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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Chuck Daly: A Winner at All Levels of the Game

"It's a players' league. They allow you to coach them or they don't. Once they stop allowing you to coach, you're on your way out."--Chuck Daly

Chuck Daly, who coached the Detroit Pistons to NBA championships in 1989 and 1990 and who led the original--and only--"Dream Team" to the Olympic gold medal in 1992, has just passed away from pancreatic cancer. Daly, affectionately known as "Daddy Rich" because of his penchant for wearing fancy suits on the sidelines, was 78 years old. Coaches and members of the media have been honoring Daly throughout the playoffs by wearing lapel pins with his initials on them.

Many coaches--even some of the most successful ones--have skill sets and/or personality types that are best suited to a particular level of their sport; a great college coach will not necessarily thrive in the pro game, and vice versa. Daly proved that he had the right mindset to win at all levels of the game, from high school basketball in Pennsylvania to guiding an Ivy League team (Penn) to four NCAA Tournament appearances--including a Regional Final berth in 1972--to his great accomplishments in the NBA and with the "Dream Team." Daly was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994 and was also voted as one of the Top 10 Coaches in NBA history.

Daly got his start in the NBA as an assistant coach for Billy Cunningham with the Philadelphia 76ers. Cunningham, then a recently retired great player with no coaching experience, relied on Daly's Xs and Os acumen much like Larry Bird later depended on Dick Harter with the Pacers. Daly left the 76ers in 1981-82 for a brief stint as the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were at that time the NBA's version of the Titanic under the ownership of Ted Stepien, who made so many bad player transactions that the league actually had to step in and prevent him from making any more roster moves. After going 9-32 in Cleveland, Daly worked as a broadcaster for a couple years before the Pistons hired him to be their coach for the 1983-84 season. In his first season with Detroit, Daly guided the Pistons to a 12 win improvement and their first playoff appearance since 1977. The Pistons lost a memorable first round series to the incomparable Bernard King and his New York Knicks.

Daly's early Detroit teams were offensive juggernauts but defensive lightweights; the 1984 Pistons ranked third in the NBA in scoring (117.1 ppg, up from 112.7 ppg the year before) but they placed 18th (out of 23 teams) in points allowed (113.5 ppg). Daly understood that this was not a formula for championship success so he and Detroit's management worked together over the next few years to remold the team's roster and mentality. The Pistons made the playoffs in each of Daly's nine seasons with the team and in 1987 they made the first of five straight appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals. Larry Bird's famous steal of Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals played a big role in helping the Celtics ultimately win that series in seven games but it was obvious that the Pistons had become an elite team. For most of the 1980s, only the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers won championships but Daly and the Pistons broke down the doors to that exclusive club in the latter part of the decade; they lost a tough seven game Finals to the Lakers in 1988 after a severely sprained ankle hobbled Thomas (the Pistons had led that series three games to two) but the next year they acquired the final piece to their championship puzzle, Mark Aguirre. Adrian Dantley had done a fine job for the Pistons but when they traded him to get Aguirre they obtained a player who had a better postup game and who was a better passer out of double teams. The Pistons went 31-6 with Aguirre--including 29-4 with him as a starter--and got revenge by sweeping the injury-riddled Lakers in the Finals. The Pistons earned back to back titles by beating Portland in the 1990 Finals. The Pistons won with team defense and employed a versatile offensive attack spearheaded by guards Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson. Thomas, the shortest Finals MVP ever, is one of a handful of players to win that honor without being paired with one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

Daly's success in Detroit helped him earn the opportunity to coach the 1992 "Dream Team," the first U.S. Olympic basketball squad that used NBA players. Daly never called a timeout during the entire tournament and he did a masterful job of managing the minutes and the egos. Ironically, Thomas--who had once lobbied Detroit management to keep Daly when some people wanted to replace him--was not selected to the "Dream Team" even though he had won more championships at that point than anyone on the team other than Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. It has always been rumored that Michael Jordan, Thomas' bitter rival from Chicago, vowed to not participate unless Thomas was left out.

Daly left the Pistons after the 1992 season. He led the Nets to a pair of playoff berths in 1993 and 1994 and then finished his coaching career in Orlando in 1998 and 1999, guiding the Magic to the playoffs in his final season with the team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:36 PM

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Lakers Retake Initiative With 108-94 Win Over Rockets

Kobe Bryant had 33 points, six rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots, two steals and no turnovers as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Houston Rockets 108-94 to take a 2-1 series lead and regain control of home court advantage. Bryant moved past Larry Bird into sixth place on the NBA's all-time career playoff scoring list. Bryant shot just 11-28 from the field but, as the great Bill Russell used to say during his days as a color commentator for CBS, it is not always how many shots you hit but when you hit them that matters; Bryant made five of his first six shots and scored 11 quick points as the Lakers took an early 24-18 lead, he drilled a tough three pointer near the end of the third quarter to put the Lakers up 74-62 and he slammed the door on any possible Houston comeback with another three pointer at the 2:21 mark of the fourth quarter to give the Lakers a 95-84 advantage. The three pointer to close out the third quarter was a real masterpiece. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson had just brought Bryant to the bench to rest about a minute earlier--and the Rockets shaved four points off of the Lakers' lead in that brief time--but when the Lakers gained possession with 7.2 seconds left Jackson put Bryant in for the final possession. Obviously, everyone in the arena knew that Bryant would be the first option on the inbounds play. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy explained that in such situations the Lakers like to use a bunch formation, with Bryant popping out to receive the pass near the top of the key. Before the ball was inbounded, Van Gundy noted, "Artest is perfectly positioned." Indeed, Ron Artest did such a good job that Bryant had to go well past the three point line just to get free and he caught the ball facing the midcourt line, not his own hoop; Bryant promptly turned around, used a dribble move to back Artest up a little bit and then drained a three point shot from several feet beyond the arc. That not only gave the Lakers a double digit lead but it was a demoralizing play for the Rockets.

All five Laker starters scored in double figures, including Jordan Farmar (12 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two steals), who started in place of the suspended Derek Fisher. Lamar Odom played an efficient game (16 points, 13 rebounds, 7-11 field goal shooting), Trevor Ariza (13 points, five rebounds, four steals) was very active and Pau Gasol (13 points, six rebounds, three assists) did not shoot well (4-11) but set some effective screens.

Artest led the Rockets with 25 points on 10-23 field goal shooting; he padded those numbers with a couple late jumpers before he was ejected for allegedly committing a flagrant foul against Gasol--Bryant said after the game that he did not think Artest should have been ejected--but Artest's shot selection during most of the game was highly questionable. Perhaps a "stat guru" may be foolish enough to say that Artest played a more "efficient" game than Bryant in terms of shooting percentage but ESPN's Mark Jackson understands the game much deeper than that and at one point he declared, "There are times as a point guard that you have to keep the ball away from certain guys. Ron Artest is in that zone right now. You have to keep the ball away from him and get it in the hands of Yao."

Yao Ming had 19 points and 14 rebounds while shooting 6-14 from the field but he only scored five points in the second half and was limping severely down the stretch; he has a huge bruise on his right knee from colliding with Bryant in game one and he also apparently has a balky left ankle. Luis Scola and Carl Landry (10 points each) were the only other Rockets who scored in double figures.

Bryant's early scoring outburst set the tone for this game and, most likely, the remainder of the series as well. During the first quarter, Van Gundy made a couple very interesting observations. He said that Bryant does not have "the same trust in his teammates that he had earlier in the year and rightfully so." I think that the "trust" formulation is overused, because the onus should be on role players to earn that trust and not on star players to simply blindly "trust" players who are not getting the job done, but Van Gundy is quite correct that Bryant cannot afford to start out games as a passer and expect that his teammates will be able to carry the scoring load. When Bryant scores right out of the gate it gives his team confidence and forces the opposing team to commit more and more players to defending him, which then leaves Bryant's teammates wide open. It really is easy to play with Bryant if you have any kind of game, because all the perimeter players have to do is spot up and make open jumpers, while the bigs can simply roll to the hoop and feast on layups either off of feeds or by hitting the offensive boards after the opposing bigs slide over to contest Bryant's shot. More significant than Bryant's individual field goal percentage is the fact that the Lakers shot 11-20 (.550) from three point range. Van Gundy stressed throughout the game that the NBA is a "make or miss" league, explaining, "They (the Rockets) are going to commit off of the corner to stop Bryant's penetration and that is why it is critical for guys like Luke Walton and Odom to make the three point corner shot."

People who only look at Bryant's field goal percentage or how many jumpers he takes or how many free throws he attempts simply do not understand the kinds of defenses that he is facing or what he is doing to try to break down those defenses; elite defensive teams build a wall around the rim in the half court set, so if Bryant simply drives pell mell all the way to the hoop on every possession then he will make himself vulnerable to committing offensive fouls and turnovers. That is why Bryant takes what the defense gives him, namely midrange jumpers and/or passes to open teammates who then must make shots. Bryant is playing aggressively but he is also playing smartly and efficiently: in three games versus Houston, he is averaging 35.0 ppg while shooting .477 from the field and .438 from three point range and only committing 1.33 turnovers per game in 42.7 mpg. For comparsion purposes, it is worth noting that in two regular season games versus Houston, LeBron James averaged 24.0 ppg, shot .409 from the field and .250 from three point range and averaged 5.0 turnovers per game in 36 mpg, numbers that mirror his struggles against elite defenses in the 2007 NBA Finals and 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals. Bryant's statistics against Houston so far are off the charts good but this just continues the regular season trend, when he led the Lakers to a 4-0 sweep of the Rockets while scoring 28.3 ppg, shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range and committing 3.3 turnovers per game.

