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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Witness This! James' Last Second Three Pointer Saves Cavs

This time, "The Shot" electrified Cleveland instead of adding yet another chapter to the star-crossed city's long history of devastating postseason disappointments: LeBron James drilled a tough, contested three pointer as time expired to lift the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 96-95 victory over the Orlando Magic in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals. Just seconds earlier, Hedo Turkoglu had nailed a midrange jumper to apparently sink Cleveland in a 2-0 hole but Turkoglu left exactly one second on the clock and that was just enough time for James to make what has to be considered the signature play of his career thus far, a high-arcing shot launched over Turkoglu from well behind the three point line. James finished with 35 points on 12-23 field goal shooting, five assists and four rebounds. Mo Williams added 19 points, five assists and five rebounds; he only shot 7-21 from the field but he made three clutch jumpers in the final 5:07 to help keep the Cavaliers in contention. Zydrunas Ilgauskas contributed 12 points, 15 rebounds and two blocked shots, while Delonte West had 12 points on 4-7 shooting and five rebounds in a game-high 45:33 of playing time. Rashard Lewis led Orlando with 23 points and Turkoglu scored 21 points but Dwight Howard had just 10 points on 3-8 field goal shooting, though he did grab a game-high 18 rebounds; three of Howard's field goal attempts were blocked, matching the number of shots he made and exceeding the number of Cleveland shots that he blocked (two).

Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Reggie Miller had a very interesting discussion after the game regarding Turkoglu's defense against James on the final play. Miller insisted that Turkoglu gave James too much room and that after Turkoglu denied the first option--a lob pass to James at the rim--Turkoglu should have done whatever was necessary to stay in contact with James, even if that meant grabbing his arm; Miller said that the referees would not call a foul in that situation and that even if they did that the free throws would only potentially tie the game instead of putting Cleveland ahead. Barkley and Smith countered that Turkoglu did everything humanly possible and that James just made an incredible shot. Smith recalled that his college coach Dean Smith used to say that sometimes you just have to shake hands with the other team and move on and Barkely echoed that sentiment. Miller maintained that if he had that much room he could make that shot right now and, after a moment's thought, Smith agreed with that but said that Miller has a different perspective about this play than perhaps anyone else on Earth because Miller has made so many clutch shots. I agree with Barkley and Smith; James' shot may seem "easy" from Miller's unique point of view but it is hard to rationally conceive of anything else that Turkoglu could have done. Smith noted that one thing Orlando could have tried was to station the 6-10 Lewis directly in front of inbounds passer Mo Williams to obstruct his view, much like the Lakers did with Lamar Odom versus Anthony Carter in game one of the Western Conference Finals, leading to Trevor Ariza's game-saving steal. However, considering the fact that only one second remained it is understandable that the Magic wanted to force the Cavs to make a pass away from the hoop.

The Cavaliers built a 23 point first half lead and did not trail until late in the fourth quarter, mirroring how they led by as many as 16 points in game one and were ahead for most of that game, but there were some significant strategic differences between the two contests, as TNT's Doug Collins expertly noted during the telecast: the Cavs were much more active defensively in game two, they took fouls on Howard when he got the ball in the paint rather than letting him dunk, they got the ball to Ilgauskas in the post--particularly in the first half--and they brought Sasha Pavlovic out of mothballs, receiving significant contributions (nine points on 4-7 field goal shooting) from a talented player who started for the Cavs when they made it to the NBA Finals in 2007.

Another key factor in this series is that James is a player who not only can make last second shots but he can score 40 points or more in any given game, an ability that Howard has yet to demonstrate. People who think that Orlando will win this series emphasize that none of Cleveland's frontcourt players can guard Howard one on one but my contention is that this does not ultimately matter; the Cavs can continue to change their coverages depending on the situation--sometimes doubling Howard, other times singling him and almost always fouling him rather than letting him dunk--and it is unlikely that he will have another 30 point outing like he did in game one, which means that the series would then boil down to James and his shooters/supporting cast versus Turkoglu, Lewis and the Magic's other three point shooters.

While some people will say that Cleveland is one last second shot away from trailing 2-0, the same thing could be said of Orlando, because if the Cavs had run Lewis off of the three point line late in game one then Cleveland could be up 2-0. Even though many commentators are focusing on the adjustments the Cavs supposedly need to make and Orlando's alleged matchup advantages the reality is that the Cavs have enjoyed the lead for the majority of the first 96 minutes played so far in this series, often being ahead by double digits. Is it more likely that during the remaining games in this series Orlando will make some adjustments to avoid falling behind by 10-plus points or that the Cavaliers will again take double-digit leads but start to figure out how to hold on to them? I think that the answer to that question is going to surprise a lot of media members who have been underestimating the Cavs--and their coach--for the past several years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:28 AM


Friday, May 22, 2009

Nuggets Erase 14 Point First Half Deficit, Earn Split in Los Angeles

The L.A. Lakers do not always play hard (or smart), so consequently they end up having to do things the hard way--and if the Lakers are going to attain their goal of winning the 2009 NBA Championship then they are going to have to win at least one game in Denver, because the Nuggets snatched away homecourt advantage in the Western Conference Finals with a 106-103 victory on Thursday night. The Lakers led by eight at the end of the first quarter and pushed that margin to 41-27 in the second quarter but in the final 3:45 of the first half the Nuggets slashed a 51-38 deficit to 55-54, foreshadowing how they would later take command in the waning moments of the second half as well. Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets with 34 points, though he shot just 12-29 from the field. Anthony also had four assists and tied Nene for team-high honors with nine rebounds. Chauncey Billups shot 6-15 from the field but he lived on the free throw line (13-16) and accumulated 27 points; more impressively, he dished for four assists while committing just one turnover in 44 minutes. Kenyon Martin scored 16 points on 7-10 field goal shooting; as ESPN's Mark Jackson noted, the Lakers can accept him shooting jumpers even if they occasionally go in but Martin had way too many dunks and layups. Linas Kleiza contributed 16 points and eight rebounds off of the bench, adding his name to the list of reserve forwards who have killed the Lakers in the playoffs in the past couple years, joining the likes of Leon Powe and Carl Landry; this is not meant to suggest that those guys are not quality NBA players but how long can the notion that the Lakers are the deepest and/or most talented team in the NBA survive in the wake of the parade of non-starters who torch them in postseason games?

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 32 points on 10-20 field goal shooting in 40 minutes, adding five rebounds and three assists. Trevor Ariza played very actively, scoring 20 points on 6-7 shooting and getting four steals. Pau Gasol put up 17 points and 17 rebounds but he has been the least effective/dominant of the four All-NBA players participating in this series (Anthony, Billups and Bryant are the others). Lamar Odom (10 points, nine rebounds) was the only other Laker to reach double figures in scoring; he is playing starter's minutes (30 in this game) because Andrew Bynum is nothing but a figurehead starter, scoring nine points in 18 minutes in this contest after posting six points in 16 minutes in game one. Shannon Brown (eight points on 3-8 shooting in 17 minutes) played decently but no other Laker reserve made any contributions worthy of note. Sasha Vujacic is burying himself deeper and deeper in Coach Phil Jackson's doghouse, going 0-4 from the field before earning the quick hook after just six minutes. The Lakers' only advantages in this series so far are Kobe Bryant versus whoever tries to guard him, Pau Gasol's offensive rebounding and homecourt advantage--and homecourt advantage just went out the window, Gasol cannot haul in enough offensive boards to make up for his defensive lapses and neither Bryant nor anyone else can single-handedly win a series at this stage of the NBA playoffs.

Trevor Ariza has played with commendable energy but by his own admission Anthony is torching him. The Lakers desperately need for Gasol and Bynum to play with more energy and force. After one first quarter sequence in which both of those players lingered at the offensive end of the court while the Nuggets pushed the ball up the court and then played patty cake on the offensive glass, Van Gundy called their effort--or lack thereof--"inexcusable." Starting point guard Derek Fisher has permanently carved a place for himself in Lakers history thanks to his clutch play over the years but it looks like his tank is stuck on empty--he scored three points on 1-9 shooting and he is not the defensive bulldog that he used to be.

I have dubbed Bryant "The Firefighter" because the Lakers constantly need for him to put out raging infernos at both ends of the court; in game one he dropped 40 points while doing yeoman's defensive work against Billups, Anthony and Sixth Man of the Year candidate J.R. Smith. The Lakers similarly shifted him around on defense in game two and he once again played well at that end of the court but the problem for the Lakers is that whoever he is not checking often gets loose; one other problem is that even though Bryant can play good man to man defense versus Anthony on the wing or on the post, whenever Anthony catches Bryant in the paint in an offensive rebound situation he is simply too strong for Bryant. Bryant has said that Anthony is even stronger than LeBron James and while I am not sure whether or not that is true in a weight room sense it definitely appears to be the case in terms of "basketball strength," because I have seen Bryant outbattle James for rebounds or position in the paint in a way that he just cannot seem to do with Anthony.

