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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Adidas Formally Unveils New High Tech Uniforms

I mentioned in a recent post that adidas designed state of the art uniforms for the 2009 All-Star Game. Today at the adidas Court in NBA Jam Session, the NBA and adidas formally announced an expansion of their partnership agreement, signifying that adidas is now the official compression undergarment provider for all 30 NBA teams. The outer portion of the uniforms is 30% lighter than the old uniforms, thus providing greater comfort and freedom of movement. The undergarments are comprised of a TECHFIT Padded or PowerWeb compression layer; the former helps to prevent injury with the strategic placement of foam padding that cushions players against injuries such as hip pointers, knees to the thigh or elbows to the midsection, while the latter uses compression technology to increase performance and boost energy. The performance increases are created by Thermoplastic Polyurethane powerbands that compress the athlete's muscle fibers, allowing for more efficient movements that improve acceleration and endurance while also reducing fatigue.

Lawrence Norman, the vice president for adidas Global Basketball, gave the opening remarks at the ceremony where the new uniform technologies were unveiled. "For adidas, innovation is in our DNA," Norman said. "We were always innovators, for athletes like Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali and in basketball for legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and future stars that you saw yesterday like Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley and two of the greatest big men in the history of basketball, Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan. You will see a lot of innovations this weekend but for adidas Basketball all we care about is how can we help these great players be one step faster and jump one step higher."

Mark Verstegen, the founder of Athletes' Performance and Core Performance, did an on court demonstration of the features of the base uniform layers, with All-Star Dwight Howard modeling the TECHFIT PowerWeb and All-Star Tim Duncan modeling the TECHFIT Padded. Research by the University of Calgary-Human Performance Lab suggests that the TECHFIT PowerWeb can help an athlete to increase his sprint velocity by up to 1.1%, boost his power production by up to 5.3% (by improving core stability) and add up to 4% to an athlete's vertical leap. According to adidas, the TECHFIT Padded provides for greater flexibility than similar products while also offering 30% more impact resistance. Duncan said that he switched to adidas TECHFIT Padded after suffering lingering injuries and bruises to his legs and hips; he explained that the adidas TECHFIT Padded is custom fitted and offers better protection than the previous forms of padding that he had worn. Duncan worked with adidas to determine the shape and placement of the padding to maximize its effectiveness.

After Verstegen, Duncan and Howard finished displaying the new uniform technology, the two All-Stars were available to answer questions from the media. I asked Duncan to describe in more detail the biggest difference between the new adidas compression base layer and the previous base layer that he had worn. He replied, "I think they are more based for the NBA player. Before, I did wear some protective stuff but they were smaller and the pads weren't in the right places. They (adidas) have done a lot of research in where we want the pads and how we want our bodies covered. They fit a lot better."

Duncan has made it clear on many occasions--including during yesterday's media availability--that he loves playing the game but "could do without" all of the media obligations that go along with being an All-Star. In a sense, that adds even more weight to his endorsement of the adidas products because, as Duncan said, "It's easy to speak out for this because it is something that I actually use and wear."

I asked Howard how the adidas TECHFIT PowerWeb differs from other compression apparel that he has worn. Howard said, "I haven't really worn anything but regular biker shorts. The PowerWeb keeps all of your muscles tight and it lasts longer that biker shorts. Biker shorts are just like regular underwear."

As you might expect, the gregarious and outgoing Howard was more effusive than Duncan; while Duncan described in earnest and serious tones why he uses adidas TECHFIT Padded, Howard spoke fancifully of the "Kryptonite protection" contained in the TECHFIT PowerWeb chest padding (a close reading of the promotional material distributed by adidas made no mention of "Kryptonite protection")--but in their own ways, both players expressed the belief that these new base uniform layers will boost their performance levels while also helping them to avoid injuries.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:44 PM

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Kobe Talking About Shaq, Shaq Talking About Kobe--and Phil Jackson Talking About Both

One of the most obvious subplots for this year's All-Star Game concerns the reunion for a day of Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant with Shaquille O'Neal. For quite some time, O'Neal delighted in taking veiled--and not so veiled--public potshots at his former coach and his former teammate but now every time O'Neal talks about Jackson and Bryant it sounds like a lovefest has broken out. During Friday's All-Star media availability, one reporter even asked Coach Jackson if O'Neal has gotten sentimental in his old (in basketball terms) age and Jackson replied, "I think that he thinks sentimentally about the game and I think that you do that after you've been in the game (for so many years). After you've been in that many All-Star games you start looking back at how much this business has changed in your span of time and you become nostalgic. He should be allowed that."

As for the possibility of O'Neal finishing his career as a Laker, Jackson compared O'Neal to the older version of Robert Parish who played a limited role on a Chicago championship team that Jackson coached (though I'm not sure that O'Neal would consider that comparison to be much of a compliment), concluding, "We always say these old crocodiles--these alligators--who patrol the lane have a long lifespan in our game and it would be great to see him back some day."

Asked if O'Neal is engaging in "revisionist history" with his recent comments praising Bryant and saying that their rivalry was just a shrewd marketing plan, Jackson offered a thoughtful reply: "We had to have a one minded idea to win championships and so everybody is able to put aside individual hopes or aspirations (for) the greater good of the whole. These guys were able to do that and bond in so doing, so those sentiments (expressed by O'Neal) are not false. There are different feelings that come in between sometimes, but the bond that they created at one particular point in time is still there and still renewable. That's what he is talking about, sharing the ball, sharing the defense, sharing the space and time that they each gave each other. So I'm good with that."

Jackson said that the one quality that stands out most about O'Neal is "his sense of humor. He could act like a big clown at times. He's got a great sense of humor and he can make everybody pretty lively at times with his sense of humor."

Naturally, everyone wants to know how long Bryant and O'Neal will be on the court together but Jackson--the man in charge of making that determination--coyly refused to reveal his cards about how he will distribute the minutes: "I can't tell you that. The game has its own element." All he would concede is, "You try to use all of the talent on a team and those are certainly two talented players who can play together. They've done it before." He expects that at first they will "overdo it" in terms of "trying to help each other out too much" but that ultimately they will work well together.

In a recent interview with the Sporting News, O'Neal was asked to talk about the best teammates he has ever had and he replied, "Most ferocious was Kobe. Fiercest, most competitive, it was Kobe. D Wade is second after that." During the media availability Bryant returned the compliment when asked his favorite memory of playing with O'Neal: "We have a lot of similarities in terms of that I am very intense all of the time and--while he is a goofball who likes to have fun--when that light comes on he is a beast and that is the most fun that I had with him, seeing that switch come on. When that light came on he was a guy who was going to try to break somebody's face off during the game. That is what he and I shared." No one asked the natural followup, so I dived in, fully realizing that Bryant would not likely offer a completely candid answer to a difficult and perhaps painful question: "You talked about the difference betwen Shaq's intensity in practice and in games. How much did it bother you that the guy who would want to break someone's face during games did not show that intensity during practice?"

