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Saturday, May 01, 2010

San Antonio Versus Phoenix Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#3 Phoenix (54-28) vs. #7 San Antonio (50-32)

Season series: Phoenix, 2-1

Phoenix can win if…the Suns play reasonably sound defense to complement their very productive offense (110.2 ppg on .492 field goal shooting in the regular season, topping the league in both categories).

San Antonio will win because…the Spurs are not only getting solid contributions from the "Big Three" of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker but also from supporting cast players such as George Hill, Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess. During the regular season, the Spurs struggled to stay healthy and find good chemistry but they appear to be peaking at the perfect time.

Other things to consider: Good defensive field goal percentage has been one of the consistent trademarks of Coach Gregg Popovich's Spurs; they slipped somewhat in that regard the past couple years but with their key players healthy versus Dallas in the first round the Spurs held the Mavericks to .430 shooting. The Suns have become a better defensive team under the direction of Coach Alvin Gentry; last season they ranked just 22nd in defensive field goal percentage but they improved to 11th in that category this season, just ahead of the 12th ranked Spurs.

These teams have faced each other three times in the playoffs since Steve Nash joined the Suns, so in some quarters it is considered a big rivalry--but the Spurs won each of those series fairly convincingly (4-1 in the first round in 2008, 4-2 in the second round in 2007 and 4-1 in the 2005 Western Conference Finals). The dominant storyline in those series was that the Spurs proved that they could play well at any tempo while the Suns were only effective at a fast pace; another key factor was that the Suns rarely could get key defensive stops. Amare Stoudemire often puts up monster numbers versus the Spurs but Tim Duncan counters with statistics that are almost as good and he has a much bigger impact defensively overall than Stoudemire does. The Spurs' philosophy is to rarely double team star players, so a Stoudemire or a Dirk Nowitzki can post gaudy statistics against the Spurs but the Spurs stay at home on the other players, eliminating open three pointers and layups by members of the supporting cast. The Suns will need to get good production from someone other than Stoudemire in order to win this series. Even though the Suns have homecourt advantage I suspect that the Spurs will win without having to go the distance, probably in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:31 PM

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Los Angeles Versus Utah Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 L.A. Lakers (57-25) vs. #5 Utah (53-29)

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

Utah can win if…Deron Williams performs at an MVP level, Carlos Boozer and the other Utah bigs are able to be effective inside despite the length of L.A.'s bigs and the Jazz find a way to hold Kobe Bryant below 26-28 ppg on .450 field goal shooting without compromising their overall team defense to the extent that other Lakers get easy looks.

L.A. will win because…the Jazz have no one who can effectively match up with Bryant, so they will constantly have to double team him; that will open things up for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum inside and/or the Lakers' perimeter shooters. The Jazz' undersized and injury-depleted frontcourt will also have trouble dealing with the Lakers' length--provided that Gasol and Bynum play with poise and appropriate aggressiveness.

Other things to consider: Utah's only win versus the Lakers this season came in the game after Bryant suffered his infamous broken right index finger; Bryant shot just 7-24 from the field in the second game of a back to back and the Jazz won 102-94 at home. The last time these teams faced each other in the postseason was in the first round of the 2009 playoffs; Bryant averaged 27.4 ppg on .466 field goal shooting plus 5.6 apg and 5.0 rpg as the Lakers cruised to a five game series victory. When the Lakers and Jazz faced each other in the second round of the 2008 playoffs, Bryant averaged 33.2 ppg on .491 field goal shooting plus 7.2 apg and 7.0 rpg as the Lakers won in six games. Bryant set the tone right from the start in that series with 38 points in a 109-98 game one victory and the Lakers were never seriously threatened as the Jazz had no answer for Bryant--and they still have no one on their roster who can effectively check him.

Bryant struggled at times with his shot during the Lakers' six game win over the Oklahoma City Thunder--averaging 23.5 ppg on .408 field goal shooting--but he came up big in the decisive game with 32 points on 12-25 field goal shooting. That is the sixth straight time that Bryant has scored at least 30 points in a potential closeout game on the road, tying Elgin Baylor's NBA record and topping Michael Jordan's streak of five straight such games from 1988-90. Before the series I said that the Lakers would be in serious danger of losing unless Bryant scored 26-28 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field but the Lakers managed to advance even though Bryant fell short of both of those benchmarks. How did they do it? Bryant was off target in game one (team-high 21 points but only 6-19 shooting) but Kevin Durant shot even worse (24 points on 7-24 shooting) thanks to Ron Artest's suffocating defense, so the Lakers got an important win (despite what you may hear or believe, game one is very significant and the team that wins that game usually wins a series). Bryant had a series-high 39 points in game two and although his overall field goal percentage was less than optimal (12-28, .429), he controlled the game in the fourth quarter and carried the Lakers to victory. The Thunder bounced back in games three and four as Bryant first shot poorly (24 points on 12-29 shooting in game three) and then did not shoot enough (12 points on 5-10 shooting in game four). Game five proved to be the pivotal contest and Bryant did something that I did not expect considering how much his right knee has been limiting his bounce: Bryant took the challenge of guarding lightning quick point guard Russell Westbrook and completely disrupted the one player no other Laker could guard. This is actually a pretty standard move for Coach Phil Jackson--dating back to when Jackson put Scottie Pippen on point guards like Magic Johnson and Mark Jackson to cut off the head of the snake during the Bulls' championship runs in the 1990s--but I did not even mention this potential adjustment in my series preview simply because I did not think that in his current condition Bryant would be up to the task. Bryant's Pippen-like performance in game five--dominating a game with defense and playmaking despite not scoring much (13 points on 4-9 shooting)--shifted the series in the Lakers' favor and then Bryant closed out the deal in game six with his best all-around performance of the series.