It is well known that once a good offensive player gets going it is hard to contain him even if you put a good defender on him, so the Lakers might want to consider simply putting Bryant on one player to hold him down as opposed to moving Bryant around so much--and I think that "one player" should be Billups. Bryant guarded Billups for most of the first quarter, outscoring him 14-3 as the Lakers built a 31-23 lead. Ariza did a solid job in the first quarter versus Anthony, who scored just two points on 1-6 shooting. The Lakers seemed to be in command until the Nuggets hit them with 12 points in the final 2:25 of the first half. As Bryant told Doris Burke during his halftime interview, the Lakers lost their defensive intensity and had too many breakdowns; one of those breakdowns happened on the final play, when Billups inbounded the ball off of Bryant's back, caught the ball and laid it into the basket. Obviously, Bryant had his back turned to Billups in order to be able to double-team anyone who popped loose from a screen but it would seem like there should have been at least one big man under the hoop to contend with Billups. If you read Tom Friend's excellent article about Billups then you know that this is not the first time that Billups has pulled off this inbounding tactic.

It is not easy to build a double digit lead against a quality playoff team and when you squander an advantage like that so quickly it dissipates your own energy while pumping up the opposing team's energy. Although the Lakers briefly built a seven point lead in the third quarter they never could recapture the crisp, sharp way that they played to open the game. The Lakers led 81-80 at the end of the third quarter and after Bryant committed his fourth foul at the 11:29 mark of the fourth quarter Coach Phil Jackson took him out of the game but Jackson had to rush him back into the fray less than two minutes later because the Nuggets took an 89-84 lead. Anthony's jumper made the score 91-84 but then Bryant and Brown drained back to back three pointers to wipe out most of that lead. Missed free throws really hurt the Lakers in the latter stages of the game; after Odom sank a pair of free throws to put the Lakers up 92-91, Brown could only split a pair, Gasol sank two but then missed two in a row and Ariza also split a pair; missed free throws are essentially like turnovers and can be just as costly in a close game.

Bryant's three pointer tied the score at 99 and then Bryant answered two Billups free throws by burying a jumper at the :45.3 mark. After a wild scramble for the ball, Nene gained possession and fed Martin for a layup, which ultimately proved to be the game-winning basket. The Lakers ran a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play but Nene poked the ball away from Bryant and then Gasol and Billups tried to recover the ball. The referees called a jump ball, which the taller Gasol controlled--but Ariza fumbled the ball away. During that sequence, the referees missed an obvious violation committed by Smith, who broke the plane of the jump circle before either jumper touched the ball; by rule, the Lakers should have received the ball on the side, trailing by just two points with :18.6 remaining.

Instead, after Billups made a pair of free throws and Gasol did likewise Billups cracked the door open for the Lakers by missing a free throw, giving the Lakers the chance to tie the game with a three pointer. Oddly, Bryant--who is widely considered the NBA's top closer--was relegated to decoy duty in favor of Fisher, who ended up shooting an air ball as time expired. Coach Jackson later explained that he assumed that the Nuggets would simply foul Bryant on the catch--forcing Bryant to make the first free throw and miss the second one--so he thought that Fisher would get a cleaner look at a three point shot. You may recall that in a similar situation in game two of the 2004 NBA Finals Bryant made a three pointer despite the Pistons' best efforts to foul him and the Lakers eventually won in overtime.

Although homecourt advantage is important, the Nuggets have been in similar situations before and failed to deliver: in both 2005 and 2007 the Nuggets split the first two games in San Antonio only to lose the next three games. Also, in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, the Detroit Pistons won game two in Boston and still lost the series in six games. Similarly, in the 2006 Western Conference Finals the Phoenix Suns took game one in Dallas but lost the series in six games. The Nuggets are a good home team but the Lakers are a good road team that is certainly capable of winning one or both games in Denver.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:13 AM


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hubie Brown Breaks Down Cleveland-Orlando and LeBron-Kobe

Prior to Orlando's 107-106 game one victory over Cleveland, I interviewed Hall of Famer Hubie Brown, who is doing Eastern Conference Finals color commentary for ESPN Radio, working alongside play by play man Mike Tirico.

Friedman: "Do you think that the optimal defensive strategy for Cleveland is to single cover Howard and stay at home on the three point shooters or to double-team Howard and then try to rotate to the shooters?"

Brown: "It's not that simple, mainly because if you just play him head up he is quicker than Ilgauskas and he's bigger than Varejao, so consequently at some time during the game you are going to have to double-team him. In the previous (regular season) games, Orlando won two games to one and they made 11 out of 28 threes on average--28 threes is a ton. If they are going to win the series then they will have to shoot that kind of percentage but as far as just saying we are going to single team Howard--if you single him, he kicks out and the shot goes up, he is going to hurt you on the offensive board. He is number one in the league in offensive rebounding and where he made the deciding factor in the Boston series was on the offensive board and with second chance points, so when the shot goes up two guys have got to get to him. No one guy is going to keep him off of the glass, if he's working--that's a big statement: IF."

Friedman: "So you are saying that the Cavs will have to use multiple strategies and coverages."

Brown: "Yeah, you have to change it up and see how he's going but the biggest thing is can Ilgauskas keep him off of the rim and can he force Howard into shooting (rather than dunking)--because he can't shoot: he's not a jump shooter, his hook is questionable. But the big thing is that if he overpowers you with a drop step, now you are in all kinds of trouble. He can do that to Ilgauskas and he can do that to Varejao, because he has a major weight advantage."

Friedman: "Would one good strategy for Cleveland be to double-team him on the dribble, kind of make him catch it further out and then double when he puts it on the floor, trying to take advantage of his passing and ballhandling?"

Brown: "All of that is great but as soon as you double you are opening up three point shooting. The first pass out (of the trap) they'll rotate (defensively) but the second pass is where they (the Magic) will hurt you. Now you are playing their game. That is how they want you to play."

Friedman: "Orlando won the regular season series with Cleveland but who do you favor in this playoff matchup? Who do you think has the stronger team?"

Brown: "Look, throw out the 8-0 (Cleveland playoff record), because Detroit was horrible and then Atlanta had three starters out. So this is their first legitimate competition. Now, you say, how did this team (Orlando) beat them two of out three and eight of the last 11? This team must do something right (versus Cleveland) from a defensive standpoint that nobody else is doing in the Eastern Conference; they play them better than anybody: they change up and they do a lot of things."

Friedman: "I'm sure you heard the statement that Jerry West made about LeBron being the best player in the NBA and Kobe being the best player in the clutch. What is your take on both of those things, best player and best player in the clutch?"

Brown: "First of all, one guy is 31 years old and the other guy is 24, so forget it. One guy is a guard and the other guy is a small forward who is a small forward/power forward. So, they are not even in the same category, but if you are starting a franchise then you are taking LeBron James. He's elevated his game this year; forget the MVP thing, he's second in the league in votes for Defensive Player of the Year and all of the great players--Kobe Bryant is on the All-Defensive Team almost every year, Michael Jordan is one of the greatest defensive players ever, Oscar Robertson--the thing that separates them is not the points but whether they play both ends of the floor. Now LeBron has made a major step in that direction. He's probably the quickest guy with or without the ball from rim to rim--and there are 450 guys in this league. He's definitely the best passer in traffic that we have in the league, in my opinion; if not, you might give me one or two other guys who can pass as well as he does. Plus, he sees over the traps and he will unselfishly make the correct pass every single time. Now, he makes the pass and it is catchable: that is a major issue. So, the points you take for granted, the rebounding, the assists, the steals, the blocked shots--all incredible--but it is the other intangibles that he does that make him an elite force now in the league. Now, you say 'Who is better in the fourth quarter?', you probably take Kobe Bryant but I'm not so sure of that. Kobe can make the threes at a higher percentage over LeBron but Kobe wasn't a great three point shooter either for a while. This guy's three point shooting is coming fast and he's now taking more. You just look at his shooting stats (for the playoffs) going into tonight, he's up at 53% (from the field) and he's over 35% on threes, 75% on the free throw line, so he's improving. He's improving."

Friedman: "It really is remarkable. His numbers in the playoffs are like video game numbers. You said that you can discount Detroit but those are still incredible numbers. Off the charts."

Brown: "Right. He's such a physical force of nature, because we have never seen an athlete his size who is this quick, this nimble, this acrobatic. I haven't seen it and I've been around (the NBA/ABA) since 1973."

Friedman: "Do you see a similarity with the young Dr. J in terms of the way that LeBron attacks the hoop, except that LeBron is bigger? The aggressiveness with which he attacks the hoop seems reminiscent of Dr. J."

