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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Los Angeles Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 L.A. Lakers (65-17) vs. #5 Houston (53-29)

Season series: L.A. Lakers, 4-0

Houston can win if…the defensive duo of Shane Battier/Ron Artest harass Kobe Bryant into sub.-.450 field goal shooting and Yao Ming and Luis Scola dominate Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.

L.A. will win because…Bryant will accept the challenge of contending with Battier and Artest but he will do so within the context of his team's needs, scoring when he has the opportunity to do so but also creating plays for his teammates with his passing. Gasol will present a matchup problem for whoever guards him but it will be difficult for Houston to effectively double team Gasol when Bryant is on the court with him. Bynum was very ineffective in the first round but it is reasonable to expect that he will perform better versus Houston; it may sound strange to say this, but Bynum will probably be more comfortable playing against Yao than he was playing against the smaller, more mobile Utah frontcourt players, even though Yao is a better player than any of Utah's bigs.

Other things to consider: This series will be an interesting litmus test for the theory that Houston can use "advanced basketball statistics" to come up with an effective game plan to slow down Bryant; the evidence from this season emphatically suggests that this is not the case: the Lakers won all four games as Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range. Bryant scored 31 of his 37 points in the second half in a Lakers 102-96 win on March 11, completely abusing Ron Artest and openly laughing at Artest's attempts to trash talk him, at one point saying derisively, "You're a comedian" after Artest bragged that he could shut Bryant down. Winning in the postseason requires mental toughness and concentration; while Artest has the necessary physical tools to try to challenge Bryant, Artest's mental game is sporadic at best: he loses focus at both ends of the court, which is the main reason that his career playoff field goal percentage is a paltry .389 despite his obvious athletic gifts. This is just the second time in Artest's 10 year career that he has made it past the first round of the playoffs.

Odom played consistently well in the first round but that most likely means that he is due to have a five point, two rebound disappearing act soon. You will probably hear a lot about the Lakers' supposedly superior depth. Even if Bynum plays well--which I expect him to do but this is far from certain--the Lakers' current rotation is hardly deep: based on minutes played versus the Jazz, their sixth man is Shannon Brown. While Brown played well in that series, the Lakers got very little production out of players seven through 11--and Luke Walton may be out for the rest of the postseason. The Rockets used a solid eight man rotation in their first round series versus Portland, though Kyle Lowery did not shoot very well. The Lakers' advantage in this series is not depth but rather that they have Kobe Bryant (and home court advantage).

The Lakers should win this series in five games but because of their concentration lapses, lack of depth and sporadic attention to detail on defense it would not surprise me if the Rockets steal a game--perhaps coming back from a double digit deficit--and extend the series to six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:47 PM

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Seventh Heaven: Bulls-Celtics and Hawks-Heat Go the Distance

Perhaps the two greatest words in sports are "game seven." NBA fans will enjoy the privilege of watching two game sevens this weekend: Chicago will visit Boston on Saturday night and Atlanta will host Miami on Sunday afternoon.

Although both series went the distance, they did so in very different ways: the Celtics and Bulls have set playoff records for most overtime games (four) and most total overtime sessions (seven) in one series, while the Hawks and Heat have traded blowouts. For Boston, Rajon Rondo is averaging a triple double (21.5 ppg, 11.7 apg, 10.0 rpg), Ray Allen (23.5 ppg) dropped a playoff career-high 51 points in game six (including a playoff record tying nine three pointers), Paul Pierce has shown the value of possessing a deadly midrange game and big men Kendrick Perkins and Glen "Big Baby" Davis have done yeoman's work in picking up the slack for the injured Kevin Garnett. For Chicago, Ben Gordon (22.8 ppg on .405 shooting) has kept both teams alive with his hot and cold shooting, Derrick Rose has played well (20.0 ppg, 7.0 apg, 6.7 rpg) but he has yet to match his game one heroics and he turns the ball over too much, John Salmons (19.2 ppg) has been a revelation and big men Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas and Brad Miller have held their own in the paint. Everything that has transpired so far points to Sunday's game seven turning into a closely contested instant classic but I have to sound a cautionary note: game sevens on the road have historically been tantamount to death in the NBA--particularly for young teams that have little playoff experience--and even when earlier games in a series have been close there is a tendency for game seven momentum to snowball into a rout.

If game seven in the Atlanta-Miami series is a rout no one will be surprised. As several commentators have noted, there has not been a single lead change in this series after the first quarter in any of the games, which is really an astounding statistic when you consider how evenly matched these teams have proven to be--but neither team has displayed the necessary poise and maturity to stage a comeback in the wake of early adversity. The Hawks figure to take a first quarter lead in game seven at home and ride that momentum to victory. Of course, the big X factor that could flip the script on that scenario is that the Heat clearly have the best player on the court, Dwyane Wade, and any time a series boils down to one winner take all game it is certainly possible that the best player will go nuts and refuse to let his team lose. That said, just three years ago we saw both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James--the two best players in the game today--get blown out in game sevens on the road. Wade shot 32-64 (.500) in Miami's three wins and 26-66 (.394) in Miami's three losses; look for a sub-.450 shooting performance from Wade and a double digit loss for Miami on Sunday.

I cannot write about the Hawks without saying something about Josh Smith, because this highly talented player is really getting on my nerves. People keep making excuses for him by saying that he is young but he is a 23 year old grown man who is a five year NBA veteran making $10 million per year. He shot .588 from the free throw line and .299 from three point range this season. His rebounding average has declined for two straight years. LeBron James entered the NBA just one year before Smith did and James had some of the same skill set weaknesses but James has improved every season and this year he shot .780 from the free throw line and .344 from three point range, career highs in both departments. No one is expecting Smith to be as great as James overall but is it too much to ask that he attack one weakness per summer, particularly in the early stages of his career? At this rate, in another five years Smith will be the Lamar Odom of his era, a gifted player who tantalized fans at times but never made an All-Star team. Smith frequently exercises poor judgment, as demonstrated by his incessant feuding with his coach, his poor shot selection and his showboat, between the legs missed dunk at the end of game five. That low rent move reminded me of a conversation that I had with Julius Erving several years ago. Erving's words of wisdom are well worth repeating (just to be clear, he was responding to a question from several years ago and not talking about Josh Smith specifically, though Erving's sentiments obviously are directly applicable to what Smith did):

Erving: "My thoughts are, if you haven’t perfected it, then you shouldn’t be trying it in a game. Good defense forces an offensive player to maybe go outside of their capability a little bit and experiment, but a one-on-none breakaway, trying to do a blindfold or go between the legs—you’ve got to get the two points. You have to go down and get the two points. You have to understand what the priority is. Trying to make the highlight films--that gets into guys like Rodman diving eight rows into the stands just to get on the highlights. That became sort of his thing. There is an identity issue and players are doing more things to try to get recognition outside of sticking with the game plan and sticking with the abilities they are blessed with and the skill training that they put a lot of hours into perfecting. Coaches have their hands tied in terms of what to do. Do I take the guy, bring him over and sit him down or just let him play through it? Do I talk to him in private after the game? I remember Billy Cunningham—you know, Steve Smith used to have this thing, bouncing the ball off the backboard and dunking it. So they’re up like 30 points in a game and he bounces the ball off the backboard and catches it and dunks it on a one-on-none fast break. You know, guys in my generation used to think that was just trying to embarrass the other team and that there shouldn’t be a place for that in professional basketball."

Friedman: "Is that when Smith was with the Miami Heat?"

Erving: "Yes and Billy was in the front office. And right after he (Cunningham) told him (not to do it), he (Smith) did it in the next game."