All season long media critics have been carping that the Lakers made a mistake when they essentially swapped Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest but in the first round we saw just how valuable Artest is as a one on one, lock down defender versus elite scorers; Ariza used his strength and savvy to force 2010 scoring champion Durant into a miserable series (25.0 ppg on .350 field goal shooting, including 26 points on 5-23 field goal shooting in the clincher). Ariza is great at playing the passing lanes but he lacks the strength and overall defensive ability to do what Artest did to Durant; Ariza is a very solid role player who performed well for the Lakers in a limited, specified role last season (spot up three point shooter, rangy defender in the passing lanes) but Artest is a former Defensive Player of the Year/All-Star who can have a bigger impact on a game than Ariza can.

It sure is nice to be Pau Gasol; although he did good work on the glass in game six (18 rebounds) versus the Thunder, Gasol had shot just 3-10 from the field--looking tentative and off balance--before converting the game-winning putback of Kobe Bryant's missed baseline jumper: Gasol had a wide open path to the front of the rim because Nick Collison slid over to contest Bryant's shot. That kind of play is exactly what I mean when I say that Gasol is so fortunate to play with Bryant; during the first 47:59.5 of that game we got a pretty good sense of how much trouble the Lakers would be in if they needed Gasol to be the first option offensively in a closeout game--but Bryant's ability to draw double teams provides easy scoring opportunities for Gasol. When he is at his best, Gasol exploits those opportunities but--as Artest put it after the game--during game six Gasol "fell asleep" at times but fortunately for the Lakers he woke up literally at the last second to save the day. If the Lakers are going to return to the NBA Finals for the third straight year it is imperative that Gasol take more advantage of similar easy opportunities throughout the upcoming games, particularly since Bryant's injuries appear to be preventing him from dominating offensively to the extent that he usually does.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 AM

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Friday, April 30, 2010

Cleveland Versus Boston Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Cleveland (61-21) vs. #4 Boston (50-32)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Boston can win if…the Celtics turn back the clock and recapture the defensive intensity that they displayed during their 2008 championship season. The Celtics will also need to receive strong offensive production from at least two of their "Big Four" (Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo) to win any given game.

Cleveland will win because…the Cavs have the best individual player in the series (LeBron James) and the best overall depth. Both teams are defensive-minded but the Cavs can shift lineups from big to small and uptempo to slow tempo much more readily than the Celtics can. Other than the Rajon Rondo-Mo Williams duel at point guard the Celtics do not appear to enjoy any individual matchup advantages: the Celtics like to push teams around but the Cavs can match them man for man in the frontcourt, James has an edge over Pierce at small forward and the combination of Anthony Parker plus Delonte West should be able to contain Ray Allen, though Allen might break out for one big game.

Other things to consider: When these teams faced each other in the 2008 playoffs the Celtics had a hungry trio of Hall of Famers in their primes who had yet to taste championship glory while the Cavs were still getting used to playing together after a series of roster moves--and the Cavs still nearly beat the Celtics. Now the Celtics are older, less dominant and not quite as desperate to win the championship while the Cavs have a superstar in his prime who has yet to win a title plus veteran All-Stars who are either seeking one final run at glory (Shaquille O'Neal) or else a first taste of winning it all (Antawn Jamison, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams). Over the past two years, GM Danny Ferry molded this roster specifically to match up with the Celtics, Magic and Lakers, so this series will be an important measuring stick for the team's progress.

You can find a more in depth take on this series in my newest article for CavsNews.com:

Reloaded Cavs Seek Revenge Against Aging Celtics

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:12 PM

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jamison, James, O'Neal and West Lead the Way as Cavs Edge Bulls 96-94

Antawn Jamison scored a team-high 25 points and LeBron James fell one assist shy of a triple double (19 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) as the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Chicago Bulls 96-94 and eliminated the Bulls four games to one. Shaquille O'Neal had his best game of the series (14 points on 7-9 field goal shooting, eight rebounds and three assists in 26 very efficient and productive minutes) and Delonte West provided a huge lift off of the bench with 16 points, four assists and tremendous defense. Starting point guard Mo Williams had five assists but he scored just seven points on 2-13 field goal shooting, bringing back memories of his poor performance versus Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. We have seen that Williams can be a very productive player during the course of an 82 game regular season but the Cavs need for him to provide timely outside shooting during the playoffs.

