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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Comparing Wade Version 2009 to Bryant Version 2006

Can he regain his spot among the league's elite players after suffering an injury-riddled campaign? Can he win without Shaq? How much MVP consideration should be given to a dominant player whose team won fewer than 50 games?

If those questions sound familiar, it is because they have been asked twice in the past three years--and about two different players. Here is an examination of the many similarities--and a few differences--between Dwyane Wade's 2009 season and Kobe Bryant's 2006 season:


Call it "a tale of two seasons." There are some eerie similarities -- and important differences -- between Kobe Bryant's 2006 season and Dwyane Wade's 2009 season.

In the fall of 2005, Kobe Bryant was coming off of a season in which he missed 16 games, slipped to the All-NBA Third Team after earning three straight First Team nods and did not receive a single MVP vote for the first time in six years. His field-goal percentage dropped to its lowest level since his second season in the NBA. Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs and he was about to begin his second full season since the departure of Shaquille O'Neal. Questions abounded about both Bryant's individual status in the game and about how good the Lakers would be.

In the fall of 2008, Dwyane Wade was coming off of a season in which he missed 31 games, did not make the All-NBA Team after earning three straight selections to either the Second or Third Team and did not receive a single MVP vote for the first time in four years. His field-goal percentage dropped to its lowest level since his rookie season in the NBA. Wade's Miami Heat missed the playoffs and he was about to begin his first full season since the departure of Shaquille O'Neal. Questions abounded about both Wade's individual status in the game and about how good the Heat would be.

In the 2005-06 season, Kobe Bryant won his first scoring title by averaging 35.4 ppg, the eighth best scoring average in NBA/ABA history -- and the third best by a player not named Wilt Chamberlain, trailing only Michael Jordan's 37.1 ppg in 1986-87 and Rick Barry's 35.6 ppg in 1966-67. Bryant averaged 36.0 ppg after the All-Star break.

In January 2006, he led the Lakers to a 9-4 record while averaging 43.4 ppg, the best scoring average in a calendar month since Chamberlain poured in 45.8 ppg in March 1963 and the third highest January scoring average in the history of the NBA, trailing only Chamberlain's 50.0 ppg in January 1962 and Chamberlain's 46.3 ppg in January 1963.

Bryant became the first player other than Chamberlain to average at least 40 ppg in a month twice in a career (Bryant averaged 40.6 ppg in February 2003, leading the Lakers to an 11-3 record). Bryant topped the 50-point mark three times in January 2006, including an 81-point performance on January 22 in a 122-104 victory over Toronto. Bryant set the NBA's "non-Chamberlain" single game scoring record, surpassing David Thompson's 73 point game; this was the fifth time that Bryant scored at least 50 points in the first three quarters of a game, including a December 2005 game in which Bryant outscored eventual NBA Finalist Dallas 62-61 in the first three quarters before sitting out the final stanza.

After the 81-point game, Bryant responded to criticism that he is a ball hog by saying that he is a "win hog."

"I don't pay much attention to that kind of criticism because my main focus is to do whatever it takes to help us win," Bryant explained. "I didn't go into that game thinking about scoring 81 points. I didn't even think anybody could score that many in an NBA game today. Everybody knows about Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game, which seems impossible. But things happened and I was able to score 81. I suspected there would be criticism from the media and even some players.

"But the most important thing is that 81-point effort rallied us from an 18-point deficit to an 18-point win. If destiny positions me to score 100 points to help my team win a game, I certainly will take advantage of it in spite of any criticism. I guess if I would've scored 81 points and we had lost, the criticism would've gone through the roof."

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson compared the 2006 Lakers to the 1987 and 1988 Chicago Bulls, adding, "These Lakers are still a young team that's prone to get scared, lose poise and confidence. They need (Bryant's) aggressive leadership, especially on the road, to set the tone and put them in command of a game. Kobe is having to play himself into a level where he's teaching his teammates how to win and you can appreciate that as a coach. Yes, there's a fine balance between how much his high point production takes confidence away from these younger players and how much it contributes to their ability to believe in themselves as a team.

"We've been together for six years, years filled with hard times and wonderful times. Along the way, we have developed a mutual sense of what each other's desires are. It's almost beyond words. Kobe knows when the other guys have to get involved. At the same time, when they appear insecure and are not playing at a level we need to beat a team, he simply steps up and fills the vacuum. I've taken to warning his teammates, ‘Now, listen, guys-if you don't fill the vacuum, he will.' So they are challenged to put out."

Jackson concluded, "Kobe's playing some of the best basketball I've ever seen anybody play and it's great for the game. I don't know if anybody will ever score 100 points in a game again. But if anybody can do it, it would be Kobe Bryant because he goes on such big tears. I'm impressed with other young guns like Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. But Kobe is the one guy that doesn't give any quarter to anybody. Whatever he has to do for his team to win, he'll chase it, no matter how high the bar."

In April 2006, Bryant averaged 41.6 ppg and led the Lakers to a 6-2 record, making sure that they would clinch a playoff berth.

Bryant ranked ninth in the NBA in steals per game (1.8) and finished fourth in MVP voting in 2006 while also making the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team. His Lakers finished with a 45-37 record, earned the seventh seed in the Western Conference and extended the Phoenix Suns to seven games in the first round.

Bryant averaged 27.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 5.1 apg in seven playoff games, shooting .497 from the field, .400 from three point range and .771 from the free throw line. Bryant received the second most first place votes in the MVP balloting (22) but was left completely off of 22 out of 125 ballots, a bizarre dichotomy. How can more than one-sixth of the voters rank Bryant first and an equal number of voters rank him sixth or worst?

In the 2008-09 season, Wade won his first scoring title by averaging 30.2 ppg. Wade averaged 37.2 ppg in the first 13 games after the All-Star break, including a pair of 50-point games and a 48-point, 12-assist, six-rebound, four-steal, three-blocked shot effort in a double overtime win over Chicago that Wade concluded by stealing the ball from John Salmons and hitting a one-legged three pointer as time expired.

Wade averaged 33.9 ppg overall after the All-Star break. In March 2006 he averaged 33.7 ppg and the Heat went 8-8 to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Wade averaged 33.5 ppg in April 2006 as the Heat went 4-4, clinching a playoff berth.

In 2008-09, Wade ranked second in the NBA in steals per game (2.2) and became the first 6-foot-4 or under player in NBA history to block more than 100 shots in a season (106; David Thompson blocked 102 shots in 1975-76 as an ABA rookie and had 99 blocked shots in 1977-78 in the second season after the NBA and ABA merged). Wade also ranked eighth in the league in assists (7.5 apg).

He finished third in MVP voting while also making the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive Second Team. His Heat finished with a 43-39 record, earned the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and extended the Atlanta Hawks to seven games in the first round.

Wade averaged 29.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 5.3 apg in seven playoff games, shooting .439 from the field, .360 from three point range and .862 from the free throw line. Wade received the second most first place votes in the MVP balloting (seven) and appeared on 119 of 121 ballots; Bryant edged him out for second place by receiving more second place votes (56-50) and more third place votes (52-41).

Bryant's Lakers had 13 different starting lineups in 2005-06; the most often used combination -- Bryant, Smush Parker, Lamar Odom, Brian Cook and Chris Mihm -- went 14-11. The second most often used combination -- swapping Kwame Brown for Cook -- went 13-9. Parker, now a healthy 27 year old who is no longer in the league, started all 82 games; Brown started 49 games. Parker and Brown both started in all seven playoff games. The other Lakers starters in the playoffs were Odom and Walton. The top two players off of the bench in the playoffs (in terms of minutes played) were second year guard Sasha Vujacic and journeyman Devean George.

