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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Orlando Versus Boston Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

#2 Orlando (59-23) vs. #4 Boston (50-32)

Season series: Orlando, 3-1

Boston can win if…Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace can guard Dwight Howard one on one in the post effectively enough that the Celtics do not have to trap Howard and go into full rotation versus Orlando's armada of three point shooters. Perkins has enough lower body strength to battle Howard for post position, while in previous years Wallace used his length, savvy and mobility to frustrate Howard at times.

Naturally, it will also be beneficial for the Celtics if Rajon Rondo can post what Cleveland's Shaquille O'Neal termed "historical triple doubles." Paul Pierce and Ray Allen had some good moments versus the Cavs but were not hugely productive overall; the Celtics will need to get more out of both future Hall of Famers in order to dethrone the reigning Eastern Conference Champion Magic. Kevin Garnett still seems to be dragging his right leg defensively but he has regained enough lift to once again be effective in the post as a turnaround jump shooter and the Celtics will need for him to average at least 15 ppg with a decent shooting percentage in order to beat the Magic.

Orlando will win because…the Magic are talented, deep, defensive-minded, unselfish and focused--which is not to say that the Celtics do not also possess many of those qualities but the Magic have them in abundance. While I do think that the Celtics are better equipped--both from a personnel standpoint and schematically--to guard Howard than many other teams, the Magic are an excellent passing team loaded with great shooters, so the Celtics will have their hands full. The Celtics were a below average rebounding team during the regular season, they struggled at times at home and they gave up a lot of leads; Cleveland did not exploit any of those tendencies in the previous round but Orlando is likely to take advantage of Boston's weaknesses.

This is Vince Carter's opportunity to change some of the negative aspects of his reputation by playing a key role on a team that advances to the NBA Finals and, possibly, wins a championship; his matchup versus Ray Allen should be very interesting to watch, as either player could very well be called upon to hit a game-winning shot during this series. I think that Carter has more bounce left in his legs than a lot of people realize and that he will have a good series, though because of Orlando's balance his overall numbers may not be eye-popping.

Other things to consider: The Celtics just took out the number one overall seed in this year's playoffs. Rondo is emerging right before our eyes as a top five point guard, while Kevin Garnett had a greater impact versus the Cavs than anyone could have reasonably expected based on how he looked during the regular season. The Celtics are a former champion who should not be taken lightly and they did push Orlando to seven games last season despite being without the services of Garnett--but the Magic were also shorthanded due to Jameer Nelson's injury and the Magic have upgraded their roster since last season, adding Carter, Matt Barnes and Brandon Bass.

Did the Celtics really rejuvenate themselves versus Cleveland or did the Cavs just follow the lead of their superstar and quit when things got tough? With all due respect to Boston--and I have a lot of respect for the Celtics--I think that the latter had more to do with the result of the Boston-Cleveland series than the former. The Celtics will play hard versus the Magic and each game will likely be very closely contested but I expect that Orlando will win in fewer than seven games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:36 AM

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Celtics Advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, Cavs Begin Long and Challenging Offseason

"I'm a big boxing fan. I like reading and watching body language. Right now looking at the Cavs, they look like a boxer whose will has been taken away."--ESPN's Mark Jackson describing the listless Cavaliers near the end of Boston's 94-85 series clinching win over Cleveland

"This smells to me of quitting. You've given up."--Jackson expressing disgust as the Cavaliers do not even try to commit a foul as time runs out on their season

A proud and disciplined former champion--the Boston Celtics--just dismantled the number one overall seed in the NBA playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers. As ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy noted right after Boston's 94-85 game six victory, while the result itself is more surprising than shocking it is certainly shocking how indifferent the Cavs seemed and how poorly the Cavs played at home in this series after being nearly invincible at Quicken Loans Arena for the past two seasons. Kevin Garnett led the Celtics with 22 points and 12 rebounds; after spending the greater part of this season dragging his surgically repaired right leg up and down the court, Garnett proved to be a real X factor in this series: Boston Coach Doc Rivers stated from the outset that his offensive game plan involved posting up Garnett to get him at least 20 field goal attempts per game and the Cavaliers never found an answer for Garnett's turnaround jumpers nor did they exploit the fact that he still lacks lateral mobility defensively. Rajon Rondo had another excellent performance, finishing with 21 points, 12 assists, three rebounds and five steals. Paul Pierce (13 points on 4-13 field goal shooting) and Ray Allen (eight points on 2-8 field goal shooting) did not contribute much but bench players Rasheed Wallace (13 points on 4-8 field goal shooting, including two three pointers) and Tony Allen (10 points, three steals) picked up the slack. The Celtics led most of the way, built a double digit cushion in the second half and held off a half-hearted Cavalier rally that consisted of nothing more than back to back three pointers by LeBron James to pull the Cavs to within 78-74 with 9:34 remaining in the fourth quarter; time and score suggested that the Cavs had an opportunity to win the game but anyone who watched this game with understanding--particularly if you had also watched Tuesday's debacle--knew that the Cavs were through. It was Cleveland's "Rope a Dope" moment and the Cavs were the "dope"; during that famous boxing match, right before Muhammad Ali knocked out the champion George Foreman he asked Foreman "Is that all you got?" and Foreman later recalled that he thought to himself, "Yeah, that's about it." The important difference between Foreman and the Cavs--other than the fact that Foreman actually won a championship--is that Foreman wore himself out by trying so hard to knock out Ali, while the Cavs played hard sporadically for a few moments versus the Celtics before apparently deciding that this playing hard business is too tough, after which they packed it in and prepared for summer vacation.

