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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Oklahoma City Versus Memphis Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#4 Oklahoma City (55-27) vs. #8 Memphis (46-36)

Season series: Memphis, 3-1

Memphis can win if…Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol control the paint, Mike Conley harasses Russell Westbrook into some inefficient shooting performances and Shane Battier (and Memphis' other wing defenders) hold Kevin Durant to under 25 ppg/.450 field goal shooting.

Oklahoma City will win because…Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed form a big, mobile and versatile frontcourt rotation that matches up very well with the Grizzlies' power forwards/centers. Ron Artest's physical defense in the first round of the 2010 playoffs slowed down Durant but Durant lit up the Denver Nuggets for 32.4 ppg on .471 field goal shooting in the first round of this year's playoffs and Durant is likely to post similar numbers against whoever Memphis throws at him. Conley did a credible job versus Tony Parker as the Grizzlies pulled off the rare first round upset of a number one seed but Westbrook is bigger, stronger and more athletic that Parker.

Other things to consider: Memphis won the regular season series 3-1 but Perkins did not play in any of those games. The Thunder now have all of the requisite parts to win a championship; the only thing that they lack is collective playoff experience (Perkins has championship experience from playing with the 2008 Boston Celtics but collectively the Thunder's current rotation with Perkins starting at center has not even been together for half a season).

TNT's Charles Barkley predicted that Memphis would beat San Antonio and he was right that the Grizzlies' frontcourt was too big for the Spurs to contain but I still think that Memphis' victory is surprising, if not shocking. Granted, the Spurs have an aging nucleus and each of their three top players experienced some kind of injury in the last month or so but the Spurs were the best and most consistent team in the NBA from October until the end of March; this is just the fourth time that an eighth seed defeated a number one seed since the creation of the current playoff format in 1984 and there were extenuating circumstances for at least two of the previous upsets: in the lockout-shortened 50 game 1999 season the 27-23 New York Knicks were only six games behind the 33-17 Miami Heat, while in the 2007 season the Golden State Warriors used a gimmicky small lineup and rode a wave of great three point shooting to knock off the shell-shocked Dallas Mavericks, a team that seemed to be psyched out before the series began when Dallas Coach Avery Johnson changed a starting lineup that had gone 37-6 during the regular season (the Mavericks finished 67-15 overall). This season was not distorted by a lockout, the Grizzlies did not use any gimmicks and the Spurs did not change their lineup (with the exception of Manu Ginobili missing game one); the Grizzlies just systematically outplayed a 61 win team whose core players helped the Spurs win the 2003, 2005 and 2007 NBA championships. Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks have been viewed with a somewhat jaundiced eye since their 2007 loss to Golden State, so I wonder how the Spurs' loss will affect the way that the Spurs are perceived; the Mavs in general and Nowitzki in particular have received a bum rap and I do not think that it would be right to just bash the Spurs--an aging team that has a championship pedigree--but it also would not be right to act as if the Spurs' loss is anything other than a very surprising and very disappointing ending for a team that had to be considered a legit championship contender based on their track record and based on how well they played over the course of the 2010-11 season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:00 AM


Friday, April 29, 2011

Los Angeles Versus Dallas Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 L.A. Lakers (57-25) vs. #3 Dallas (57-25)

Season series: L.A. Lakers, 2-1

Dallas can win if…the Mavericks are able to contain Kobe Bryant without devoting so much defensive attention to him that Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and the other Lakers get high percentage scoring opportunities. The Mavericks also need strong scoring performances from Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry.

L.A. will win because…Kobe Bryant has a history of torching the Mavericks and because the Mavericks will have trouble dealing with the Lakers' frontcourt. Paradoxically, this matchup against a third seeded, 57 win Dallas team may actually be easier for the Lakers than the first round battle versus the seventh seeded, 46 win Hornets turned out to be; the Hornets have some undersized but feisty frontcourt players who knocked Gasol around but Gasol should be able to find a comfort zone in a skill versus skill matchup with Nowitzki because neither of those players is very physical. The Lakers will probably rotate various defenders on Nowitzki to wear him down, starting with Gasol but also using Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and probably Matt Barnes as well.

