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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Bill Russell on Dwight Howard

Ahmad Rashad and the NBA TV pregame show crew (Gary Payton, Chris Webber) spoke with 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell prior to game one of the Finals. Russell made three very interesting comments, two about Dwight Howard and one about the NBA playoffs in general:

1) Russell said that after a person gets to the top of his field is precisely when he has to work the hardest or else "you won't be on top that long." Russell added that Dwight Howard--the All-NBA First Team center two years in a row, signifying that he is the best player in the NBA at that position--is a "very good" player but he must continue to work on his game.

2) Although many people believe that Howard should diversify his post game by adding some back to the basket moves, Russell said that Howard should instead focus on becoming the best passing big man in the NBA. Russell explained that the modern NBA defensive rules allow zones that create certain openings and Howard must become better at squeezing passes through those openings. Russell recalled meeting with Yao Ming when he first entered the NBA and telling him that there are 11 different kinds of passes that can be made from the post, which surprised Yao. Sadly, Rashad, Payton and Webber neglected to ask Russell the natural followup question, namely to describe in brief detail those 11 passes. I suspect that the list would include--in no particular order--(1) the bounce pass to a cutter, (2) a handoff to a cutter followed by screening the man defending the cutter (think Wilt Chamberlain to Gail Goodrich in the classic footage from the 1972 NBA champions), (3) a straight line pass back to the player who fed the post after his man double-teamed the post player, (4) a shuffle pass to a cutter in the lane, (5) a diagonal crosscourt pass, (6) a crosscourt pass to the opposite corner, (7) a pass to an open shooter in the strongside corner, (8) a behind the back pass to hit a cutter on the baseline and (9) a hook pass to hit a cutter if the post defender's hands are low to guard against the bounce pass/behind the back pass. A post player should also be able to make the Wes Unseld two hands behind the head outlet pass after securing a defensive rebound. I'm not sure if Russell was including the outlet pass in his post player passing repertoire but even if he was I still did not quite come up with 11 passes.

3) Russell said that despite all of the talk about teams making adjustments in the NBA playoffs the truth of the matter is that a team has to stick with what it does well. Russell noted that if his Celtics went through a stretch in which they played poorly they did not focus on what they were not doing well but instead tried to get back to doing the things that they individually and collectively did well. Russell concluded, with his trademark laugh, that if a team does not have any good rebounders that it makes no sense for the coach to fret about the team's rebounding and say that they have to improve in that area; it would be more effective for that team to concentrate on the things that it does well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 AM

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Friday, June 05, 2009

Where CRUNCHTIME versus DUNKTIME Happens




















adidas has just made a cool NBA Finals T-shirt featuring Kobe Bryant versus Dwight Howard with the tagline "Where CRUNCHTIME versus DUNKTIME happens." It is available at the nbastore.com for $19.99.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:00 PM

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Brilliant Bryant Shreds Magic as Lakers Roll, 100-75

"You look thirsty, you ain't getting no mercy, mercy/
And ain't no way that you can rehearse for me/
Murder I wrote, murder I wrote is what I figure...
When it comes to this I never smile."--L.L. Cool J, "How I'm Comin'"

Kobe Bryant may not be smiling but L.A. Lakers' fans are wearing ear to ear grins after Bryant led the Lakers to a 100-75 victory over the Orlando Magic in game one of the Finals by producing a nearly perfect game: 40 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals, two blocked shots, one turnover in 38 minutes. He singlehandedly outscored Orlando's three primary offensive weapons--Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu--and scored or assisted on 24 of the Lakers' 41 field goals; the entire Magic team made just 23 field goals. ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy--who must have had his heart in his throat watching Bryant trash the team that his brother Stan coaches--declared, "You know how they say one man can't beat a team? I beg to differ. One man can beat a team. This guy has dominated each offensive possession." Bryant shot 16-34 from the field (.471), which is marginally better than his regular season field goal percentage (.467), but what matters most is that he shot 15-27 and did not have a single turnover in the game's first 34:46 as the Lakers built an 80-56 lead; when I say that Bryant was "nearly perfect" I am referring to his decision making and the control that he exerted over the game: Larry Bird once said that he did not play basketball to score a certain number of points or make every shot but rather for those moments when he took over the game and knew that he was controlling the outcome. That is what Bryant did in game one and this is very significant because game one winners overwhelmingly tend to eventually win the playoff series, as Bryant knows only too well: the last two times he and the Lakers went to the Finals they lost game one and then lost the series. However, Bryant also understands that even though history is on the Lakers' side this is still just one win and the Lakers must continue to play hard and execute at a high level or the Magic could win game two, seize homecourt advantage and gain the opportunity to win a championship by sweeping the middle three games in Orlando. A stern-faced Bryant declared in his postgame press conference that the best thing that the Lakers could do now is forget about this game and focus on taking care of business in game two and he added that he had already delivered that message to his teammates.

Bryant cracked a smile briefly when he said that his kids have been calling him "Grumpy" from the Seven Dwarves for the past week or so but then he looked serious again during the rest of the question and answer session. Bryant's visage has been getting a lot of attention recently but instead of focusing on how he looks it is more important to place his performance--not just in this game but in the playoffs overall--in proper historical context: Bryant joined Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as the only players to have a 40-8-8 game in the NBA Finals. This is the first time that Bryant scored 40 points in a Finals game but it is the 10th 40 point game of his playoff career and his fourth 40 point game of the 2009 playoffs, with the Lakers improving to 4-0 in those contests; the three previous 40 point games came in a must win game two versus Houston after the Lakers lost game one at home, game one versus Denver and game three at Denver to reclaim home court advantage in that series after the Lakers lost game two at home. Bryant is convincingly putting to rest the nonsense about the Lakers being better off when he shoots less frequently.

However, as Jeff Van Gundy noted, Bryant is not only a dominant scorer; he also is creating open shot opportunities for his teammates and the remarkable thing about how Bryant is handling those twin responsibilities is that this is the eighth time in 19 playoff games that Bryant has had one or fewer turnovers, including back to back games against Houston--the team that supposedly had used advanced basketball statistics to come up with the perfect game plan against him--in which he did not have a single turnover. Bryant had five other playoff games in which he only had two turnovers each. This is just incredible decision making/efficiency by a player whose team needs him to simultaneously fill the Michael Jordan scoring role and the Scottie Pippen playmaking role.

Bryant received help from his teammates but considering his deft passing and the way that he draws double teams it must be said that he is helping his teammates to help him: Bryant creates open shots for them and they knock those shots down. Pau Gasol had 16 points and eight rebounds and Lamar Odom produced 11 points and 14 rebounds off of the bench. Andrew Bynum had nine points and nine rebounds but, more significantly, he made his presence felt in the paint versus Dwight Howard. Bynum collected four fouls in 22 minutes but, as I said in my Finals preview, foul trouble is not a factor for Bynum as long as he is productive in the 15-20 mpg that the Lakers need for him to play. Derek Fisher and Luke Walton each had nine points and combined to shoot 8-11 from the field, a welcome sight for the Lakers considering how much both players had been struggling with their shooting strokes.