Van Gundy also opined that the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play is very effective: "They need to exploit that more." The Lakers cruised through the Western Conference playoffs last year largely on the strength of that action: after Gasol sets the screen, Bryant attracts two or even three defenders, creating scoring opportunities for other players; Gasol sets good screens and he can catch and finish by either scoring in the paint or draining outside shots but if Gasol is not open Bryant can either pass to Odom flashing to the high post or reverse the ball to a three point shooter camped out on the weak side. The play only breaks down if Gasol is tentative in terms of how he sets the screen, not shooting when he is open or missing easy shots from close range; of course, another way that the play can break down is if the Lakers' three point shooters do not connect at a high enough percentage to keep the defense honest.

Van Gundy diagrammed a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll that resulted in a dunk for Odom; after Gasol set a screen for Bryant, three defenders converged on Bryant, who swung the ball to the weak side. The Rockets had to scramble to rotate and after another pass to Farmar in the corner Farmar fed a wide open Odom in the paint. Bryant receives no credit in the boxscore for any of this but the defensive coverage he attracted created the play. A casual fan watching this play thinks to himself, "Why don't the Lakers utilize Odom more often?" A "stat guru" watching this play thinks to himself, "The Lakers are a deep team that gets contributions from Odom and Farmar; Kobe must be overrated." Someone watching this play who understands basketball realizes that Odom likely would not have scored--and thus Farmar would not have gotten an assist--without Bryant forcing Houston's defense to break down. If the Lakers had to consistently create scoring opportunities for themselves over the course of the season without Bryant I don't think that this team would even make the playoffs--and Coach Phil Jackson sees exactly the same thing, which is why Bryant played 44 minutes in this game and is averaging 41.5 mpg in this year's playoffs.

Van Gundy had a lot to say about the Lakers' bench and he is not singing the tired refrains about the Lakers being the deepest team in the NBA; he knows better than that. Van Gundy noted that the Lakers' depth has been compromised by losing Ronny Turiaf and Vladimir Radmanovic, both of whom departed for what Van Gundy termed "fiscal" (i.e., cost saving) reasons. Injuries to Farmar and Andrew Bynum have limited both players' minutes and effectiveness this season. Van Gundy's overall verdict on the Lakers' bench this season: "Their bench has played very poorly." Van Gundy and Mark Jackson talked a lot about Bynum, who finished with four points, five rebounds and three fouls in 12 minutes. Near the end of the regular season, Bynum returned from a knee injury but Bynum has candidly admitted that his recent poor play is because of mental reasons, not any lingering physical effects of the injury. Van Gundy and Mark Jackson both emphasized that this is unacceptable. As Van Gundy put it, "He's cashing the checks," so there is no excuse for not being mentally prepared. Van Gundy agreed with Mark Jackson's description of what Bynum's role should be: defend, rebound and play hard. Bynum is not a focal point of the offense and his scoring opportunities come about when other players make plays for him, so there really is nothing for Bynum to be struggling about mentally: all he has to do is play hard.

Gasol struggles a bit to defend Yao on the block; this is where Bynum could be valuable in this series if only he were focused and could stay out of foul trouble. With Bynum only making cameo appearances, it is up to the lean Gasol to do his best to keep Yao out of the paint. Bryant provided a helping hand in game three by flying in from the weak side to block a couple of Yao's point blank shots during the third quarter. After one of those plays, Van Gundy said, "That's an all-world defensive play." The much ballyhooed "chase down" blocks of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are largely a product of hustle, athleticism and timing (that is not a criticism of either player, merely an observation); Bryant's blocks on Yao--a player who is a foot taller and possibly 100 pounds heavier than he is--came in the half court set as a result of Bryant correctly executing defensive rotations. While Bryant obviously had to utilize some athletic skill to make those blocks it is important to understand that the reason he was in position to do so is that he knows where he is supposed to be on defense. Unfortunately for the Lakers, many of their players are still struggling with understanding and executing proper defensive rotations; in fact, those limitations are the reason that the Lakers' coaching staff has tried to explicitly codify who should rotate where and when, because Bryant is one of the few players on the roster who can correctly diagnose such situations on the fly.

Kevin Pelton made a big deal early in the season about the Lakers' allegedly revolutionary defensive scheme but when I spoke with Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons he told me, "The only thing we’re doing is what a lot of teams have decided to do: basically, playing a man to man defense that is actually a zone; we’re sending an extra defender over in situations that we feel threatened. There’s no big secret about it; that’s what we’re trying to do: give more help when we can and we’ve been fortunate thus far." In a subsequent interview, Cleamons explained to me, "Anyone who watches film and is a student of the game would see that we don't play with the same intensity day in and day out, game in and game out. If you are going to be a championship caliber team, your defense is the one area that doesn't waver. We aren't good enough on a game by game basis to do what we need to do to say that we are going to be accountable in the end. Then, our rotations are not always what I like to call 'on point.' Sometimes, they are nonexistent, sometimes they are a little bit slow. If you are a good defensive team, then you play better on the defensive end than you do on the offensive end, because that (defense) is where you are really linked together; (in that case) the team has a feeling of when they have to help and a sense and a presence of how they need to get there so that when the ball moves and flows your defense is not always reacting. You are kind of ahead or you arrive right on the catch so the offense knows that you are there and there are no gaps in your rotations."

The Lakers actually played better defense in this game than they have played recently but they still leaked some serious oil in the fourth quarter, giving up 32 points after a masterful third quarter in which they held the Rockets to just 14 points. During the fourth quarter, Van Gundy said, "There has been a lessening of defense and rebounding intensity by the Lakers in this quarter, which is inexcusable if you are trying to regain home court advantage." The Lakers struggled to get stops down the stretch and after scoring late in the quarter the Rockets smartly denied inbounds passes to Bryant on several occasions and instead fouled other players, who repeatedly could only manage to split their pairs of free throws, thus leaving the door at least somewhat open for a comeback.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:30 AM

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Cavs Crush Depleted Hawks

LeBron James scored 27 points on 9-14 field goal shooting and had five assists, three rebounds and four steals in just 31 minutes as the Cleveland Cavaliers led by as many as 36 points en route to a 105-85 game two victory over the Atlanta Hawks. James enjoyed the luxury of resting for part of the second quarter and sitting out the entire fourth quarter as Cleveland's reserves made significant contributions, led by Wally Szczerbiak's 17 points on 7-9 field goal shooting in 21 minutes. Three other Cavs scored in double figures: Mo Williams (15 points, five rebounds, five assists), Delonte West (14 points, three rebounds, three assists) and Anderson Varejao (12 points, eight rebounds, playoff career-high four blocked shots). The Cavs shot .535 from the field, outrebounded Atlanta 43-34, held the Hawks to 13 fastbreak points and outscored them in the paint 44-24.

Maurice Evans, starting in place of the injured Marvin Williams, led Atlanta with 16 points. The seldom used Thomas Gardner scored 12 points in garbage time but shot just 4-11 from the field. Mike Bibby had just 11 points on 3-8 field goal shooting. Three-time All-Star Joe Johnson scored 10 points on 5-15 field goal shooting before spraining his right ankle with 1:08 left in the third quarter; he did not return to the game and his status for game three is questionable, though he insists that he will play if it is at all possible to do so. The Cavs have completely bottled Johnson up, with West having the primary defensive assignment and the Cavs "loading up" with a big in screen/roll situations or any other time that the Hawks threaten to break Johnson loose of West, who also suffered an injury that knocked him out of action for the remainder of the game: he was inadvertently poked in the right eye by Zaza Pachulia, who only scored seven points but had a game-high 12 rebounds after starting for the injured Al Horford. Initial indications are that West will be fine and will play in game three.

Forward Josh Smith had a horrible game, finishing with eight points, one rebound and four fouls while shooting just 2-13 from the field; as he continually fired errant bricks toward the rim, I said to ProBasketballNews.com editor Sam Amico that every time Smith shoots a jumper someone should put up one of those "Pardon Our Dust/Under Construction" signs, because Smith's shooting touch definitely needs a major construction--or reconstruction--project.