While the Lakers can throw a lot of different looks at Nowitzki, the Mavericks are more limited regarding their defensive options versus Gasol; they cannot afford to put Tyson Chandler on Gasol because then Bynum would have a serious advantage in the post versus Nowitzki--unless the Mavericks play Chandler and Brendan Haywood at the same time, but that makes the Mavericks slower and less athletic by removing a wing player (either Shawn Marion or DeShawn Stevenson) from the lineup.

The Lakers' biggest weakness defensively is trying to contain quick guards in screen/roll situations, so Jason Kidd will be an easier matchup (at this advanced stage of his Hall of Fame career) for Derek Fisher than Chris Paul was last round; the Lakers may also put Bryant on Kidd while having Fisher chase around three point shooter Stevenson. J.J. Barea could give the Lakers' second unit some problems with his combination of quickness driving to the hoop and the ability to hit long jumpers.

Other things to consider: Bryant led the way with a game-high 24 points in the Lakers' series clinching 98-80 game six win over the New Orleans Hornets; Bryant only played 30 minutes in that contest after logging just 29 minutes in game five--the latter being his lowest minutes total in a playoff game in more than a decade--but Bryant took over in key stretches during both games: his thunderous dunk over New Orleans center Emeka Okafor helped to turn the tide and boost the Lakers to victory in game five, while Bryant's 13 third quarter points in game six snuffed the final signs of life out of the Hornets.

In the Lakers' previous road closeout game, Bryant poured in 37 points as the Lakers beat the Suns 110-103 to advance to the 2010 NBA Finals; that was the eighth straight time that Bryant scored at least 30 points in a potential closeout game on the road, an NBA record (Elgin Baylor ranks second with six such games). Some pundits are obsessively focused on trying to quantify "clutch shooting" but it makes no sense to arbitrarily define "clutch" with certain time/score parameters; the sample sizes involved in such research are inherently small and volatile (taking such numbers seriously means equating shots taken after a team runs an out of bounds play with half court, desperation heaves and acting as if a handful of plays defines whether or not a player is "clutch"). A better definition of "clutch" is rising to the occasion when the competition is the toughest and the stakes are the highest; it is difficult to think of an NBA situation that better fits that bill than road closeout games: Bryant's performances in such games are a much more meaningful measurement of his abilities to come through in the clutch than looking at his shooting percentage on a handful of desperation shots.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:32 PM


Chicago Versus Atlanta Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Chicago (62-20) vs. #5 Atlanta (44-38)

Season series: Chicago, 2-1

Atlanta can win if…the Hawks utilize their athleticism to play aggressive defense, force turnovers and score a lot of points in transition. The Bulls play great half court defense, so the Hawks must speed up the game if they plan on scoring more than 85-90 ppg.

Chicago will win because…the Bulls consistently play much harder and much smarter than the Hawks do. The Bulls' active big men will control the paint at both ends of the court, while Derrick Rose will pick apart Atlanta's defense to create shots for himself and for his teammates.

Other things to consider: I should have had the courage of my convictions regarding the Orlando Magic's prospects after their two big midseason trades but I somehow convinced myself to pick Orlando to beat Atlanta in the first round. Frankly, neither team particularly impresses me: the Hawks have essentially the same roster as last year (Kirk Hinrich was a nice midseason addition but in terms of total regular season minutes played, the only change this season is swapping Jeff Teague for Maurice Evans), and they ended up with nine fewer wins than they had in 2009-10 despite firing Coach Mike Woodson, who became a scapegoat for the team's failure to advance past the second round; the Magic went from being a legit championship contender the past two seasons to a team that I knew would struggle just to win a single playoff series. Ultimately, I thought that having the best player, homecourt advantage and the edge in coaching would enable the Magic to get by the Hawks but the fact that even those trumps could not save Orlando shows just how far that franchise has fallen in a short time--and that stark realization will become even more clear if the Bulls dismantle the Hawks as thoroughly as I expect that they will.