Brown: "Well, this guy is a force. Doc could never pass like this. I coached against Doc in the ABA. No, Doc couldn't pass like this guy and he couldn't defend like this guy" (note: Rod Thorn, an assistant coach when Erving played for the Nets in the ABA, offers a much more positive appraisal of Erving's defense: "He had great lateral quickness and he was a tremendous jumper. He was a tough guy--that is one thing that is not talked about that much when you talk about Julius, because of his great athleticism, but he was a tough guy. I mean he would physically get after guys and play hard. He took a challenge. He played 43-44 minutes a game for us and guarded the best guy on the other team every night and was our leading scorer, so the energy that he expended during a game was much more than the average player did. It was just phenomenal what he did").

Friedman: "I meant more in terms of the way that they attack the hoop."

Brown: "Going to the rim and the sensational (moves)--look, in the ABA before Doc got hurt (suffering tendinitis in his knees), what he did in the ABA dunking and so forth, I have never seen in this league, ever; by the time he came to the NBA, he was damaged--and he was still spectacular, but nothing like he was in the ABA: he would turn your building against you. Back then we would play each other like 12 times, six times in each building, and your building would be sold out and he would do things that were just amazing, how he would hold the ball and come from the wing and do all kinds of great stuff. He was terrific."

Friedman: "Do you see a comparison between LeBron and the ABA Doc purely in terms of attacking the hoop?"

Brown: "No, I wouldn't say that. This guy doesn't play like that. Doc was more in the air, floating, doing all kinds of spectacular stuff. This guy is a brute force. This guy splits double teams and he is a better dribbler than Doc."

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:07 PM


Resilient Magic Rally From 16 Point Deficit to Stun Cavaliers, 107-106

LeBron James authored one of the epochal single game performances in NBA playoff history--49 points on 20-30 field goal shooting, eight assists, six rebounds, three blocked shots, two steals--but the Orlando Magic erased a 16 point lead to steal homecourt advantage with a 107-106 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Cavs fell to 4-2 when James scores 40-plus points in a playoff game, the only other loss coming in game seven of last year's Eastern Conference semifinals versus Boston.

Dwight Howard led the Magic with 30 points on 14-20 field goal shooting and a game-high 13 rebounds; he also caused a nine minute delay at the 11:00 mark of the first quarter when his vicious two hand putback dunk separated the shot clock from its moorings above the hoop. Eventually, the decision was made to simply turn off the shot clock over the opposite hoop, place one shot clock on the floor on each baseline and then replace the damaged shot clock at halftime. Howard, the Defensive Player of the Year, did not record a blocked shot but he was called for goaltending three times and, ironically, had his own shot blocked four times. Rashard Lewis finished with 22 points and seven rebounds and he hit the game-winning three pointer with :14.7 remaining in the fourth quarter. Hedo Turkoglu tallied 15 points, a playoff career-high 14 assists and six rebounds. Turkoglu is Orlando's Mr. Fourth Quarter and that proved to be the case in this game as he scored nine points and dished off for seven assists in the final stanza, outdueling James, who had 10 points and two assists in the fourth quarter. Mickael Pietrus contributed 13 points off of the bench, while starting point guard Rafer Alston had a solid game (11 points, eight assists, one turnover). J.J. Redick, who was Orlando's starting shooting guard in the previous series versus Boston, received a DNP-CD (Did Not Play--Coach's Decision) because there is not a suitable defensive matchup for him.

Depth has a been a major strength for Cleveland this year but that was not the case in this game. Mo Williams had 17 points and five assists but he shot just 6-19 from the field. His backcourt partner Delonte West got off to a good start with six first quarter points but he finished with 11 points and six assists, shooting just 4-13 from the field. Anderson Varejao (14 points on 6-8 shooting, six rebounds) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (10 points on 5-11 shooting, 10 rebounds) had solid games but the Cavs got just five points from their bench, all of them scored by Joe Smith.

James was the last Cavs starter to score but after he nailed a jumper at the 3:42 mark of the first quarter the Cavs already led 23-14 and it certainly seemed like their versatility and depth would be the headline story of this game. Instead, James became the focal point of the offense while ball and player movement slowly but inexorably ground to a halt. Initially, this one dimensional offensive attack proved to be effective because James made virtually every shot he took and the Cavs held the Magic to just 2-7 three point shooting in the first half. Thus, even though Howard broke loose for 18 first half points on 8-11 shooting, the Magic fell further and further behind; James scored 26 points in the final 15:42 of the first half to set a franchise record for points in one half of a playoff game and the Cavs led 63-48 at halftime after Williams hit a three quarter court shot to beat the buzzer.

In the third quarter, the Magic chipped away at the lead while the Cavs missed long jumpers and committed careless turnovers. The Cavs surprised the Magic in the first half by matching up James versus point guard Rafer Alston while West checked Turkoglu, echoing a favorite Phil Jackson strategy of putting a big defender on the opposing point guard in order to disrupt the other team's offensive flow (the Cavs have done this before with James, most notably by putting him on Chauncey Billups in the playoffs a couple years ago). Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy countered this move by going to more screen and roll sets with Turkoglu and this made Cleveland Coach Mike Brown adjust by putting James back on Turkoglu, the natural forward-forward matchup. It will be interesting to follow this game of chess between the two coaches as the series progresses; in this game, the Cavs never found an effective answer for the Turkoglu-Howard screen/roll play and that is why Turkoglu racked up so many assists down the stretch.

Cleveland was clinging to an 82-78 at the end of the third quarter when James went to the bench for a brief rest. After Anthony Johnson's three pointer at the 10:06 mark of the fourth quarter gave the Magic their first lead of the game (85-84), the Cavs called a timeout and put James back in the game. Neither team led by more than four points the rest of the way. James drove to the hoop and kicked the ball to West for a three pointer with :40.8 remaining to put the Cavs up 103-102 but Lewis answered with a jumper to make the score 104-103. James converted a three point play to give Cleveland a 106-104 lead with :25.6 remaining; Howard fouled out on that play, so all the Cavs needed to do was guard the three point line and the worst case scenario would have been an overtime session with Howard on the bench. The Magic called timeout and ran a play for Lewis to drive to the hoop; the Cavs stopped his dribble penetration but Lewis gave the ball up and popped back out behind the three point line, where he received a pass from Turkoglu, jab stepped and drilled a three pointer over Varejao. It is hard to understand why Varejao reacted to Lewis' fake, because the three point shot was the only thing that could kill the Cavs at that time.

On the Cavs' final possession, James drove to the hoop but the Magic trapped him and forced him to pass the ball to Williams, who swung it to West for a three pointer from the same spot on the left baseline where West had just drained a trey but this time he missed and James and Turkoglu ended up in a jump ball situation with just one second left. The Cavs had no timeouts remaining--in part because they burned some of them earlier in the quarter to give James some rest because he was cramping up. James won the tip and directed the ball to Williams, whose last second fling was off the mark.

Before the game, Van Gundy told the assembled media that the Magic are a very "resilient" team and he echoed that point in his postgame press conference, stressing that his team stayed focused and did not try to make up the large early deficit all at once. Van Gundy candidly admitted that he has no answer about how to guard James and although he acknowledged that Orlando's tough series versus Boston helped to prepare his team to face adversity in this series he said that the bottom line is "you got to put the ball in the basket. We want to make it all these other things, who wants it more, all the psychological stuff, my coaching, everything else...Rashard put the ball in the basket, now I'm really good."

Someone asked Howard about Van Gundy's halftime speech and Howard revealed that Van Gundy told the Magic that they were all playing like "witnesses," a reference to one of LeBron James' advertising campaigns. Howard said that this message "really motivated us...brought some fire out of us." Howard also admitted that his team drew some extra motivation from the way that most outsiders considers the Magic to be underdogs in this series.

Coach Brown lamented that his team's offense became so stagnant and said that defensively he and the coaching staff will have to look at the film to come up with some answers for the Magic's screen/roll game. He also offered an upbeat message: "That's why this is a series. A series is not won nor lost after one game. I have confidence in our guys. I trust our guys. We'll be ready for game two." Brown and James consistently offer the same public message on a variety of subjects--including that one--so whether this is simply a case of two people thinking alike or James wholeheartedly buying into his coach's philosophy it is very clear that Brown and James share the same perspective (something that is not always true of Van Gundy and Howard, as we saw during Orlando's series with Boston, though both men claim to have patched up their differences).

James and Williams came to the postgame press conference together (as did Howard and Lewis previously). James has a remarkable ability to analyze a game like a coach; many players would say that in order to win this game the Cavs just needed to make open shots but James declared, "A team shooting 55 percent on our court in a game is unacceptable for all of us. We know that. That's not how we play basketball and that's not how we are going to win. We should have lost giving a team 55 percent from the field." Obviously, Coach Brown will have an easy time preaching defense prior to game two, because his best player has made it very clear that the Cavs must improve in this area; I recall hearing a lot of excuses after various Phoenix Suns' playoff losses in recent years but I don't ever remember hearing Steve Nash or Shaquille O'Neal admitting that they had to play better defense.

