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Saturday, May 30, 2009

"No Mercy": Bryant Produces, Directs and Stars as Lakers Smash Nuggets

"No mercy," Kobe Bryant instructed his teammates during a second half timeout when the L.A. Lakers already enjoyed a double digit lead over the Denver Nuggets and they followed his advice, rolling to a 119-92 game six victory in the Western Conference Finals to advance to the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season. The Lakers are the first team to make it to the Finals in back to back years since the Detroit Pistons did it in 2004 and 2005. As ESPN analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy noted, Bryant's words resonated with the Lakers because Bryant backed up his talk with actions, producing game-high totals in points (35) and assists (10) while also grabbing six rebounds, making all nine of his free throws and authoring symmetrical 6-10 field goal shooting numbers in the first and second halves. Denver Coach George Karl was very impressed by Bryant's game six performance: "No one in basketball could have covered him. He made about four shots in the stretch that I think Jesus would have had trouble covering him."

Bryant had just one turnover in 42 minutes, amazing efficiency for a player shouldering such a heavy scoring, playmaking and ballhandling load but that is nothing new for Bryant; in four of the six games in this series Bryant had exactly one turnover and he averaged just 2.2 tpg in 42.0 mpg overall versus the Nuggets. Bryant had two turnovers or less in 12 of the Lakers' 18 playoff games this season--including back to back games with zero turnovers in a total of 79 minutes--and averaged 2.4 tpg in 40.1 mpg in those games. Bryant averaged 34.0 ppg, 5.8 apg and 5.8 rpg versus Denver in the Western Conference Finals, shooting .481 from the field, .344 from three point range and .931 from the free throw line; his overall averages in the 2009 Western Conference playoffs are 29.6 ppg, 4.9 apg, 5.3 rpg, .466 field goal shooting, .346 three point shooting and .895 free throw shooting. In last year's five game Western Conference Finals victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, Bryant averaged 29.2 ppg, 3.8 apg, 5.6 rpg, 2.4 tpg, .533 field goal shooting, .333 three point shooting and .909 free throw shooting in 40.2 mpg; he averaged 31.9 ppg, 5.8 apg, 6.1 rpg, 3.1 tpg, .509 field goal shooting, .295 three point shooting and .814 free throw shooting in 15 Western Conference playoff games in 2008. Bryant has already surpassed the 500 point plateau in this year's playoffs, the fourth time that he has accomplished that feat; only Michael Jordan did this more frequently (eight times).

Bryant is a tremendous leader who has a very high basketball IQ, as anyone can see by watching Spike Lee's Kobe: Doin' Work; Bryant is constantly talking to his teammates and breaking down the game for them, on and off the court. This is very important because, as Mark Jackson said during the game six telecast, sometimes players get tired of hearing from their coach but they will listen to what another player says--as long as he has the game to back up whatever he is talking about. After the big game six win, Bryant said, "We have guys on the team that are very smart basketball players. So I could communicate something to them and they can just take it out on the floor and do it. And we were able to kind of learn on the fly."

Forgive a brief, slightly off topic digression, but isn't it strange how someone who can neither think clearly nor write coherently (hello, John Krolik) ludicrously asserts prior to game seven of the Lakers-Rockets series that this will be the defining moment of Bryant's career but after Bryant and the Lakers prevail over the Rockets that person suddenly loses interest in speaking about Bryant's alleged defining moment? Isn't putting up 35-10-6 in a game that propels the Lakers to the Finals a defining moment? Does writing for ESPN.com's corporate basketball blog and Slam Online's amateur hour commentary section mean that you can only define Bryant by what you expect/hope to be his failures but if he surprises you and succeeds then you simply direct your sloppy grammar and poorly reasoned arguments toward another target?

While Bryant did a Prince-like job of producing, directing and starring in the Lakers' great game six performance, he received strong assistance from co-star Pau Gasol (20 points, 12 rebounds, six assists) and supporting cast members Lamar Odom (20 points, eight rebounds), Trevor Ariza (17 points, four rebounds) and Luke Walton (10 points, three assists). As Bryant mentioned after the game, the timely shooting by his teammates made the Nuggets hesitant to trap Bryant in certain situations and he exploited that by aggressively using one on one moves to create scoring opportunities for himself.

The Lakers' fluctuating effort level has frustrated both their fans and basketball observers in general but the pattern in this year's playoffs has been that the Lakers get the measure of an opponent during the course of a series and then finish that team off; they won the final two games versus Utah in the first round, took two of the final three games versus Houston in the second round and won the last two games versus Denver in the Conference Finals. I've read and heard a lot of crackpot stuff about how Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has lost his touch but the record this year strongly suggests that the Lakers consistently adapt and become more effective over the course of each series and that is a powerful endorsement of his coaching methods.

The Lakers took a 5-0 lead at the start and although the Nuggets were briefly ahead by one point the Lakers led by double digits for more than half of game six. ESPN's Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry strained to fit Bryant's performance into the Procustean bed of their belief that the Lakers are better off when Bryant shoots less often but their postgame narrative did not match what actually happened; they claimed that Bryant somehow conserved energy by being a facilitator early and a "closer" late but Bryant scored 18 points on 6-10 field goal shooting with six assists in the first half and he scored 17 points on 6-10 field goal shooting with four assists in the second half. Barry and Wilbon are also apparently oblivious to the fact that field goal attempt numbers can be skewed by free throw attempts--if a player misses a shot but is fouled that is not counted as a field goal attempt, so in some of the games that Bryant allegedly shot less often and the Lakers won he probably simply went to the free throw line more often.

The only slight adversity that the Lakers faced in game six came when Bryant sat out the first 3:19 of the second quarter: the Lakers went from having a 25-20 first quarter lead to trailing 31-30 when Bryant rejoined the fray. J.R. Smith had come off of Denver's bench to provide a great offensive spark but Bryant--also known as "The Firefighter"--doused that spark before it could become a raging inferno. Mark Jackson said, "I really like what Phil Jackson did: get (Sasha) Vujacic out of the game and put Kobe Bryant on J.R. Smith. This is a situation where you have to treat it like it's game seven. A guy has heated up and somebody has to cool him down."