The Hawks are a talented team but they are frustrating to watch because they so often play without focus or direction; on paper, the Bulls may be considered less talented than the Hawks overall (even though Derrick Rose is clearly the best player on either roster) but the Bulls are much more focused than the Hawks; TNT's Kenny Smith made a great point about this series: the Bulls will dominate in a lot of areas that do not show up in the boxscore, such as deflections, corralling loose balls and hustle plays. The Bulls' tenacity will disrupt the Hawks at both ends of the court and after the Bulls convincingly thrash a team that beat Orlando 4-2 it will be apparent just how much work the Magic have to do to once again become a contending team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 PM


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Miami Versus Boston Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#2 Miami (58-24) vs. #3 Boston (56-26)

Season series: Boston, 3-1

Boston can win if…the Celtics protect the ball and control the boards, two key factors to prevent the Heat from scoring easy points in transition. The Celtics want to play a low scoring, half court game, while the Heat want to play an uptempo, open court game. Rajon Rondo will have to perform very dominantly in multiple categories--points, rebounds and assists--to help offset the production of Miami's "Big Three" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; if Rondo plays well he will distort Miami's defense and thus create opportunities for Boston's "Big Three" of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, three future Hall of Famers who cannot create shots for themselves at this stage of their careers to the same extent that Miami's superstar trio can create shots for themselves. The Celtics will also need to get strong production from the center position (Jermaine O'Neal, Nenad Krstic and Shaquille O'Neal--assuming that Shaq is healthy enough to play and in good enough condition to make any kind of impact).

Miami will win because…the Celtics lost a major advantage over the Heat when the Celtics traded away Kendrick Perkins; the Heat now match up better inside with the Celtics than they did before that deal. Perkins' screens helped to free up Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on offense, while Perkins' physical presence in the paint deterred opposing teams from scoring easy baskets in the paint. Either team is capable of winning on the road in this series but the Heat have game seven at home if necessary, a trump card that has proven to be significant historically.

Other things to consider: Prior to the season, I felt very strongly that the Celtics would beat the Heat if the teams met in a seven game playoff series. The Celtics defeated the Heat the first three times the teams faced each other in the regular season but in the final encounter--the only one played after the Perkins trade--Miami won 100-77; I am the last person who would try to read too much into just one regular season game but the importance of that contest is (1) the Heat dominated the boards and (2) that victory without question gave the Heat added confidence about their team in general and about the matchup versus Boston in particular.

The Celtics will have the edge in any game that is close down the stretch because the biggest question/concern for the Heat is their half court offensive execution; the Heat have had some much discussed failures in the final seconds of close games but "clutch shot stats" are inherently overrated due to small sample sizes and the fact that such shots are low percentage plays by nature: the real issue for the Heat is not so much what they will do in the final two minutes or the final 10 seconds but rather what they will do throughout the game against an opponent that prevents the Heat from repeatedly scoring easy baskets in transition. If the Heat run their "clown car" offense (which consists of LeBron James or Dwyane Wade dribbling aimlessly and the Heat looking as disorganized as clowns piling out of a circus car) then the Celtics will win this series.

I expect this series to go the distance, with seemingly dramatic momentum changes from game to game and within the games; there will be a lot of fodder for idiots in the media to propagate various flawed theories such as "Wade should be the closer" or "Team X (whoever lost the previous game) cannot possibly recover" (except that Team X then wins the very next game, much like what we just saw in the Dallas-Portland series after Portland's big game four comeback win).