The Hawks fought the Cavs solidly for about the first five minutes of the game, battling to a 12-12 tie, but the Cavs closed the first quarter with a 14-5 run and never looked back. There has yet to be a lead change after the first quarter in any of Atlanta's nine playoff games this season. Can you say, "Front-running team"? It surely must be expected that the Hawks will play with more energy when they return home for games three and four but there is little reason to believe that they can sustain the necessary level of execution at both ends of the court that it will take to beat this dominant Cleveland team; by opening this year's playoffs with six straight double digit wins, the Cavs tied an NBA record set by the 2004 Pacers. The Cavs have also won three straight playoff games by at least 20 points, tying an NBA mark set by the 1986 Lakers. The Hawks' half court offense is a mess and it obviously does not help that they are down two starters, plus Joe Johnson will be at least hobbled, if not out of the lineup altogether. The Cavs probably will not shoot as well on the road as they did in game two but they hang their hats on defense and as long as they keep playing so well on defense--and avoid turnovers that will feed Atlanta's starving transition game--the Hawks simply cannot score enough points to beat the Cavs. I predicted that the Hawks would struggle to score 85 points versus the Cavs and that the Hawks would suffer field goal droughts lasting several minutes; the Hawks scored just 72 points in game one and only reached 85 on the button in game two because of some meaningless garbage time baskets. During the first three quarters of game two, the Hawks had field goal droughts that lasted 6:18, 3:22 and 5:39. Even if the Hawks feed off of the excitement of playing in front of their home fans to build an early lead in game three, they will almost certainly hit a drought, fall behind and struggle to keep pace.

After the game, Maurice Evans candidly admitted that even if the Hawks' injured players had been healthy the outcome would not have changed because Atlanta gave such a poor effort. Josh Smith said, "This loss is embarrassing."

Meanwhile, the always classy and ever vigilant Cavs struggled to find something positive to say about the Hawks but managed to present a unified message that Atlanta is a dangerous team that came back from a 2-0 deficit last year versus Boston to push the eventual champions to a seventh game. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown always preaches that he focuses on "One day, one game at a time," while LeBron James constantly mentions the importance of getting better every game, so the Cavs will remain focused on sharpening their own tools as opposed to getting overconfident or lazy after two easy wins--Coach Brown even said with a straight face, "It may look easy but our guys are working extremely hard out there." I don't question how hard his team works, but these two wins have been about as easy as NBA playoff wins can be, so Coach Brown deserves respect for both praising the resiliency of his opponent and for doing his best to keep his team mentally prepared to do battle.

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

After game one, Coach Brown mentioned his two main points of emphasis for the Cavs versus the Hawks. During Coach Woodson's pregame standup I asked him, "The Cavs are really emphasizing two points: keeping you off of the offensive glass and keeping you out of transition. From your standpoint of preparing your team, does that mean that you really have to place an emphasis on doing those things or are you a little bit more concerned about your half court offense?"

Coach Woodson responded, "Sure, we are better when we are out running but in order to run you have to get stops, you have to get deflections. You can't just give up points and then step out of bounds, take the ball out of bounds and think that you are going to fast break when their defense is already back set. Our defense has got to get stops and we've been pretty good; we've played eight playoff games and we're holding our opponents under 90 points, so for us defensively that is pretty good. Offensively, we've struggled because we are missing pieces. Marvin Williams is a 14 point scorer for us and we don't have access to him. Al Horford's numbers are down because he is just not healthy to move and do the things that we need him to do but, hey, now we have to rely on guys who have not played a whole lot to come in and fill that void until those guys are able to come back."

I then asked Coach Woodson, "Is 90 points your standard for good defense for your team?"

He answered, "Oh, that is excellent; I look at anything 94 and below as pretty good. But, you know, the Cavs are holding teams--nobody has scored over 80 on them. That's a big margin. That's a big differential."

The 94 number is an interesting choice, because after this win the Cavs are 20-1 since 2006 in playoff games in which they score at least 94 points.

***

Kevin Garnett made the All-Defensive Team this season despite missing 25 games due to injury. During his pregame standup I asked Coach Brown, "The coaches vote for the All-Defensive Team. I don't know if you had a chance to look at the final results but Garnett made it even though he missed 25 games this year. From your standpoint as a voter--and this does not have to be specifically about Garnett, but just in general--what do you think about voting for someone who basically missed a third of the season? No one questions that he is a great defensive player but he missed nearly a third of the season."

He replied, "If he missed most of the season then I think you would question that but to play two thirds of the season he can still have an impact on what his team does and I know that Garnett has had an impact on what his team has done at that end of the floor."

***

Mo Williams was not known as a good defensive player prior to joining the Cavs but Coach Brown said that based on talking to Williams' college coaches and looking at game film from early in his NBA career the Cavs "knew that he had the potential" to be a "pretty good defender." Coach Brown added that defense "is one of those things that is in our (team) culture, so with that being in our culture he does not want to be the odd man out. He understands that and he has done a terrific job so far this year at that end of the floor."

Coach Brown and LeBron James deserve tremendous credit for creating and maintaining that defensive "culture." Contrast what they have built in Cleveland in the past few years to the Phoenix Suns' failed attempts to run and gun their way to a championship.

***

James and the Cavs usually don't provide much bulletin board material for other teams but in his pregame standup James offered a candid--and accurate--assessment that my raise some eyebrows in Washington. The Cleveland-Washington "rivalry" the past few years has consisted entirely of the Cavs drilling the Wizards in the playoffs (until this year, when the Wizards imploded and did not make the playoffs). After someone asked James if he is concerned about lesser talented teams trying to disrupt a game versus the Cavs by resorting to some of the physical tactics recently seen in other playoff series, James said, "Washington tried that but they are not a tough team. They tried something, it didn't work and they lost in the first round once again (last year). You all know that Washington is not a physical team; they tried to be physical and they lost." It was at once comical--and pathetic--watching the Washington players hammering James because they thought that they could intimidate him and/or make him lose his composure; the Wizards just ended up looking like buffoons. Of course, Gilbert Arenas is never at a loss for words, so once he hears about James' comment Agent Zero will almost certainly fire back in some way.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:57 AM

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

"He Can't Guard Me": Bryant Says It and Bryant Proves It

Kobe Bryant has apparently heard more than enough about Shane Battier's defensive prowess; Battier played good defense against Bryant in Houston's game one win over the Lakers and Bryant still scored 32 points with a solid .452 field goal percentage. In game two, Bryant's actions and words both spoke loudly as he poured in 40 points on 16-27 (.593) field goal shooting in a 111-98 Lakers victory; on several occasions, Bryant loudly proclaimed, "He can't guard me," eventually receiving a technical foul for taunting. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bryant became just the fifth player in NBA history to have at least one 40 point game in four straight postseasons; Michael Jordan had eight year (1985-92) and four year (1994-97) streaks, while George Mikan (1948-51), Elgin Baylor (1959-62) and Allen Iverson (1999-02) each had four year streaks.

Battier has a thick notebook detailing various statistical tendencies for Bryant but Battier admitted to TNT's Craig Sager, "He does pretty much everything better than anybody else. I can't stop him, I just have to make it difficult for him." Battier is a smart, hard working player and I respect how thoroughly he prepares but the whole story about him guarding Bryant has been overdone or at least the emphasis has been placed squarely in the wrong direction; the story has been spun that Battier does such a great job but that is actually burying the real lead, which is that this season Bryant consistently posted great numbers against Battier as the Lakers swept the season series with Houston 4-0. Battier certainly does his best to make Bryant work but in the end it comes down to Bryant making or missing shots; Battier cannot block Bryant's shot, nor can he really control where Bryant goes on the court: watching him guard Bryant is not like watching Bryant play defense for Team USA the past couple years, when Bryant was spinning around opposing guards, making them pick up their dribble and completely disrupting the other team's offensive flow. Battier has his stats and his theories--and he knows where his help defenders are--so he tries to send Bryant in certain directions but for the most part Bryant gets to his spots and takes the shots he wants to take.

Pau Gasol bounced back from his subpar performance in game one; in game two, he scored 22 points on 9-13 field goal shooting, grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds, blocked a game-high four shots and passed for four assists. Gasol must use his speed, quickness and shooting ability to outmaneuver Yao Ming, because Yao has the advantage in "trench warfare" if the game slows down and is played in a half court set. Derek Fisher scored 12 points on 4-7 field goal shooting and played better defense versus the speedy Aaron Brooks than he did in game one but Fisher missed the entire fourth quarter after being ejected for committing a flagrant two foul when he elbowed Luis Scola as Scola tried to set a screen. It is possible that the league office will suspend Fisher for game three. No other Lakers scored in double figures and five of the six reserves who played had negative plus/minus ratings. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson moved Lamar Odom into the starting lineup in place of Andrew Bynum; Odom scored just seven points on 2-7 field goal shooting, though he did contribute 11 rebounds and four assists, but Bynum had no points, one rebound and three fouls in nine ineffective minutes. After the game, TNT's Charles Barkley quipped that when people called Bynum the Lakers' "missing player" for their championship quest he did not know that Bynum really would be missing.