Friedman: "Sometimes they don’t listen. You tell them, but they don’t listen, right?"

Erving: “He was like, ‘Well, we’re a different generation. In this generation, this is what we do.’ And I guess maybe to a degree you have to accept some of that. There are certain things in the game that do need to be preserved. Putting your second team in when you’re up a lot of points is really what you should do. I mean, those guys want to play, too. To just run it up to 125 so the crowd can get hamburgers or whatever, that’s not good."

Friedman: "That leads me right into my next question when you’re talking about just playing for a stat--"

Erving: "Yeah, putting a guy back in the game so he can get an assist for a triple double or whatever, that’s crass. It’s just crass."

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 AM

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Friday, May 01, 2009

Denver Versus Dallas Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 Denver (54-28) vs. #6 Dallas (50-32)

Season series: Denver, 4-0

Dallas can win if…Jason Kidd cuts off the head of the snake by containing Chauncey Billups, Josh Howard harasses Carmelo Anthony into shooting a poor percentage and Dirk Nowitzki understands that he is taller and more skilled than Kenyon Martin, so he can get whatever shot he wants to get if he is patient. The Mavericks did a good job defensively versus the Spurs in the first round but right now the Nuggets are a much deeper and healthier team than the Spurs; it is imperative for the Mavericks to play good defense, because the Nuggets still have a tendency to take bad shots when they are forced to set up in the half court, particularly J.R. Smith. I still find it hard to believe that all of Denver's knuckleheads (Anthony, Smith, Martin in particular) have simultaneously and permanently matured, so it will be very interesting to see what happens if Dallas can win game one in Denver but that will be a tall task for a Mavericks team that does not play well on the road and lost all four regular season games versus Denver.

Denver will win because…the Nuggets are finally playing defense. Their frontcourt, anchored by Nene and Kenyon Martin plus Chris Andersen coming off of the bench, does a good job of controlling the paint. Chauncey Billups played almost flawless basketball in the first round (22.6 ppg, 7.4 apg, 1.2 tpg, .655 3FG%). Carmelo Anthony got off to a slow start but finished with good averages (24.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.2 apg, .469 FG%); I almost fell out of my chair when I saw him actually trying to play defense and diving for loose balls. The Mavericks have all hands on deck now that Josh Howard is playing and they are peaking at the right time, so this looks like it will be a competitive series but the Nuggets have the trump card of home court advantage

Other things to consider: It is interesting to try to predict the outcome of a series when you did not expect either team to make it this far; I thought that the Spurs would have enough firepower to beat the Mavs and that the Hornets would find the form that they showed in last year's playoffs but neither of those things happened. The Mavericks showed versus San Antonio that they have a lot of offensive weapons, so they will put Denver's new found defensive mentality to the test. Denver and Dallas enjoyed a lot of success behind the three point arc in the first round, so containing the long range shooters without breaking down defensively in the paint will be important for both teams. Neither Kidd nor Billups served as the primary defender versus the opposing point guard in round one but I would assume that they will guard each other in this series, renewing a rivalry from when Kidd's Nets and Billups' Pistons met in the 2004 and 2005 playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:12 AM

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mano a Mano Competition is Pure

"It's nice to be modest, but it would be stupid if I did not tell the truth. It is Fischer."--Bobby Fischer's response to a question about who is the greatest chess player.

"On the chess board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."--Dr. Emanuel Lasker, World Chess Champion from 1894-1921

In a recent interview with Tavis Smiley, Prince explains why he prefers the pure competition found in sports like golf, basketball and boxing to the nonsense he deals with in the music business (his comments about those subjects can be found starting at the 11:10 mark of Part II of the interview).

Prince's newest three CD set (LOtUSFLOW3R/MPLSoUND/Elixer) debuted in the number two sales position despite receiving little if any radio airplay--and Prince told Smiley that his CD set may in fact have had the most sales: "SoundScan said that it was number two. Other charts say that it was number one. So, it doesn't make a difference to me one way or another. What makes a difference to me is that history is told truthfully and that's not always the case. I love golf and basketball and sports--and boxing especially--because it is mano a mano." Prince--or at least his new music--has been effectively banished from the radio because he has chosen to distribute his work via his own website and in cooperation with Target, as opposed to conforming to the traditional norms of the music industry. Prince owns his recording masters and controls his fate and it is quite an accomplishment to vault nearly to the top of the charts despite working outside of the music industry's tired, old infrastructure.

Prince's comment about relishing "mano a mano" battles resonates with me on a very deep level. I recently won the Dayton Chess Club Championship for a record seventh time (1997, 1999-2000, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2009) and I have a U.S. Chess Federation rating over 2000, which classifies me as an "Expert" and places me somewhere around the 95th percentile of American chess players. I love chess for many reasons--the game is part art, part science, part raw blooded competition--but one of the best things about chess is that your performance can be immediately and objectively quantified: you win, lose or draw and your rating is adjusted accordingly (often within 24 hours thanks to the internet/computers). Facing someone over the chessboard is much like going into a boxing ring--you are battling one on one against your opponent and it does not matter how rich you are, how popular you are or who you know: if you don't bring everything you've got then you will get knocked out. Boxers are taught to "protect yourself at all times" and I deliver a similar message to my chess students, because one lapse in concentration can completely turn a game around; if my last round DCC Championship game had been a boxing match then you could say I was losing on all of the judges' cards but my opponent made one critical error that enabled me to obtain a draw (and thus win the tournament).

You may have in mind a certain stereotype regarding chess players but I have played in USCF tournaments since 1987 and the truth is that most tournaments consist of a diverse socioeconomic melting pot; a young child from a poor neighborhood may very well be a much stronger player than a middle aged corporate executive. While a person's intrinsic worth is obviously not reflected in his USCF rating, that rating is a very reliable indicator of his chess playing strength.

What does this have to do with basketball? It can objectively be said that I am a relatively strong chess player (though there are obviously players who are much stronger than I am), but I think that it is pretty clear to anyone who understands both writing and chess that I am much "stronger" at writing than I am at chess. Over the years, some commenters here at 20 Second Timeout have asked why I don't market my writing to larger publications. The reality is that I have tried to do just that and, for someone who is in many ways an "outsider"--I don't have a journalism degree and have never worked for a newspaper--I have had a certain degree of success, landing pieces in national magazines like Hoop, Lindy's Pro Basketball and Basketball Digest. Unfortunately, the writing business--like the music business--does not have objective ratings. There is no mano a mano competition; people who are completely unqualified to analyze either writing or basketball often determine who "wins" and who "loses."

I respect the way that Prince has successfully sidestepped the music industry's bureaucracy and found ways to deliver his art straight to the public; of course, he has the advantage of already being well known and he also possesses a certain degree of wealth, though his personal fortune is minuscule compared to the resources commanded by the recording companies he is snubbing. Similarly, George Lucas obtained enough capital to assert complete control over how his films are made and the way that they are distributed. Not only have I yet to discover a similar path in the writing field, I have had to endure the indignity--and the irony, considering how I feel about chess--of seeing my work ripped off by an editor who does not even know the most basic facts about NBA history. This is a strange business, though a stronger word than strange comes to mind.

