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Friday, June 12, 2009

Clutch Three Pointers by Fisher Lift Lakers to Commanding 3-1 Series Lead

Couch potato coaches have been calling for Derek Fisher's head throughout the playoffs but the much maligned 34 year old point guard drained two clutch three pointers--one to force overtime and the second to give the L.A. Lakers the lead for good--as the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic 99-91 in overtime, taking a 3-1 lead and all but clinching the 2009 NBA Championship. Fisher missed the first five three pointers that he attempted but Kobe Bryant repeatedly tells his teammates that you cannot make big shots if you afraid to take them and Fisher proved that he is confident while also justifying the confidence that Coach Phil Jackson has demonstrated in Fisher. Bryant led the Lakers with a game-high 32 points and a game-high eight assists, becoming the only Laker other than Magic Johnson to have at least eight assists in six straight playoff games; Bryant has had exactly eight assists in each of the four Finals games, after posting eight assists in game five of the Western Conference Finals versus Denver and 10 assists in the game six series clincher. Bryant also had a strong performance on the boards, grabbing seven rebounds to rank third on the Lakers. Although Bryant shot just 11-31 from the field, he had a strong first quarter (13 points on 4-7 shooting) to keep the Lakers close when their whole frontcourt rotation was in foul trouble, he created open shots for his teammates down the stretch, he made the Lakers' first two field goals in overtime and he drew a double team before passing to Fisher for the key three pointer in overtime.

Pau Gasol added 16 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. Trevor Ariza had 16 points and nine rebounds, overcoming a sluggish first half to contribute 13 third quarter points as the Lakers rallied from a double digit deficit. Fisher finished with 12 points, four rebounds, one assist and no turnovers. Lamar Odom, who has apparently already met his quota for effective games in this series, had nine points, five rebounds and five fouls in 27:36; his versatility is often praised and certainly was on display in this game, though not in the fashion that is generally meant by that term: he showed the ability to miss out of control layups with either hand and repeatedly foul jump shooters. Starting center Andrew Bynum had six points, two rebounds and five fouls in just 15:40.

Hedo Turkoglu led the Magic with 25 points, getting the best of Ariza for most of the game, but he shot just 8-13 from the free throw line, including just 3-7 in the fourth quarter. Dwight Howard nearly had a triple double--16 points, 21 rebounds, a Finals single game record nine blocked shots--but he committed seven turnovers and shot 6-14 from the free throw line. The Magic led 87-84 with :11.1 remaining in the fourth quarter when Howard missed two free throws, providing Fisher the opportunity to be the hero. The Lakers hounded Rashard Lewis into scoring just six points on 2-10 field goal shooting, though he did have seven rebounds and four assists. Mickael Pietrus had a solid game (15 points), while Rafer Alston made some shots early in the game but did not play down the stretch and finished with 11 points; Jameer Nelson essentially replaced Alston in the second half and although Nelson created some scoring opportunities for his teammates (three assists) he never found his shooting touch (two points, 1-3 field goal shooting) and he made a critical error at the end of regulation by backing up and giving Fisher room to shoot the tying three pointer. Nelson also left Fisher to double team Bryant, creating the opening for Fisher's dagger three pointer in the extra session. Earlier in the game, Nelson got away with a missed defensive rotation when Bryant did not convert a wide open three pointer. Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy is really in a no win position with his point guard situation: he obviously wants to play Nelson, the 2009 All-Star who missed four months due to injury, but Nelson is rusty and inserting him in the lineup has affected Alston's minutes/role and forced Anthony Johnson, an effective player for the Magic earlier in the playoffs, out of the rotation completely.

Howard played with remarkable tenacity and intensity in the first quarter, grabbing 11 rebounds, blocking three shots and playing a role in getting all three of the Lakers' primary big men (Gasol, Odom and Bynum) in foul trouble, as that trio compiled two fouls each in the first 9:12. The Lakers survived a stretch with Bryant anchoring a lineup featuring D.J. Mbenga, Josh Powell, Luke Walton and Jordan Farmar, trailing just 24-20 at the end of the first quarter. Bryant not only accounted for virtually all of the Lakers' points (13 points, one assist), he also was extremely active on defense, all but disregarding his man (Courtney Lee) in order to roam around and disrupt the actions of the Magic's principal offensive threats; Bryant poked the ball away from Lewis in the post (in the official play by play, Ariza received credit for a steal because he recovered the ball) and was very active on the glass--in addition to his two rebounds Bryant did an excellent job of sinking into the paint, putting a body on the nearest player and tipping the ball if he could not control it.

Bryant sat out the first 4:08 of the second quarter--the only rest he received all game--and the Magic extended their lead to 34-27. For the second game in a row, Bryant struggled to find his shooting rhythm in the second quarter after carrying the team with his scoring in the first quarter. ESPN's Jon Barry has been making a big fuss about Bryant shooting too much--a standard theme for Barry and Mike Wilbon, who apparently are neither watching these games nor looking at the box scores: Bryant was 8-15 from the field in the first half of game three and 3-10 in the second half, so perhaps Bryant did not shoot enough down the stretch in that game, because if he had attempted a few more shots and gotten hot the Lakers might have won. Bryant shot 1-5 from the field in the second quarter of game four, so the issue was not that he shot too often but rather that he simply did not pick up where he had left off in the first quarter: what many people apparently do not understand is that for this Lakers team Bryant not only fills the Michael Jordan scoring role but he also has to fill the Scottie Pippen facilitator role; Bryant talked about this a little bit after game three, noting that he has to strike a delicate balance between finding/maintaining his shooting rhythm while also keeping his teammates involved. That is not nearly as simple as it may sound on paper, but Bryant's playoff averages (30.2 ppg, .458 field goal shooting, 5.5 apg) and the fact that the Lakers are one win away from an NBA championship demonstrate just how effective and efficient he has been.

