being devoted to this subject. I think that the press conference had been called in reference to something else and his frustration—which became a great sound bite that is still played today—is why are we only talking about this when there are so many other things to talk about. That is another issue.

Since you have experience both playing in college and coaching, did you have that same perspective when you were a player? Did you look at practice as a learning situation? Or at the time that you were a player did you have more of an attitude—not that you were against practice—of enjoying the competitive aspect of a game more versus the practice situation?"

Hess: "Basketball is basketball. I just loved being on the court. I knew practice was necessary. Before the season and after the season, I was playing more basketball than I did in the two hours that we had for practice but it was structured and the coach was in charge. I can’t say that I liked the games more than practice, because we had good coaches. I had John Clark, who left my high school and coached in Division I and then coached in the ABA with the Pittsburgh Pipers. So I had good coaches and I liked it all. As a coach, there is no doubt about it: practice is what I lived for, because that is where I could leave my mark. We’re going to go out and win games not because we’re better than the other team but because we’re going to play as a team. Basketball, to me, is a team game. I know Larry Brown would feel that way. It’s a team game and five guys playing together as a team are very difficult to beat."

Friedman: "When you say that, it reminds me of an old clip of George Allen, the Redskins coach. He had his whole team around him before a game in the 1970s and he said, '40 guys together can’t lose.' That is kind of like the spirit you are talking about in terms of basketball—obviously, he was referring to his whole roster because you don’t have 40 guys on the field at one time. To an extent, having five guys playing together can overcome a talent deficit."

Hess: "Especially in high school, when there’s no (shot) clock. That’s a big difference. We can debate the benefits of the clock and the effect that it has had on the game but, in high school, coaching can prevail (over superior talent)."

Friedman: "Sure, because you can control the game, if your players are listening to you, possession by possession. You can control the length of the possessions and how the possessions go. It really is more of a coaches’ game in that regard."

Hess: "I remember looking at the other team and thinking that they have 10 or 11 really good players and I only had four and a half or five, so it was a good thing that I didn’t have to play against their second team, because I will control the game and I will take their bench out of the game because we will be on offense 65-70% of the time. You do whatever you have to do to win. I remember when I was a high school coach, some of the (college) coaches would come around and I would say that I wanted to be a college coach someday and they would tell me to stay right where I was; if you really enjoy teaching basketball, it’s more fun (at the high school level). I had to go out and taste it, so for like 12-13 years I coached different rinky-dink college teams and looking back, they were right: it’s more fun in high school."

Friedman: "Everyone has a different perspective on that. Some people are lifers at various different levels, while other people coach at a certain level for a period of time but to them that is a stepping stone and their goal is always to coach in college, then to coach at a bigger college and then to go to the NBA. I guess it really just depends on what parts of the game you enjoy the most."

Part II of my interview with Dr. Hess will look at some similarities between Prof Blood's coaching philosophy and the coaching philosophies of modern NBA and collegiate coaches like Paul Westhead, George Karl and Mike D'Antoni.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 AM

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bryant Overcomes Early Injury, Leads Lakers to 105-88 Victory Against Cleveland

Kobe Bryant dislocated the ring finger on his right (shooting) hand less than two minutes into the game but persevered to produce 20 points, 12 assists and six rebounds as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 105-88. Bryant shot 9-22 from the field and had five turnovers but down the stretch he made big plays, scoring nine points and dishing three assists in the fourth quarter. Bryant had led the Lakers in scoring, rebounds and assists for three straight games but this time he received some much needed help from Pau Gasol, who paced the Lakers with 22 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 11-13 from the field. Bryant assisted on four of Gasol's field goals--and all of those assists were strictly by the book, none of this business where the recipient of the pass goes through the Kevin McHale low post thesaurus of moves before shooting the ball: Bryant drew double teams and created scoring opportunities that would not otherwise have existed for Gasol and other Lakers.

LeBron James scored a game-high 23 points but he shot just 9-25 from the field, frequently forced low percentage shots as a result of Bryant's excellent position defense and for most of the game he was not able to get into the paint. James also had nine rebounds, four steals and one blocked shot but he only passed for four assists while committing six turnovers. Bryant received some help from his bigs in screen/roll situations--which is standard operating procedure in the NBA--but he also did a lot of excellent one on one defensive work, which is all the more remarkable considering his finger injury. One thing that Bryant did very well that I have not seen anyone else do against James is meet him in the open court, use his footwork to get a good angle and prevent James from getting into the paint without drawing a charge or committing a blocking foul; it was like watching a defensive back preventing a bigger tight end from running the pass route he wants to run. Fans ooh and aah about high flying blocked shots and flashy steals but Bryant's ability to meet James in the open court and head him off at the pass is just as significant. Bryant did something similar in the Olympics, cutting off speedier point guards and making them pivot and turn their backs on the offense but slowing down James is even more impressive.