Regardless of all of the season-long media hype about Miami being "Dwyane Wade's team," during the regular season LeBron James led the Heat in minutes, scoring, assists and steals while ranking second in rebounding and James led the Heat in minutes, scoring, rebounding and assists during their first round victory over Philadelphia. James is bigger than Wade, there is no skill set area in which Wade is better than James and James is less turnover prone; James is Miami's best player by statistical, skill set and "eye test" reasons. This series will likely be decided by James authoring a signature game seven performance at home in a close Miami victory. If that happens, then some people will undoubtedly say that this triumph justifies James' choice to flee Cleveland to play for Miami but it could also be argued that if James stars during this series then it makes the way that he blatantly quit versus Boston in last year's playoffs even more puzzling and disappointing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:39 PM


Monday, April 25, 2011

First Round "Midterm" Report

The headline stories of the moment in the NBA playoffs are that Chicago's Derrick Rose is using a walking boot for his injured left ankle and that the L.A. Lakers' Kobe Bryant needed crutches to walk out of New Orleans' Arena after injuring his left foot late in the Lakers' 93-88 game four loss. Both players are expected to be able to play in their respective teams' next games but if their injuries significantly limit their productivity this could change the balance of power in the league (and scuttle the Bulls-Lakers NBA Finals matchup that I predicted before the playoffs began).

We have seen enough from each NBA playoff series to offer some "midterm" grades, though this is actually a final report card for the New York Knicks.