When Bryant answered "Not at all" I think that is the only time that he has lied to me/been in denial about his own true feelings. I don't for one second believe that O'Neal's casual attitude toward practice did not bother Bryant; there is every indication that this infuriated Bryant. That said, perhaps it is wise for Bryant to not publicly delve back into that subject again.

O'Neal can veer from slamming Bryant to praising him as the best player in the game and Jackson can wax eloquently about the bond that O'Neal and Bryant share but I think that Bryant spoke the larger truth in just a few words when he said, "I'm not revisiting that. It wasn't a fun time for me." Bryant, though he was young, impetuous and flawed in some ways--as we all are--was focused on winning right from the start, while O'Neal always wanted to be the life of the party. O'Neal could be extremely focused and dominating when he chose to be but I suspect that this frustrated Bryant even more, because he better than just about anyone could sense what kind of player O'Neal was really capable of being. Bryant did say, "We have a great relationship now and that is the most important thing" but there is no way to go back and win those titles that the Lakers likely would have captured if O'Neal had consistently demonstrated a Bryant-like focus on the task at hand.

Historically, the bottom line will always be that the Shaq-Kobe Lakers won three titles together but there will always be speculation about how much more that duo could have achieved. Asked if he ever wonders how many more championships he could have won with O'Neal, Bryant said, "No" but when pressed about the issue he replied simply, "Several more." For someone who is as competitive as Bryant, you know that it has to bother him that O'Neal's casual attitude toward conditioning/staying healthy derailed their partnership so soon.

Quick Hits:
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***Speaking of staying healthy, I asked Bryant how he has adjusted his shooting stroke to compensate for his recent finger injury and if having to make a similar adjustment around this time last year helped him this time. He answered, "This one is OK. I've actually adjusted much better with this one than I did with the pinkie. It feels fine and my stroke feels as normal as it did before I got hurt." He added that suffering through last year's injury "gave me confidence that I can play through it because I've done it before. In that sense, I wasn't nervous or skeptical about being able to get through it."

***Bryant said that the event he is most looking forward to this weekend is the HORSE contest, so I asked him if he would like to participate in it at some point. He scrunched up his face and considered that question for a moment before saying, "I don't know. I don't know. We'll have to see," so I asked him why he is so hesitant and he explained, "Because they've got all these rules and all these things that they put into the games. I just want to play HORSE like in the old McDonald's commercial (featuring Michael Jordan and Larry Bird)."

***While Bryant is still in his MVP-level prime and O'Neal is already well into his declining years--though still a formidable player--Jackson's first great player, Michael Jordan, just officially became a Hall of Fame Finalist. I asked Jackson to reflect on what that means to him personally, since he worked alongside Jordan from very early in Jordan's NBA career. Jackson said, "I was in an audience this morning when a young man of probably 25 talked about growing up watching Michael Jordan and the awe that he inspired in NBA basketball amongst kids. There was a Bird-Magic era and that was a great rivalry and it was wonderful to watch those two play against each other but Michael Jordan was someone you could not take your eyes off of when he played the game. It was just a phenomenon to come watch somebody with that kind of ability to be able to do what he did on the court. We've had a lot of players who had talent--athletic talent--but they've not been able to do the things that he was able to do. I think he has been perhaps the one most significant person in professional basketball in the world. He's a Pele in that sense, so this is a great honor for basketball to have him in the Hall of Fame."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:45 AM

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Jordan, Robinson, Stockton Headline List of Hall of Fame Finalists

Michael Jordan, David Robinson and John Stockton--three members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List--are among 16 Finalists for induction in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. They were selected in their first year of consideration, as was Utah Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan and WNBA star Cynthia Cooper; the other 11 Finalists are NBA players Dennis Johnson, Bernard King, Chris Mullin, coaches Bob Hurley, Vladimir Kondrashin, Don Nelson and C. Vivian Stringer, contributor Al Attles (who has been a player, coach and administrator), international player Pereira "Ubiratan" Maciel and Veteran's Committee selections Richie Guerin and Johnny "Red" Kerr, who already has received this year's John Bunn Award, the highest honor that the Hall bestows other than induction. As usual, several Hall of Famers attended the annual Hall of Fame press conference, including Clyde Drexler, George Gervin, David Thompson, Bob Lanier and Curly Neal (representing the Harlem Globetrotters, one of a handful of teams that has been inducted)

However, both Jordan and Stockton were absent, so Robinson spoke for all 16 Finalists when he came on stage and said that being tapped as a Finalist is "an amazing honor." Later, when Robinson answered questions for a small group of reporters, he talked about Stockton: "John is an amazing guy, one of the guys I respected the most during my career, just the way he carried himself and the way he approached the game. He was the consummate professional." Robinson described Jordan and Stockton as "locks" to be selected as inductees but hastened to add that it is hard for him to imagine any of the Finalists not making it.

Robinson said that the Spurs' playoff battles versus Stockton's Utah Jazz teams helped prepare the Spurs to finally become NBA champions for the first time in 1999: "They (the Jazz) were like pit bulls. They were just so tough. They were tough minded. They executed extremely well and I think they really helped us get to the level that we got to in our execution. When we won our championship we were known as one of the top executing teams in the league and I think that it was largely because of playing against those guys and understanding what it took night in and night out to make it happen. Those guys really set the standard for that."

Robinson's selection as a Finalist was a foregone conclusion, as is his induction later this year, but I asked Robinson what was the first thought that went through his mind when he was officially told that he is a 2009 Hall of Fame Finalist. Robinson answered, "My first thought actually went back to my senior year (in college). In the first game of the season we played in the Hall of Fame Classic against Vinny Del Negro and the N.C. State Wolfpack. I just remember being at the Hall of Fame and never thinking that I would actually be in the Hall of Fame but I remember that experience. That was the very first thing that came into my mind. I thought, 'Wow, I had a chance to be a part of that thing.' That's pretty special."

Robinson noted that the Spurs' management and coaching staff did not try to change his game, even when outsiders labeled him as "soft"; instead, they surrounded him with players who complemented his overall game. When I interviewed Hank Egan three years ago, he marveled at what he called the "grace" that Robinson displayed when Tim Duncan joined the Spurs; Robinson candidly admitted that Duncan was already a better scorer in the post and Robinson willingly ceded to Duncan the top scoring role on the team. I asked Robinson about making that transition and he replied, "That was a no-brainer but to me it was not really a lessening of my importance. They still looked to me for leadership and things like that but Tim was just a phenomenal scorer and just a great presence in the paint, so why would you not want a great scorer to do his job? That is why when he first came in I told him, 'It's obvious to me that you are a much better scorer than I am, so I am going to put you in a position where you can be successful.' I didn't care how many points I scored and it was obvious that first year that he didn't care either, which was nice. If one game he scored 25 and the next game he scored eight it never fazed him one bit and that's when I knew that he was going to be great. He has that temperament. He just doesn't get rattled. He's so steady, so patient and he knew that it was going to come. When you play against him, that is one thing you realize, this (sense of) impending doom. You know that guy is going to keep coming at you until the end and that is what he has proved throughout his career. He is just phenomenal."