In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers had the worst of both worlds defensively, as Dwight Howard put up big numbers--culminating in a 40 point, 14 rebound outing in game six--and the Magic's three point shooters bombed away with impunity; in game one of the Finals, the Lakers had the best of both worlds, shutting down both Howard and the three point shooters. Mickael Pietrus led the Magic with 14 points but he shot just 5-13 from the field, a percentage that the Lakers can live with every game. Hedo Turkoglu had just 13 points on 3-11 field goal shooting. Eastern Conference Finals hero Rashard Lewis scored just eight points on 2-10 field goal shooting. Howard added 12 points and 15 rebounds but he shot just 1-6 from the field; the Lakers prevented him from getting good post position and fouled him whenever he seemed poised to dunk the ball. The Lakers largely used one on one coverage versus Howard--enabling them to stay at home on the three point shooters--though they did often send a defender toward Howard once he put the ball on the floor; you may recall that this is exactly the strategy that I said that the Cavs should have used in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In my Finals preview I wrote, "I don't think that the Magic will be able to contain the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll nearly as effectively as the Celtics did in the 2008 Finals. Even though the Magic won both meetings with the Lakers this season...the Magic struggled to prevent the Lakers from getting good, open shots out of that set, so look for the Lakers to feature it repeatedly." Early in the game the Lakers tenderized the Magic in the paint by posting up Bynum--who scored eight points in the first 6:30--but they took control of the game in the second and third quarters by repeatedly running the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action (a Bryant-Bynum screen/roll also proved to be effective on a few occasions). Eventually the Magic are going to have to trap Bryant hard but that could lead to Bryant having 10-plus assists if his teammates make open shots.

Despite the strong start by Bynum, the Magic led 24-22 after the first quarter. Orlando's All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson returned to action for the first time since February, with mixed results: in his first stint he played well and helped the Magic to build a 33-28 lead early in the second quarter but in his second tour of duty later in the game he was not nearly as effective. Nelson finished with six points on 3-9 shooting plus four assists. It seems like he can hurt the Lakers with his passing in screen/roll situations but it may be too much to expect him to regain his shooting stroke in this series after being sidelined for so long.

Nelson and the Magic built their five point cushion with Bryant on the bench but when Bryant returned to action at the 8:32 mark of the second quarter the tide immediately turned: in less than five minutes, Bryant scored 10 points and had three assists as the Lakers went on a 19-6 run. Bryant then had 18 points in the third quarter as the Lakers turned the game into a rout.

Although a team's basic identity will not change during the course of a series, each game has a unique rhythm and vibe to it. Even if the Lakers continue to play good, sound defense it is extremely unlikely that they will again limit Howard to just one made field goal or hold the Magic to .299 field goal shooting, so the Lakers must continue to crash the boards--they enjoyed a 55-41 rebounding advantage--and execute their offense efficiently; their main edges in this series are Kobe Bryant and homecourt advantage, so it is important for them to be ready to win a tough game two before heading to Orlando: the worst mistake that the Lakers can make is to become overconfident and complacent because of the large game one victory margin.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:49 AM

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Los Angeles Versus Orlando Preview

NBA Finals

Los Angeles (65-17) vs. Orlando (59-23)

Season series: Orlando, 2-0

Orlando can win if…they establish Dwight Howard in the post as a consistent 20-plus ppg threat while also making 9-10 three pointers a game with a three point shooting percentage around the .380-.400 range. Against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals the Magic had wonderful ball movement that generally resulted in an open three point shot for Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu or Mickael Pietrus. They must continue to pass and shoot that effectively in order to beat the Lakers. Defensively, the Magic would like to hold Kobe Bryant to below .450 field goal shooting without allowing too many open shots for his teammates.

Los Angeles will win because…the Lakers will be able to single cover Howard in the post for key stretches, limiting Orlando's ability to go on huge scoring runs fueled by three pointers. The Lakers will put more pressure on Lewis, Turkoglu and Pietrus than the Cavs did, forcing them to either shoot contested jumpers or else put the ball on the floor and make plays. The Magic will have trouble containing Bryant, who is likely to post the highest Finals scoring average of his career, surpassing the 26.8 ppg he scored in the Lakers' 2002 sweep of the New Jersey Nets.

Other things to consider: Last year I picked the Lakers to beat the Celtics in the Finals not because I bought into all of the hype about how deep the Lakers supposedly were but because I did not think that the Celtics would have an effective answer for the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play; that action was a major reason that the Lakers averaged 105.9 ppg on .478 field goal shooting while going 12-3 in the Western Conference playoffs in 2008 but the Celtics swarmed Bryant and forced his teammates to make plays, which they were not able to consistently do.

I don't think that the Magic will be able to contain the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll nearly as effectively as the Celtics did in the 2008 Finals. Even though the Magic won both meetings with the Lakers this season (see below for more details), the Magic struggled to prevent the Lakers from getting good, open shots out of that set, so look for the Lakers to feature it repeatedly. If the Magic respond by swarming Bryant--which they inevitably will have to do at some point--the onus will fall on Gasol to be aggressive while Lamar Odom dives strongly to the hoop from the weakside to either receive feeds for layups or crash the offensive boards and Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar spot up behind the three point line: ironically, a key factor in this series could turn out to be whether or not the Lakers give the Magic a taste of their own medicine by bombarding them with three pointers.

Andrew Bynum will probably spend most of this series in foul trouble but that is not a problem because the Lakers only need to get a good 15-20 mpg out of him. The Lakers must limit Howard's catches in the paint, foul him whenever he is close enough to dunk and then force Howard to guard someone (either Gasol or Bynum) at the other end of the court.

A major X factor in this series is the possible return of Orlando's injured All-Star guard Jameer Nelson, who was expected to be out for the season after injuring his shoulder. Nelson has been working out with the team and there is some speculation that he might play in the Finals. I saw Nelson shooting around at Quicken Loans Arena prior to game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. I did not think that he looked particularly sharp but I have not seen him shoot around often enough to really know if he looked better or worse than normal; he seemed to be in excellent condition and was not noticeably favoring the injured shoulder. He wore a regular game uniform with a shooting shirt over his jersey.

The Magic beat the Lakers 2-0 in the regular season, much like they defeated the Cavs 2-1; I dismissed their record against Cleveland because Nelson played in one Orlando win and the other win took place with Cleveland on a long road trip while the Magic were well rested. Similar extenuating circumstances apply regarding Orlando's wins over the Lakers. The first time the Lakers played the Magic (December 20, 2008) they visited Orlando the night after losing in Miami; Bryant scored a then season-high 41 points but the Magic won, 106-103. The Lakers kept Howard under control (18 points, 12 rebounds) but Nelson shot 11-16 from the field and torched them for 27 points. The Magic visited the Lakers on January 16, 2009; both teams were well rested and Nelson punished the Lakers with 28 points and eight assists in a 109-103 Magic win. Howard had 25 points and 20 rebounds but shot just 8-18 from the field and 9-16 on free throws. Bryant had the first of his two triple doubles this season (28 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists); he led the Lakers in all three categories by wide margins and he really played a marvelous game even though he ended up shooting 10-26 from the field--he shot 10-20 in the first 46:44 and 0-6 in the final 1:16 as the Lakers tried to mount a late rally. After that game, I wrote, "Is it good to shoot 10-26 from the field or 0-6 in the last 1:16? Of course not--but a careful examination of those final six shots shows that Bryant made the right plays even though the shots did not go down." You can click on the link and read the rest of the post for a detailed breakdown of those late shot attempts but the point is that the Lakers were able to use the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll to repeatedly and quickly create high percentage shot opportunities, including a Bryant three pointer that went halfway down before coming out. The Magic had a lot of problems guarding Bryant in both games and the Lakers were in position to win on each occasion despite the trouble they had dealing with Nelson.

It may seem strange that I just touted the beginning of the Dwight Howard era yet now I am picking the Lakers to beat the Magic but those are not mutually exclusive propositions; often a great player must first lose in the Finals before eventually triumphing: that was the case for Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal, three legends who lost in their first trip to the Finals but went on to win multiple championships. The Lakers have homecourt advantage and a hungry superstar with championship experience who presents a serious matchup problem for the Magic; those factors will be the primary reasons that the Lakers will prevail.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:03 AM

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Kobe Bryant's NBA Finals Resume

Kobe Bryant is about to make his sixth NBA Finals appearance in the past decade, more than Shaquille O'Neal (five) or Tim Duncan (three since 2000, four overall). If Bryant's L.A. Lakers win the championship he will own more rings (four) than Larry Bird (three) and only trail Magic Johnson (five) by one. Here is a look at Bryant's NBA Finals resume:

2000 NBA Finals: L.A. Lakers defeat Indiana Pacers, 4-2

Bryant's numbers: 15.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.2 apg; Bryant ranked second on the Lakers in scoring and assists and third in rebounding.

