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Friday, April 24, 2009

Rewriting History: Julius Erving's Dunk Over Michael Cooper, According to Inside Stuff Magazine

I was going through my archive of old basketball magazines when I came across the May 2005 issue of Inside Stuff. Page 18 featured a cool frame by frame photo spread of Julius Erving's famous dunk over Michael Cooper:


My favorite part of the play is when Cooper at first looks like he is going to try to block Erving's shot but then Cooper not only lowers his arm but covers his head!

There are two problems with the Inside Stuff feature about this play: one is the bold headline reading "Julius Erving: 1983 NBA Finals, Philadelphia 76ers vs. Los Angeles Lakers." The dunk actually took place in a January 5, 1983 regular season game that the Sixers won, 122-120. Erving's steal and slam put the Sixers up by four points with 1:27 remaining, so it was not only a spectacular highlight but it was also a key sequence in a matchup between the teams that met in the 1982 Finals and would square off again in the 1983 Finals. The second problem is the note in small print that crawls up the side of the page stating "Dr. J is the 76ers all-time leader in blocked shots with 1942." Erving blocked 1941 shots in the 15 seasons of his career during which the ABA and NBA officially recorded statistics in that category (no such numbers were tracked during his rookie campaign), including 1293 in the 11 seasons that he played for the 76ers.

It should not surprise anyone that Inside Stuff was edited by Ming Wong, whose handiwork I have previously discussed here. Apparently, the way to advance in this business is to not know the history of the sport and to produce sloppy work; I guess I should have figured that out early in my career when I wrote for Basketball Digest, a magazine that has since folded: I would submit articles that needed absolutely no editing either in terms of writing style or factual information--something that is a lot rarer in this field than you may suspect--but when I received the issue in the mail I would often find to my dismay that some fool had "corrected" my article by making my prose clumsier and including inaccurate statistics and photo captions. The nice thing about using a blogging platform is that I have 100% control over my content; I am not perfect by any means but at least a mistake posted here under my name is truly my own and I can correct it in an instant when either I or an eagle-eyed reader sees it. I must also add that it is great to work with editors like Sam Amico of ProBasketballNews.com and Tariq Ali of CavsNews.com, both of whom are a lot better at their craft than some people in this field who are much more well known.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:40 AM

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cavs Build 29 Point Lead, Coast to 94-82 Win Over Pistons

The Cleveland Cavaliers used a powerful three pronged offensive attack led by LeBron James plus stifling defense to race to a 29 point lead versus the sputtering Detroit Pistons en route to a 94-82 victory, placing Detroit in a 2-0 hole. James finished with game-high totals in points (29) and rebounds (13), adding six assists while committing only two turnovers. He thrilled the crowd with two sensational third quarter dunks: a two handed monster jam off of a slick bounce pass from Mo Williams at the 5:19 mark to put the Cavs up 61-44 and a two handed windmill fastbreak dunk that made the score 68-46 Cleveland with 3:27 left. Williams established playoff career-highs in points (21) and assists (seven), while Delonte West had 20 points and four assists, though he did commit a game-high five turnovers.

Richard Hamilton led Detroit with 17 points. Antonio McDyess grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds but only scored eight points on 3-9 shooting. Kwame Brown had the most interesting stat line of the night, accumulating more fouls (five) than points (zero) and rebounds (three) combined. The Cavs outrebounded the Pistons 43-34 and held them to .395 field goal shooting (32-81), though Cleveland only shot .424 from the field (28-66), a low percentage largely due to a 1-11 outing by Cleveland's reserves.

It would not seem like there could be much drama in such a game--many writers headed to the media room after the third quarter to get a head start on their game stories and some of the fans behind the media section asked me if I could switch one of the TV monitors to the channel featuring the Cleveland Indians game--but when James and the starters went to the bench in the fourth quarter the Pistons suddenly roared to life and cut the lead to 82-68 with 7:15 remaining. Even after James, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao rode in like the cavalry to try to save the day, the Pistons continued their rally, narrowing the gap to 84-77 at the 3:51 mark. Then the Cavs got three straight stops and James, West and Williams each made a pair of free throws to reestablish control of the game. After another Cavs stop, James grabbed the rebound and fired a perfect outlet pass to Williams, who scored a layup and got fouled. Williams missed the free throw but the Cavs enjoyed a 92-77 lead with just 2:19 remaining, so the outcome was no longer in doubt.

The Cavs opened the game with a 10-2 run and never trailed. A 23-14 first quarter lead expanded to 46-32 by halftime, 77-50 after three quarters and 79-50 early in the fourth quarter. TNT's Kenny Smith has said several times that he believes that the playoff experience of Detroit's veterans actually works against the Pistons in this series because those guys have seen enough postseason action to understand quite clearly that their team has no chance to beat Cleveland in a seven game series; Smith thinks that this explains the lackluster way that the starters are performing and maybe he has a point, because Detroit's young reserves entered the game in the fourth quarter and played their hearts out, continuing to gain ground even for a few minutes after Cleveland's starters returned to the fray. Naturally, this is a sensitive issue for Detroit and after the game when Hamilton was asked about why the starters played so sluggishly compared to the reserves he deftly deflected that question by focusing his response on how well Detroit's second unit played: "I thought the bench did a great job. I thought they came in the fourth quarter and did a lot of things that our starters didn't do. They talked. They were on a string (defensively); when one guy got beat, another guy was there. Rotations were good."