Wade's Heat had 16 different starting lineups in 2008-09; the most often used combination -- Wade, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Shawn Marion and Joel Anthony -- went 14-10. The second most often used combination -- swapping Jamario Moon for Marion and Jermaine O'Neal for Anthony -- went 9-8. All-Rookie Second Team selection Chalmers started all 82 games. Haslem, the starting power forward on Miami's 2006 championship team, started all 75 games that he played. O'Neal, a six-time All-Star who made that squad as recently as 2007, started all 27 games that he played in after the Heat acquired him. All-Rookie First Team selection Michael Beasley started 19 games and was seventh on the team in mpg (sixth if you don't count the departed Marion). Daequan Cook, the 2009 Three-Point Shootout champion, shot .375 from three point range during the regular season. Cook and Beasley ranked sixth and seventh on the team in mpg during the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:43 AM

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Wayman Tisdale, 1964-2009

Wayman Tisdale--Olympic gold medalist, College Basketball Hall of Famer, accomplished jazz musician--passed away on Friday. He was a smooth-shooting forward for the Pacers, Kings and Suns who averaged 15.3 ppg and 6.1 rpg in 12 NBA seasons.

I remember Tisdale as a dominant collegiate player at Oklahoma, the first player ever to be selected to the AP All-American First Team as a freshman, sophomore and junior (freshmen did not become eligible for varsity play until the 1972-73 season but this is still--needless to say--a most impressive accomplishment). My most vivid memory of Tisdale is from the 1984 NCAA Tournament, when Oklahoma squared off against the University of Dayton Flyers, my hometown team. The Flyers were led by Roosevelt Chapman, a 6-4 forward from Brooklyn who the public knew as "Velvet" but who I knew as the summer camp counselor who taught me how to properly shoot a layup. Chapman was a very flamboyant player but off of the court he was soft-spoken and did not like to draw attention to himself; I remember when I and other campers implored him to put on a dunking display for us but he sheepishly declined. Chapman is still my favorite college basketball player of all-time and I was so excited when he scored 41 points against the celebrated Tisdale as UD pulled off the huge upset during the middle of one of the best Cinderella runs in NCAA Tournament history. If you would have told me at that time that Chapman would never play in the NBA and that less than 25 years later Tisdale would be dead I would have never believed you; only later did I learn what a "tweener" is--and only later did I learn about suffering and about how even the strongest, proudest and noblest can be cut down in an instant: the longer you live, the more that gets taken away from you (youth, health, hopes/dreams) until only memories remain (and sometimes the ravages of disease rob people of their memories as well).

It is very difficult to understand why life can be so short, so brutal and so cruel. Tisdale was a young man who seemingly had won his battle against cancer, yet now he is gone--and before he died, this great athlete had to endure the suffering of losing one of his legs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:23 AM

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Rockets Lead Wire to Wire, Blast Lakers 95-80

Luis Scola, not Pau Gasol, looked like an All-NBA forward as the Houston Rockets defeated the L.A. Lakers 95-80, forcing a game seven and improbably putting the Western Conference's number one seed on the brink of elimination. Scola scored 24 points on 10-17 field goal shooting and had 12 rebounds, thoroughly abusing any and all Laker frontcourt players who tried to guard him: Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom all ended up looking like David Robinson being taken apart by Hakeem Olajuwon a decade and a half ago. Scola is a very good player but ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy lambasted the Lakers' horrible post defense, calling it "inexcusable (lack of) attention to detail" because Gasol, Bynum and Odom repeatedly let Scola catch the ball deep in the paint and turn to shoot over his left shoulder. The defense was so bad that Van Gundy offered a radical solution, suggesting that the Lakers put 6-6 shooting guard Kobe Bryant on the 6-9, 245 pound power forward Scola: "I want someone who wants to compete with him right now and I don't see any competitive spirit in the post defensively." Bryant has made the All-Defensive First Team seven times--including this year--but if the Lakers have to resort to guarding a power forward with their shooting guard then they are in pretty big trouble. Bryant was visibly displeased with the performance of several of his teammates, including Gasol, who Bryant spoke to very animatedly during a timeout early in the game--and you know what that means: we are all about to be subjected to yet another batch of articles by sportswriters posing as psychiatrists providing detailed commentary about every facial expression Bryant made and every harsh word that he uttered.

The Rockets knocked out the Lakers with a three punch offensive combination: Scola softened them up with low post jabs--especially in the first quarter, when he had 14 points on 6-9 shooting--then Carl Landry came off the bench to hit them with body blows (15 points on 6-6 field goal shooting, nine rebounds) and Aaron Brooks used his speed and deft shooting (26 points on 8-13 marksmanship) to put the Lakers down for the count. The Lakers' pick and roll defense is in shambles and their big men are so reluctant to protect the hoop you'd think that the basket is radioactive; a typical "defensive" sequence for the Lakers begins with Gasol showing up softly in a halfhearted attempt to trap Brooks on a screen/roll play and ends with Brooks lofting an easy shot over Odom or Bynum.

Scola, Brooks and Landry were so productive that the Rockets survived Ron Artest's awful shot selection; Artest scored 14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, often breaking off plays to simply dribble around aimlessly before firing up low percentage bricks. The problem with Artest is not merely his shooting percentage but the quality and timing of the shots he takes, because when you take bad shots your team has little chance to get offensive rebounds or even properly balance the court in transition defensively.

The Rockets outscored the Lakers 15-1 to start the game, with Scola pouring in eight of those points. The Lakers did not score a field goal until Bryant made a layup at the 6:21 mark of the first quarter and by that time they trailed 17-3. Scola made the score 19-3 by drilling a jump hook in Gasol's eye and Van Gundy said, "He's coming back to his left shoulder. The catch is too easy, the jump hook is too easy." In other words, Gasol provided no resistance either prior to Scola catching the ball or after Scola received the ball in the paint. That is simply unacceptable. After the game, Gasol said, "I have faith in our team. I think we're going to respond to this loss. We're going to be mentally ready." That just begs the question of why they--and specifically he--were not mentally ready for this game. Gasol is a skillful player but it is clear that it is not an accident that he had an 0-12 record in playoff games prior to joining forces with Bryant last season.

Near the end of the first quarter, Van Gundy declared, "They (the Rockets) are just dominating the paint and again it comes back to frontcourt toughness. If you have people who want to protect the basket you have a chance. If you don't you have no chance." Van Gundy is a great game analyst but I don't know what kind of future he has at ESPN if he continues to tell the truth and does not adhere to the journalistic convention of blaming Bryant for everything that goes wrong with the Lakers.

When Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was interviewed after the first quarter with his team trailing 27-15, he said, "Pau is playing a lackluster kind of game. We have to get him going."

Some people talk about how talented this Lakers team supposedly is and how offensively explosive they can be but the reality is that this team is mentally soft and the reason that they can be offensively explosive is that Bryant constantly attracts multiple defenders; without Bryant, this team would struggle to win 40 games, particularly in the West: can anyone really say with a straight face that a Bryant-less Lakers team would be as good as the Nash-Shaq-Richardson Suns that won 46 games and did not even make the playoffs this year?

Bryant led the Lakers with a game-high 32 points but he shot 11-27 from the field as the Rockets did a good job of sending multiple defenders at him; one of his misses was a half court heave just before the halftime buzzer but there is no denying that the Rockets--spearheaded by Shane Battier--made Bryant work for everything that he got. So much has been made of Houston's plan to force Bryant to shoot contested two point jumpers but Bryant managed to get to the hoop often enough to shoot 9-10 from the free throw line; he also missed several shots in the lane that could not accurately be described as long jumpers, so depending on your perspective he either missed some makeable shots or the Rockets defended him well on those attempts or Bryant was fatigued due to having to carry such a heavy load. However you look at it, the bottom line is that he is averaging 29.7 ppg on .463 field goal shooting while committing just 1.7 turnovers per game this series so it cannot objectively be said that the Rockets have uncovered some magic formula for stopping Bryant: they are alternating two All-Defensive Team members on him plus sending multiple help defenders and he is still exceeding his regular season scoring average while matching his regular season field goal percentage and cutting down his turnover rate.

One situation with Bryant that bears watching--assuming that the Lakers win game seven--is that at the 2:03 mark of the second quarter he picked up his fifth technical foul of the playoffs; by NBA rule, any player receiving seven technical fouls in the playoffs is automatically suspended for one game. Van Gundy immediately said of Bryant's technical foul, "That's a joke" and Mark Jackson chimed in, "That's an awful call, no question about it--a missed call." What happened was Artest committed a loose ball foul against Bryant--which the officials called--and then Artest jumped backwards as if Bryant had unloaded a massive blow to his face. Artest's theatrics completely fooled the officials, who whistled Bryant for a technical foul. Moments later, Artest and Bryant were standing next to each other calmly talking during a stoppage of play and Van Gundy narrated what viewers could see by reading Bryant's lips: "Kobe just told him he flopped and that's exactly what happened." The league office has the authority to rescind technical fouls and since there is absolutely no question that this particular technical foul was bogus look for the NBA to issue yet another apology and wipe that call out of the record books.