LeBron James authored the most confounding, least impressive and ultimately meaningless triple double that I have ever seen:

*James scored a game-high 27 points--but he shot just 8-21 from the field.

*James grabbed a playoff career-high 19 rebounds--but, as Jackson repeatedly noted, instead of pushing the ball full bore up the court after most of his 16 defensive rebounds James was content to either walk the ball up the court or else give the ball up without even being pressured by Boston defenders.

*James dished off 10 assists--but he was a one man fastbreak for the Celtics, committing nine turnovers, most of which would be classified as "unforced errors" in tennis terminology.

Scottie Pippen scored just four points in game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals and yet teammates and opponents alike declared that he dominated that contest; in contrast, James stacked up all kinds of numbers in game six versus Boston but he neither seemed to dominate the game nor did he have much control over the outcome: it was like he was putting up statistics in a vacuum while the Celtics were focusing on what they had to do to actually win the game. With every Cavalier not named Mo Williams (22 points on 8-18 field goal shooting) struggling to make a shot, the team desperately needed James to drive to the hoop with abandon, but he only did so sporadically. Jamal Mashburn made a very interesting point at halftime that he reiterated after the game: a major difference between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant is that Kobe Bryant attacks double teams quickly and efficiently and he is able to make one dribble and two dribble pullup jumpers, while James too often hesitates in the face of double teams and seems to need to take multiple dribbles before making a play; also, although James has improved his jump shot he still does not have the one dribble and two dribble pullup jumpers in his repertoire. During some earlier NBA TV and TNT telecasts, Chris Webber has also noted that casual fans may not understand just how deadly a weapon those one dribble and two dribble pullup jumpers are for Bryant; Webber asserts that those are the shots--in combination with Bryant's other weapons, of course--that make Bryant so difficult to guard.

After the game, James said, "The fact that it's over right now is definitely a surprise to me. A friend of mine told me, 'I guess you've got to go through a lot of nightmares before you realize your dream.' That's what's going on for me individually right now." Read that last sentence again: "That's what's going on for me individually right now." James did not mention what his team is going through or the agony that the long-suffering Cleveland fans are experiencing. No, this whole experience really is just about LeBron--at least, from LeBron's perspective.

Now begins the long summer of discontent for Cavalier fans. The Boston faithful--spurred on by ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons--taunted James by chanting "New York Knicks!" when James shot free throws but James has only himself to blame for that; James could have muted all of the noise about free agency by either re-signing with the Cavs--much like Kobe Bryant quietly re-signed with the Lakers months ago--or else insisting that he would say nothing about this subject because his sole focus is on winning a championship in 2010. Yes, I know that James eventually refused to take questions about free agency, but he waited to take that stand until the story had developed a huge life of its own. This became a distraction for his team and may have ultimately resulted in the front office making hasty moves for presumed short term benefits instead of constructing the roster for the long haul; the Cavs have been bending over backwards for James for years while he has refused to commit to staying with the team. James' comments and general demeanor in his postgame press conference hardly offered any comfort to Cleveland fans, nor did it seem promising that the quickest move that James made all night was ripping off his Cleveland jersey after the game and tossing it to a locker room attendant as if he were throwing out garbage. Until recently I thought that James was far too smart to leave a 60-plus win team with a defensive-minded coach in order to start over with a lesser team--but until recently I also could not have imagined that James would sleepwalk through an embarrassing 32 point home defeat in a pivotal game five.

I have no idea what James plans to do come July 1 and right now I am much more interested in watching/analyzing the four remaining playoff teams than in speculating about who the ringless "King" will play for next season.

Meanwhile, the revisionist historians are already out in full force, so here are some preemptive strikes regarding the mythology that is already being created about LeBron James and this playoff series:

1) I don't want to hear anything about the alleged impact that LeBron James' alleged elbow injury had on this series. Everyone who watched ESPN's pregame show saw James standing at half court repeatedly shooting half court shots with his right arm, using both an underhand and an overhand delivery. In other words, his elbow is not impairing his strength or range of motion--which is what I have been saying all along. Will I change my tune if, as some have speculated (with no apparent concrete evidence, since the MRI of James' elbow revealed no structural damage), James has offseason elbow surgery? No, I will not; if James' elbow is hurt that seriously then why the hell would he shoot half court circus shots before playing in an elimination game? This elbow injury is either fake drama--the unnecessary left handed free throw versus Chicago, the rubbing of the joint when the cameras are focused on him, the black sleeve being worn and then being taken off--or pure foolishness, which is the only way to describe shooting half court shots with a serious injury (if that turns out to be what James did). My firm belief--until proven otherwise--is that James has exactly what the MRI revealed: a bruise. James is hurt but he is not injured to the extent that he cannot function (in contrast to Kobe Bryant, who has a broken finger on his shooting hand and a troublesome right knee that kept swelling up after every game toward the end of the regular season).