Detroit Coach Michael Curry thought that the reserves set an example that the starters should follow during the rest of the series: "I think with the second group it showed it doesn't matter what we do coverage-wise. If you go out, execute it and do it extremely hard, we'll be okay. We cover a lot of ground. We showed on the pick and rolls. We trapped. They brought LeBron back in, we trapped, rotated, covered the shooters. Physically we were able to get it done and rebound the basketball as well. That's what we take from it--things we are trying to do and the things we are talking about doing going into the game, we can do it."

Not surprisingly, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown--who received the Red Auerbach Trophy (and a much deserved standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 20,562) prior to the game in honor of winning the 2009 Coach of the Year Award--preferred to focus his postgame remarks on the first three quarters of the game: "I thought our guys played a great three quarters of basketball. First, second and third quarters we were very good on both ends of the floor. I thought we moved the ball well in terms of ball reversals. We threw the ball ahead, trying to get some easy baskets. I thought we set screens for one another. I thought we spaced the floor very well. I thought, offensively, all of our staples were there. That was great to see, fun to watch. Defensively, I thought we did things terrific, too, in the first three quarters. We shrunk the floor; we made that paint look crowded. We didn't give up a ton of middle drives. We contested shots. We kept them off the glass. We did a lot of good things in the first three quarters basketball-wise. In the fourth quarter, offensively their second or third unit, however you want to call it, did a great job. You have to give them credit. They got up into us and we didn't respond well with the guys we had on the floor, so we had to go back to our starters to close the game, which they did a terrific job of doing."

One of the most remarkable things about James is the poise that he maintains on and off the court. He does not overreact to anything and when he was asked after the game about the poor performance of Cleveland's bench players he struck just the right tone: "We did a great job offensively and defensively and we played great basketball for the first three quarters. I think that in the fourth quarter we just got a little content, which we cannot do in the playoffs. We cannot allow ourselves to get content...As starters or as guys, we are all a team, so we had no problem going back in and finishing out the game. We all win together and we all lose together. We all play well together and sometimes we don't play well together, so there is no blame for anybody. The biggest thing is that we got a win but we know that we cannot allow ourselves to not close out a game the right way."

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

Prior to the game, I had the opportunity to interview Cavs General Manager Danny Ferry. This season, I have asked both Cavs Coach Mike Brown and Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich to give their thoughts about the February 13, 2009 New York Times article that described how Houston General Manager Daryl Morey uses statistics to make player evaluations. The article focuses on Morey's acquisition of Shane Battier, though the author neglected to mention that the Rockets gave up a very promising young player (Rudy Gay) in order to get Battier.

Brown and Popovich both indicated very strongly to me that they are not "numbers guys." Ferry has a reputation of being at least somewhat a "numbers guy" and it has been reported that well respected "stat guru" Dan Rosenbaum has been advising the Cavs since the start of the 2005-06 season.

Friedman: "Did you have a chance to read the New York Times article about the use of advanced statistics to analyze basketball?"

Ferry: "Yes."

Friedman: "What did you think of that article in general? How much do you use advanced statistics?"

Ferry: "I read the article. I thought that it was a good article. I believe in using statistical analysis as part of your decision making process. Every team will look at things and do things differently based off of how they read the stats but I think it definitely has a place in studying the draft and it definitely has a place in studying in free agency and it has a place in getting ready for games."

Friedman: "You've been in the NBA a long time first as a player, then in the Spurs front office and now with the Cavs. How much has the use of statistics--and the sophistication of the statistics being used--increased during the period of time that you have been in the NBA?"

Ferry: "I think it has increased dramatically, over the past five years in particular. I think that owners, general managers and teams in general have looked at what baseball has done (with statistics) and know, obviously, that they can't recreate baseball--it's a different game with a different set up and a different structure and you look at the statistics differently--but it challenges you to think a little more analytically about the decision making process."

Friedman: "One thing that could be said to be different about baseball and basketball is that baseball is a station to station game--the pitcher throws the ball, the hitter hits it, the fielder fields it and each thing is a discrete action that can be evaluated--while in a basketball game you have 10 players in motion at once. Do you think that difference makes it more challenging to come up with accurate metrics for basketball than it is for baseball?"

Ferry: "I think that you can get accurate metrics for basketball but you also have to understand that it is a static thing and that whether it is baseball, whether it is football or anything, to just make decisions off of statistics would be a mistake but it can be an important part of the equation in basketball. I believe it can be."

Friedman: "If you are looking at either your team or at an opposing team, are there certain statistics that you consider to be very reliable to say that a given team is performing efficiently? For instance, are there numbers that you zero in on and say that if a team is doing well at this then I know that they are good defensively or that they are good offensively?"

Ferry: "You can look at points per possession, you can look at pace of play. There are a lot of different numbers--plus/minus statistics for players, adjusted plus/minus statistics for players, rebound rates. There are all different kinds of things that you can look at from a team standpoint and also from an individual player standpoint."