Later, during All-Star media availability, I asked Duncan to share his first impressions about playing alongside Robinson and Duncan said, "My first impressions started way before I got to training camp. Knowing the kind of player he was and watching him play over the years, seeing what he had done during playoff runs and MVP seasons, walking in there I was more in awe than anything else but because of the competitor in me once I got on the floor I wanted to prove myself to him."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Rick Barry Interview

I caught up with Rick Barry just after the conclusion of the NWBA All-Star Game; he served as an honorary coach for the victorious West squad. I first interviewed Barry several years ago and he told me at that time that the only basketball statistic that cannot be manipulated is free throw percentage; every other stat is either subjective to some degree and/or can easily be recorded improperly due to human error. The issue of the reliability of basketball statistics is particularly timely now in the wake of the NBA recently downgrading a highly publicized triple double by LeBron James and considering that my ongoing (albeit preliminary) research suggests that Chris Paul's record setting assist numbers are not entirely legit.

Friedman: "When I interviewed you a few years ago, you told me that you thought that they only statistic that cannot be manipulated is free throw percentage. That leads me to ask a two-part question: First, what did you think about the whole thing with LeBron James and the triple double, that the NBA says that it examines all of the games and if the stats aren't right then they correct them? What is your reaction to that?"

Barry: "Well, yeah, if there is an error in the stats then obviously it should be corrected if they notice that it is there. I don't think that anybody should be entitled to get any kind of statistical record (falsely). That is nothing against LeBron, obviously. If you have a way to correct a problem that takes place, if someone makes a mistake then it needs to be corrected."

Friedman: "Do you remember the NBA doing anything similar to that during your career? Can you think of another instance similar to that?"

Barry: "No, not really. I don't recall something like that but I know that they try to stay on top of things so that they don't allow things like that to happen and it should be that way. A record is something special, so if a mistake is made and you can rectify or correct the mistake then you should do it."

Friedman: "The second part of my original question pertains to some charting that I have done about how assists are recorded. It seems to me that the definition of an assist has become very, very liberalized. I charted some games of Chris Paul in which he would pass to David West and West would do an up fake, several different moves and then score. Do you see a difference--not just with Chris Paul but in general--in the way that assists are recorded now compared to when you played?"

Barry: "It's not that there is a loosening of the rule; the rule is the rule. It's the interpretation of the rule by the individual who is keeping the stats (that has changed). It's always subject to an individual's observation of what took place. I would tend to agree that in a lot of places they are much more free in terms of giving an assist to someone. An assist is supposed to be a pass leading directly to a basket. In some places you can get to a point (at the other extreme) if a guy takes one dribble before shooting an open shot then they don't give the passer an assist, which is foolish. So, you can go to two extremes; you can be too tough in giving them out and you can be too liberal. I actually think that sometimes--a lot of the times--they are too liberal; if a guy catches a pass and has to make a move to lose his defender, that is not an assist. I mean, the guy made a great move to get himself open. If you pass the ball to a guy and he catches it on the move on a fast break and goes by somebody, I think that is an assist.

To be honest with you, I think that the NBA should be more like the NHL. What I love in the NHL is that the pass leading to the pass can also be scored as an assist--if that first pass had not been thrown, the second pass never happens. That is how they give assists out in hockey. But, definitely, there are times that they are way too liberal (in the NBA) and there are times that they are too difficult. I think that I still hold the record for assists in a game by a forward; I think that it was 19 and I did it on the road at Chicago where they hated me, so I figured that I probably had 23 or 24, because I know that they screwed me out of some of them. The thing is, I think that this is a part of the game that people should talk a little bit more about but also you don't want to make it so that the assist is not worthy of what a player accomplished. Again, you bring up the greatest example: if a guy catches the ball, makes moves, spins, does something else--that's not an assist, I'm sorry. I mean it really isn't. You have to bend a little bit but you also can't get carried away. I mean, if the guy catches the ball and makes a quick move to go by a guy then I say that is an assist because the pass led to a wide open opportunity down the floor--but if a guy catches the ball in the post and makes multiple moves then that is not an assist."

Friedman: "To summarize, you are saying that passing and assists should be emphasized and should be praised but not to the point that you are devaluing the assist; they should be awarded when someone really makes a pass that leads to a score--and maybe even institute a rule to make "hockey assists'" an official NBA stat--"

Barry: "They won't do the hockey assist. Listen, we're talking about the problems they're having recording assists when it is only one pass. My God, you start doing the other one (hockey assists) and God only knows what they will come up with. So, the bottom line of it is what they need to do is there should be somebody who reviews some of these games when someone gets a high number of assists to just check out and see what the stat person in each arena is doing. Look at a film, see what assists you think are there and see what they gave him and then talk to the stat person and say, 'Look, you are being way too liberal' and show the guy (on film) so that there will (eventually) be a more uniform way of doing it. If they really want to get serious about it, then somebody oversees it, looks at it and sees whether each stat person is doing it in a way that is fair--so they are not being too liberal and not being too tough, because there may be some guys who are not giving an assist when they should be giving an assist. You critique officials, you critique other people, so why not critique the stat keepers? It is a very subjective thing so if you provide more guidance then you have an opportunity to have them do it on a more uniform basis. That would be my suggestion, that someone oversees what each stat person is doing to make sure that it is according to what the rules specify and if he isn't then they talk to him and try to make an adjustment."

Friedman: "Yeah, because the NBA made such a big deal about LeBron's one rebound and they say that this is part of their whole process of looking at games but I have charted several of Chris Paul's games and some other games and (based on what I found) it is hard to believe that they are really looking at every game. That game was really publicized as a 50 point triple double, so maybe they felt like they had to step in but the play in question was semi-marginal and there have been other plays that were much more blatant (that were not corrected in the boxscore). That was not the most blatant scorekeeping error that I've ever seen."