2) I don't want to hear about Cleveland's supposedly deficient supporting cast. I have heard some people say that the Cavs had the best player in this series but that the Celtics had players 2-4. Well, I've got news for you: the Celtics had the best player in this series and his name is Rajon Rondo. Rondo dominated the action at both ends of the court throughout this series. Furthermore, although his numbers were not overwhelming, you could make the case that Kevin Garnett was the second best player in this series; he certainly provided more consistent effort and production than LeBron James did, even though James put up gaudier statistics. The sad reality for Cleveland fans--and the Cleveland franchise--is that James not only was not the best player during this series but he could not even find it within himself to play hard all of the time. James' shooting was erratic and he (mis)handled the ball like his name is Edward Scissorhands. The Cavs have an All-Star point guard, an All-Star power forward, a future Hall of Fame center who made the 2009 All-NBA Third Team, a two-time All-Star center coming off of the bench, a Sixth Man of the Year candidate who made the All-Defensive Second Team, a reserve guard who ranked third in the NBA in three point field goal percentage in 2010 and several other reserve players who could start for many of the league's playoff teams.

All-time greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan played for sub-.500 teams when they legitimately had no help. Are we really supposed to believe--after back to back seasons of 66 and 61 wins--that LeBron James is so much better than Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan that he actually carried a worthless roster to the best record in the NBA while notching two wins this season over the reigning NBA champions?

Is Cleveland's roster perfect? Of course not--but no roster in the league is perfect. The Celtics are aging and injury prone; the Magic lack frontcourt size other than Howard and Gortat; the Lakers have the least productive starting point guard among the playoff teams plus a bench that is so unreliable Coach Phil Jackson said that watching them play makes him want to throw up.

Most people picked Cleveland to beat Boston precisely because the Cavs have a better team than the Celtics.

3) I don't want to hear that Mike Brown does not know how to make in game adjustments. I already addressed this subject at length, so here is the Cliffs Notes version: great coaches do most of their work in practice, preparing their players for what most likely will happen in the upcoming games; so-called in game adjustments are, in many cases, simply the application of a previously determined plan when a given situation (foul trouble, different matchup scenarios, etc.) happens. A good coach does not have to come up with some totally new plan in the middle of a game. The real problem that Brown faced during this postseason--an issue that I mentioned in March but that the Cavs initially seemed to overcome--is that injuries and midseason transactions prevented him from establishing a set player rotation and letting that rotation develop good chemistry. Every player on the Celtics knows his role and has a good idea how much playing time he will get, but Coach Brown never had the time to reach that comfort zone with this team. Coach Brown has been criticized for essentially benching J.J. Hickson after Hickson was a starter for most of the year--but if Brown started Hickson over Shaquille O'Neal or Antawn Jamison and the Cavs failed to win the championship then what would Brown say to owner Dan Gilbert and General Manager Danny Ferry? Gilbert did not spend millions of dollars on former All-Stars to have them riding the pine. This is not just a matter of money or office politics, though; O'Neal provides low post scoring that Hickson does not, while Jamison is the "stretch four" that everyone thought the Cavs needed to deal with Garnett and with Orlando's Rashard Lewis. Hickson thrills fans with his energy level and his dunks but he also makes a lot of mistakes defensively.

James' looming free agency placed great burdens on Gilbert, Ferry and Brown, each of whom clearly felt the need to appease James in the short term even at the possible expense of the team's long term future. Ferry broke up a team that made it to the 2007 NBA Finals and then he broke up a team that advanced to the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. While Ferry's moves improved the roster on paper, it would have been interesting to see how either of those squads might have performed if they had been given the opportunity to play together for one more full season but Gilbert and Ferry clearly believed that if they did not constantly turn over the roster then James might take his ball and go home (or, leave home, to be precise). The ironic thing is that the 2009 team was built to face Boston (Ben Wallace matched up well with Garnett) but lost to Orlando, while the 2010 team was built to face Orlando (O'Neal was brought in specifically to deal with Dwight Howard, while Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon and Antawn Jamison were supposed to help Cleveland match up with Orlando's perimeter players) but lost to Boston. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy rightly said during the game six telecast that the Cavaliers have done everything possible to encourage James to stay. Furthermore, there is every reason to believe that if James does stay then Gilbert will continue to spend cash like there is no tomorrow and that Gilbert will replace Coach Brown if that is what James wants.