Friedman: "Are there certain particular stats you focus on from a team standpoint? Individual stats were going to be my next question. Are there certain team stats that you value over the others?"

Ferry: "Probably the one that we look at the most is just regular old defensive field goal percentage, because that is something the guys all see. It is also something that a statistics person would look at, beat it up and say that we are crazy to look at it but for us it is something that we can see that is right in front of our eyes and that our coaching staff is very comfortable using. Now, do we have other layers on top of that that we look at behind the scenes? Yes."

Friedman: "Can you describe--"

Ferry: "No."

Friedman (laughs): "OK, I had to ask, but I understand if you can't. From an individual player standpoint, obviously you expect different things from players at different positions--a point guard has different responsibilities than a center and so forth--but when you are evaluating players in a general sense, you mentioned plus/minus before, is there a metric that you look at that you think gives you a good gauge in general on players?"

Ferry: "Yes."

Friedman: "And again you can't say which one?"

Ferry: "No."

Friedman: "OK, I understand."

Ferry: "I don't want everybody to know how I look at things, necessarily. Other people may look at things differently."

Friedman: "I have asked the same or similar questions to Coach Brown and Coach Popovich. Coach Brown said to me that he is not really a big stat guy, that he goes more by feel. Coach Popovich said the same thing. Obviously, you already know this because you have dealt with both of them a lot longer than I have but I am just indicating what my research has been. On that continuum, are you more of a stat guy than they are?"

Ferry: "I am more interested in statistical analysis than Pop and Mike but that is not saying a whole lot."

Friedman: "Well, that is interesting because it may have a different value to you than to them. Your angle has more to do with player evaluation, while they are coaching and dealing with what is going on during games. Those things are not exactly the same, although they can overlap."

Ferry: "No, but I will look at how we are playing and what we are doing as a team as well. I like looking at statistical analysis things whether I am looking at our team or looking at other teams or looking at free agents. There is a place for it but it is only a small part of the equation."

Ferry also clarified for me something that Brown and Popovich had both mentioned about P.J. Carlesimo, who looks at stats much more than they do; Ferry explained that Carlesimo--who wa an assistant coach with Brown on Popovich's staff several years ago--relies mainly on traditional boxscore statistics, such as fast break points, as opposed to the newer, "advanced" stats, so the input that Carlesimo offered in that regard would not have been of interest to either the new wave stat guys nor to coaches like Brown and Popovich who rely more on feel than they do on new or old stats. Hopefully at some point I will have an opportunity to speak with Carlesimo not only about this subject but also about why he chose to play Kevin Durant at shooting guard instead of small forward, a decision that Scott Brooks reversed (with tremendously positive results) as soon as he took over for Carlesimo as Oklahoma City's head coach.

I mentioned to Ferry that I think that he has done an excellent job of making the Cavs arguably the deepest team in the league, one of the few teams that truly has a full complement of shooters, rebounders, defenders and passers, with reserve players being more than capable of stepping in if someone gets hurt or is in foul trouble. When I said this to Ferry, I focused on the 10 man rotation and while he appreciated the compliment he made the point that in addition to those players he really likes players 11-15, particularly 24 year old Tarence Kinsey, a very talented guard who only averaged 5.5 mpg this season. Although the bench players did not play well in game two versus Detroit, they have been a real strength for the Cavs throughout the season, enabling James to completely sit out more than a dozen fourth quarters as they protected/expanded leads.

***

During Coach Curry's pregame standup he made some interesting comments about defending LeBron James, his experiences as a first year coach, what went wrong with the Pistons this season and what kind of team he is trying to build.

Regarding the critique that the Pistons are supposedly not defending James as well as they did in the 2007 playoffs, Curry said, "I was doing interviews yesterday and I laughed when everyone said that we are a different Detroit team than we were two years ago as far as how we defended LeBron. I had to go back and check the records: I thought we lost that series--with home court advantage--in game six, so we want to do some things better than we did in 2007."

I asked Coach Curry, "What has been the most unexpected challenge for you as a first year coach? What is something that happened in the course of the season that--as much as you prepared to be a coach--was an unexpected challenge that you faced?"

Curry replied, "Changing the team right at the beginning of the year. It was kind of tough with the point guard but, really, just the fact that we had Allen (Iverson) and Rip (Richard Hamilton) both being really established shooting guards--trying to play them together was so-so but never was great. Trying to play each one of them in a supportive role off of the bench didn't work out either. So I didn't expect that. Everything else you try to prepare for the unexpected. As I said before back in Detroit (prior to game one on Saturday), I think that everything we've tried to do this year, if he had had Dice (Antonio McDyess) the entire time it would have been better--it still was going to be tough but we really got to see the value of having someone like Antonio McDyess on your team."

I then asked, "Do you think that was the biggest factor in why your record was not as good this year, not having McDyess at the start of the season and then trying to bring him back into the fold while all of the other things you mentioned were going on?"

Curry answered, "We just didn't play good. Our record is how we played; we didn't play good enough. I just think when you talk about the biggest things we went through during the year, I'm saying that having McDyess (the whole time) could have helped the transition or with the trade that was made but I'm not using that as an excuse. Our record is what it is because that is how we played."

