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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Jeff Van Gundy Sounds Off on Iverson, Isiah and Redick

Hubie Brown and Doug Collins have long been the gold standard for NBA color commentators but Jeff Van Gundy's candor and insight have moved him up to just below their level; the only drawbacks with Van Gundy are some of his forced attempts at humor and his occasional off the wall comments (that perhaps are meant tongue in cheek).

During the telecast of New York's Friday night 105-95 win over Orlando--which must have been awkward for Van Gundy since his brother Stan coaches the Magic--Jeff Van Gundy provided concise and accurate analysis about a variety of NBA subjects:

1) Van Gundy said that it is wrong to place all of the blame for Detroit's poor performance this season on Allen Iverson. The Pistons have changed coaches and endured far more injury problems than they faced in previous seasons. Although Van Gundy did not mention this, it is also worth noting that as part of the Chauncey Billups-Iverson trade, Detroit's leading rebounder Antonio McDyess was also dealt to Denver and--by NBA rules--the Pistons could not re-sign him for a month. Van Gundy said that the rest of the Pistons are being given a free pass for their collapse from last season's 59-23 record while everyone simply piles blame on Iverson.

2) Similarly, Van Gundy said that while it is easy for everyone in New York to blast Isiah Thomas, the truth is that Thomas did a great job of selecting players in the draft, particularly his late first round selections (including David Lee and Nate Robinson). Van Gundy added that Thomas made some mistakes with his free agent signings but he deserves to be given credit for bringing in a number of young players who are playing key roles with the Knicks.

3) Van Gundy pointed out that the Knicks used a defensive strategy against the Magic that other teams would be wise to copy: single cover Dwight Howard in the post while the perimeter defenders stay attached to Orlando's three point shooters. Howard has yet to show that he can consistently go off for 35 or 40 points, so there is no need to double team him; Howard has only scored 35 points or more three times this season--and the Magic lost two of those games. Howard is often compared to Shaquille O'Neal but when O'Neal was a young beast he would drop 30 or more points on any team that single covered him, particularly in the playoffs; Howard has yet to score 30 points even once in his 14 game playoff career and has had fewer than 20 points in eight of those 14 contests. O'Neal scored 32 points in his 14th career playoff game and had only two games of fewer than 20 points in his first 14 playoff games; O'Neal added two more 30 point efforts in his next seven playoff games as he led the Magic to the NBA Finals in just his third year in the league, 1994-95, when he won the regular season scoring title with a 29.3 ppg average, a total that Howard has surpassed in just nine games this year while averaging a career-best 20.9 ppg in his fifth season.

That is why even though Howard's rebounding and defensive dominance make him a lock for the All-NBA First Team and a top five MVP candidate there is no way I would rank him ahead of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade in the MVP race--and the same thing is true of Chris Paul, another excellent player whose team can best be contained by guarding him one on one and staying attached to the three point shooters: Paul has scored 35 or more points just four times this season and his New Orleans Hornets lost three of those games. If a team is foolish enough to single cover James, Bryant or Wade, any of those players will go off for 40 or 50 points while shooting a good percentage and their teams will most likely win but Howard and Paul do not have the skill sets and/or dispositions to dominate by scoring in that fashion.

4) Van Gundy observed that the Magic do not have enough players who are capable of creating dribble penetration. Jon Barry accused the Magic of "settling for three pointers" but Van Gundy made an important distinction: the Magic are not "settling for three pointers" but in fact "maximizing what (they) do well." Van Gundy added that Rashard Lewis is not going to post up power forwards, not is Courtney Lee going to break down his man off of the dribble; other than posting up Howard, the Magic's best offensive weapon is the three point shot. This goes back to point #3: Magic opponents should strive to take away the three point shot and dare Howard to go off for 35 or 40 points.