Gasol finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, which simply is not good enough considering that he is being guarded by players who are much smaller and less skilled than he is. Odom had a game-high 14 rebounds but scored just eight points; he is hindered by the back injury that he suffered in game four but it's not like the Lakers can consistently depend on him to be productive even when he is fully healthy. Bynum scored zero points and had seven rebounds in 19 minutes; I have a vivid imagination but I cannot picture a scenario in which he either would have made a difference in last year's Finals versus Kevin Garnett/Kendrick Perkins/Leon Powe or in which he will make a difference in this year's Finals versus Cleveland's versatile and deep frontcourt--assuming that the Lakers make it to the Finals.

Let's not forget that vaunted Lakers bench. Bynum was the nominal starter, though Odom played more minutes than Bynum did; as for the other guys, Jordan Farmar played very well (13 points on 5-10 field goal shooting) but Luke Walton (zero points on 0-5 field goal shooting), Sasha Vujacic (two points on 1-3 field goal shooting) and Shannon Brown (two points on 0-3 field goal shooting) contributed nothing. The Rockets are now missing two All-Star players--Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, who has been out of the lineup for months--which means by definition that their bench has been depleted because two reserves have been converted into starters but they got an outstanding performance from Landry and a couple timely shots from Von Wafer (five points on 2-3 field goal shooting in five minutes). Kyle Lowry did not shoot well but he had four assists in 15 minutes, twice as many as the five Lakers' reserves produced in 88 combined minutes.

The fully loaded Celtics--with a healthy Kevin Garnett, plus James Posey and P.J. Brown coming off of the bench--were pushed to seventh games twice last season and still won a championship. NBA history shows--and we have already seen in this series--that momentum does not carry over from game to game, particularly when there is a shift in venue. The likelihood is that the Lakers will win on Sunday, quite possibly by double digits, but the way that the Lakers are playing does not bode well for their championship ambitions, even if they do eliminate the Rockets and move on to face the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:41 AM

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Celtics Crumble Down the Stretch, Magic Force Seventh Game

The Boston Celtics led by as many as 10 points and did not trail until the fourth quarter but they failed to score a point in the final 3:46 as the Orlando Magic won 83-75 to force a seventh game in Boston on Sunday. Dwight Howard apologized to Coach Stan Van Gundy for his ill advised public remarks and then he really made amends by posting his fifth career 20-20 playoff game, a 23 point, 22 rebound, three blocked shot performance. Howard said all the right things after the game, acknowledging that his job is to defend and rebound, not count how many times he touches the ball on offense. Rashard Lewis had 20 points and six rebounds; he has been very consistent this series, with a high game of 28 points and a low game of 17 points while gathering between five and 10 rebounds in each game. Rafer Alston and Mickael Pietrus each scored 11 points. The Magic have been able to get away with starting J.J. Redick at shooting guard in all six games even though Redick has averaged just 6.5 ppg on .298 shooting, including 12 points on 3-25 (.120) shooting in the past four games. I don't know if it is more amazing that Coach Van Gundy keeps putting Redick out there or that the Magic have reached a seventh game despite Redick's bricklaying; Ray Allen must be criticized heavily for not punishing Redick at the other end of the court: Redick is not the only primary defender on Allen (and Redick almost always has help when he is) but there is no getting around the fact that the future Hall of Famer's numbers in this series (11.5 ppg on .307 field goal shooting) are hardly better than Redick's and that is inexcusable. Since Allen exploded for 51 points in Boston's game six loss to Chicago he has only scored more than 20 points twice in seven games and has had three single digit outings, all of them coming against Orlando, bottoming out with his five points on 2-11 shooting in game six.

Paul Pierce is not playing nearly as badly as Allen but he has not exactly distinguished himself in this series, either, scoring only three points in 16 foul plagued minutes in game two. Pierce started out 3-10 from the field in game six, made three clutch shots in a row in the fourth quarter to briefly put Boston ahead 73-72 but then he did not score in the final 4:51 with the game up for grabs and he missed two crucial free throws during that stretch that could have given Boston a one point lead with 2:04 left. Pierce finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Rajon Rondo led Boston in four different categories, posting 19 points, 16 rebounds, six assists and four steals. However, he shot 8-19 from the field and had five turnovers as the Magic trapped off of him whenever Pierce or Allen got the ball, putting the pressure on Rondo to make shots or make plays.

Game seven is usually death for the road team in the NBA and I expect the Celtics to win but the onus is on Allen to play much better and on Pierce to do a little bit more than he did in game six and to not disappear in the final moments if the game is close. The Magic survived game six despite shooting just .366 from the field and .231 from three point range; obviously, those numbers will not get the job done in game seven on the road. Orlando got away with shooting so poorly because the Celtics committed 19 turnovers, resulting in extra possessions for the Magic, but the Magic have to expect that Boston will be more careful with the ball and shoot a better percentage at home. Coach Van Gundy probably does not want to change his starting lineup going into game seven but if Redick continues to be unproductive then Van Gundy will have to give him the quick hook in favor of the more athletic Pietrus or Courtney Lee, who had been the starter until an inadvertent Howard elbow broke a bone in his face.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:53 AM

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Billups and Anthony Lead the Way as the Nuggets Advance to the Conference Finals for the First Time Since 1985

Chauncey Billups added another chapter to his fairy tale return to Denver, posting 28 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and just two turnovers as the Nuggets beat the Mavericks 124-110 to close out their second round series 4-1 and advance to the Western Conference Finals. Carmelo Anthony had a team-high 30 points, while J.R. Smith contributed 18 points off of the bench. Dirk Nowitzki had 32 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in defeat.

The Mavericks jumped out to a 10-4 lead but then Billups--who prefers to distribute the ball in the first half and then score, if necessary, in the second half--nailed back to back three pointers to kick off a 30-13 run; Billups scored 11 first quarter points overall and the Mavericks never got closer than five points the rest of the way. Billups, who is averaging 22.1 ppg in this year's playoffs, has repeatedly demonstrated a finely tuned understanding of exactly what his team needs at a given moment: he helped the Nuggets overcome any possible first round jitters by scoring 36 and 31 points in games one and two versus the Hornets and his three point shooting in the postseason has been as timely as it has been deadly (33-61, .541). I thought that he looked worn down in the past couple postseasons but Billups has rejuventated himself in Denver and is playing even better in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, something that definitely had not been the case in recent years.

Anthony did not have much of a playoff resume to speak of prior to this season but he is averaging 27.0 ppg in the 2009 playoffs while shooting .480 from the field. After a shaky 13 point performance in game one versus the Hornets he scored at least 22 points in each of the next nine playoff games, including a playoff career-high 41 points in game four of this series.

Nene and Kenyon Martin are both healthy for the first time in a while and they are providing great inside play at both ends of the court, while Dahntay Jones has emerged as a Raja Bell-style defensive irritant. The Nuggets have an excellent bench, led by the scoring prowess of J.R. Smith and the shotblocking of Chris Andersen.

Nowitzki played wonderfully in defeat, averaging 34.4 ppg and 11.6 rpg in this series. Nowitzki averaged 26.8 ppg and 10.1 rpg overall in the playoffs, numbers that his critic Chris Webber could only dream of posting; in Webber's most profilic postseason, 2002, he scored more than 30 points just twice in 16 games and he averaged fewer than 10 rpg in eight of his 10 playoff seasons. Nowitzki played at an MVP level all season long; of course, he was not a serious candidate for the award this year because LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are at a whole different plateau right now, but Nowitzki definitely deserved his selection to the All-NBA First Team. His comments to the media may not suit Webber or Charles Barkley but the only thing that counts is that when Nowitzki was on the court he was productive.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:12 AM

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James, Bryant Top All-NBA Voting

LeBron James, the landslide winner of the 2009 MVP award, was the only unanimous selection to the All-NBA First Team, receiving all 122 votes from a panel of writers and broadcasters. Kobe Bryant, who finished second in MVP voting, received 119 First Team votes and three Second Team votes. Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki are the other First Team members. Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, Yao Ming, Chris Paul and Brandon Roy made the Second Team, while the Third Team consists of Pau Gasol, Carmelo Anthony, Shaquille O'Neal, Tony Parker and Chauncey Billups.