Curry commendably is not looking for any excuses for his team's performance but anyone who understands basketball realizes that when a team is without its leading rebounder for more than a fifth of the season that is a critical blow, particularly with so much other turmoil also happening. McDyess is also valuable offensively because of his shooting touch, plus he is probably the most respected voice in the locker room among the players.

Just like Utah Coach Jerry Sloan is frustrated that his team does not mirror the aggressive mindset that he had as a player, Curry is disappointed that his Pistons do not play the way that he did: "One thing that I've realized as a coach is--some of the things I did as a player, I'm proud of how I played the game, but trying to mold the team into performing the way that I did takes a little longer than I expected. I think that you have to have more players who play that way. Maybe over time we will add players to the mix and defend that way...I gave my body up more as a player...I took more charges, I dove for more loose balls, I gave more hard fouls. Those are things that as I continue to mold my team going forward that I want to be our signature."

***

Before the game, Coach Brown said that LeBron James has always played with effort on defense but that unlike Michael Jordan--who played at North Carolina for three years under the tutelage of the legendary Dean Smith--James had to make the transition from high school straight to the NBA and that was a steep learning curve for the young Cavs star.

Brown also explained how Cleveland's previous playoff experience is helpful during this postseason: "Having patience but playing with a sense of urgency is something that we have developed over the past few years."

During his pregame standup, someone asked James if his initial adjustment to the NBA was tougher on offense or on defense and he replied without hesitation, "Defense. You can get away with cheating plays and not playing defense in high school sometimes because the guys physically or athletically are not better than you, so you can get away with it. Here there are guys who are equally fast and equally strong." He later added that defense "means more to me now at this point in my career than it did to me in the past. Not to say that I just didn't care about defense but now I care as much about defense as I do about offense." He dismissed the idea that playing for Team USA spurred that change in his thought process--though Doug Collins and other observers believe that playing alongside veterans like Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd helped James become more focused on defense--instead crediting Coach Mike Brown's schemes plus his own intrinsic desire to improve. James said that each offseason he focuses on a specific goal and that his goal prior to his season was to win the Defensive Player of the Year award; earlier on Tuesday it was announced that Dwight Howard had become the youngest winner in the history of that award, with James finishing second. James did not receive a single DPoY vote last year.

***

Before the game I spoke briefly with Pistons broadcaster Greg Kelser, who won an NCAA title at Michigan State with Magic Johnson before averaging 9.7 ppg in a six season NBA career that was shortened by injuries. When I interviewed Kelser a while ago for an article about him that first ran in the May 2007 issue of Basketball Times, he told me that he thought he could still get 10 rebounds in a game. When I reminded him about that statement, he laughed and said since he is a few years older now he probably could only get eight rebounds.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:32 AM

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Mike Brown Wins the Coach of the Year Award

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown received 55 of 122 first place votes from a media panel and won the 2009 Coach of the Year award with 355 points compared to 151 points (including 13 first place votes) for Houston's Rick Adelman. Orlando's Stan Van Gundy finished third with 150 points; he also had 13 first place votes, while Nate McMillan received 15 first place votes but placed fourth overall (127 points). Denver's George Karl (117 points, 11 first place votes) was the only only coach with more than 100 points (points were awarded on a 5-3-1 basis for the three spots on the ballot).

I would have voted for Brown first and Adelman second, just like the official panel did.

Brown received a lot of unwarranted criticism in the past few seasons but I have consistently said that his defense-first approach is the right way to build a championship team. I also reported that while some people think that "advanced stats" contain all the answers, Mike Brown Coaches by Feel, Not Numbers. Brown models his approach on the philosophy of his mentor, San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich, a four-time NBA champion who recently told me, "I would depend more on what I see and feel than on overdosing on stats."

Early in Brown's tenure, I mentioned that he and General Manager Danny Ferry were trying to turn Cleveland into "San Antonio East." In light of how Ferry's player acquisitions and Brown's strategies have turned Cleveland into a defensive powerhouse, it is interesting to look back at some of the things that Cleveland assistant coach Hank Egan--who also has a San Antonio pedigree on his extensive coaching resume--told me three years ago when Brown was just beginning to reshape the Cavs. In particular, Egan mentioned that it takes a year or more for a team to get completely in tune with a new defensive philosophy. Keeping that timetable in mind, I was one of the few people who correctly predicted that the Cavs would make it to the 2007 NBA Finals and I have consistently picked them to do better than most other analysts did; for quite some time people have failed to fully understand and appreciate the kind of team that Brown is putting together, so it is nice that now he is finally getting the recognition that he deserves.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:27 PM

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Notes From the First Weekend of the Playoffs

Here are some thoughts, notes, and observations pertaining to what we've seen during the first weekend of this year's NBA playoffs:

1) While discussing the Lakers' toughness (or lack thereof), Jeff Van Gundy mentioned the recent Sports Illustrated article about Dwight Howard. Someone asked Kobe Bryant if he would have let Nate Robinson jump over him in the Slam Dunk Contest the way that Howard did; Van Gundy cleaned up the language while noting that Bryant responded very firmly that he would not have done that. Some people question if Howard is too nice to lead a team to a championship. No one harbors such doubts about Bryant, though Bryant is not certain that the Lakers are mean enough or angry enough to win the title. Is it really necessary to be mean and/or angry to be a champion? What do those traits represent in the context of winning basketball games?

