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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Thoughts and Observations About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader

I watched every minute of the NBA's Christmas Day quintupleheader; here are some thoughts and observations about the 10 teams that participated in the most hyped day of the league's regular season:

Game One: New York Knicks 103, Chicago Bulls 95

I am not quite sure yet how good the Knicks really are or how good they will be by the end of the season but they are definitely better than I thought that they would be. Wilson Chandler (who was drafted by the man Knicks' fans love to hate, Isiah Thomas) and Landry Fields have been more productive than I expected but clearly the big surprise is Raymond Felton, a solid five year starter for Charlotte who was completely undressed by Jameer Nelson in last season's playoffs; Felton is averaging career highs across the board as the floor general leading Coach Mike D'Antoni's famous "seven seconds or less" offense. When D'Antoni coached in Phoenix he used to joke that he was going to retire when Steve Nash did so that no one would ever be able to figure out if his offense had made Nash or if Nash had made his offense--but now that D'Antoni has been with the Knicks for three seasons the picture is becoming clearer: D'Antoni's freewheeling offensive style has yet to produce a championship (or even an NBA Finals appearance) but it obviously pads the numbers of point guards who run it: Nash went from being an All-Star to being a two-time MVP, journeyman Chris Duhon posted career-high scoring and assists averages in 2009 and now Felton has transformed from a solid starter to possibly an All-Star. The deeper question is whether D'Antoni is making those players better, revealing how good those players were all along or simply augmenting their stats somewhat artificially--and there may be a bit of truth to each of those answers.

However, one theory that we can permanently put to rest is the ludicrous contention that Steve Nash was primarily responsible for Amare Stoudemire's productivity. Stoudemire sans Nash is playing as well as he ever has at both ends of the court. He actually seems a lot more comfortable in the "alpha dog" role than Pau Gasol ever did in Memphis or than Chris Bosh ever did in Toronto, though the final verdict on that score cannot be rendered until we see how Stoudemire performs if/when the Knicks make the playoffs.

Anyone who takes player analysis seriously has to really question just how meaningful the assist statistic is, particularly if that statistic is taken out of the context of watching players perform. Gaudy assist totals are cited as proof that point guards like Nash and others "make their teammates better" but Dirk Nowitkzi had his greatest individual and team success after Nash left Dallas for Phoenix and the early returns certainly suggest that Nash and the Suns miss Stoudemire more than he misses them. What would the "advanced statistics" and boxscore numbers of point guards like Nash, Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo look like if they did not receive assists for passing to players who make three tough moves before finally scoring? Inflated assist numbers--and the inflated emphasis on that statistic both by itself and also in "advanced" formulas used to calculate player ratings--have transformed a lot of point guards into purported MVP candidates over the past few seasons, but the only "name" point guards who have won championships in the past decade are Chauncey Billups and Tony Parker; Billups literally had an All-Star cast surrounding him, while Parker's Spurs were anchored by Tim Duncan's post presence in addition to having Manu Ginobili as an All-Star wing. Rondo was not a "name" point guard when the Celtics won the 2008 championship but he has been mentioned as a fringe MVP candidate this season mainly because he is averaging nearly 14 apg.

The Chicago Bulls were without the services of Joakim Noah, so this game was not a fair barometer of how good either team really is at full strength. I like Derrick Rose a lot but I think that he shoots the ball a bit too much for a point guard, particularly on a team that has other players who can score; Rose needs to improve his shot selection a bit and he also needs to get better at finishing shots in the paint that aren't dunks--he misses more layups and floaters than he should.

Game Two: Orlando Magic 86, Boston Celtics 78

This was the strangest game of the day by far--the Celtics dominated the Magic for virtually the entire game yet almost lost by double digits. Orlando jumped out to a 13-0 lead but then Boston outscored Orlando 71-49 before collapsing in the last seven minutes of the fourth quarter. The superficial story line that many people will run with is that the "new look" Magic triumphed but two of the three new Magic who played in the game were awful: Jason Richardson shot 2-8 from the field and scored five points in 29 minutes as the starting shooting guard, while Gilbert Arenas shot 2-9 from the field and scored five points in 25 minutes coming off of the bench. Hedo Turkoglu--an "old/new" member of the team--had a very solid game (16 points, four rebounds, four assists, 6-10 field goal shooting) and he posted an eye-popping +30 plus/minus number but Brandon Bass led the team in scoring (21 points) and Jameer Nelson recovered from a bad shooting performance to pour in 10 points in the final 2:31, including the go-ahead three pointer and four clinching free throws. Dwight Howard's offense was just a rumor but he dominated the paint at both ends of the court, leading both teams in rebounds (11) and blocked shots (five).