Lewis has been a key player for the Magic throughout the playoffs and in this series as well; in game four Bryant seemed to take a particular interest in defending Lewis: on several occasions, Bryant ended up guarding Lewis after switches and Lewis tried to take the smaller Bryant down to the low post but Bryant aggressively fronted Lewis with perfect defensive technique, denying the entry pass. On one remarkable second quarter possession, Bryant fronted Lewis, denied the pass and then beat Lewis to the rebound, which is very difficult to do against a bigger player who has inside position. That kind of rebound by Bryant is an example of why, in my skill set based comparison of Bryant with Lebron James (during the brief--and in hindsight, remarkably unusual--time that SlamOnline actually displayed an interest in publishing high quality basketball writing), I ranked Bryant as James' equal as a rebounder even though James has a higher rpg average; Bryant plays on the perimeter and does not have the same rebounding opportunities/responsibilities that James does, but when Bryant plays in the paint he is capable of rebounding with anyone at any time, a theme that we will revisit later in this game.

With Bryant neither shooting frequently nor accurately in the second quarter, the Lakers only scored 17 points and trailed 49-37 at halftime. Howard had as many rebounds (14) as the entire Lakers team and while Bryant had 16 points on 5-12 field goal shooting his teammates combined to score just 21 points on 9-30 field goal shooting. Turkoglu led the Magic with 15 points on 5-6 field goal shooting. It is interesting how things are perceived, because a lot of people say that Orlando beat Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals because Orlando enjoyed so many mismatch advantages but Turkoglu averaged 17.2 ppg on .390 field goal shooting versus the Cavs while mainly being guarded by Delonte West (who is listed at 6-3) and he is averaging 19.5 ppg on .491 field goal shooting versus the Lakers while mainly being guarded by the 6-8 Ariza; the reality is that five of the six Cleveland-Orlando games were close and could have gone either way and three of the four L.A.-Orlando games have been close and could have gone either way, but people try to concoct grand story lines based on the final results instead of taking the time to actually analyze what happened.

After the game, Bryant made a very interesting observation, noting that Pietrus has been defending him very well on the perimeter and that the Magic have been very effective at sending help because Bryant has been starting his move so far away from the hoop; Bryant adjusted to this by going to the low post more frequently in the second half, accepting the double team and thereby creating scoring opportunities for his teammates. Bryant assisted on a Fisher jumper to open the scoring in the third quarter and Ariza was able to drive to the hoop for a wide open dunk after Bryant drew a double team, passed the ball and forced Orlando's defense to rotate; Bryant did not get an assist but he created Ariza's scoring opportunity. Bryant then made a three pointer to cut the Magic lead to 51-44, Ariza scored on a runner and Bryant assisted on an Ariza three pointer to make the score 54-49 Orlando. After Ariza split a pair of free throws, the Lakers got a stop and posted up Bryant, who passed to Gasol, who then swung the ball to Ariza for a wide open three pointer that pulled the Lakers to within 54-53. Soon after that, Gasol failed to pass to an open Bryant and ABC commentator Mark Jackson made this comment during a stoppage of play: "On this possession, Kobe Bryant chastizes Pau Gasol: get me the basketball. When you get me the ball, the offense is easy. I will make the proper plays, double team comes and guys will have wide open shots. He is running the point guard from the scoring position. It shows you how great Kobe is. If you single coverage him, he is going to look to score. If you double team him the guy is making the proper play." Jackson's fellow commentator Jeff Van Gundy added, "That is why when people say I have to pass or shoot more--it's not about that. It's about making the right play." As regular 20 Second Timeout readers know, I have been making exactly those points--not just about Bryant but about basketball in general and how it should be analyzed--for years; the fact that Jon Barry and Mike Wilbon apparently are incapable of understanding this is why I keep lambasting their "analysis" and it is why I have no patience for amateur hour writers at various publications and websites who, quite frankly, have no idea what they are talking about when they write game recaps or try to make player comparisons. Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Hubie Brown consistently note that Bryant does a tremendous job of reading the defense and making the right play, while the amateur hour writers get bogged down in the minutiae of counting how many times Bryant shoots or how many assists he has.

Ariza will be cited as a third quarter hero in most articles--and rightfully so, because Ariza certainly played well--but it is highly unlikely that too many people will mention that 10 of Ariza's 13 third quarter points were directly or indirectly created by Bryant drawing double teams. That is why the whole issue of just how talented the Lakers really are overall is a bit murky; Ariza has been a bench player his whole career until this year, Gasol never won a playoff game until he teamed up with Bryant and Fisher clearly cannot not create a shot for himself but all three players are playing vital roles on a very strong team: those players deserve credit for performing well under pressure but a lot of their scoring opportunities are created by the attention that Bryant draws. The casual fan is mesmerized by the assist totals racked up by Chris Paul, Steve Nash and LeBron James--three players who are excellent passers--but those players monopolize the ball to a much greater extent than Bryant does and are thus more likely to be in position to make the pass that leads directly to a score, while Bryant often makes the pass that leads to the scoring pass (though Bryant is on something of an assist tear, so to speak, in the past half dozen games).

Bryant had eight points and four assists in the third quarter as the Lakers outscored the Magic 30-14 to take a 67-63 lead but arguably his biggest play does not even appear in the boxscore. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was asked after the game to single out the turning point and he chose a play that happened at the 1:28 mark of the third quarter: Howard missed a reverse layup and seemed to control the offensive rebound but Bryant ripped the ball away from Howard and Howard retaliated by fouling Bryant, who sank two free throws (Bryant shot 8-8 from the free throw line in this game after his much discussed 5-10 free throw shooting in game three). The Team USA teammates exchanged words and if you can read lips you know that Bryant told Howard to shut the ---- up and play ball. Earlier I mentioned that Bryant's rebounding prowess is equal to LeBron James' and is underrated by the casual fan; not too many shooting guards are strong enough to take the ball away from Howard. Interestingly, in the official play by play this is recorded as a "team rebound," not a rebound (or steal) for Bryant. In any case, Coach Jackson said that Bryant's play "showed the grit that this team has tried to develop over the last year." You may recall that in game four of the 2008 Finals the Lakers squandered a huge lead at home to fall behind 3-1, so it is an interesting symmetry that this year Bryant made a tough, physical play that helped the Lakers rally from a double digit deficit on the road to take a 3-1 series lead.