This is not necessarily about what kind of person one is away from the court but rather about the disposition and attitude that one has about competing at an elite level. The 1990s Chicago Bulls almost employed a "good cop, bad cop" style of internal leadership, with Michael Jordan taking the "tyrant" role while Scottie Pippen was much more nurturing toward his teammates. Bill Wennington told me that in film sessions if the coaches started to criticize a player for being out of position on defense Pippen would speak up and say that he had told the player to play that way on that particular possession; I have spoken to several members of those Bulls teams who told similar stories about Pippen and who absolutely raved about how supportive he was as a teammate. Everyone on those teams respected Jordan but Pippen was also highly respected and probably more well liked than Jordan within that locker room. Is one approach better than the other? Could the Bulls have won six titles without Jordan being so harsh as he pushed players to be at their best at all times? Would Jordan's fiery ways have been less effective in the long run if Pippen had not been there to offer support and positive reinforcement at times?

Bobby Jones, who won an NBA championship playing alongside Julius Erving, once told me that Erving "was a great encourager of his teammates. He never put anybody down because they couldn’t rise to his level. He would always just encourage everybody to do what they could do and wouldn’t get on them because they couldn’t do what he could do. I remember that at the end of games guys might throw the ball away or miss the last shot or whatever and feel like they lost the game. He would be the first one in the locker room to put an arm around a guy and say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get them next time.’ I always really appreciated that about him." Erving won two ABA championships plus an NBA title in 1983 with the 76ers. Would he have won even more championships had he had a harsh attitude like Jordan's? Or did Erving's grace and class bring out the best possible performances from his teammates? Although Erving's demeanor is completely different from Jordan's, Rod Thorn (who coached Erving in the ABA and who drafted Jordan for the Bulls) told me, "He was a tough guy—that is one thing that is not talked about that much when you talk about Julius, because of his great athleticism, but he was a tough guy. I mean he would physically get after guys and play hard. He took a challenge. He played 43-44 minutes a game for us and guarded the best guy on the other team every night and was our leading scorer, so the energy that he expended during a game was much more than the average player did. It was just phenomenal what he did...There are certain guys who were big time players or the best players on their team who were nice with their teammates and others weren’t. Others are more critical or more open. I think that it’s a difference in personalities more than anything. Julius was a very, very competitive person, but that didn’t carry over to teammates. Some guys, it carries over to everybody. They’re just such competitive guys that it carries over to everything. If you were a teammate, you’d much rather have it the way Julius did it."

A further wrinkle in the Jordan-Erving comparison is that it certainly seemed like personal statistics were a lot more important to Jordan than they were to Erving. Does this mean that Jordan was more competitive than Erving or does it mean that Jordan was more selfish? Erving repeatedly demonstrated that he was willing to sacrifice his personal statistics for the greater good of the team, while Jordan always believed that his teams were best served by him scoring 30-plus ppg. Coach Phil Jackson found a way to get Jordan to involve his teammates to some degree while still being able to win scoring titles; Erving did not really care about scoring titles (though he did win three of them in the ABA), so he was very amenable to the idea of being one part of a balanced attack. Would Erving's 76ers have won one or two more titles had he demanded to get the ball enough to score 30-plus ppg as opposed to deferring to his teammates and even comforting them (as Jones mentioned) after they messed up at the end of games?

There are really two separate issues here: a player has to be tough mentally and physically in order to lead his team to a championship but he does not necessarily have to be an "in your face" type of guy. Erving and Jordan both competed fiercely but they related to their teammates completely differently. It does not matter if Dwight Howard has a fun loving personality as long as he has enough mental and physical toughness to do whatever it takes during games for his team to win; I don't know whether or not Howard possesses those qualities to a sufficient degree to lead his team to a championship but just looking at his demeanor alone is not the right way to try to figure that out. As for the Lakers, when Bryant is saying that his teammates need to be angrier or meaner he is not suggesting that they should yell or rant and rave; he wants them to be more mentally focused and he wants them to be tougher mentally and physically.

2) One way or the other, the first round of this year's NBA playoffs is going to break with tradition; historically, home court advantage has been very important in the NBA playoffs but teams that win game one advance nearly 80% of the time: the road teams won four of the eight games ones this weekend, so by the time the first round concludes we will either see an unusual number of teams bounce back from game one losses or we will see an unusual number of underdog teams make it to the second round.

3) The league's leading scorer did not attempt a shot for almost the entire third quarter of his team's blowout road loss after scoring 17 points in the first half. Surely there will be many articles written about how this player quit on his team and describing how he was trying to prove a point to his teammates, right? Actually, those kind of nonsense articles are only written when the player in question is Kobe Bryant. Since it was Dwyane Wade who did not attempt a shot for most of the third quarter, the articles about that game will focus on how inept his supporting cast supposedly is, even though his power forward started for an NBA championship team just three years ago, his center once finished third in MVP voting, two of his teammates will likely make the All-Rookie team and another teammate won the All-Star Weekend Three Point Shooting Contest. I don't think that Wade "quit" but I do think that it would be nice if more of the people who get paid to cover basketball games actually knew what they were talking about and stuck to discussing what actually happened as opposed to slanting their reports to conform to their own biases/agenda.