The official balloting largely matched my choices: I selected exactly the same First Team and the only difference with the Second Team is that I picked Gasol over Pierce, who I put on the Third Team. My Third Team also included David West instead of Anthony; choosing West over Anthony may not look correct in light of Anthony's performance in the playoffs but keep in mind that this honor is strictly based on the regular season and that West matched or increased his All-Star numbers from the 2008 season while again playing in 76 games but Anthony only played in 66 games and experienced marked drops in his scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage.

The All-NBA players are supposed to be chosen by position (with no distinction made between small forward and power forward or shooting guard and point guard, which is why Chris Paul landed on the Second Team even though he placed in the top five in the MVP race). However, it is obvious that the voters did not adhere to that guideline. Dwight Howard received 116 First Team votes and Yao Ming received eight First Team votes, so 122 voters combined to produce 124 First Team votes at the center position; that means that Howard and/or Yao received votes at the forward position, which is simply bizarre because neither player ever plays forward. Since the First Team has two guard slots and two forward slots, each of those positions should have received 244 First Team votes (122 voters multiplied by two), but James (122), Nowitzki (35), Duncan (39), Pierce (27), Gasol (2) and Anthony (2) received a total of 227 First Team votes as forwards while Bryant (116), Wade (103), Paul (32) and Parker (1) received a total of 255 First Team votes as guards. None of those forwards could realistically be considered guards nor could any of those guards realistically be considered forwards. It is hard to figure out what exactly some of these voters were thinking about when they made their First Team choices.

If you add up all of the First Team votes the total is 606 but 122 voters voting for five First Team slots should add up to 610 First Team votes. So, the NBA press release either contains some clerical errors or four First Team votes were not submitted or not tabulated, in addition to the positional designation mistakes; the total points awarded to all players who received any votes correctly adds up to 5490 (122 voters selected 15 players each on a 5-3-1 basis), so the most likely explanation is that some of the players who are listed under the category "also received votes" divided up the "missing" First Team votes even though the press release does not specify who received those First Team votes. This is not the first time that there have been discrepancies with the All-NBA Team voting; in 2007 I noted that the All-NBA Selections Don't Add Up and I made some suggestions about how the voting should have been done.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:45 AM

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bryant Scores 26 as Lakers Rout Rockets, Move Within One Win of the Conference Finals

Led by Kobe Bryant's efficient 26 points on 10-19 field goal shooting, the L.A. Lakers bounced back from their embarrassing game four loss to post a dominating 118-78 game five win versus the Houston Rockets. This is the Lakers' biggest margin of victory in a playoff game since 1986 and the Rockets tied a franchise record for their most lopsided playoff defeat. Bryant, who also had four rebounds and three assists, played just 31 minutes and sat out the entire fourth quarter. Pau Gasol had 16 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots, providing a classic demonstration of why it is so wrong to evaluate basketball players purely by numbers: Gasol's game four line of 30 points and nine rebounds looks more impressive but in game four Gasol was tentative and soft, accumulating what Jeff Van Gundy correctly called "fake" numbers long after the outcome of the game had been decided. In game five, Gasol was decisive and aggressive. Andrew Bynum scored a playoff career-high 14 points, a total that is an encouraging sign for the Lakers but also makes a mockery of the idea that he is a main offensive threat for the team; when your playoff career-high is 14 points, it is charitable to say that you have yet to establish yourself as a dominant postseason scorer. The Lakers need for Bynum to provide a consistent effort defensively and on the boards--and to not let his performance in those departments be affected by how many points he scores. Bynum had six rebounds, no turnovers and two fouls in 20 minutes, shooting 5-6 from the field and 4-4 from the free throw line.

Seven Lakers scored in double figures but special mention should be made of Lamar Odom, who was doubtful to even play in this game due to the bruised lower back he suffered in the previous game; Odom came off of the bench to score 10 points and grab six rebounds in 19 minutes. One can question his focus and his decision making at times but no one should ever question his heart; I remember one game when he played for Team USA he was getting IVs at halftime so that he could go back out and play in the second half.

Aaron Brooks again led the Rockets in scoring but this time he had 14 points on just 4-11 field goal shooting, a far cry from his career-high 34 points on 12-20 shooting in game four. Von Wafer added 13 points--mainly in garbage time--and Luis Scola had 12 points, 13 rebounds and four assists. Ron Artest has largely escaped criticism in this series--mainly because people are so busy talking about the Lakers--but he finished with just nine points, four rebounds and one assist while shooting 4-15 from the field, including 1-7 from three point range. Artest might have the worst shot selection of anyone possessing a comparable amount of athletic gifts; in this series he is shooting .394 from the field and .294 from three point range, numbers that are inexcusable considering his abilities, particularly because he is launching nearly seven three point attempts per game but only shooting 2.6 free throw attempts per game. You'd think that with all of Houston's well advertised--or self-promoted, depending on how you look at it--emphasis on "advanced basketball statistics" that someone in their organization would figure out that a 6-7, 260 pound athlete should not be jacking up threes left and right, especially when he is not shooting a good percentage. Maybe one of the "stat gurus" should sidle up to Ron-Ron, show him some pie charts and inform him about the intricacies of offensive efficiency.

Shane Battier scored 23 points in game four and some people questioned why Bryant so often roams away from Battier to provide defensive help but the reality is that Battier is a minor offensive threat and that the Lakers needed Bryant's presence elsewhere to try to plug up holes in their defense. Bryant guarded Battier the same way in game five that he did in the previous four games and Battier finished with five points on 2-7 shooting; Battier is averaging 9.2 ppg on .394 shooting in this series, so Bryant's approach is clearly correct.

In game four, the Rockets jumped out to a 9-0 lead and never looked back. The Rockets started off game five in very strong fashion with an 11-4 run but then the Lakers clamped down defensively and they forced some turnovers that led to easy scores in transition. Bryant set the tone by scoring 12 first quarter points on 5-7 shooting and the Lakers led 35-24 after the first 12 minutes. The Lakers' bench has not been a strength for this team recently but with Gasol and Odom serving as anchors playing alongside three reserves, the Lakers pushed the margin to 47-33 while Bryant rested for just over four minutes. When Bryant returned to action, the Lakers' attack at both ends of the court kicked into overdrive and by halftime he had scored 20 points and the Lakers led 64-39.

While the Lakers made a run in game four--even if that run was somewhat "fake"--the Rockets never even hinted at making a comeback in this contest. Bryant went to the bench for good with 1:00 remaining in the third quarter and the Lakers up 90-54.

TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith asserted after the game that the Lakers have the most talented team in the league and even went so far as to bizarrely claim that Coach Phil Jackson and Bryant are taking too "lackadaisical" (Barkley's word) or "arrogant" (Smith's word) of an approach at times. The analysts who have actually been broadcasting these games--Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson for ESPN/ABC and Doug Collins for TNT--have repeatedly and correctly made the point that the Lakers' bench this year has been extremely inconsistent and that several Lakers' bench players (most notably Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar) have underperformed compared to last season. I actually thought that the Lakers' bench was overrated even last year but there is no question that the Lakers' bench is performing worse this season than they did last season--that is obvious to anyone who has followed this team closely and is also quite clear if you look at the statistics of Vujacic and Farmar: Vujacic shot .454 from the field last season, .387 this season and .241 (that is not a typo) so far in this year's playoffs; Farmar shot .461 from the field last season, .391 this season and .406 so far in this year's playoffs.

As for this "lackadaisical"/"arrogant" business, Jackson explicitly warned the Lakers prior to game four to not take anything for granted even with Yao Ming out of the lineup. Bryant certainly does not skip any steps in terms of his preparation or his performance and, quite frankly, if the rest of his teammates--particularly the bigs--had his attitude and demeanor then this series would already be finished.