Bryant fed Odom an alley oop pass for a layup that pushed the Lakers' advantage to six points at the start of the fourth quarter but the Magic kept their composure and made a run of their own, capped off with a three point play by Pietrus that put them up 76-75 at the 5:38 mark. Jumpers by Gasol and Bryant enabled the Lakers to go ahead 79-76 but then Nelson found Howard inside for a dunk, Turkoglu split a pair of free throws and Nelson passed to Howard inside again, this time resulting in a three point play that gave Orlando an 82-79 lead. Ariza answered with a three pointer--and this shot was one of the few that definitely was not created by Bryant; after a broken play, Ariza ended up with the ball outside of the three point arc with the shot clock winding down and he fired away and hit a very important shot, though Turkoglu responded with a three pointer to put Orlando up 85-82. After Turkoglu's runner at the 1:34 mark gave the Magic a five point lead it seemed like the Lakers were in trouble but Bryant drove to the hoop and spoonfed Gasol for a dunk to trim the margin to 87-84 with :31.9 remaining; that play will likely be forgotten in the wake of Fisher's heroics but if Bryant does not find Gasol then the Lakers would have lost in regulation. Of course, after Gasol scored the Lakers still needed to get a stop but their defense broke down and Howard caught the ball right underneath the hoop, poised to throw down a monster dunk until Bryant fouled him so hard--but cleanly, simply wrapping up the powerful Howard to prevent a three point play--that both players tumbled to the ground. Again, this is another play that the average fan will not remember, but part of the reason that the Cavs are sitting at home now is that they allowed Howard to have three uncontested dunks in the overtime of game four of the Eastern Conference Finals, resulting in Orlando taking a 3-1 lead in that series. Bryant forced Howard to make two free throws--and Howard whiffed on both attempts. After a timeout, Coach Jackson elected to inbound the ball in the backcourt, explaining later that he thought that if the Lakers advanced the ball then the Magic might simply foul immediately. Of course, the Magic trapped Bryant as soon as he caught the inbounds pass but this just created a three on two fastbreak after Bryant passed to Ariza and Ariza fed Fisher. Nelson inexplicably backed up inside the three point line and Fisher drilled the tying shot with :04.6 left.

The Magic called a timeout to draw up a play and then after Turkoglu was unable to inbound the ball they called another timeout. The next time, Turkoglu passed to Pietrus, who missed a jumper. That play was very interesting, because Bryant ended up guarding Howard in the post on a switch. Much like Bryant did with Lewis earlier in the game, Bryant fronted Howard and did a good enough job that Turkoglu did not feel like he could make the entry pass; then, after Pietrus shot the ball, Bryant did a good job of boxing out Howard.

Lewis opened the overtime by hitting a three pointer but Bryant answered with two jumpers. Neither team scored for more than two minutes until Howard split a pair of free throws to tie the game at 91. Ariza missed a layup but controlled the rebound and then Bryant missed a jumper but the Lakers once again retained possession. This time, the Lakers went back to Bryant in the post, Nelson doubled Bryant and Bryant passed to Fisher for what proved to be the game-winning three pointer. Throughout the playoffs some people have questioned why Coach Jackson did not replace Fisher with Jordan Farmar or Shannon Brown. Does anyone really think that Farmar or Brown would have made the two pressure three pointers that Fisher hit in this game? As Mark Jackson said, "The veteran coach stuck with his veteran player and Derek Fisher once again--old reliable, making plays, making shots."

Turkoglu missed a three pointer and the long rebound caromed out to Gasol, who went coast to coast for a dunk. After another missed Turkoglu three pointer, the Lakers passed the ball ahead to Gasol, who dunked despite a flagrant foul by Pietrus, who wound up with two hands and pounded Gasol in the back. Gasol did not take kindly to Pietrus' actions and immediately exchanged words with him. Both players received technical fouls. It will be interesting to see if the NBA upgrades Pietrus' foul to a flagrant two, which results in an automatic one game suspension. Some people made a big deal earlier in the season about a foul that Ariza committed versus Portland but Ariza was clearly going for the ball in that case and Rudy Fernandez just had an unfortunate, awkward fall--but Pietrus made a dangerous play while making no attempt whatsoever to go for the ball, which is precisely why the mild mannered Gasol reacted as immediately and as vociferously as he did.

The Lakers have been maligned for their inconsistent effort at times but they are now 7-0 in the 2009 playoffs after a loss; in other words, they have made it to within one victory of the championship without losing consecutive playoff games: that is impressive.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mark Heisler on Kobe Bryant's "Peaks and Valleys"

I generally shy away from making the cliched Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant comparisons: Jordan clearly had more career accomplishments--though Bryant may have enough time left to match Jordan, assuming Bryant goes on a late career championship splurge like Jordan did--and Jordan was physically stronger, better on the post and possessed bigger hands that gave him more ballhandling options; I don't think that Jordan was much better than Bryant but I don't see the need to continually compare them, either, particularly when it is much more interesting and relevant to compare Bryant with the great players he is actually competing against.

However, Mark Heisler of the L.A. Times just wrote a very interesting article that compares Jordan and Bryant in a perceptive way:

If Michael Jordan was the best ever, it was because of his consistency at a level no one had ever reached. Bryant goes to Jordan's level all the time -- and beyond, where no one ever went before -- between dips.

If Jordan was a straight line across the top of the graph, Bryant is a wavy line, with the highs going off the chart, as in Tuesday's first quarter, in one of the great 12-minute bursts anyone has ever played.