Speaking of the Olympics, I don't think that it is an exaggeration to say that part of the reason that James and Dwyane Wade have elevated their games so much this season is because they practiced with and against Bryant on a daily basis as members of Team USA. Avery Johnson and others have brought this up and it is something worth considering when discussion turns to the subject of who the best player in the NBA is. It is pretty clear that James and Wade have learned a lot from Bryant. He is a good role model to follow and they should be commended for doing so but it is a bit premature to go the next step and say that they have surpassed him.

Before the game, TNT's Kenny Smith and Chris Webber wondered if James would take the matchup with Bryant personally. They noted that in the past James did not seem to do that, at least based on his demeanor. That is actually a very interesting point, because when Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler squared off in the 1992 NBA Finals the media built that up as a one on one matchup. Drexler downplayed that at the time but Jordan seemed to revel in making it clear that he was the best shooting guard and best player in the NBA. Years later, Drexler conceded that maybe he should have taken that matchup more personally. Of course, there is a fine line between taking a matchup personally--accepting the challenge--versus trying to do too much or trying to to things that are out of character. James settled for a lot of tough jumpers versus Bryant and when he drove to the hoop he often shot out of control layups because Bryant--with some help from the Laker bigs--controlled the angles and did not give James a "runway" to take off and do spectacular dunks.

James will surely deny it but it definitely seemed like he was trying to take the game right to Bryant as a scorer, particularly in the early going. On the other hand, Bryant played a much more measured and controlled game, shooting the shots that he wanted to take from the spots on the floor where he likes to operate. Bryant masterfully accepted double teams and then fed open teammates, a point that TNT's Doug Collins repeatedly mentioned during the telecast. I've never believed the stereotype that Bryant is simply a gunner while James is much more unselfish--both players are big time scorers who also create many scoring opportunities for their teammates--but in this game Bryant played more like James is said to play (racking up more assists than field goals made) while James seemed to be making a concerted effort to score. It is interesting to wonder if Bryant made a conscious decision to play in a certain fashion, if he simply was taking what the defense gave him (his standard response when asked about such things) or if the injury forced him to ad lib a bit. It is worth noting that this was Bryant's third straight game with at least 10 assists and his fourth such outing in his past seven games, so the injury alone clearly does not explain how he played. I've always said that if Bryant were asked to do so he could lead the league in assists because he has great court vision and can make every single pass in the book, from bounce passes to wrap arounds, to feeds with either hand to crosscourt passes to three point shooters. Normally, though, the Lakers need Bryant to score 25-30 points or more and the structure of their offense results in him making the pass that leads to the assist as opposed to the pass that directly leads to a score, in contrast to players like James, Chris Paul and Steve Nash who all handle the ball more than Bryant does.

Going into this game, it seemed like the Lakers would have the upper hand because Cleveland's 7-3 starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is sidelined with a broken bone in his foot but the early injury suffered by Bryant certainly evened up the odds. Bryant was trying to steal the ball from James when he jammed his finger less than two minutes after the game started. He instantly doubled over in pain and signaled to the sideline that he needed help. Oddly, the Lakers did not commit a foul and played four on five until Mo Williams hit a jumper to put Cleveland up 4-2. Only then did the Lakers stop play by calling a timeout. Trainer Gary Vitti popped Bryant's mangled digit back into place and then heavily taped it; Bryant went right back into the fray and ended up playing more than his usual number of minutes. Bryant later told TNT's Craig Sager that this injury resulted in the worst pain he had ever experienced on a basketball court, which is saying something considering that in the past he has battled a separated shoulder, severe ankle sprains and a pinkie that was jammed so severely that the knuckle at the base of the finger ended up halfway down his hand (Bryant has yet to have surgery to fix that injury, which was suffered midway through last season).

Naturally, this game was billed as a duel between Bryant--the 2008 NBA MVP--and James, who is widely considered to be the front runner to win the 2009 MVP. Bryant accepted the challenge of being the primary defender versus James for the entire game, though he did have help in certain situations and other defenders occasionally picked up James in transition. James guarded Bryant a significant portion of the time but Sasha Pavlovic and others also took turns checking Bryant. This was by design, as Collins noted before the game: Bryant insisted to Coach Phil Jackson that he wanted to guard James the whole game and try to keep him down, as opposed to waiting to check him until the fourth quarter, which would have likely let James establish a good rhythm against another defender; in contrast, Cleveland's philosophy was to conserve James' energy by not having him guard Bryant full time until the fourth quarter.

Bryant guarded James in a way that few, if any other defenders, do: he bodied up to James and played ball denial defense, trying to prevent James from even catching the ball or at least making James go out well past the three point line to receive a pass. Bryant's defensive footwork was outstanding and he showed that he is stronger than some people may think, because even though James has a much more impressive physique/body frame he was not able to just shed Bryant the way that he brushes off most defenders. As a result of the injury, Bryant tried to do as many things as possible with his left hand, much like he did after he suffered the right pinkie injury last season. Barely two minutes after dislocating his finger, Bryant used his left hand to strip James of the ball on a drive, saving a sure two points.