Derrick Rose led the Bulls with a game-high 31 points and a team-high six assists but Cleveland's defense hounded Chicago's young point guard into 12-27 field goal shooting, including 4-14 in the second half when West and then James handled most of the one on one duties versus Rose. Luol Deng produced 26 points and six rebounds in a game-high 46 minutes. Joakim Noah had his worst game of the series--eight points, nine rebounds and seven turnovers. Kirk Hinrich added 12 points, four rebounds and four assists. Each of those four Bulls played at least 43 minutes as Coach Vinny Del Negro used only two reserves (Ronald "Flip" Murray and Jannero Pargo) for a combined total of just 21 minutes.

The Cavs made a concerted effort to establish O'Neal in the post and this paid dividends early in the game and then again in the fourth quarter, when O'Neal's activity created a defensive three second violation plus two foul calls against Brad Miller, sending Miller to the bench in favor of Noah, who promptly got his fourth foul while trying to guard O'Neal; in the next sequence, O'Neal caught the ball in the post versus Noah, wheeled toward the middle and dunked right over him to put Cleveland up 76-75. When I dubbed O'Neal "The Big Bill Cartwright" this is exactly the kind of performance that I had in mind: 14 points and eight rebounds would have been an average half or a very good quarter for O'Neal during his prime but his impact now for this particular team goes well beyond those numbers because he can get the opposing team in foul trouble while putting the Cavs in the bonus. The Chicago Bulls used to regularly go to Cartwright in the paint early in games precisely for those reasons and also to force opposing teams to reveal their hand defensively so that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen would see exactly the best way to attack, much like LeBron James is doing now.

O'Neal was also in fine form verbally; in his postgame press conference he explained that for the past several weeks he has been so limited by his thumb injury that he could not even "wipe my" and then he paused before saying "furniture"as the assembled media members chuckled. Thumbs are very important, O'Neal added earnestly, and he is very glad that he now once again has full use of both of his thumbs.

The Bulls are certainly scrappy and considering the talent disparity between these two teams they deserve a lot of credit for fighting down to the wire on the road in an elimination game. If they keep their current nucleus intact and manage to add a legit big to pair with Noah plus a wing player who can create shots for himself and his teammates to complement Rose then they could really make some noise in the East in the next few years. Of course, all indications are that their front office is in turmoil and that Coach Vinny Del Negro will be fired, so at this point the Bulls may be just as likely to become Clippers East as they are to become contenders--and perhaps all of this organizational turmoil is some kind of karmic payback for the gleeful haste with which Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause prematurely broke up a championship dynasty so that Krause could try to prove that "organizations win championships." Krause is now a scout for the Chicago White Sox and the Bulls have won just one playoff series since Krause dismantled the 1998 championship team.

The three staples for Cleveland's success in the past several years have been defense, rebounding and LeBron James' brilliance but in this game the Cavs only displayed those three characteristics sporadically. The Bulls shot .512 from the field in the first half, though the Cavs cut that number down to .461 overall by the end of the game. The Bulls also narrowly won the battle of the boards, 39-37. James had the kind of quiet first half--three points on 1-3 field goal shooting, five assists, four rebounds--that would spur endless questions/debates/criticism if authored by Kobe Bryant, though James contributed 16 points, six rebounds and four assists in the second half. However, James provided a huge scare to the sellout crowd of 20,562 after he was fouled with just 7.8 seconds remaining in the game and the Cavs clinging to a 95-92 lead. James calmly swished the first free throw but then he missed the second attempt badly while shooting left-handed due to a balky right elbow. James wanted to call a timeout between free throws to get some quick treatment but with the crowd roaring in anticipation of victory James and Coach Mike Brown had some kind of miscommunication on the sidelines regarding how many timeouts the Cavs had left, so James shot the free throw with his off hand to avoid putting any additional strain on the elbow until the medical staff could examine it. After the Cavs won, James noticeably avoided using his right hand when high fiving his teammates.

While waiting for James to make his postgame appearance in the press conference room, some members of the media engaged in gallows humor, suggesting that based on Cleveland's post-1964 drought in terms of professional sports titles this season could end up becoming known as "The Elbow," taking its place in local sports infamy alongside "Red Right 88," "The Drive" and "The Fumble." One wag said that with Cleveland's luck, James will blow out his elbow, the Cavs will lose to the Boston Celtics in the next round and then James will leave town once he becomes a free agent this summer.

It turns out that James has had a problem with his elbow off and on for several weeks; this--and not "rest"--is presumably the real reason that James sat out the last few regular season games. James claims that he does not remember exactly when or how he sustained the injury and he says that doctors are not even sure exactly what the injury is, which is the thing that concerns James the most; all James knows is that periodically his arm goes numb as if he has hit his funny bone. James admitted that during the off day after game four he had an MRI and X-rays but that the test revealed no structural damage. James fielded many questions on this topic before declaring that he does not want to make any excuses, that if he is on the court he should be considered healthy and that Cavs fans have nothing to worry about because he will be ready to go versus Boston. Until proven otherwise, we have no choice but to take James at his word but it would certainly be ironic if after Kobe Bryant hobbled his way through most of this season that the 31 year old, 14 year veteran turns out to be healthier during the stretch run of the playoffs then the young, seemingly indestructible James. Hopefully, both Bryant and James end up being healthy enough to carry their respective teams into a dream NBA Finals matchup of established champion versus hungry heir apparent.