5) J.J. Redick shot 0-7 from the field and he looked even worse on defense. Redick is averaging 6.0 ppg on .394 field goal shooting in 17.5 mpg this season and it hardly seems likely that the former Lottery pick will ever make a significant impact in the league. He is listed at 6-4, 190 but I've seen him in person and can say that 6-4 is a most generous estimate; Redick has hit the weights a bit since entering the league and may very well be a bit bigger than 190 but he is of course still giving away 15-20 pounds to most shooting guards even if he actually weighs 200. Van Gundy said that Redick is simply too short to be effective at either end of the court; on defense, opposing players can just shoot right over him, while on offense Redick's diminutive stature means that he has to alter his natural shooting motion at times even to get his shot off, which is part of the reason that he is not shooting well from the field. Barry--a 6-4, 195, 14 year NBA veteran--added that one of the biggest differences between college and the NBA is the speed of the game. In the NBA it is imperative to have a quick release, something that Redick does not have; Van Gundy and Barry mentioned that similarly sized players from the 1990s and early 2000s such as Jeff Hornacek (6-3, 190) and Dell Curry (6-4, 190) had much quicker shot releases than Redick, while a contemporary player like Kyle Korver (6-7, 210) is much bigger than Redick and has a quicker shot release. An extra inch of height or a split second quicker release may not seem like much but Van Gundy said that those things make the difference between being able to make an on balance attempt with good form and having to change your shooting motion or rush your shot. Of course, long-time 20 Second Timeout readers know that I have made similar points about Redick on many occasions, including a March Madness post in 2006 during the height of Redick's acclaimed collegiate career in which I predicted that he would be drafted higher than he should be and would likely become the next Trajan Langdon. Langdon (6-3, 197) averaged 5.4 ppg in 14.6 mpg while shooting .416 from the field in three NBA seasons and is now a productive player in Russia, thriving in FIBA play where his strengths as a spot up shooter are maximized and his weaknesses as a ballhandler and defender can be masked. Redick has averaged 5.5 ppg in 14.4 mpg while shooting .407 from the field in his three NBA seasons. Perhaps Van Gundy will enlighten David Thorpe about the true nature of Redick's skill set, since my attempt to do so fell on deaf ears.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:35 AM

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Nash-O'Neal Suns Truly Define "Quitting"

For quite some time, the Phoenix Suns had been pointing to last Sunday's showdown in Dallas as an important game, an opportunity to gain some serious ground in the race for the final Western Conference playoff berth--but after all of the buildup and all of the brave talk of closing out the season with eight straight wins, the Suns gave up 81 first half points en route to an embarrassing, humiliating and pathetic 140-116 loss that all but ended their playoff dreams (the Mavs officially clinched the final playoff spot on Wednesday, though the Mavs are not locked into the eighth position and could in fact move up). The Suns are without question the most disappointing NBA team this season and it is interesting that more attention/blame is not being focused on the two former MVPs who are ostensibly Phoenix' leaders: Steve Nash and Shaquille O'Neal.

Even with an injured Amare Stoudemire not being available down the stretch, it is inexcusable for a team as talented as the Suns to not make the playoffs--and it should be noted that the Suns were hardly tearing up the league even when Stoudemire played (30-23). With Stoudemire in the fold, the Suns have enough talent to be a championship contender, as they showed last season by going 15-5 down the stretch, including two victories over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. Even without Stoudemire, the Suns easily are talented enough to be a playoff team and they should have been fighting for home court advantage in the first round instead of failing to snare the final spot. What the Suns lack is collective mental toughness and a commitment to defense, two flaws that are obviously connected.

Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich--a four-time NBA champion--recently told me specifically how LeBron James has improved defensively and why that has helped to make the Cleveland Cavaliers a serious title contender: "I think basically he is just taking more pride in it and playing it with more purpose, understanding when stops might be very important and taking it upon himself to set that kind of an example. That's important--when your best player sets a standard, at either end of the court, everybody else follows and it's infectious. I think that he has done that to a much greater degree than he did a couple years ago." Reasoning by analogy, when the best players on a team do not play defense with "purpose" and do not set "a standard" it is only logical to assume that their team will follow suit in that regard as well: say hello to Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal and the Phoenix Suns.

Nash and O'Neal focus most of their attention on scoring, not on defense; Nash favors an uptempo offensive style and his "defense" mainly consists of the dangerous maneuver of sliding under airborne players in an attempt to draw charges, while O'Neal is primarily concerned with how many times he receives the ball in the post. When O'Neal first came to Phoenix he talked about taking a complementary role on offense while helping to transform Stoudemire into a superstar but it sure did not take long for O'Neal to begin grumbling that he should be getting the ball in the post more often (even when Stoudemire was still healthy)--which is not to say that O'Neal is no longer effective but merely to emphasize that O'Neal is a lot more concerned about his offensive touches than about doing what has to be done for the team to win. Nash and O'Neal played a major role in running off new coach Terry Porter after just 51 games precisely because Porter dared to suggest that the Suns needed to concentrate more on defense. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy rightly said that the way that Nash, Stoudemire and Grant Hill refused to buy in to Porter's system is a "blight" on their resumes--and O'Neal surely belongs on that "blight" list as well (ESPN's Marc Stein reported that during one of Porter's speeches to the team O'Neal bragged that things would be done differently after Alvin Gentry replaced Porter, which echoes the open disrespect that O'Neal displayed toward Stan Van Gundy in Miami before Van Gundy got the ax).