In addition to his defensive work on Smith, Bryant promptly assisted on a Walton jumper. After Bryant made a nice feed to Gasol (who bobbled the ball but Bryant recovered it and drew a foul), Van Gundy observed, "The guy is such a brilliant passer." Mark Jackson added, "I like that Phil Jackson stood up after that dropped pass by Pau Gasol, yelled at him and said you've got to get tougher. This is playoff basketball." The Lakers slowly but surely pulled away, capped off by a Bryant three pointer four seconds before the halftime buzzer. Carmelo Anthony raced downcourt and it seemed like he was about to score on a coast to coast drive but Bryant leaped up and used his left hand to swat away Anthony's attempt. The Lakers led 53-40 at halftime. Although the Nuggets kept dropping in three pointers in the second half they never mounted a serious charge.

J.R. Smith (24 points on 10-17 field goal shooting and 4-9 three point shooting) is the only Nugget who really played well, though he did not do much other than score (two rebounds, zero assists, one steal, five fouls in 32 minutes). Anthony led the Nuggets with 25 points but he shot just 6-17 from the field and had just two rebounds and two assists. It was in many ways a vintage elimination game performance for him--and that is definitely not a good thing. Some people have tried to elevate Anthony into elite status on the basis of a few good playoff games but elite players get the job done every night at the highest level and he has not come close to proving that he can do that: while Bryant's fingerprints and voice were all over this game Anthony was largely invisible and silent. Anthony deservedly received credit for accepting the defensive challenge versus Bryant earlier in the series but it is far too soon to know if he has really turned the corner at that end of the court; he certainly regressed in game six, as Van Gundy noted after one particularly bad sequence: "Carmelo Anthony started in no man's land and never moved defensively. He wasn't rotating back to the corner, back inside--he was just standing and watching."

Chauncey Billups is an excellent player who had a very good season but it really is something that he has maintained his "Mr. Big Shot" moniker despite repeated individual and collective failures at the Conference Finals level (he also has been less than outstanding in elimination games during his career, shooting worse than .400 from the field). Billups finished with 10 points on 2-7 field goal shooting along with nine assists and five turnovers and he had a -28 plus/minus number, seven points worse than any other player. Last year, Billups' Pistons also lost a sixth game elimination battle at home in the Conference Finals and although he played well in that contest (29 points on 9-20 shooting, six assists, no turnovers) he shot .412 or worse from the field in three straight games in that series, two of which the Pistons lost. In Detroit's seventh game loss to Cleveland in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, Billups had nine points on 3-7 shooting and passed off for just one assist in 44 minutes. The year before that, the Pistons bowed out to Miami in the sixth game of the Eastern Conference Finals as Billups shot 3-14 from the field and finished with nine points and eight assists. That disappointing track record versus elite competition certainly played a role in Joe Dumars' decision to trade Billups, along with the fact that by getting rid of Billups' contract he obtained much greater salary cap flexibility. Here are two interesting sets of numbers:

1) 24.5 ppg, 4.5 apg, 3.0 rpg, 1.8 tpg, .434 field goal percentage, .214 three point field goal percentage, .697 free throw percentage.

2) 18.2 ppg, 6.0 apg, 3.8 rpg, 2.3 tpg, .397 field goal percentage, .333 three point field goal percentage, .833 free throw percentage.

Which player's performance would you rate more highly? Player 1 is Allen Iverson as a Nugget versus the Lakers in the 2008 playoffs, while Player 2 is Chauncey Billups as a Nugget versus the Lakers in the 2009 playoffs--and keep in mind that the 2009 Lakers are clearly not as deep or talented as the 2008 Lakers, a team that cruised through the Western Conference playoffs.

Billups did some wonderful things for the Nuggets this season but the biggest change for the team--literally and figuratively--was their rebuilt frontcourt, consisting of a healthy Nene and a healthy Kenyon Martin supplemented by rejuvenated free agent acquisition Chris Andersen; those guys anchored Denver's improved defense. The injuries suffered by the Spurs, Jazz, Rockets, Mavs, Hornets and Suns enabled the Nuggets to jump six spots in the standings even though they only won four more games; owning the second seed provided them not only homecourt advantage but also the opportunity to play depleted teams in the early rounds instead of facing a powerhouse right off the bat. By the end of the Western Conference Finals the idea of Denver being an elite team was exposed as a flawed concept, no matter how politely the Lakers praised the Nuggets in their postgame press conferences; the truth of the matter is that the Lakers diagnosed how the Nuggets play at both ends of the court and started to pick them apart and once the Nuggets faced some adversity they promptly reverted back to their ball-stopping, no-defense ways--and Iverson cannot be the scapegoat this time, nor was Billups able to prevent this from happening. Before you assume that the Nuggets laid the groundwork this season to become a perennial contender, consider how much it will cost to keep the roster intact and remember that NBA history is littered with one year playoff wonders who were never heard from again, ranging from the 1981 Kansas City Kings to the 2007 Golden State Warriors.

While the Nuggets' future is uncertain, it is certain that Bryant kept the Lakers very competitive after the team traded Shaquille O'Neal--pushing the stacked Phoenix Suns to seven games in the 2006 playoffs while playing alongside Kwame Brown and Smush Parker--and as soon as Mitch Kupchak replaced "butter knives" with "guns" Bryant promptly led the Lakers to back to back Finals appearances; if Bryant takes this group to a championship in spite of its noticeably shortened bench and oft-discussed defensive inconsistencies then the last vestige of hope for Bryant haters--that he will fail to win a title without O'Neal--will be destroyed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:16 AM

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Brilliant Performance by LeBron James Lifts Cavs Over Magic in Game Five