Then James did something even more remarkable, taking the blame for his team's stagnant offense despite the fact that he scored 49 points on .667 field goal shooting: "Offensively we were stagnant at times, maybe because I felt the hot hand. I got back to the one-on-one play that I had in the past. But I felt I had it going individually. But we only had five turnovers as a team. It is not like we were not playing basketball the right way. We missed some really good shots...We shot 48 percent from the field, so for the most part that's a pretty good game when you have 19 assists and only five turnovers." James assessed Cleveland's offensive performance exactly like a coach would: the team shot reasonably well and took care of the ball, yet it is undeniable that there should have been more ball and player movement in the second half, even though James shot an outstanding percentage from the field. However, Williams was not about to let James shoulder the responsibility for the offensive problems: "I want to add to that last one. I don't think that him going one-on-one was a factor. I think he had it going. That's part of our offense, for him to attack his man. I think the key--the key--the biggest key to the game was myself...I have to take pressure off that guy. I'm looking at the stats and I'm looking at Dwight and I'm looking at Rashard and I'm looking at Hedo and those three guys were terrific tonight. And I look at myself, 6-19, LeBron is 20-30 from the field. I don't care, he can go one-on-one all he wants. I got 19 shots still. It wasn't him." The Cavs' roster consists of grown men who don't make excuses and who take personal responsibility for their performances and that kind of character and professionalism are hallmarks of championship teams.

By winning game one in Cleveland the Magic seized homecourt advantage and that is a significant accomplishment. We know that roughly 80% of game one winners go on to win the series but we also just saw the Lakers drop game one to Houston and come back to win that series in seven games; when the team with homecourt advantage loses game one that team has a much better chance of coming back than when the underdog team loses game one so, as James correctly noted in his postgame remarks, the Cavs should not feel or act like the world is caving in on them. People who predicted an Orlando series victory may feel smug at the moment but the reality is that game one provided plenty of fodder no matter which team you picked: for the first 24 minutes the Cavs showed that they could single cover Howard and build a sizable lead by withstanding his onslaught while shutting everyone else down; then in the second 24 minutes the Magic adjusted, found their three point shooting stroke and eked out a narrow win. A game that was decided in the final seconds can hardly be cited as definitive proof of one team's superiority.

The Cavs are a defensive-minded team that rarely blows leads or loses at home, so one could either view this game as an aberration or as the start of a disturbing trend (we'll know the correct answer in a few days). The Cavs' offense became stagnant and they suffered some uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns. Which came first? It is hard to say, because when your defense breaks down you have to inbound the ball and score against an entrenched defense and when your offense breaks down the opposing team often gets opportunities to score in transition, so this is a classic chicken/egg conundrum. It is easy to pull out isolated numbers and make bold statements such as "The Cavs needed 49 points from James just to stay close, so the Magic will roll the rest of the series because he cannot keep up that pace" or "The Magic rely too heavily on three pointers/jump shooting, so they are bound to lose some games when their shots don't drop" but the reality is that each playoff game is a separate entity. James may not score 49 points again in this series, but Howard may also not keep making the running shots that he hit in the lane and Turkoglu most likely will not have another 14 assist outing. Barring key injuries, the best team will win a seven game series and I still believe that Cleveland will prevail due to defense, depth, rebounding and LeBron James' individual brilliance, though the exact balance of that formula will shift from game to game.

Notes From Courtside:

In his pregame press conference, Van Gundy explained that Courtney Lee would take over J.J. Redick's spot in the starting lineup due to matchup considerations, primarily because Lee is a better defender off of the dribble than Redick is, though Van Gundy hastened to mention that Redick is a "tough, disciplined competitor who makes very few mistakes." Redick's weakness, according to Van Gundy, is defending quick guards off of the dribble but Van Gundy said that Redick has made great strides defensively and has also improved his passing skills as well. I agree that Redick has improved in both areas and this indicates that he has worked on his game but despite Van Gundy's laudable effort to praise his player while benching him the reality is that if a former lottery pick has such glaring deficiencies in his game that he cannot even get on the court for one minute in the Conference Finals then that is a significant indictment of that player's skill set, no matter how one chooses to spin the situation.


Coach Brown said during his pregame press conference that he anticipated that Lee would replace Redick in the starting lineup, though Brown told the media that he expected that Lee would guard LeBron James in order to keep Turkoglu out of foul trouble. Brown said that the keys for the Cavs during this series would be floor balance and shot selection on offense, while on defense the Cavs must run back to bodies in transition as opposed to simply sagging into the paint. In other words, defenders must pick up shooters at the three point line, even if that shooter is not your assigned man. James evidently heard that message loud and clear, because when he was interviewed separately just moments later he mentioned that bigs like Ilgauskas may have to cross match and pick up somebody like Lewis in transition in order to prevent Lewis from shooting a quick three pointer.

James' pregame standup was dominated by questions from ESPN's Rachel Nichols, so you probably have already seen those questions and answers on SportsCenter. It took a couple tries to get a word in edgewise--Duane Rankin of the Erie Times, who was standing next to me, whispered, "Keep asking," perhaps not realizing that I am a stubborn person who would have done so even without his encouragement--but I finally got James' attention (it helps to be tall, at least for a non-NBA player, and to have a voice that projects very well even without a microphone) and asked him, "What was your impression of the game last night, the shootout between Kobe and Carmelo?"

James replied, "Well, it really wasn't a shootout. I thought that it was a great game. I look at it as a missed opportunity for the Nuggets. They pretty much--they played a great game but a few possessions down the stretch just didn't go their way. So, the Lakers team is a really good team and it was great to see Melo and what he was able to do. He is definitely growing as a basketball player and of course Kobe did what he does every night, so it was a great game for a fan."

I then asked him, "Did Carmelo change defensively from playing on the Olympic team and seeing some of the great defensive players on that team? We have never really seen him play defense the way that he did last night against Kobe."

James answered, "He just took the challenge, man. Like I said (earlier in this interview session), there are just four teams left and you have to do whatever you need to do to win. During the regular season, some guys may not feel the need to play defense at a high level--I don't know why." James smiled as he said that and it is evident that he is convinced that it is important to play defense at a high level all of the time, even if some of his peers don't share that belief. He then continued, "Right now there are four teams and you have to win eight games to win the whole thing. This is no time to be resting. Resting is for July, August, September and a little bit of October, too."

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:44 AM


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bryant Outduels Anthony, Carries Lakers Past Nuggets

Kobe Bryant scored 40 points--including 18 in the fourth quarter--and alternated between guarding All-NBA players Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony as the L.A. Lakers rallied from a 13 point deficit to beat the Denver Nuggets 105-103 in game one of the Western Conference Finals. Bryant shot 13-28 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line but in the fourth quarter--during which the Lakers trailed by as many as seven points--Bryant shot 4-5 from the field and made all nine of his free throws, including six pressure-packed free throws in the final :30.5. Bryant played a game-high 43 minutes--including all 24 minutes in the second half--and he also contributed six rebounds and four assists, two of which resulted in big Derek Fisher three pointers, one at the first half buzzer to put the Lakers up 55-54 and another with 2:30 remaining in the game to put the Lakers up 97-96, their first lead of the fourth quarter.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the 17th time that Bryant has scored at least 10 points in the fourth quarter of a Lakers playoff win when the Lakers trailed in the fourth quarter, a statistic that is much more meaningful and relevant than the misleading statistic that some people--including ESPN's Mike Wilbon--mistakenly believe proves that the Lakers would win more frequently if Bryant attempted fewer shots (there is a difference between correlation and causation but I will address that whole issue in a separate article); anyone who thinks that the Lakers would have won this game if Bryant had attempted fewer shots needs to have his head examined.

Bryant should be called "The Firefighter" because whenever there is a raging inferno threatening to destroy the Lakers' season he puts out those flames. Billups came into this game shooting well over .500 from three point range as his hot hand burned New Orleans and Dallas in the first two rounds of the playoffs, so Bryant volunteered to pour cold water on Billups; Bryant guarded Billups for virtually the entire first half and Billups did not make a single first half field goal against him (Billups drained a jumper on the first possession of the game with Derek Fisher guarding him but then the Lakers switched assignments). Unfortunately for the Lakers, while Bryant was putting out one fire another raging inferno erupted, as Carmelo Anthony scorched Trevor Ariza for 20 first half points. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy noted that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson faced a quandary: "They have Billups under control because Bryant is on him, so that's a difficult decision: do you put Bryant on the guy who has it going the best or do you try to keep Chauncey Billups under control?" Bryant actually ended up guarding sixth man J.R. Smith for some possessions (the potentially explosive Smith finished with eight points on 2-7 shooting) but down the stretch Jackson put Bryant on Anthony, shifting Ariza on to Billups. Jackson has always liked to put bigger defenders on point guards in the playoffs, dating all the way back to when he had Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen defend Mark Price and when he used Pippen to check Magic Johnson, John Stockton and Mark Jackson. This is why I favor skill set evaluation over statistical evaluation, because what ultimately matters is what a player is capable of doing against elite level competition down the stretch in playoff games; if you have Pippen or Bryant chasing around point guards for 82 regular season games then you may wear down your most valuable defensive resource but the fact that those players are capable of shutting down elite point guards in playoff games is more important than figuring out their supposed "defensive efficiency" versus the Clippers during their third game in four nights. There are few if any 6-6 or 6-7 players in NBA history who can play defense the way that Pippen did and Bryant does but "advanced basketball statistics" have no way to measure that, which is why NBA coaches annually put Bryant on the All-Defensive First Team while "stat gurus" prance around like know-it-alls and declare that the coaches are wrong.