This is the time of year when everyone becomes an amateur psychiatrist and tries to psychoanalyze Bryant's body language, shot attempts, lack of shot attempts, etc. We saw this phenomenon rear its ugly head during the 2008 Finals and it is cropping up again now. I just read an entire article devoted to criticizing Bryant for scowling. When Bernard King did this everyone praised his "game face"; when Michael Jordan screamed at teammates, punched Steve Kerr in the face or trash talked with opponents and/or courtside fans everyone raved about how singularly competitive he is. How about this: instead of getting sidetracked by Bryant's scowl or about how Houston's Daryl Morey is going to revolutionize the usage of basketball statistics, let's look at the real story of this series, the story that no one is talking about: despite all of Houston's scouting and all of Houston's detailed statistics--and despite having two All-Defensive Team players in Shane Battier and Ron Artest--Kobe Bryant is averaging 29.2 ppg versus the Rockets while shooting .475 from the field and .391 from three point range and he has his Lakers on the brink of advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row. Scoring averages and shooting percentages tend to decline in the playoffs because the competition is tougher and because each team can zero in on their opponent's tendencies but whatever advantage the Rockets claim to have in terms of statistical preparation is not showing up where it counts the most: Bryant's raw individual numbers and, even more significantly, wins and losses. Instead of focusing on a scowl or on one play or on one game, it would be nice if members of the media who discuss this series had the necessary attention span/analytical ability/intellectual honesty/communication skills to not bury the lead under a mountain of gibberish.

As I mentioned in my analysis of the New York Times' article about Morey's use of basketball statistics, I respect what Morey is trying to do and I believe that he has a good grasp of both the possibilities and limitations of basketball statistical analysis but I think that a lot of the fans of basketball statistical analysis do not have a similarly nuanced understanding; for that reason, after this series is over the New York Times should do a followup article detailing how Bryant overcame Houston's defensive preparation by utilizing his skill set strengths to maximum effectiveness.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Nowitzki's 44 Points Help Dallas to Avoid Being Swept

On a night when the Atlanta Hawks fought valiantly--but unsuccessfully--to avoid being swept, the Dallas Mavericks showed that they will not go down without a fight. Dirk Nowitzki scored 44 points, grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds and shot a sizzling 14-25 from the field to lead the Mavs to their first win in four tries versus the Denver Nuggets. Nowitzki scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, including a tough fadeaway jumper with 1:05 remaining to put Dallas ahead for good, the Mavericks' first lead since early in the first quarter. Josh Howard, playing on two bad ankles, had 21 points and 11 rebounds, while Jason Kidd added 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while committing just one turnover. Carmelo Anthony scored a playoff career-high 41 points in defeat and also had 11 rebounds and five steals. Chauncey Billups added 24 points and a game-high seven assists.

The Nuggets led by as many as 14 points and were up by two points with less than two minutes remaining but Nowitzki just would not let Dallas lose. This series is one bad call away from being tied 2-2, so it will be interesting to see if the Mavericks simply wanted to avoid being swept/ending their season with a homecourt loss or if they will really put some pressure on the Nuggets by winning game five in Denver and forcing the series back to Dallas for game six.

It should be noted that the Nuggets were without the services of defensive stopper Chris Andersen, who was battling some kind of stomach ailment. Without his shotblocking presence, the Mavericks shot .506 from the field, their best performance in this series.

As for the much discussed foolish and classless act that Dallas owner Mark Cuban committed after game three--when Cuban walked up to Kenyon Martin's mother in the stands, pointed in her face and called her son either a "thug" or a "punk" (depending on which account you believe, but Cuban does not deny making a derogatory remark)--this is an excellent example of a major problem in society: some people think that because they have money, fame or a certain kind of status that they can just do whatever they want to do with no consequences. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once imagined a society in which people treat each other civilly because all of the adults were licensed to carry firearms and trained to properly use them; while that may be a bit extreme--and I'm not sure that it would work in real world practice as smoothly as it worked in his story--there is some truth to the idea that if stupid, insensitive and/or boorish people truly believed that there would be an immediate consequence for bad conduct then they would exercise better control over their impulses.

When Hugh Douglas, the self-proclaimed "bad-assador" of the Philadelphia Eagles, suggested that then-Eagle Terrell Owens had exaggerated the extent of an injury, Owens--who risked his career to play in Super Bowl XXXIX with a serious ankle injury--fought Douglas in the locker room and then asked if there were any other takers; I have always thought that it was laugh out loud funny that someone would call himself a "bad-assador," have the temerity to question someone else's toughness and then promptly get put in his place but this fits in with something that I have observed in many different situations: real tough guys don't have to tell you how tough they are because when push comes to shove--literally or figuratively--they will show you, while fake tough guys talk big but never really do much. I'm more impressed by Owens playing at a high level in a Super Bowl on one leg than I am by some guy calling himself "bad-assador" (for that matter, I'm more impressed by Nowitzki scoring 44 points and getting 13 rebounds in an elimination game than I am by players who thrust out their chests and act tough but have never made a big shot or grabbed a tough rebound in their entire lives). Maybe Owens' response seems extreme to some people's sensibilities but sometimes if someone has the nerve to question your character and your manhood you have to answer in the only way a bully understands. Obviously, Martin would do himself more harm than good by dealing with Cuban in that fashion but the disgusting thing is that Cuban knows that and thinks that gives him license to say and do whatever he wants. Cuban's conduct was completely out of line and the NBA should step in with a heavy fine and/or other disciplinary action. The NBA has a code of conduct for its players and its fans and apparently it needs one for its owners as well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:20 AM

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Cavs Sweep Hawks, Advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the Second Time in Three Years

LeBron James overcame his worst shooting game of this postseason (9-22) to finish with 27 points, eight rebounds and eight assists as the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Atlanta Hawks 84-74 to sweep their second round series. The Cavs are the first team in NBA playoff history to win eight straight games by at least 10 points each and the first team to sweep the first two rounds of the playoffs since the 2005 Miami Heat. Delonte West added 21 points, six assists and four rebounds while hounding three-time All-Star Joe Johnson into a 7-18 shooting night. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a double double (14 points, 10 rebounds) and even though Mo Williams was quiet for most of the game (12 points, five assists) he nailed two clutch three pointers in the final 2:45 and shot 4-7 from three point range overall.

Josh Smith had his best game of the series, leading the Hawks in scoring (26 points) and rebounds (eight) but Atlanta shot just 23-73 (.315) from the field and lost the battle on the boards 48-33. Although Smith shot 8-16 from the field in this game, he shot just .419 from the field in this series--mainly because any shot he takes outside of the paint is an adventure. When your own home crowd gasps and/or boos each time you attempt a jump shot, that is a not so subtle sign that you need to get in the gym this summer and work on your shooting stroke. Johnson (18 points, seven assists, six rebounds) and Flip Murray (14 points) were the only other Hawks who scored in double figures. Starting point guard Mike Bibby scored three points on 1-6 shooting and he had by far the worst plus/minus number (-16) of any player in the game.

Closeout games when one team is leading 3-0 have an interesting psychological dynamic for both teams, particularly when the trailing team is at home. No NBA team has ever won a series after trailing 3-0, so there is always a question of whether or not the trailing team really wants to extend the series only to have to go back on the road for an almost inevitable loss in the next game. On the other hand, it is easy for the leading team to relax and feel like they have the luxury of closing out the series at home. The Cavs did not shoot particularly well in this game but their effort defensively and on the glass clearly shows that they did not take this opportunity for granted or want to fall back on presumably being able to win the next game at home. As for the Hawks, they led 22-15 after the first quarter, so they obviously had the correct mindset; not to overstate this point--pro players and teams should always play hard regardless of the situation--but we all know that some players would at least be tempted to quit: that is why TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith often joke about players having one foot in Cancun before a game even begins. After the Cavs rallied to take a 48-38 lead deep in the third quarter the Hawks made another run, cutting the margin to 55-53 and keeping the game competitive all the way until the end. That is a good sign for the Hawks' future, because it would give one pause to build a team around players who do not always compete hard.