LeBron James added yet another chapter to his book of impressive playoff performances, authoring a huge triple double (37 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists--numbers no player has matched in the same playoff game since Oscar Robertson had 41-15-12 on March 21, 1963) and completely dominating the fourth quarter as the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Orlando Magic 112-102 in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. James had already compiled a triple double with more than 10 minutes remaining in the game but he only made five of his first 13 field goal attempts in the first three quarters before he scored 17 points on 6-11 field goal shooting in the final stanza, adding four rebounds and four assists and not committing a turnover while playing all 12 minutes. For most of the fourth quarter, the Cavs used a small lineup featuring James, one big and three perimeter shooters; they isolated James at the free throw line or the top of the key area with a live dribble while the perimeter players spotted up behind the three point line and the big waited to dive to the hoop along the baseline if Dwight Howard went to trap James. This set looked stagnant initially as four Cavs stood around while James faked, jab stepped or backed down his defender but inevitably James would either break free for a score and/or a foul or else he would draw another defender and pass to a cutter or a three point shooter. James accounted for 32 straight Cavalier points with his scoring or passing from the :39.9 mark of the third quarter until the 1:07 mark of the fourth quarter.

There is so much talk about Orlando's mismatch advantages versus Cleveland but the reality is that in any series between quality teams each team has a set of strengths and weaknesses relative to the other team. The biggest mismatch in this particular series is James versus anyone Orlando uses to guard him; Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy said after game one that he has no answers for James and that was not a matter of hyperbole or trying to butter up the opponent-- he was speaking the truth: James is averaging 41.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 8.2 apg in this series while shooting .500 from the field. He made an incredible shot to win game two, hit two pressure-packed free throws to force overtime in game four and has scored at least 35 points in all five games. James is putting together one of the greatest performances in NBA Conference Finals history.

In game five, James finally received some help from his teammates. All-Star Mo Williams broke out of his dreadful shooting slump to tie his playoff career-high with 24 points, shooting 7-14 from the field and 6-9 from three point range. If the Cavs had received just a mildly subpar performance from Williams in the first four games then they probably would have already won this series; even including those excellent game five numbers he is shooting just .353 from the field and .333 from three point range versus Orlando, well below his regular season averages (.467 and .436 respectively). Delonte West had another solid game with 13 points and three assists, though he suffered a hip pointer that caused him to miss some action; he will be evaluated by the team's medical staff after the flight to Orlando. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 16 points and six rebounds before fouling out and Daniel Gibson provided a huge boost off of the bench with 11 points in 22 minutes, including 3-4 shooting from three point range.

Hedo Turkoglu led Orlando with 29 points. He also had six rebounds but he passed for a series- low two assists as the Cavs did less crossmatching and double teaming, opting instead to stay at home on Orlando's three point shooters (the defensive strategy that I advocated before the series began). Dwight Howard scored 24 points on 8-10 field goal shooting and had 10 rebounds but even before he fouled out with 2:22 remaining and the Cavs leading 101-93 it was obvious that the Cavs were much better off having him shoot free throws (he shot 8-13) and contested field goals than forcing him to give up the ball to proven three point shooters; the Magic made a team playoff record 17 three pointers in game four but shot just 8-25 (.320) from three point range in game five. Rashard Lewis finished with 15 points on 4-13 field goal shooting, while game four hero Rafer Alston suffered through a miserable shooting performance (1-10, three points). Mickael Pietrus again performed well in a reserve role (13 points on 3-5 shooting in 23 minutes).

The Cavs took a 32-10 lead in the first 8:57 of the game and they seemed completely unstoppable; even though they repeatedly squandered double digit leads earlier in the series this time they appeared to be in total command at both ends of the court but barely two minutes into the second quarter the Magic had slashed the lead to single digits and after Lewis drained a three pointer just before the halftime buzzer the Cavs were only up 56-55. I cannot recall ever seeing a series that repeatedly featured such dramatic shifts in momentum in such short periods of time within games. The Magic have an uncanny ability to take advantage of Cleveland's missed shots/turnovers by making three pointers and the Magic also play very confidently against the Cavs even when nothing is going well for them; most teams crumble sooner or later in the face of Cleveland's swarming defense but the Magic simply continue to quickly rotate the ball, fully expecting that they will resume making shots. After the game, Williams talked about Orlando's resiliency and ability to go on big scoring runs, admitting, "We haven't seen that a lot throughout the season. So first couple games when it happened, we (were) kind of shell-shocked. We kind of held our heads and we (were) kind of looking for answers...this is a damn good basketball team over there...When they score, let's get the ball out, let's go."

The Magic opened the third quarter with a 9-0 run to take a 64-56 lead and the sun seemed to be rapidly setting on Cleveland's season. This time, though, the Cavs answered Orlando's rally in kind, starting with a turnaround jumper by West and a three pointer by Williams. A few minutes later, a jumper by James put Cleveland back on top. The rest of the quarter was a seesaw affair, with Gibson's three pointer off of a feed from James cutting Orlando's lead to 79-78 heading into the fourth quarter.

It is well known that teams that use a full court press do not like to play against that defense. Similarly, the Magic are adept at feeding the ball to Howard in the post and then spreading the defense too thin by spotting up shooters all over the perimeter but we found out in the fourth quarter that they do not like to defend against that kind of attack: instead of putting James in the low post, the Cavs stationed him in the middle of the court and he started most possessions by catching the ball with his back to the basket as if he were posting up. James either backed his man down, faced him up and drove or if the Magic sent an extra defender toward him he fed the ball to a cutter or an open three point shooter. A Pietrus three pointer put Orlando up 90-89 with 6:44 left but then Cleveland went on a 13-3 run featuring a three point play by James, a turnaround jumper by James, a Gibson three pointer assisted by James, a jumper by James and another three point play by James.

After the game, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown and Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy both talked about how difficult it is to trap a great player in the middle of the court, particularly when that player passes as well as James does. Van Gundy hinted that he has some ideas about how Orlando can counter that tactic in the next game but if James' teammates continue to make open shots there really is not a whole lot that the Magic can do; they can alter the timing of the double team and they can obviously choose who they want to leave open but if the Cavs execute properly then they will consistently obtain open shots out of this set. I would expect that in game six the Cavs will start out using their normal motion offense--that attack has consistently provided them double digit leads--but if things bog down later in the game then the Cavs will almost certainly use the James high post isolation set down the stretch. That is a matchup problem that the Magic simply cannot solve--with the important proviso that James' teammates must make shots in order for this to work.