In numbers, it was 17 points with three assists, making seven of 10 shots.

In person, it was awesome.

"The greatest first quarter I ever saw," ABC's Jeff Van Gundy called it Wednesday.

"That shot he made in front of the Laker bench," a four-point play after making a three-pointer as Mickael Pietrus, whom he faked in the air, fell into him, "that might have been the third hardest shot he hit in the quarter. For anyone else, it might be the best shot of their career," Van Gundy said.

He continued: "That pass he made to Pau Gasol," after going up to take a 20-footer and spotting Gasol open," to change what he's doing at the last moment? He made it look easy, but it's not."

Showing what brilliance gets you if you lose, the reaction Bryant got afterward was:

Aren't you supposed to be the game's best closer?

Actually, he is, but he flamed out after that first quarter Tuesday.

I met Heisler during All-Star Weekend a few years back and talked with him about Bryant and Jordan, since Heisler has been around long enough to cover both players in their primes. Jordan had a legendary work ethic but Heisler told me that Bryant has an even greater, more relentless work ethic. It would not be fair or accurate to say that Heisler is, to use the overworked term, a "homer" for either Jordan or Bryant. Rather, Heisler is a veteran NBA reporter simply stating what he has observed about Jordan and Bryant--and he both observes and writes better than most of the current NBA writers, probably because Heisler has been doing this at a high level as long or longer than many of those writers have been alive. That sense of history and perspective is a welcome counterpoint to people who know nothing and therefore insist that what just happened must be the best, the worst or the most important thing ever.

Switching the focus from Jordan-Bryant back to today's players, the only thing that I would add to Heisler's comparison is that Bryant is the current player who every other great player tries to emulate: we saw that with the U.S. Olympic Team as it became increasingly evident just how much Bryant's work ethic, practice demeanor and defensive focus influenced LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the players not just during the Olympics but also during the 2008-09 season. If you talk to just about any basketball fan or player who grew up in the 1970s or early 1980s he will tell you that his favorite player was Julius Erving; Bryant does not enjoy Erving's universal popularity but from a skill set standpoint he is certainly the most admired (and feared) player of this generation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Magic Set Finals Single Game Field Goal Percentage Record, Beat Lakers 108-104

The Orlando Magic set an NBA Finals single game record by shooting .625 from the field and had five players score between 18 and 21 points as they defeated the L.A. Lakers 108-104, cutting the Lakers' lead to 2-1. The 1991 Chicago Bulls had held the Finals single game field goal percentage record (.617), narrowly edging the 1987 Lakers (.615); both of those teams went on to win the championship, though the 1985 Celtics shot nearly as well (.608) in one game but still eventually lost to the Lakers. Dwight Howard led the Magic with 21 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. He also had just one turnover after committing seven in game two. Howard shot 5-6 from the field but his field goal attempts in this series do not accurately indicate how involved he is offensively because the Lakers are fouling Howard when he catches the ball deep in the paint; Howard shot 11-16 from the free throw line. Rashard Lewis also scored 21 points in addition to contributing five rebounds and five assists. Rafer Alston provided some much needed scoring punch from the point guard position with 20 points--but no one who understands basketball is surprised that Alston shot much better at home than he did in the first two games of the series on the road. Mickael Pietrus added 18 points, including what proved to be the game-winning putback dunk plus two free throws that pushed Orlando's lead to four points with :28.7 remaining. Hedo Turkoglu played the point forward role to perfection with 18 points, seven assists, six rebounds and just one turnover. The Magic only attempted 14 three pointers, making five, but they killed the Lakers with pullup midrange jumpers and scored some timely uncontested layups. The Lakers' matchup advantages and length on defense have been much discussed but the Magic hardly seemed overmatched or too small in this contest; in fact, they pretty much picked the Lakers apart--literally, by using pick and roll plays--from start to finish.

Kobe Bryant scored 69 points and had 16 assists in the first two games of the Finals. The last four players who reached both of those marks in the first two games of the Finals--Michael Jordan in 1997, 1992 and 1991 and Jerry West in 1969--won the Finals MVP, though of course West's Lakers lost the Finals in seven games to the Celtics despite his triple double (42 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists) in the last contest. Bryant produced 31 points, eight assists and three rebounds in game three--and became just the third player to amass 100 points and 24 assists in the first three games of an NBA Finals series--but he shot 11-25 from the field and just 5-10 from the free throw line. When the Lakers win, their talent and depth receive high praise but when the Lakers lose the bulk of the attention is usually focused squarely on Bryant. All of the self-proclaimed experts surely have their "Michael Jordan would have never missed that many free throws" articles ready but students of basketball history recall that in the game before Michael Jordan hit "The Shot" over Craig Ehlo he missed free throws down the stretch that cost his Chicago Bulls a chance to win; so before Henry Abbott, John Krolik and crew carry on about how THIS was the BIGGEST game of Bryant's career, let's just see how the series plays out, instead of trying to write history before the history has even taken place.

After the game, Bryant said, "We lost this game on the defensive end. We had been playing very good defense and the team tonight shoots 62 percent from the field." Look at Orlando's team and individual numbers again: a Finals record field goal percentage spearheaded by five players scoring between 18 and 21 points, each of whom shot at least .583 from the field. That is just unacceptably bad defense; any good defensive game plan focuses on stopping certain things that the other team does well while potentially conceding other shot opportunities but the Lakers did not contain any of Orlando's key players. All season long I have written about how inconsistent the Lakers are defensively, in contrast to Kevin Pelton, who bizarrely claimed that the Lakers are using some kind of revolutionary defensive tactics, a contention that Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons flatly rejected when I asked him about it early in the season; Cleamons told me at that time, "The only thing we’re doing is what a lot of teams have decided to do: basically, playing a man to man defense that is actually a zone; we’re sending an extra defender over in situations that we feel threatened. There’s no big secret about it; that’s what we’re trying to do: give more help when we can and we’ve been fortunate thus far." Around the midpoint of the season, I spoke with Cleamons again and he provided this candid assessment of the Lakers' defense:

Anyone who watches film and is a student of the game would see that we don't play with the same intensity day in and day out, game in and game out. If you are going to be a championship caliber team, your defense is the one area that doesn't waver. We aren't good enough on a game by game basis to do what we need to do to say that we are going to be accountable in the end. Then, our rotations are not always what I like to call 'on point.' Sometimes, they are nonexistent, sometimes they are a little bit slow. If you are a good defensive team, then you play better on the defensive end than you do on the offensive end, because that (defense) is where you are really linked together; (in that case) the team has a feeling of when they have to help and a sense and a presence of how they need to get there so that when the ball moves and flows your defense is not always reacting. You are kind of ahead or you arrive right on the catch so the offense knows that you are there and there are no gaps in your rotations.