My last round DCC Championship opponent--John Dowling, who many years ago obtained the National Master title (signified by a 2200 rating) that still eludes my grasp--collects chess-themed posters/artwork and he is generous enough to display many of these items at the DCC; the piercing visage of Bobby Fischer "watched" over us during our battle for first place but my favorite poster reads, "A bad day playing chess beats a good day at work."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 PM

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Injuries Heavily Impact First Round

Injuries can change the fortunes even of a team that seemed destined to capture the NBA championship; for instance, in 1972-73 the Boston Celtics--who would win titles in 1974 and 1976--cruised to the best record in the NBA (68-14, eight games in front of their closest pursuers) but after Hall of Famer/Top 50 selection John Havlicek separated his shoulder the New York Knicks eliminated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

This season, injuries have profoundly affected the playoff seeding and the first round of the playoffs. Look no further than the defending champion Celtics, who started out with a record setting 27-2 mark (including a 19 game winning streak); sans defensive anchor Kevin Garnett (and key frontcourt reserve Leon Powe), the Celtics are in a hard fought first round battle with a 41-41 Chicago team.

Out West, it is highly unlikely that the Utah Jazz would have fallen to the eighth seed--and a death match versus the powerful L.A. Lakers--if Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer had been healthier during the season; for that matter, if former All-Star Mehmet Okur had been full strength during the series with the Lakers the Jazz could have put up more resistance, though the Lakers would still certainly have been expected to prevail.

The Denver Nuggets only added four wins to their 2008 total but they vaulted from the eighth seed to the second seed largely because so many of their injury-hit rivals lurched into reverse, including the Jazz, the Spurs, the Mavericks, the Hornets and even the Suns, an underachieving team to be sure but one that was still obviously damaged by the season-ending injury suffered by All-Star Amare Stoudemire. The Nuggets just completed a five game massacre of the Hornets, a team that last year finished second in the West and pushed the defending champion Spurs to seven games in the second round of the playoffs; with Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic hobbling, the Hornets simply could not keep up with the Nuggets, though the Hornets' 58 point home loss in game four is embarrassing and disgraceful.

In 2007, the Spurs won their fourth championship in nine seasons and last year they reached the Western Conference Finals but with Manu Ginobili sidelined and Tim Duncan not 100% the Spurs bowed out to the Mavericks in the first round, the Spurs' earliest playoff departure since 2000. The Mavericks got off to a horrible start this season--in part due to Josh Howard being hurt--but they are at full strength now and seem to be a formidable team, though they will have their hands full with the Nuggets, who are also deep and healthy.

The Lakers posted the best record in the West for the second year in a row even though starting center Andrew Bynum missed nearly half of the season. Most people assume that they will cruise to the Finals but their depth has been seriously compromised by several injuries: Bynum is still not 100%, Luke Walton will likely miss the rest of the playoffs and Jordan Farmar has not been the same since coming back from midseason knee surgery. If the ESPN/ABC "experts" talk this weekend about the Lakers' supposed great depth then you will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were not paying close attention to the first round: the Lakers' sixth man is currently Shannon Brown, a player who was 13th in playoff minutes played for the 2007 Cleveland team that advanced to the NBA Finals. The Lakers hope/expect that Bynum will play an important role in a second round matchup with Houston or Portland but he has yet to prove that he can stay healthy or that he can be a consistently productive playoff performer.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:36 PM

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The Difference Between Measuring Defense in Basketball and Baseball

The April 6, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated contains an article by Albert Chen titled Baseball's Next Top Models; Chen describes how baseball teams are using advanced statistics to ascertain which players are the best fielders at each position. The Tampa Bay Rays won the 2008 American League championship largely because they tremendously improved their defense by using advanced statistics as the basis for various personnel moves and for deciding how to most effectively deploy the players on their roster to maximize their defensive skills (for instance, they moved Akinori Iwamura from third base to second base not only because his defensive statistics are better at the latter position but also to make room for Evan Longoria to be called up as the new third baseman). Baseball statisticians have access to data that pinpoints where every single batted ball went and whether or not the fielder converted that play into an out. Although there are at least 10 players on a baseball field at any given time (one pitcher, eight fielders, one batter--assuming that there are no men on base), virtually everything that happens when the ball is in play can be broken down into a series of discrete, one on one actions: the pitcher throws the ball, the batter swings and, if he makes contact, a fielder attempts to catch the ball. Therefore, if one gathers together a large enough sample size of data, it is possible to create reliable models regarding pitchers, batters and fielders.

Obviously, basketball is a much more fluid and complex sport than baseball, at least in terms of constructing meaningful statistical models: even during an "isolation" play ostensbily involving only one ballhandler and one defender the other eight players on the court all have the potential to affect what will happen--the other four defenders may end up trapping and rotating, while the other four offensive players (depending on their size and skill sets) may be called upon to set a screen, cut to the hoop, spot up for an open jump shot or grab an offensive rebound. The play may result in an offensive rebound tip dunk or a made three pointer that never would have happened if the original ballhandler had not been talented enough to attract extra defensive attention but in the box score that original ballhandler may either receive credit for nothing (if he passes the ball and the recipient then swings it to a player who ultimately makes a three pointer) or he may even record a negative statistic (a missed field goal attempt) despite the fact that his actions directly led to the opening that created the putback opportunity.

Clearly, it is difficult for basketball statistics to fully capture what happens offensively; progress has been made in this regard but it is far from an exact science--and it is even more challenging to accurately measure basketball defense, particularly on an individual level. A perfect example of why individual basketball defense is tough to quantify took place in the first quarter of Boston's 106-104 game five overtime victory versus Chicago: Kendrick Perkins caught the ball on the left block versus Tyrus Thomas, spun baseline and scored a layup. TNT's Doug Collins noted that Thomas had positioned himself by Perkins' left shoulder (i.e., overplaying Perkins to force him to go to the baseline) because Perkins' best move from that spot is to go to the middle and shoot a jump hook; Thomas was supposed to receive help on the baseline--on an earlier play, help defender Derrick Rose stole the ball so easily from Perkins it looked like Rose was receiving a football handoff--but this time the help never arrived. How would a basketball "stat guru" evaluate that play in terms of Thomas' individual defense? Thomas' defensive rating would indicate that he allowed Perkins to score against him. Plus/minus data would award Perkins a +2 and Thomas a -2 and would also "indict" the other Bulls' defenders who were on the court at that time but would not reveal who was really at fault. A knowledgeable basketball observer would understand--as Collins immediately explained to the viewers--that Thomas did what he was supposed to do but that the help defender never arrived. Multiply this type of scenario over thousands of plays during the course of a season and it is easy to see why someone who watches basketball with understanding may come to a completely different conclusion about a player's value/skill set than someone who relies on nothing but numbers.

What about the success that Houston's General Manager Daryl Morey has had using advanced basketball statistics, as detailed in a New York Times article that I discussed here? If basketball statistical analysis is truly science and not pseudoscience, then it has to be based on the principles of the scientific method:

One "hypothesis" mentioned in the New York Times article is that Daryl Morey and his staff of numbers crunchers can use advanced basketball statistics to devise a game plan to slow down Kobe Bryant, the 2008 MVP and a two-time scoring champion. If we consider the four games that Bryant's Lakers played against Morey's Rockets this season to be the "experiment," then the "data" show not only that Bryant's Lakers won all four contests (with a convincing 13.0 ppg differential) but that Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg versus Houston while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range, exceeding his overall regular season averages in all three categories; oddly, Bryant's free throw percentage versus Houston was only .680 (well below his .856 regular season average) but I doubt that even the most ardent advocates of basketball statistical analysis will claim that this is a result of Houston's "free throw defense." So, the results of this "experiment" show that advanced basketball statistics have yet to enable Houston to defend Bryant more successfully than other NBA teams--and this is despite the fact that the Rockets have two of the best one on one perimeter defenders in the NBA (Ron Artest and Shane Battier) plus a 7-6 shotblocking center (Yao Ming).