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

During the game I sat next to Jim Chones, a 10 year pro basketball veteran who started his career in the ABA and then spent five seasons with the Cavs before being a key player for the Lakers' 1980 championship team. Chones is currently involved with several business and media ventures, including doing live in-game chats with fans at Cavs.com. It is fascinating to hear his opinions about past and current players. Chones told me that the three smartest basketball players he has ever seen are Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--who Chones played with and against--and LeBron James. Chones said that right from the beginning of James' career he has marveled at just how deeply James thinks about the game. I said to Chones that what I respect most about James is how methodically he has attacked his skill set weaknesses (outside shot, free throws, defense, postup game) and I contrasted James with Carmelo Anthony, a player who--in my opinion--has not substantially expanded his skill set or minimized his weaknesses since coming into the league. Chones agreed with me, although he gave Anthony credit for improving his conditioning level.

Chones mentioned that in order to play basketball well you must understand angles. I replied that it seems to me that this kind of understanding is what enables crafty veterans to outdo younger, more athletic players who lack such knowledge--the crafty veterans know "shortcuts" to get to where they need to be on the court and thus they don't expend needless energy. Chones agreed, adding that the greatest compliment he ever received as a player was when then-Lakers General Manager Bill Sharman told Chones that he could see that Chones really knew how to play because Chones had defended three different players on one possession simply by taking advantage of correct angles/body positioning.

Chones' teams relied on him to defend centers, power forwards and even small forwards at times. Chones told me that the great Bernard King presented a particular challenge because King was so explosive that even though Chones enjoyed a four inch height advantage King would simply get to his spot and elevate right over him.

Chones said that when Michael Jordan was breaking the Cavs' hearts in the 1980s, Hall of Fame Coach Pete Newell--then a scout for the Lakers--marveled that he had never seen a player who was so good that even when you knew that he was going to drive straight to the hoop you could not stop him. I mentioned that Paul Silas once told me that prior to the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game his former teammate Zelmo Beaty had told him that rookie forward Julius Erving "wasn’t a good shooter but he just went by everybody. He just took up the slack, penetrated around and dunked on everybody." Silas was incredulous but he became a believer after Erving stole the ball from him and proceeded to dunk from the foul line during the game! Chones agreed that young Erving, like young Jordan, could get to the hoop at will even though defenders knew that this was what Erving was going to do. Chones shook his head when he told me about trying to guard Julius Erving during Dr. J's ABA prime: Chones did everything by the book--playing Erving physically in the paint, conceding the perimeter shot when Erving was on the wing, shading Erving to his left hand when he drove--and Erving still scored at will. I asked Chones if he agrees with me that there is a great stylistic/aesthetic similarity between Erving's dunks and James' dunks and Chones said yes, adding that James likely saw highlights of Erving's moves and copied them: like Erving, James extends his arm straight up in the air when he swoops to the hoop and he dunks with great power and ferocity. Chones noted that even though Erving was lean he was strong and he dunked with force over much bigger defenders.

Early in the game when O'Neal was whistled for an offensive foul, Chones grunted in disgust and lamented that many referees do not truly understand basketball, particularly in terms of post play. Chones told me that O'Neal did not commit a foul and he demonstrated--gently--to me what O'Neal did, acting as if he were holding a ball preparing to shoot and then brushing his forearm against my chest in a shooting motion. Chones contended that O'Neal did not extend his elbow--which would legitimately be a foul--but merely went through a normal, strong big man post move. I said that I thought Adrian Dantley made a career out of doing a similar move but that when the 6-4 Dantley did this maneuver the defenders were frequently whistled for fouls; on page 142 of the 1987 book Hoops!, Dantley called this the "bump fake," advising that a post player should "Go up strong and bump him (the defender) a little with your shoulder or forearm to keep him from blocking your shot." Of course, when the 6-4 Dantley did this against bigger players it looked like a foul by the defender, whereas when O'Neal initiates contact it may seem like he is committing a foul even if he has established a legal position.

***

Mike Brown now owns a 40-25 career playoff record. He is just the sixth coach to achieve 40 playoff wins in 65 or fewer games, joining Phil Jackson (55 games), John Kundla (55), Pat Riley (56), Billy Cunningham (64) and Chuck Daly (65). Each of Brown's five predecessors in this category won at least one NBA championship and all of them are Hall of Famers (Cunningham earned induction as a player--though he certainly also merits consideration as a coach--while the other four were each inducted as coaches). Brown's critics may be tempted to counter that Brown only has so many playoff wins because he coaches LeBron James but keep in mind that Jackson has coached Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (plus future Hall of Famers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant), Kundla coached several Hall of Famers (including George Mikan, who was voted as the greatest player of the first half of the 20th Century), Riley coached Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy (plus future Hall of Famers O'Neal and Dwyane Wade), Cunningham coached Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Moses Malone and Chuck Daly coached Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. You cannot win in the NBA if you don't have the horses but there are some coaches (who shall remain nameless) who have had the horses but somehow managed not to win as frequently as they should have.