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

The Magic rely very heavily on three point shooting and some people remain skeptical that a team can win a championship playing that way. In his pregame remarks, LeBron James noted that the traditional saying is "Live by the jumper, die by the jumper" but that the Magic have found a way to keep living by the jumper. Someone asked Coach Van Gundy before the game if his team could force people to take a different view of this issue if Orlando goes on to win a championship. He replied, "As a coach what you do is look at the personnel you have and you have to play the style that fits them best. I think that one of the tried and true things in the NBA playoffs--especially down the stretch in games--is you have a great perimeter player like Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and you give him the ball, you isolate him and either they make a play one on one or a double team comes and then they make a play. That's great that this is a proven way to win but if you don't have a guy like that you can't play like that. You can't just take a page out of a book and say this worked for Team A so we are going to play like that. You have to fit it to your personnel and I think that the way we play--I could be wrong, people can be critical and have their opinions--is the best style of play for our team to have a chance to win."

Although several Cleveland players are shooting well below their regular season averages during this series, Coach Van Gundy said before the game that he is not pleased with his team's defensive effort: "I don't think that in this series we have really come into any game with a good defensive mentality. I think that we have relied on our offense. We have shot the ball well. I am happy for that--I will take wins any way that I can get them--but I think that it is dangerous when you are going into a series against a quality opponent like this and relying on your offense and your shooting."

After the game, Van Gundy emphasized that point again: "We are going to have to defend better." He also said, "I think it is really good that we'll continue to fight and dig out of holes but I think we've proven to the nation that we have mental toughness and that we'll fight back enough. Okay? We don't need to keep trying to prove that by being down 20-plus points at the start of games. It takes a great deal of energy to dig out of those holes every night."

***

Before the game, I asked Coach Brown, "The pattern in this series so far has been that you take big first half leads and then generally Orlando has outscored you in the second half. When you look at the film, what are you seeing that is happening differently between the first and second halves?"

He replied, "In general, if I had to pinpoint one thing I would say turnovers. In the first two games I would say that they made some adjustments in their pick and roll coverage that hurt us in the second half but looking at all four games the one area (that has hurt us) in the second half is turnovers."

The Cavs had no turnovers in the fourth quarter of game five and that played a major role in helping them secure the win.

***

There is an old saying that if you saw how your food was prepared you would not want to eat it. Something similarly dire could be said about the way some organizations gather news and the qualifications of the people they hire. During Coach Brown's postgame press conference, Vincent Thomas from Slam Magazine (he also writes for ESPN.com and NBA.com) asked a weird, rambling question in which he asserted that Cleveland's fans are like a "support group" for Daniel Gibson but that Gibson would be without that "support group" on the road in game six so does Coach Brown still have confidence that Gibson will be productive in game six and, if so, why does he have confidence in him. Coach Brown answered simply, "Yes. I'm confident that he can because I trust him." After Coach Brown left and we waited for Dwight Howard to arrive, one pressroom wit whispered what any sensible writer had already thought: "That was a crackhead question. 'Support group'? What is this, psychotherapy?" Another writer said that this idiotic question reminded him of the dumbest question he had ever heard in a press conference, when a young reporter asked legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno what it was like to coach a white wide receiver. I am well aware that the people at Slam think that they are reinventing journalism with their "cutting edge" ways and that their loose style is superior to the "what-when-how-where-why" format but the reality is that to reinvent anything you must first actually master the basic fundamental skill sets in a given field; there is a big difference between being unorthodox yet innovative and simply being undisciplined/incompetent--and Slam has provided several examples of the latter characteristics.

Along those same lines, the postgame press conference also "featured" a question from the disembodied voice of NBA TV's Andre Aldridge, who asked Van Gundy what it felt like as the opposing coach when James took over the game in the fourth quarter--which is kind of like saying to Mrs. Lincoln, "Other than that, how did you like the play?" Van Gundy replied, "I guess you can pretty much guess how that is."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:13 AM

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Precision Passing by Bryant Carves Up Nuggets

Kobe Bryant set a Conference Finals scoring record (which was then immediately broken by LeBron James) with 147 points in the L.A. Lakers' first four games versus the Denver Nuggets, but in the pivotal game five the Nuggets elected to aggressively trap Bryant and he made them pay with great decision making/passing as the Lakers won 103-94 to take a 3-2 lead. Bryant still finished with a team-high 22 points but he also had a game-high eight assists and five rebounds in 45 minutes; he now ranks third in Conference Finals history with 169 points in five games (trailing only Amare Stoudemire's 185 in 2005 and Hakeem Olajuwon's 173 in 1995 and just ahead of Michael Jordan's 168 in 1993), though James will easily surpass him on Thursday (James has already scored 169 points in Cleveland's first four games versus Orlando).

Though this apparently has not received nearly as much coverage as his original comment did, Lakers legend Jerry West has backed off of his statement that James has passed Bryant as the best player in the NBA; West told interviewer Jim Rome, "I said something that I wish I wouldn't have said, to be honest with you, because it was in no way demeaning to Kobe Bryant. I love his passion. I want him to win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal because I think it would vindicate him in some respect. If I had to watch a player play, there's about four players I would pay to see play on a regular basis, and Kobe Bryant certainly would be at the top of that list. Late in the game, who are you going to take to make a shot, who are you going to take in the last quarter of a game? Kobe Bryant's still the best in the league. If that comment upset him, I hope he uses it the right way and it propelled him to win another championship. I'm an unabashed Laker fan."