Don't think that I am picking on Morey or Houston; as I wrote in my PBN article cited above, I appreciate that Morey is fully aware of the current limitations of basketball statistical analysis:

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that Morey is not merely looking at spreadsheets and randomly assigning arcane values to certain combinations of numbers; statistics give him an indication of what to look for when he watches game film but he still has to watch game film to determine why players are putting up the numbers they do and to figure out what exactly those numbers mean.

In other words, Morey appears to understand the limits of a purely mathematical approach to the game and thus uses numbers to confirm what his eyes tell him -- and vice versa. This is a completely different approach from the one taken by far too many stat gurus who are so enamored with their formulas that they dismiss the importance of actually watching games -- perhaps because they are in fact not truly capable of watching basketball games with any real understanding of what is happening on the court.

It is a laudable goal for basketball statisticians to strive to analyze the sport as effectively as baseball statisticians evaluate baseball but when "stat gurus" and their buddies in the writing business act as if basketball has already been "solved" from an analytical/statistical standpoint they are actually hurting their cause more than helping it, because intelligent observers can plainly see that such claims are false. As Cleveland General Manager Danny Ferry recently told me about basketball statistical analysis, "to just make decisions off of statistics would be a mistake but it can be an important part of the equation in basketball." It would be foolish for an NBA GM to not look at statistical data but it would be even more foolish for him to rely solely or even primarily on such data at this juncture; in the Perkins/Thomas example, it is much more useful for a GM or coach to know that Thomas did what he was assigned to do--and to find out which player missed the help assignment--than to get a spreadsheet filled with numbers detailing how many times Perkins scored in the post with Thomas as the primary defender, because without the proper context that data could be dangerously misleading if it influenced the GM or coach to make a negative evaluation of Thomas' defense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:48 AM

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

adidas "Rep Your Brotherhood" Contest Offers Two Tickets to Game Three of the NBA Finals

You can win a trip for two to Game Three of the 2009 NBA Finals--plus $500 worth of adidas gear--simply by uploading a photo of yourself in your favorite team's apparel and writing 100 words about why you love basketball. Check out all the details--and submit your entry--by visiting the adidas Rep Your Brotherhood page.

You can also win a nice prize even without entering; online fan voting will determine which fan wins the grand prize and every fan who votes automatically becomes eligible for a drawing to win a $500 adidas gift pack.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:20 PM

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Requiem for a Heavyweight

The Dallas Mavericks eliminated the San Antonio Spurs from the playoffs with a 106-93 win on Tuesday. This is the first time that the Spurs suffered a first round loss since 2000, when Tim Duncan missed the playoffs due to injury. The Mavericks deserve credit for getting out of the first round for the first time since 2006--when they advanced all the way to the NBA Finals--but there will be time to talk more about them in the next few days; the Spurs' early departure seems to signal a changing of the guard in the West. Although the Spurs rather seamlessly transitioned from a Duncan-David Robinson nucleus to a Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili trio, it will be tougher to rebuild the team now: while Duncan is still capable of playing at a high level, he is also showing signs of age and it is fair to wonder if Ginobili will ever again be healthy enough to play All-Star caliber basketball. Seven of the 12 Spurs who played in the playoffs--including Duncan--are at least 31 years old and Ginobili (who was not on the active roster) is an "old" 31. Parker is their only good young player but, as great and dynamic as Parker is, I just can't see the Spurs winning a championship with him as the best player (yes, he was the 2007 Finals MVP but Duncan was still the best player on that team even if Parker was deemed to have performed the best in that series).

The Spurs won four championships between 1999 and 2007 and they have been the league's model franchise for the past dozen years or so but the Mavericks basically ran circles around them save for game two when Parker went nuts (38 points on 16-22 field goal shooting). Duncan and Parker were the only Spurs who averaged more than 8 ppg versus Dallas but just as troubling for the Spurs is that their vaunted defense has sprung some leaks--and that is a disturbing trend that began long before the playoffs: under Coach Gregg Popovich the Spurs used to always rank in the top five in defensive field goal percentage but this season they dropped to ninth, which is still decent but no longer elite. Former defensive stopper Bruce Bowen is 37 years old and he averaged his fewest mpg (18.9) since 1999-00. Duncan seems to have lost some range defensively and some bounce (he has always been more athletic than most people think but he is not as athletic as he used to be), so the Spurs could really use an athletic, defensive-minded seven footer to help anchor their defense in the paint.

The best case scenario for the Spurs is that Ginobili returns fully healthy next season, Duncan stays reasonably healthy and does not decline in terms of his skills, Parker remains an elite point guard and the Spurs acquire an athletic big man and one more wing scorer--preferably someone who can create his own shot. If all of those things happen then the Spurs could be right back in the championship hunt--but it is more realistic to expect that Ginobili will never be quite the same (based on his age/recent injury history), Duncan will decline slightly and the Spurs will not strike gold this time the way that they acquired Duncan to pair with Robinson and then found Ginobili/Parker just as Robinson was on his way out.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Lakers Squander a Big Lead Again, but Hold on to Silence Jazz, Win Series 4-1

Kobe Bryant scored 31 points, passed for four assists and had four steals as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz 107-96 to win their first round series four games to one. Bryant averaged 27.4 ppg, 5.6 apg, 5.0 rpg and 2.4 spg versus the Jazz while shooting .466 from the field, .353 from three point range and .897 from the free throw line; his field goal percentage took a hit after his 5-24 outing in game three but that was an inexplicable aberration and it seems likely that by the time the Lakers emerge as the Western Conference champions he will push his scoring average closer to 30 ppg and elevate his field goal percentage to near the .500 mark: the Lakers' loss in last year's Finals overshadowed how remarkably productive and efficient Bryant had been versus a very competitive Western Conference playoff field, scoring well over 30 ppg while shooting better than .500 from the field, incredible numbers for any player, let alone a shooting guard.

Lamar Odom added 26 points, 15 rebounds and four assists, capping off a strong series in which he averaged 17.8 ppg and 11.0 rpg while shooting .627 from the field. Pau Gasol contributed 17 points, 11 rebounds and four assists; he also had a good series (18.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg, .586 field goal shooting). Trevor Ariza overcame the effects of an ankle injury that he suffered during a pregame celebration ritual (!) earlier in the series to finish with 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. Paul Millsap led the Jazz with 16 points, Deron Williams had 14 points and six assists and Andrei Kirilenko also scored 14 points. Carlos Boozer--who scored at least 20 points in each of the first four games of the series--was a non-factor with 10 points and nine rebounds. Ronnie Price's boxscore numbers do not pop out--eight points on 3-9 shooting in 14:02--but Utah Coach Jerry Sloan rightly credited Price's spirited play with sparking a fourth quarter rally that cut the Lakers' lead from 22 to six; Sloan noted that Price not only made some big baskets and dished off for five assists but he also set several solid screens that helped his teammates get wide open, a role that John Stockton used to relish. Sloan wryly noted that the NBA "outlawed" some of the screens that Stockton liked to set but that overall "there is no rule against" setting screens and that doing so is a big part of playing winning basketball--a not so subtle message to the other Utah players.

It took the Lakers six games to eliminate the Jazz in the second round last year but this Utah team is clearly not as strong as last year's team; a more apt comparison is that last year's Lakers cruised to a first round sweep over Denver, while this year's Lakers dropped one game versus Utah by blowing a double digit lead and even in the games that the Lakers won they repeatedly allowed the Jazz to come back from huge deficits. The Lakers' problem with blowing leads dates back to last season, with the most notable--and devastating--example being the 24 point lead that they squandered in game four of the 2008 NBA Finals. The Lakers blow leads because they lose their focus defensively and on the glass and because at times they permit their opponents to push them around; in the wake of the 2008 Finals, those weaknesses became points of emphasis for the Lakers entering this season and they vowed to clean up those areas, secure home court advantage throughout the playoffs and win the championship--but even though they had an excellent season, the reality is that they made little if any progress in terms of addressing those issues and they failed to secure home court advanatage throughout the playoffs. Yes, the Lakers did win road games versus the Cavs and Celtics in the regular season but those "statement" games will be long forgotten by the time the Finals roll around.