Chicago 3, Indiana 1
  1. Chicago's formula for success is very similar to the one employed by the Cleveland Cavaliers to reach the 2007 NBA Finals and the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals plus post the league's best regular season record in 2009 and 2010: defense, rebounding and exceptional all-around play by a star player (LeBron James for Cleveland, Derrick Rose for Chicago).
  2. If Kobe Bryant hit the game-clinching field goal but only shot 4-18 from the field with just two assists in a game, Henry Abbott would say that Bryant shot too often and played selfishly; Kelly Dwyer would dismiss the value of the last second shot by declaring that if Bryant had been more efficient throughout the game then his team would not have needed for him to hit a game-winner. You can bet that Abbott and Dwyer sang a different tune after Rose put up the aforementioned stat line in Chicago's 88-84 game three win; I'd call those two NBA "experts" intellectually dishonest but I hesitate to use any form of the word intellectual in the same sentence with their names. In contrast to the drivel we have come to expect from some of the worst NBA writers, TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith both had the same, cogent take on Rose's performance: you have to be a great player to have the confidence to take (and make) such a pressure shot on a night when you are struggling from the field; Barkley and Smith noted that the last thing on Rose's mind was that he had only made three of his first 17 shots, because a great player is certain that he will make the next one and win the game. Smith added one other excellent observation: Rose made sure that he took a high percentage shot (a layup), while the Pacers' Danny Granger tried to answer with an off balance three pointer when the Bulls were still only up by two points.
  3. The Pacers have competed very hard in this series but their fourth quarter execution has been atrocious in all four games; they had to hang on for dear life in game four despite leading 84-71 with just 2:17 remaining and they squandered a 98-88 lead at the 3:38 mark of the fourth quarter of game one to lose 104-99 as Rose scored seven points and assisted on a Kyle Korver three pointer in the final 1:50.
  4. Rose is shooting just .352 from the field--well below his regular season field goal percentage of .445--but he has still been the best player on the court for three reasons: (1) He has been very productive from the free throw line (.868 FT%, 13.3 FTA/game), (2) he has been very effective in fourth quarter situations with the game on the line and (3) his dribble penetration has broken down the Pacers' defense, leading to shot open shots for his teammates (Rose's 6.3 apg average is actually lower than his 7.7 apg regular season average but--as I have mentioned before regarding Bryant--assists do not tell the entire story regarding shot creation, because a great player does not always make the final pass leading to the open shot).
  5. Rose did not move well down the stretch in game four after he sprained his left ankle and it is no coincidence that the Pacers won that contest, though the Pacers still had to weather yet another meltdown in the waning moments. Rose seemed to lack his regular quickness, did not jump as high as usual when he scored on an uncontested dunk and he even missed a contested breakaway layup that he normally would convert, so his mobility and productivity should be closely watched in game five; with a 3-1 lead the Bulls can survive this series even if Rose is hobbled but they need a fully healthy Rose in order to advance beyond the second round.
Miami 3, Philadelphia 1
  1. In Miami's game one victory, Dwyane Wade ranked third on the Heat in minutes played, third in scoring and third in rebounding--but he hit a couple shots in the final two minutes, so naturally the national media concluded that the Heat made the "correct" adjustment of crowning Wade as the team's leader; all evidence to the contrary will be duly ignored, because the national media decided months ago that Wade is a better player and/or "more clutch" than LeBron James, the player who led the Heat in minutes played, scoring and assists over the course of the entire 82 game season (James ranked first on the Heat in minutes, first in rebounding, tied for first in assists and ranked second in scoring during game one). An objective recounting of the final minutes of the game fails to support the popular narrative that the Heat simply gave the ball to Wade and asked him to take over. With 3:17 left in game one, Miami had the ball and an 88-85 lead; Wade dribbled the ball down court, tried to run a screen/roll action with Chris Bosh but failed to create anything, so Wade then passed to James, who immediately made a strong move down the middle of the lane before missing a shot right in front of the rim. The Sixers then missed a shot and James corralled the defensive rebound. James gave the ball to Wade, who dribbled down court, ran some time off of the clock, made a hand gesture and passed the ball to James, who was isolated at the top of the key against Jrue Holiday. James made a strong move to the hoop, drew a double team and dished to a wide open Bosh, who missed a baseline jumper. Wade crashed the offensive boards, failed to get the ball and was the last defender back, enabling the Sixers to score a layup thanks to a five on four advantage. Wade then brought the ball down court and ran a screen/roll with Bosh that accomplished little because Wade dribbled side to side instead of attacking the hoop. Wade passed to James Jones, who