The backstory: Bryant averaged fewer points than he did in the regular season (22.5 ppg) but that is largely because he had just two points in nine minutes in game two before a sprained ankle sidelined him for the remainder of that contest. The Lakers won an ugly game without Bryant, with Shaquille O'Neal shooting 18-39 from the free throw line as the Pacers resorted to the "Hack a Shaq" tactic in the fourth quarter. Bryant missed game three and the Pacers earned their first win of the series as Reggie Miller erupted for 33 points (he had scored just seven points on 1-16 field goal shooting versus Bryant in game one). Bryant returned in game four and finished with 28 points, five assists and four rebounds; after O'Neal fouled out in overtime, Bryant took over and carried the Lakers to a 120-118 victory, giving them a commanding 3-1 series lead. Bryant had eight of the Lakers' 16 overtime points, falling one short of the Finals record of nine.

Bryant struggled in game five as the Lakers got blown out but he produced 26 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in the series-clinching game six, though he shot poorly from the field (8-27). The Pacers again used the "Hack a Shaq" and O'Neal's 1-4 bricklaying down the stretch enabled Indiana to pull within 110-109 with 1:32 left. Glen Rice answered by making a pair of free throws and then Bryant closed out the scoring by sinking four straight free throws to clinch the championship.

Bryant did not have a great series statistically but he made his impact felt with his defense against Miller and with his clutch play in the overtime of game four and in the closing moments of game six. When the Lakers needed fourth quarter scoring in this series, they often abandoned the Triangle Offense and simply gave the ball to Bryant in a 1-4 set so that he could create a shot for himself or a teammate.

Note: The Lakers would not have made it to the Finals in the first place without Bryant's epic performance in game seven of the Western Conference Finals versus Portland: he led the Lakers in points (25), rebounds (11), assists (seven) and blocked shots (four), while O'Neal had 18, nine, five and one respectively. The next time someone tries to tell you that Bryant simply rode O'Neal's coattails to three championships, just cite this boxscore as evidence to the contrary.

2001 NBA Finals: L.A. Lakers defeat Philadelphia 76ers, 4-1

Bryant's numbers: 24.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 5.8 apg; Bryant ranked second on the Lakers in scoring and rebounding and led the team in assists.

The backstory: This is the first season that O'Neal and Bryant were truly options 1A and 1B throughout the entire season and playoffs, as opposed to O'Neal clearly being the first option; in the 1999-2000 campaign, O'Neal outscored Bryant by a wide margin in the regular season (29.7 ppg to 22.5 ppg) and in the playoffs (30.7 ppg to 21.1 ppg) but in 2000-01 O'Neal only led Bryant by a slight margin in regular season scoring (28.7 ppg to 28.5 ppg) and in playoff scoring (30.4 ppg to 29.4 ppg), though O'Neal had a larger edge in the Finals (33.0 ppg to 24.6 ppg).

Allen Iverson scored 48 points in Philadelphia's 107-101 game one overtime win, then the Lakers swept the next four games to finish with a 15-1 playoff record, the best in NBA history. In game two, the Lakers' big guns took turns dominating: Bryant scored 12 first quarter points and then O'Neal scored 12 second quarter points. By the end of the game, Bryant had 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists, while O'Neal had 28 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists as the Lakers won 98-89. Bryant played 47 minutes and O'Neal played 45 minutes after they each played 52 of a possible 53 minutes in game one.

Bryant (32 points) and O'Neal (30 points) again provided a devastating one-two punch in a 96-91 game three victory. O'Neal handled the brunt of the scoring load in game four (34 points) while Bryant just missed posting a rare Finals triple double (19 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) in a comfortable 100-86 win.

The Lakers closed out the series in game five with O'Neal (29 points) and Bryant (26 points) again leading the way, though Rick Fox (20 points) and Derek Fisher (18 points) provided some timely scoring as well.

2002 NBA Finals: L.A. Lakers defeat New Jersey Nets, 4-0

Bryant's numbers: 26.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.3 apg; Bryant ranked second on the Lakers in scoring, fourth in rebounding and first in assists.

The backstory: The Lakers completed just the seventh sweep in NBA Finals history (the Spurs became the eighth team to sweep the NBA Finals when they defeated the Cavs in 2007). Statistically this was Bryant's best overall Finals performance, featuring his top Finals scoring average as well as his best field goal shooting (.514) and three point shooting (.545) in addition to his always excellent floor game. O'Neal dominated the series with his scoring (36.3 ppg) and high percentage shooting (.595) but even though the Nets did not win a game, three of the four contests were close: games one, three and four were decided by five, three and six points respectively. In game three, Bryant scored 36 points on 14-23 field goal shooting, including 12 points in the fourth quarter when the outcome hung in the balance; Bryant hit a short jumper with 19 seconds remaining to put the Lakers up 104-100 and that proved to be the decisive basket, though Jason Kidd answered with a three pointer and Fox closed out the scoring by making two free throws. Although O'Neal took a back seat in the fourth quarter (which was often the pattern during the Lakers' championship reign), he finished with 35 points on 12-19 field goal shooting. Game four followed that customary pattern as well, with O'Neal dominating (34 points on 12-20 field goal shooting) and Bryant serving as the closer (tallying 11 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter).

2004 NBA Finals: Detroit Pistons defeat L.A. Lakers, 4-1

Bryant's numbers: 22.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 4.4 apg; Bryant ranked second on the Lakers in scoring and tied for the team lead in assists.

The backstory: The Lakers owned homecourt advantage and were considered the heavy favorites in this series but with Karl Malone hobbled by injury, Gary Payton moving like he was about 50 years old and Derek Fisher limited by torn cartilage in his right knee that he suffered in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers simply could not keep up with Rasheed Wallace or the Pistons' All-Star backcourt duo of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton; during this series Bryant had to play a "firefighter" role defensively, trying to snuff out the blazing infernos that resulted from Payton's matador defense, but the Pistons smartly responded by simply running their offense through whichever guard Bryant was not checking. The Pistons rolled over the Lakers 87-75 in game one. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson declared on page 229 of his book The Last Season, "The real factor was Chauncey Billups, who completely outplayed Gary, scoring 22 points, eight in the first quarter." Hamilton only scored 12 points on 5-16 shooting with six turnovers versus Bryant but Bryant also struggled offensively, scoring 25 points but shooting just 10-27 versus the long-armed defense of Tayshaun Prince. It seemed like Prince hit Bryant's arm on several jump shots, but Bryant made just four trips to the free throw line. Malone shot 2-9 from the field and Fisher shot 1-9. O'Neal led the way for the Lakers with 34 points on 13-16 shooting as the Pistons largely played him one on one in an effort to keep everyone else in check.