Game five versus Utah is a microcosm of the Lakers' season--but the Lakers can get away with things versus the Jazz that they will not get away with versus elite teams; that is why after their game one victory, Coach Phil Jackson wrote on the locker room whiteboard "15? Not like that," making it very clear to the team that they cannot win a championship the way that they are currently playing.

The score was tied at 26 after the first quarter but Odom and Bryant each hit three pointers to open the second quarter and by halftime the Lakers were up 56-43. Odom's tip-in gave the Lakers an 80-58 lead with 2:21 remaining in the third quarter but their bench once again proved to be incapable of maintaining a sizeable advantage. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson prefers to rest Bryant at the start of the fourth quarter but during the season the bench gave away so many leads that at times Jackson decided he had to leave Bryant in with the reserves in order to provide some stability; in this game even that did not prove to be sufficient, as a unit consisting of Bryant plus bench players Andrew Bynum, Sasha Vujacic, Shannon Brown and Josh Powell allowed the Jazz to close to within 93-80 by the 6:42 mark of the fourth quarter. Realizing that Bryant--who would play a game-high 42:30--needed some rest in order to be fresh for the final minutes, Jackson took him out with 6:15 left, trying to take advantage of the impending TV timeout to maximize Bryant's break while minimizing the actual game action that he would miss. Bryant only sat out 1:03 but in that time the Jazz went on a 4-0 run to make the score 93-84 and then after Bryant returned a Ronnie Brewer dunk cut the margin to 93-86, making the Staples Center crowd understandably nervous. Bryant nailed a turnaround jumper with 4:25 remaining to end Utah's 13-0 scoring streak and the Jazz never got closer than six points the rest of the way.

After the game, TNT's Craig Sager asked Bryant what caused the Lakers to lose most of their 22 point lead and Bryant offered a very candid response: "We brought in that second unit and we stopped playing defense, stopped hustling, stopped getting back in transition, gave up too many layups and got them back in the game." The right side of Bryant's face was all bruised and cut up, an indication of how Utah literally scratched and clawed to try to avoid being eliminated, but Bryant dismissed those battle scars by saying, "That's playoff basketball...It's part of the game." Sager asked Bryant if the Jazz "exposed" a Lakers' weakness considering that L.A. blew big leads in every game of the series and Bryant thought for a beat before laughing uncomfortably and answering, "Probably. Probably. It's just going to be on us to try to correct some mistakes and, like I said, keep hustling. You can't stop playing hard because you have a big lead. You still have to play fundamentally sound, get back on defense and do the necessary things that got you that lead."

I don't mean to make it sound like the Lakers are a terrible team. They won 65 games this season and in most years that would be good enough to make them the clear favorites to capture the NBA title--but this is the only time in NBA history that two teams have won at least 65 games in the same season and the 66-16 Cleveland Cavaliers own three trumps over the Lakers: home court advantage if they face each other in the Finals, much more consistent defense and a deeper roster. The Lakers cannot do anything about the home court advantage situation and they cannot improve their roster during the playoffs, so in the next month or so they need to do everything they can to shore up their leaky defense. The Lakers are not a bad defensive team per se but they are extremely inconsistent in both their execution and their effort at that end of the court; while the Cavs are a defensive-minded team night in and night out, the Lakers rely on being able to score easily and their defense fluctuates from very good to very poor, often in the course of a single game.

The popular perception is that the Lakers are the deepest team in the NBA but, like many popular perceptions, that is not accurate and there are a lot of ways to demonstrate this:

1) The Cavs have at least 12 players who are fully capable of competently playing at least 15 minutes; their 12th man (in terms of minutes played in the first round sweep of Detroit) is Sasha Pavlovic, who started for the Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals; the Lakers did not even use 12 players in the first round but their 11th man (Jordan Farmar) has been very inconsistent this season, their 10th man (Josh Powell) is a career journeyman, their ninth man (Luke Walton) may miss the rest of the playoffs due to a foot injury, their eighth man (Andrew Bynum) is struggling to regain his form after coming back from a knee injury and their seventh man (Sasha Vujacic) shot .207 from the field (that is not a misprint) versus Utah. Yes, that's right, the so-called deepest team in the NBA is actually about six deep at the moment.

2) The story gets even better when you look at who is the Lakers' sixth man, at least in terms of minutes played in the first round versus Utah: Shannon Brown, who the Cavs traded away last year and who only played one minute for the 2007 Cleveland team that made it to the Finals, a team that was not nearly as deep as the current Cavs are. So, the supposedly deepest team in the NBA is employing a sixth man who was barely the 12th man for a 2007 Cavs team that clearly was not nearly as deep as the 2009 Cavs team.

3) The Cavs' frontcourt is incredibly versatile and deep, featuring two former All-Star centers (Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace, who also won four Defensive Player of the Year awards) plus a top notch defender who sets tremendous screens (Anderson Varejao), a former number one overall pick who can shoot, rebound and defend (Joe Smith) and two young players who provide energy and hustle (J.J. Hickson--who played in 62 regular season games but did not see any action versus Detroit--and Darnell Jackson).

4) While Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom certainly comprise a good starting center/power forward tandem, the Lakers do not have any dependable bigs coming off of the bench. Andrew Bynum--who only recently came back from a knee injury--shot .391 from the field versus Utah and had more fouls (16) than rebounds (15); Josh Powell (2.0 ppg in 4.5 mpg) is the only other big who played for the Lakers in the first round. D.J. Mbenga (2.7 ppg in 23 regular season games) is their only other available big. Gasol and Odom averaged 38.8 mpg and 36.6 mpg respectively in the first round, while the four main Cleveland bigs (Ilgauskas, Varejao, Wallace, Smith) averaged between 11.3 and 33.3 mpg. Gasol is obviously the most skilled big man on either team but the Cavs' frontcourt is much deeper and provides consistent defense in every game, while the Lakers' bigs are inconsistent defensively and the Lakers have no margin for error if Gasol or Odom suffer an injury or get in foul trouble.

5) Other than Ben Wallace--who has been hobbled by leg injuries, though he is still able to play limited minutes--the Cavs are fully healthy. In contrast, the Lakers--who have less depth than the Cavs even at full strength--are dealing with injuries to Bynum, Walton and Ariza (sprained ankle, though he seemed unaffected in game five versus Utah). Although Bryant has not missed any games in two seasons and has been playing basketball nonstop for nearly a year and a half (thanks to the Lakers making the 2008 Finals plus his Team USA commitment), it is also worth mentioning at least in passing that he is playing with an avulsion fracture to the pinkie on his right (shooting) hand and a dislocated ring finger on the same hand; he suffered the former injury last season and has yet to have surgery for it, while the latter injury happened this season.

The Lakers are a very potent offensive team because of Bryant's incredible scoring prowess, which forces opposing teams to trap him, creating wide open shots for his teammates (whether or not Bryant makes the pass that is recorded officially as an assist). Gasol is perfectly suited to be the second option and Odom is comfortable as a third (or fourth) option but those players are performing so well in those secondary (and tertiary) roles that it is easy to get things twisted and make assumptions about how the Lakers would do without Bryant; if Gasol were the primary offensive option and Odom were relied upon to consistently score (the Lakers went 7-1 this season when he scored three or fewer points and 23-8 when he scored fewer than 10 points) then the Lakers would have struggled to make the playoffs in the West. Look at the eighth seeded, 48 win Utah team that the Lakers just beat: without Bryant scoring 27.4 ppg while drawing double teams there is no way that the Lakers could have scored enough to offset Utah's six double figure scorers--and that does not even take into account Mehmet Okur's absence for most of the series or the fact that without Bryant the Lakers' defense would be markedly worse.