Ron Artest led the Rockets with 25 points and five assists but, like Fisher, he watched the end of the game from the locker room after being ejected. With 6:57 remaining in the fourth quarter, Artest was called for a loose ball foul as he and Bryant battled for a rebound. While boxing out the larger Artest, Bryant raised his right forearm/elbow and Artest reared back like he had been shot, complaining that Bryant had elbowed him in the throat. Watching the game on TV, the camera angle used prevents the viewer from actually seeing the elbow connect; you just see Bryant lift his arm as he is grappling with Artest and then you see Artest lean back and get whistled for a loose ball foul. Based on the angle that Bryant's arm was at, it seemed to me that his arm likely contacted Artest in the upper chest, not in the neck area. The referee had a much better angle than the TV camera and all he saw was a foul by Artest, who became incensed and ran over to Bryant--who was walking down court--to give him a piece of his mind. Bryant simply lifted his arms over his head and backed away and the referees immediately ejected Artest. It is absurd for anyone to suggest that Bryant would possibly be suspended merely for boxing out a larger player who fouled him; anyone who has played basketball knows that when you are boxing out a bigger player you have to get your forearm into his chest and try to use leverage to keep him at bay, because if you just put your lower body on him he can use his weight and strength to move you right under the basket, where the only rebound you will grab is the ball going through the net. After the game, Bryant said of Artest, "If you're going to be physical you have to expect players to be physical back." Artest is a matchup problem for the Lakers but he will likely "self check" himself during this series with some combination of poor shot selection and poor emotional control.

Yao Ming finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds in 26 foul plagued minutes. Carl Landry had 21 points and 10 rebounds off of the bench, nearly outscoring all of the Lakers' reserves combined.

Much like LeBron James set the early tone versus Atlanta on Tuesday night, Bryant came out firing in game two, making six of his first seven shots and scoring 13 points as the Lakers took a 29-16 lead. The Lakers were up 39-25 by the end of the first quarter, with Bryant contributing 15 points on 7-11 shooting. Predictably, the Lakers squandered more than half of that lead in barely two minutes as Bryant rested on the bench; a lineup consisting of Odom, Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Shannon Brown got outscored 12-4 before Bryant returned to action to try to restore order. I think that Bryant should wear a fireman's hat because every time he comes back into a game he has to put out fires that the bench players set. TNT's Doug Collins said of the Lakers' bench, "What was once a great strength is now a weakness." Even last year I was not convinced that the Laker reserves were quite as good as some people said that they were but no sensible person can dispute the truth that Collins spoke about the bench now being a weakness. Landry simply killed the Lakers in the second quarter and the Rockets eventually took the lead, though Bryant tied the score at 57 by hitting a three pointer just before halftime. Collins noted, "Kobe is going to share the ball...Somebody is going to have to start knocking some shots down to give him some space to work." Otherwise, the Rockets will be able to tilt their defense against Bryant much like the Celtics did in the 2008 Finals.

In game one, Bryant played all 24 second half minutes because Coach Jackson knew that he could not afford to take him out of a close game. This time, Bryant solved that problem by scoring 12 third quarter points and giving the Lakers an 84-74 cushion that enabled Jackson to rest him from the 1:03 mark of the third quarter until 8:53 remained in the game. After a sequence in which Bryant had to execute numerous dribble moves and fakes to get free, Collins commented about how hard Bryant was working and he added, "The fourth quarter should be Kobe time. He should not have to carry the team throughout." As Bryant scored 10 points in a little over five minutes, Collins said, "Kobe has thrown out the life jacket; he has thrown out the dinghy and said, 'Everybody get on board here. I'm not going to let us get overtaken by this Rockets team.'"

Things got really chippy down the stretch in the third quarter. It seemed to start after Odom blocked a Luis Scola shot and talked some smack to Scola. Later, Scola fouled Odom on a drive and pulled on his jersey, leading to some more comments by Odom. Then Luke Walton came over and said his piece. Walton, Odom and Scola each received technical fouls. On the next possession, Fisher committed his flagrant foul against Scola.

The histrionics did not ultimately favor either team. The Lakers maintained their lead with Bryant on the bench, a rarity for them in recent weeks. When Bryant returned to action, the Lakers were up 92-81. The Rockets still hung around even after the Artest ejection but then Bryant scored seven quick points to extend the margin to 104-90; his final bucket of the night came after he pump faked Battier, threw the ball off of the backboard, beat everyone to it and converted the layup, a move that we have seen in a few All-Star games but not usually in the playoffs.

In his postgame interview with TNT's Craig Sager, Bryant said, "We're being tested so this is when it's the most fun, to be honest with you, and we're looking forward to going up there." Sager asked Bryant, the 2008 MVP, about his reaction to LeBron James winning the 2009 MVP and Bryant replied, "I'm very happy for him, to be honest with you. He's put in a lot of work and he's very deserving of it." Collins concluded, "I think that those two guys being together the past couple summers (with Team USA), LeBron has learned so much from Kobe."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:51 AM

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Howard, Bryant Lead All-Defensive Team Voting

Media members vote for most of the annual NBA awards but the All-Defensive Team is selected by the league's head coaches. It is interesting to hear "stat gurus" and self-proclaimed experts pontificate about who the NBA's best defenders are and then see who the coaches--the people who actually make up game plans and therefore know which players they can attack and which players cause them problems--select for the All-Defensive Team. This season, Dwight Howard--the media's choice for Defensive Player of the Year--led the way in All-Defensive Team voting with 55 points (two points for each First Team vote, one point for each Second Team vote), appearing on 28 of 29 ballots (there are not 30 ballots because coaches cannot vote for their own players). Kobe Bryant placed second with 53 points but he was the only player who appeared on all 29 ballots, earning 24 First Team votes. LeBron James (22 First Team votes, three Second Team votes), Chris Paul (15 First Team votes, six Second Team votes) and Kevin Garnett (13 First Team votes, nine Second Team votes) round out the First Team, while Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, Shane Battier and Ron Artest made the Second Team.

The official All-Defensive Team largely mirrors my choices (Howard, Bryant, Wade, James and Artest on the First Team; Chris Andersen, Paul, Jason Kidd, Battier and Duncan on the Second Team): I selected eight of the same 10 players as the coaches did and three of my five First Team choices earned First Team nods from the coaches; I disagreed slightly with the coaches by placing Wade on the First Team and Paul on the Second Team. Last year I also chose eight of the same 10 players as the coaches and I matched four of their five First Team choices.

As I mentioned in my post about this topic, the player who I most regretted leaving off was Rondo; I took Kidd over him because Kidd can defend multiple positions while Rondo usually only defends point guards. Kidd received one First Team vote and one Second Team vote. I am a little surprised that Garnett made the team; he missed 25 games and the Celtics posted a good record without him. I would not vote for anyone who missed nearly a third of the season. If I had considered him to be eligible then I would have chosen him but my pick for that slot was Andersen, who only received one Second Team vote. Andersen does not play heavy minutes but he ranked second in the league in blocked shots and I think that he has had at least as much effect on Denver's defense as the more celebrated Chauncey Billups has had (Billups received five Second Team votes).

This is Bryant's seventh First Team selection and fourth in a row; he has also made the Second Team twice. Howard, Paul and Battier each made the Second Team last year (the first time any of them were chosen for either team). This is Garnett's eighth First Team selection in addition to two Second Team selections; last year, the media chose him as the Defensive Player of the Year. James is making his first appearance on the All-Defensive Team, as is Rondo. Wade earned a Second Team selection in 2005. Duncan has now earned eight First Team selections and four Second Team selections. Artest, the 2004 Defensive Player of the Year, has now made the First Team twice and the Second Team twice.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:26 AM

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

James Dazzles as Cavs Rout Hawks

On Tuesday night, NBA Commissioner David Stern presented the 2009 MVP trophy to LeBron James in front of a sellout crowd of 20,562 adoring fans at Quicken Loans Arena--and then James spent the rest of the evening showing why he deserved that honor, scoring 34 points on 12-20 field goal shooting, grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds and dishing off for three assists as his Cleveland Cavaliers blew out the Atlanta Hawks, 99-72. James set the tone offensively by scoring 16 first quarter points but he also made his presence felt defensively, amassing four steals and taking a momentum-shifting charge at the 7:44 mark of the third quarter; the Cavs closed out that quarter with a 21-13 run to take a 77-61 lead and they never looked back in the fourth quarter. The Cavs became just the fifth team to win five straight playoff games by at least 10 points; the last team to accomplish this feat was the 2004 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons.

Mo Williams added 21 points on 7-12 field goal shooting--including 4-8 from three point range--and Delonte West contributed 13 points and a playoff career-high nine assists while also playing good defense against Joe Johnson, holding the three-time All-Star to 11 points. I'm still not sure why some people insist on saying that Johnson led the NBA in minutes played and that he is fatigued from playing for Team USA last summer; neither statement is accurate--this season Johnson finished second in the NBA in minutes played (third in mpg) and he was not a member of the U.S. Olympic Team, as anyone who read my Team USA Olympics Report Card would know. Although no Cavs other than James, Williams and West scored in double figures virtually every member of the team played a role in the stifling defense that placed a vice grip around Atlanta's offense; the Hawks scored 15 points in the first 5:19 of the game but only managed to produce 57 points in the final 42:41, including just 11 in the fourth quarter. In my series preview I predicted that the Hawks would score fewer than 85 points in several games in this series and that they were likely to go through extended stretches without a field goal; in this game, the Hawks had stretches of 4:53, 2:50, 4:02 and 5:06 in which they did not make a field goal. Josh Smith led the Hawks with 22 points but eight of them came on dunks or layups in the first 5:19; once the Cavs solidified their defense against him both Smith and the Hawks had no answers. Mike Bibby had 19 points, eight assists and four rebounds; he was the only Hawk who was able to score consistently in the half court set but he only had five points in the second half as the Cavs did a much better job of keeping track of him during their defensive rotations.