Lamar Odom, who is laboring through a painful back injury that he suffered in the previous round versus Houston but refuses to make any excuses for his poor play in recent games, had 19 points, a game-high 14 rebounds, four blocked shots and three assists while compiling a game-best +18 plus/minus rating. Pau Gasol, who recently complained that he is not getting the ball enough, only attempted eight field goals but he contributed 14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and five blocked shots. Trevor Ariza (12 points, five rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots, one steal) and Derek Fisher (12 points) also scored in double figures. Shannon Brown made a huge contribution off of the bench that is belied by his stat line of six points on 3-5 shooting in 14 minutes: Brown had a +13 plus/minus number and his rim rattling third quarter dunk over shot blocking specialist Chris Andersen pumped up Brown's teammates and the home crowd.

Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets with 31 points but he shot just 9-23 from the field and did not score for a 12 minute stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters as the Lakers took control with a 23-5 run; during that crucial time, ESPN's Mark Jackson said, "The question for (Denver Coach) George Karl is, 'Where is Carmelo Anthony?' You need a guy offensively to stop the bleeding." Chauncey Billups had a quiet 12 points and five assists while Kenyon Martin added 12 points but shot just 6-15 from the field as the Lakers invited him to keep shooting his patented no-arc jump shots and awkward runners. J.R. Smith, apparently believing that his salary is linked to three point field goal attempts per minute, shot 1-10 from three point range; this is the third straight game that he has attempted at least nine three pointers while playing 29 or fewer minutes and he has only made seven of his last 29 three point attempts, though he made sure to show the world just how proud he was of his two garbage time three pointers in Denver's blowout game four win.

The Lakers hardly got off to a good start--trailing 6-2, 10-4 and 11-6--but they soon settled down and this game was tightly contested, with the score tied after each of the first three quarters (25-25, 56-56 and 76-76). The Nuggets took their biggest lead--73-66--at the 5:11 mark of the third quarter on a Dahntay Jones tip in but just when it seemed like the Lakers might be in trouble Brown scored five straight points in 30 seconds. First he made an excellent cut to the hoop when Bryant was being double-teamed outside of the three point line and Bryant made a slick feed for an uncontested layup. Then, Gasol stole a pass by Billups, led the fast break and dished to Brown for a dunk over Andersen. The Lakers closed out the quarter by sandwiching an Odom three pointer and a Bryant three pointer around a three pointer by Billups and then they opened the fourth quarter with an 11-0 run. After Billups bricked a three point attempt early in the fourth quarter with plenty of time remaining on the shot clock, ESPN's Jackson declared, "Here's my problem: if Allen Iverson takes that shot, it's a horrible shot. Chauncey Billups is an outstanding point guard but at times (he) will take bad shots." It is worth noting that Iverson averaged 24.5 ppg while shooting .434 from the field and .214 (3-14) from three point range when the Lakers swept the Nuggets in the 2008 playoffs; Billups is averaging 19.8 ppg while shooting .409 from the field and .333 (10-30) from three point range as the Lakers enjoy a 3-2 lead over the Nuggets in this year's playoffs.

The Nuggets made it very clear that they were going to dare anyone not named Bryant to beat them, because they continued to run Martin at Bryant as a double-teamer even when Bryant was well behind the three point line. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy described how Bryant smartly took advantage of Denver's approach: "He is making the first pass out of the double team without overhandling the ball and it's allowing them to play with rhythm and exploit Gasol inside."

Mark Jackson added, "They are using the pick and roll as a weapon to get better post position." This is a very subtle and important point that casual fans and "stat gurus" alike may not understand; they look at Gasol's field goal percentage and come to erroneous conclusions about Gasol's value but the reality is that even though Gasol is clearly a skillful player he had an 0-12 career playoff record as a number one option before joining forces with Bryant last season. Much like the difference between being a head coach and an assistant coach is a lot more than the 24 inches that separate their seats on the bench, there is a huge difference between being the number one player who draws double teams and being the second option who benefits from someone else drawing double teams; the end result of Bryant attracting multiple defenders outside of the three point line is often that Gasol receives the ball deep in the post against single coverage--and sometimes that defender is not even a big guy but rather a smaller player who rotated to Gasol. Gasol is much, much more comfortable and effective using his skill set to go one on one deep in the post--particularly against a smaller player--than he is engaging in rough and tumble post play with multiple defenders making physical contact with him; it was very interesting to watch one possession when Gasol tried to leave the paint to set a screen for Bryant and Bryant motioned to Gasol to go back in the paint so that Bryant could feed him the ball to go one on one in the post. This is why Gasol's complaint about not getting the ball enough is so ridiculous; Gasol is not a fire breathing, physically dominant player who is establishing good post position but being ignored by his teammates: he has a tendency to play too passively and often needs encouragement/forceful words from Bryant to remind him of exactly what he should be doing and how he should be playing. How effective do you supposed Gasol would be if he had to contend with Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen without having the benefit of Bryant attracting multiple defenders? If you are not sure how to answer that question, just refer back to that 0-12 statistic and also to how Gasol's field goal percentage has jumped from the low .500s to to .560 or better while playing alongside Bryant, including .569 in this year's playoffs.

Bryant did an outstanding job of reading the defense and making the Nuggets pay for how aggressively they trapped him. The Nuggets now face the unenviable choice of reverting to single coverage on Bryant and watching him drop 40-plus points or continuing to trap him while hoping that Gasol, Odom and the other Lakers miss uncontested or lightly contested shots.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:44 AM

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Howard Dominates Overtime as Magic Win Pivotal Game Four Versus Cavalliers

Dwight Howard scored 10 of his team-high 27 points in overtime as the Orlando Magic posted a 116-114 victory to take a 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Howard led both teams in rebounds (14) and blocked shots (three) while also passing for four assists. Howard had two dunks and a layup in the first 2:13 of overtime and if the Cavs lose this series they will long rue not sending Howard--a .594 free throw shooter in the regular season who is shooting .638 in the playoffs--to the free throw line; it is highly unlikely that six points would have resulted from those free throws and therefore the Cavs would have been in a much better position to win this game, even the series at 2-2 and retake homecourt advantage. As Kobe Bryant likes to say, quoting Tex Winter, "Everything turns on a trifle."