The Magic make a lot of bad decisions at both ends of the court but they also have a ton of offensive firepower--when they are hitting their shots they can be quite dangerous (witness the opening and closing acts of this game) but they can also look awful for extended periods when they are not draining three pointers in transition. Their decision making may get better once they have some time to get the new guys fully acclimated but despite the buzz generated by this win and their previous win against San Antonio I still am not convinced that the Magic can beat the Celtics in a seven game series. The Celtics outplayed the Magic for roughly 40 out of 48 minutes and if that trend holds then it would be very difficult for the Magic to win four games out of seven against them in the playoffs.

The Celtics had won 14 straight games prior to losing to the Magic but the Celtics were without the services of two key players--starting point guard Rajon Rondo (who some have called their most valuable player, if not the league MVP) and starting center Kendrick Perkins, who has been out of the lineup since tearing up his knee during the 2010 NBA Finals. Granted, the Celtics have been doing just fine without those guys but that does not mean that those two players would not have possibly changed the dynamics of this particular contest.

Game Three: Miami Heat 96, L.A. Lakers 80

The much anticipated duel pitting the two-time defending champions against the most hyped team that had yet to win a meaningful game turned into a convincing rout for the Miami Heat. You can rest assured that more nonsense will be written and said about this 1/82nd portion of the regular season than about any other 48 minutes of basketball played between November and April but that does not mean that this game lacked significance. The main story here is that this game both reminded the world why LeBron James deserved the previous two regular season MVPs and also proved that it is ridiculous to say that he did not quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs; the James that we saw versus the Lakers dominated statistically (27 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, four steals, 8-14 field goal shooting, 5-6 three point shooting, 6-6 free throw shooting) but, even more importantly, he put his imprint on all aspects of the game: he made his presence felt offensively, defensively and on the glass--and all you have to do is compare the active, energized, enthusiastic and efficient James who competed against the Lakers with the passive, lethargic, indifferent and inefficient James who disappeared versus the Celtics to realize just how great of a basketball tragedy we witnessed last spring. James could have led the Cleveland Cavaliers to victory over the Boston Celtics and likely could have led the Cavaliers to a championship (last year the Cavs whipped the Lakers just as convincingly on Christmas Day as the Heat did this year) but for whatever reason James quit.

However, no matter what you think of how James quit or what you think of how he handled the "Decision," James is once again showing that he is the best and most productive regular season player in the NBA. I am so sick of hearing about the "MVP of the week club"--every week a different player is mentioned as a potential MVP. That is why the league gives out a Player of the Week award; the MVP is supposed to go to the player who is the best over the course of the entire season. James started out a bit slowly this season (at least by his lofty standards) but he is back to his old self now and it is not surprising that his reemergence coincides with the Heat getting on track. One game does not make or break a player's MVP candidacy but the way that James has played overall combined with his dominant performance against the defending champions on their court establishes James as the MVP frontrunner until further notice.

That said, I have to object to Stuart Scott's ridiculous statement that LeBron James rose to the occasion in his team's three biggest games, which Scott identified as Miami-Cleveland, Miami-New York and Miami-L.A. Lakers. Miami-Cleveland was a game pitting a contending team with an overmatched team still trying to find its identity and the only reason that it was nationally televised was a ghoulish hope that Cleveland fans would riot or do something crazy; that game did not present a competitive challenge to James and the Heat, but they should send Christmas cards to the Cleveland fans for spewing all of the hatred that helped the Heat overcome their early season sluggishness and bond together against a common enemy. Miami-New York was another overhyped game, because it is far from clear that the Knicks are serious contenders--and the New York media are the only people who ever seriously believed that James was going to become a Knick. No, the biggest games of the year so far for James have been the two contests against Boston (two losses), two contests against Orlando (one win, one loss) and this game versus the Lakers; the results of those games were a mixed bag individually and collectively but overall James has emerged as the team's leader in scoring and assists and he is clearly the team's best player.