Brown has started his coaching career in very impressive fashion.

***

In game four of this series, LeBron James became the first player since the NBA began using the three point shot in 1979-80 to have a playoff game with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and six three pointers made. James finished with 37 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists and six three pointers. That was James' second career playoff triple double with at least 37 points; Oscar Robertson is the only other player to have at least two such playoff triple doubles.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:58 AM

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Monday, April 26, 2010

First Round "Midterm" Report

Each NBA playoff series is past the halfway point, so now is a good time for a "midterm" report about the first round.

Cleveland 3, Chicago 1
  1. As expected, this series has been lopsided in Cleveland's favor--three double digit wins and one very close loss. If the Cavs had not been bored/disinterested for most of game three then they would have already swept the Bulls. I stand by my statement before this series that the Cavs' second unit could give the Bulls' starters a run for their money: possible matchups in such a hypothetical encounter would be Delonte West versus Derrick Rose, Daniel Gibson versus Kirk Hinrich, Zydrunas Ilgauskas versus Joakim Noah, Anderson Varejao versus Taj Gibson and Jamario Moon versus Luol Deng. Before you scoff at the notion that such a series would be competitive, remember that on April 8 a full strength Bulls team played a must win game at home against a Cavs team sans LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and Delonte West (and Antawn Jamison sat out down the stretch after tweaking his right foot)--and the Bulls barely escaped with a 109-108 win.
  2. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown has many critics among fans, bloggers and even some mainstream media members--and those critics are clueless. Brown is blasted for his supposedly unimaginative offense and he is blamed for not giving J.J. Hickson more playoff minutes. This season, the Cavs ranked ninth in scoring, second in point differential and third in field goal percentage, so whether you measure total points, margin of victory or shooting efficiency the Cavs are a top level offensive team. As for Hickson, he started 73 games this season due to Shaquille O'Neal missing 29 games, Zydrunas Ilgauskas missing 18 games, Antawn Jamison not arriving on the scene until the final third of the season and Anderson Varejao proving to be highly effective in a reserve role--but now that the Cavs' deep frontcourt is at full strength it would make no sense to give Hickson minutes over future Hall of Famer O'Neal, two-time All-Star Jamison or veteran defender/rebounder Varejao; there simply are not enough minutes to go around, particularly when you add Ilgauskas to the mix and factor in that LeBron James gets some minutes at power forward. Depending on matchups/foul trouble/injuries, Hickson's number may be called more frequently in subsequent playoff series but the Cavs have the deepest frontcourt rotation in the league so it is quite understandable that the least experienced member of that crew simply has to wait his turn.
  3. Brown has led the Cavs to the best regular season record in the NBA two years in a row and his playoff resume is very strong: one NBA Finals appearance, two Eastern Conference Finals berths and an upset of the favored Detroit Pistons in the 2007 playoffs. The only time that a Brown-coached team has lost a series in which they were considered to be favorites is the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals versus Orlando. Brown has a 39-25 career playoff record (.609) and in five trips to the playoffs his teams have never lost in the first round (I am including this year's series against the Bulls even though it is not officially over). Here are the career playoff records of some deservedly renowned NBA coaches: Rick Adelman, 79-78 (.503), eight first round losses in 16 appearances; Don Nelson, 75-91 (.452), six first round losses in 18 appearances; Jerry Sloan, 97-99 (.495), nine first round losses in 20 appearances.
Orlando 3, Charlotte 0
  1. Foul trouble has kept Dwight Howard in check offensively but the Bobcats have been unable to contain Orlando's three point shooters, particularly Jameer Nelson (25.7 ppg, 10-22 three point shooting).
  2. Vince Carter's overall per game statistics are underwhelming but he scored a team-high 19 points in game two, he has done a good job reversing the ball--part of the reason that the Magic have been able to launch so many open three pointers--and the reality is that sometimes great players have to be willing to sacrifice personal statistical glory in order to win a championship.
  3. Stephen Jackson is leading the Bobcats with a 21.3 ppg scoring average versus Orlando but he is shooting just .393 from the field, including .200 from three point range. It is very difficult to win in the postseason when your leading scorer is that inefficient.
Atlanta 2, Milwaukee 1
  1. This series is flying somewhat under the radar, likely because the Hawks still have not proven that they can beat a contender in a playoff series and because the Andrew Bogut injury ended any pretense that the Bucks could do much more than simply avoid being swept.
  2. The real test for the Hawks will come in the next round when they face Orlando; if the Hawks upset the Magic then they will be taken much more seriously but for now they seem to be filling the role of the 1980s Milwaukee Bucks--an excellent team that cannot quite match up with the conference's powerhouse teams.
Boston 3, Miami 1
  1. The bottom line on this series is pretty simple: the Celtics have three future Hall of Famers plus a young All-Star point guard, while the Heat have one future Hall of Famer; the obvious and significant talent disparity explains why Boston is in the driver's seat.
  2. The Celtics did not have a great home record--by their standards--this season, so I thought that Miami could steal a game in Boston, a possibility that seemed even more likely after Kevin Garnett got suspended for game two; Miami's failure to take advantage of that opportunity indicated that this will be a short series.