O'Neal had an excellent season in 2004-05--I thought that he deserved to win the regular season MVP instead of Nash--and he drew enough defensive attention in the 2006 NBA Finals to give Dwyane Wade room to go nuts and carry the Heat to the title but O'Neal's post-L.A. Lakers resume contains a lot of "blight": O'Neal presided over one of the quickest and largest collapses ever made by a championship team (from championship in 2006 to first round exit in 2007 to worst record in the league in 2008), then he went through an escape hatch to land in Phoenix where he has presided over that team's plummet from Western Conference contender to Draft Lottery participant in a year and a half. O'Neal deserves credit for still being a productive low post scorer at age 37 but the idea that he is a great teammate who everyone loves to play with surely must be questioned in light of what has happened to the Miami and Phoenix franchises under his leadership.

Watching the Mavericks shoot .600 from the field on Sunday versus the Suns as a supposedly aging Jason Kidd lit up Nash for 19 points and 20 assists (in just 30 minutes), one word kept popping into my mind: quitter. That was the allegation that was widely hurled at Kobe Bryant in the wake of the L.A. Lakers' 121-90 loss to (ironically) Phoenix in game seven of the first round of the 2006 playoffs. Bryant scored 23 first half points on 8-13 field goal shooting but in the second half he scored just one point and after the game I predicted that Bryant would be bombarded by criticism; sure enough, several commentators pounced on Bryant for allegedly pouting and quitting in the second half. I refuted those assertions thusly:

The whole scenario is very comical. Critics have spent this whole season--and much of Bryant's career--labelling Bryant a selfish gunner who cares more about scoring than winning, despite the fact that Bryant was the primary playmaker on three championship teams. Bryant did not shoot a lot for long stretches of the first four games of the series against Phoenix. Why should nefarious motives be ascribed to him not shooting during the third quarter of game seven, particularly since he was constantly double-teamed? The same guys who are blasting him now would have blasted him even more severely if he had attempted shots with two defenders on him. Mike Lupica made the comment that two defenders couldn't stop Bryant from hitting the game winner in game four, intimating that Bryant must have been pouting to not attempt more shots against double-teams in game seven. Of course Bryant can shoot--and connect--against double-teams. That is one of the things that makes him special and one of the major reasons that the Lakers even made the playoffs--but against Phoenix, Coach Phil Jackson made establishing an inside game the Lakers' top priority. Bryant went along and the strategy worked, to a point. But, as TNT's Kenny Smith astutely observed, guys who are not accustomed to being big time scorers are unlikely to be able to produce high point totals for the duration of a seven game series.

Bryant's production in the fourth quarter of game seven is a moot point, because the game was long out of reach by then; people who are making a big deal of him only attempting three shots in the entire second half are ignoring the fact that the Lakers had no realistic chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, whether Bryant sat for the whole quarter (like LeBron James did on Sunday--see below) or jacked up 15 shots in 12 minutes--even down the stretch of the third it was apparent that only a complete Phoenix collapse could save the Lakers. What happened in game seven is that Bryant played the same way that he played in the Lakers' wins but his teammates failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities to score against one-on-one (or one-on-none) coverage while two defenders shadowed Bryant's every move; how exactly is this Bryant's fault?

The LeBron James game referred to in that post was game six of Cleveland's series with Detroit; as it later turned out, game seven of the Detroit-Cleveland series provided an even better comparison with Bryant's game seven performance, as James scored just six points on 1-9 second half shooting in a 79-61 Detroit victory. In the first half of that game, James scored 21 points on 10-15 shooting--virtually identical numbers to Bryant's first half production in game seven versus Phoenix--but in the wake of James' subpar second half no one suggested that James had quit. After the Detroit-Cleveland game I wrote:

Yet I would be willing to bet that no one is going to accuse LeBron of being selfish or quitting or pouting--and don't tell me that this was different because the game was close for a longer stretch of time or that LeBron was being more aggressive than Kobe. LeBron's "aggressiveness" in the second half consisted of taking forced jumpers, committing offensive fouls and attempting off balance drives; it was not a productive aggressiveness. What happened in both game sevens to these superstars is very simple: their teammates did not meet the challenge of playing in a game seven. Neither Kobe nor LeBron could accumulate assists because none of their teammates could make a shot. Their teammates were so inept that the other team could double-team them at will and then send even more defenders once they put the ball on the floor. Kobe did the best that he could to carry his team to a game seven and then to give his team the best chance to win that game seven--and so did LeBron. The question is why will these two performances be written about and discussed in such different terms. The answer is simple: a lot of people don't like Kobe--they are "haters" and whether Kobe shoots 30 times or 3 they will always criticize him.