The Hawks built their first quarter lead by scoring 10 points off of six Cleveland turnovers. As I predicted before the series, overall the Hawks struggled to score against Cleveland but when they got open court opportunities they were able to put together some runs. For most of the series, the Hawks played James straight up and simply switched on screen/roll plays instead of trapping James but James shredded that defensive scheme, culminating in a 47 point outburst in game three. So, in game four the Hawks decided to trap James and force other players to make shots. In the first quarter, the Cavs missed shots and committed turnovers but when James went to the bench in the second quarter the Cavs went on an 11-2 run to take the lead. Cleveland's depth is simply scary: every player can play, every player knows (and accepts) his role and every player works hard defensively. James had a plus/minus rating of +1 in this game, while Williams (+18), Ilgauskas (+10) and Ben Wallace (+10) had double digit plus/minus numbers. Does that mean that those players are more valuable than James? Of course not--but it does indicate just how effective the Cavs can be against a quality team even when James is out of the game and this has been a consistent pattern all year long, with James often being able to sit out most or all of the fourth quarter (though he did play extensive fourth quarter minutes in games three and four of this series).

When it came down to winning time, the Cavs' suffocating defense took over, not allowing a field goal in the final 3:05 and not giving up any points in the final 1:56 (the Cavs only led 79-74 at that time). The Hawks only made four field goals in the entire fourth quarter. James scored six fourth quarter points on a three pointer and a three point play but he really made his impact felt as a playmaker, dishing off for four assists, three of them on three point shots, including the two treys by Williams in the final 2:45; the Hawks dared other Cavs to beat them in game four and that is exactly what happened.

The Cavs had a long break after their first round sweep of Detroit and they will get some more rest for the next few days as they wait to see who will emerge from the Boston-Orlando series that is currently tied 2-2.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:57 AM

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Chauncey Billups: The Disposable Superstar

Tom Friend has written a tremendous story about Chauncey Billups' journey from high school star in Denver to starting point guard for a Denver Nuggets team that is poised to reach the Western Conference Finals. Friend's article is lengthy but well worth reading. Click on the following link and enjoy:

The Disposable Superstar

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:01 PM

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LeBron James is a Road Warrior

LeBron James' remarkable 47-12-8 performance on Saturday night in Atlanta is yet another example of James' ability to step up his game in a hostile environment. Most NBA players tend to play better at home but James has a history of putting up big numbers on the road, as I discuss in my newest article for CavsNews.com:

Road Warrior LeBron Takes Over "Highlight Factory"

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:03 PM

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Soft Lakers Crumble Versus Yao-less Rockets

It is not surprising that the Houston Rockets played with great energy and heart on Sunday, beating the L.A. Lakers 99-87 despite being without All-Star center Yao Ming, who will miss the rest of the playoffs due to a broken foot--but the Lakers should be ashamed of a soft, listless performance in which the Rockets outscored them 9-0 at the start, never trailed and led by as many as 29 points. Aaron Brooks completely abused the Lakers, scoring a career-high 34 points on 12-20 field goal shooting. Shane Battier shot 5-10 from three point range and contributed a playoff career-high 23 points, feasting on open opportunities in transition and when the Lakers' defense collapsed due to dribble penetration by Brooks and others. Kyle Lowry added 12 points off of the bench, while Luis Scola had 11 points and a game-high 14 rebounds, thoroughly outplaying Lamar Odom. Ron Artest scored just eight points and exercised horrible judgment with his shot selection (4-19 from the field, including 0-6 from three point range) but he had 10 rebounds and six assists.

Pau Gasol led the Lakers with 30 points and nine rebounds in what was, without question, the worst, least effective 30 point game I have ever watched in my life; he was so soft for most of the game that you could have cut him to ribbons with tissue paper. It must be emphasized that he scored 18 points in the fourth quarter, which began with the Lakers trailing 83-56. Can you say "extensive garbage time"? ABC's Jeff Van Gundy offered the perfect take on Gasol's numbers: "These are all fake stats for the Lakers. This is fake. They got run out of here. You got some big numbers put up by some guys in a meaningless quarter." I can hardly wait for the Wages of Wins post explaining how this game "proved" that Gasol is clearly the best player on the Lakers, which will of course be picked up by True Hoop and probably placed right next to another gossip page report spewing rumors about Bryant that have already been refuted by the concerned parties; I still have not figured out why ESPN's basketball blog tried to cast aspersions on a Spike Lee documentary that the network will be airing commercial free next Saturday but the best part of True Hoop's National Enquirer-inspired "journalism" in this case is the "update" that does not in any way indicate that the original True Hoop post left out the fact Lee had immediately contradicted the anti-Bryant report (the comments section to the anti-Bryant True Hoop offering is an interesting indicator that more and more people are realizing that the emperor of the basketball blogosphere is wearing no clothes).

The Lakers' bench also padded their numbers in garbage time but Van Gundy--whose commentary during this game was as on point as the Rockets' play--spoke the truth about a team that some people falsely call the deepest in the league. Van Gundy said that the Lakers need to get "consistent performance" from Andrew Bynum and Jordan Farmar because "If you don't have at least two guys off of your bench every night who you can trust to play effectively then you are really going to struggle." Bynum had no points and two rebounds in 12 minutes, while Farmar scored seven points on 2-7 shooting in 21 minutes. Odom, who has taken Bynum's spot in the starting lineup, sleepwalked to two points and six rebounds in 25 minutes before charging into Battier and taking a nasty fall that induced back spasms that sidelined Odom for the rest of the game; Odom's status is unknown for game five on Tuesday but what is known is that after playing well versus Utah in the first round Odom has once again pulled a disappearing act, scoring in double figures just once in four games against the Rockets despite playing at least 25 minutes in each outing. The Lakers' vaunted frontcourt depth may really be on full display for a national TV audience on Tuesday because if Odom cannot play and Bynum continues his Invisible Man routine then Josh Powell and D.J. Mbenga will receive significant minutes. Lakers' fans, debate and discuss amongst yourselves which is the more frightening scenario: Odom is healthy but puts up another "triple-single" or Odom is not healthy and your season rises or falls based on Powell or Mbenga making a positive contribution in 15-20 minutes of action.

Van Gundy declared that the Lakers "need frontcourt toughness. Their toughness is all in the backcourt." That weakness is the primary reason that the Lakers lost this game, combined with the fact that none of the Lakers' point guards could stay in front of Brooks--but even that problem could have been at least somewhat mitigated if the Lakers' bigs had rotated correctly and effectively to cut of dribble penetration. Mark Jackson illustrated this point perfectly with two film clips: one showed the Rockets driving to the hoop with abandon as no Lakers rotated to protect the rim, while the other showed Battier sliding into Odom's path to take a charge on the play when Odom got hurt.

Of course, the player whose performance will be (incorrectly) dissected shot by shot, possession by possession and who will be cast as the scapegoat is none other than Kobe Bryant, who scored 15 points on 7-17 field goal shooting and had five assists, four steals, two rebounds and no turnovers in 35 minutes. Since many people will no doubt try to convince you that Bryant played terribly, let's take an objective look at exactly what he did and did not do during this Lakers debacle. The Lakers began the game with Trevor Ariza throwing a lazy pass that Artest intercepted and converted into an easy fastbreak layup. The Rockets led 9-0 before Bryant put the Lakers on the board by making a jumper at the 8:31 mark of the first quarter. With 4:52 remaining in the quarter, the Rockets led 22-7; Bryant had scored all seven Lakers' points on 3-5 shooting, while Gasol was 0-3 from the field and Odom was 0-2 with a turnover. At the 4:33 mark, Derek Fisher nailed a jumper to become the first Laker not named Bryant to score a point. The Lakers trailed 29-16 at the end of the first quarter, with Bryant scoring nine of the 16 points on 4-8 shooting; Bryant had shouldered more than half of the offensive load with efficient scoring but the Lakers had already dug themselves a deep hole.

What about Battier getting loose for 12 first quarter points? Isn't that Bryant's fault? Yes and no. For most of the series, Bryant has been playing off of Battier in order to help out defensively in other areas--and the Lakers need all of the help that they can get, as will be documented throughout this article. Battier is a good three point shooter who is often reluctant to shoot but with Yao out Battier decided to become more aggressive; he got some of his baskets because Bryant was sagging off of him but some of his opportunities came in transition when the Lakers were cross-matched; when Bryant picks up a cutter or drops into the lane to stop a driver then someone else should close out on Battier.