  3. Dwyane Wade's game four performance was breathtaking but it still won't prevent the Heat from being eliminated in five games.
  4. While reports of the Celtics' demise may have been premature, taking out this limited Heat team hardly proves that the Celtics are a serious title contender; Garnett still looks like he has a bad wheel, Pierce and Allen are both apt to disappear for long stretches and all Rasheed Wallace seems to care about is that the Celtics "CTC" (Sheed-speak for "cut the check"). The Celtics are not as effective or intimidating defensively as they were during their 2008 championship season.
L.A. Lakers 2, Oklahoma City 2
  1. Call this series "Mythbusters" because what we are seeing is shattering a lot of cherished but wrongheaded beliefs while reaffirming the truth of what I have been saying for several years about Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
  2. I am not surprised at all that the Lakers look shaky and I would not be surprised if they lose this series: in my playoff preview I said that if Kobe Bryant did not average at least 26-28 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field then the Lakers would lose regardless of what anyone else on the team did; Bryant is averaging 24.0 ppg on .384 shooting. The Lakers escaped in game one despite Bryant's 21 points on 6-19 (.316) shooting because the jittery Thunder shot just .403 overall, including a 7-24 (.292) performance by 2010 scoring champion Kevin Durant. Then the Lakers won game two narrowly as Bryant produced 39 points on 12-28 (.429) shooting, including 15 fourth quarter points. In the Lakers' two losses at Oklahoma City, Bryant scored just 36 points on 15-39 (.385) shooting; Bryant scored 24 points in game three but shot poorly, while in game four he shot well but not frequently enough as the Lakers started the game by trying to force feed their post players--and promptly fell behind by double digits.
  3. Belatedly, some members of the national media have finally figured out that the Lakers are not a deep team--and, contrary to a new popular story line, this has nothing to do with Andrew Bynum's late season injury moving Lamar Odom into the starting lineup: Odom has been inconsistent all year and the Lakers' bench made Coach Phil Jackson want to vomit (his statement, not mine) even when Odom was the team's top reserve. Back in the 2007-08 season, the Lakers had a decent bench: Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic were productive players at that time, Ronny Turiaf was a very solid big and Luke Walton kept the Triangle Offense clicking with his passing. However, even at that time the Lakers were hardly the deepest team in the league--contrary to a widely stated fiction--and their starters were not as talented overall as Boston's, which is why the Celtics (led by three future Hall of Famers supported by a very deep bench) defeated the Lakers in the NBA Finals. In 2008-09, the Lakers lost a lot of bench depth due to injuries and roster moves but their starting lineup was more talented because Pau Gasol was in the fold for the entire year, Andrew Bynum made it through more than half the season (barely) and Trevor Ariza emerged as the starting small forward in the last fourth of the season. This season, the Lakers bolstered their starting lineup by replacing Ariza with Ron Artest and by keeping Bynum healthy for 65 games but their bench was a disaster area: purported triple double threat Odom spent most of the season averaging a triple single (he pushed his scoring average into double figure territory only after getting some spot starts) and no other reserve could be counted on consistently to provide a spark offensively or defensively. Vujacic buried himself in Phil Jackson's doghouse with poor play and a bad attitude, Farmar regressed, Walton was hurt for most of the year and Shannon Brown--who had some good moments in 2008-09--showed why he was the 15th man on the Cleveland team that made it to the 2007 NBA Finals. This season, Daniel Gibson ranked third in the NBA in three point field goal percentage but he hardly is getting any playoff run for the Cavs behind Mo Williams, Anthony Parker and Delonte West; Gibson--a poor man's B.J. Armstrong--would absolutely be the first guard off of the bench for the Lakers and his deadeye marksmanship could help him make a push for Derek Fisher's starting job, though Jackson clearly has a lot of trust in Fisher's veteran leadership despite Fisher's obviously declining skills.
  4. The term "franchise player" is poorly defined and vastly overused. There are very few true franchise players in the NBA: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant--these guys can carry a team based on some combination of physical dominance, one great defining skill and/or tremendous skill set diversity. The next tier of NBA talent consists of great players who are not quite as dominant as the players listed above. Pau Gasol is a wonderfully skilled All-Star but he is not a franchise player: he does not have the mindset to be one nor does he have the ability to consistently dominate elite teams in playoff competition as the focal point of his team's offensive attack. Since joining the Lakers, Gasol has flourished as a second option benefiting from the double and triple team attention drawn by Bryant; the Lakers' best play is a screen/roll action involving Bryant and Gasol, because Bryant reads the defense excellently, knowing when to drive, when to shoot the midrange jumper and when to pass the ball either to a cutting Gasol or else to an open shooter on the weak side if the defense goes into full rotation to trap Bryant while also checking Gasol.
  5. Even with Gasol missing the early part of this season, the Lakers still had the best record in the NBA as Bryant put up some of the best and most efficient numbers of his career--but the Lakers' season started to go south as Bryant's injuries piled up, beginning with a broken finger sustained in December and then including back, ankle and knee ailments.
  6. During the 2009 playoffs, the Lakers went 6-0 when Bryant scored at least 35 points (he shot at least .464 from the field in each of those games). The Lakers went 1-2 when Bryant scored fewer than 20 points (he shot .412 or worse in each of those games). The Lakers went 12-1 when Bryant shot at least .455 from the field but they went just 4-6 when he shot .452 or worse. Overall, Bryant averaged 30.2 ppg on .457 field goal shooting in 23 playoff games as the Lakers won the NBA Championship.