Why do I blame Nash and O'Neal for the Suns' blowout loss to Dallas on Sunday and the team's disappointing season but not blame Bryant or James for those game seven losses? Simple--Nash and O'Neal have a very good supporting cast this year in Phoenix, while in 2006 neither Bryant nor James had good enough supporting casts to beat Phoenix and Detroit respectively. In fact, it is a tribute to the greatness of both Bryant and James that they forced those series to seven games. James had more help that season than Bryant did but James' supporting cast was clearly neither talented enough nor mentally strong enough to compete with a powerful Pistons team in a series deciding game in Detroit.

Look at the boxscore of the Suns-Lakers game: Lakers not named Kobe Bryant shot 24-75 from the field (and they played even worse on defense than they did on offense). The other four Lakers starters in that game were Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Luke Walton: Odom remains a talented enigma, Parker is out of the league and Walton and Brown are best suited to being reserve players, yet Bryant led that group to the seventh playoff seed in the competitive Western Conference and then carried them to a seventh game against a bona fide championship contender.

Three years ago, I maintained that if Bryant had played with Nash's supporting cast he would have taken that team to the Finals, while if Nash had been saddled with Bryant's supporting cast he would not even have made the playoffs. We will never be able to test that hypothesis in the real world but I think that the performance of this season's Suns team provides some strong evidence supporting my assertion: Stoudemire started in more than 60% of the Suns' games this season, but even leaving him completely out of the equation, would you take that 2006 Lakers group that Bryant carried to the seventh seed over the Suns' current starting lineup of Nash, O'Neal, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson and Matt Barnes that will miss the playoffs entirely? If you have to think more than a second before answering that question then you are at the wrong website and should go back to ESPN.com, Yahoo! or SlamOnline for your NBA "analysis."

This story would not be complete without mentioning that in the wake of carrying that ragtag Lakers crew to the playoffs, Bryant received more first place votes (22) in the 2006 NBA MVP voting than anyone except for Nash (57) but Bryant finished fourth overall (behind Nash, James and Dirk Nowitzki) because more than 20 voters--one sixth of the pool--left him off of their ballots completely, meaning that they did not consider Bryant to be one of the top five players in the NBA. I will never understand how anyone can objectively look at that season and not conclude that Bryant was clearly the best player in the NBA and it is absurd that anyone could suggest that he was not even among the top five performers.

Why am I talking about the 2006 NBA MVP race and a 2006 Suns-Lakers playoff game in a post about the 2009 Phoenix Suns? Simple--history is important and context is important: that 2006 NBA MVP race is a permanent part of NBA history and the faulty commentary about that 2006 playoff game is still used as a hammer to chisel away at Bryant's reputation; I recently had a discussion with another writer about this year's MVP race and he cited that game as "proof" of a character flaw in Bryant in contrast to LeBron James, who--ironically enough, as noted above--had a virtually identical second half performance in a much closer game seven playoff loss that very same year.

As time passes, the faulty NBA commentary and biased MVP voting from past seasons are being completely exposed, while insights that I offered three years ago that may have been ignored at that time have proven to be quite prescient. I concluded my post about the 2006 game seven between Detroit and Cleveland with this analysis:

Near the end of the season, I wrote an article for ProBasketballNews.com in which I said that Kobe should be voted MVP; I ranked LeBron fifth "with a bullet" at that time. I would move LeBron up to number two after seeing him perform in the playoffs. He is still not good enough defensively to be placed ahead of Kobe. During the ABC telecast of game seven, Hubie Brown repeatedly pointed out that Tayshaun Prince was the one Detroit player who consistently met or exceeded his regular season performance throughout the series. Prince had a superb game seven and he played 47 minutes--which is nothing new for him since he led Detroit in minutes played during the series. Well, who had the primary defensive responsibility on Prince? LeBron James. There was a beautiful play in the second half when Hamilton came off of a baseline screen and received a pass in the lane; LeBron turned his head and Prince cut to the basket, drawing a foul. LeBron's on ball defense has improved a lot and he uses his athleticism to get steals and blocked shots in the open court but his off the ball defense is still not at a championship level. I am sure that he will improve in this area. In one of the post-game press conferences during this series, LeBron talked about not listening to what Charles Barkley or other critics say about his game--but he then listed some of what has been said about him, showing that he is indeed aware of his shortcomings and has worked hard to eliminate them. If their teams improve their rosters just a little bit, Kobe and LeBron will be battling for MVP trophies and championships for years to come.

While it may not have been an entirely bold prediction to suggest that Bryant and James would be top MVP contenders for the next several seasons, how many other people asserted in 2006 that in a short time the Lakers and Cavs would soon be in the hunt for championships? James has methodically and ruthlessly attacked the skill set weaknesses that I mentioned above and in other posts, while Bryant's Lakers upgraded a subpar supporting cast enough so that Bryant is no longer going into gun battles with "butter knives." Bryant and James have consistently done everything in their power to help their teams win, with Bryant continuing to maintain the best all-around skill set in the NBA and James eliminating his few weaknesses one by one; can Nash and O'Neal honestly say the same thing about their performances--not just their offensive statistics but their leadership and their focus (or lack thereof) on defense--for the 2009 Suns?