4) When ESPN's David Thorpe declared that J.J. Redick could start for a playoff team, I don't think that what he had in mind was posting a game-worst -13 plus/minus number in just 6:17 as his team blew an 18 point lead at home in game one of the playoffs. Redick has started five regular season games in his three year career and he has scored three points in 26 minutes in four career playoff games.

5) Chauncey Billups (36 points, eight assists, no turnovers, 8-9 three point field goal shooting) essentially played a perfect game in Denver's 113-84 rout of New Orleans. His heroics more than made up for yet another subpar playoff game by Carmelo Anthony (13 points on 4-12 field goal shooting). Remember when people seriously compared LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony? The sad thing about Anthony is that I cannot think of one thing that he does better now than he did as a rookie; in contrast, James has relentlessly attacked his skill set weaknesses.

6) Five of the eight game ones were decided by at least 13 points. The Pistons and the Jazz are toast in their matchups with the Cavs and Lakers respectively but don't be surprised if the Trail Blazers and Hornets rally.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:50 PM

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Alternating Between Dominant and Lackluster, Lakers Silence Jazz

The L.A. Lakers built a 62-40 halftime lead en route to a 113-100 game one victory over the Utah Jazz but L.A. Coach Phil Jackson was not impressed by his team's performance. According to Mike Bresnahan of the L.A. Times, "15? Not like that" is what Jackson wrote on the whiteboard in the locker room after the game, referring to the number of additional wins the team needs to capture the NBA title. Utah's 46-38 rebounding advantage--including a 20-7 margin on the offensive glass--and the fact that the Jazz pulled within 72-63 less than nine minutes into the third quarter were the two main reasons for Jackson's displeasure.

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 24 points on 9-17 field goal shooting and he also had a team-high eight assists, showing off the full range of his playmaking skills--Bryant found open teammates in transition, he accepted double teams in the post before firing pinpoint crosscourt passes, he made great reads when the Lakers ran screen/roll actions and he drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and kicked the ball to spot up shooters. The Jazz understandably focused their defense on the two-time scoring champion/2008 MVP and this provided opportunities for other players to shoot uncontested shots, either as a direct result of Bryant's passes or as the culmination of good ball movement after the defense converged on Bryant. Trevor Ariza scored a playoff career-high 21 points on 8-10 shooting, Pau Gasol added 20 points on 7-11 shooting, Lamar Odom contributed 13 points on 5-8 shooting and Shannon Brown had nine points on 3-4 shooting.

During the ABC telecast, Jeff Van Gundy said that Gasol should receive serious consideration for the All-NBA First Team this season. Gasol is a two-time All-Star but he has never made the All-NBA First, Second or Third Teams; I think that he deserves a Second Team nod this season (behind forwards LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki) but I agree with Van Gundy's larger point, namely that Gasol's game has improved markedly since he made the shift from being the best player in Memphis to being the second best player on the Lakers. Gasol deserves credit for having a versatile skill set and for doing the necessary work to hone those skills but it also must be said that he has benefited greatly from all of the defensive attention that Bryant receives. Gasol no longer regularly has to battle against double teams; instead, he receives passes at the rim for dunks and short hook shots or passes on the perimeter for wide open jump shots. Gasol shot .587 from the field as a Laker last season (compared to .501 while playing for Memphis) and he shot a career high .567 from the field this season, ranking fifth in the NBA.

Ariza is another player whose game has benefited from playing alongside Bryant; he shot a career high .319 from three point range this season, draining 61 treys after only making nine three pointers in the first four seasons of his career. Again, Ariza deserves credit for working on his shooting touch but the reason that he gets so many wide open shots is that opposing teams have to constantly double team Bryant.

Shannon Brown was acquired with Adam Morrison in the midseason deal that sent Vladimiar Radmanovic to Charlotte. The Lakers made that trade primarily made to get rid of Radmanovic's salary. Former lottery pick Morrison has yet to play as many as 10 minutes in a game as a Laker but late in the season Brown emerged as a regular member of the rotation, usurping Jordan Farmar's role to some extent. In just his second career playoff game, Brown--who has made just 30 three pointers in his regular season career--made all three of his three point shots. After the game, Bryant said of Brown, "He works extremely hard as all our players do. He's in the gym early, he's working on his shot. When I see that it makes it even easier for me to trust him in a game situation." That quote is very significant; people focus so much on whether or not Bryant trusts his teammates enough but they rarely talk about the flip side of that equation: have his teammates always put in enough work to merit being trusted? The change with the Lakers in the past couple seasons is not that Bryant suddenly had an epiphany about how to pass and how to play winning basketball; after all, he was the leading playmaker on their three championship teams from 2000-02. No, what has changed is that now the Lakers have a supporting cast of players who take their cues from Bryant in terms of work ethic and preparation, so Bryant knows that when he passes them the ball they will get the job done.