The Magic are a tough team to guard because they surround Howard with several players who not only can make three pointers but are also able to put the ball on the floor and either get to the hoop or pull up and shoot midrange shots--but the Lakers' defensive rotations in game three were late and/or incorrect. This is a problem that you could actually see starting to crop up in the second quarter of game two, when Lamar Odom fell asleep and let Lewis go off for 18 points, mostly on uncontested shots. The most effective defense against Orlando--the one that I have been mentioning since the Pistons beat the Magic in the playoffs last year--is to single cover Howard, foul him to prevent any dunks, and play the rest of the players straight up. Howard should only be double-teamed once he puts the ball on the floor, because that is when he is vulnerable to being stripped by smaller players and because he is not a great passer when he is on the move. Doubling Howard when he is holding the ball is not a good idea because that provides him with an easy read--and doubling Howard with a small player like Fisher when Howard is holding the ball is particularly pointless because Howard will simply throw the ball right over Fisher's head. However, Fisher has done a good job of trapping Howard when Howard is on the move, "digging" at the ball and creating a lot of disruption. The problem is that in the last game and a half the Lakers seem to have lost some of their discipline and focus defensively. Of course, the other obvious factor is that teams shoot better at home than on the road, so what Orlando did in game three is only surprising from the standpoint that the Magic set a Finals record.

Pau Gasol had 23 points on 9-11 field goal shooting but grabbed just three rebounds in 39:47. Trevor Ariza scored 13 points and had a team-high seven rebounds but shot just 5-13 from the field. Lamar Odom had just 11 points and two rebounds in 32:23, while Jordan Farmar chipped in 11 points in 15:56 off of the bench. Derek Fisher had solid numbers (nine points, two assists, no turnovers) but was burned repeatedly by Alston. If the Lakers truly are a deep team, nine-time champion Coach Phil Jackson apparently does not realize it because other than Odom and Farmar only three other reserves saw action and that trio combined to play fewer than 15 minutes--and listing Odom as a bench player is really just a matter of semantics because he plays starter's minutes and is usually on the court at the end, while nominal starter Andrew Bynum plays reserve minutes and has rarely had an impact during the postseason; Bynum had just four points and four rebounds in 23:20.

Despite Orlando's hot shooting, the Lakers actually led 31-27 after the first quarter, mainly because of a spectacular 12 minutes by Bryant, who had three assists in the first 2:57 and then erupted for 17 points on 7-10 field goal shooting. Overall, he accounted for 10 of the Lakers' 14 made field goals but ABC commentator Mark Jackson made an important point about how Bryant's impact extends beyond the boxscore numbers: "What people don't realize is that the reason why Pau Gasol is able to play one on one is Kobe Bryant is on the strong side so that eliminates his man's double teaming." That is why the Wages of Wins approach--which concluded that Gasol outplayed Bryant in the 2008 Finals even though anyone who understands basketball realizes that is false--is so deeply flawed: baseball is a station to station game with discrete actions that can be quantified but basketball involves a complex interaction of 10 players and sometimes one player scores an easy basket because the other team is focused on stopping his teammate. Along similar lines, Jackson's broadcast partner Jeff Van Gundy was amused by the idea that Bryant had a subpar game two: "When you get 29 points and eight assists and you're unhappy, you're really, really good." After Bryant concluded his first quarter onslaught with a four point play, Van Gundy concluded, "That could have been the best quarter I remember watching someone play in the Finals in recent memory." Bryant cooled off in the second quarter but he did execute a great shot fake to draw a foul on Pietrus, though in a bit of foreshadowing Bryant only split the resulting pair of free throws. Van Gundy said, "If you want to look at (a) textbook, fundamental shot fake--watch how hard he went on the dribble and then raised the ball all the way above his head, imitating his jump shot to perfection. Talk about his great athleticism--this is honed in the gym: two hard dribbles, great pullup shot fake." Why does this matter? Henry Abbott--and a lot of the "stat gurus"--contend that Bryant plays a more aesthetically pleasing game than other stars such as LeBron James and that the beauty of Bryant's game masks his flaws but Abbott is not just wrong about this, he is in fact completely missing the point: while James and some of the younger stars like Dwyane Wade may have more athletic ability now than Bryant does and are able to do some flashy and visually impressive things (such as the so-called "chasedown blocks") what Van Gundy correctly notes is that Bryant is in fact an extremely fundamentally sound player and that is the real basis of Bryant's greatness; NBA TV commentator Steve Smith--who played against both Bryant and Michael Jordan--recently said that he considers Bryant to be the most fundamentally sound player in the history of the game, possessing better footwork even than Jordan. Whether you agree or disagree with Smith's statement, the important thing to understand is that when actual NBA experts like Van Gundy and Smith watch a basketball game and analyze Bryant's skill set they are seeing a much different game than 99% of the people who write about basketball, which is why such a high percentage of what is written about basketball is wrong.