The Lakers will probably not be pushed past six games in either of the next two series but they have a lot of work to do--and not much time to do it--if they plan on beating Cleveland in the Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:09 AM

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Monday, April 27, 2009

First Round Storylines

The first week of the NBA playoffs has been action packed, filled with great individual and team performances plus a few surprises. One team has already mercifully been sent fishing--the underachieving and disinterested Detroit Pistons; at this point I am sure that even their most ardent fans are glad that they will not have to watch the Pistons play anymore this season. The other 15 playoff teams all have at least some life left, although a few of them face the looming prospect of an elimination game. Here is a series by series look at the NBA playoffs:

Cleveland Defeats Detroit, 4-0

Scoring Leader: LeBron James (CLE), 32.0 ppg
Rebounding Leader: LeBron James (CLE), 11.3 rpg
Assists Leader: LeBron James (CLE), 7.5 apg

Even though the Pistons basically took a roll of stamps and mailed in their performance--for most of the season, not just this playoff series--the way that Cleveland won is still significant. There have been plenty of mismatches in the 63 year history of the NBA playoffs but this is just the 52nd sweep of a best of seven series. The Cavaliers are the third of those 52 teams to win every game by a double digit margin. Their success is based on defense, rebounding and the all-around brilliance of LeBron James and during this series they made it clear that they are a tough, mentally focused team that will accept nothing less than winning a championship; except for a brief lapse in concentration during the fourth quarter of game two, the Cavs played at a consistently high level, setting their own standard of excellence as opposed to just coasting versus an obviously disinterested opponent.

James averaged 32.0 ppg, 11.3 rpg and 7.5 apg, joining Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird as the only players in NBA history to average at least 30-10-7 in a playoff series. James also became the only player other than Robertson to post at least 1300 points, 400 rebounds and 350 assists in the first 50 games of his postseason career.

It has been painful for any basketball purist to watch the Pistons play during this season and it is a welcome relief to not have to see them, think about them or write about them for the rest of the playoffs. While intelligent NBA observers like Jeff Van Gundy understand that Allen Iverson is not the sole reason for Detroit's struggles this season, far too many people have mindlessly jumped on the anti-Iverson bandwagon. In 2007-08, Iverson averaged a team-high 26.4 ppg (third in the NBA) for a Denver team that won 50 games; he averaged a team-high 24.5 ppg in the playoffs for Denver. I don't believe that he suddenly lost all of his skills and explosiveness this season; the Pistons simply did not utilize him correctly, a point that ESPN's Avery Johnson has repeatedly mentioned: you don't trade for a future Hall of Famer who has been a starter for his whole career and then refuse to make any changes to your offensive system to incorporate the things he does well. We only saw glimpes of what Iverson could have done for the Pistons this season: Iverson and Rasheed Wallace tied for team-high scoring honors with 25 points in a 106-95 win over the Lakers on November 14; five days later, Iverson scored 23 points and Wallace added 21 points in a 96-89 victory versus Cleveland. In those games, Iverson and Wallace frequently ran screen/roll actions, with Iverson driving to the hoop, pulling up for the jumper or feeding an open teammate (often Wallace). For some reason, after beating the two teams that will almost certainly meet in this season's NBA Finals, the Pistons did not continue to use Iverson effectively, instead constantly changing their lineups and shifting the roles of various players.

Injuries also sidetracked the Pistons. Iverson, who played in all 82 games last season, was hobbled by a back problem after the All-Star break and by the end of the season the team told him to not bother to return. There has been a lot of speculation about just how seriously Iverson is really hurt, because he clearly did not like the idea of coming off of the bench, which is the role that first year Coach Michael Curry eventually decided to force Iverson to accept. It will always mystify me why the Pistons apparently predetermined that Rodney Stuckey had to start no matter what, thereby consigning at least one perennial All-Star (Iverson or Richard Hamilton) to the bench. Stuckey is still a bench player at this stage of his career and even though in a perfect world players should do what their coach asks them to do I can understand why neither Iverson nor Hamilton felt comfortable in a reserve role.

The idea that the Pistons performed "addition by subtraction" when they banished Iverson is belied by the way that they closed out the season--a 3-4 record when just a couple more wins could have vaulted them up to the sixth seed, thereby avoiding Cleveland and Boston in the first round--and the fact that they were by far the least competitive of the 16 playoff teams. The Pistons scored 84, 82, 68 and 78 points in their four playoff games, so I don't want to hear about how "efficient" their offense supposedly became sans the allegedly "inefficient" Iverson; the one thing Iverson most assuredly can do is "get buckets" and while it is obvious that the Cavs would have won the series anyway, Iverson's scoring punch probably would have been enough to help the Pistons avoid being swept (assuming that the Pistons actually used Iverson correctly, which they were strangely disinclined to do).

Pistons General Manager Joe Dumars will never say this, but in light of what happened this season it is obvious that trading Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess (who was re-signed after one month) for Iverson was purely a deal to create salary cap space for the future (by letting Iverson--and Rasheed Wallace--walk after this season the Pistons will be serious players in the free agent market). At the time of the trade, Dumars mentioned that financial flexibility as a positive factor but he also spoke about jump starting the team's offense by taking advantage of Iverson's ability to draw fouls and to create shots for himself and his teammates but--other than a handful of early games, including the two mentioned above--the Pistons never played that way; giving playing time to young players (most notably Stuckey) clearly took precedence over trying to win this year. I suspect that if Dumars were forced to take a lie detector test then he would admit that he did not think that the Pistons could win the East with Billups or with Iverson, so he preferred to take his lumps and position the team for the future. We shall see if whoever he adds to the team can join forces with Stuckey and the other youngsters to once again make the Pistons relevant.

The absence of McDyess early in the season negatively affected the Pistons overall. McDyess, seemingly the only veteran member of their rotation who played hard during the playoffs, more than once labeled his team's performance versus Cleveland as "embarrassing" and he is 100% correct. McDyess tied his playoff career-high with 26 points in game four, outscoring the other four Detroit starters combined.

Boston 2, Chicago 2

Scoring Leader: Paul Pierce (BOS), 23.5 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Joakim Noah (CHI), 11.3 rpg
Assists Leader: Rajon Rondo (BOS), 10.0 apg

Derrick Rose's sensational playoff debut as the Chicago Bulls temporarily wrested home court advantage away from the injury depleted defending champions has perhaps obscured the fact that the best point guard--and best player--in this series has been Rajon Rondo; Rondo leads both team in assists, is just .2 ppg behind Pierce for top scoring honors, trails Noah by just .5 rpg and he already has two triple doubles: Rondo is playing like Jason Kidd did in his prime, except Rondo is scoring more prolifically and shooting better from the field. The Bulls have won two overtime games, while the Celtics had one close win and one blowout victory; it seems obvious that if the Celtics had a healthy Kevin Garnett patrolling the paint on defense and drilling jumpers, setting screens and making passes on offense then Boston would not have had too many problems in this matchup but the Celtics have made it clear that Garnett "will not be walking through that door" (to borrow a quote from the Celtics' dark days a few years back) and his absence has turned this into a hotly contested, fun to watch series. The Celtics' trumps are experience and home court advantage and--Chicago's game one win in Boston notwithstanding--that should be just enough to get them past the Bulls. Future Hall of Famer Ray Allen was dreadful in game one but has played very well since then, shooting 14-25 from three point range in the past three games. Future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce has only shot well in one game out of four and is only averaging 1.8 apg, so in Garnett's absence he has not exactly backed up his bold words from last summer about being the best player in the NBA.