Here is Van Gundy's assessment of the first quarter: "The Lakers are not playing hard enough." Jackson added that while the Lakers "certainly" are capable of winning a championship, right now they are performing like the third best team in this year's playoffs, behind Cleveland and Denver. Van Gundy responded to Jackson's statement by saying, "Denver is a more committed team defensively than L.A. at this point in time but L.A. has much more offensive talent." I wholeheartedly agree with his first point but the second point is debatable; the Lakers have Kobe Bryant, who is obviously better than any single Denver player, but the Nuggets have a prime wing scoring threat in Carmelo Anthony, a point guard whose postseason play this year has been off the charts in Chauncey Billups, a deadly (if sometimes erratic) sixth man in J.R. Smith and a solid postup threat in Nene. The Nuggets have five double figure scorers, while the Lakers have four; Derek Fisher is averaging just shy of 10 ppg but Odom may be out of action and the Lakers are getting nothing from their bench, so the comparison is closer than Van Gundy suggests even with Bryant in the mix and it would be a landslide in Denver's favor without Bryant.

Bryant sat out the first 4:46 of the second quarter and the Rockets extended their lead to 41-22. After Bryant returned to action the Lakers cut the margin to 47-35 but by halftime the Rockets had forged a 54-36 advantage. Bryant had 13 first half points on 6-12 field goal shooting. Van Gundy said that the recipe for success in the NBA is "skill, unselfishness and effort. Where is the effort for the Lakers?"

One sequence from late in the first half epitomized how the Lakers were playing: Bryant drove into the lane and drew three defenders--with a fourth defender poised to come over if necessary--and he dished the ball perfectly to a wide open Gasol on the baseline. Gasol could have taken the midrange jumper but instead he drove tentatively and got fouled; I say that his move was tentative because he hesitated after he caught the pass--instead of shooting with confidence--and then when he got in the lane he went up with one hand instead of trying a power move with two hands. Gasol nearly airballed the first free throw and then made the second free throw. This looked like a replay of the 2008 Finals: the opposing team swarms Bryant with three and four defenders, fully realizing that no other Laker is willing or able to make a play. Gasol is a talented player who has a good shooting touch, so the correct play for him when Bryant drives and kicks is to take that open jump shot; driving into the teeth of the defense is just as likely to lead to a turnover or an offensive foul as it is to lead to a score and what Gasol did was simply drive right into the area where all the defenders had congregated around Bryant. During the past year and a half, Gasol has feasted off of the open shots that Bryant has created for him--that is why Gasol's field goal percentage has soared to career-high levels as a Laker--but against physical teams like the Celtics in the 2008 Finals or the Rockets in this series Gasol becomes strangely tentative at times.

During the halftime report, ABC's Magic Johnson--who owns a minority stake in the Lakers--minced no words: "This is an embarrassing effort by the Lakers...We see them standing around hoping and wishing that Kobe will bail them out."

On the opening play of the second half, Brooks drove straight down the lane for an uncontested layup. The Lakers made one field goal in the first 6:28 of the quarter, a drive by Bryant. Bryant tried several times to get to the hoop but since none of his teammates represented viable threats the Rockets simply created a wall in front of the rim and blocked his path without fouling him. Bryant shot 1-5 from the field, Ariza had a point blank shot blocked after a slick feed from Bryant and Gasol missed a pair of free throws as the Rockets pulled away. When Lakers Coach Phil Jackson took Bryant out at the 2:16 mark for his customary rest, Houston led 77-50. Van Gundy asked, "Are the Lakers a together, tough-minded team? Because if not, you can't win it all." Mark Jackson added, "Defense is not a some time thing. It's an all the time thing." All season long, this Lakers team has been inconsistent defensively, which is something that I have emphasized. The Lakers have also had a tendency to play down to the level of their competition--or the level that they perceive their competition to be at, because this game should disabuse the Lakers of any notions about their own greatness.

The third quarter concluded with a mind boggling defensive lapse by the Lakers: Artest inbounded the ball from half court with .7 seconds remaining, throwing a perfect lob to Brooks, who caught the pass and made an uncontested layup. How bad is a defense that concedes a 50 foot alley oop to a 6-0 point guard? Pretty bad.

Bryant spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench as Gasol padded his statistics. Although the Lakers cut the lead to 10 points with :23 remaining that was just window dressing, as Van Gundy rightly noted.

The Lakers bounced back from losing game one of this series at home to win two straight games and retake home court advantage; they still should be considered the favorites to win this series but the concentration lapses that they have repeatedly had during the playoffs do not bode well for the Lakers in terms of their goal of winning a championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

LeBron's 47-12-8 Masterpiece Puts Cavs on Brink of Sweeping Hawks

LeBron James had 47 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists as the Cleveland Cavaliers took Atlanta's best punch and then delivered a knockout blow with a 97-82 victory to take a 3-0 series lead. James and Michael Jordan are the only players in NBA playoff history to post at least 45-10-8 in a game. Cleveland's formula for success is defense, rebounding, depth and James' brilliance. In this road game the Cavs' shortened their rotation--including having James play significant fourth quarter minutes for the first time in this series--so depth was not a factor but the Cavs held Atlanta to just two field goals over a 10 minute second half stretch during which Cleveland took over the game with a 20-4 run; James scored 12 points during that game-deciding outburst. The Cavs outrebounded the Hawks 46-23 as they became the first team in NBA playoff history to win seven straight games by double figure margins and moved to within one win of posting back to back 4-0 sweeps; the 2004-05 Miami Heat were the last team to open the NBA playoffs by sweeping the first two rounds 4-0, while the 2000-01 L.A. Lakers swept the first three rounds when the first round was still a best of five series.

Joe Johnson came back from the sprained ankle he suffered in game two to lead the Hawks with 21 points. Josh Smith scored 18 points, while Flip Murray provided a spark off of the bench with 17 points.

The Hawks led by as many as six points in this contest and were ahead as late as the 3:45 mark of the third quarter but ultimately they had no defensive answer for James and no consistent method of scoring in the half court set. I predicted before this series that the Hawks might use their transition game to go on an 8-0 or 10-0 run but that overall they would have great difficulty scoring more than 85 points versus Cleveland's stifling defense and they would likely endure some long scoring droughts; all of those predictions came true in this game: the Hawks failed to score 85 points, they suffered the long scoring drought documented above and they had one 13-0 run in the third quarter fueled by their transition game.

Mike Bibby must look like a green traffic signal to the Cavs, because whoever he is guarding speeds right past him like he is standing still at an intersection. The Hawks elected to defend James by simply switching all screen/roll plays without double-teaming, so the Cavs repeatedly involved Bibby in this action and then had James attack Bibby. At one point while Bibby faced off against James on the wing the Atlanta point guard frantically signaled for a teammate to come over and help him; help never arrived and James easily scored. ABC's Hubie Brown said of James, "It's just so great. He's such a cerebral player. What he does is he reads the defense perfectly. He knows what you're doing. If you are going to switch and have a small guy on me then I'll just shoot and play horse in my driveway." Although the Hawks' strategy does not look great on paper, there really are not many good choices for them: James shot 5-10 from three point range and if they try to trap him that far from the hoop then he will pick them apart with his passing. Also, even though the Cavs' depth was not a factor in terms of tangible production in this game I think that it played a role in Atlanta's defensive scheme; the Hawks elected not to leave Cleveland's shooters open by trapping James all over the court but James made them pay by hitting shots from all angles.

When Julius Erving was in his prime in the ABA, his New York Nets Coach Kevin Loughery once called a timeout just to tell Erving that Erving had just played the best stretch of basketball that Loughery had ever seen, strong words coming from an 11 year NBA veteran who had played with and against stars like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Walt Frazier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wes Unseld and Earl Monroe. Watching James pick the Hawks apart not just with his physical skills but, as Hubie Brown noted, the "cerebral" game, I felt like someone should call a timeout just to give everyone a minute to catch their breath and try to grasp just how well James is playing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:54 AM

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Melo's Late Three Pointer After a Blown Call Puts Nuggets Up 3-0

The Dallas Mavericks were just seconds away from cutting Denver's series lead to 2-1 when Carmelo Anthony sank a dagger three pointer that enabled Denver to win 106-105 and will likely propel the Nuggets into the Western Conference Finals. The Mavericks had a foul to give in those waning seconds and forward Antoine Wright tried to give it--twice--but the referees did not call anything and when Wright stopped playing after he was sure that a foul would be called Anthony rightly kept going and hit a clutch shot. The NBA league office has already issued a statement admitting that the referees erred in not calling a foul. Even though the referees messed up, it is puzzling that Wright simply stopped playing in such a crucial situation; as ABC's Hubie Brown noted during the Cavs-Hawks telecast, in the NBA you always keep playing until you hear a whistle. The ending of this game provided a bit of a sour taste but the Mavericks squandered plenty of earlier chances to create a bigger margin of error for themselves.