Although James was clearly the dominant player in this game, his plus/minus number (+13) was only the fourth best on his team because the Cavs were able to extend leads even when he was out of the game. Cleveland's depth and defensive tenacity are even more impressive to watch in person than they are on TV; the TV cameras force you to watch the game a certain way but when you are at a game you can focus on the action away from the ball and also just take in a bigger picture view of the entire court. The Cavs have several excellent individual defensive players--including James, West, Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace, who plays sparingly now while he recuperates from various injuries--but even the players on their roster who are not known as defenders understand the team's defensive schemes and play very energetically at that end of the court; the Cavs frequently pushed Atlanta's offense well behind the three point line and during one particularly impressive sequence they trapped Johnson near midcourt and then after he passed the ball they rotated so quickly and effectively that no Hawk was open enough to take a good shot: it looked like the Cavs had six players on the court, even though several of the players who were in the game at that time would not be considered "stoppers."

After the game, Atlanta Coach Mike Woodson praised Cleveland's defense but also lamented that his team was "very lethargic" in the third quarter after being competitive in the first half (Cleveland only led 49-44 at halftime): "I thought we played great in the first half. I thought our schemes were great but their defense outlasted ours in the second half in terms of taking us out of our offense." Woodson also noted that when Johnson is double-teamed he must make a good pass (Johnson had a game-high five turnovers) and not try to make a "home run" pass; as Hubie Brown often says, the second pass out of the trap is the one that can lead to a scoring opportunity. The Hawks shot .556 from the field in the first quarter but just .250 in the fourth quarter, finishing with a .438 percentage; they also turned the ball over 17 times. "Outlasted" is a very apt description of what the Cavs did to Atlanta and this is a direct reflection of Cleveland's depth and defensive intensity; the contrast between the Cavs and L.A. Lakers--the top seeded team in the West--in those two areas is huge.

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said that there are two points of emphasis for the Cavs versus Atlanta in this series: keeping the Hawks off of the offensive boards and limiting Atlanta's transition scoring opportunities. Brown was very pleased that the Cavs held Atlanta to six offensive rebounds (resulting in eight points) while outscoring them 15-6 in fast break points. He acknowledged that the first quarter defense versus Smith and Bibby had not been good but felt that the team zeroed in on those guys much better as the game progressed.

Brown singled out West for praise and candidly admitted that when the Cavs first acquired West in the middle of last season he did not really understand what kind of player West is. During this year's training camp and the team's practice sessions, Brown said that he discovered that West has "one of the most complete games I've been around...We run a lot of the same plays for him that we do for LeBron." Brown added that West should receive All-Defensive Team consideration.

LeBron James is usually considered to be a pass first player but he scored 22 points without getting a single assist in the first half, numbers that would be heartily decried if posted by Kobe Bryant. TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith did offer some light criticism at halftime but they resorted to their tired critiques of Cleveland's allegedly one dimensional offense as opposed to blaming James. The reality is that James and Bryant--like the great players who came before them--read the situation on the court and react accordingly, though they also have so much talent that they can decide to be extra aggressive in terms of looking to score if they think that this is necessary. Coach Brown said that when James was double-teamed he made the right reads and that when he was single-covered "he was extremely aggressive. Not only was he aggressive in the half court but he got out and ran in transition. Offensively, he started the game for us, he carried us for a little bit until we started to get rolling and it's great to be able to have a great player like that." If you go back and read postgame quotes from Lakers Coach Phil Jackson after similar first halves by Bryant you will find that Jackson said much the same things; sometimes there are situations when a great player has to shoulder a heavy part of the scoring load until his teammates are ready and able to contribute. Both James and Bryant are excellent at properly reading such situations and providing whatever their teams need.

James initially denied that he was more aggressive than usual early in the game in terms of looking to score but later he conceded that perhaps he had been "a little more aggressive." It was evident to me right from the start of the game that James was looking for his shot a bit more aggressively than he typically does; instead of passing the ball immediately out of traps he sometimes backed up, forced the trapping defender to retreat to his own man, and then attacked the lone defender. I don't think that James was wrong to play this way any more than Bryant is wrong when he does this. Again, both players understand what their teams need (that is something that TNT's Doug Collins often says about Bryant but it is also true of James). James' lack of first half assists is irrelevant because he created high percentage scoring opportunities for himself, shooting 7-12 from the field.

Veteran NBA observers understand that each game in a playoff series takes on a unique character and teams seldom begin the next game the way that they ended the previous one--but it is also true that a team cannot completely change its stripes. The Cavs are a deep team that plays disciplined defense and has by far the best individual player in this series; the Hawks are not nearly as deep as the Cavs--I had to laugh out loud when I read a preview article that suggested otherwise, supposedly relying on information from an NBA scout--nor are they as disciplined defensively. The Hawks will likely put forth a more sustained and consistent effort when this series shifts to Atlanta after game two is played in Cleveland on Thursday but if the Cavs continue to keep them out of transition and off of the offensive glass then the Hawks will struggle to score enough points to win a game.

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

Commissioner Stern spoke to members of the media for about a half hour before the start of the game. Usually he makes some prepared remarks at such gatherings but this time he simply opened the floor to questions on any subject. Most inquiries centered around LeBron James winning the MVP and the financial status of the league. I have yet to hear a good, complete explanation from the league about the scorekeeping irregularity that happened in Boston's 109-99 game seven victory over Chicago; you may recall that Ben Gordon made a three pointer in the first quarter that was scored as a two pointer, an error that was not corrected until midway through the fourth quarter. Obviously, in a closer contest that "extra" point could have had serious strategic ramifications if it had shifted the score from a two possession game to a one possession game. I asked Commissioner Stern, "In game seven of the Chicago-Boston series, there was a scorekeeping error with a Gordon three point field goal that was scored as a two and then it wasn't changed until the fourth quarter. What exactly is the rule with that in terms of how late a change can be made? Is there some concern if the game had been closer that this could have affected strategy--like if the lead went from four points to three points--so what exactly is the rule about that?"

Commissioner Stern replied, "The rule is that it should be corrected at the next stoppage of play but we had, in effect, a miscommunication/malfunction/technical error--take your choice--so we were left with the issue of whether because of that we should not give what was really due. Because we felt the system had failed, we overruled it to make sure that we corrected it."

I followed up by asking, "In the future will there be a procedural change or some kind of backup mechanism to make sure that this won't happen again?"

Commissioner Stern answered, "Yes, but it goes to something very technical that I am not going to go on here but yes, believe me when I say 'continuous quality improvement,' we learn something every day in this business and we are going to make it better. But, we had a decision to make and, in fact, as the game became closer I think it made me feel better that we had done what we did. It turned out not to be relevant but that's what you do, because no player wants to win a game that he didn't deserve to win."

***

Last year, the Hawks pushed the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in the first round, so during his pregame standup I asked Coach Woodson, "How would you compare Cleveland's defense this year to the type of defense that Boston played last year when they had all of their roster intact and they won the championship?"

He replied, "They're right there. They remind me so much of the Pistons team that I worked with (as an assistant coach) with Larry Brown (when the Pistons won a championship in 2004) in terms of their defensive energy and how they bring it every night. That is why they are the best team in the league: not only do they score the ball, they bring it defensively and they do it every night. They compare right at the top with the Celtics and what they did last year: that (defense) is what won the title for them last year, along with having three All-Stars--that didn't hurt."

Woodson served as an assistant coach for several different NBA coaches--including George Karl, Chris Ford and Randy Wittman--before getting his opportunity in Atlanta and he praised all of those men for giving him opportunities and helping him but he said that the coach who influenced him the most is Larry Brown: "Larry Brown stands above all the pro coaches who I've worked with and I say that because he just taught me the game in a different way in terms of how to manage the game and how to prepare for a game and holding players accountable, on and off the floor; that is so important, I think, when you talk about building a team--in my case, such a young team when we started five years ago. Being able to win a title with him was one of the most unbelievable experiences as a coach because I watched it firsthand and was a big part of the success there in Detroit."

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:52 AM

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Rockets Stun Lakers, 100-92

Yao Ming (28 points on 9-17 shooting, 10 rebounds) outscored Pau Gasol (14 points, 13 rebounds) and Andrew Bynum (10 points, three rebounds) combined as the Houston Rockets beat the L.A. Lakers 100-92 to seize home court advantage in the Western Conference semifinals. Ron Artest scored 21 points, dished off for a game-high seven assists and shot an uncharacteristically efficient 8-15 from the field. The quickness of Aaron Brooks proved to be a real X factor, as the diminutive Houston point guard scored 19 points on 7-14 shooting as no Laker defender could stay in front of him; Brooks created scoring opportunities for himself or for his teammates on several occasions when the shot clock was running down.