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:27 PM

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Michael Jordan Views Hall of Fame Induction as Sign of Mortality

It is said that an athlete dies twice. Rarely has there been a more poignant--and somewhat surreal--illustration of that concept than Michael Jordan's Basketball Hall of Fame press conference. Many athletes have been moved to tears upon being selected as Hall of Famers--and many deserving athletes who are on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame want nothing more than to receive that fateful call announcing that they have joined the immortals of their sport. Jordan, who heads this year's class of David Robinson, Jerry Sloan, C. Vivian Stringer and John Stockton, had a decidedly different take on being chosen:

This is not fun for me. I don't like being up here for the Hall of Fame because at that time your basketball career is completely over. I was hoping this day would be 20 more years, or actually go in when I'm dead and gone. Because now, all along...you always [could] put shorts on and go out and play. Now, when you get into the Hall of Fame, what else is there to do? This is kind of a love-hate thing for me--great accomplishment, great respect that everybody's paying, but for me, I always want to be able to have you thinking that I can always go back and play the game of basketball, put my shorts on. As long as you have that thought, you never know what can happen...Am I? No. But I'd like for you to think that way. Hall of Fame, to me, is like, 'OK, it's over and done with, it's pretty much done, you can't ever put a uniform back on.' It's totally the end of your basketball career. But it's a great accomplishment. I don't walk away from it. But I never envisioned myself really wanting to be up here so quickly. I wanted it to be when I'm 70 years old, 80 years old. I'm 45 and I still think I can play. You guys don't know if I can or can't but at least I've got you thinking that way.

Jordan sounded and looked more than wistful; it seemed like he really wanted to rip off his suit, put on a jersey and challenge Kobe Bryant or LeBron James to a game of one on one right now. It does not surprise me that Jordan feels this way and I suspect that a few other Hall of Fame inductees had similar thoughts pass through their minds but I've never heard anyone explicitly say such things so strongly--Jordan seemed to be dead serious when he said that he would rather not be put in the Hall of Fame until he is either old or even dead. As I watched him utter those words, I had decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, I appreciate how extraordinarily competitive he is; nothing will ever be as fulfilling or meaningful to him as those moments when he was at the peak of his powers and simply killing anyone who stood in his way. When Jordan retired for the first time and said that he was going to spend more time with his family that statement was plainly absurd, because Jordan is as single-mindedly devoted to what he does best as any other genius is single-mindedly devoted to his passion; a PBS special about Albert Einstein noted that the great physicist wrote out a series of demands that his wife had to follow in order to stay married to him, including to only speak to him when spoken to first by him and to deliver him his food precisely when he wanted it so that he could eat in solitude while he pondered the mysteries of the universe: geniuses--whether in sports, physics or any other field--often place greater value on their work than they do on relationships with other people. When ESPN aired those "SportsCentury" documentaries a decade ago, it struck me that Jack Nicklaus was about the only person who could claim to be the greatest at what he did who appeared to have a somewhat "normal" family life and relationships with other people.

At the same time that I very clearly understand exactly how Jordan feels and why he said what he said, I could not help but think of The ABA's Unsung Heroes, players like Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and Artis Gilmore: induction in the Hall of Fame would mean so much to them, to their families and to everyone who was affiliated with the ABA. Sadly, they will likely never receive the recognition that they deserve, while Jordan--who knew that he would be a first ballot selection--trivialized the highest honor in the sport. I'm sure that Jordan did not mean for his comments to be taken that way--if nothing else, he is way too focused on his own thoughts and feelings to even consider how what he said could be interpreted regarding larger issues--but in some ways what he said was a slap in the face to everyone who has been inducted in the Hall of Fame as well as to people who should have received that honor long ago but have been snubbed. Jordan is not concerned with being a sports immortal because he considers such status to be a given in his case but most people treasure being chosen as a Hall of Famer.

Jordan's bold defiance of the natural order--the aging process that cruelly robs all of us of our youth, our talents and ultimately our very existence--is at once inspiring and sad; it is what made him so great but it could also end up making him a very miserable old man if he does not find an outlet for his competitive juices or a way to channel all of that energy into other endeavors. If Jordan never discovers anything else that provides meaning or value to him then the next few decades of his life could prove to be very empty. When he is 75 years old is he going to be limping on to the court before game one of the Finals and still proclaiming that he wants everyone to think that he can still play? When Jordan says that at age 45, for at least a second you think that maybe he really could still compete, at least for a few minutes in a half court set--but not too long from now, such declarations are going to seem more delusional or pathetic than proud or defiant. Hopefully, Jordan can emulate the path of Jerry West and Joe Dumars and be satisfied to sublimate his personal competitive urges to the task of building a championship team but somehow I doubt that even winning a championship as an executive would mean a fraction as much to Jordan as the chance to play just one more NBA game as a dominant player.