Barry: "It happens because it is a human being making the decision. I mean, it is not like it's set in stone. If someone shoots and makes it or misses it, that's easy (to record). An assist is subjective and it is up to whether or not the guy who is doing the stats is willing to be fair about it. Some of them are but some of them are more liberal to their players than to opposing players. The only way to do it is if the league monitors this and has someone watching the films to see what is happening and makes an evaluation of each scorekeeper. If somebody does not correct himself and start doing things the right way, then the NBA needs to tell the team to replace that person."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:48 AM

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Jam Session Grand Opening, Wheelchair All-Star Game Highlight First Day of All-Star Weekend

This is my fifth time covering NBA All-Star Weekend; it is hard to believe how quickly the time has flown since my first All-Star Weekend in Denver kicking it with the ABA veterans. I learned pretty quickly that it is impossible to see and do everything, which means that each year I strike a delicate balance between making sure that I cover certain events that have become "can't miss" occasions from my perspective while also being open to the new and different flavor that each host city provides.

The obvious "can't miss" events are the All-Star Game itself and the All-Star Saturday Night festivities but there are plenty of other activities that make the All-Star Weekend so special. I have often said that for anyone who can make it to the All-Star host city but is unable to score tickets for Saturday or Sunday night the NBA Jam Session presents a great alternative destination with plenty of features that the whole family can enjoy, ranging from pop-a-shot to clinics hosted by NBA and WNBA stars to autograph sessions to exhibits about the sport's history to a kids zone and much more.

Phoenix has hosted All-Star Weekend twice before but NBA Jam Session is the first major event held in the city's brand new, huge Convention Center downtown--and that is where Commissioner David Stern and a host of dignitaries formally kicked off the 2009 All-Star Weekend with a brief ceremony at the adidas Court. Commissioner Stern said, "Phoenix has been a great All-Star host" in 1975 and 1995 and he noted that "5000 fans signed up to be volunteers" for All-Star Weekend, the most for any host site. "We are looking forward to our greatest All-Star Weekend ever," he concluded. "This is what NBA basketball is all about and it doesn't show up any better than in Phoenix."

Suns' owner Robert Sarver said that Jam Session is his kids' favorite event and that they will spend most of the weekend participating in various activities there. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon enthusiastically declared, "We are so excited--this is our downtown coming out party."

Shortly after the opening ceremony ended, the Jam Session Center Court--which will be the site of Saturday's All-Star practice and media availability--hosted the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) All-Star Game. I first covered this event in 2007 and then in 2008 I had the great opportunity to interview Susan Katz and some of the players, conversations which greatly deepened my understanding of the nuances of the sport.

This year, the West jumped out to a 10-0 lead, enjoyed a 38-15 halftime advantage and cruised to a 66-40 win. Points in the paint were a decisive factor, as the West repeatedly set up close range shots with deft passing or dribble penetration. One cool sequence featured a give and go between Chuck Gill and Juan Soto, with Gill making a short shot in the paint to make the score 36-15 West. Gill scored a game-high 21 points and won the West MVP, while David Radbel scored 11 points and was honored as the East's MVP. Trooper Johnson, who was one of the players I interviewed last year, scored eight points for the West.

Ryan Hundemer coached the West, while Bret Remington coached the East. Former NBA All-Star A.C. Green and former WNBA player Bridget Pettis served as honorary coaches for the East, while Hall of Famer Rick Barry and current WNBA player Adrian Williams-Strong were the West's honorary coaches. After the game, I asked Barry how he became involved in the NWBA All-Star Game and he replied, "(NBA Vice President) Charles Rosenzweig, who deals with all of the retired players, asked me if I would be willing to do it and I said 'Certainly.' I've been involved with wheelchair tennis and basketball a number of times and I am always willing to help out. I really admire what these guys do. They are really amazing. It's fun to watch them play."

I also spoke with Dick Bryant, NWBA commissioner and a former player who was inducted into the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Hall of Fame in 2008. He has won a total of five championships: one as a player (in 1978) when the sport consisted of one 16 team division, two more titles as a player/coach (1996, 1998) in the second division after the sport had been split into three divisions and then another pair of championships (1999 and 2000) as a coach in the third division. Bryant told me that he has been the NWBA Commissioner for six years: "I started (participating in wheelchair basketball) when I was 20 years old, so this is my 39th year as a player or administrator." I asked him if he still plays now but he said, "No, I'm totally retired." He informed me that the NWBA was founded by war veterans, has existed since 1949 and now comprises over 220 teams in the United States; those teams are split into five divisions--two men's divisions, a women's division, a juniors division and a college division that has about a dozen men's teams and four women's teams.

I asked Bryant if there is a difference in the adjustment process to the sport between someone who has always been wheelchair bound and someone who becomes wheelchair bound later in life. He answered, "No, I think it's still the same. It still requires training and practice. I think probably that the (only) advantage would be how athletic a person is, which would stand true for an able bodied person as well. There is nothing special that you are going to do whether you have been wheelchair bound or you are newly wheelchair bound; you have to get in the chair, practice and learn the game."

Bryant emphasized that wheelchair players, like able bodied ones, must learn "the basic skills of basketball: You have to be able to dribble the ball, you have to be able to catch the ball, you have to be able to shoot the ball. Then, the chair skills are the next thing: learning to handle the chair, pushing the chair as fast as you can, being able to stop the chair, being able to use your left and right hand--those kinds of things."

After the NWBA All-Star Game was over, there was an awards ceremony on the court for the winning team and the two MVPs. Several players got autographs from Barry and/or got their pictures taken with him.

Then, everyone in the stands received a real treat when the Harlem Globetrotters--featuring the legendary Curly Neal--performed their famous "Magic Circle" routine at midcourt. After they finished, Neal did a quick circuit around the court, fist bumping as many people as he could touch (I was one of the fortunate ones, thanks to my courtside seat at the media table). Then, the Globetrotters brought several kids from the audience on to the court and each Globetrotter taught one kid a specific "Magic Circle" move. After each kid had learned his new move, the kids formed a "magic circle" of their own. Fun stuff.

Then, George Gervin returned to defend his crown in the "Legends Shootout," facing the same field as last year (Detlef Schrempf, David Thompson and Jo Jo White). There was a slight format change this year: the legends each shot one rack of balls from the baseline, but a fan shot the rack of balls from the top of the key. Suffice it to say that none of the fans assigned to each player materially affected the outcome of the event. Gervin and Schrempf again met in the Finals and this time Schrempf won.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:37 AM

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Behind the Scenes at All-Star Weekend With Dwight Howard

Here are two brand new, behind the scenes videos from Dwight Howard as All-Star Weekend kicks off. In the first one, he thanks the fans for "inviting" him to the All-Star Game, while in the second he gives a hint about one of the dunks he will try in the Slam Dunk Contest (think Old School):




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posted by David Friedman @ 4:15 PM

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Videos From Slam Dunk Contest Participants

Rudy Gay is a late scratch for the Slam Dunk Contest due to a left hip flexor strain; he will be replaced by J.R. Smith, who finished third in 2005.