The Magic led 59-54 at halftime, setting a record for best field goal percentage for one half in any Finals game (75%). Why even mention Bryant's first half performance when the Magic had the lead, ultimately won the game and Bryant did not come through in the clutch? Simple--while so many people ramble on ad nauseam about how talented the Lakers are and how deep the Lakers are, the reality is that the Lakers are highly dependent on Bryant creating shots for himself and shots for his teammates. When Bryant is not able to do that the Lakers have problems. It is interesting how so many people (erroneously) call the Cleveland Cavaliers a one man team but apparently don't recognize just how dependent the Lakers are on Bryant. In the wake of Bryant's 21 point first half, the Magic understandably focused more attention on Bryant in the third quarter and he responded correctly by drawing multiple defenders--Bryant later said that the Magic threw the "kitchen sink" at him--and then passing to wide open teammates. Bryant did not make a field goal until the 1:20 mark of the third quarter but what was really odd was that he shot just 2-5 from the free throw line, including 1-3 after he was fouled while shooting a three pointer. As Phil Jackson said after the game when asked to explain Bryant's shooting, "We're all frail as humans." Meanwhile, the Magic received third quarter contributions from multiple players, with Howard scoring seven points, Alston adding six points and Turkoglu, Lewis and Courtney Lee also making shots.

The Magic led 81-75 after three quarters. In game two, Bryant played the whole second half and overtime but after playing Bryant for the entire third quarter Coach Jackson decided that he had to give Bryant some rest. As highly conditioned as Bryant is, people seem to forget that he is indeed human and that for this team he is asked not only to shoulder the Michael Jordan scoring role in the Triangle Offense but also the Scottie Pippen playmaking/ballhandling role. Coach Jackson said after the game that he had planned to keep Bryant out for at least five fourth quarter minutes to try to rejuvenate him but that circumstances did not allow him to do that; those circumstances were the fact that the Lakers looked dead in the water without Bryant in the game as the Magic built a 91-82 lead, their biggest of the series. Once Bryant returned, the Lakers mostly ran the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action for the rest of the game and that proved to be highly effective, enabling the Lakers to tie the score at 99 with 2:41 left. Bryant only had five points and two assists in the fourth quarter but he played a critical role in the Lakers' comeback, as Mark Jackson noted: "Right now, Kobe Bryant is running the pick and roll as a decoy. He is a willing passer making plays." Here is what Jackson is talking about: after Gasol set a screen for Bryant, two Orlando defenders trapped Bryant, who swung the ball to the weakside where either Fisher, Ariza or Farmar were open. Those guys either took uncontested three pointers or fed the ball in the post to Odom, who could establish deep post position and go one on one because the Orlando defense had tilted to Bryant and was now in full rotation. It is this type of action that "advanced basketball statistics" completely fail to accurately describe, because other than a couple assists there is no boxscore record of Bryant's impact but he essentially created virtually every shot that the Lakers took after he returned to the game. One of the assist passes--a feed to Fisher for a three pointer that cut Orlando's lead to 95-93 at the 5:25 mark--merited special praise from Van Gundy, who does an excellent job of specifically explaining why certain plays are not as easy as great players make them appear to be: "That hook pass going to your left is an incredibly difficult pass. He made it on time and on target."

Bryant and Gasol did an excellent job of changing the angles of the screen and the way that Bryant attacked the defenders--and the other Lakers came through by knocking down shots but after exerting all of that energy to wipe out a nine point lead the Lakers simply did not have enough in the tank to finish things off; the final 2:41 represents a wasted opportunity for the Lakers, starting with a missed Turkoglu jumper that the Lakers failed to rebound, enabling Pietrus to crash the boards from the weakside and get a tip dunk. Bryant then missed a three pointer and Alston split a pair of free throws to put the Magic up 102-99 with 1:54 left. Gasol answered with a layup on a feed from Bryant but then Lewis hit a jumper with his toe on the three point line to make the score 104-101 Magic. Bryant drew a foul on Howard but only made one of two free throws. The Lakers got a crucial defensive stop as Gasol blocked Lewis' runner but the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll that had sparked the Lakers' comeback fell apart on the next critical possession, as Howard poked the ball loose from Bryant. Gasol recovered the ball while lying on the court but instead of calling timeout he tried to pass in tight quarters to Bryant and Pietrus came up with the steal. Bryant fouled Pietrus, who coolly knocked down both free throws. The Lakers missed four three pointers--and got four offensive rebounds--in the final 28 seconds before Bryant got an offensive rebound under the hoop and made a layup with just :00.5 left. Bryant fouled Lewis as Lewis caught the inbounds pass but with just :00.2 showing on the clock and the Lakers out of timeouts the game was already effectively over. Lewis capped off the scoring by making both free throws.

You can expect that the same people who were foolishly speaking of a Lakers' sweep just 24 hours ago will now overreact to this game and talk about how the Lakers are in trouble. The basic realities of this series have not changed. The Lakers have the best player, they own homecourt advantage and--when focused--they are quite capable of matching up defensively with the Magic, who needed record field goal shooting on their homecourt plus a highly unusual free throw shooting performance from Bryant to eke out a four point win. The next game will be completely different--the Magic will not shoot .625 from the field, nor will Bryant shoot .500 from the free throw line--but it most likely will again be very competitive. The Magic need to win three straight home games to have any realistic chance to win this series and it will be very tough for them to pull that off. The most likely scenario is that the Lakers will get one win in Orlando and then close out the series at home in game six.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:03 AM

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

There is a Little "Little Dez" in All of Us

My favorite Nike "puppets" commercial is the one featuring "Little Dez":



I think that everyone has a little "Little Dez" in him--at least until most of us are taught that it is not "cool" to be so outwardly and genuinely enthusiastic or to ask countless questions. Minus the glasses and the allergies, I was "Little Dez"--if I had met Julius Erving and Pistol Pete Maravich at the same age that "Little Dez" meets Kobe Bryant and LeBron James I probably would have acted like "Little Dez" does. The charming thing about "Little Dez" is he doesn't really care about the "Great Debate": he likes LeBron's "crab walk dribble dribble" and Kobe's "crossover dribble," he wonders if LeBron feels sorry when he dunks on someone and he is curious if Kobe has a "ring polisher." What "Little Dez" represents is childlike joy. That may seem simple or corny--or annoying if you are the one who is being asked so many questions--but it is actually quite profound; after all, Albert Einstein transformed the way that we view the universe largely because he asked childlike questions--"What would it be like to travel on a beam of light? What would I see? If someone watched me, what would he see?"--and then stubbornly used his great intellect to find the answers.