Andrea Jaeger is an elite athlete (the second ranked tennis player in the world in 1981) who has devoted her post-tennis life to helping ease the suffering of ill children; Jaeger is obviously an exceptional example but perhaps Jordan would be more at peace--and could help make the world a better place--if he uses the profile he has acquired and the resources at his disposal to help people who are less fortunate than he is. Garry Kasparov--arguably the greatest chess champion of all-time--is the same age as Jordan and has been retired from competitive chess nearly as long as Jordan has been retired from the NBA but Kasparov has created a second life for himself as a political activist, author and strong supporter of chess as a positive activity for young people.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 PM

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Cavs Bounce Back, Rout Spurs

LeBron James set the tone by scoring 18 first quarter points and he finished with 38 points, seven rebounds and six assists as the Cleveland Cavaliers ended their two game losing streak by beating the San Antonio Spurs 101-81. Delonte West and Mo Williams added 22 points each, mainly by draining open looks after the Spurs were forced to double team James lest he score 50 or 60 points. Only three other Cavs scored but the Cavs held the Spurs to .392 field goal shooting and won the rebounding battle 44-34. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 24 points but former Cav Drew Gooden (15 points) was the only other Spur who scored more than eight points; Tim Duncan had just six points on 2-7 field goal shooting, while Manu Ginobili scored four points on 2-9 field goal shooting.

The three foundations of Cleveland's success are defense, rebounding and the individual brilliance of LeBron James and all three of those elements played crucial roles in this win. Cleveland's defense and rebounding versus the Spurs are even more impressive considering that the Cavs were without the services not only of Ben Wallace (broken bone in his right leg) but also Anderson Varejao, who was a late scratch due to a wrist injury; it is not clear exactly when/how Varejao got hurt or when he will return to action.

Like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, James often eases into a game, involving his teammates early and then shouldering the scoring load late--but following disappointing losses to Washington and Orlando, James decided to be very aggressive right from the start versus San Antonio. He shot 6-9 from the field and made all six of his free throws in the first quarter. Four of those six field goals were midrange jumpers, including three from the left wing and a turnaround shot from the right elbow, the shot that became a trademark move for Jordan during the latter stages of his career. James is still an erratic midrange shooter but this game provided a glimpse of just how good he could become if he starts to consistently connect from that area; basically, he can be a "supersized" version of Jordan or Bryant, because there is no defense for a player who goes to the hoop as powerfully as James does and who can make the midrange shot. It remains to be seen how long it will take for James to fully and completely develop that aspect of his game but what he did on Sunday has to send a shiver up and down the spines of the other 29 NBA coaches.

After James' 18 point first quarter, the Spurs began to "blitz" (double team) him as soon as he caught the ball, sometimes even sending that second defender toward him while the pass was still in the air. James is a very poised and unselfish player who instantly reads situations and makes the right pass; in other words, he does not hold the ball or even just make a generic pass out of the trap: he zeroes in on who has been left open in shooting range and delivers the ball right in that player's shooting pocket, which is why West and Williams not only had big games but shot 10-15 and 9-15 from the field respectively.

It is interesting to note that even with James' early scoring outburst the Cavs only led 28-27 after the first quarter. Cleveland broke the game open in the second quarter as their reserves outplayed San Antonio's reserves. As San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich said after the game, "When we subbed in the second quarter is when everything went south--and he (James) wasn't on the court." There is a misconception in some quarters that James does not have as much help as, say, Kobe Bryant does with the Lakers, but the reality is that the Cavs are at least 10 deep with veteran players who have playoff experience and can be productive for at least 15 minutes per game if necessary: Wally Szczerbiak is a former All-Star, Sasha Pavlovic started for the Cavs in 2007 when they made it to the Finals, Joe Smith is a former number one overall draft pick, Daniel Gibson hit many big shots during the 2007 playoffs and Varejao--who has been starting only since Ben Wallace got hurt--is an excellent defender, rebounder and screener. Even young players such as J.J. Hickson, Darnell Jackson--who started on Sunday for Varejao, contributing four points and five rebounds--and Tarence Kinsey have been productive during spot duty throughout this season.