Anthony scored just five points in the final five minutes of the game but, without Bryant hounding him, Billups got loose for two big three pointers, the first one putting Denver up 99-97 with 1:38 remaining while the second one pulled the Nuggets to within 103-102 with six seconds remaining, forcing Bryant to make two free throws to seal the win.

Adding to the drama of Bryant's performance is the fact that late in the game he dislocated the ring finger on his right (shooting) hand, reaggravating an injury that he suffered in the early moments of the Lakers' 105-88 victory over Cleveland in January; Bryant did not miss any playing time in that game and his defense against LeBron James--harassing the 2009 MVP into 9-25 shooting and six turnovers--was a key factor in the outcome of that contest. Of course, Bryant is also playing with an avulsion fracture in his right pinkie finger that he suffered in February 2008 and has yet to be surgically repaired; during All-Star Weekend 2008, Bryant described that injury to me: "There is no ligament there holding it in. I got lucky. This knuckle right here (points to the base of the finger) was down here (points midway down his hand) but I didn’t hurt this one (points to the middle of his pinkie finger). So I’m not going to have any damage or any fingers that look like Larry Bird’s."

Bryant never talks about those finger injuries unless someone asks him about them, nor has he missed a single regular season or playoff game in the past two years, so it is easy to forget that he is in fact playing hurt without making any excuses (unlike, say, last year's NBA champions, a team that has a player who is in a wheelchair one moment and then making big jumpers the next moment and a team that, in the wake of Sunday's game seven loss, found it necessary to publicly state that virtually their entire starting lineup was playing hurt--as if no other NBA team is facing any health problems at this time of the year).

The start of this game certainly provided no foreshadowing of how it would end: the Nuggets jumped out to a 10-2 lead as the Lakers' frontcourt players once again looked like the incredible shrinking men, disappearing completely from sight as Denver players paraded unimpeded to the hoop for dunks. Van Gundy said after one such play, "No rotation, no help from the other Lakers. That's inexcusable." One time, Bryant had Billups bottled up on the baseline but Pau Gasol inexplicably wandered over to provide an unnecessary double team, leaving a wide open lane for Nene to power through for an easy dunk. Gasol finished with 13 points and 14 rebounds but while he used his length to good effect on the offensive glass he was a sieve defensively for most of the game--and starting center Andrew Bynum (six points, six rebounds, five fouls in just 16 minutes) was even worse, while Lamar Odom delivered his customary "triple single" with seven points, eight rebounds and four assists in 33 minutes.

By the 1:53 mark of the first quarter the Nuggets led 27-14 and Anthony had already scored 14 points. Bryant had eight points on 4-8 shooting at that juncture and he had completely shut down Billups but the Lakers were in danger of getting blown out because of the soft play of their bigs and the hot shooting by Anthony. Gasol stopped the bleeding by scoring his first points of the game on a three point play and when Bryant sat out for his only rest of the game the Lakers' bench finally stepped up as Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic drilled a pair of three pointers to help cut the margin to 31-23 by the end of the quarter. Those were the only shots that Brown and Vujacic made but overall the Lakers' bench players performed better than they have during most of this postseason and that was very important considering that Carmelo Anthony (39 points), Kenyon Martin (15 points) and Nene (14 points) outscored the Lakers' starting frontcourt of Gasol, Bynum and Ariza 68-25.

Anthony's performance--39 points on 14-20 field goal shooting, six rebounds, four assists--deserves special mention; quite simply, this is the best all-around NBA game that I have ever seen him play: not only did he shoot well but his shot selection was outstanding, he was extremely aggressive without forcing things and he played by far the best defense that I have ever seen him play. He took up the challenge of guarding Bryant for extended stretches and he made Bryant work for everything that he got. Now that Anthony has demonstrated just how effectively he can play at both ends of the court the onus is on him to play this way night in and night out, the way that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James do; that does not mean that Anthony must score that many points or shoot .700 from the field but he should play with that same energy, determination and focus.

The Nuggets could have had an even bigger lead early in the game but they missed five of their first six free throw attempts; that is easy to forget about by the end of the game but in what ultimately turned out to be a one possession game those squandered opportunities were likely the difference between winning and losing. The Lakers battled up hill for most of the first half, took the lead briefly, lost it again but then gained some momentum going into halftime when Bryant drew a double-team from Billups and fed Derek Fisher for a corner three pointer as time expired to put the Lakers up 55-54 at intermission. Fisher shot just 5-13 from the field but he ended up with 13 points and six assists. He was the only Laker other than Bryant and Gasol to score in double figures.

Midway through the third quarter, Bryant drove to the hoop and missed a shot but Gasol got the rebound and slammed the ball through the hoop, prompting Van Gundy to reiterate an important observation that he made during the Lakers' 89-70 game seven victory over the Rockets on Sunday: "That miss by Kobe Bryant might as well be an assist, because help has to come to support Dahntay Jones (who was guarding Bryant), Gasol (got a) free run to the rim, cleans it up, easy basket." Why is Bryant's missed shot "better" than someone else's missed shot or how does it differ from the off balance, long jump shots that Ron Artest regularly flings at the hoop? Bryant puts constant pressure on the opposing team's defense by attracting multiple defenders and this creates rebounding opportunities for Bryant's teammates but when a lesser player forces a shot it is much more likely to spark a fast break opportunity for the opponent than it is to lead to an offensive rebound. Earlier in the game, a variation of this happened when Billups fronted Bryant on the post and Fisher took a shot instead of passing the ball to Bryant--Bryant used the fact that he had inside position on Billups to get the offensive rebound. If Bryant were not such a low post scoring threat then defenders would not have to front him. These nuances of the game are not measured statistically, nor are they noticed by casual fans, but they play a critical role in game planning and in determining who wins and who loses.

Dahntay Jones is a scrappy, physical defender but he gives up several inches and quite a few pounds to Bryant, who repeatedly took Jones to the low post and either scored, got fouled or drew a double team that opened up some other opportunities. At one point, ESPN's Mark Jackson commented, "The same thing that worked against a smaller guy like Chris Paul (in the first round of the playoffs) is not going to work against Kobe Bryant." This is actually a very important observation; as I recently explained, size--specifically height--matters in the NBA and that is why it is almost impossible to conceive of a scenario in which Chris Paul could be better or more valuable than LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade. Many of the "stat gurus" are absolutely in love with Paul and they have convinced themselves that he is better than Bryant but their "analysis" fails to take into consideration important skill set differences and important size differences: Bryant is a 6-6, 220 pound player who can guard three positions and who can see over defenders to score or pass, while Paul is a 6-0 (if that), 175 pound point guard who simply cannot impact a game against elite competition in the same way that Bryant (or James) can. How many players comparably sized to Paul have been the best player on an NBA championship team? Isiah Thomas is the only one. Bob Cousy won an MVP but when he won championships he was not the best player on his team. Nate Archibald won a scoring title and an assist title in the same season but when he won a championship he played alongside the Bird-McHale-Parish Hall of Fame frontcourt. I agree with those who say that Paul is the best point guard in the NBA right now--but Paul is not in the same class as LeBron James or Kobe Bryant.

The Nuggets led 76-74 going into the fourth quarter and they pushed that margin to 89-82 by the 7:28 mark in the final stanza. Then Bryant took over, scoring 14 points in the last 6:48 while also containing Anthony at the other end of the court. Bryant's jumper with 3:12 left made the score 96-94 Denver and then after a Lakers' defensive stop Bryant drove to the hoop, drew a double team and passed to Fisher for a right corner three pointer. Gasol had an opportunity to give the Lakers a little breathing room but he missed two free throws and then Billups hit a three pointer to put Denver back on top, 99-97. Gasol got fouled again and this time he made both free throws to tie the score. Odom tied up Chris Andersen and won a key jump ball. Bryant missed a jumper but the Lakers retained possession and Bryant drew a foul, sinking both free throws. The Nuggets called timeout and inbounded at midcourt but Ariza shot the gap and stole Anthony Carter's pass; Bryant played a key role in that play as well--but don't take my word for it, listen to what Ariza said after the game: "The play was for Carmelo, but Kobe had him covered, so they had to go to Billups, and I was there."

The possession after Ariza's steal ended with two Bryant free throws to put the Lakers up 103-99 but then Billups drained a long three pointer after it looked like he had stepped out of bounds. Bryant again made a pair of free throws and then Phil Jackson deviated from his usual strategy and instructed his players to intentionally foul to prevent the Nuggets from attempting to tie the game with a three pointer. J.R. Smith made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second one but Bryant got the rebound and time ran out as he threw the ball in the air a la Magic Johnson versus the Portland Trail Blazers nearly two decades ago.