Orlando 2, Philadelphia 2

Scoring Leader: Dwight Howard (ORL), 24.0 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Dwight Howard (ORL), 13.8 rpg
Assists Leader: Andre Iguodala (PHI), 7.5 apg

Dwight Howard is posting the highest playoff scoring average of his career but he is attempting fewer than 12 shots per game; the Magic lost the two games in which he scored very well (31 points in game one, 36 points in game three) and won the two games in which he posted modest scoring totals (11 points in game two, 18 points in game four). These numbers reinforce the truth of my explanation of why I would not take Howard over James or Bryant; if you single cover James or Bryant, they will score 40-plus points and their teams will almost certainly win--but if you single cover Howard and stay at home on Orlando's shooters then Howard is not dominant enough to consistently go off and score 40-plus points in a winning effort. It is important to vary your defensive coverages against any great player but if I were coaching against Howard my default coverage would be man to man, with my center trying to prevent Howard from catching the ball in the paint; Howard is not a great passer, so if you force him outside of the paint and either don't double at all or wait to double until he puts the ball on the floor then he will not burn you as a playmaker.

Just like last year, the Sixers are proving to be a tough out that "fights above their weight" (to use a boxing phrase); they play better than you would expect based on their mediocre regular season record (41-41). Nevertheless, just like the Sixers took a 2-1 first round lead last year only to lose in six games, I expect that the Magic will eliminate them and that the series will not go the distance.

Miami 2, Atlanta 1

Scoring Leader: Dwyane Wade (MIA), 27.0 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Josh Smith (ATL), 9.3 rpg
Assists Leader: Dwyane Wade (MIA), 6.7 apg

Wade had a subpar game one performance (19 points on 8-21 shooting, eight turnovers) in a 90-64 loss but he returned to form in two convincing Miami wins. What most observers either do not see or simply refuse to acknowledge is that Wade is receiving a decent amount of help from his teammates. No, the Heat are not a championship caliber team, but they are not just a one man band, either: Jermaine O'Neal is averaging 15.3 ppg on .536 field goal shooting versus Atlanta, Udonis Haslem is nearly averaging a double double (9.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg) while shooting .650 from the field and Daequan Cook is providing timely three point shooting (9.3 ppg, .400 three point field goal percentage). While much is made of the playoff experience that the Hawks gained last year by pushing the Celtics to seven games in the first round, Wade and Haslem started for a Miami championship team in 2006 and O'Neal has Eastern Conference Finals experience from his days with the Pacers.

The Hawks had home court advantage at the start of this series but now must win a game in Miami to avoid falling into a 3-1 hole, a deficit that only eight teams in playoff history have overcome. As TNT's Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley have repeatedly noted, the Hawks are an outstanding transition team but their halfcourt offense is dreadful: "Dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, bad shot," as Smith put it; it is like watching a team of five clones of Steve Francis or Stephon Marbury in their "primes." Barkley said that any decent team from his era would have
"beaten the Hawks like a drum" in a playoff series and he could only shake his head at the fact that the Hawks simply cannot manufacture a quality shot attempt when they are not running and gunning.

L.A. Lakers 3, Utah 1

Scoring Leader: Kobe Bryant (LAL), 26.5 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Carlos Boozer (UTA), 14.3 rpg
Assists Leader: Deron Williams (UTA), 12.0 apg

Kobe Bryant's one bad game out of four attracted a certain amount of attention but overall he has been the best player in this series and he has increased his numbers in several categories (rebounds, assists, steals, free throw percentage) compared to the regular season while maintaining his scoring average and field goal percentage; Bryant bounced back from his 5-24 shooting in a game three loss to shoot 16-24 and score 38 points in game four as the Lakers took a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Bryant shot 9-17 and 8-17 as the Lakers posted double digit wins in the first two games of the series but in those contests the most notable aspect of his game was not his efficient shooting but rather his deft playmaking; he had eight assists in game one and nine assists in game two but those numbers only tell a small part of the story: for instance, on one play in game two, Bryant drew two defenders out near the three point line, fired a cross court pass to Trevor Ariza and Ariza made a touch pass to Derek Fisher for an open three pointer that put the Lakers up 27-14. TNT's Reggie Miller commented, "Even though Kobe Bryant will not get the assist on that, it (Fisher's open shot) is because everyone is coming to help (on) Kobe and he made the pass that led to the pass for the wide open three for Fisher." On the Lakers' next possession, the Jazz did not double team Bryant and he swished a three pointer; the dominant positive feature for the Lakers in this series has been how well Bryant has read the defense and either made pinpoint passes or else hit open shots, with game three being an aberration mainly because Bryant simply missed shots that he normally makes: though the Jazz should also be given credit for contesting most of those shots, Bryant clearly proved in game four that when he is on his game he will score even against good defense.

In his April 25 L.A. Times column, Bill Plaschke discussed the Lakers' game three loss:

Numerous people have mentioned that Michael Jordan would never allow the Chicago Bulls to lose a game like Thursday night's -- his team would never blow a 13-point third-quarter lead while Jordan made only five of 24 shots.

Bryant shook his head.

"One big difference," he said. "Michael had Scottie Pippen. He had someone who could distribute the ball and keep everyone else involved."

Bryant momentarily sighed.

"Michael could come out and shoot the ball 40 times a game," Bryant said. "I can't do that."

Again, he smiled.

"Having someone like Pippen would be a big luxury for me, because scoring is what I do best, but it's OK," he said. "It's a challenge, and I welcome the challenge."

What many people fail to understand is that even though Bryant is not as good as Jordan was, Bryant is actually shouldering a heavier load; Jordan had a Top 50 teammate in Pippen, a player who served as a defensive stopper and the team's primary playmaker, freeing up Jordan to be a deadly scoring machine, but the Lakers rely on Bryant to not only be the leading scorer but also to be the primary playmaker and the top perimeter defender. Against Utah, Bryant has been trying to find a balance between helping get his teammates going while at the same time taking advantage of his own scoring opportunities. After game three, Bryant acknowledged that perhaps he had been waiting too long in each game before asserting himself as a scorer.

The fact is that the Lakers are a dynamic offensive team because of Bryant's ability to not only score but to create for his teammates; if he focuses too much on simply being a playmaker then he is actually shortchanging the team, because often the best option/most favorable mismatch dictates that he should shoot the ball.

Although Utah is obviously a more formidable team than Detroit, the Lakers' performance in this series provides an interesting contrast with Cleveland's performance in the other 1-8 matchup; while the Cavs won three games in which they scored fewer than 100 points, the Lakers have scored at least 108 points in their wins and they lost the only game in which they did not reach the century mark. The Cavaliers play good defense night in and night out, while the Lakers' defense is much less consistent; at times versus Utah, the Lakers look like the Washington Generals playing against the Harlem Globetrotters, giving up layup after layup. Carlos Boozer is leading all players in playoff rebounding, while Deron Williams is tied with Chris Paul for the lead in assists. The Lakers will win this series because of Bryant's skill set and because they have superior overall offensive firepower but they are not even close to playing championship level defense.