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown was understandably pleased with how his team responded to the mini losing streak. In his postgame standup he said, "I thought that at the beginning of the game we had a few breakdowns defensively but as the course of the game went on, our guys' focus, energy and effort got better and better. That was great to see. Defensively, we have gotten hurt in transition the last two games, so it was good to see us get back and not give up any easy (baskets)." Brown made an adjustment to his normal rotation by playing West and Williams together with the second unit in order to have multiple players on the court who can create shots for themselves and for their teammates.

After Parker's big first quarter, James often had the defensive assignment against the super quick point guard. Coach Brown explained, "We've done that in the past. We did it in the (2007) Finals. We just knew going into the game that first we were going to play our traditional defense, then if that hurt us we were going to play Tony soft and give him the jump shot coming off (screens) with a late contest and then if he knocked down those shots we were going to put a bigger body on him, which is LeBron. Our pick and roll defense was getting hurt initially and then Tony started hitting jump shots, so we continued playing Tony soft but just put a bigger body on him so that when he came off and we got a late contest maybe he will see that body more than when we play him with a guy his size."

While the Cavs have been a dominant defensive team this season, the Spurs have had a subpar year--at least by their lofty standards--at that end of the court; the Spurs rank just 10th in defensive field goal percentage, the statistic that Coach Gregg Popovich looks at first when evaluating his team's performance (see Notes From Courtside). Although 10th in a league of 30 teams may not seem that bad, the last time that the Spurs ranked lower than fifth in this category was the 1996-97 season, when Popovich fired Bob Hill after a 3-15 start and took over as the head coach. Under Popovich, the Spurs have led the league in defensive field goal percentage three times and ranked in the top three seven times in the past 11 seasons.

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Notes From Courtside:

During Coach Popovich's pregame standup, he said that the Cavs are "a significantly better team" than they were in 2007, when the Spurs swept them in the NBA Finals. "We definitely caught them at the right time (in 2007). They understand Mike's system much better (now). They are a deeper team--the pieces fit better and there is more talent. The most important ingredient, LeBron, has really matured. He's worked on his game. He is sharing with his teammates, he is depending on them more, the way that Kobe depends on his teammates more. He has worked on his shooting. He is a much more confident player in that respect. For all of those reasons the improvement is obvious and that is why they are a top contender to win the championship this year."

I asked Popovich, "What specific improvements have you seen with LeBron defensively? What do you notice that is different from earlier in his career?"

He replied, "I'm glad that you mentioned that. I think basically he is just taking more pride in it and playing it with more purpose, understanding when stops might be very important and taking it upon himself to set that kind of an example. That's important--when your best player sets a standard, at either end of the court, everybody else follows and it's infectious. I think that he has done that to a much greater degree than he did a couple years ago." In response to a followup by USA TODAY's Chris Colston, Popovich said that the Olympic experience was good for James and many other members of Team USA, because the players learned by "osmosis" the importance of unselfishness and defense. The crucial role that Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd played in emphasizing those things cannot be stressed enough; this not only helped to bring the gold medal back to the United States, but elevated the games of James and other young stars who proved to be eager and enthusiastic students.

I then asked Popovich, "When you evaluate your team, either after a game or after a series of games, what are one or two statistical areas that you particularly look at?" Mindful of Popovich's tendency to sometimes answer questions sarcastically--though I felt that I was on safe ground because I was not asking the sort of banal and/or stupid questions that bring forth sarcastic replies from him--I added, "Other than the final score, of course--the sarcastic answer." At that point, Popovich reassuringly said, "Sure," making it clear that he did not intend to give a sarcastic reply, and I concluded, "What categories do you look at to see if your team is on target or not?"

Popovich answered, "The first thing that I always look at is field goal percentage defense. To me, that tells a lot about how things are going. At that point, I just look for aberrations--have we been getting our clock cleaned on the offensive boards or did we have an inordinate amount of turnovers, that sort of thing. Field goal percentage defense is what I look at. Offensively, I don't look at much, because it is obvious--either you shot well or you didn't. Either you made your free throws or you didn't. Those aren't very controllable but rebounds are more controllable, turnovers are more controllable. Defense is controllable. So those are the things that I look at."

I asked Popovich what his defensive field goal percentage goal is but he said, "I don't have a number in mind. It changes year in and year out based on possessions and competition but it's usually going to be in the low 40s--difficult to do, but that's what you'd love to have. I don't know what Cleveland is right now--I think that they are number one or number two in field goal percentage defense."

I informed him that Cleveland is holding teams to right around .420-.430 field goal shooting and he said simply, "That's good."