Bryant did not score in the first 10 minutes of the game because he was focusing on getting his teammates involved, racking up four assists. He did not assert himself as a scorer until the final four minutes of the second quarter, when he exploded for nine points to help the Lakers amass that huge halftime lead. After the Jazz trimmed the lead to 98-89 in the fourth quarter, Bryant hit back to back jumpers to stem the tide. After the second of those shots, Van Gundy commented, "Everyone talks about his athleticism but that is well honed balance. That doesn't just happen. He's coming off going to his left, going up in the air straight up, straight down. This is textbook stuff that requires repetition in the gym. Everyone wants to play in the game. Who wants to prepare to win the game before the game is played? That is Kobe Bryant." The impact of being around Kobe Bryant and observing how he prepares is very evident both in the way that so many of his Team USA teammates have performed this season for their NBA squads and also in the way that so many Laker players have refined their games since joining the team, as noted above.

Although Bryant and the Lakers performed at a very high level offensively for most of the game, their defense was much less consistent; although they held Utah to a low shooting percentage (.391), they committed too many fouls and this enabled the Jazz to score a lot of points from the free throw line with the clock stopped (the Jazz also committed too many fouls). The Lakers had no answer for Carlos Boozer, who had a game-high 27 points on 11-16 shooting, nor did they do a good job of containing Deron Williams, who scored 16 points and dished off a playoff career-high 17 assists; Williams only shot 4-14 from the field but several of his misses were "unforced errors" (to use tennis vernacular) as opposed to being the result of great defense. It is highly unlikely that the Jazz will win this series and entirely possible that they will get swept but the way that the Lakers got pounded on the boards and surrendered a large portion of their lead was eerily reminiscent of the way that they folded at crucial moments during last year's NBA Finals. The Lakers vowed to be tougher and more focused this season but even though they played well enough to win 65 games that success had more to do with their efficient offense--and Bryant's individual brilliance bailing them out in some games that could have gone either way--than with them becoming better defensively or tougher in general. Bryant understands this as well as anyone and he recently lamented that the team does not have enough guys who are mean and angry, saying that he and veteran point guard Derek Fisher constantly have to set the tone in that regard. Van Gundy joked that Bryant has enough anger for the whole team but the reality is that we will not really know if that is the case unless/until the Lakers get back to the Finals and prove that they can beat a tough, defensive minded team like Cleveland.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:54 AM

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TNT Playoff Introduction: Game of Kings

TNT opened their coverage of the 2009 NBA playoffs with a great chess-themed video featuring top NBA stars, culminating with a showdown between the sport's top grandmasters, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant:



In the middle of last season I expressed the hope that the two players who are the The Best the Game Offers would face each other in the NBA Finals; at that time, I felt that Bryant had a slight edge over James as the NBA's best player, whereas this season I believe that James demonstrated a slight edge over Bryant. There could be nothing better for a true basketball fan or a true student of the history of the game than to see these two special players battle for the championship while they are both at the height of their powers.

I have explored various connections between chess and basketball in several articles:

Basketball, Chess and Boxing

Basketball, Chess and Boxing, Part II

Chess and Basketball

Sadly, some people in the basketball writing world lack the necessary talent to come up with original thoughts and the character to properly attribute ideas to their creators--Hoop Magazine liked my take about basketball and chess so much that editor Ming Wong blatantly and shamelessly ripped off my work, as I pointed out in this post:

Hoop Magazine "Discovers" Connections Between Basketball and Chess

In contrast to Hoop Magazine's pathetic move, TNT's video is a nice concept that is very well executed and can really be thought about/perceived at many different levels, so I tip my hat to whoever at TNT came up with the idea.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 AM

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Cavs Toy With Pistons Before Slapping Them Around Like They Stole Something

Cleveland's 102-84 game one victory over Detroit is a classic example of a game in which the score was close for a while but the outcome was never really in doubt--not for the players on either team and not for anyone who watched the game. The Pistons briefly led by two points and the Cavs were never ahead by more than 10 until late in the first half but the whole exercise had an air of inevitability about it, as the Pistons went through the motions on defense, made some shots, missed some shots and then submitted meekly when the Cavs finally broke the game open late in the third quarter.

LeBron James finished with 38 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. He shot 13-20 from the field, made all 14 of his free throws and went wherever he wanted to on the court while facing little resistance from the Pistons; that observation is not meant to diminish how well he played but rather to emphasize the routine, punch the clock, put in two and a half hours and then go home mentality displayed by the Pistons. ABC commentators Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy both repeatedly observed that the Pistons looked disinterested both in their game plan and in each other, neither cheering in support of their teammates nor even offering a helping hand when a teammate fell to the floor. Van Gundy said that this typifies the attitude displayed by the team throughout the season and is a strong indication that time has run out for this particular group of players.

Indeed, it seems like the Detroit Pistons have three games left--four at the most if they win one game at home to avoid being swept--until Joe Dumars begins the next phase of blowing up the old nucleus and rebuilding the franchise around the young players plus whoever he will acquire with the salary cap space freed up when he gets rid of the already banished Allen Iverson and the occasionally interested Rasheed Wallace, the man who should be the team's best low post offensive threat but who attempted 319 three pointers and just 101 free throws in 66 regular season games.

James received balanced support from several of his teammates. Joe Smith scored 13 points on 5-10 shooting in just 19 minutes for the Cavs, while Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams and Delonte West scored 12 points each. Cleveland's defense was a little shaky in the first quarter--yielding 25 points--but the Pistons only scored 20, 20 and 19 points in the final three stanzas.