Despite the constant roster turnover, the Cavs have consistently been an elite defensive team during Coach Brown's tenure--and he has had to come up with some creative schemes to "hide" some players who are not great individual defenders, a problem that reached crisis proportions in this series when Garnett and Rondo went at Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams respectively. Given enough time, Coach Brown could have perhaps come up with a scheme of defensive rotations to provide help versus Garnett and Rondo without giving up dunks and layups but O'Neal and Jamison hardly played together during the regular season and that lack of chemistry burned the Cavs defensively on several occasions.

My only criticism of Brown this season is that he "rested" healthy players near the end of the regular season as opposed to using those final few games to set up his playoff rotation.

4) I certainly don't want to hear about how LeBron James is supposedly going to save the New York Knicks (or any other franchise). When the NBA MVP twice exits the playoffs without a championship--or even a Finals appearance--despite playing for a deep, talented and defensive-minded team that posted the best record in the NBA in back to back seasons, I become skeptical that he is suddenly going to take 2010 Draft Lottery teams--or even lower level playoff teams--to the 2011 Finals. It has suddenly become a popular notion that James may bolt to Chicago; if James cannot get to the Finals with Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson as his bigs then why should I believe that he is going to reach the Finals with Joakim Noah, Brad Miller and Taj Gibson? Add Chris Bosh to that mix and I still do not see the Bulls winning the East. Don't even get me started with the Knicks, who would likely have to get rid of their best current player--David Lee--in order to sign James. Mike D'Antoni's system would undoubtedly enable James to set all kinds of individual statistical records but if James cannot win a title with "San Antonio East" in Cleveland then he certainly is not going to win a title with "Seven Seconds or Less East" in New York.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 AM

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

What is Wrong With the Cavs?

Why are the Cleveland Cavaliers on the brink of elimination from the playoffs despite posting the league's best regular season record for two years in a row?

My newest CavsNews.com article dispels some myths while taking an in-depth look at that question:

What is Wrong With the Cavs?

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:09 PM

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

LeBron Comes Up Empty as Celtics Obliterate Cavaliers in Cleveland

Ray Allen scored 25 points to pace six Celtics in double figures as the Boston Celtics dealt the Cleveland Cavaliers their worst home playoff loss in franchise history, 120-88. A stunned sellout crowd of 20,562 fans booed two-time regular season MVP LeBron James and the other Cavaliers and then left en masse long before the final buzzer of what has to be considered one of the most stunning collapses by a top seeded team in NBA playoff history, a debacle topped perhaps only by Dallas' loss to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. Granted, this series is not over yet and James may very well lead the Cavs to the two straight wins they need in order to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals but even if that happens it is still unbelievable that the team with the best regular season record in the league for the past two years--a team that has been all but unbeatable at home--has suffered two blowout losses in Cleveland in the past eight days.

Prior to this game much was made of how important it would be for the Cavaliers to contain All-Star guard Rajon Rondo, who erupted for 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in Boston's 97-87 game four win over Cleveland on Sunday. The Cavs won that battle to some extent--limiting Rondo to no points, three assists and one rebound in the first half, though he scored 12 points in the third quarter--but lost the larger war as Boston's Hall of Fame "Big Three" had their best collective performance of the series: in addition to Allen's output, Paul Pierce had 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, while Kevin Garnett added 18 points and six rebounds. Starting center Kendrick Perkins contributed 10 points and seven rebounds, while key reserve big man Glen Davis produced 15 points and four rebounds.

The Celtics outshot the Cavs .550-.412, outscored them 44-30 in the paint and outrebounded them 41-31. Shaquille O'Neal led Cleveland with 21 points on 7-11 field goal shooting, Anthony Parker scored 14 points on 5-9 field goal shooting and Anderson Varejao scored five points with a team-high eight rebounds--but they were the only Cavs who played at or above expected levels and the only ones who displayed any energy. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had five points and three rebounds in a 14 minute cameo, which is about as much as could be reasonably expected after he had been mothballed recently.

There is no way around the fact that the number one story emerging from this game--with all due respect to the excellent effort by the 2008 NBA Champion Celtics, a team that clearly has a lot of pride and determination--is the lethargic performance authored by James: not only were his numbers subpar--15 points on 3-14 field goal shooting, seven assists, six rebounds--but he had very little real impact on the overall course of the game at either end of the court; for most of the night he looked like about the seventh best player in the game. James--who owns the third highest regular season scoring average in NBA/ABA history and the third highest playoff scoring average in NBA/ABA history--did not make a single field goal until the 6:15 mark of the third quarter. James' mysterious elbow ailment has been the subject of seemingly endless speculation but--as I wrote last Friday--I really do not want to hear any more about that: TNT's Kenny Smith righly noted that if James had not dramatically shot a late game free throw left handed versus the Bulls then no one would even suspect that James is injured; James shows no signs of being physically limited and just two games ago he produced a stat line of 38 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a 124-95 Cleveland win at Boston, scoring a team playoff record 21 first quarter points to set the tone right from the start. Unfortunately for the Cavs, James also set the tone in game five--but this time the tone was one of indifference. James did not attack the hoop, spending most of the game loitering aimlessly behind the three point line. Kobe Bryant was once senselessly criticized for supposedly quitting in a playoff game during which he scored 23 first half points before scoring just one point in the second half but there is a valid explanation for that dichotomy: the Lakers were getting blown out despite Bryant's early productivity, so Coach Phil Jackson decided during halftime that the Lakers should use their "inside man" strategy to attempt to slow the game down. Bryant followed Jackson's instructions and attempted to feed his big men but the game soon got out of hand.