Popovich has a very high opinion of Mike Brown, who was a member of San Antonio's staff during the 2003 championship season: "The basic qualities that make Mike a wonderful coach are, number one, he has a game plan that he believes in. He knows what he wants to coach and teach. That's the first step. A coach has to feel very confident in what he is teaching and know it inside and out. I think that secondly he understands that no team wins championships without being a hell of a defensive squad. He has done that consistently, been persistent, has demanded year in and year out, practice to practice, game to game that everybody understands that. A lot of coaches give in but he hasn't, so his overall system and the emphasis on defense are what are really important basically to go after an NBA championship. After that, I think that he is a great people person. He is willing to talk to players, he's willing to listen, he has a sense of humor--all of those things are important in an 82 game season. He added to our defensive philosophy (as an assistant coach in San Antonio). I put things in the program that he initiated...Some people just have it and he's got it."

When I recently asked Coach Brown what he thought about Houston's reliance on basketball statistical analysis, he replied, "Not to knock that, because I think it is great to use if you have some solid information, but how many championships has that gotten them?" Naturally, I sought out Popovich's take on this issue as well: "Did you see the article in the New York Times about how Houston uses 'advanced' statistics both in how they evaluate players and how they game plan?"

He answered, "I know about it."

I then asked, "What is your opinion about that kind of use of statistics? How much do you rely on that kind of thing versus the eyeball test?"

He said, "I think it's just a common sense thing--by the seat of the pants, eyeball, 'feel,' is very important. Stats can be important. Both can be taken to the point of diminishing returns. So it's a common sense thing that works."

I told Popovich, "Coach Brown said that when he was on your staff that you very much went by feel but that P.J. (Carlesimo) was much more stat oriented and he kept telling you about this number and that number."

"That would be an accurate statement," Popovich replied.

"So you are more of a 'feel' coach in general, even though you said that it can be done either way?" I asked.

"Yes. I would depend more on what I see and feel than on overdosing on stats."

***

Before the game, I approached San Antonio defensive specialist Bruce Bowen--a five time All-Defensive First Team member--but he told me that he only talks to the press after the game. This kind of thing annoys some media members and probably is not permitted under a strict interpretation of media availability rules but I understand and respect that every player has his own way of getting mentally and physically prepared to play. On the other hand, the reason that I try to talk to players before games--particularly when my questions are of a general nature and not specific to a particular game--is that if their team gets blown out or they get ejected or something else goes awry then they may either not be available after the game or may not be in a mood to say much of substance. Bowen scored two points on 1-4 shooting and had a -17 plus/minus number in 17 minutes of action, so you can imagine how he must have felt after Sunday's game. I went up to him in the locker room and reminded him gently that he had promised to talk and I noted that I only had a few questions about the general subject of defense. Understandably, he was hardly enthusiastic, but he did not shoo me away, either, so I asked my first question: "Are you familiar with the New York Times article about how the Rockets use statistical analysis to decide how to play defense, particularly in terms of trying to force Kobe to certain areas of the court? Did you see that article or hear about it?"

Bowen replied, "I haven't. Didn't see it or hear about it."

I then asked, "When you play against Kobe or LeBron, do you look at that kind of stuff, like how they shoot from certain areas of the court? How do you decide how to guard players like that?"

Bowen said, "Nine times out of 10, it's what the coaches want. You get the game plan from the coaches and you go from there. I don't think that you can force anybody in this league to go to a certain particular point to shoot the ball or anything like that. They are All-Stars for a reason, because they are able to do things on the floor that others can't. I don't know about all that mumbo jumbo."

I asked Bowen to describe the similarities and differences from his perspective regarding playing defense against Kobe Bryant and LeBron James but he said, "I haven't put too much thought into that right now, so it would be hard for me to give you a sufficient answer about that."

***

Ben Wallace--who is still on the inactive list--warmed up on the court prior to the game. He wore a black protective covering on his lower right leg and noticeably favored that leg as he shot from various midrange areas, including the free throw line. He jogged through some basic sets with an assistant coach, setting screens and then popping out to shoot jumpers. He tended to shoot well on his first few attempts but then miss wildly the longer he shot from the same spot. For instance, he hit seven of his first nine attempts from the right baseline but ended up making 11 out of 20 from that area. He shot 10-17 on midrange jumpers from the left baseline. Wallace shoots a better percentage on practice jumpers then you might expect from watching him shoot during games but it is important to keep in mind that great NBA shooters typically shoot 80% or better on uncontested practice shots from midrange areas, so making more than half of those shots is not a tremendous percentage, even if the casual fan might be surprised that Wallace can do that in light of his dismal free throw percentage.

***

Eric Snow, who was technically still on Cleveland's roster but did not appear in a game this season and has been working as a commentator for NBA TV, was formally released by the Cavaliers on Sunday due to medical reasons. The knee injury that he suffered prior to the 2007-08 season ultimately ended his career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:50 PM

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