Kobe Bryant had 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals, tying Gasol by playing a game-high 44 minutes. The Lakers trailed for the vast majority of the game, so Bryant played all 24 minutes in the second half; Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson would normally rest Bryant from the last few minutes of the third quarter through the first few minutes of the fourth quarter but Jackson found out the hard way during this season that if he follows that type of substitution pattern when the other Lakers are floundering then the Lakers will lose--but the flip side of that is when the Lakers depend on Bryant to carry the bulk of the scoring load while also grabbing the second most rebounds and tying for the team lead in assists there is a danger that he will become run down. Bryant shot 6-9 from the field in the third quarter and 4-10 in the fourth quarter, finishing 14-31. The Rockets will surely receive a lot of praise for "containing" Bryant but I only agree partially with that assessment; Bryant's .452 field goal percentage in this game is right around his career average so the Rockets did not really force him to miss shots at an unusual rate but they did a very good job of limiting him to just five free throw attempts. Shane Battier guarded Bryant early in the game, while Artest generally handled the assignment in the fourth quarter--but the real adjustment that the Rockets made down the stretch is that they started sending more and more help defenders toward Bryant as it became increasingly apparent that no other Lakers were able to consistently make open shots; that is much like the defensive scheme that the Boston Celtics used versus the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals. The Lakers shot 2-18 from three point range and while Bryant contributed to that poor number with his errant 1-7 long distance shooting the other Lakers shot 1-11 and many of those misses were wide open looks that Bryant created either with dribble penetration or by simply attracting help defenders.

Think about the standard that Bryant has set: 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals while shooting better than .450 is basically an "average" game for him--and some people will surely spin this into being a "bad" game. Yet, Bryant's 32 points are more than Dwyane Wade scored in five of his seven playoff games this year and that field goal percentage--against a team that plays much better defense than the Atlanta Hawks do--is better than Wade's performance in three of seven games and only slightly worse (a difference of one missed field goal) than Wade's shooting in three of the other four playoff games. Paul Pierce has shot worse than .452 in six of his eight playoff games this year and he has yet to score more than 29 points. So, when the "stat gurus" and the media sheep who follow them start talking about how the Rockets "shut down" Bryant in game one, keep the above numbers in mind: the Rockets' needed two All-Defensive Team players plus a 7-6 center and a wall of help defenders in order to "hold" Bryant to 32 points and his normal shooting percentage.

Although Bryant did not play poorly in game one, the likelihood is that he will play even better in game two--and the Lakers will need that kind of performance from him, because game two is a must win for the Lakers, who cannot depend on receiving solid production from their much vaunted "deep" roster. Pau Gasol had a good rebounding game, though some of his board work consisted of collecting his own misses; overall, he was not strong with the ball (four turnovers) and he missed a number of wide open shots, connecting on just six of 14 attempts: considering the fact that his shots are either open jumpers or shots in the paint--often against just one defender--his shooting percentage is a bigger concern for the Lakers than Bryant's. The Lakers can win with Bryant shooting around .450 but they need Gasol to be up around the .550 range that he has maintained since joining the team and benefiting from all of the defensive attention that Bryant receives.

Andrew Bynum scored 10 points in 15 minutes on 5-10 shooting but he shot a lot of jumpers, attempted no free throws, grabbed only three rebounds, committed three fouls in his short stint and missed several defensive assignments. Nothing that I have seen from Bynum convinces me that his presence would have made much difference in the 2008 Finals, nor am I convinced that he is the star in the making that so many people think that he is. What we have seen from Bynum in his brief career is that he can be productive for short stretches but that he is also injury prone and foul prone, two tendencies that make it difficult for him to stay on the court long enough to develop a good rhythm or have much of a consistent impact. If Bynum can stay healthy and if Bynum can stay out of foul trouble then maybe he will develop into a significant contributor but, as former Browns' Coach Sam Rutigiliano used to say, "If 'ifs and buts' were candy and nuts, it would be Christmas every day."

Trevor Ariza played a solid game (10 points on 4-8 shooting, four rebounds, two steals). Usually his defense is a plus for the Lakers but Ariza really struggled to guard Artest due to Artest's significant strength advantage. Here is a thought exercise for you: look up the rosters of the other 15 playoff teams and figure out how many of those teams would play Ariza ahead of their current starting small forward. Don't get me wrong: I think that Ariza is wonderfully suited to be a James Posey-type of impact player off of the bench for a very good team.

Derek Fisher shot poorly (3-10) and might have gotten whiplash from all the times that Brooks blew past him.

In my series preview I noted that Lamar Odom played well in the first round versus Utah "but that most likely means that he is due to have a five point, two rebound disappearing act soon." He was not quite that bad but with Bynum's playing time limited due to foul trouble the Lakers needed more from Odom than nine points and five rebounds in 31 minutes. He also committed five fouls and the Lakers' bench as a whole contributed 18 points and 12 fouls, compared to 16 points versus four fouls for the Rockets' bench.

Shannon Brown--the Lakers' sixth man in minutes played versus Utah--scored two points in 13 minutes, Sasha Vujacic had two points in 14 minutes, while Jordan Farmar (three points in three minutes) and Josh Powell (two points in five minutes) made cameo appearances.

In contrast, the Rockets received good production from every member of the starting lineup--Battier's boxscore numbers are not much to look at but his job was to defend Bryant while keeping him off of the foul line and he did that task adequately. Bench players Carl Landry and Kyle Lowry, who combined to shoot 5-8 from the field, had a positive impact.

The Lakers swept the regular season series versus Houston 4-0 but they needed fourth quarter rallies spearheaded by Bryant to win each of those games. Bryant had nine fourth quarter points on 4-10 field goal shooting in game one but that was not enough to overcome the sluggish offense and sloppy defense played by the rest of the Lakers as the Rockets scored 30 fourth quarter points. As I've said throughout the regular season and during the Utah series, the Lakers are not consistent enough defensively, which is why I picked the Cavs to beat them in the NBA Finals; the Lakers said all of the right things in the wake of their loss to Boston last year but the Lakers had the same problems this season that they did during that series: defensive lapses, blown leads, lack of focus/concentration. That said, the Lakers did win 65 games this season and there is every reason to believe that they can not only win game two but also win at least one game in Houston to retake home court advantage.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:39 AM

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Hard Work Pays Off: LeBron James Wins His First NBA MVP

LeBron James has won the 2009 NBA MVP, receiving 109 of a possible 121 first place votes to easily outdistance 2008 MVP Kobe Bryant and 2009 scoring champion Dwyane Wade. James received 1172 out of a possible 1210 points, while Bryant had 698 points (including two first place votes) and Wade had 680 points (including seven first place votes). Dwight Howard (328 points, one first place vote) and Chris Paul (192 points, two first place votes) placed fourth and fifth respectively; no other players received a first place vote or tallied more than 33 points.

James is a rare person who has actually not only met but exceeded all of the hype surrounding him. Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach Chris Jent says that many people "just see the fantastic plays and his God-given ability. They don't understand that there were kinks in the armor and he wanted to figure them out. He wanted to straighten them out and he wanted to be better and the only way to do it is by working. When things are going good he works and when things are going bad he works harder." In the past few years, I have mentioned those "kinks in the armor"--defense, free throw shooting, midrange shooting, three point shooting--in various articles and maintained that Kobe Bryant was the best player in the NBA because he had no skill set weaknesses; that led some misinformed people to suggest that I harbor some kind of bias toward Bryant but James understood better than anyone that he needed to work on his weaknesses and he has pretty much eliminated every one of them (his midrange game still needs some work). James' improvement and the fact that he led the Cavs to the best record in the NBA convinced me that he deserved to win this year's MVP.

At 24 years, 106 days old, James is the youngest NBA MVP since Moses Malone, who was 24 years, 16 days old in 1979 when he won the first of his three MVPs. Wes Unseld remains the youngest NBA MVP ever, capturing the honor as a 23 year old rookie in 1969. Spencer Haywood (20, 1969) and Artis Gilmore (22, 1972) are the two youngest MVPs in ABA/NBA history; they both won the award as rookies in the ABA. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (23, 1971--NBA), Bob McAdoo (23, 1975--NBA), Wilt Chamberlain (23, 1960--NBA, rookie) and Bob Pettit (23, 1956--NBA) are the only other players in ABA/NBA history who won an MVP prior to turning 24 (several other players won MVPs in the year that they turned 24, including Julius Erving in 1974 in the ABA and Abdul-Jabbar in 1972 in the NBA).

Although this year the MVP voters managed to select the correct top five players in the proper order, when one delves into the vote totals some oddities emerge: one voter completely left Bryant off of his ballot and two voters left Wade completely off of their ballots, meaning that these voters did not rank Bryant and Wade respectively among the top five MVP contenders. Eight voters placed Bryant fourth and two voters selected him fifth. I consider James and Bryant to be in a class by themselves at the moment: no one other than Wade matches them from a skill set standpoint and James and Bryant enjoy a size advantage over Wade. Therefore, it is hard for me to understand how someone can place Bryant lower than second, let alone leave him off of the ballot entirely. Similarly, Wade's individual excellence this year should have earned him a top five vote on every ballot.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:52 AM

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Monday, May 04, 2009

More Than A Passing Fancy: The Best Playmaking Forwards Ever

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the December 2001 issue of Basketball Digest.