Bryant played the key role in the Lakers' only victory in the series, leading the Lakers with 33 points and seven assists in a 99-91 game two overtime win. Bryant nailed the clutch three pointer that forced overtime and he scored a total of 14 points in the fourth quarter and the extra session to ensure that the Lakers would not fall behind 2-0. Billups again torched Payton, outscoring him 27-2. A big part of the problem for the Lakers was O'Neal's poor screen/roll defense, as Jackson explained on pages 232-233 of The Last Season: "The conversation with the coaches in the video session turned to the issue of Shaquille and his defense on screen roll, which was largely ineffective again. 'When I'm all done,' (assistant coach) Tex (Winter) blurted out, 'I'm going to expose this guy as overrated.'" Jackson mentioned that Winter complained that O'Neal "has terrible footwork, he's not coachable, he can't make free throws" but Jackson answered Winter by saying that O'Neal was the reason he came to coach the Lakers in the first place. Later, during a film session with the whole team, O'Neal--according to Jackson (page 233)--told Winter to "shut the ---- up. We don't need to hear from you about this ----." Jackson wrote (page 234), "I keep asking myself if I had failed him, this wonderful eighty-two-year old man who has meant so much to me, by not defending him more aggressively in front of the whole group." O'Neal apologized to Winter the next day.

The Pistons started game three with an 8-0 run and never trailed en route to a dominating 88-68 win. Bryant had just 11 points on 4-13 shooting, "the worst game I've ever seen him have in the playoffs" according to Jackson (page 237). O'Neal scored 14 points on 7-14 shooting. The two stars combined to attempt only five free throws. The other Lakers were completely invisible. In the wake of that disheartening performance, several of the veterans from the Lakers' three championship teams--including Bryant, Fox and Fisher--implored Jackson to bench Malone and Payton and go with the players who had won those titles, even though Fisher was ailing and Fox was not a power forward. Jackson promised to give all of those players some time on the court together but he felt that Malone's best chance to be effective was to start the game as opposed to languishing on the bench tightening up.

Billups again torched Payton in game four as the Pistons won 88-80 to take a 3-1 lead. Jackson finally switched Bryant onto Billups in the latter stages of the game. O'Neal had 36 points and 20 rebounds but Bryant shot just 8-25 to finish with 20 points. Bryant felt very strongly that Prince was getting away with fouling him but Bryant knew that it would not do any good to complain about this publicly. Owner Jerry Buss told Jackson (pages 243-244), "I think our young man has hit the wall. The whole weight of the whole season has finally caught up to him. He just looked so tired out there tonight that he didn't have the energy to finish this game off the way he's done in the past." Jackson agreed with that assessment.

During the walkthrough prior to game five, Bryant volunteered to check Billups. Jackson was not sure if he wanted to do that but Bryant later privately told Jackson his real motive for speaking up (page 245): "I just said that to see if Gary would say, 'No, let me have him. He's mine.' I think he's scared. He doesn't care if I take Billups or not." Bryant checked Billups for part of game five and Billups had his lowest point total of the series (14) but in the end the Lakers had too many matchup problems and the Pistons closed out the series with a 100-87 win.

Note: Scoop Jackson recently called game two of the 2004 Finals "the game where many Laker insiders now admit the decision was eventually made to keep Kobe and exit everyone else." O'Neal wanted the Lakers to re-sign him for maximum dollars and maximum years but there were plenty of sensible reasons not to do this (just read Winter's critiques cited above). Bryant had established himself as an All-NBA First Team player, an All-Defensive First Team member and a perennial top five finisher in the MVP race, so the Lakers decided to build the team around him.

In the wake of their Finals loss, the Lakers traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first round draft pick. After one season the Lakers shipped Butler to the Washington Wizards to acquire Kwame Brown, who they eventually dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies to obtain Pau Gasol. The Lakers missed the playoffs in 2004-05, mainly because Bryant played in only 66 games due to injury (Odom also missed 18 games). In 2006 and 2007 Bryant almost singlehandedly kept the Lakers competitive, winning two scoring titles while also making the All-Defensive First Team each year. Finally, the Lakers upgraded his supporting cast, with the biggest move being the addition of Gasol. Bryant no longer had to go into gun battles with "butter knives"; he promptly led the Lakers to the number one seed in the West in 2008 and averaged 31.9 ppg, 5.8 apg, 6.1 rpg, 3.1 tpg, .509 field goal shooting and .814 free throw shooting in 15 Western Conference playoff games as the Lakers returned to the NBA Finals.

2008 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics defeat L.A. Lakers, 4-2

Bryant's numbers: 25.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 5.0 apg; Bryant led the Lakers in scoring and assists and ranked fourth on the team in rebounding.

The backstory: The Celtics cruised to the best regular season record in the NBA (66-16) but they were pushed to seven games twice in the Eastern Conference playoffs while the 57-25 Lakers went 12-3 in the tough Western Conference playoffs as Bryant put up the phenomenal numbers mentioned above. The Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play proved to be very difficult for even the defending champion San Antonio Spurs to deal with and that was a major reason that I predicted a Lakers' victory over the Celtics. Instead, Gasol and the other Laker bigs played very tentatively, enabling the Celtics to simply send waves of defenders at Bryant while daring anyone else to make shots. Here are links to my recaps of each of the six games, plus some excerpts from each of those posts:

Celtics Ride Strong Second Half Defense to 98-88 Game One Victory: "In the heavyweight match of the Celtics' league-leading defense versus the Lakers' high-powered offense, score round one for the defense; the Celtics held the Lakers to 37 second half points, survived an injury scare involving Paul Pierce and emerged with a 98-88 victory. Pierce had to be carried off of the court at the 6:49 mark of the third quarter after spraining his right knee but he returned just 1:45 later and a few minutes after that he nailed two big three pointers to give the Celtics a 75-71 lead that they never relinquished...

The way that the Lakers had to keep switching Bryant on to someone to cool him off is reminiscent of what happened in the 2004 Finals, when whichever Detroit guard was being checked by Gary Payton had a field day while Bryant contained the other guard.

The tendency after each playoff game is to overreact and think that the winning team will not lose a game and that the losing team cannot possibly win. This series is a battle between Boston's strengths in rebounding and defense versus the Lakers' high-powered offense; what most commentators will probably neglect to mention about this game is that the Celtics only shot .421 from the field and committed 13 turnovers compared to just eight turnovers by the Lakers: the Lakers' defense is better than many people think and it will not take a dramatic offensive improvement by the Lakers to win game two and thus seize homecourt advantage. Make no mistake, though, losing game one should not be easily dismissed, because game one winners end up winning the series nearly 80% of the time; the onus is on the Lakers to win game two but they did enough positive things in game one to show that they are certainly capable of doing just that."

Celtics Build 24 Point Lead, Survive Huge Lakers Rally to Win Game Two, 108-102: "The Boston Celtics led the L.A. Lakers 95-71 with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter but the Lakers pulled to within 104-102 before the Celtics escaped with a 108-102 win. Paul Pierce, showing no ill effects from his game one knee injury, led the Celtics with 28 points on 9-16 shooting from the field. He also had eight assists and four rebounds...Kobe Bryant finished with 30 points, eight assists and four rebounds, shooting 11-23 from the field. He had 13 points and two assists during the Lakers' 31-9 fourth quarter run that almost turned into the biggest comeback in Finals history. Pau Gasol had decent numbers (17 points on 8-12 shooting, 10 rebounds, four assists) but for the second game in a row he was very quiet offensively in the second half (four points)...

I picked the Lakers to win this series because I thought that the Celtics would not have an answer for the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play and that their success with this action would be enough to cancel out the slight rebounding deficit that I expected them to suffer. As Van Gundy noted during the telecast, the Lakers have in fact enjoyed success with that set. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they have not run it enough and their rebounding (in game one) and defense (in game two) have been poor. We have seen many instances in these playoffs of teams performing much differently at home than on the road, so the likelihood is that the Lakers will win game three and probably game four--maybe even by large margins. However, there is no way around the fact that the Lakers face a steep uphill climb to win this series because they will have to beat the team with the best regular season record in the NBA four times in five games. That is not impossible but history suggests that it is not very likely, either."