Anthony shot just 9-24 from the field but he shot 11-14 from the free throw line and finished with 31 points and eight rebounds. Chauncey Billups scored 23 second half points to end up with 32 points on 9-16 field goal shooting. Billups has played very well for the Nuggets--particularly in the playoffs, averaging 21.1 ppg while shooting .571 from three point range--but Denver Coach George Karl recently explained that the idea that Billups "changed the culture" in Denver is a bit of an exaggeration: "I think the basketball people and the NBA people, the coaches in the world, understand it. That is usually led by the coaching staff more so than any one player. We’re the guys that started the culture in August and September. We were doing a pretty good job with it then. I think Dahntay Jones and Anthony Carter and Chris Anderson, they didn’t have Chauncey in their kind of commitment to come here and resurrect their careers. Chauncey helped that but they were already on the move in that direction."

The most obvious difference about the Nuggets this year is their team-wide commitment to playing good defense. Billups certainly has always displayed that type of commitment but he is not even the best perimeter defender on his own team (Dahntay Jones, not Billups, guarded Chris Paul in the first round). Chris Andersen does not play heavy minutes but his shotblocking has had a huge impact, because any player who drives to the hoop versus Denver has to be wary of his presence. It has also been critically important for the Nuggets that Nene and Kenyon Martin have been healthy for most of the year. Acquiring Billups turned out to be the final piece of the puzzle for the Nuggets; mixing metaphors, the Nuggets have really enjoyed a perfect storm this year, with several of their players displaying improved maturity at the same time that many presumed Western Conference contenders (San Antonio, Utah, Houston, New Orleans) have been saddled with injuries to key players. With the Lakers taking a 2-1 lead over Houston in the other Western Conference series and Houston's All-Star center Yao Ming out for the rest of the playoffs due to a broken foot we are heading rapidly toward a Lakers-Nuggets showdown in the Western Conference Finals.

It was interesting to learn during the ESPN telecast that Coach Karl primarily looks at two statistics when evaluating the performance of individual players and his team in general. The first is plus/minus, which can be "noisy" at times but also provides a barometer for judging how effective certain players and player combinations are in terms of team success (as opposed to simply racking up gaudy individual stats at the team's expense). Prior to Saturday's game three, Billups led the Nuggets in playoff plus/minus (+125) but Andersen--playing far fewer minutes--was right behind him (+110) and thus obviously leads the team in plus/minus per minute. J.R. Smith (+109), Anthony (+102) and Nene (+94) are the other top Nuggets in this category.

The second stat that Karl favors is field goal percentage differential, which is the difference between his team's shooting percentage and the opposing team's shooting percentage; this is one of the numbers that I cited in my recent article about the Knicks as proof that New York's defense is terrible and getting worse--it is not surprising that a Knicks fan would not like my conclusion about his beloved team but it is odd that ESPN's resident blogger Henry Abbott (who has revealed himself to be an unabashed fan of the Portland Trail Blazers to the extent that it biases his commentary about the league in general) considers that fan to be some kind of blogger expert even though both my initial article and my refutation of the Knicks' fan's take on the subject not only display a far superior writing style but actually cite some of the same stats that defensive-minded coaches use. Karl made his bones as a defensive-minded coach in Seattle but in recent years with Denver he got away from that approach and tried to win with a high powered scoring attack; he has seen the error of his ways and gotten back to basics this season (Knicks fans should stop dreaming that LeBron James is going to leave a defensive-minded team that is poised to win a championship and start praying that Mike D'Antoni and Donnie Walsh decide to shore up New York's defensive and rebounding weaknesses or my article objectively detailing their team's shortcomings will be the least of their concerns in the next few years).

The Mavericks will be out of the playoffs soon, so now is as good a time as any to address some of the recent criticism of Nowitzki. TNT's studio crew--Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Chris Webber--has been just killing Nowitzki, mainly because of some of Nowitzki's comments during a recent interview. In response to a question about Denver's defense, Nowitzki listed the various positive attributes of several individual Denver defenders. The TNT analysts insist that Nowitzki gave Denver's players far too much credit and that, as a great player, he should simply say that the Nuggets play hard but no one can really stop him. While I do agree with Smith's observation that Kobe Bryant would not be so deferential toward an opponent, I think that overall the TNT guys are missing the forest for the trees here. Nowitzki's comments might be an issue if in fact the Nuggets were shutting him down but he is averaging 32 ppg and 11.7 rpg while shooting .525 from the field in this series. Nowitzki's reaction to their criticism is that he is a humble person who is willing to give credit to his opponents when they play well. One of the interesting dynamics about the American media is that athletes are encouraged to speak with candor but then they are raked over the coals for expressing honest, well thought out sentiments; no wonder so many athletes either choose to speak nothing but cliches and/or do their best to avoid being interviewed at all. I would be interested to hear exactly what question Nowitzki was asked before he delivered his much criticized sound bite, because I suspect that he did not simply start praising certain Nuggets players for no reason; he was probably asked to describe specifically how Denver is guarding him and he chose to answer honestly and analytically instead of boastfully or with empty cliches.

In some circles, Nowitzki is derided as a "soft" player but there is very little objective evidence to support that. Yes, his Mavericks squandered a 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals versus the Miami Heat, but guarding 2006 Finals MVP Dwyane Wade was not his assignment. Nowitzki averaged 22.8 ppg and 10.8 rpg in that series; he shot just .390 from the field but teams tend to focus on stopping superstars in the playoffs: to cite just two recent examples, 2008 Finals MVP Paul Pierce shot .432 from the field in the Finals and 2005 Finals MVP Tim Duncan averaged 20.6 ppg while shooting .419 from the field. Nowitzki's "sin" is that his team lost but he could not singlehandedly change that outcome. In 2007, Nowitzki won the regular season MVP after leading the Mavericks to a 67-15 record but he ended up receiving that award in a very anticlimactic ceremony that took place after his Mavericks were upset in the first round by the Golden State Warriors. Nowitzki did not distinguish himself in that series but the real problem for the Mavericks is that they psyched themselves out before the series even began, changing their starting lineup and electing to play a slow down game that actually worked in Golden State's favor: they were able to harass Nowitzki and get stops, after which they still played at their normal fast pace. The Mavericks would have been much better served to also play at a fast pace, providing Nowitzki the opportunity to get open shots in transition instead of having to deal with swarming defenders in the half court set. Nowitzki's selection as the MVP received a lot of criticism in the wake of the Golden State series but I maintained at that time that those negative comments were unwarranted; although I would have chosen Kobe Bryant as the MVP that year, if the criteria being used was to select the best player on the best regular season team then Nowitzki earned the award--and one subpar playoff series did not alter the fact that he has put together a great career playoff resume. Nowitzki's career playoff scoring average of 25.1 ppg ranks 14th in NBA history, ahead of such notables as Rick Barry, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan--not to mention Charles Barkley (24th, 23.0 ppg) and Chris Webber (62nd, 18.7 ppg); Nowitzki's career playoff rebounding average of 11.0 rpg ranks 23rd in NBA history, better than Karl Malone, David Robinson, Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Willis Reed, Bird--and Webber (53rd, 8.7 rpg). For the record, Barkley ranks ninth all-time with a 12.9 rpg average but Nowitzki is one of just five players in NBA history (Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal are the others) to post career playoff averages of better than 25 ppg and 11 rpg.

Nowitzki has not just put up empty numbers, either; he has had many clutch playoff performances:
Note that in his big playoff games Nowitzki not only scored a lot but he also grabbed double digit rebounds; soft players do not repeatedly have those kinds of multidimensional performances.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:00 AM

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