  7. During the 2008 playoffs, the Lakers went 4-0 when Bryant scored at least 35 points (he shot at least .500 from the field in each of those games). The Lakers lost the only game in which Bryant scored fewer than 20 points (he shot .316 in that game). The Lakers went 12-3 when Bryant shot at least .474 from the field but they went just 2-4 when Bryant shot .394 or worse. Overall, Bryant averaged a league-best 30.1 ppg on .479 field goal shooting in 21 playoff games as the Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals.
  8. Despite all of the fevered talk about depth, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol and other factors, the bottom line reality is that when Kobe Bryant is highly productive and efficient--which I define as scoring at least 26 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field--the Lakers are a dominant team because opposing defenses must commit multiple players to Bryant, thus creating easy scoring opportunities for his teammates. There is no evidence that Pau Gasol can shoulder a similar workload for a sustained period of time (i.e., attempting over 20 field goal attempts per game while dealing with double teams); indeed the Memphis Grizzlies traded him precisely because they felt that he could not be that kind of player and that they therefore would be better served rebuilding their team.
  9. Bryant's accomplishments--both from an individual standpoint and as the team leader--have not been fully appreciated. He is the main reason that the Lakers posted the best record in the competitive Western Conference for three straight seasons (2008-10); the last team to accomplish that feat was the Utah Jazz from 1997-99, but that included the lockout shortened 50 game 1999 campaign during which the Jazz tied with the Spurs for top honors in the West. Prior to the Jazz, the only team since the 1976-77 NBA-ABA merger to have the best record in the West for at least three straight years was the Showtime Lakers (1982-90).
  10. The last few games of the 2010 regular season--and games three and four of this series--provide stark proof of just how ordinary the Lakers really are when Bryant is not able to be a dominant force. It is easy to say now that Bryant should have rested earlier in the season to allow his injuries to heal but the reality is that he made six game-winning shots this season (seven if you count his de facto game-winner against Dallas even though it was not a last second shot). Even more significantly, he bailed the Lakers out many other times in the fourth quarter; if Bryant had missed a significant portion of the season the Lakers would probably have not even qualified for the playoffs: only seven wins separate the top seeded Lakers from the eighth seeded Thunder and while it is too simplistic to just subtract Bryant's game-winners from the Lakers' win total it is definitely not a stretch to assert that he was worth more than seven wins and that the value he provided could not be replaced over the long haul by anyone else on the roster. Please do not be deceived by the Lakers' record in the handful of regular season games that Bryant sat out; isolated, random games--some of which were against teams that were also injury-depleted--have nothing to do with how the Lakers would perform without Bryant for an extended period of time, let alone how they would do against elite teams. In the past three to four weeks we have essentially seen the Lakers without Bryant--at least, without the Bryant who dominated the playoffs the past couple years--and the results have been ugly.
  11. It is unclear what exactly has caused Bryant's performance to decline. The broken finger surely plays a part but Bryant seemed to have adapted to it earlier in the year; I think that the real problem is with his wheels, either his balky ankle and/or his right knee (which has been operated on twice during Bryant's career). I suspect that at least one of three things is true regarding Bryant's knee: 1) It will not function properly until Bryant gets at least a month off; 2) It will require offseason surgery; 3) If neither of the first two statements is true then the cumulative effects of Bryant's 14 year career have affected his hops so severely that he will have to change his style of play to adjust, much like Michael Jordan did during his first comeback with the Bulls.
  12. Game five is a do or die situation for the Lakers, so if Bryant is physically able to do so he will score at least 35 points while shooting at least .450 from the field and the Lakers will win. If Bryant is unable to do that then the game will be very much up for grabs.
San Antonio 3, Dallas 1
  1. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich looks like a genius now; it appears that he deftly managed his older players' minutes so that they would round into peak form just in time for the playoffs, which was his stated goal all along. He made it clear that he cared much less about regular season wins than postseason sharpness. The Spurs settled for the seventh seed but they are one win away from knocking off the second seeded Mavs, a team that many people thought could advance to the NBA Finals. The Spurs were never fully healthy all season long and seemed to have suffered from significant defensive slippage compared to their championship years, so after considering them a viable title contender prior to the season I jumped off of their bandwagon on the eve of the playoffs. Assuming that the Spurs close out the Mavs it will be very interesting to see just how far they can go. Just a few months ago it was widely thought that adding Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess made the Spurs a significant postseason threat and that may very well prove to be true.
  2. Something weird is going on within the Dallas organization; it is hard to understand why the team would bring in Shawn Marion and Caron Butler to be key pieces but then Coach Rick Carlisle would bench both players in the second half of game three only to restore them to their normal spots in the rotation in game four.