Bryant's Big Performance Saves Lakers in Game Three: "Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 36 points on 12-20 field goal shooting, willing the Lakers to an 87-81 game three win over the Celtics. Bryant earned 18 free throw attempts with his aggressive play and the only blemish on his performance is that he missed seven of them. Still, he set the tone for the Lakers right from the start, scoring 11 first quarter points, and he scored nine points in the final 6:55 to seal the deal...

This was a big win for the Lakers, because a loss would have meant that a Boston championship would just be a matter of time. That said, the Lakers must put together two more similar efforts just to get the series back to Boston without facing elimination and then they will have to figure out how to win a game there. It would be most helpful if Gasol would start playing with more aggressiveness and if Odom would actually check in to the series mentally."

Celtics Rally From 24 Point Deficit, Win 97-91 to Take 3-1 Series Lead: "The Boston Celtics recovered from the largest deficit at the end of the first quarter in NBA Finals history to post a thrilling 97-91 victory that all but assures that they will win a record 17th NBA title. Paul Pierce led the Celtics with a game-high 20 points on 6-13 shooting but just as importantly he had a team-high seven assists and he played excellent second half defense against Kobe Bryant...Kobe Bryant shot just 6-19 from the field but he had a game-high 10 assists to go along with his 17 points and four rebounds. Bryant scored 10 of the Lakers' 18 fourth quarter points and assisted on three of the other four field goals that the team made, accounting for virtually all of their offensive production in the final stanza...

Towards the end of the game, Van Gundy offered this explanation for why the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll did not work as well in the second half as it did in the first half: 'The Celtics have made some great adjustments in their pick and roll defense. They're softer on the screener, which has taken away that high-low pass that we saw in the first half.' I agree with Van Gundy to an extent but I also think that the Lakers did not execute properly in several ways: Gasol did not set his screens with authority, he failed to roll aggressively to the hoop and no one popped to the free throw line the way that Odom had been doing. Gasol's passive play enabled the Celtics to simply stay on their own men instead of having to either trap or switch. Therefore, Bryant was left handling the ball with the shot clock winding down and no good options. After the third quarter, Coach Jackson told Michele Tafoya, 'We just did things offensively that put us in bad situations. They got their transition game going and their half court game going.'"

Lakers Advance From "Elite Eight" to "Final Four": "No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals but prior to game five Kobe Bryant compared the Lakers' situation to the NCAA Tournament, suggesting that they must win in the Elite Eight (game five), the Final Four (game six) and the Championship Game (game seven) in order to be crowned the 2008 NBA Champions. The Lakers advanced past the 'Elite Eight' on Sunday night with a 103-98 victory. Bryant led the Lakers with 25 points and a game-high five steals. He also had seven rebounds and four assists."

Celtics Overwhelm Lakers, Claim 17th Championship: "For the first five games of the NBA Finals, the heavyweight match between the Celtics' league best defense and the Lakers' high powered offense was a close bout but in game six the Celtics landed a stunning knockout punch, posting a 131-92 victory to claim the franchise's 17th championship. After a competitive first quarter, the Celtics completely dominated the Lakers in every conceivable way, finishing with a 48-29 rebounding advantage, outscoring the Lakers 16-2 in fast break points, demolishing the Lakers 44-29 in points in the paint and forcing 19 turnovers while only committing seven. The Celtics set a Finals single-game record with 18 steals and held the Lakers to a Finals record low two offensive rebounds, which is particularly remarkable considering that the Lakers shot just .422 from the field. The Lakers had absolutely no defensive presence, recording 0 blocked shots while letting the Celtics shoot .494 from the field, including 13-26 (.500) from three point range...

The Celtics were determined to not let regular season MVP Kobe Bryant beat them and, other than a quick 11 point burst in the first quarter, they forced Bryant to take contested shots or pass the ball to teammates who lacked focus, discipline and purpose. Bryant finished with a hard earned 22 points on 7-22 field goal shooting, plus three rebounds, one assist and four turnovers. Bryant would never admit to being tired but Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said that Bryant seemed a little leg weary as the game wore on; that is hardly surprising considering that this team depends on him to score 30 points while shooting a good percentage, create scoring opportunities for players who cannot do so for themselves and have a major impact defensively by either guarding a top notch scorer such as Paul Pierce or Ray Allen or by being a Scottie Pippen-like help defender who roams around covering up the defensive shortcomings of his teammates. I've said my piece on the stupid and superficial Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant comparisons but any objective comparison of these two players has to begin with an incontrovertible fact: when Michael Jordan won six championships he played alongside a Top 50 player in Scottie Pippen, a guy who was the team's leading playmaker and who shouldered a major load defensively. In contrast, the Lakers essentially need Bryant to be Jordan and Pippen--scorer, facilitator, primary defender and help defender--while critics are interpreting Bryant's failure to be both guys to mean that he is not as good as Jordan was. I don't think that Bryant is as good as Jordan was but this series did not really shed any new light on that subject: the Celtics have three future Hall of Famers plus a number of excellent role players, while the Lakers have Bryant and a supporting cast that is not nearly as good as advertised, a point that I made repeatedly during the playoffs even as I correctly picked the Lakers to win the West precisely because I rightly expected that Bryant's greatness would be enough to mask the team's weaknesses."

Summary:

Bryant played a key role on three championship teams. Even though he had a subpar performance in the 2004 Finals loss he is the main reason that the Lakers did not get swept and he showed enough during that season and that series to convince the Lakers to rebuild the team around him; Bryant has rewarded that faith by leading the Lakers to the best record in the West for two straight years, culminating in two appearances in the NBA Finals. The only missing line on his Finals resume is a Finals MVP; leading the Lakers to the title while earning that award will forever silence critics who contend that Bryant cannot win a championship without O'Neal.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:00 PM

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Howard's Triumph Over James May be a Sign That the NBA is Going Back to the Future

Shaquille O'Neal often says that he is the LCL (last center left) but the Cleveland Cavaliers just found out that this is definitely not true: while most of the world focused on LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the puppet commercials, Dwight Howard hopped into a souped-up DeLorean and took the NBA back to the future, reminding us all that basketball has usually been dominated by teams featuring a great big man. The critics said that Howard was too nice/fun loving and too limited offensively to lead a team to an NBA title but he averaged 25.8 ppg, 13.0 rpg and 1.2 bpg while shooting .651 from the field as his Orlando Magic defeated James' Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The only player in NBA history who matched those scoring, rebounding and shooting numbers while winning a playoff series was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1974 Western Conference Finals (34.8 ppg, 19.5 rpg, .663 field goal shooting); Howard had 40 points and 14 rebounds in the game six clincher versus Cleveland, becoming just the second player to reach those totals in a victory that propelled his team into the NBA Finals--matching a feat accomplished by Charles Barkley, who dropped 44 and 24 in Phoenix' game seven win in the 1993 Western Conference Finals. Yes, the Magic tied the record for most three pointers made in a six game playoff series but that would not likely have happened without Howard making Cleveland's defense move back and forth like an accordion.

The real question of the day--and possibly the next decade--in the NBA is not the "Great Debate" (Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James, in case you have been hiding under a rock) or whether Dwyane Wade deserves to be a third party candidate in that debate but rather this: Is Dwight Howard beginning to embark on a reign of dominance that will be capped off by multiple championships? I realize that this may seem like a bizarre question coming from someone who--like just about everyone other than Barkley--picked Cleveland to beat Orlando but never let it be said that I cannot admit that I was wrong and then take a fresh look at the evidence. I picked against Howard and the Magic because as recently as last season the Pistons brushed them aside in the playoffs by single-covering Howard, smothering the three point shooters and generally pushing the Magic around; when Orlando needed seven games to get past the injury-depleted Celtics this year I could not imagine that the Magic would dismantle a Cleveland team that used defense and rebounding as the foundations for a 66 win season. Howard's performance against Cleveland, capped off by that exclamation point sixth game, is a real eye opener; the 40 points are his playoff career-high and if that is a sign of things to come from Howard then the rest of the league is in trouble.