Here are brief videos by the other three Slam Dunk Contest participants: defending champion Dwight Howard, 2006 champion Nate Robinson and rookie Rudy Fernandez, who threw down an impressive dunk over Howard in the Olympic gold medal game last summer.





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posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 AM

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Bosh Injury Opens Up All-Star Spot for Mo Williams

In a post last week, I mentioned the possibility that unfortunate injuries might open a path to the All-Star Game for some "snubbed" players. Sure enough, Jameer Nelson went down with a shoulder injury and Ray Allen earned his ninth All-Star selection. Commissioner David Stern's choice of Allen rankled Cleveland fans, though, because they justifiably feel not only that the Cavaliers have played well enough to merit two All-Star selections but also that the acquisition of Mo Williams has significantly improved their team. I cannot say that Allen does not belong--he certainly has played well enough this season to be considered an All-Star--but I thought that Williams should have made the roster even before anyone got hurt.

Now, Chris Bosh's knee injury has sidelined him for the All-Star Game and Williams has been tapped to replace him on the All-Star roster. You hate to see anyone get injured but it is nice for Williams that he will get the opportunity to play in the All-Star Game for the first time in his career. Although Williams and Cavs fans may be disappointed by how this whole process played out, the reality is that he will go down in history as a 2009 All-Star; in the NBA Guide or the NBA Register, it will not say that Williams was an injury replacement, it will just say that he made the All-Star team.

Congratulations to Allen and Williams--and hopefully Nelson and Bosh will recover from their injuries as quickly as possible.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:36 AM

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Point/Counterpoint With True Hoop's Henry Abbott

Two recent posts at Henry Abbott's True Hoop have recently inspired some discussion in the comments section at 20 Second Timeout. Here are links to the posts in question:

One Shot, with the Game on the Line

Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James vs. Boston's Defense

I have made it very clear that I strongly disagree with certain elements of both of those posts. After thinking things through, I decided to reach out to Henry via email, list my specific concerns and ask him to provide a response that I promised to publish in full here, much like I provided "equal time" to David Thorpe on the subject of J.J. Redick's potential to become a starter for a playoff team.

Here is the message that I sent to Henry, followed immediately by his response (which I have placed in italics):

Henry:

I think that my passion for this game and for doing things the way I perceive to be the right way may at times make me come off as harsh or argumentative and I am continually trying to refine my style to find a happy medium between staying true to what I passionately believe without antagonizing others who believe differently. I had a teacher once who called that kind of self-improvement "working on one's rough edges." So I am reaching out to you to explain exactly why I disagree with a couple of your recent posts. I understand that you are busy and so I usually keep my emails to you brief--this one is lengthier but I would appreciate it if you take the time to read it and I welcome your response if you are so inclined.

I disagree with the methodology/lack of context of two of your recent posts. Taking the second one first, you made a big deal about Kobe's shooting percentage on last second shots but you buried the lede, which is Beech's comment about his own study:

"Ultimately though while this kind of thing is fun, it's not to my mind particularly meaningful, other than indicating that the league as a whole could probably get more efficient in "end game" possessions...one easy place to start might be to try and be less predictable! It's nice to have a go-to guy, but when the other team knows without much doubt that a certain guy is getting the ball, it is going to be a lot easier to defend!" He then added, "For better quality analysis of clutch play, I prefer a filter of "last five minutes of fourth quarter/overtime, with neither team ahead by more than five points."

At the time of your post, Bryant ranked first in the league in that category, though when I just checked the updated list a moment ago I see that after the "gastroenteritis game" he has now dropped to third behind James and Anthony. James was first and Bryant second last year.

Yes, your readers can click on the link and find that information just like I did but it seems wrong to me to emphasize the results of the study without mentioning that the person who did the study finds another metric to be more meaningful.

In your post titled Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James vs. Boston's Defense, why did you choose to cherry pick one regular season game out of context as a focal point of a discussion about Kobe and LeBron's relative success against elite defenses? The Lakers were playing their third game in four nights and, while Kobe obviously did not shoot well, his three three pointers in the fourth quarter played a critical role in forcing the game to overtime. Kobe has a proven track record as a very good midrange shooter and reliable three point shooter, while LeBron has a proven track record that is very poor from both of those areas. One subpar game--or one above average game, for that matter--does not materially alter those facts.

I have written extensively about this very subject and I chose to focus my attention on the recent playoff games that Kobe and LeBron have played against the past two NBA champions (the series in question are the 2008 NBA Finals, 2008 West Finals, 2008 East semis and 2007 NBA Finals). In the playoffs, teams lock in on each other's strengths and weaknesses and there are not any scheduling anomalies of three games in four nights. As I noted in Scouting Report: Kobe Bryant Vs. LeBron James: How they compare in the skills that matter:

"James averaged 22.0 ppg, shot .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game as the Spurs swept his Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals; he averaged 26.7 ppg, shot .355 from the field (including .231 from three point range) and committed 5.3 turnovers per game in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals versus the Celtics.

In contrast, Bryant averaged 29.2 ppg, shot .533 from the field (including .333 from three point range) and committed just 2.4 turnovers per game as the Lakers beat the Spurs in five games in the 2008 Western Conference Finals; he averaged 25.7 ppg, shot .405 from the field (including .321 from three point range) and committed 3.8 turnovers per game versus the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals."

While this could be called a small subset of games, this subset is certainly more representative in quantity and quality than one regular season game. Also, in discussing Kobe's skill set/shooting abilities you probably should have noted that in the 2008 Western Conference playoffs--which involved teams from the most competitive Western Conference race ever--Kobe averaged 30-plus ppg on .500-plus field goal shooting. I have always said that MJ was greater than Kobe but the Western Conference playoffs were the first time that I really thought that Kobe played at an MJ-esque level for an extended stretch against that type of competition (just to be clear, I'd still take MJ over Kobe).

How can you possibly believe that one regular season game provides a more meaningful basis for comparison between Kobe and LeBron than the accumulated evidence provided by the games that I just cited?

The fact that Cleveland took Boston to seven games while the Lakers lost in six is not relevant to the individual player comparison; LeBron shot a hideous percentage in the first four games of the Boston series but Cleveland split those games because of their great rebounding and defense, qualities that the Lakers did not display in the Finals. I find it interesting that a lot of people reference the Cavs lasting longer against Boston than the Lakers but few people mention that the Lakers beat a Spurs team that swept the Cavs the year before.

I shouldn't even have to say this but let me be very clear: I don't have a pro-Kobe or anti-LeBron agenda; I have written a lot of pieces lauding LeBron's greatness and I defended him in print when some people criticized him for passing to Donyell Marshall late in a playoff game. LeBron is a wonderful talent.