During game four, ESPN ran a graphic about the duos that have led Lakers teams to at least 65 wins in a season: Wilt and West, Magic and Kareem, Shaq and Kobe--and now Kobe and Pau Gasol. It is worth noting that Kobe Bryant is the only player in that group who has led the Lakers to at least 65 wins in a season without the benefit of playing alongside a future Hall of Famer--and those other duos consisted not just of Hall of Famers but of players who would make just about everyone's list of the top 15 players of all-time. While a similar observation could also be made about LeBron James and his 66 win Cleveland team that does not have any other future Hall of Famers, I still think that Bryant does not get enough credit for his impact on the Lakers; people talk so much about how talented the Lakers are but they are not a great defensive team and a lot of the "talent" that they display on offense is directly related to Bryant attracting so much attention that other players are playing one on one or even one on none. Yes, Gasol has a nice skill set for a big man but his game has been helped immeasurably by all of the attention Bryant receives. Guys like Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown were never considered to be good shooters until this year when they played alongside Bryant and had the chance to shoot wide open jumpers.

Andrew Bynum has been a complete non-factor in this series; the cumbersome knee brace that he has to wear seems to be making him tentative and in game four Coach Phil Jackson replaced him in the starting lineup with Lamar Odom. It is worth emphasizing that--contrary to the expectations expressed by several "experts"--Jackson never put Gasol, Bynum and Odom on the court at the same time this season. Last summer, I offered a a very prescient take on exactly what kind of team the Lakers would be in 2009 and I completely dismissed the popular notion that Jackson would play his three big guys together:

The Lakers still have the same strengths that enabled them to not only post the best record in the West but also defeat three 50-plus win teams in the playoffs: they have a Hall of Fame coach, the best all-around player in the NBA and a high powered offense. The Finals highlighted the weaknesses that they overcame to have such a great season: a lack of toughness that manifests itself defensively and on the boards and the lack of a legit, top flight small forward who can make a significant offensive contribution and/or lock down the opposing team's high scoring small forward. If Andrew Bynum returns to health and is productive then he can start at center and Pau Gasol can shift to power forward. In that scenario, the ideal move for the Lakers would be to trade Lamar Odom for a quality small forward. Odom is not an ideal small forward, so a frontline of Bynum-Gasol-Odom is not feasible, despite what some people may try to convince you; the only way that those three players can effectively coexist is if one of them comes off of the bench. Gasol is the second best player on the team, so he is not going to be a reserve. Bynum is the best postup player, so it does not make sense to sit him either.

While the Cavaliers are a defensive-minded team that is also capable of being offensively potent, the Lakers primarily rely on outscoring their opponents; that should not be a problem for L.A. in the Western Conference playoffs but if the Lakers do not become much better defensively by June then they will not beat the Cavs in the Finals.

Denver 2, New Orleans 1

Scoring Leader: Chauncey Billups (DEN), 27.7 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Nene (DEN), 10.0 rpg
Assists Leader: Chris Paul (NOR), 12.0 apg

The Nuggets cruised to home wins in the first two games of this series and had a chance to put New Orleans in a stranglehold after racing to a 22-6 lead at the start of game three--but the Hornets bounced back to eke out a 95-93 victory and can tie the series with a home win tonight. In games one and two, Chauncey Billups played almost flawless basketball; his role in "changing the culture" in Denver during the regular season has been a bit exaggerated--Denver's win total only increased by four but the Nuggets jumped from eighth to second because so many other teams in the West slipped, primarily due to injuries--but there is no question that he is the primary reason that the Nuggets are just two wins away from their first playoff series victory since 1994. That said, it should also be noted that Denver's improved defense has at least as much to do with the team's frontcourt play as it does with Billups, who in most cases is not even guarding his counterpart, Chris Paul. If the Hornets can protect their homecourt then it will be interesting to see how the Nuggets--who have some hotheads on their roster--respond to the pressure of game five.

Dallas 3, San Antonio 1

Scoring Leader: Tony Parker (SAS), 29.3 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Dirk Nowitzki (DAL), 8.5 rpg
Assists Leader: Jason Kidd (DAL), 5.8 apg

There have been several times that the Spurs have been written off only to display a Rasputin-like ability to stay alive but this may really be the beginning of the end for the Spurs. Without Manu Ginobili they apparently do not have the necessary offensive firepower to keep up with the Mavs. Tim Duncan is also hobbled, though he had a strong performance (25 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists) in a game four loss. The Spurs are not as deep as they were during their championship seasons and they surely must now rue some of the cost cutting moves--like trading the rights to Luis Scola--that they made in recent years. Tony Parker has been fantastic but the Mavs simply have too much depth and too many weapons. The Mavs got off to a slow start this season but they are peaking at the right time; the return of former All-Star Josh Howard has really provided a much needed boost.

Houston 3, Portland 1

Scoring Leader: Brandon Roy (POR), 27.3 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Yao Ming (HOU), 10.5 rpg
Assists Leader: Ron Artest (HOU)/Aaron Brooks (HOU), 4.8 apg

After Houston's blowout game one win, this series has been very tightly contested but that does not change the fact that the Blazers are one loss away from being eliminated; they face the daunting task of having to win three straight games in order to advance to the second round. The Blazers do not have much playoff experience--but most of the playoff experience for Houston's players consists of being bounced out in the first round (though Ron Artest made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004 as a Pacer). I thought that Portland would enjoy several good matchups in this series and that those factors--big defenders capable of slowing down Yao Ming, a plethora of good outside shooters, a big-time star in Brandon Roy--coupled with home court advantage would be enough to tilt the balance in their favor but in an evenly matched series losing game one may prove to be too much for Portland to overcome.

The Blazers led 70-64 going into the fourth quarter of game four--and the Rockets have not been a good come from behind team in recent seasons--but they made several key mistakes down the stretch, including a pair of charging fouls by Brandon Roy, who otherwise played very well (31 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals, three blocked shots). Both of Roy's offensive fouls came on plays when he penetrated too far into the paint and a help defender slid into his path. Last year, when I made a skill set comparison between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, one of the reasons that I gave Bryant the overall edge was the potency of his midrange game: Bryant can stop on a dime and consistently make 15-18 foot jump shots, something that is still a weakness--the only remaining one--for James. Roy has a good midrange jumper but part of being a superstar player is not only having a variety of weapons/tools but knowing which one to use in a particular situation. Other than Yao Ming, the Rockets do not have shotblockers but they do have several players who are good at taking charges; therefore, you cannot expect to start a drive on the perimeter and make it all the way to the hoop in a halfcourt set versus the Rockets: you must be prepared to stop and either shoot the midrange shot or else kick the ball out to a three point shooter. Roy is a student of the game, so he will surely watch game film and make the appropriate adjustment, though it may be too late to save Portland in this series.

Ron Artest is a tremendous defensive player but his shot selection is simply horrible; he shot 5-20 from the field in game four but his performance was actually worse than those numbers suggest because--other than a few strong postup moves--the vast majority of his attempts were bad shots due to the time remaining, his location on the court, who else was open or all of the above. There is no reason that a player with his size and physical gifts should be a .422 lifetime shooter, including .401 this season--and he is only shooting .383 versus Portland. Artest is actually a very good passer when he wants to be but the problem is that he is convinced that he should be his team's number one scoring option, so if he has not had a good shot attempt in a while he will force up a bad shot the next time he gets the ball.

Miscellaneous Notes:

Here is the best commercial so far from the NBA playoffs, a joyful snippet of Biz Markie's 1989 top 10 hit "Just a Friend." Nobody beats the Biz:



The worst commercial is a staple on NBA TV, airing approximately 20 times an hour: "We will go Haier" the singers warble off key as viewers wonder why NBA TV is torturing us. I am convinced that the fast forward button on the TIVO remote control was invented in response to this commercial.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:44 AM

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