After the game, Billups noted that the Nuggets did not have one game that was this competitive when they were swept by the Lakers in the first round last year, but Denver Coach George Karl
understands that the margin of victory is irrelevant: "There's no moral victories in playoff basketball. The next 48 hours are going to be difficult. We're going to try to regroup and re-energize." In recent years the Nuggets have been a frontrunning team that could bully their way past teams with inferior talent but crumbled like a tent in a tornado at the first sign of adversity. This year's Nuggets have shown more maturity and play with much more defensive intensity but this 1-0 deficit is the first adversity that they have faced in a long time; game one winners win NBA playoff series roughly 80% of the time and a 2-0 deficit would likely be insurmountable, so it will be very, very interesting to see how the Nuggets respond on Thursday night. By the same token, the Lakers have been a team that sometimes lacks energy and focus, so it will also be interesting to see if they get "fat and happy" or if they seize the opportunity to put a quick death blow on the Nuggets.

How does Bryant's clutch performance affect the "great debate" about Bryant versus James? I am not a big believer in changing one's opinion back and forth from game to game. I have listed, in detail, why I ranked Bryant as the best player in the NBA from 2006-08; last season, I felt that he was only slightly ahead of James but this season James shored up his defense, free throw shooting and three point shooting and because of that I now put James slightly ahead of Bryant. We are heading inexorably toward a Finals showdown between the game's two best players, which will be fun to watch but I think that I will have to completely stop reading or listening to any NBA analysis during that series, because I already can see the erroneous story line that will be told: when the Cavs beat the Lakers this supposedly will prove that James is much better than Bryant, even though the reality is that Bryant simply does not have a supporting cast that is good enough, tough minded enough or focused enough defensively to contend with the playoff-tested, veteran crew that James leads into battle on a nightly basis. Still, it will be fun to watch the two best players go at it hammer and tongs, even if I will have to plug my ears and close my eyes as soon as each game ends.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:47 AM


Monday, May 18, 2009

Cleveland Versus Orlando Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

#1 Cleveland (66-16) vs. #3 Orlando (59-23)

Season series: Orlando, 2-1

Orlando can win if…the Magic shoot a high percentage from three point range while also establishing Dwight Howard as an offensive threat and if they keep LeBron James out of the paint without letting his supporting cast feast on open shots.

Cleveland will win because…the Cavs are too big, too strong, too deep and too good defensively. A depleted Boston team forced the Magic to go the distance, so a fully rested Cleveland team featuring James plus All-Star Mo Williams and a host of productive, playoff-tested veterans will be too much for the Magic to handle.

Other things to consider: Although the Magic won the season series, that does not really tell us much; the teams only played three times and in the first meeting, a 99-88 Magic victory, the Magic still had All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson--who later suffered a season-ending injury--while the Cavs were without the services of starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and starting shooting guard Delonte West; also, Joe Smith, who is sixth on the Cavs in playoff minutes played, had not yet been reacquired by the Cavs. In the second meeting, a 97-93 Cleveland home win, the Cavs were at full strength and the Magic had their current roster. The third and final meeting was the second game of a road back to back and third game in four nights for Cleveland, while Orlando had enjoyed a day off after playing a home game. Not surprisingly, the Magic ran the Cavs out of the gym, 116-87. The most important thing now is how the teams match up, because there are no more back to back or three games in four night scenarios.

You can find a more in depth take on this series in my newest article for CavsNews.com (6/19/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Although the Cleveland Cavaliers posted the best regular season record in the NBA and swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs in record-setting fashion, some people believe that the Orlando Magic will pose a very difficult challenge for the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. TNT’s Charles Barkley has already gone on record predicting an Orlando victory, asserting that the Magic match up well with the Cavs and have a more versatile offensive attack with Dwight Howard in the paint surrounded by three point shooters. Throw in the facts that Orlando won the season series 2-1—including a 116-87 blowout—and that Orlando just dethroned the defending champion Celtics by winning game seven in Boston and there seem to be legitimate reasons to think that the Magic can beat the Cavs. However, if one looks at this series objectively then it becomes evident that the Cavs should definitely be considered clear favorites.

LeBron James, the 2009 NBA MVP, is the best individual player on either team. James is a two-way player who has eliminated every one of his skill set weaknesses—defense, free throw shooting, three point shooting--except for his midrange jump shot, which can still be erratic at times. It is a difficult task to keep James out of the paint and he is also a top notch rebounder and playmaker. Unless one team enjoys a marked superiority in overall talent/depth, the team with the best individual player is probably going to win a seven game series, because that player is capable of taking over a crucial game, particularly on the road. Orlando’s best player is Dwight Howard, who made the All-NBA First Team and won the Defensive Player of the Year award (James finished second). Howard is a dominant rebounder and shotblocker but he will neither overpower defenders on the block a la a young Shaquille O’Neal nor does he possess the nimble footwork and deft shooting touch of Hakeem Olajuwon. Therefore, Howard can be contained by a solid post defender who forces him to catch the ball outside of the paint; it is not necessary or desirable to double-team Howard unless/until he puts the ball on the floor and gets into the paint but Howard is not a great passer or ballhandler so if he is trapped on the move he can be forced into turning the ball over or taking a low percentage shot (which is just about anything other than a dunk in his case). The Cavs have the necessary frontcourt depth, savvy and discipline to employ such a strategy, which means that their perimeter defenders can stay at home on Orlando’s deadly three point shooters. Look for James to have a much more pronounced impact on this series than Howard does.

The Cavs enjoy homecourt advantage in this series and that is a very significant factor considering that the Cavs went 39-2 at home—and one of those losses came in the final regular season game, when the Cavs had already clinched homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs and their reserves still almost beat a Philadelphia team that was trying to win in order to possibly improve their playoff seeding. Orlando’s game seven victory in Boston is impressive but beating an injury-depleted Celtics team is not at all the same thing as beating a fully-loaded Cavs team with LeBron James leading the charge.

What about the head to head series, including that 29 point beatdown? You can throw the first regular season meeting out the window: the Magic still had All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson—who later suffered a season-ending injury—while the Cavs were without the services of injured starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West and had yet to reacquire Joe Smith, who currently ranks sixth on the team in playoff minutes. In the second meeting, both teams had their current rosters largely intact and the Cavs won at home, 97-93. The third meeting—easily Cleveland’s worse loss of the season in terms of point differential—is a little easier to understand in light of the fact that it was the second of back to back road games and the third game in four nights for the Cavs, while the Magic had the benefit of a day off after playing a home game. This is what is known in NBA circles as a “scheduling loss”—if you stumble into a tough arena for your third game in four nights it is very difficult to beat a good team. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown realized exactly what has happening in that game, which is why no Cav played more than 32 minutes.

The foundation for Cleveland’s success is built on defense, rebounding and LeBron James’ brilliance. The addition of All-Star point guard Mo Williams has established yet another firm building block in that foundation but while many people have talked about Williams’ importance I still don’t think that the general public—and even some so-called experts—fully appreciate just how deep this Cleveland team really is. Real experts—guys like former NBA coaches turned commentators Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello—have emphasized this point during telecasts of Cleveland’s playoff games: not only do the Cavs have a potent and versatile starting lineup but their bench is loaded with players who have been starters for playoff teams—either in Cleveland (Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson) or elsewhere (Ben Wallace, Joe Smith,Wally Szczerbiak)—yet those players understand and accept their current roles. The Magic cannot match the Cavs in terms of depth or playoff experience.

Game one on Wednesday night at the Q will revisit the classic “rest/rust” issue: will the Cavs be well rested after having so much time off between series or will they be rusty? The answer most likely will be “yes” on both counts; the Cavs may show some signs of rust—particularly in terms of shooting or their timing on certain plays—but veterans like Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace will benefit from the rest. By the second half at the latest any signs of “rust” will likely have disappeared and the Cavs should be in good position to take a 1-0 lead; I expect the Cavs to win this series in five games, six at the most.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:20 PM


Los Angeles Versus Denver Preview

Western Conference Finals

#1 L.A. Lakers (65-17) vs. #2 Denver (54-28)

Season series: L.A. Lakers, 3-1

Denver can win if…their frontcourt players dominate the Lakers' frontcourt players, Chauncey Billups continues to play at a very high level, Carmelo Anthony is productive and efficient at both ends of the court and none of the Nuggets' "knuckleheads" revert back to their previous ways.

L.A. will win because…the Nuggets have no answer for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have homecourt advantage. Bryant averaged 33.5 ppg, 6.3 apg and 5.3 rpg versus Denver in last year's playoffs, shooting .500 from the field; in four regular season games versus Denver this season, Bryant averaged 31.0 ppg, 2.3 apg and 4.8 rpg while shooting .478 from the field.