Some people may try to define this game as yet another chapter in the Kobe versus LeBron story but that is incorrect on two levels: one, the main plot of that story is still that Kobe has five championships and two Finals MVPs compared to LeBron's zero and zero and that Kobe has outdone LeBron in those departments 2-0 and 2-0 during the period that both players have been in the league; two, Kobe and LeBron rarely faced each other one on one. While LeBron James' overall dominance is the headline news from this game, the fascinating strategic sidebar is that the Heat borrowed Boston's defensive game plan versus the Lakers, swarming Bryant with multiple defenders and daring anyone else to make a shot; the only difference is that the Heat used speed and mobility to carry out this plan, while the Celtics rely on size and strength. Dwyane Wade could confidently body up to Bryant on the perimeter because he knew that if Bryant drove around him there would be help waiting (you don't have to trust me on that one--not only could you see this plainly if you watched the game, Wade said as much in the postgame press conference). Bryant reacted appropriately, firing pinpoint passes to his much ballyhooed big men Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, but Gasol was nearly invisible while Odom was solid but hardly took full advantage of how much the defense was tilted toward Bryant. During the telecast, both Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly mentioned that Bryant was making great passes and would have had even more assists if his teammates had made open shots (Bryant finished with 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds but he shot just 6-16 from the field). While the Heat successfully implemented an anti-Bryant game plan, the Lakers' defense was atrocious; as Jackson and Van Gundy emphasized, the Lakers played awful pick and roll defense, enabling the Heat to get open shots all over the court. The Heat big men set solid screens on Bryant that forced switches and the Laker bigs were almost always out of position.

Did Bryant have a great game? No, he shot poorly and was unable to take over for any extended stretch--but the way that the Heat tilted their defense in his direction should have led to an absolute field day for Pau Gasol; instead, Gasol was a non-factor (17 points, eight rebounds, 8-17 field goal shooting, with most of his points coming off of Bryant feeds or open lanes created after Bryant was trapped). Gasol's numbers were not terrible but that is why statistics only tell part of the story; if you watched the game then you saw how the Heat were willing to concede a lot of ground to Gasol in order to make sure that Bryant did not get loose. This puts Bryant in a quandary when Gasol is passive/ineffective: if Bryant forces up shots then he will be criticized for being selfish but if he passes the ball and his teammates falter then he will be accused of not stepping up. Since the Heat do not have the physical presence in the paint that the Celtics do I did not think that this approach would work for them against the Lakers but the Heat made up for their lack of size with speed, tenacity and aggressiveness.

Ever since the Lakers acquired Gasol one of the team's most effective half court sets has been a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action that inevitably results in Bryant being trapped and an open shot being created for Gasol on the roll, Odom on a weak side dive or a three point shooter in the opposite corner--but this season that play has not been quite as effective, mainly because Gasol's screen setting and his rolling have not been up to par. Instead of setting an effective screen that forces a trap or a switch Gasol is often trying to slip the screen, enabling the defense to trap Bryant and still recover to prevent the other options. Gasol has also seemed oddly indecisive: sometimes I have seen Bryant draw two defenders and look to feed a cutting Gasol only to realize that Gasol never cut while other times Bryant has passed to a wide open Gasol for a jumper but Gasol instead took a tentative dribble, enabling a recovering defender to contest his shot; during the Lakers' loss to Milwaukee, Bryant could be clearly heard screaming to Gasol, "Shoot the ball!" after Bryant drew a double team and passed to Gasol for an open baseline jumper that Gasol turned into a contested runner that he missed after lofting it softly toward the rim.

Some people have called Gasol the best big man and best low post player in the NBA but that is an exaggeration; Gasol is an excellent, All-Star caliber player who benefits a lot from the extra defensive coverage that Kobe Bryant receives: Gasol gets shot opportunities as the Lakers' second option that he would never receive if he were forced to be the first option on a nightly basis. The Heat's main weakness is rightly considered to be their interior defense. This game was tailor made for Gasol to have a huge performance and Bryant certainly demonstrated his willingness to be a facilitator but instead the best big man on the court--by far--was Chris Bosh, who ended up with 24 points and a game-high 13 rebounds while shooting 11-17 from the field. Bosh was aggressive and energetic.

Early in the season, the Heat played a "my turn, your turn" offense as James and Wade took turns monopolizing the ball while Bosh was left to pick up table scraps but now the Heat have become a very aggressive defensive team that not only scores well in transition but also plays with much greater purpose in the half court; Bosh is able to create his own offense when he is isolated and he is also shooting with confidence when he receives the ball on quick reversals if James or Wade is trapped. The Heat's halfcourt ball movement is exponentially better now than it was early in the season.

The ironic thing is that even though James' Heat may match up just as well with the Lakers as James' Cavs did last season (for different reasons) the Lakers may once again get off of the hook if the Heat similarly falter against Boston in the Eastern Conference playoffs; the defensive game plan that worked for the Heat against the Lakers will not work against Boston because the Celtics are physically tougher than the Lakers and are fully willing and able to attack in the paint.