The Cavs squandered another 40-plus point effort by LeBron James, the third time this series they have lost despite James exceeding that mark. James broke the record for most points in the first four games of a Conference Finals series (169), set the night before by Kobe Bryant (147). However, James must share part of the blame for this loss despite his gaudy stats (44 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists) because he committed eight turnovers--seven of them in the fourth quarter and overtime, including three in the final 4:17 of the extra session when every possession was obviously extremely important--and airballed a three pointer late in the overtime when he unsuccessfully tried to draw a foul. Of course, the Cavs would not have even made it to overtime without James' overall performance, including two clutch free throws that he calmly drained with just :00.5 remaining in regulation (though he did miss a free throw a minute earlier that could have put the Cavs up by two points at that juncture).

Delonte West (17 points, seven assists, five rebounds) played well but James simply has not been getting enough help in this series. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a solid game (12 points, nine rebounds) and Anderson Varejao (nine points, five steals, two rebounds) played excellent defense before fouling out but a lot of the players who helped Cleveland post the best record in the NBA this season have not been heard from in this series. There is so much talk about Orlando's matchup advantages--generally referring to forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis--but the matchup that is killing Cleveland should be heavily in their favor, at least on paper: All-Star Mo Williams versus midseason acquisition Rafer Alston, who has taken the place of injured All-Star Jameer Nelson. Although they are often crossmatched as opposed to going one on one, there is no way around the fact that the Cavs need for Williams to outperform Alston and that simply is not happening. Alston scored a playoff career-high 26 points--including 15 in the third quarter as the Magic erased Cleveland's eight point halftime lead--and he shot 10-17 from the field and 6-12 from three point range. Alston is averaging 14.8 ppg in this series while shooting .447 from the field and .435 from three point range. Williams scored 18 points but shot just 5-15 from the field and he is averaging 17.3 ppg on .324 field goal shooting (including a paltry .222 from three point range) versus Orlando.

Mo Williams' "guarantee" after the Cavs' game three loss that Cleveland would win the series is just a bunch of hot air. It is much more meaningful to "be about it" than to "talk about it" and, more to the point, there are only about five players in the NBA who actually have enough consistent impact that they could meaningfully guarantee that their team would win a given game--and Williams is obviously not one of those guys; he is a one-time All-Star who is experiencing his first extended playoff run and he has performed below expectations thus far, so his focus should be squarely on improving his own level of play, not making bold proclamations that he is not in any position to fulfill.

Lewis finished with 17 points, five rebounds and no assists, shooting 5-9 from the field, while Turkoglu had 15 points, eight assists and seven rebounds but he shot just 5-13 from the field. During this series, Lewis is averaging 19.3 ppg while shooting .556 from the field and .579 from three point range; Turkoglu is averaging 16.0 ppg while shooting .365 from the field and .417 from three point range, though he is hurting Cleveland with his floor game (8.3 apg, 6.3 rpg). Turkoglu is averaging fewer points than he did during the regular season (16.8 ppg) and shooting worse from the field (but better from three point range), while Lewis has bettered his regular season scoring average (17.7 ppg) while significantly increasing his shooting percentages.

The Cavs have been nominally assigning James to guard Alston but primarily have used James as a rover, much like the Lakers assigned Bryant to Rajon Rondo in the 2008 Finals so that Bryant could take advantage of his skills as a help defender. The problem for Cleveland is that Alston is making the Cavs pay for leaving him open and no Cleveland defender really has taken the measure of Lewis. The Cavs should go to a normal rotation with James guarding Lewis and Williams guarding Alston (West has done a solid job versus Turkoglu, who is accumulating assists not through any fault of West's but because the Cavs are leaving shooters open and Turkoglu is finding them). Also, the Cavs should double-team Howard as little as possible, forcing him to score one on one (or go to the free throw line, depending on the time/score situation and who is guarding him). I still don't believe that Howard can consistently go out and get 35-40 points versus single coverage and there is also some question about how much the Magic would feed him the ball in that situation, because their perimeter players (other than Turkoglu) do not really have a playmaking mentality. When Phil Jackson's Chicago Bulls faced Shaquille O'Neal during a similar stage of O'Neal's career--when he was a young center with the Magic--Jackson would often single cover O'Neal with Luc Longley, Bill Wennington or even Dennis Rodman, none of whom had any better chance of stopping O'Neal than Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Anderson Varejao have of stopping Howard. Jackson's idea was to force O'Neal to shoulder the scoring burden early in the game, so perhaps he would tire out down the stretch and then his teammates would not be able to step up because they would not have shot the ball that often. Howard's low post game is not as good as O'Neal's was back then and I think that this approach would work for Cleveland. The Cavs defended the three point line very well during the regular season; the problem in this series is not that they cannot keep up with Orlando's three point shooters but rather that they have chosen to go with crossmatches and switches that are resulting in wide open looks that would not be so plentiful if they played more straight up defense.

You will surely hear many people proclaiming that the Cavs are just one exceptional shot by LeBron James away from being swept--but it is equally true that the Cavs led by two points with fewer than 25 seconds remaining in game one and they led by one point with four seconds remaining in regulation in game four only to see Rashard Lewis hit two clutch three point shots, the first one winning game one and the second one ultimately forcing overtime in game four. Despite the matchup advantages that everyone says favor the Magic, the Cavs have enjoyed the lead for a substantial portion of this series; unfortunately for them, they have not led at the right times, much like the old quip that if the race were the Indianapolis 400 then Mario Andretti would have been a multiple winner at the Brickyard. The Cavs have simply executed very poorly in late game situations, most notably when Anderson Varejao did not crowd Lewis with the Cavs up by two points in the waning moments of game one and also when Varejao failed to foul Howard in the overtime of game four (Varejeo may have been concerned about fouling out--which he ultimately did anyway--but the Cavs simply cannot continue to allow Howard to dunk the ball so frequently).