Based on what we have seen in the playoffs so far, the Nuggets' bigs may very well get the better of the Lakers' bigs in one or two games, particularly in Denver, but overall the Lakers match up pretty well with the Nuggets; the Lakers swept the Nuggets in the first round last year and while the Nuggets are unquestionably better now than they were a year ago they are not so much better that they will go from being swept to beating the Lakers without the benefit of homecourt advantage.

The Lakers' shaky play at times versus Houston has infuriated Lakers' fans and frustrated many basketball observers but it is important to understand that each playoff series is a separate entity with different matchups and a different dynamic. Even though Denver is theoretically a better team than Houston at the moment, the Lakers probably match up better with the Nuggets than they do with the Rockets. Also, keep in mind that the Lakers prepared for a playoff series in which Yao Ming would be a central factor only to have to throw that game plan out the window when he got hurt--yes, the Rockets lost talent and depth when he went down but his absence also added an element of randomness to the series and that tends to favor the underdog, at least in the short term. This series will be a lot less random and I don't think that it will be nearly as competitive as some people seem to expect--I would be surprised if the Nuggets force a seventh game but I would not be shocked if the Lakers win in five games. The most important thing for the Lakers is to jump on the Nuggets in the first five minutes of game one, win that game convincingly and find out how much the Nuggets have really changed since last season. The Nuggets have just breezed through this postseason without facing any adversity and they have been a good frontrunning team for years but it will be interesting to see how they react to trailing in a series for the first time this year.

Other things to consider: Much like NFL quarterbacks sometimes receive too much credit when their teams win and too much blame when their teams lose, it has become popular to try to explain away all of Denver's newfound success as being a direct result of the trade that shipped Allen Iverson to Detroit in exchange for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess (who the Pistons re-signed after the Nuggets released him). Billups undoubtedly played well during the regular season and he has performed at an even higher level during the playoffs; Billups probably deserves some of the credit for squashing some of the "knucklehead" tendencies on this team--Carmelo Anthony has actually been observed playing defense this season and J.R. Smith has taken some tentative steps toward becoming more mature on and off the court. Still, the Nuggets have greatly benefited from the acquisition of Chris Andersen and the improved health of Nene and Kenyon Martin; without those frontcourt upgrades the Nuggets would not have finished second in the West in the regular season or made it to the Western Conference Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:45 AM


Magic Rain Threes, Dethrone Celtics

Last season the Boston Celtics survived two seventh games en route to winning the NBA Championship but without the injured Kevin Garnett that proved to be too tall of an order this season, as the Orlando Magic advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals with a 101-82 game seven win over the depleted Celtics. In the 2008 playoffs, the Celtics were the big bully on the block as Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe (who missed most of this year's playoffs with a torn ACL) and the since-retired P.J. Brown aggressively patrolled the paint, set screens and made their presence felt at both ends of the court; in the 2009 playoffs, the Celtics went from being the big bully to being the crafty, veteran fighter who relies on his wiles and his tenacity to narrowly survive. That proved to be just enough to dispatch the young Chicago Bulls but the Magic have a nice blend of youth and experience and they just wore down the Celtics, recovering from a 3-2 series deficit to win a seventh game on the road, always a significant accomplishment in a league in which the home team historically wins game sevens four out of five times.

As TNT's cameras showed, Hedo Turkoglu munched on some pizza before the game and then during the game he chewed up Boston's defense to the tune of 25 points, 12 assists, five rebounds and 4-5 three point shooting. The Magic shot a blistering 13-21 (.619) from three point range, which--with the extra point per shot--is equivalent to shooting .929 from two point range; you simply cannot beat a team that shoots that well unless you completely dominate some other facet of the game but the teams fought to a virtual draw on the boards (Boston led 37-35), while Boston's edge in turnovers forced (16-10) did not provide enough extra possessions for the Celtics in light of their poor field goal shooting (29-74, .392). The Celtics scored the first basket of the game but the Magic answered with a Rafer Alston three pointer and led the rest of the way.

Dwight Howard only scored 12 points on 5-9 field goal shooting but he led both teams in rebounds (16) and blocked shots (five). Even though Howard is certainly capable of scoring 30-plus points, his most valuable attributes are his rebounding and his defensive impact; unless he refines his post game he will never be a dominant playoff scorer in the mold of Shaquille O'Neal--who in his prime was much more physically overpowering in the post--or Hakeem Olajuwon, who had impeccable footwork and balance in addition to a soft shooting touch. I still maintain that the best way to deal with Howard and the Magic is to single cover Howard with a strong post player who forces Howard to catch the ball outside of the paint and then to wait to double team until Howard puts the ball on the floor; Howard is not a great passer or ballhandler, so if he has to traverse some territory before he can dunk then it is possible to force him into turnovers or low percentage shots; a team with more frontcourt depth than the Celtics currently have could also employ a "Hack a Howard" policy at times to take advantage of his balky free throw shooting. To beat Orlando you have to stay at home on the three point shooters and dare Howard to score 30-40 points, which is hard for him to do not only because of his skill set limitations offensively but also because the Magic players sometimes struggle to make effective entry passes.

Rashard Lewis (19 points), Mickael Pietrus (17 points) and Alston (15 points) all scored in double figures, so even though Howard did not have a monster game offensively the Celtics did a poor job of containing just about everybody else of note for Orlando.

Ray Allen had his best game of the series (23 points on 9-18 field goal shooting) but Paul Pierce was a non-factor (16 points on 4-13 field goal shooting, including a 30 minute stretch in which he did not make a field goal) and no one else picked up the slack.

Although I expected the Celtics to prevail at home in game seven, in retrospect it looks like Boston's best opportunity to advance happened in the waning moments of game six. The Magic were clinging to a 76-75 lead with 2:03 remaining in the fourth quarter when Pierce missed two free throws; if he had sank them both then the Magic would have had to execute well offensively with the prospect of impending elimination staring them in the face but instead they got the ball back while still leading and managed to close out the game with a 7-0 run. Despite the rest days in between game six and game seven it is pretty obvious that the Celtics could not muster up enough energy--even in front of their home fans--to match Orlando's energy and determination.

As a student of basketball history, I would have been interested to see how this Celtics team would have performed in the playoffs at full strength, particularly against the reloaded Cavs; don't forget that the Celtics started this season 27-2, the best 29 game record in NBA history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:15 AM


Energetic Lakers Shut Down Rockets in Game Seven

It has often been said that defense wins championships--and the reason this is often said is because it is true. The L.A. Lakers' vaunted frontcourt finally played defense with energy, hunger and determination, resulting in an 89-70 game seven victory over the resilient Houston Rockets. This is the second biggest game seven victory margin in the history of the Lakers franchise. Pau Gasol led both teams in scoring (21 points) and rebounds (18) but the numbers alone don't tell the full story of how well he played; in game seven, Gasol was much more effective than he had been when he produced 30 points and nine rebounds in a 99-87 game four loss to the Rockets: Gasol dominated the paint at both ends of the court, contesting shots, scooping up six offensive boards and finishing with authority. It was like someone flipped a switch and Gasol suddenly figured out that as a talented 7-footer going against players who are four to six inches shorter than he is he should be able to use his length to his advantage. Andrew Bynum apparently experienced a similar revelation, adding 14 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots. Gasol shot 10-19 from the field, while Bynum made six of his seven shots. Trevor Ariza contributed 15 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots, scoring nine points in the first 6:52 of the game as the Lakers opened the game with a 13-2 run, never trailed and built the lead as high as 31 points. Lamar Odom added six points and seven rebounds off of the bench; he played OK but the sad thing is that if you look at his numbers it is hard to tell whether he is still hampered by his back injury or if he is just displaying his typical inconsistency, because even when Odom was fully healthy during the season it was not uncommon for him to follow up a double double with a "triple single."

In game six, Luis Scola abused Gasol in the post like Gasol had stolen something from him but right from jump in game seven Gasol made it clear that this would not happen again. On Houston's second possession, Gasol blocked a Scola jumper and recovered the ball, leading to a Kobe Bryant "semi-transition" layup. That play and that phrase are very interesting, because when Bryant scored I made a note about "semi-transition" only to hear ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy use the exact same adjective to describe the play; Bryant's layup was not technically a transition or fast break score but Gasol's blocked shot enabled Bryant to get the ball in the open court and attack the Rockets before they could set up their half court defense. Van Gundy noted that such "semi-transition" plays are a perfect time to drive to the hoop. People who assert that Bryant should have been driving all the way to the hoop more often in previous games simply don't understand basketball; in those games the Lakers generally had few transition or even "semi-transition" opportunities because their defense was so poor. Driving all the way to the hoop against an entrenched half court defense as good as Houston's leads to turnovers, offensive fouls and low percentage shots. Against Houston in this series, Bryant drove to the hoop when he had high percentage opportunities to do so but he resisted any temptation to overpenetrate.