Great playmaking forwards have made a significant impact throughout professional basketball history. Scottie Pippen's skills as a "point-forward" freed Michael Jordan of ball handling responsibilities, enabling him to be a finisher on the fast break early in his career and giving him additional time to set up to receive the ball in the post during his later years with the Bulls. Celtics' legends John Havlicek and Larry Bird did not always bring the ball up the court like a point guard, but both used their court vision and passing skills to rack up impressive assists totals. Many NBA and ABA forwards have ranked among the annual assists leaders.

John Havlicek accomplished this feat seven times in his 16 seasons with the Boston Celtics. He posted his best ranking and highest average in 1970-71 (7.5 apg, fourth in the NBA); Havlicek averaged 7.5 apg again in 1971-72, this time placing fifth in the league. He was also a top scoring threat, averaging 20+ ppg from 1966-67 through 1973-74, with a high mark of 28.9 ppg (second in the league) in 1970-71. Havlicek's versatility enabled him to play guard at times, a trait he shares with several other top playmaking forwards. His 6114 assists are the most of any forward in professional basketball history.

Rick Barry, the only player to win scoring championships in the NCAA, NBA and ABA, was also a gifted playmaker. This facet of his game emerged gradually. He averaged 25.7 ppg but only 2.2 apg in 1965-66, his rookie year with the San Francisco Warriors. In his second year he won the NBA scoring title with 2775 points (35.6 ppg) and increased his assists to 3.6 apg. After four years in the ABA during which he averaged 4.1 apg, Barry returned to the NBA's Golden State Warriors and became a fixture among the league’s assists leaders. He averaged at least 6 apg from 1973-74 to 1976-1977, achieving his highest ranking in 1975-76 (6.1 apg, fifth in the NBA). He finished his career with the Houston Rockets, ranking sixth in the league in assists (6.3 apg) in 1978-79, his second to last season; he was the last forward to rank among the league’s assists leaders until LeBron James.

Elgin Baylor was a scoring machine who finished second in points three different times (NBA statistical leaders were ranked by totals, not averages, until 1969-70) and still has the fourth highest regular season scoring average of all time (27.4 ppg). He was an accomplished passer from the beginning of his career, ranking eighth in the NBA in assists as a rookie (287 assists, 4.1 apg) with the Minneapolis Lakers. Baylor achieved his highest assists ranking in 1962-63, totaling 386 assists (4.8 apg), fifth in the NBA.

Cliff Hagan spent his entire NBA career with the St. Louis Hawks, ranking among the league's assists leaders three straight years. In 1960-61 he placed fifth in the NBA with 381 assists (5.0 apg). What sets Hagan apart from the other forwards on this list is that he came out of retirement in 1967-68 and served three seasons as a player-coach with the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA. In Hagan's first ABA season he averaged 4.9 apg, second in the league. The 36 year old Hagan, who had retired from the Hawks after the 1965-66 season, became the first and only forward to rank as high as second in the NBA or ABA in assists.

Julius Erving is best remembered as a high flying scorer who won three ABA scoring championships and became just the third player in the history of the game to surpass the 30,000 point mark (Michael Jordan and Karl Malone have since joined Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain in this elite group). He was also an excellent passer, ranking among the ABA's assists leaders from 1973-74 to 1975-76. His best finish was sixth in 1973-74 (5.2 apg), although he actually posted a higher average the following season (5.5 apg, seventh in the league). Erving's career total of 5176 assists is surpassed among forwards only by Havlicek, Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen and his career average of 4.2 apg is virtually identical to Baylor’s (4.3 apg) and not significantly less than Havlicek's (4.8) and Barry's (4.9).

In the early 1960s Dolph Schayes was the NBA's all-time scoring leader. He spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers, winning a rebounding title in 1950-51 and playing on a championship team in 1954-55. Schayes ranked among the league's assists leaders three times, placing as high as sixth in 1949-50 (259 assists, 4.0 apg). While several of the other top playmaking forwards spent some time in the backcourt, Schayes played some minutes at center.

Roger Brown's career slipped under the radar of many basketball fans. Like Connie Hawkins, he was wrongly blackballed from the NBA for many years, but—unlike Hawkins—Brown never received the national recognition that comes from playing in the NBA. Brown spent his entire career in the ABA, winning three titles with the Indiana Pacers. A dangerous scorer, particularly in the clutch, Brown also ranked in the top ten in assists in his first three seasons. His high apg average came in 1969-70 (4.7 apg, ninth in the ABA) but he had his best rankings in 1967-68 (fifth in the ABA with 4.3 apg) and 1968-69 (fifth in the ABA with 4.6 apg).

Maurice Stokes won the Rookie of the Year award in 1955-56 with the Rochester Royals after ranking 11th in the NBA in scoring, second in rebounding and ninth in assists. Anyone who saw the 6-7, 240 pound power forward play—or has seen him in grainy black and white film clips—witnessed a player who was well ahead of his time. Stokes would grab a defensive rebound, dribble upcourt and lead the fast break, just like Magic Johnson would three decades later. Celtics Hall of Famer Bob Cousy preferred a different comparison: "He was Karl Malone with more finesse." Stokes finished in the top ten in assists in his first three seasons, peaking at 403 assists (6.4 apg, third in the league) in 1957-58. Near the end of that season Stokes fell to the court and hit his head. Although he returned to the game, three days later he became extremely ill. Eventually he was diagnosed with post-traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that affects motor functions. Stokes would never walk again and died of a stroke in 1970 at the age of 36.

Billy Cunningham joins Cliff Hagan as the only forwards to rank among the annual assists leaders in the NBA and in the ABA. Cunningham accomplished the feat in consecutive seasons, posting a 5.9 apg average (seventh in the NBA) with the 76ers in 1971-72 and increasing that to 6.3 apg (fifth in the ABA) with the Carolina Cougars in 1972-73. The next year he averaged 4.7 apg with the Cougars but appeared in only 32 games due to a severe kidney ailment. In 1974-75 Cunningham returned to the 76ers and narrowly missed the top ten with a 5.5 apg average. The next year he was averaging 5.4 apg after 20 games when a devastating knee injury ended his career.

Leo Barnhorst is undoubtedly the least famous player on this list, but he enjoyed a good, albeit brief, NBA career. He made the All-Star team twice in his five NBA seasons before embarking on a successful 45 year career with American United Life. Barnhorst posted 3.9 apg averages in 1951-52 and 1952-53 for the Indianapolis Olympians, ranking eighth in the NBA both seasons. Barnhorst, a 1948-49 All-America selection at Notre Dame, passed away on August 25, 2000 after a 13 year battle with lymphoma.

Several of the greatest passing forwards never ranked among the annual assists leaders. Larry Bird posted three 7+ apg seasons, with a career high 7.6 apg in 1986-87. He led the Celtics in assists four times and had the team’s highest average in 1991-92, but only played in 45 games. Paul Pressey also had three 7+ apg seasons, including 7.8 apg in 1985-86, the best assists average ever by a forward. Milwaukee Bucks’ Coach Don Nelson used Pressey in a "point-forward" role, much like the Bulls would later do with Scottie Pippen. Pressey led the Bucks in assists five straight seasons. Pippen averaged a career high 7.0 apg in 1991-92 and led the Bulls in assists seven straight years (from 1990-91 until 1996-97). He also had the Bulls' highest apg average in 1997-98, but appeared in only 44 games. The next season he moved to Houston and led the Rockets in assists. Grant Hill averaged a career high 7.3 apg in 1996-97 and led the Detroit Pistons in assists five straight seasons (1995-96 through 1999-00).

One other forward who deserves mention is John Johnson. Twice an All-Star, Johnson played a "point-forward" role for the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers in the early '70s and was a key member of the Sonics' 1977-78 NBA Finalists and 1978-79 NBA Championship team. He led the Sonics in assists in 1978-79 (4.4 apg) and 1979-80 (5.2 apg), enabling guards Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson to focus on scoring and defense respectively.

NBA/ABA Forwards Among Annual Top-10 Assists Leaders

Player Top-10 Career Career Career

Seasons Assists Games APG


John Havlicek 7: 68-74 6114 1270 4.8
Rick Barry 5: 74-77; 79 4952 1020 4.9
Elgin Baylor 4: 59; 61; 63; 65 3650 846 4.3
Cliff Hagan 4: 60-62; 68* 2646 839 3.2
Julius Erving 3: 74*; 75*; 76* 5176 1243 4.2
Dolph Schayes 3: 50-51; 57 3072 996 3.1
Roger Brown 3: 68*; 69*; 70* 2315 605 3.8
Maurice Stokes 3: 56-58 1062 202 5.3
Billy Cunningham 2: 72; 73* 3305 770 4.3
Leo Barnhorst 2: 52-53 1116 344 3.2


Notes:

(5/4/09 Note: LeBron James ranked sixth in the NBA in assists with a 7.2 apg average in 2004-05, he ranked eighth in the NBA in assists with a 7.2 apg average in 2007-08 and he ranked ninth in the NBA in assists with a 7.2 apg average in 2008-09; his career 6.7 apg average is the best ever posted by a forward in pro basketball history)

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:38 PM

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Cleveland Versus Atlanta Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Cleveland (66-16) vs. #4 Atlanta (47-35)

Season series: Cleveland, 3-1

Atlanta can win if…the Hawks play extremely well defensively and convert those stops into transition scoring opportunities.