drove from the wing, enticing Bosh's defender out of position; Jones fed Bosh in the post and Bosh drew a foul. Bosh made both free throws and Elton Brand missed a short jumper that James rebounded. Wade ran a screen/roll with Bosh but this time Wade aggressively attacked the hoop before fading away to shoot a one-legged bank shot. Wade kicked out his leg but Thaddeus Young was called for a foul; Wade missed the free throw, keeping the score 92-87 Miami. Young again scored on a layup and the Heat answered with a Wade-Jones screen/roll that resulted in two made free throws for Wade. Andre Iguodala missed a jumper and James snared yet another rebound. A Wade-Jones screen/roll led to a missed three pointer by Jones. James then blocked a Holiday layup attempt and after a timeout Iguodala missed a three pointer. The Sixers now had to foul; the game concluded with the Sixers missing two three pointers, James sinking two out of two free throws and Wade splitting a pair of free throws. Miami's offense in the final three minutes consisted of James attacking the hoop twice, Wade running multiple screen/rolls (sometimes aggressively but other times passively) and James Jones helping to create a postup opportunity for Bosh that resulted in two crucial free throws. From this small sample size we are supposed to conclude that Wade "took over" because he made an off balance jumper that was better highlight material than the other plays; meanwhile, no one even mentions the several times that Wade ran the screen/roll passively or the potentially crucial possession when he failed to get back on defense. This is why I rely on watching games--not "advanced statistics" and certainly not the bleatings of media "experts"--to determine what actually happened and who deserves credit/blame.
  2. Neither James nor Wade play particularly well on offense without the ball, so the problem is that when one of them is handling the ball the other guy is just watching; this differentiates the Heat from the Boston Celtics, who are successful in half court situations because they screen hard, cut hard and get the ball to a player who is in position to utilize a skill set strength, whether that is a catch and shoot three pointer (Ray Allen), a midrange jumper (Kevin Garnett) or an isolation situation at the elbow (Paul Pierce). The Heat shot an NBA-worst 1-19 from the field during the regular season in situations when they were down by three or fewer points with 10 seconds or less remaining--but even the championship-experienced Boston Celtics shot 2-14 in such situations, the fourth worst percentage in the NBA this season. What does that mean? It indicates that last second shots when you are tied or trailing are inherently low percentage situations but also that we should be wary of drawing sweeping conclusions about a small sample size; you cannot determine the essence of a team's ability to produce in the clutch (if such a quality can even be defined at all) just by looking at 14 or 19 possessions out of an 82 game season consisting of literally thousands of possessions: any number of anomalous factors could have affected those various situations--for instance, there is a huge difference between executing a set play in an out of bounds situation with a decent amount of time remaining versus having to heave the ball at the hoop just before time runs out. Despite Boston's dismal regular season performance in "clutch" situations, the Celtics eviscerated the New York Knicks in the playoffs down the stretch in close games, running excellent plays that produced high percentage shots.
  3. In Philadelphia's game four win, James took the last second shot, casting serious doubt on Brian Windhorst's contention that the Heat made some kind of official decision to always give the ball to Wade in such scenarios. James made a good move, attacking the hoop rather than settling for a long jumper, but Elton Brand got a piece of the ball and the Sixers controlled the rebound. James is the team's best player and thus he should be the first option in most cases, but whether the primary option on a given play is James or Wade, Coach Erik Spoelstra must find a way to make the other player a threat on the weak side in order to spread out the defense. It would be easier to make James and Wade into weak side threats if either of them possessed a consistent jump shot.
  4. James is leading the Heat in minutes (42.3 mpg), scoring (26.3 ppg), rebounds (10.8 rpg) and assists (5.8 apg) versus Philadelphia, while Wade is leading the Heat in turnovers and shooting worse from the field than James yet Mike Wilbon, Brian Windhorst and many other "experts" insist that Wade is Miami's best player, that Wade is the most "clutch" player on the team and that Wade should be Miami's primary late game option. I cannot emphasize enough how idiotic it is to suggest that even though James is--by any reasonable statistical and/or "eye test" measure--clearly Miami's best player he should become a screener/off the ball role player in the game's final two minutes. I am not saying that James must always have the ball at the start of every play or that he should never be used as a screener--he certainly can set a solid screen with his huge body--but it makes no sense to primarily relegate the reigning two-time regular season MVP to such duties when the clock hits some arbitrary number. It is worth remembering that the player who Wilbon, Windhorst and others are trying to elevate to "Mr. Clutch" status has not won a playoff series since the 2006 season and he presided over arguably the worst collapse ever by a championship team that did not have its roster disassembled. Yes, Wade is one up on James in terms of winning an NBA championship, but James has had a better and more consistent playoff career, even considering the puzzling way that James quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs.