This game was billed in some quarters as the most important 48 minutes of Bryant's career; of course, it is utter nonsense to say such a thing about a player who has already won three NBA championships in addition to coming through in the clutch in the gold medal game of the 2008 Olympics--but, sadly, utter nonsense is what I have come to expect from mainstream NBA coverage and that goes double when the subject is Kobe Bryant. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson told Bryant before the game to be a playmaker and get all of his teammates involved but Van Gundy expressed some skepticism about that plan: "I would want him to be a playmaker by shooting 30 times if necessary to win. He should play the entire game or until it's decided." Bryant averaged 34.7 ppg on .600 field goal shooting in the games after the Lakers' first three losses in this year's playoffs, so there certainly was good reason to think that he might score a lot of points in game seven in the wake of the Lakers' disappointing game six defeat but Bryant followed Coach Jackson's advice and made sure that his big men got involved early in the game. Bryant finished with 14 points on 4-12 field goal shooting while playing just 33 minutes; he only made a 97 second cameo appearance in the fourth quarter and did not attempt a shot in the final stanza. Much like Gasol's box score numbers do not fully convey the difference between his performances in game seven and game four, Bryant's point total and shooting percentage do not reflect his impact on this game; he had seven rebounds (tied for second on the team with Odom), five assists (tied for game-high honors), three steals and two blocked shots.

Although journalists masquerading as psychoanalysts have propounded all kinds of kooky theories about Bryant's performances in certain games, Bryant has always insisted that he makes his decisions to shoot or pass based on reading what the defense is doing. Since the Lakers' big men played so lackadaisically for most of this series it is not surprising that the Rockets focused most of their defensive attention on Bryant, who responded by doing a lot of things at both ends of the court that created opportunities for Gasol, Bynum and others to be productive. For instance, at the 3:32 mark of the second quarter Bryant made a hard drive to the hoop and missed a contested layup but Gasol got the rebound and converted a putback dunk. Van Gundy said, "There was a blow-by by Bryant. That's an assist--he missed but because Scola had to come over to help no one was there to put a body on Gasol." Years ago, Doug Collins made a similar point about Allen Iverson when the "Answer" led the 76ers to the NBA Finals but "stat gurus" steadfastly maintain that anyone can miss shots, completely failing to understand just how significant it is to break down a defense with dribble penetration (provided, of course, that the dribbler does not overpenetrate, as mentioned above)--and it most assuredly is not true that "anyone" can dribble penetrate as effectively as Bryant (or Iverson). There is a huge difference between driving to the hoop, collapsing the defense and missing on a high percentage shot versus overdribbling on the perimeter before launching a low percentage fadeaway jumper; certain opening move sequences in chess are named after their most famous practitioners and it would be fitting if the latter basketball maneuver would be named after Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury or Ron Artest, the Rocket who went down in an inglorious blaze, making just four of his final 26 three point attempts in this series, including a 1 for 6 outing in game seven.

In addition to his rebounding, passing and dribble penetration, Bryant was also very active defensively; his boxscore numbers (three steals, two blocked shots) give some sense of that but you had to watch the game to fully appreciate the multiple efforts that he made on many defensive possessions, sliding into the lane to deter drivers, hustling back out to contest perimeter shots and just being a disruptive force in general. As Bryant explained in "Kobe: Doin' Work", he reads situations and understands when to be a "roamer" like NFL defensive backs Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu and when to be a "lockdown" defender zeroed in on one man. On one play early in the game, Aaron Brooks blew by Derek Fisher but Bryant flew in out of nowhere, contested Brooks with his left hand and forced Brooks to miss a layup. That play by Bryant did not even generate a stat and it certainly was not as beautiful or flashy as one of LeBron James' "chase down blocks" but it was very effective and very important.

The contrast between Bryant's efficient contesting of Brooks' shot and James' dramatic, high-flying blocks is an example of why I think that Bryant is almost like a human Rorschach test: people look at him and see whatever they want to see; ESPN blogger Henry Abbott is obsessed with the idea that James is effective but not beautiful to watch, while (according to Abbott) Bryant is beautiful to watch but not as effective as James. Abbott's whole conception about both players is just a contrived notion that Abbott thought up to try to make himself sound clever, but if you actually think it through logically it does not sound clever at all because it really makes no sense: James is a powerful, explosive athlete who literally covers the court in leaps and bounds, soaring through the air for incredible dunks, rebounds and blocked shots. Who could watch James and not dream about being able to fly in such a beautiful, artistic way? Although Bryant's game contains some elements of beauty, one could argue that it was more beautiful when he was younger and more regularly apt to fly through the air. Bryant's game now is less based on beauty and much more based on technical precision. I agree with the general consensus that James has surpassed Bryant as the game's best player but I think that the reasoning that most people give to justify that claim is completely incorrect. I maintain that Bryant was the best player in the NBA from 2005-06 through 2007-08 and that he received his most serious challenge for that title from James--but until this season, James had several notable skill set weaknesses, including defense, free throw shooting, midrange jump shooting and three point shooting. James' powerful and beautiful athleticism (to give James the credit that Abbott bizarrely denies him) compensated somewhat for those weaknesses but not enough to give him the overall edge versus Bryant. This season, James eliminated all of his skill set weaknesses except for the midrange jump shot, so he is now a beautifully athletic player who has also refined his skill set from a technical standpoint. The difference in value between James and Bryant is still small but I give the edge now to James, whereas last year I gave the small edge to Bryant. If you read the "great debate" about this issue--as discussed seprately at ESPN.com and in Slam Magazine--then you will note that the "experts" do not mention the factors outlined above. When comparing the relative value of two players it should not really matter which player's game is more "beautiful" but the suggestion that Bryant's game is more beautiful while James' game is more effective sounds like something a seventh grade creative writing teacher would come up with--"Class, compare and contrast the beauty of Bryant with the efficiency of James"--as opposed to the serious and objective skill set comparison that someone who understands basketball would make.

Bryant's all-around ballhawking combined with the heightened activity levels of Gasol and Bynum in the paint made life very difficult for the Rockets. Three players who hurt the Lakers significantly during Houston's wins in this series--Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola and Carl Landry--were non factors: Brooks finished with 13 points, three assists and five turnovers while shooting 4-13 from the field, Scola had 11 points and six rebounds while shooting 4-12 from the field and Landry ended up with four points and two rebounds while shooting 2-10 from the field. Artest had a solid floor game--eight rebounds, five assists--but his overdribbling and poor shot selection caused ABC's Mark Jackson to repeatedly say that point guard Brooks needed to assert control over Houston's offense by making sure that Artest did not have the ball in his hands so much.

Van Gundy does not think that this series either strengthened the Lakers for what lies ahead or provided much of a blueprint for other teams to use to attack the Lakers; he says that they are who they are, a team with "great competitors in the backcourt, a little inconsistent in the frontcourt."

The most important thing to understand about this game seven and this series in general is that the Lakers won for two reasons: Kobe Bryant and homecourt advantage--and those reasons actually go hand in hand, because without Bryant's regular season play the Lakers would not have had homecourt advantage in the first place. As discussed above, Bryant's play created opportunities for his teammates to excel. Without Bryant's presence, Gasol does not put up 21-18, nor does Bynum play as solidly as he did; in fact, if this game seven had taken place in Houston, those guys may very well have not come through even with Bryant leading the way (and that is an ominous thought for Lakers fans considering that the Cavaliers will enjoy homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals, assuming that both teams make it that far).

In my series preview I wrote, "This series will be an interesting litmus test for the theory that Houston can use 'advanced basketball statistics' to come up with an effective game plan to slow down Bryant; the evidence from this season emphatically suggests that this is not the case: the Lakers won all four games as Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range." While Bryant did not match his exceptional regular season production versus Houston, during this series he still averaged 27.4 ppg on .453 field goal shooting and .344 three point shooting. Bryant averaged just 1.6 turnovers per game in the series despite being guarded by All-Defensive Team members Artest and Shane Battier and despite being almost constantly double and triple teamed; Bryant had no turnovers in two of the games and his series-high four turnovers took place in the Lakers' 118-78 game five rout. Bryant averaged 26.8 ppg and 2.6 tpg in the regular season while shooting .467 from the field and .351 from three point range, so there is an 11 game sample size (four regular season games versus Houston plus this playoff series) that suggests that even with two All-Defensive Team members at their disposal the Rockets' "stat gurus" have not been able to prove--on the court, where it counts, as opposed to in newspaper articles--that their "advanced metrics" give them any kind of real advantage versus Bryant. In fact, after the Rockets seized homecourt advantage with a game one win and could have taken control of the series with a game two victory Bryant bounced back with 40 points on 16-27 field goal shooting, a clutch performance in a must-win game for the Lakers. I absolutely agree that the Rockets are correct to try to use statistics to gain some kind of advantage and I respect that Houston General Manager Daryl Morey seems to understand the limitations of basketball statistical analysis but I think that it is unfortunate that some people act like the search for the basketball statistical "Holy Grail" is over when that search has really only just begun.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:11 AM