James' performance on Tuesday was not part of some game plan made by Coach Mike Brown; it is vividly apparent that to beat the Celtics the Cavs need to be very aggressive at both ends of the court and James must be the leader in that regard. He failed miserably. After the game, James displayed the same nonchalant attitude that he had after Cleveland's blowout loss in game two of this series, which ironically was the night that he officially received the 2010 MVP trophy. James admitted that the fans had every right to boo as the Celtics pulled away in game five but he also acted as if his bad performance is no big deal because he has rarely had an off night during his seven year career. It is true that James has been remarkably consistent and productive but that does not excuse his lack of intensity while pursuing what should be his ultimate quest: the drive to win a championship. An off night in the fourth game of five nights during the dog days of the regular season is one thing, but James stunk up the joint in a pivotal game five on his own homecourt.

We have already seen several momentum swings in this series as the teams have traded blowouts and proven that they can win on the road. Though history shows that the game five winner of a 2-2 series is the overwhelming favorite to advance, it certainly is not beyond the realm of possibility that James and the Cavs will awake from their self-induced comas, play up to the high standard that they set throughout this season and beat the Celtics two times--but James has seemed so nonchalant during this series (except for game three) that at this point it is difficult to believe that he and the Cavs really have the necessary mental fortitude to beat a proud, championship-level team in an elimination game.

I do not believe in making too much out of one game; James' performance does not invalidate the MVP awards that he earned with consistently outstanding efforts over the course of two regular seasons, but it does show once again why it is so necessary to be judicious about throwing around the title "greatest player ever." Not too long ago, I read and heard some discussions about whether James should already be considered a candidate for that mythical title. In my Pantheon series I made the important point that it is difficult, if not impossible, to select one player as the absolute greatest--but even if it were possible to do so it should be noted that James' accomplishments, while quite impressive, do not yet exceed the individual and/or collective feats of Pantheon members Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving.

James' current concern is not so much his place in history but rather making sure that the Celtics do not turn the Cavs' current season into history. Even though the Cavs got blown out in game five they did establish some positive things that they can build on in game six: O'Neal showed that he can still score in the post and get opposing big men in foul trouble, while Parker demonstrated that he can play solid perimeter defense and also hit timely jumpers to loosen up Boston's defense. Antawn Jamison (nine points, six rebounds) is most effective versus Garnett when he is on the move and the Cavs should make a conscious effort to get Jamison more involved in the offense. The Cavs led 29-21 early in the second quarter before the Celtics used a 16-0 run to take control of the game, a pattern that is eerily reminiscent of how the Cavs built early leads versus Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals only to fall apart later. The Cavs have the necessary personnel to match up with the Celtics and the Cavs have proven that they are capable of playing excellent defense while also being efficient offensively, so game six must consist of 48 minutes of focused energy. This series will not be decided by James' elbow but rather by his mind, heart and spirit, because he and the Cavs possess the necessary physical tools to get the job done.

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

Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a two-time All-Star who was the starting center for Cleveland's 66-16 team in 2008-09 and who was a major part of Cleveland's rotation this season both before and after being forced to go on hiatus for 30 days as part of the Antawn Jamison trade. However, he only made cameo appearances versus Chicago in the first round and he had played just five minutes versus Boston prior to game five. During Coach Brown's pregame standup, I asked him, "I know that you have a minutes sheet that you always go by in terms of your rotation. Was it part of your plan coming into this series that Ilgauskas would really have such a reduced role--or no role--or is that something that has developed as a result of how each game has gone?"

Coach Brown replied, "Yeah, I keep a minutes sheet on a card in my breast pocket. It's like a rough draft, something to go by--like a game plan. When you have a game plan it helps you to prepare for the game. The minutes sheet, although I have it, I don't know if there has been one time in my entire career that I have followed it to the 't.' If you looked at my minutes sheet from the last game you would say, 'That doesn't match what you did.' So, again, it's just a tool to help me think and help me prepare for the game but very seldom if at any time at all have I followed it person by person or minute by minute. I just kind of go by the flow of the game; I threw J.J. (Hickson) in a couple games ago and he played well so I went with him but it wasn't (written) anywhere going into the game that I had Z sitting and J.J. playing. I play who I think can help us out."

***

Boston Coach Doc Rivers received his nickname--his given first name is actually Glenn--because he was such a huge Julius "Dr. J" Erving fan as a kid, so near the end of Rivers' pregame standup I asked him, "Doc, today is the 30th anniversary of Dr. J's famous baseline move. Since you are named after him and rooted for him as a kid, what do you remember about that play and what are the most 'iconic' plays--that is the term SportsCenter used today--that you remember from your career either as a player or as a coach?"