I rate Kobe slightly above LeBron right now but certainly realize that a good case can be made for LeBron, but that case is based on his superior power and athletic ability, not on a cherrypicked example purporting to prove that Bryant does not enjoy a skill set advantage that he most assuredly does in terms of midrange and longrange shooting.

Since your post about this issue has attracted a lot of attention--I did not see it initially on my own but found out about it when one of my readers mentioned it--I feel compelled to respond to what I consider to be the post's glaring shortcomings. I offered my take in the comments section to one of my posts when someone asked me about it but I plan to do a full post about this soon, with the gist of the message being what I have just said in the above paragraphs. If you have a response/clarification that you would like for me to include in that post, please send it to me and I would be glad to run it in full, much like I did a while back with David Thorpe when he and I disagreed about J.J. Redick.

Here is Henry's response:

David-

Our issue here is not our differences of opinion, but our differences of topic.

My post about Roland's research was not about Kobe Bryant. It was about Roland's new research. That was the goal of the post, to show people his new work, which was interesting.

The older research, about the last five minutes, has been linked to on TrueHoop probably a dozen times. Like a zillion things out there, it may be more important. But this wasn't the be-all end-all post of Kobe in crunch time. This was hey, look, a new way to look at game winning shots. What do you think?

The topic of my post was the new research. And it happened to have a very surprising and newsy finding: the player everyone agreed was the best in that situation, is actually not all that great. No good reason for me to hide that.

On the post about LeBron vs. Kobe, I had really just one mission: To refute the notion that you can look at highlights and pick the best player. I saw Eric Snow do that on NBA TV the other day. Saw highlights of Kobe, declared LeBron couldn't do that, and therefore Kobe was the best.

That is sloppy thinking. My point, and I'm sure you'll agree with me, was simply that there are boring basketball plays that are often more effective than exciting ones.

And as for the idea that Kobe catches the ball far from the hoop, don't quote me without double-checking it, but I'm pretty sure that comes from Tex Winter. And it's true! He does catch the ball far from the hoop. He does shoot a lot of heavily guarded long shots in key moments. That me makes a lot of them is impressive. But he also misses a lot of them, because they are insanely difficult. A more boring play closer to the rim could well be more effective.

That's all. I have no quarrel with Kobe Bryant. He just happened to pop up as a vehicle to make two points: Roland has new stats, and boring plays can get the job done.

Henry

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 PM

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Follow Dwight Howard Live in Phoenix

Starting on Friday February 13, NBA fans will be able to get up to the minute access of Dwight Howard's All-Star Weekend experience exclusively at adidasBasketball.com. He is the first player to ever provide this kind of instant access to fans at NBA All-Star Weekend. This is just the latest example of how much communication technology has been revolutionized in the past 30 years or so.

I remember when I was a kid and you had to wait until the next day's newspaper arrived just to find out the scores of the previous night's NBA games--and if you lived in the East the boxscores from the late games out West might not appear in the newspaper for two days, meaning that you had to hope that the sports segment of the local nightly TV news had enough time left after covering high school sports to offer a brief NBA report. This began to change with the advent of SportsCenter and then the proliferation of other cable channels; once the internet came into vogue, we soon came to expect live, instant score updates.

Now, when Dwight Howard eats his breakfast during All-Star Weekend you can find out what was on the menu. What is the next step? Virtual reality enabling you to feel like you really are at All-Star Weekend? Star Trek style transporter devices that can instantly "beam" you almost anywhere? I wonder what it will be like to cover the NBA All-Star Game 30 years from now. Who knows, it may be played on the Moon or Mars, where low gravity environments could enable fan participation in the Slam Dunk Contest!

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:43 PM

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Inside Access With Dwight Howard

Orlando Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard, the reigning Slam Dunk Champion, will be providing continuous, first hand access to his fans throughout All-Star Weekend, starting with some videos posted by adidas. You can check them out here (after playing the first video, hover your cursor over the bottom portion of the screen and other videos for you to select will appear):

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:39 AM

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Jim Cleamons' "Mid-term" Report Card on Lakers' Defense

Early in the season, I offered readers A Closer Look at the Lakers' Defense Through the Eyes of Jim Cleamons, Frank Hamblen and Stu Lantz. Prior to the Lakers' 101-91 win at Cleveland, I caught up with Lakers assistant coach Cleamons and asked him a few questions about what he thinks of the Lakers' defense overall midway through this season; we also talked about the hot topic on everyone's minds, Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James. Here is the interview:

Friedman: "How do you feel about the team's overall progress defensively compared to last year? What would be your 'mid-term report'?"

Cleamons: "We have gotten better but there are certain areas that we definitely need to cover and become more proficient at if we really want to consider ourselves a contender for the title."

Friedman: "What would be the prime areas that have to be improved from your perspective?"

Cleamons: "Anyone who watches film and is a student of the game would see that we don't play with the same intensity day in and day out, game in and game out. If you are going to be a championship caliber team, your defense is the one area that doesn't waver. We aren't good enough on a game by game basis to do what we need to do to say that we are going to be accountable in the end. Then, our rotations are not always what I like to call 'on point.' Sometimes, they are nonexistent, sometimes they are a little bit slow. If you are a good defensive team, then you play better on the defensive end than you do on the offensive end, because that (defense) is where you are really linked together; (in that case) the team has a feeling of when they have to help and a sense and a presence of how they need to get there so that when the ball moves and flows your defense is not always reacting. You are kind of ahead or you arrive right on the catch so the offense knows that you are there and there are no gaps in your rotations."

Friedman: "Would you say that in a sense you and Cleveland are opposites? You are a very good offensive team that is capable of playing good defense, while Cleveland is a very good defensive team that is capable of playing good offense. They have that night in, night out defensive intensity for which you are striving. Would you agree with that assessment?"

Cleamons: "Looking at their defensive stats for the year and where they rank, they certainly are ahead of our curve. They've got some offensive problems. With (Delonte) West being out, that takes something out of their offense.

Mo Williams is a fantastic player; I've liked him since he came out of Alabama. They've got Gibson who can knock down shots and Ilgauskas is now back. They've got some weapons. They are going to stretch any team but your offense, until you really trust each other, is kind of going to be up and down. What they need to do know that night in and night out they are going to play as well offensively as they do on the defensive end. That is a young team just getting a good solid feel for each other."

It is worth mentioning here that despite Odom's performance, after the game LeBron James attributed Cleveland's loss more to offensive problems (the Cavs shot just .391 from the field) than defensive problems.

Friedman: "Of course, everybody is making LeBron-Kobe comparisons and you understandably have a bias because Kobe is on your team. Strictly from a coaching or scouting standpoint, what are some of the similarities and differences between those two players? If you look at them on film, what areas do you see Kobe being stronger in and what areas do you see LeBron having an edge?"