Rodney Stuckey led the Pistons with 20 points but he shot just 7-21 from the field. Although Stuckey has shown flashes of talent as a strong, penetrating combo guard, it is difficult to understand why the Pistons apparently not only believe that he can be a worthy successor to Chauncey Billups but that he is also a more effective player right now than Allen Iverson, who averaged 26.4 ppg in 82 games for a 50 win Denver team last season while leading the NBA in minutes played (41.8 mpg) for the third year in a row and seventh time in his remarkable career. The only time that Detroit beat Cleveland in four regular season games this season is when Iverson scored a team-high 23 points on 8-16 shooting on November 19 as the Pistons won 96-89; not coincidentally, in that game Wallace had arguably his best all around performance of the season (21 points, 15 rebounds). Iverson and Wallace proved to be a deadly screen/roll duo in early season victories over the Cavs and Lakers but the Pistons inexplicably did not continue to feature that action even though it posed obvious matchup challenges even to elite teams.

Richard Hamilton played a solid game (15 points, four assists) and Rasheed Wallace had 13 points and nine rebounds (but no free throw attempts) but James simply annihilated his Olympic teammate Tayshaun Prince at both ends of the court: Prince accumulated a game-worst -20 plus/minus rating while scoring four points on 2-7 shooting and repeatedly getting burned defensively by James, though some of the responsibility for that falls on his teammates who were not in proper help position. Inexplicably, the Pistons crowd James on the perimeter--particularly in the playoffs in 2006 and 2007, in addition to this game--and practically usher him to the hoop instead of playing off of him and encouraging him to shoot midrange jump shots, the facet of the game that remains James' only weakness. Van Gundy mentioned this repeatedly during the telecast.

That said, James played so well and so efficiently that there may not have been a suitable plan to deal with him in this game; according to ESPN, James shot 8-9 from the field--including 4-4 on midrange jumpers--and scored 21 of his 38 points with six seconds or less remaining on the shot clock. Van Gundy reiterated his earlier statement that James should not only win the MVP but also the Most Improved Player award.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:56 AM

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Explosive Rose Dazzles as Bulls Stun Celtics

In his first career playoff game, Chicago Bulls rookie point guard Derrick Rose provided a performance for the ages: 36 points on 12-19 field goal shooting and 12-12 free throw shooting, 11 assists and four rebounds in a 105-103 overtime victory over the defending champion Boston Celtics. Rose tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 39 year old NBA record for most points by a rookie in his playoff debut, repeatedly blowing by hapless Boston defenders to either finish strongly at the rim or dish to his teammates for easy scores. The only blemishes on Rose's line were his game-high five turnovers and his six fouls (Rose fouled out with 10 seconds remaining in overtime). Ben Gordon shot just 6-17 from the field but he produced 20 points and five assists, including 12 big fourth quarter points; Gordon is the ultimate feast or famine streak shooter and the Bulls definitely feasted on his clutch buckets down the stretch in game one. Joakim Noah (17 rebounds) and Brad Miller (12 rebounds) dominated the glass as Chicago outrebounded Boston 53-45.

Lost in the deserved superlatives already being heaped on Rose's playoff debut is the fact that in a losing effort his young Boston counterpart nearly matched him point for point and assist for assist: Rajon Rondo had 29 points on 12-21 field goal shooting while also accumulating seven assists and nine rebounds. Rondo only committed one turnover. He certainly shouldered more than his share of the load for the Celtics but Rondo could not overcome the total disappearing act by Ray Allen (four points on 1-12 field goal shooting, including missing a potentially tying jumper as time expired in overtime) and the up and down performance of Paul Pierce: "The Truth" only had four first half points and even though he rallied late to finish with 23 points he shot just 8-21 from the field and missed a free throw with two seconds left in regulation that could have won the game (Chicago had no timeouts left and would have had to immediately inbound the ball and traverse the length of the court had he made that shot). Glen "Big Baby" Davis--who self-deprecatingly called himself "the ticket stub" prior to the game--scored 18 points on 6-15 shooting while starting in place of "The Big Ticket," Kevin Garnett, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year who is expected to miss this year's playoffs due to a knee injury.

The significance of winning game one should not be minimized; game one winners advance nearly 80% of the time in the NBA playoffs. That said, there are some mitigating factors that suggest that it is premature to write the Celtics off just yet:

1) The Bulls needed a historic level debut by Rose, Tyrus Thomas' best shooting game in the past three weeks and Noah's second highest rebounding total this season in order to win by two points in overtime.

2) Even though Chicago had the aforementioned great performances by several key players, the Celtics still came within one missed free throw from winning in regulation and one missed midrange jumper from extending the game to a second overtime that would have been contested without the fouled out Rose.

3) If you project a Bulls series victory from this one win then you are saying that it is more likely that the young Bulls can duplicate their high level of play three more times than it is that future Hall of Famers Pierce and Allen will not perform that poorly again versus Chicago.

Game one definitely indicated that this series will be more closely contested than I--and most other observers--expected. However, don't put it past the Celtics to tie the series by winning at home in game two and then retake home court advantage by capturing game three in Chicago.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 AM

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