When Michael Jordan entered the NBA, he had a "love of the game" clause inserted into his standard player contract so that he could play pickup basketball whenever he wanted to in the offseason. People will always speculate about why he retired the first time but one thing that is undeniable is that he had lost that childlike love of the game. Look at his face during the press conference when he announced his retirement:



He had a completely blank look, even when he tried to force a smile. I don't know how he lost that childlike wonder or how he regained it during his time away from the sport but you can hardly imagine a bigger contrast than the one between "Little Dez" and Michael Jordan the day that he walked away from the NBA. When you lose that childlike joy and wonder--at any age--that is when you know that it is over.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:07 AM

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Lakers Edge Magic in Overtime to Take 2-0 Lead

It was neither easy nor pretty but the Lakers displayed just enough grit, savvy and clutch play to defeat the Orlando Magic 101-96 in overtime to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 29 points and eight assists, adding four rebounds and two steals, but he also had seven turnovers in a game-high 48:30. Pau Gasol contributed 24 points and 10 rebounds; he scored seven of the Lakers' 13 overtime points, including a key three point play on a feed from Bryant to put the Lakers up 97-91 with 1:14 remaining. Lamar Odom made his presence felt with 19 points on 8-9 field goal shooting, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. Foul trouble limited starter Andrew Bynum to 16:24, so Odom played 45:43. Derek Fisher also did a solid job with 12 points, shooting 2-3 from three point range. The Lakers did not receive many contributions from other players--Trevor Ariza played good defense but shot just 3-13 from the field--but what their "Big Four" gave them proved to be enough. Although the Lakers are frequently referred to as a deep team, their four double figure scorers each played at least 41:04 in this game and three of the five reserves who saw action played six minutes or less. Odom is essentially a starter in everything but name or--more precisely--he is a finisher, since he gets the bulk of the minutes alongside Gasol instead of Bynum and is usually on the court in crunch time; therefore, the Lakers have a strong top five consisting of Bryant, Gasol, Odom, Fisher and Ariza but their reserves (Bynum, Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Shannon Brown) are not making huge contributions, though Bynum was effective in game one and Brown played well at times in earlier playoff series.

Bryant's seven turnovers tied his playoff-high this season; oddly, in four of his past six playoff games Bryant has had exactly one turnover but in the other two games (game six versus Denver and game two versus Orlando) he had seven. Bryant had eight assists in each of his seven turnover games and the Lakers won on both occasions. The Lakers are riding a four game playoff winning streak during which Bryant has averaged 31.5 ppg, 8.5 apg and 5.8 rpg while shooting .494 from the field and .919 from the free throw line. It says a lot about just how well he has played during his career (and during these playoffs in particular) that both Bryant and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said that game two was not a great performance by Bryant's standards--the latter qualifier being the key component of that statement. However, ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy insisted that "great plays by Kobe Bryant down the stretch" played a vital role in the Lakers' win; Bryant shot 10-22 from the field and 8-10 from the free throw line, scoring 23 of his points after halftime. By my count, Bryant shot 8-14 on midrange shots; his ability to consistently make those shots--the one skill set attribute that LeBron James has yet to master--is why Bryant is particularly deadly in the playoffs because it forces even the best defensive teams to make the unenviable choice between being torched by Bryant or else sending a big to contest his shot, which then frees up Gasol or Odom on the inside (this is exactly what happened on the key possession in overtime, when Bryant dished to Gasol for the three point play that put the Lakers up six and all but sealed the win).

Rashard Lewis led the Magic with a game-high 34 points, setting a playoff career-high and establishing a new franchise record for most points scored in a Finals game. He also had 11 rebounds and a playoff career-high seven assists while shooting 12-21 from the field, including 6-12 from three point range. Hedo Turkoglu added 22 points, six rebounds and four assists. After Mickael Pietrus fouled out, Turkoglu played very solid defense on Bryant, using his length to contest Bryant's shots and even forcing a few turnovers by stripping the ball from Bryant or getting Bryant off balance by using his size. Dwight Howard had a very unusual stat line: 17 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, four steals, four blocked shots, seven turnovers. The only other player in NBA playoff history to amass at least 15 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocked shots in one game is Hakeem Olajuwon but Howard's turnovers were costly; while Bryant had a lot of dead ball turnovers (balls that were thrown out of bounds, deflected off of his body, etc.), Howard lost the ball in live ball situations that enabled the Lakers to push the ball up the court in transition or semi-transition. Every turnover obviously signifies a lost possession but any good coach will tell you that live ball turnovers are worse than dead ball turnovers because of the pressure that the live ball turnovers put on your transition defense.

Other than their "Big Three," the only Magic player who made more than one field goal was J.J. Redick, who scored five points on 2-9 shooting in 27 minutes. Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy called Redick's number out of desperation more than anything else: Point guards Rafer Alston (1-8) and Jameer Nelson (1-3) combined to shoot 2-11 from the field, so Van Gundy experimented with various lineups, including using Turkoglu as his playmaker when Redick was nominally the point guard but was really in the game purely to space the court and make open shots (which he failed to do overall, though he did nail a big three pointer to tie the score at 84 with 2:21 left in regulation). Van Gundy joked after the game that he has pretty much exhausted every possible lineup combination at his disposal other than the super huge quintet of Howard, Lewis, Turkoglu, Marcin Gortat and Tony Battie (each of whom is at least 6-9). That may seem like a humorous throwaway line in a postgame press conference but if you really think about that what it means is that the Magic are really struggling to figure out how to match up with the Lakers; Orlando's shooting guards are too small to offer much resistance to Bryant, their point guards are neither making shots nor creating shots for others and the Lakers have prevented Howard from having a breakout offensive game.