Cleamons: "The comparison is the fact that for their teams they both have the ball a lot of the time and they are the decision makers. One of the things that I would say off the top of my head is that--as the primary ballhandlers and decision makers--when both of these guys flow and get everyone else involved they probably have pretty good nights. But in the end of clock situations both of them probably dominate the basketball and they feel as if they have to do too much. That is when their teammates become stagnant and they stand around and watch them play because they (the teammates) really don't know what the next move is. Good players have to realize that they are entrusted with the ball to make good decisions for their team and for their teammates and that doesn't always mean that you (the superstar) get the shot. A lot of times, they have a far better chance (of success) in moving the ball early in the (shot) clock so that they can get the ball at the end of the clock. That way, their teammates now have had the feel and the touch of the ball and they (the superstar) have not dominated 16 of the 24 seconds in an offensive set. Once again, it boils down to star players realizing that they do have help, that they have good players around them and realizing the fact that their better games as a team are usually the result of sharing the basketball early on and then getting the ball back in the last seven or eight seconds."

Friedman: "I don't know if you saw this or heard about it, but on NBA TV they had a panel discussion with Eric Snow, Alonzo Mourning and Kenny Smith comparing Kobe and LeBron. A big difference that those guys cited is Kobe's ability to consistently make the outside shot. They said that elite defensive teams have to guard Kobe differently because of that, they have to push up on him at the three point line, whereas with LeBron you can sag off of him. Is that something that you notice as well and does that factor into not only the way that you will guard LeBron but also the way that you see teams guarding Kobe?"

Cleamons smiled wryly, because I'm pretty sure that he has not had anyone from the media ask him that question in that way and he wants to tell the truth without seeming to denigrate James. After a slight pause, he replied, "The fact is, Kobe at the end of clock situations--he's worked on his jumper. The book on LeBron is give him the jump shot. When LeBron makes his jump shot then he's got you between a rock and a hard place because with his size and quickness he can get to the hoop. So, if he's making his jump shot on any given night you really are caught between a rock and a hard place. Kobe has got a more complete game but having a more complete game on any day is a good thing but you still have to knock down those jump shots to keep the defense honest."

Any GM, coach or scout who is being honest will tell you the same thing about Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, even if he couches it in diplomatic, conditional terms the way that Cleamons understandably did; Bryant still has the more complete game but James is already an absolute terror on those nights his jump shot is on and as those nights become more frequent occurrences he will become even more scary than he already is.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 PM

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Energetic Odom Upstages Ill Bryant, Subpar James

Lamar Odom produced season-highs in points (28) and rebounds (17) as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 101-91. The Lakers finished their East Coast road trip with a 6-0 record and handed the Cavs their first home loss this season after a franchise-record 23 straight home wins. Kobe Bryant added 19 points, three rebounds and two assists but he was noticeably slowed by what John Black (Lakers Vice President of Public Relations) told me is "gastroenteritis," a stomach virus that caused Bryant to vomit and become dehydrated; the 2008 MVP needed IV fluids at halftime and after the game. Pau Gasol struggled a bit with his shot against the taller Zydrunas Ilgauskas (connecting on just 6 of 15 field goal attempts) but he contributed 18 points, 12 rebounds and a team-high six assists. Derek Fisher had a very solid game with 13 points on 5-9 shooting, three assists and no turnovers.

Ilgauskas led Cleveland with 22 points and nine rebounds. Mo Williams (19 points, 3-4 three point shooting) and Wally Szczerbiak (16 points, 4-5 three point shooting) led a barrage from behind the arc that kept Cleveland in the game even though the Lakers killed the Cavs in the paint 62-24 and despite LeBron James' 5-20 field goal shooting. James had a strong floor game with a game-high 12 assists, eight rebounds and just one turnover, though he did not record a steal or blocked shot.

The dominant theme of this game was apparent right from the beginning, as the Lakers outscored the Cavs 18-8 in the paint in the first quarter but the Cavs countered by nailing 4 of 6 from three point range to take a 32-30 lead after the first 12 minutes. Odom had six points and four rebounds and even though that projects to a big game no one could have imagined that he would maintain that pace for four quarters. Bryant got off to a quick start, playing the entire quarter and scoring 11 points on 4-7 shooting. It was not immediately apparent how sick he was, though Black told me after the game that Bryant had vomited in the morning prior to coming to Quicken Loans Arena. Apparently, Bryant's condition worsened during the game, because Coach Phil Jackson said in his postgame standup, "He (Bryant) had chills at halftime and was struggling. But, he said he was going to go out there anyway and play. We just wanted to keep a watch on him and he was just going to let me know how he was going to do out there. He was definitely not himself today."

The score was close for most of the second quarter but the Lakers closed out the half very poorly, enabling the Cavs to build a 61-51 halftime lead; after Bryant's turnaround jumper made the score 57-51, Williams drew a foul and sank two free throws and then he stole the ball from Bryant and raced coast to coast for a layup. After the game, Lakers reserve guard Jordan Farmar said that Coach Jackson told the team to hold the Cavs to under 100 points by the end of the game, so they obviously had their work cut out for them after such a poor defensive showing in the first half.

Much like he did in the first quarter, Bryant got off to a quick start in the third quarter but this time he was unable to sustain it; he hit a couple jumpers to help the Lakers trim the deficit to three points but his energy level was clearly lower than it had been in the first half: during stoppages of play he leaned over and tugged on his shorts (the universal sign of fatigue for a basketball player), on some offensive possessions he simply provided spacing by camping out behind the three point line (drawing a defender away from the paint) without moving much and he did not fight over screens on defense with his usual aggressiveness. This is when Odom took over but he did not do so as the primary attacker but rather by aggressively pursuing the ball from the weak side, either grabbing rebounds or accepting feeds (often from Gasol) for layups; for years, people have waited in vain for Odom to be a guy like Bryant or James who can initiate action but Odom is much more comfortable and effective operating in the shadows, letting someone else start the play so that he can finish it by diving to the hoop. Odom had a double double in the third quarter alone--15 points, 10 rebounds--and the Lakers led 82-77 heading into the fourth quarter. After the game, Odom offered this explanation for why he was able to take over the game in such dramatic fashion: "I told myself, before the game started in my little meditation that Phil (Jackson) has taught me, to put myself in the moment as far as the game was concerned. I told myself that the first rebound I got, that I was going to take it to the hole and score. It kind of opened the game up for myself and I found the flow of the game."