For the past several days, the Lakers said that the game against the Heat did not mean much and their play reflected that attitude. Since the Lakers will only face the Heat once more in the regular season the Lakers should not dwell on this result but instead focus on what they need to do to reclaim Western Conference superiority--and they will get a chance to do just that when they face the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday.

Game Four: Oklahoma City Thunder 114, Denver Nuggets 106

While the second and third games were heavyweight bouts that almost certainly included both 2011 Eastern Conference Finalists and very possibly the 2011 Western Conference Champion, games four and five featured fighters from lower weight divisions. The Oklahoma City Thunder pushed the Lakers very hard in the first round of last year's playoffs but they still lack the necessary interior presence to make a deep postseason run. Kevin Durant is a marvelous scorer and he torched the Nuggets for a season-high 44 points but it remains to be seen how far he can carry a team in the postseason when the defense gets more physical and the stakes are raised.

The Denver Nuggets were without the services of Carmelo Anthony, who is mourning the death of his sister--but in light of the many reports indicating that Anthony does not plan to finish his career in Denver this game may have provided a glimpse of the Nuggets' future. It is apparent that with or without Anthony the Nuggets are a potent offensive team that is less than fully committed to playing defense. If the Nuggets cannot convince Anthony to sign a contract extension then perhaps team management should look at this as a blessing in disguise and find a way to trade him in exchange for as many draft picks and young players as possible. The reality is that the Nuggets are highly unlikely to win a championship with Anthony as their best player but it would be very bad to lose him for nothing if he walks as a free agent; Anthony's desire to leave gets management off of the hook in a sense, because otherwise they may have felt compelled to overpay him the way that the Washington Wizards overpaid Gilbert Arenas a few years ago. Only a select few players have the necessary skills and mindset to lead a team to a title and Anthony does not seem to be one of them, which is disappointing considering that he carried Syracuse to an NCAA title as a freshman; I really hoped that Anthony would develop into an elite NBA player but he seems satisfied to be a great scorer whose all-around game does not quite measure up to the standards set by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, two players who work hard at both ends of the court.

It will be very interesting to watch Durant's development over the next few seasons. Anthony entered the NBA as a polished scorer but he has not improved the other facets of his game very much; Durant struggled as a rookie when Coach P.J. Carlesimo forced him to play out of position at guard but after the Thunder replaced Carlesimo with Scott Brooks and Brooks moved Durant back to his natural position at forward Durant's game has blossomed. Durant seems to be very mature and levelheaded, so hopefully he will continue to work on all aspects of his game and evolve into an elite player who is capable of leading a team to a championship; he still needs to improve his defense and to make sure that physical defenders like Ron Artest are not able to nullify him in postseason play.

Game Five: Golden State Warriors 109, Portland Trail Blazers 102

In the late 1970s, the Portland Trail Blazers lamented what could have been possible if only Bill Walton had remained healthy but at least they won the 1977 championship before his body broke down; the current edition of the Trail Blazers has seen the player that they hoped would become a franchise center suffer one injury after another and they have reason to wonder if All-Star guard Brandon Roy's balky knees will enable him to have a fully healthy and productive career--but these Trail Blazers have suffered their setbacks without capturing even one title as consolation. Coach Nate McMillan's Trail Blazers play hard but without Greg Oden anchoring the post and Roy playing at a very high level they do not have a realistic chance to even win one playoff series, let alone contend for a championship. Portland relies heavily on two wily veterans (Andre Miller and Marcus Camby) who are nearing the end of their very solid NBA careers and are good enough to win some games but not good enough to consistently prevail against the league's elite squads.

The Warriors have flanked undersized center David Lee with several young and explosive perimeter scorers but this Warriors' team looks much like many of its predecessors: dynamic, fun to watch but not tough enough or savvy enough to do much more than possibly fight for the eighth playoff spot. Monta Ellis is a blur, a speedy whirling dervish who dropped 39 points on the older, slower Trail Blazers, but how many teams contend for championships when their leading scorer is an undersized shooting guard?

This game was an entertaining dessert after a full course NBA meal but, like most desserts, even though it was pleasant to the palate it did not contain much substance. Portland outrebounded Golden State 30-11 in the first half and 53-32 overall but the Trail Blazers could not overcome the combination of Ellis' 39 point barrage and Lee's Jerry Lucas-like combination of outside sniping/dirty work in the paint (21 points, seven rebounds, five assists).

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:19 AM