Don't get me wrong: Orlando is a good team that certainly poses matchup challenges for any opponent but the Cavs also present some matchup difficulties, namely James and also the team's collective ability to score in the paint (West is a deceptively good post scorer and Varejao does an excellent job of diving to the hoop from the weakside). As TNT's Doug Collins noted during the telecast, game four boiled down to a contest between Cleveland's paint scoring advantage (50-36) and Orlando's three point shooting advantage; the Magic set a franchise playoff record by making 17 treys and they shot a blistering .447 from behind the arc, while the Cavs were just 6-22 (.273). That works out to a 33 point advantage for Orlando and yet the Magic only won by two points in overtime. The Cavs outrebounded Orlando 40-38--continuing a series-long trend despite Howard's impressive individual rebounding totals--and they forced 15 turnovers.

Of course, all of this analysis does not change the stark, brutal reality facing the Cavaliers: in order to advance to the NBA Finals they must win three straight games against a very good Orlando team that has enjoyed recent success against them and thus plays with great confidence against Cleveland. Only eight teams have ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA playoffs but that is partially because the team with the 3-1 lead usually enjoys homecourt advantage and is clearly the superior team; in this series all of the games have been competitive--three of them exceptionally so--and the Cavs have the opportunity to potentially play two of the final three games at home if they keep winning. The Cavs bounced back from a 2-0 deficit against the playoff-tested Detroit Pistons to force a seventh game in the 2006 playoffs and the next year they turned around a 2-0 deficit against those same Pistons by winning four straight games. Regardless of what eventually happens in this series, I don't buy the prepackaged storyline that Cleveland simply does not match up with Orlando; as noted above, if you take away two Lewis three pointers then the Cavs have a 3-1 lead and are heading home to presumably wrap up the series in five games. A team that has a decided matchup advantage does not have to rely on such a razor thin margin of victory (a better example of what happens when a team really has decisive mismatch advantages is the way that the Cavs swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs). These teams have turned out to be more closely matched than I expected but the real story is not so much Orlando's offensive production but rather Cleveland's poor shooting/Orlando's excellent defense (depending on who you want to credit/blame).

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:45 AM

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Nuggets' "Crash Ball" Wrecks Lakers

The L.A. Lakers had an opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals but the Nuggets played what Lakers Coach Phil Jackson termed "crash ball" and the Lakers simply crashed, losing 120-101, their worst defeat in this year's playoffs. The Nuggets drove the ball to the hoop aggressively and when they missed shots they either scooped up the offensive rebounds and/or they drew fouls. The final margin is a bit artificial--the Nuggets led by 11 with 2:25 remaining and then poured on some meaningless points in the last couple minutes--but there is nothing fake about Denver's rebounding dominance in this game: the Nuggets outrebounded the Lakers 58-40 and became the first team in 15 years to have three players each record at least 13 rebounds in the same playoff game. Kenyon Martin led the way with 15 rebounds, followed closely by Chris Andersen (14 rebounds off of the bench in just 24 minutes) and Nene (13 rebounds). Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith provided the scoring punch with 24 points each, making up for Carmelo Anthony's 15 points on 3-16 shooting as the All-NBA forward battled a stomach virus plus the effects of a sprained ankle. All five Denver starters scored in double figures and, other than Anthony, they all shot good percentages.

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 34 points, setting an NBA record for most points in the first four games of a Conference Finals series (147), but he shot just 10-26 from the field. Bryant also had seven rebounds and five assists while committing only one turnover in 41 minutes. Pau Gasol contributed 21 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots; he made some good defensive rotations but no one supported him on the backside of the play, so if he did not get the block or the rebound no other Laker was there to help him. Andrew Bynum scored 14 points on 6-7 shooting but the Lakers need for him to be a presence defensively and to get more than five rebounds in 23 minutes. Lamar Odom--who is called "versatile" so often you could be forgiven for thinking that is his first name--had yet another "triple single": five points on 1-8 shooting, eight rebounds, one assist. Yes, Odom is playing hurt--he bruised his back in the Houston series--but the sad thing is that if you look at the game logs from his career and compare them to his recent production you cannot tell the difference between when he is physically hurt and when his concentration has simply wandered. Trevor Ariza has emerged as the Lakers' third option in this series but he had just three points, one rebound, one assist and no steals in this game.

The Lakers took a 1-0 lead after Bryant split a pair of free throws--and then the Nuggets led the rest of the way, though the Lakers did stay in contact until the bitter end. Naturally, in the next couple days we will hear about how the Lakers are finished but the reality is that the Lakers reclaimed homecourt advantage by winning game three and they can now rely on their two trumps--Bryant's brilliance plus homecourt advantage--to win this series. Would it be preferable, for many reasons, for the Lakers to have ended this series more quickly? Obviously. Is it possible that the Nuggets will win this series? Sure, but the most likely scenario is that the Lakers will be the more energetic team at home in game five and that they will take a 3-2 lead. The Lakers' fluctuating effort defensively and on the glass can be frustrating to watch at times but a glance at the history books reveals that the Lakers are not the first number one seed to be pushed to six or seven games in the playoffs. Just last year, the mighty Boston Celtics had to win two seventh games en route to capturing the championship. While the Celtics' effort defensively did not fluctuate as much as the Lakers' effort does this year the bottom line is that the Celtics were on the brink of elimination twice--and they also battled back from a 24 point deficit in one Finals game versus these very same Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:01 AM

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Magic Overcome James' 41 Points to Take 2-1 Lead

LeBron James scored 41 points, dished for nine assists and grabbed seven rebounds but he shot just 11-28 from the field--including 2-15 on perimeter shots--and he missed five fourth quarter free throws as the Orlando Magic defeated his Cleveland Cavaliers 99-89 to grab a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. Dwight Howard led the Magic with 24 points despite being limited to 28 minutes due to foul trouble (he eventually fouled out). Howard had nine rebounds and no blocked shots but he shot 14-19 from the free throw line, well above his normal percentage. Howard received significant help from Rafer Alston (18 points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals), Mickael Pietrus (16 points, six rebounds) and Rashard Lewis (15 points). Hedo Turkoglu shot just 1-11 from the field but he made 11 of 12 free throws to finish with 13 points in addition to playing an excellent floor game (10 rebounds and seven assists).