The first quarter featured some of the ugliest, most disjointed play in Finals history, culminating in a 15-15 tie--the lowest combined first quarter scoring total in the NBA Finals during the shot clock era, which began in 1954-55. The Magic committed eight turnovers, while Odom was the high scorer with just five points. In the second quarter the Lakers began to find their rhythm offensively, while the Magic continued to struggle--except for Lewis. After the game, Bryant said, "We blew a lot of assignments tonight" and you can bet that right at the top of that list were the numerous times that Odom inexplicably allowed Lewis to roam unchecked behind the three point line; Lewis scored 18 of Orlando's 20 second quarter points, making four three pointers and singlehandedly keeping the Magic in the game during the first half. During that run, Odom played what basketball aficionados might call "Carmelo Anthony defense" (or at least the defense that Anthony has played for the greater part of his career, though to be fair it must be noted that Anthony made strides at that end of the court this season): on several occasions Odom was neither close enough to Howard to form an effective trap nor was he within range to contest Lewis' shots. ABC commentators Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy rightly noted that Odom was truly in "La La land." There is a tendency to forget or discount what happened in the second quarter of a game that ultimately went to overtime but the reality is that without those "missed assignments" the Lakers would have had a double digit halftime lead instead of only being up 40-35. After the game, Coach Jackson mentioned that the Lakers need to get at least 20 good minutes out of Bynum, in part because they like using Gasol against Lewis defensively; when Bynum is on the bench then Gasol has to check Howard and Odom ends up chasing Lewis around on the perimeter. Despite all of the breathless talk about Odom's versatility--and he certainly played a good game overall and has played well in the past four games--his best skill set attribute is his ability to rebound, so the downside of having him guard Lewis is not only that Odom is not used to chasing perimeter players through screens but also that this takes Odom away from the paint, although in this game both Lewis and Odom rebounded well.

In the third quarter the Lakers did a better job checking Lewis but Turkoglu got loose for 14 points as the Magic enjoyed their best quarter of the series (30 points) to take a 65-63 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter was tightly contested, featuring several ties and lead changes, with neither team going up by more than three points. Howard, who shot 7-9 from the free throw line, made a pair of free throws to put Orlando ahead 81-79 with 4:13 left in the fourth quarter. Bryant split a pair of free throws at the 3:35 mark but after that the Lakers made their final 13 free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime, including four by Bryant to put the Lakers up 84-81. Redick answered with his clutch three pointer and then Lewis made a running bank shot to give Orlando an 86-84 lead with just 1:33 left. In the next minute, Bryant, Turkoglu and Gasol each hit shots. After Courtney Lee missed a layup, the Lakers had the ball with 9.1 seconds left and the score tied at 88. Bryant drove past Turkoglu into the lane but Turkoglu recovered and blocked Bryant's jumper from behind. Turkoglu controlled the rebound and the Magic called timeout with .6 seconds remaining. Then, after the Magic used a second timeout when they could not inbound the ball, Turkoglu threw an inbounds pass from halfcourt to Lee underneath the basket, but Lee's layup attempt dribbled off of the rim as Gasol came over with a late contest; Lee got open thanks to a very solid backscreen set by Lewis at the free throw line against Bryant, who admitted after the game that he had been leaning toward the perimeter, expecting the Magic to try to get an open look for one of their three point shooters.

The overtime started out like the first quarter in miniature, as neither team scored in the first 1:23. Gasol broke the ice with a pair of free throws but Howard countered with a three point play to put Orlando up 91-90. After the teams traded misses, Bryant hit a tough runner to put the Lakers ahead for good--but their lead was still tenuous until they got some breathing room by returning to the action that was so effective for them in game one, the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action. Bryant used Gasol's screen to get free just to the right of the lane, while Gasol cut straight to the hoop down the middle of the lane, remaining parallel with Bryant; this was crucially important, as Bryant noted after the game: he and Gasol had talked about how to time this play perfectly to force Howard to either commit to stopping Bryant or else stay at home on Gasol, which would give Bryant an unfettered path to the hoop. Howard elected to confront Bryant, so Bryant delivered a slick feed to Gasol, who converted a three point play to make the score 97-91. The Magic pulled to within 99-96 after a left corner three pointer by Lewis with :26.2 left--using the same out of bounds play that they used to force overtime versus the Cavaliers in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals-- but Odom closed out the scoring by making two free throws.

The series now shifts to Orlando for at least two games (three if the Magic get at least one win). In response to a question about whether the Lakers could continue to put forth the energy that they did in the first two games at home, Bryant declared, "We're about to kick it up. You better believe it. We're close. You see what I'm saying? This is the Finals. We're going to be ready to go."

Naturally, the postgame press conferences would not be complete without questions about Bryant's facial expressions and general demeanor. Someone asked Bryant if he would smile now that the Lakers have a 2-0 lead and Bryant looked at the guy as if he should be committed to an insane asylum before stating flatly: "The job is not finished."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:00 AM

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

LeBron James’ Magnificent Playoff Run is One for the Ages

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers did not parlay their great regular season into a championship run but that does not change the fact that James authored one of the greatest single season playoff performances in pro basketball history. He is the only player to ever average at least 35 ppg, 7 rpg and 7 apg in a playoff season; that is so far ahead of the previous standard that even if you drop the requirement to 30-7-7 only three other players make the cut: Oscar Robertson (twice), George McGinnis and Michael Jordan.

Check out my newest CavsNews article for a historical perspective about James' playoff performance this season and the underrated scoring prowess that he has displayed in his six year career:

LeBron James’ Magnificent Playoff Run is One for the Ages

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:32 AM

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