With the exception of a brief period from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, in order to win an NBA championship you usually had to have a dreadnought center who commanded a double-team in the post and/or dominated defensively and on the glass. George Mikan led the Lakers to five championships, Bill Russell won 11 championships with the Celtics, Wilt Chamberlain guided the two greatest single season teams prior to Michael Jordan's 1996 Bulls (the 1967 76ers and the 1972 Lakers) to titles, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar earned six rings with the Bucks and Lakers, Bill Walton brought a championship to Portland before being hobbled by injuries and Moses Malone took the 76ers back to the Promised Land in 1983. Teams that won a championship without a dominant center were rare, most notably the 1979 Sonics and the 1975 Warriors, each of whom, ironically, beat a Bullets team that featured Top 50 big men Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, who did win a championship together in 1978. Robert Parish, the center on three Boston championship teams in the 1980s (1981, 1984, 1986) was not dominant in quite the same fashion that his contemporaries Abdul-Jabbar and Malone were but he is a Hall of Famer and Top 50 player who could have put up bigger individual numbers if he had not been playing alongside fellow Hall of Famers/Top 50 players Larry Bird and Kevin McHale.

The requirement for a championship team to have a dominant center did not change until the late 1980s, when Abdul-Jabbar passed the age of 40 (he won his last Finals MVP award in 1985 at the age of 38!) and the league's young, future Hall of Fame caliber centers (Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson) did not have good enough supporting casts to win championships. The 1989 and 1990 Detroit Pistons had a solid former All-Star at center in Bill Laimbeer, a good rebounder who also could make the outside jump shot (think Zydrunas Ilgauskas with a sneer and a much meaner disposition), but their best players were Hall of Fame guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars; Thomas remains the only 6-1 player (and he really isn't even that tall) to be the main guy on an NBA championship team. Those Pistons were dethroned by the Chicago Bulls, who featured Top 50 players Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen flanked by a center by committee. Jordan's first retirement robbed us of the opportunity to see him go against Olajuwon in the Finals. When Jordan came back he won three more titles alongside Pippen and a revamped center by committee and after Jordan retired in 1998 Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan won eight of the next 10 championships; the two exceptions during that decade were the 2004 Detroit team that had an ensemble All-Star cast flanking a perennial Defensive Player of the Year winner at center (Ben Wallace) and the 2008 Boston team that had three future Hall of Famers, including a dominant 7-0 defender/rebounder (Kevin Garnett) who nominally plays power forward.

During his six championship runs, Jordan generally did not have to face dominant, Hall of Fame centers; he had several showdowns with Ewing's Knicks and then he split a pair of series versus O'Neal in the mid-90s. Jordan never faced Olajuwon or David Robinson in a playoff series, though it could be argued that this was their "fault" and not his; after all, Jordan had no control over who his opponents would be in the championship round. Still, it is interesting to speculate about what might have happened if Jordan's Bulls had played Olajuwon's mid-90s Rockets or if they had been around a decade earlier and met up with the likes of Abdul-Jabbar and Malone when they were All-NBA/MVP level players.

My take on that issue has generally been that the Jordan-Pippen nucleus supplemented by an excellent power forward (first Horace Grant, then Dennis Rodman) and a reliable supporting cast of role players got by Ewing repeatedly and blew out O'Neal's Magic in 1996 so there is no reason to believe that those Bulls could not have similarly triumphed over Olajuwon's Rockets.

However, watching LeBron James lead Cleveland to the NBA's best record and then take his game to an incredible level in the Eastern Conference Finals only to lose because of Howard's impact, I thought back to Julius "Dr. J" Erving's career. Erving led the 76ers to the best overall regular season record in the NBA from 1976-77-1982-83 and his teams advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals five times in those seven seasons, four times making it through to the NBA Finals--but they only won one championship and that happened after they acquired Moses Malone to match up with Abdul-Jabbar. Erving would likely have won three or four NBA titles were it not for the fact that the 76ers--specifically Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones--simply could not deal with the likes of Walton (1977) and Abdul-Jabbar (1980, 1982) in the NBA Finals; the 76ers also lost to the Hayes-Unseld tandem in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1978 and to Bird-McHale-Parish in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. The only time that Erving in his prime lost an NBA playoff series to a team that did not have a Hall of Fame center was in 1979, when George Gervin's San Antonio Spurs outdueled Erving's 76ers in an entertaining and hard fought seven game Eastern Conference semfinal matchup; the 76ers were without the services of injured All-Star guard Doug Collins and although Erving played well in that postseason (25.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 5.9 apg), he was bothered by nagging groin and abdominal injuries and that was the only time in his first 13 professional seasons that he did not make the All-ABA or All-NBA Team.

What does Erving have to do with Jordan and James? The point is that the NBA Erving--who was not quite as spectacular as the ABA version (as explained in the Epilogue below)--still performed at a high level (literally and figuratively) but simply could not overcome the dominant centers of his era in championship play until he was paired with a dominant center (to be fair, Malone never won a title until he played with Erving, either). Jordan went from being a great player to being an icon in no small part because of his 6-0 record in the NBA Finals but is it possible that, to some extent, that success happened because he was blessed with the good timing to not have to face a dominant center surrounded by an adequate supporting cast? Might Jordan have had to settle for fewer titles if he had been annually bumping heads with the likes of Abdul-Jabbar?

LeBron James' numbers in this year's Eastern Conference Finals--38.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 8.0 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.2 bpg, .487 field goal shooting--are fantastic and rank among the best single-series performances in NBA history but that still was not enough to lift the team with the NBA's best record past a team that has the NBA's most dominant center. Could Jordan really have done any more than what James did? While it is true that James did not have a Pippen alongside him when he battled Howard, it must also be noted that--unlike O'Neal when he faced the Jordan-Pippen Bulls with Penny Hardaway by his side or Olajuwon when he won the 1995 championship with Clyde Drexler--Howard is not paired with an All-NBA sidekick, either. Could the number of championships that James wins ultimately be impacted by having to annually battle Howard in the playoffs, much like Erving had to deal with first Walton and later Abdul-Jabbar and in contrast to the dearth of elite centers on contending teams during Jordan's prime?

In the 2009 Finals, Howard will face the other party in the "Great Debate," Kobe Bryant. Like James, Bryant does not have a teammate of Pippen's caliber but--unlike James or Jordan--he does have an All-Star big man in Pau Gasol. If the combination of Bryant and Gasol guided by nine-time NBA champion Phil Jackson is not enough to stop Howard and the Magic then we may be witnessing the dawning of an era that no one--from the "experts" to the advertisers--expected: the Dwight Howard era.

Epilogue:
----------

It really is a shame that the NBA does not officially count ABA statistics; though younger fans may find this hard to believe, Erving was the LeBron James/Kobe Bryant of his era (though it feels funny to phrase it that way, much like Bill Russell said that a reporter "had the question backward" when asking a retired Russell how he would have fared against the young Abdul-Jabbar); Pat Williams--who is currently a Senior Vice President with the Magic but who was the 76ers' General Manager when they acquired Erving in 1976--recently told me, "There has never been an acrobat like Julius. That would be my argument. Even Jordan, as fun as he was to watch, nobody in his prime did it like Julius...If he were coming along today in his prime, the LeBrons and the Kobes and the Jordans would be second page stuff. Julius would be Tiger Woods-ish; he would be at a level of focus and clamor and gawking like nobody else. As good as these guys are, they just don't have his flair. They don't have his flair."