Rivers answered, "That's a good question. I think that as a coach, probably P.J. Brown's jump shot (that helped Boston win game seven of the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals versus Cleveland)--since we're in Cleveland (laughs). But I do remember the (Erving) play. I was sitting there watching the game--I'm assuming that it was probably tape delayed since most of the games back then were. It was just an amazing play. It was great TV today because they showed all the different angles of it. You appreciate it more now watching the angles than you did then. As a player, I don't know--hell, any play that Dominique (Wilkins) made. He was the Human Highlight Machine: the dunk that he made on Bob Lanier in the playoffs was the best play I've ever seen."

Although the Hawks did lose 3-2 to the Bucks in the first round of the 1984 playoffs, I am pretty sure that the Wilkins dunk over Lanier that Rivers is thinking of actually took place in a January 6, 1984 regular season game and can be seen near the end of his video:




Jim Chones, the 10 year NBA veteran who I spoke with at length during game five of the Cleveland-Chicago series, averaged 10.6 ppg and 6.9 rpg for the 1980 Lakers' championship team. He had an up close and personal view of Erving's baseline move; Chones told me that he shifted toward the baseline to deny a passing angle to Erving but Erving countered by simply hanging in the air until he floated to the other side of the hoop so that he could shoot a reverse layup. Chones said that this was "the best move I ever saw," which is a sentiment shared by many people--though some other ABA veterans (Chones began his professional career in the ABA) insist that during his ABA days Erving did several moves that were even more incredible.

***

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced the winners of the prestigious Curt Gowdy Media Awards that are annually presented to members of the electronic and print media. Cavs radio play by play announcer Joe Tait will receive this year's award for electronic media. Tait has been the voice of the Cavaliers for a total of 38 seasons. Prior to being hired by the Cavs he worked as a pre game host for the Indiana Pacers in the ABA. Tait also briefly served as an announcer for the New Jersey Nets (1981) and Chicago Bulls (1982) before rejoining the Cavs after George and Gordon Gund bought the team from the infamous Ted Stepien. Tait is the 21st winner of the Gowdy Award for members of the electronic media; Doug Collins received the honor in 2009 and previous winners include Hubie Brown, Marv Albert and Dick Stockton.

Jackie MacMullan will receive this year's award for members of the print media. She is the first female honoree. MacMullan wrote for the Boston Globe from 1982 until 2008 and she co-wrote the bestselling book When the Game was Ours with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Previous Gowdy Award winners for print media include Pete Vecsey, David DuPree, Mark Heisler, Jack McCallum, Phil Jasner and Bob Ryan.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:40 AM

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the "No Way Even for Dr. J Reverse Layup"

Today is the 30th anniversary of one of the most famous moves in NBA history, Julius Erving's spectacular reverse layup in game four of the 1980 NBA Finals that Basketball Digest dubbed "The no way even for Dr. J reverse layup." ESPN has been showing replays of this move as part of a discussion about the most "iconic" moments in various sports. In case you somehow have never seen this move--or if you just want to savor it once again--check this out:



Here is what I wrote about Erving's baseline move in my article about the last night at the Spectrum:

"There is one significant moment that I think about, Sixers versus the Lakers," Erving said. "On this particular play, I ended up taking the baseline, drove it hard, one dribble, maybe two dribbles. I got some pretty good momentum, so I took off, elevated, found myself soaring along the baseline and I just waited as long as I could until I got to the other side and then I kind of turned back this way and put a little reverse spin on the ball." Of course, even the eloquent Erving does not have the words to do justice to this move (a move that ABA observers swear would not even crack the top ten of the moves that he did as a young player in that league). In order to appreciate this reverse layup, you have to look at it in freeze frame and pause at the moment when Doc is in full flight: it looks as though he is literally walking on air and he is holding the ball in his oversized right hand, which is extended well over the out of bounds line. I once heard Doc say that when he jumped he had first planned to dunk, but then he saw Kareem Abdul-Jabbar come over so he brought the ball down (that is when he was holding it over the end line) in order to pass it but no one cut to the hoop behind Kareem so Erving simply kept flying and shot a reverse. He did all of that moving (and thinking) while suspended in mid-air! Younger people may not understand or believe it, but if Doc were playing today SportsCenter would probably be named after him. There is a very good reason that Al Bianchi (Doc's first pro coach) says that he never had bench players pay better attention to the game during his coaching career than when he coached Erving: no one wanted to miss Doc's next house call.

Since SportsCenter was just in its infancy when Erving made this move it is really cool to see it replayed in full rotation on the show 30 years later. Erving's greatness has truly stood the test of time and has been an inspiration to several generations of fans--and NBA players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 PM

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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Pro Basketball's Greatest Playoff Upsets

This article was originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Basketball Digest.