Cleveland will win because…the Cavaliers' suffocating half court defense will completely stymie the Hawks; look for Atlanta to score fewer than 85 points in several games in this series. Cleveland defends, rebounds and executes a half court offense much better than Atlanta, plus the Cavs have LeBron James, who is easily the best player on either team.

Other things to consider: The Hawks presented a lot of problems for the Celtics in the first round last year but the Cavs match up much better with Atlanta than Boston did; James, Delonte West, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao not only can keep up with Atlanta's players in the open court but they can also be very effective in a half court set. The Hawks may go on a few 8-0 or 10-0 scoring bursts in this series as a result of steals and blocked shots leading to transition dunks but the Hawks are more likely to go five or six minute stretches without making a field goal as Cleveland's defense shuts down Atlanta's "dribble, dribble, dribble" half court offense.

You can find a more in depth take on this series in my newest article for CavsNews.com:

Cavs’ Defense and Depth Will be Too Much for Hawks

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:40 PM

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Hawks Extinguish Heat in Game Seven

Joe Johnson bounced back from a subpar series to outplay Dwyane Wade in game seven as the Atlanta Hawks built a 29 point lead and defeated the Miami Heat 91-78. Johnson shot 10-19 from the field and finished with 27 points, five rebounds, four assists, five steals and just one turnover, while Wade shot 10-25 from the field--including 4-14 in the first half when the outcome of the game was still in doubt--and had 31 points, three rebounds, four assists, one steal and four turnovers. Neither team shot well from the field--Miami actually outshot Atlanta slightly, .413 to .408--and the Heat outrebounded the Hawks 39-30 but Atlanta dominated in two areas: forced turnovers (17-7) and three pointers made (11-4). For some inexplicable reason, many commentators--ESPN's Jon Barry being perhaps the most vocal--insist on describing Miami as a one man team but the reality is that both teams used seven man rotations in this game until garbage time.

While the Heat could have used a healthy Jermaine O'Neal--post-concussion symptoms limited him to just one ineffective minute in game seven--and Jamario Moon (who missed the last four games of the series due to a sports hernia), the Hawks were without the services of starting forward Marvin Williams and starting center Al Horford was hobbled by a sprained ankle. Each team has one All-Star plus a collection of good, solid players and that is why they posted similar won/loss records this season and why this series went seven games. Would I take the Hawks' overall talent versus the Heat's overall talent? Yes, but it is inaccurate to suggest that Miami is simply a one man team, and instead of beating that dead horse repeatedly during and after the game, Barry should have focused his attention on the fact that in game seven Atlanta's one All-Star outplayed Miami's one All-Star. In 2006, Kobe Bryant was clearly the best player on the court as his Lakers lost a seven game first round series to the Suns but I do not recall commentators saying that he was a one man team, even though that assessment would have been far more accurate than Barry's assessment of this year's Heat; instead, commentators incessantly--and inaccurately--evaluated every single pass/shoot decision that Bryant made and used pretzel logic more twisted than a contorionist's body. For the record, Bryant averaged 27.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 5.1 apg in that series while playing 44.9 mpg and shooting .497 from the field, .400 from three point range and .771 from the free throw line; Wade averaged 29.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 5.3 apg while playing 40.7 mpg and shooting .439 from the field, .360 from three point range and .862 from the free throw line. Bryant shot .500 or better in five of the seven games, while Wade shot .500 or better just once. Bryant scored 23 first half points on 8-13 shooting in game seven but his team trailed by 15 because, well, he truly was a one man team; Wade scored 14 first half points on 4-14 shooting in game seven (and committed three turnovers) but his team trailed by 13 because, well, Wade missed a lot of shots: the Hawks only led 20-18 after the first quarter but pulled away as Wade shot 0-6 in the second quarter. The issue here is not really about Bryant or Wade; the issue is why do so many commentators do such a poor job of properly analyzing how players and teams perform? Are these commentators biased, incompetent or both?

Another example of "commentators gone wild" is all of the hype about Boston-Chicago being the greatest first round series ever and Atlanta-Miami being the worst first round series ever. The Boston-Chicago series certainly featured several exciting games and many thrilling moments but most of the people who are spouting off about this series being the "greatest" don't know enough history to be qualified to make such a judgment in the first place. For one thing, the NBA playoffs have been expanded several times since the league was founded, so the current format--with a seven game first round series--is of recent vintage, making direct comparisons with previous eras an inexact science; Detroit and Milwaukee played a three game mini-series in the first round in 1976 with each game decided by exactly three points. Do any of the current commentators honestly know if that series was more or less exciting than Boston-Chicago this year? In 1981, a 40-42 Houston team knocked off the 54-28, defending champion Lakers 2-1 in a first round series in which every game was decided by five points or less. In 1984, Bernard King averaged over 40 ppg for the Knicks versus the Pistons in round one, including a 44 point outburst in a 127-123 overtime road victory in the clinching game five; that same year, Dallas beat Seattle in a closely contested five game series that was decided by a one point overtime win. Michael Jordan's famous series-winning shot over Craig Ehlo enabled his 47-35 Bulls to upset the 57-25 Cavs in round one in 1989; that series featured several close games, including an overtime contest in game four. In 1993, the Suns lost two games to the Lakers at home but rallied to win their first round series in five games and then made it all the way to the Finals; three of the five games in that series were decided by five points or less and the fifth game went to overtime before the Suns prevailed by eight points. In 1994, the eighth seeded Nuggets needed back to back overtime wins to knock off the top seeded Sonics. I am not saying that these series were definitely better than Boston-Chicago but I am very confident that all of the people who are babbling about this subject are not familiar enough with NBA history to make informed comparisons; they are just caught up in the hype about what is going on right now. Boston-Chicago was a great series but it is not necessary to call it the greatest of all-time in order to appreciate it. I am just glad that most of the hype-drunk commentators have enough sense to not compare a first round series with some of the epic Conference Finals and NBA Finals series from past years; Paul Pierce struggling to outplay John Salmons in the first round does not quite measure up to Julius Erving and Larry Bird battling for seven games in the 1981 and 1982 Eastern Conference Finals.

As for Atlanta-Miami being the worst first round series ever, I think that the only reason this is even being mentioned is that people are trying to be clever and find something "horrible" to contrast with the greatness of the Boston-Chicago series. How can a series that goes seven games be considered the worst ever? That just makes no sense. Was this series really "worse" than the Lakers' 3-0 win over the Spurs in 1986, when each game was decided by at least 20 points? In 1987, the Lakers swept the Nuggets 3-0, sandwiching blowouts of 37 and 33 points around a "close" 12 point win. For that matter, why should the Atlanta-Miami series be considered "worse" than Cleveland's sweep of Detroit this season? What was so "great" about that series? Even if the Atlanta-Miami games were not close, the outcome of the series was in doubt until the final game and the teams were evenly matched to the extent that each team won a road game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:22 PM

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Boston Versus Orlando Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#2 Boston (62-20) vs. #3 Orlando (59-23)

Season series: 2-2

Orlando can win if…Dwight Howard is dominant offensively (25-plus ppg while shooting .550 or better), the Magic's three point shooters perform well and if the Magic keep Rajon Rondo out of the paint, force Paul Pierce away from his midrange sweet spot and chase Ray Allen off of the three point line.

Boston will win because…even without Kevin Garnett the Celtics still have two future Hall of Famers in Pierce and Allen, a quick and versatile point guard in Rondo and a couple of young, underrated big men in Kendrick Perkins and Glen "Big Baby" Davis. The absence of Garnett means that things will not be easy for the Celtics but over the past two years the Celtics have a good record sans Garnett. Although the Bulls pushed the Celtics to the limit in the first round, don't forget that last year even though the Hawks extended a fully loaded Boston team to seven games the veteran Pistons eventually bowed in just six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls bothered the Celtics with their youth and athleticism--much like the Hawks did in 2008--but the Magic are not as athletic overall as the Bulls or Hawks.

Other things to consider: Howard has yet to prove that he is a Shaquille O'Neal or Hakeem Olajuwon type of big man who will score 35-40 points consistently in playoff games if he is not double-teamed. Expect the Celtics to frequently single cover him--or double him late, after he puts the ball on the floor, taking advantage of the fact that he is not a great passer--and dare the other Magic players to create good shots for themselves. It will be interesting to see if the young Magic come into this series with an overconfident attitude because Garnett is inactive and the Celtics needed seven games to beat the Bulls; the Magic have not proven that they can beat an elite, tough minded team in the playoffs, so overconfidence would be a serious mistake on their part.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:11 PM

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