  5. The Heat are most effective when they can trap defensively, force turnovers and score in the open court; they are least effective when the game slows down and their opponent can zero in on the Heat's weaknesses inside the paint and the Heat's lack of lateral quickness defensively at the point guard position. This is a bad matchup for Philadelphia because the things that the 76ers do well are the same things that the Heat do well but the Heat are even better at those things than the 76ers are. The game four win is a nice present for the Philadelphia fans but will not change the outcome of the series. It will be very interesting to see how the Heat perform against the Celtics under the pressure of playoff competition when the game slows down, a subject that I will examine in greater depth once Miami officially ends this series.
Boston 4, New York 0
  1. The Knicks essentially tanked for several seasons so that they could acquire Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to lead them to a record barely above .500 and a 4-0 first round loss--but the national media spin is that the "glory" has returned to Madison Square Garden. The closing moments of game one looked somewhat less than glorious for New York: the Knicks conceded a wide open lob for a dunk and an uncontested game-winning three pointer by arguably the greatest long range shooter in NBA history (Ray Allen), followed by Anthony firing up a low percentage three pointer when there was plenty of time left on the clock and the Knicks only needed to score two points to tie the game.
  2. Anthony authored an individual performance for the ages in New York's 96-93 game two loss (42 points, 17 rebounds, six assists) but the lasting image of that game is Anthony's brain cramp on the final possession: the Celtics, up by just one point, inbounded with more than four seconds remaining but Anthony failed to foul Delonte West until time had all but expired; even though the Knicks were out of timeouts, a quick foul would have retained some chance of getting off a three pointer to at least force overtime. The enduring soundbite from that game is Anthony repeatedly mentioning that he "made the right play" when he passed to Jared Jeffries after being double-teamed on the Knicks' final offensive possession; Jeffries fumbled the ball at point blank range instead of scoring the potentially game-winning layup. Yes, Carmelo, you made the right play but it is more than a bit unseemly to almost break your arm patting yourself on the back about it--and you get paid the big bucks with the expectation that you will make the right play. In contrast to Anthony's narcissistic approach, it is interesting that Derrick Rose is sometimes glum even after wins, insisting that he should have played better--and when the Bulls lose, Rose is quick to say it is his fault even if he played well and it really was not his fault. Rose is confident in his skills yet quick to praise his teammates for helping him to be successful. Instead of patting himself on the back with one hand and throwing Jeffries under the bus with the other hand, Anthony should have tried to pump up Jeffries' confidence by saying that if the same situation happened again he would pass to Jeffries without hesitation because he is confident that Jeffries will make the shot.
  3. It is amazing how quickly some people make excuses for Miami's slow start and for the Knicks' sub-.500 record (including the four playoff losses) since putting together New York's version of the "Big Three." When the Boston Celtics assembled their "Big Three" in 2007-08 they rolled to a 66-16 record, survived some playoff adversity (winning two seventh games) and won a title; when the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in the middle of the 2007-08 season after Andrew Bynum got hurt the Lakers did not miss a beat, posted the best record in the West and made it all the way to the NBA Finals before losing to Boston--and then the Lakers won back to back championships. The Heat have struggled at times not because they need to play more games together but because their best players have some flaws--as mentioned above, neither James nor Wade play well without the ball--and because their roster has some holes, while the Knicks have been mediocre for the past 30-plus games because neither their coach nor their two best players have a defensive mindset and because Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are All-NBA Second or Third Team caliber players, not the elite, All-NBA First Team caliber players that some people make them out to be. All-NBA First Team caliber players lead teams to deep playoff runs and championships on a consistent basis, something that neither Stoudemire nor Anthony have done: Stoudemire has played in the playoffs six times, amassing three first round losses and two Conference Finals losses; Anthony has played in the playoffs eight times, amassing seven first round losses and one Conference Finals loss.