Basketball fans usually associate upsets with the NCAA Tournament, but Cinderella has also made a few appearances in pro basketball's postseason action. Playoff underdogs are even more unlikely victors than their NCAA counterparts because they have to win a series as opposed to one "win or go home" game. In more than 50 years of NBA playoffs 25 teams have won a playoff series against an opponent that won at least 10 more regular season games; six teams accomplished this during the ABA's nine years of existence.

The 1974-75 Spirits of St. Louis pulled off one of the most unlikely upsets in sports history, defeating the New York Nets 4-1 in the ABA Eastern Division Semifinals. In 1973-74 the Nets went 55-29 in the regular season and won the championship with a 12-2 playoff record despite having the youngest starting lineup in pro basketball (average age: 22.6). Led by superstar Julius Erving, the 1974-75 squad improved to 58-26, including an 11-0 mark versus St. Louis; most of the wins were by double digit margins.

Meanwhile, St. Louis went 4-17 from late January to early March and barely qualified for the playoffs with a 32-52 record. The Nets won game one of the first round series 111-105 despite 41 points by Marvin Barnes, the talented but erratic St. Louis forward. Barnes notched 37 points and 18 rebounds in a 115-97 game two St. Louis victory (he averaged 30.8 ppg and 14.1 rpg in the 1975 playoffs).

The Spirits won the next two games in St. Louis and clinched the series in game five in New York on a jump shot by veteran All-Star guard Freddie Lewis. The Spirits acquired Lewis, a key member of three Indiana Pacers ABA championship teams, early in the season to provide stability and leadership for their talented but undisciplined squad. He averaged 26.2 ppg in the 1975 playoffs and helped keep the Spirits competitive versus the eventual champion Kentucky Colonels in the Eastern Conference Finals before being sidelined with a sprained ankle.

Don Adams, a journeyman forward waived in the middle of the season by the Detroit Pistons, made a significant contribution to the Spirits' playoff run. St. Louis signed him for the ABA minimum of $200 a game. He immediately brought an element of toughness and savvy to the team. His physical defense frustrated Erving in the playoffs and fit right in with the bruising style of young Spirits' forwards Maurice Lucas and Gus Gerard. Rookie Lucas led the Spirits in rebounding (14.7 rpg) and assists (5.0 apg) during the 1975 playoffs. He later became an All-NBA performer with the Portland Trailblazers and teamed with Bill Walton to win the 1977 championship.

Three years earlier Rick Barry's Nets (Erving was then a rookie with the Virginia Squires) achieved the second biggest upset in playoff history, knocking off the powerful Kentucky Colonels in the ABA Eastern Division Semifinals. ABA Rookie of the Year Artis Gilmore (23.8 ppg and a league best 17.8 rpg) and second year standout Dan Issel (30.6 ppg, third in the league) led the Colonels to a 68-16 regular season record, the best ever in the ABA. The Colonels also had two excellent guards in Louie Dampier (15.9 ppg and 36.1% three point shooting, fourth in the ABA) and Darel Carrier, who missed most of the season with a back injury.

During the regular season, Colonels' coach Joe Mullaney installed a defense in which opposing offensive players were funneled to the lane, where they were thwarted by Gilmore, the league's best shot blocker. Kentucky beat New York seven out of eleven games in the regular season but Nets' Coach Lou Carnesecca made some key adjustments for the playoff series. The first change was caused by injury: Bill Melchionni's broken hand led to more minutes and shot attempts for John Roche, who scored 32 ppg in the playoffs versus the Colonels.

The Nets countered Mullaney's defensive scheme by pulling up for short jump shots instead of driving all the way to the hoop. The Nets focused most of their defensive pressure on Issel, Gilmore and Dampier while allowing the other Colonels to roam freely. Gilmore performed near his regular season levels (21.8 ppg and 17.7 rpg) but Issel (22.0 ppg, 41.2 FG%) and Dampier (13.2 ppg, 42.0 FG%) posted subpar numbers. The Nets stunned the Colonels by taking the first two games in Kentucky and eventually closed out the series in six games.

Dan Issel has much more pleasant memories of the third biggest upset in playoff history. Who can forget the image of Denver Nuggets' center Dikembe Mutombo lying on the floor holding the basketball after Denver upset the Seattle Supersonics in the first round of the 1993-94 Western Conference Playoffs? All-Stars Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton led Seattle to the Pacific Division championship with a league best 63-19 record. Denver did not have any 1994 All-Stars, but Issel coached the Nuggets to a 42-40 record, good enough for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Seattle won the first two playoff games easily and seemed poised to coast into the second round. The Nuggets saved their season with a blowout win in game three and stunned the basketball world by winning games four and five in overtime thrillers. Mutombo controlled the boards and swatted shots with abandon, while LaPhonso Ellis and Reggie Williams led a very balanced scoring attack. Brian Williams provided scoring and rebounding off the bench, a role he would later reprise on the 1997 Chicago Bulls' championship team. Kemp shot 53.8% from the field during the regular season but misfired versus the Nuggets at a 37.1% clip. Payton was a poor free throw shooter during the regular season (59.5%) and simply awful from the free throw line during the playoffs (42.1%).