As great as James' statistics were versus Orlando, Erving put up even better numbers in the 1976 ABA Finals as a New York Net facing the Denver Nuggets, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg). He also shot .590 from the field in that series. The Nuggets had a Hall of Fame center (Dan Issel), a Hall of Fame forward (David Thompson, who later shifted to guard in the NBA) and the best defensive forward in either league (Bobby Jones); the Nuggets were good enough to beat a team comprised of All-Stars from the rest of the teams in the league during All-Star Weekend.

There was so much talk about the Cavs' "nail" play, the 1-4 set out of which James scored or assisted on 32 straight points in Cleveland's game five win versus Orlando, but Erving operated out of a similar formation versus Denver and was every bit as devastating, as the numbers listed above indicate.

While it is interesting to speculate about how many championships Erving could possibly have won if he not had to face Walton and Abdul-Jabbar--or if he and Moses Malone had joined forces earlier--another great hypothetical question is what might Erving have accomplished in the NBA if the Nets had been able to keep their 1976 championship team together instead of selling Erving's contract in order to survive? Nets' Coach Kevin Loughery used Erving in a do-everything role similar to the way that James plays and Jordan played, in contrast to how the Sixers asked Erving to blend in his talents with All-Star players George McGinnis and Doug Collins.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 AM

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Are the Lakers Really Better Off When Kobe Bryant Shoots Less Frequently?

If you watch the ESPN/ABC NBA pregame shows with any regularity then you know that Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry have repeatedly cited statistics that they say prove that the Lakers are better off when Kobe Bryant shoots less frequently. Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a brief item headlined The Lakers Fare Better When Bryant Shoots Less; that piece included a chart titled "Don't Shoot, Kobe" that listed Bryant's field goal attempts averages for the past six seasons during wins and losses. Somehow I doubt that "Don't shoot, Kobe," is a mantra that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson utters too often, particularly in the fourth quarters of close games.

It is not entirely clear if Wilbon, Barry and the WSJ mean to suggest that Bryant is being selfish when he shoots more than their arbitrarily determined optimal amount of field goal attempts for a game (20 is the number that Wilbon and Barry apparently prefer) or if they simply believe that his teammates should be more assertive and less deferential. In any case, even though it is obvious that the best teams involve many players on offense, it seems more than a little odd to suggest that the way for a team to be most successful is to limit the shot attempts taken by its best player and maximize the shot attempts taken by lesser players; likewise, it seems highly unlikely that the difference between winning and losing is primarily determined by whether a given player takes 19 shots or 21. After all, some field goal attempts are last second heaves as the shot clock winds down or as the game clock expires at the end of a quarter; also, a player's official field goal attempts may not reflect how many times he actually tried to shoot the ball if he drew a lot of fouls on shots that he missed: field goal attempts are a "noisy" statistic that does not tell the complete story about how much a player dominated the ball in a given game or what kind of impact he had offensively. For instance, the Lakers went 24-1 this season when Lamar Odom attempted between eight and 10 field goals in a game but they were only 12-8 when he attempted between five and seven field goals in a game and they posted a 12-4 record when he attempted between 11 and 13 field goals in a game. Does that mean that the Lakers should make sure that Odom always attempts between eight and 10 field goals, never permitting him to stray outside of that range? Or does it just mean that there are a lot of other factors that determine the result for the Lakers besides how frequently Odom shoots?

Kobe Bryant has led the Lakers in scoring and assists in each of the past three seasons and in six of the past seven seasons (Odom led the Lakers in assists in 2005-06); Bryant averaged between 24.0 and 35.4 ppg and 4.5 and 6.0 apg during those seven seasons. Bryant has the dual responsibility of carrying the lion's share of the scoring load while also creating quality shot opportunities for teammates who could not create good shots for themselves on their own. The number of shots that Bryant attempts in a given game is affected by how often the opponent double teams him, how many fouls Bryant draws and other factors.

Rather than focusing on how many field goals Bryant attempts to try to determine his optimal role for the Lakers, it makes more sense to look at the end result of his field goal attempts (and free throw attempts): Bryant has scored 40 or more points in 96 regular season games, third on the all-time career list behind Wilt Chamberlain (271) and Michael Jordan (173). The Lakers posted a 65-31 record in those games, a .677 winning percentage that is better than their overall winning percentage (.656) during Bryant's career. Bryant had 27 of those 40 point games in 2005-06, when he led the NBA in scoring with a 35.4 ppg average that ranks eighth on the single season scoring list; the Lakers went 45-37 overall that year (.549) but they went 18-9 (.667) in his 40 point games. Bryant "only" had four 40 point games in the 2008-09 season and the Lakers went 2-2 in those contests; obviously, that is a small sample size, but Bryant had 27 games this season in which he scored at least 30 points and the Lakers went 21-6 (.778) in those games, which is virtually identical with their overall winning percentage (.793) this season.

Bryant has scored at least 50 points in a game 23 times; he ranks third on that all-time career list as well, again trailing only Chamberlain (118) and Jordan (31). The Lakers went 16-7 in Bryant's 50 point games, which is an even better winning percentage (.696) than they posted in the games in which he scored 40-49 points. Bryant's only 50 point game this season happened when he set a Madison Square Garden record with 61 points in a 126-117 victory.

One could easily argue that the Lakers are better off when Bryant scores more than 40 points, so it is strange that Wilbon, Barry and the WSJ pay so much attention to Bryant's field goal attempts to the exclusion of considering the results on those attempts. During the playoffs the past couple years, Hubie Brown and Jeff Van Gundy have pointed out on several occasions that Bryant does an excellent job of reading the defense and making the correct decision about whether to shoot, drive or pass. It is foolish to think that there is an ideal number of field goal attempts for Bryant that applies in all situations; if a team primarily single covers Bryant then he should probably attempt 25-30 shots but if a team traps him aggressively then the right play is to give the ball up. During this year's playoffs, Bryant has once again proven that he will make the right decisions and punish defenses no matter how they try to deal with him: the Lakers have gone 6-3 when Bryant had at least five assists but they also have gone 4-2 when Bryant had three or fewer assists.

It is worth noting that the Lakers are 3-0 in this year's playoffs when Bryant scored at least 40 points but just 1-2 in the three games when he scored fewer than 20 points--but those numbers do not fit the storyline that Wilbon and Barry apparently are determined to tell, so you can rest assured that you will never hear them talk about how well the Lakers do when Bryant tops the 40 point barrier.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:37 AM

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dominant Howard Ends Cleveland's Dream Season, Lifts Orlando into the NBA Finals

Dwight Howard had the best game of his young playoff career and as a result his Orlando Magic defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 103-90, winning the Eastern Conference Finals four games to two. Howard scored a playoff career-high 40 points, shooting 14-21 from the field and 12-16 from the free throw line, and he also had a game-high 14 rebounds. Howard even dished off for four assists and although he only had one blocked shot he stayed out of foul trouble while still being a major defensive presence in the paint. The Magic shot 12-29 (.414) from three point range, with Rashard Lewis (18 points, 3-7 shooting from three point range), Mickael Pietrus (14 points, 4-7 shooting from three point range), Rafer Alston (13 points, 3-7 shooting from three point range) and Hedo Turkoglu (10 points, 2-6 shooting from three point range) leading the long range barrage. This was truly a case of the Cavs suffering from the worst of both worlds, because they neither contained Howard nor did they corral the Magic's many marksmen. As TNT's Kenny Smith said after the game, the Cavs were frequently caught in "no man's land" defensively, not really doubling Howard aggressively but straying too far away from the perimeter players to contest their shots.

LeBron James posted his worst performance of the series, "worst" being a relative term because 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists while shooting 8-20 from the field would be a very good game for just about anyone else--but James averaged 38.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 8.0 apg in this series, so his game six numbers are indeed subpar by his lofty standards. James just did not seem to have his usual explosiveness, often settling for jump shots (he shot 2-8 from three point range). Delonte West added a playoff career-high 22 points on 9-19 field goal shooting, battling for 46 minutes despite the painful hip pointer that he suffered in game five. Mo Williams finished with 17 points on 6-12 field goal shooting but those numbers are very deceptive because he only had three points on 1-5 shooting in the first half as the Cavs fell behind 58-40. Anderson Varejao got into early foul trouble but still contributed 14 points and a team-high eight rebounds. No other Cav scored more than four points.