Depth was a major strength for the Cavs this season but that has not been the case during this series. All-Star Mo Williams--whose face was bloodied by a flagrant foul from Anthony Johnson and looked a little like Mitch "Blood" Green's face did after his infamous late-night encounter with Mike Tyson--scored 15 points but shot just 5-16 from the field. Williams is shooting a miserable .321 from the field versus Orlando. Delonte West scored 12 points on 5-11 field goal shooting and he is shooting just .419 from the field in this series. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had just nine points on 3-10 shooting, which is right in line with his averages in this series (10.3 ppg, .382 field goal shooting). No other Cav scored more than four points!

For all of the talk about the mismatch advantages that Orlando enjoys on offense versus Cleveland, the real story of this series so far--other than James' big three point shot to win game two--has been Orlando's defense; the Magic have essentially shut down every Cavalier not named LeBron James. Cleveland held Orlando to .429 field goal shooting in this game and that would normally be a winning number--except for the fact that the Cavs shot even worse than that (.372) and committed 15 turnovers, several of which would be termed "unforced errors" in tennis.

There is a tendency during playoff series to overreact to the outcome of the most recent game. The next game will have a different officiating crew, a different rhythm and a different storyline. Howard is unlikely to repeat his free throw marksmanship but Turkoglu is also unlikely to make just one field goal. The Cavs are playing well enough defensively but they must cut down on the sloppy turnovers and figure out how to get some solid offensive contributions from a supporting cast that helped this team win an NBA-best 66 games this season. If the Cavs can do those things then they will win game four and turn this into a three game mini-series with two of the games being played in Cleveland; otherwise, they will face the daunting task of coming back from a 3-1 deficit--and even though the Cavs rallied from an 0-2 start to beat the Pistons four straight times in the 2007 playoffs they certainly do not want to paint themselves into that kind of precarious corner.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:57 AM

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bryant Scores 41 as Lakers Take 2-1 Lead Over Nuggets

This is a great time to be a basketball fan, because The Best the Game Offers are both performing splendidly on the sport's biggest stage, the playoffs: LeBron James is averaging 42 ppg in the Eastern Conference Finals and just hit the biggest shot of his career to tie Cleveland's series with Orlando at 1-1, while Kobe Bryant is averaging 37.7 ppg in the Western Conference Finals and just scored 41 points as the L.A. Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 103-97 to take a 2-1 series lead. Bryant shot 12-24 from the field and 15-17 from the free throw line and also contributed six rebounds, five assists and two steals. He had just one turnover in 41 minutes and scored 13 of his points in the fourth quarter, with 12 of those points coming in the final 6:46, starting with a turnaround jump shot that broke an 81-81 tie and including a big three pointer at the 1:09 mark to put the Lakers up 96-95. Bryant set a Lakers franchise record for most points in the first three games of a Conference Finals series (113), breaking his own mark of 109 set in 2001 versus the San Antonio Spurs (James Worthy's 96 points versus Seattle in 1987 and Kareem Abdul Jabbar's 91 points against Portland in 1977 round out the top four).

As Magic Johnson said right after the game ended, "Finally, Kobe got some help": Pau Gasol had 20 points and 11 rebounds, while Trevor Ariza added 16 points, five rebounds and yet another huge steal on a late-game inbounds play; much like he did in a similar situation in game one, Ariza shot the gap, this time picking off Kenyon Martin's looping toss toward Carmelo Anthony with the Lakers clinging to a 97-95 lead at the :36.5 mark. Anthony fouled Ariza--Anthony's sixth foul of the game--and Ariza made both free throws. Billups answered with two free throws but Bryant closed out the scoring by making four straight free throws in the final 22 seconds.

Denver's big guns all shot blanks from the field: Anthony scored 21 points on 4-13 field goal shooting, Billups had 18 points on 5-15 field goal shooting and J.R. Smith put up a Ron Artest-like line of 15 points on 4-15 field goal shooting, including 2-10 from three point range; the Nuggets shot just 5-27 (.185) on three pointers, with Billups (2-7) and Anthony (1-7) also shooting poorly from long distance. Chris Andersen provided a huge lift off of the bench with 15 points on 6-9 field goal shooting, seven rebounds and three blocked shots.

Despite all of the brick laying by their key offensive players, the Nuggets got off to a good start--building a 25-17 lead less than 10 minutes into the first quarter--and were ahead for most of the game. Anthony scored 14 first quarter points--seven of them coming on free throws--but he did not make a field goal in the second half. I respect the way that Anthony has raised his game in this year's playoffs but before anyone rushes to put him in the elite category with Bryant and James he must sustain that high level of play for an extended period of time.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of this series plays out. The Nuggets only won four more regular season games this season than they did last season but they moved up from the eighth seed to the second seed as injuries brought down teams like the Spurs, Hornets, Jazz, Suns and Mavericks; that enabled the Nuggets to earn homecourt advantage and have the opportunity to avoid playing the Lakers until the Conference Finals after being swept by the Lakers in the first round last year. It is evident that the Lakers are not as deep this year as they were last year--bench players Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton have all been noticeably less productive. Perhaps the Nuggets will win game four and extend this series to at least six games but if the Lakers take that contest and close out the series by winning game five at home then it would be reasonable to ask how much the Nuggets have in fact really improved (as opposed to moving up in the standings due to the aforementioned misfortunes suffered by other West contenders). The Nuggets are supposedly a smarter, more composed team this season but we have seen them lose their composure and make bad plays down the stretch in two of the three games in this series; to the extent that the Nuggets have improved this season I think that the real difference is that their bigs (specifically Nene and Kenyon Martin) are healthier and those guys--plus free agent acquisition Andersen--have played excellent defense in the paint. The Nuggets' bigs have done a good job in this series versus the Lakers' taller frontcourt but, just like last year, the Nuggets still have no answer for Bryant, who is shooting nearly .500 from the field and attempting more than 13 free throws per game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:39 AM

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