Bryant sat out until the 5:43 mark of the fourth quarter and when he returned to action the Lakers led 90-83. A pair of Ilgauskas free throws trimmed the margin to 93-89 with 3:06 remaining and the Cavs obviously still had a great opportunity to win the game. Bryant had not even attempted a shot since late in the third quarter and had not made a shot since the 9:37 mark of the third quarter but with the outcome in the balance he went one on one versus James and sank a gorgeous, high arcing fadeaway jumper to push the lead back to six points. The Cavs never seriously threatened again. After the game, I said to Fisher that it almost seemed like Bryant had saved up whatever little energy he had left so that he could make that one big shot when the Lakers needed it. Fisher replied, "I knew before the game that he would try to be as efficient as possible, that he wouldn't do a lot of things that would drain his energy and take him to a place where he couldn't recover, so I mean you could arguably say that he saved all of his energy for that shot but definitely for the fourth quarter and some of those plays down the stretch when he had to handle the ball and he made some passes and initiated our offense. He couldn't have done that all afternoon, so he saved as much as he could for the latter part of the game."

Speaking in general about Bryant's overall performance, Fisher said, "It was the ultimate form of leadership on his part. He could have easily declined to play, period, or played in the first half and tried to keep us close and then sat out in the second half. He just kind of laid what he had out there and probably is going to pay for it for a couple days. It says a lot about him."

This game hardly decided the issue of who is the best player in the NBA but it provided some more evidence to consider. I wonder if anyone who drew dramatic conclusions about Bryant based on one aberrant poor shooting performance in Boston--a game which the Lakers won, in no small part because Bryant came through with three fourth quarter three pointers--will similarly come to dramatic conclusions about James based on his performance in this game: James shot worse versus the Lakers than Bryant did against the Celtics and James' team lost. Of course, it would be just as wrong to judge James solely on this game as it would be to evaluate Bryant solely on the Boston game but one important difference is that Bryant has established himself as a very good midrange shooter, so we know that the Boston game was atypical--but James has been a poor shooter outside of the paint during his entire career, so even though his shooting numbers in the Lakers game were even worse than usual they are part of an overall pattern that clearly shows that he struggles mightily to score against elite teams that shut down his drives and force him to shoot jumpers.

Looking at the larger picture than just this game, the Lakers have just completed a 6-0 road trip in which they overcame the loss of starting center Andrew Bynum in the second game and went on to end Boston's 12 game winning streak and stop Cleveland's 23 game home winning streak. The Lakers thus swept the season series against the two leading Eastern Conference teams. The game after Bynum went down, Bryant erupted for a Madison Square Garden record 61 points and in separate postgame interviews in Cleveland both Coach Jackson and Odom mentioned Bryant's performance as a defining moment that really infused the team with a lot of confidence when players could have perhaps started to have doubts (Bryant's ability to uplift his teammates and deflate his opponents inspired this post during last year's playoffs). During this road trip, there have been gripes about Bryant's 0 rebounds in the 61 point game and about his field goal shooting versus Boston but consider Bryant's total body of work in one of the best road trips in Lakers history: 32.8 ppg, .486 field goal shooting, 5.2 rpg, 4.5 apg.

Anyone who said that the MVP race is over better reconsider that thought, because the reality is that Bryant is playing even better than he did when he won the MVP last year and his team is even more dominant. Bryant and James are the two best players in the NBA and overall I consider them to be closely matched but I would still take Bryant at this stage of their careers--and it is certainly foolish for anyone to assert in February (let alone in December or January, when such talk began) that James had all but clinched the MVP; nobody in the NBA clinches anything in December, January or February.

Here is an interesting perspective by veteran NBA writer Mark Heisler on Kobe versus LeBron, though the article is really more about Bryant's evolution and how he is perceived than it is about him versus James:

LeBron may be the future, but the future isn't now

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

In Coach Jackson's pregame standup, he said that what concerned him most coming into this game was whether or not the officials would allow Bryant to defend James as physically as he did in their previous encounter in L.A. (as I mentioned in my recap of that game, Bryant did an excellent job of confronting James in the open court and angling him away from the paint). I asked Coach Jackson, "Against Boston, you tend to use Kobe more as a roamer or as a help defender but against Cleveland you use him more as an on-ball defender against their best player. Explain a little bit your philosophy or what factors go into your decision making about when to use Kobe as a roamer and when to use him as the defender against the other team's best offensive player."

Coach Jackson answered, "Chasing Ray Allen off of multiple picks--especially the ones that move as much as Boston's do (this aside drew some chuckles from the assembled media members)--is just not feasible. He'll wear himself out and get run into by Perkins and Garnett. So, that's the best policy. Plus, Rondo's speed and quickness is a factor that we have to address, so that (putting Kobe on Rondo) makes sense to us."

Coach Jackson spoke at length about the homecourt advantage possibly affecting this game and said that passionate fans can influence calls made by the officials (I'm not sure that the NBA will be thrilled with those remarks). He said that he does not pay particular attention before a game to which officials have been assigned but he recalled that when he was an assistant coach in New Jersey, Coach Kevin Loughery said that they should "scout the referees and forget about scouting our opponents."

I asked Coach Jackson, "Do you think that Cleveland enjoys a bigger homecourt advantage than other teams or are you just speaking of the general nature of homecourt advantage in the league?"

He replied, "There are some places that are more difficult to play. I think that all of you know that Utah is one of the most difficult places to play because the fans are literally sitting on the floor and they have extreme bias. New York is an educated crowd that is not as biased perhaps but they still are packed in. There are many places that are difficult to play but I think that this court (Cleveland) is obviously the toughest court in the league to play on because they have won 23 in a row."

***

I spoke with Lakers broadcaster Stu Lantz briefly at halftime and asked his opinion of a player comparison that has been on my mind for a while: Archie Clark and Mo Williams. Clark, a two-time All-Star during his 10 year NBA career, averaged 16.3 ppg and 4.8 apg, peaking at 25.2 ppg and 8.0 apg in 1971-72; Williams has averaged 13.1 ppg and 4.8 apg in his five-plus NBA seasons but the past two-plus years he has averaged more than 17 ppg. Lantz, who averaged 18.5 ppg in 1971-72 after scoring a career-high 20.6 ppg the year before, agreed that there are similarities between the two players. The two differences that Lantz identified are that Clark was a little bigger (listed at 6-2, while Williams is very generously listed at 6-1) and that Clark was more of a "side to side, shake and bake" ballhandler than Williams; Clark had a killer crossover before that term really came into vogue.

***

L.A. Times columnist (and Around the Horn panelist) Bill Plaschke was at the game; you can read his column about Odom's performance here. I ran into him as we were heading toward our seats prior to tipoff. Plaschke was unfamiliar with the layout at Quicken Loans Arena, so I led the way; just a few short years ago, I had come to this facility--then known as Gund Arena--for the first time as a media member and Michael Reghi--who at that time handled the local television play by play duties for the Cavs--had helped me to find the media room and I always think back to that when I have the opportunity to help someone else find their way around, even if that someone has in this case actually been in the business a lot longer than I have (but most likely had never had any reason to cover a basketball game in Cleveland before).

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:29 AM

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