Since Orlando won 4-2 and cruised to victory in game six, revisionist history will ignore what actually took place in those six games and instead emphasize the popular pre-series topic of the numerous matchup problems that the Magic posed for the Cavaliers. There is no denying that the Magic present some challenging matchups but that is true of any team that advances this far in the NBA playoffs. Howard obviously had a decisive impact in game six and during the series he averaged 25.8 ppg and 13.0 rpg while shooting .651 from the field. Rashard Lewis exceeded his regular season scoring average and field goal percentage in addition to hitting two clutch three pointers, the first of which won game one and the second of which helped to force overtime in game four, enabling the Magic to eventually take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Hedo Turkoglu did not put up jaw dropping shooting numbers in this series but he used his playmaking skills to find open shooters as the Cavs scrambled defensively on the perimeter. Still, one glance at James' numbers in this series shows pretty clearly that he represened the single biggest "matchup problem" for either team; if Cleveland's other players had just performed slightly below their normal levels--as opposed to significantly worse than they played in the regular season--then the Cavs would have won this series despite the efforts of Howard, Lewis and Turkoglu.

Game six was a disaster for Cleveland but that should not obscure the truth that this was a tightly contested series featuring three games that were decided with the ball in the air as the final buzzer sounded--and that simply would not have been the case if Orlando really enjoyed decisive matchup advantages, nor would the Cavs have been able to build double digit leads in several games if they were as thoroughly outmatched as some people suggest: take away the two Lewis three pointers referenced above and the Cavs could have won this series in five games. I don't mean to suggest that the "wrong" team won, nor am I trying to justify my incorrect prediction that Cleveland would defeat Orlando. Rather, I am simply pointing out that the sky is not falling in Cleveland and that it is wrong to declare that the Cavs are a one man team, something that has become fashionable to say in the past week or so. The Cavaliers posted the best regular season record in the NBA in 2008-09 (66-16), leading the league in defensive points per game (91.4) and scoring differential (8.9) while tying the Celtics for first in defensive field goal percentage (.431) and ranking third in rebounding differential (3.3)--and you cannot accomplish those things without having a deep, talented team.

The story of the Eastern Conference Finals, from Cleveland's perspective, is twofold: (1) several players who performed at a high level during the regular season and in the first two rounds of the playoffs did not play well versus Orlando; (2) the Cavs regularly built big early leads only to squander them quickly and then execute poorly down the stretch once the score became close and either team had the opportunity to win. During the offseason, the Cavs' brain trust must figure out why so many players simultaneously regressed during this series and why a team that typically executed very well during the season repeatedly executed very poorly in critical late game situations. To put it bluntly, anyone who is either calling for Coach Mike Brown's head or suggesting that James' entire supporting cast must be replaced is an idiot: Brown's strategies have transformed the Cavs into one of the league's best defensive teams and have already resulted in one NBA Finals appearance and two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in four years. Brown has won at least 50 regular season games in three of those seasons and his career playoff record of 36-24 is outstanding.

LeBron James did not shake hands with the Magic players after the game, which obviously is a departure from normal protocol; Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boys Pistons are still remembered--and not fondly--for snubbing the Chicago Bulls in a similar fashion after losing to the Bulls in the 1991 playoffs and Thomas later said that what he did was wrong and he told his son not to follow that example. It will be interesting to see if James eventually apologizes for this and it will also be interesting to see what kind of spin the national media puts on James' actions.

James compounded his hasty departure from the court by leaving the arena without speaking to the media. James has not made many missteps in his public life but that is a low rent move out of the Brett Favre-Kevin Garnett school: those are guys who are glad to speak with the media when things are going well or when getting their message out to the public suits their purposes but when things are going rough or their team loses then they are nowhere to be found; that is not an example that James should seek to emulate. James' former teammate Eric Snow, currently a commentator on NBA TV, called James' disappearing act "unfortunate" and said that part of being a leader is doing the "hard things" such as swallowing your personal disappointment and speaking with the media after your team has been eliminated. Instead, James hid from the scrutiny, leaving it up to his teammates to take the heat not only for the loss but also to explain how James is feeling. Mo Williams did a good job of deflecting a question about James and instead speaking about the disappointment that all of the Cavs feel--but as the team leader it is James' responsibility to deliver that message in person in his own words. As NBA TV's Rick Kamla noted, Kobe Bryant--who obviously is one of the fiercest competitors in the world--faced the media right after the Lakers got blown out by 39 points in a game six elimination contest in last year's NBA Finals; James should have followed Bryant's lead in that regard. Also, Julius Erving suffered some heartbreaking losses before he won an NBA championship but the one thing he never lost was his class and dignity; he always congratulated his opponents and he always went well beyond the call of duty with the media.

The Magic flew under the radar for most of this season: first the defending champion Celtics stormed out of the gate by going 27-2, then the Lakers took center stage by sweeping their regular season engagements with the Celtics and the Cavs and down the stretch the Cavs moved to the forefront by claiming homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Magic cruised steadily along right behind those teams but were dismissed by most observers after All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury; Orlando responded by acquiring Rafer Alston from the Houston Rockets in exchange for Brian Cook. The Magic inserted Alston in the starting lineup and hardly missed a beat. The Rockets are of course well known for their heavy reliance on "advanced basketball statistics", so it is more than a little ironic that the Magic obtained from Houston the starting point guard in the NBA Finals while only giving up a little used journeyman forward.

There has been a lot of talk about the basketball statistics revolution, but Orlando Magic Senior Vice President Pat Williams recently told me, "There is certainly nothing wrong with advanced science but I am still a firm believer in judging horseflesh, you know? Dollar Sign on the Muscle, the old baseball scouting book. You've got to line guys up, you've got to evaluate, you need tons of experience from doing it for many years. You have to go into the gym and you have to study the product. Given a choice of the modern way or the old fashioned way, David, I'll go with the old fashioned way." Williams said that the Magic do not rely on advanced basketball metrics when they make player evaluations. Indeed, I recall that after the Magic signed a $118 million dollar contract with Rashard Lewis many "stat gurus" said that this was a classic example of a team vastly overpaying a player. I also thought at that time that the Magic paid Lewis more than he is worth but--unlike the "stat gurus"--I understand how the NBA business actually works and I made the point that sometimes if you are trying to win you have to "overpay" to obtain the player you want to get; otherwise, you end up holding a pile of cash but not making your team any better. There are a finite number of players available at any given time and if even one other team is willing to "overpay" to get the guy who you want then you either have to "overpay" or else end up with nothing. The Magic were not able to obtain a traditional, muscle-bound, enforcer power forward to pair with Howard, so they decided to build their team in the mold of the 1995 Houston Rockets and surround their superstar big man with three point shooters plus a versatile swingman who can shoot, rebound, defend and be a playmaker (Houston had Clyde Drexler in that role, while the Magic have Hedo Turkoglu).

Howard is averaging nearly 16 rpg during the playoffs; no other Orlando player is averaging even 6 rpg and collectively the Magic have been outrebounded slightly by their opponents--but they more than make up for that by taking care of the ball, shooting an excellent percentage from three point range while attempting a large number of treys and feeding the ball into Howard, who is shooting better than .600 from the field in the postseason. The big difference between the Magic and other teams that have tried to win by playing at a fast tempo while shooting tons of threes is that the Magic play outstanding defense, anchored in the paint by Howard, the Defensive Player of the Year.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM

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