The 1974-75 Indiana Pacers are the only other team to upset a playoff opponent that won 20-plus more regular season games. In the early ’70s the Pacers won three ABA titles and became known as the Boston Celtics of the ABA. The dynasty seemed to be over in 1974 when the Pacers traded away veterans Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and Freddie Lewis to rebuild the team around the multi-talented George McGinnis. McGinnis led the league in scoring (29.8 ppg) and shared regular season MVP honors with Julius Erving. McGinnis was even better in the playoffs, averaging 32.3 ppg, 15.9 rpg and over 8 apg.

The 45-39 Pacers defeated George "Iceman" Gervin and the 51-33 San Antonio Spurs 4-2 in a mild upset and squared off against the heavily favored Denver Nuggets in the Western Division Finals. Larry Brown coached the Nuggets to the best record in the ABA (65-19). Denver featured a high scoring backcourt of Ralph Simpson (20.6 ppg) and Mack Calvin (19.5 ppg), excellent defensive forward Bobby Jones and undersized but effective center Mike Green. McGinnis almost single handedly carried the Pacers to a game seven showdown in Denver. With a 40-2 regular season home record the Nuggets surely must have liked their chances, but Indiana prevailed 104-96. The Pacers bowed to the Gilmore-Issel Colonels in the ABA Finals, 4-1.

Any listing of greatest playoff upsets must recount the improbable saga of the 1994-95 Houston Rockets. Houston is the only team to beat four playoff opponents that each won 50-plus regular season games. In the Western Conference Semifinals versus the 59-23 Pacific Division champion Phoenix Suns the Rockets also became only the fifth team to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a seven game series and only the second to do so without the home court advantage.

While it is true that the Rockets won the 1994 championship, they hardly looked like title contenders during most of the 1995 season. On Valentine's Day Houston traded starting power forward Otis Thorpe to Portland for perennial All-Star guard (and former Houston Cougar) Clyde Drexler. The Rockets had just completed an uninspired stretch of play with a 6-6 record and guard Vernon Maxwell faced a lengthy suspension for going into the stands after a heckling fan.

At the time of the trade many observers criticized the Rockets for dealing away a top rebounder from a team that already struggled on the backboards. The big move certainly did not pay any immediate dividends, as the Rockets went 17-18 to close out the season. However, Olajuwon missed eight of those games due to injury and Drexler averaged 30 ppg and 9.3 rpg during that time.

In the first round of the playoffs Houston faced the 60-22 Utah Jazz and teetered on the brink of elimination after a 95-82 game three loss at the Summit. In game four Olajuwon (40) and Drexler (41) became only the third teammates to score 40-plus points in the same playoff game (Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose joined the club in 2000) as the Rockets won 123-106. Houston's one-two punch scored 33 and 31 respectively as the Rockets beat the Jazz in Utah in game five, 95-91.

Then came the stunning comeback versus the Phoenix Suns and a 4-2 triumph versus the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Hakeem Olajuwon's induction video for the Basketball Hall of Fame could easily be filled just with his highlights versus 1995 regular season MVP David Robinson (Olajuwon averaged 35.3 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 4.2 bpg versus the Spurs). The Rockets finished off their playoff run by sweeping the 57-25 Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.

Pro Basketball's Greatest Playoff Upsets

Year Team Record Opponent Record Diff.






1974-75 Spirits of St. Louis 32-52 New York Nets 58-26 26
1971-72 New York Nets 44-40 Kentucky Colonels 68-16 24
1993-94 Denver Nuggets 42-40 Seattle Supersonics 63-19 21
1974-75 Indiana Pacers 45-39 Denver Nuggets 65-19 20
1975-76 Phoenix Suns 42-40 Golden St. Warriors 59-23 17
1980-81 Kansas City Kings 40-42 Phoenix Suns 57-25 17
1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers 33-39 St. Louis Hawks 49-23 16
1986-87 Seattle Supersonics 39-43 Dallas Mavericks 55-27 16
1994-95 Houston Rockets 47-35 San Antonio Spurs 62-20 15
1980-81 Houston Rockets 40-42 Los Angeles Lakers 54-28 14


Playoff Round Score



1974-75 ABA Eastern Div. Semifinals 4-1
1971-72 ABA Eastern Div. Semifinals 4-2
1993-94 NBA Western Conf. First Round 3-2
1974-75 ABA Western Div. Finals 4-3
1975-76 NBA Western Conf. Finals 4-3
1980-81 NBA Western Conf. Semifinals 4-3
1958-59 NBA Western Div. Finals 4-2
1986-87 NBA West. Conf. First Round 3-1
1994-95 NBA Western Conf. Finals 4-2
1980-81 NBA West. Conf. First Round 2-1


Note: This chart lists the 10 greatest upsets in NBA/ABA playoff
history based on regular season won/loss differential.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:27 PM

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