  3. Dallas owner Mark Cuban often brags about how much of an edge his team derives from their proprietary "advanced basketball statistics"; however, all of that number crunching has resulted in just one Finals appearance plus an embarrassing first round loss in 2007--and while a first round loss to the veteran Spurs this year may not be embarrassing it would certainly have to be considered a major disappointment.
Phoenix 2, Portland 2
  1. It seems like the Blazers are one injury away from making it to the Finals; after all, every time a player goes down the team exceeds expectations, so it is only logical--in a bizarre way--to assume that if someone else gets hurt then the team will be practically unbeatable. Seriously, though, Coach Nate McMillan deserves a lot of credit for instilling a defensive mindset in his team and his players deserve credit for stepping up in place of their fallen comrades.
  2. The Suns looked so good after the All-Star Break that they almost turned me into a believer, particularly since they seemed to be paying more than cursory attention to the defensive end of the court. I should have known better. The Suns' game one loss at home to the Brandon Roy-less Blazers was inexcusable and even though the Suns subsequently regained homecourt advantage this series looks like a tossup now.
  3. During the TNT broadcasts, Charles Barkley made an excellent point about a major weakness for the Suns: Steve Nash's complete inability to guard top level point guards forces the Suns to crossmatch in ways that not only can compromise their overall defense but that also sap the energy of his teammates. Nash is a great passer and a stunningly accurate shooter but I will never, ever, ever understand how anyone can seriously put him alongside players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade in MVP discussions: those players are significantly bigger and more versatile and they have an impact at both ends of the court.
Utah 3, Denver 1
  1. Shortly after the Detroit Pistons traded Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess to Denver for Allen Iverson last season (McDyess later returned to the Pistons, much like Zydrunas Ilgauskas returned to the Cavs this season after the Antawn Jamison trade), everyone's favorite associate professor of applied economics declared that Iverson--or, more specifically, the allegedly vast superiority of Billups to Iverson--is the sole answer explaining both Detroit's decline in the standings and Denver's alleged improvement--never mind that Detroit changed coaches and suffered tremendous roster upheaval or that the Nuggets made other personnel moves and benefited from the decline of several teams in the West. Fast forward to this season and we see that after Iverson's departure from Detroit the Pistons tumbled from 39 wins in 2009 to 27 wins this season; based on the associate professor's "logic"--namely, that one variable should be considered the prime reason for a team's success or failure even though many other variables are actually involved--one could say that Iverson is the sole answer explaining Detroit's 12 win decline. Similarly, after advancing to the Western Conference Finals last year the Nuggets are on the verge of being eliminated in the first round this year. If Billups was the main reason for Denver's success last year then he must be the main reason for their (relative) failure this year, right? Of course, that is all just nonsense. The Pistons were a declining team before they made the Iverson deal--that is why Joe Dumars changed coaches and overhauled his roster in the first place. One could debate the merits of Dumars' various choices but it is absurd to suggest that Iverson singlehandedly destroyed the team or that if Detroit had kept Billups then the Pistons would have been a contender. As for Denver, the Nuggets went 50-32 in 2007-08 with Iverson leading the league in minutes played and ranking third in scoring, eighth in steals and ninth in assists; Iverson was more productive and dominant that season than Billups has ever been. Billups certainly played very well for Denver in 2008-09 but the reason that the Nuggets moved up from the eighth seed to the second seed despite only increasing their win total by four is that several Western Conference teams moved backward in the standings due to injuries, personnel moves and other factors.
  2. This season, the Nuggets' win total declined by one but they dropped from the second seed to the fourth seed because some of the teams that had off years in 2009 bounced back this year. Still, the fourth seed looked like a decent spot to start a playoff run considering that the fifth seeded Utah Jazz had been decimated by injuries.
  3. The Nuggets are certainly dealing with their own challenges, including the cancer that has prevented George Karl from coaching the team down the stretch and the injuries that have limited Kenyon Martin, but with homecourt advantage and a supposedly championship caliber roster guided by Billups' leadership the Nuggets definitely should be able to defeat the Jazz--but instead Utah is one win away from eliminating Denver.
  4. Last season, all we heard were stories about how Billups' influence had helped the Nuggets' various knuckleheads to become more mature and focused on and off the court. If Billups received all the credit for Denver's success last year then doesn't he deserve at least some of the blame for the team's current meltdown? The Nuggets have been terrible defensively and they still have wretched shot selection. The funny thing is that instead of Billups "changing the culture" it seems like the "culture" in Denver has changed Billups; now Billups is taking goofy shots, committing careless turnovers and making bad plays at the most inopportune times.
  5. Billups did not "change the culture" in Denver. He joined a good team at just the right time and for one year they caught lightning in a bottle thanks to some down years by other Western Conference teams. Overall, the Nuggets did not materially change--they did not become a serious, defensive-minded, championship contending team; that should have been obvious when the Nuggets melted down at home in game six versus the Lakers last season (Billups shot 2-7 from the field in that game, scoring 10 points with nine assists and five turnovers in a team-high 39 minutes) and it is definitely obvious as the shorthanded Utah Jazz are pounding the Nuggets into submission.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:40 AM

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