The Cavs jumped out to an 18-11 lead but then Gasol and Andrew Bynum each scored and Bryant made his first field goal, a turnaround jumper over Pavlovic, who fouled him. Bryant's free throw cut the margin to 20-17 and the Lakers captured the lead at the end of the first quarter after Bryant fed Sasha Vujacic for a three point shot that made the score 26-24.

Collins mentioned that Coach Jackson has told Lamar Odom to be more aggressive offensively but that message seemed to backfire when Odom forced several shots in the second quarter. Collins astutely observed that it is not in Odom's nature to be aggressive offensively and that Odom is most effective when he is cutting to the hoop from the weak side (something that I have repeatedly said about Odom).

The second quarter was tightly contested, with neither team leading by more than six points. Bryant nailed a pullup jumper over James with a tenth of a second left, cutting Cleveland's lead to 50-49 at the half. Bryant had five points on 2-5 field goal shooting plus six assists and three rebounds in the first half, while James had 10 points on 4-11 field goal shooting, adding three rebounds and two assists.

James opened the second half by nailing a jumper over Bryant but Bryant and the Lakers soon took command. Bryant snared a defensive rebound with his left hand, dribbled down court, went behind his back to shake James and snaked his way to the hoop for a tough layup to put the Lakers up 58-54. By the end of the quarter, the Lakers led 75-66.

Neither Bryant nor James sat out to start the fourth quarter--both players played the entire second half until the outcome was decided, with James leaving the game at the 1:09 mark of the fourth quarter and Bryant exiting with :31 remaining in the fourth quarter. Odom scored on a nice drive but then J.J. Hickson answered with a pair of free throws. Bryant drilled a three pointer over James and James replied with a long two pointer over Bryant. After Mo Williams made two free throws, Bryant hit the two defining shots of the game: first, he posted up the larger James on the right block, used his footwork and ballhandling skills to get to exactly where he wanted to go and then hit a high arcing turnaround jumper over James' outstretched hand; on the next possession, Bryant drove down the left side of the court, jumped off of one foot and made a one handed runner from almost behind the backboard while being fouled. Bryant missed the resulting free throw but the Lakers were up 84-72 and they soon pushed that margin to 91-73 after a pair of fast break dunks: Bryant tossed an alley oop to Trevor Ariza and then Ariza returned the favor by passing ahead to Bryant, who glided in for an uncontested left handed dunk.

James and the Cavs then went to work. The Lakers inexplicably put Odom on James for a possession and James blew right by him for a layup, just the second time he had scored in the paint up to that point. That kicked off an 11-0 run that ended with James tipping in his own missed layup. The Lakers called timeout with 3:32 left and a 91-84 lead. Derek Fisher then canned a big jumper to give the Lakers some breathing room. James split a pair of free throws and the Lakers closed out the game by using the play that worked so well for them in the second half of last season and the first three rounds of the playoffs: the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action. When Gasol sets a solid screen for Bryant, the opposing team invariably traps Bryant and another defender rotates to Gasol as he rolls to the hoop. The Lakers counter this by flashing Odom to the free throw line, so if Bryant does not have a passing angle to hit Gasol then he can feed Odom. In this case, Odom then delivered a slick bounce pass to Gasol for a dunk. The play obviously requires two skilled big men--it would not work with Kwame Brown playing either Gasol or Odom's role--but without Bryant's ability to not only draw a double team but make a good pass out of the trap the Lakers would not gain any advantage; as Collins correctly noted, Bryant is the key to the play. On the next possession, the Lakers ran the same screen/roll action and this time they utilized a different scoring option: the open three pointer on the weak side, which in this case was made by Ariza. That put the Lakers up 98-85 with 1:56 left and effectively ended the game.

Bryant and James only face each other twice per season--unless/until the Lakers and Cavs square off in the NBA Finals--and one of the oddest things about their matchups is that Bryant is often either hobbled coming into the game or gets injured versus the Cavs. Sager reminded viewers that in addition to Monday's dislocated finger Bryant separated his shoulder versus the Cavs in 2004 and severely sprained his ankle against them in 2006. You can add to that list the December 21, 2007 game during which Bryant was limited by a groin pull that he had recently suffered. That is why the head to head numbers that people often cite regarding Bryant and James are not all that meaningful. What matters is the differences between their skill sets and the way that they play. They are clearly the two best players in the NBA right now but on this night Bryant showed that even with one hand figuratively tied behind his back he can still be a force at both ends of the court. James made some very good plays but once again his erratic jump shot made it difficult for him to score and/or create opportunities for his teammates against a top notch defense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:55 AM

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