  4. Last year, I questioned how much the Knicks had really improved--both in the short term and in the long term--and I made the critical points that (1) it was foolish for the Knicks to apparently put all of their eggs in the LeBron James basket and (2) it was questionable at best to believe that a Mike D'Antoni-coached team would develop into a legit championship contender. As I predicted, James never seriously considered going to New York and the Plan B that the Knicks scrambled to implement resulted in creating a much-hyped but ultimately mediocre team. D'Antoni is a very creative coach offensively and I am not saying that his offensive philosophy cannot be part of a championship mix--after all, the Lakers won five championships in the 1980s with high scoring teams--but I am saying that a championship team must also have a defensive mindset and that it is extremely unlikely that the Knicks will ever develop that mindset with D'Antoni as the head coach; Mike Kurylo mocked my article about the Knicks and Dave Berri never apologized for misquoting me regarding my comparison of the Knicks in Isiah Thomas' first season as head coach versus the Knicks in D'Antoni's first season as head coach but despite all of that nonsense the Knicks are who I said they are: a team that essentially tanked multiple seasons to build a roster that is not anywhere close to contending for a championship. Contrast that with what franchises like Chicago and Oklahoma City have done since 2008: those teams hired defensive-minded head coaches and built rosters with unselfish role players who complement the skills of their humble, young stars. Instead of following a blueprint for achieving sustainable success, the Knicks gambled that they could entice LeBron James to come to New York and then scrambled to obtain any big name player after James rebuffed them.
  5. The first four bullet points focused on the Knicks because there will be no reason to talk about the Knicks at all for the next several months but it is worth noting that the Celtics showed some signs that their championship aspirations should not be completely dismissed. The Celtics certainly weakened their frontcourt by trading Kendrick Perkins--who may turn out to be the modern day Paul Silas if the Celtics do not win another championship and if Perkins helps Oklahoma City to capture a title in the next few years--but their rugged defense, their unselfishness and their halfcourt offensive execution may still be enough to make one more serious championship run; the Heat will have homecourt advantage plus a younger, fresher set of stars if they face the Celtics in the second round but it certainly is possible that the Celtics could win a game in Miami and put a lot of pressure on a team that has shown some psychological instability at times. As I mentioned in my Miami-Philadelphia notes, I will have more to say about a potential Miami-Boston matchup when/if that matchup becomes official.
Atlanta 3, Orlando 1
  1. There is at least one prognosticator who prefers to not offer picks for series that are too close to call and yet brags that his predictions are more accurate than anyone else's (which is easy to do if you only pick certain series) but I always make a prediction about each series. As I mentioned in my playoff preview article, the Magic took a huge step backward with their two midseason trades, while the Hawks have been mercurial for several seasons. If there is one series I would have taken a "pass" on it was this one, because I don't "like" either team--not from a rooting standpoint (I don't care who wins) but rather from the standpoint that both teams are deeply flawed and the survivor of this series is going to be turned into roadkill by the Chicago Bulls (unless Derrick Rose is significantly hindered by his ankle injury). As TNT's Kenny Smith noted at halftime of game four, neither Atlanta or Orlando play like legitimate championship contenders in terms of shot selection; it was comical to watch the highlights of a low percentage, ill-timed shot by one team being answered by a low percentage, ill-timed shot by the other team.
  2. Gilbert Arenas managed a -11 plus/minus rating in just six minutes of "action" in game two. Plus/minus is an extremely noisy stat, particularly in small sample sizes, but it is hard to be worth -11 points in just half a quarter, particularly when five of the other eight Magic players had positive plus/minus ratings and no other Magic player had a plus/minus rating worse than -6. Arenas received a DNP-CD (Did Not Play-Coach's Decision) in Orlando's 88-84 game three loss; Arenas is the eighth highest paid player in the NBA and is under contract with the Magic through the 2013-14 season, when the Magic will pay him $22,346,536. Granted, Rashard Lewis (who the Magic traded to the Washington Wizards for Arenas) was no bargain but Lewis is still more productive than Arenas and Lewis' contract expires a year earlier than Arenas'. Unless Orlando General Manager Otis Smith figures out a way to quickly add some talent to his roster, the untradeable Arenas may very well be with the Magic longer than Smith or than franchise player Dwight Howard, who surely does not relish the possibility of playing several more seasons with Arenas' contract taking up massive amounts of salary cap space while Arenas takes up space on the bench. Jason Richardson's game four suspension opened up a spot in the rotation for Arenas and Arenas responded with 20 points and five assists in 22 minutes as Orlando lost 88-85 to fall behind 3-1 but no one--except perhaps a willfully blind Arenas fan (such as Neil Paine)--believes that one decent playoff performance in any way justifies the huge mistake that Smith made when he acquired Arenas; Smith has transformed the Magic from a legit championship contender to first round fodder for a team that the Magic easily swept last season.
  3. Hedo Turkoglu produced nine points on 3-11 field goal shooting in game three. It was absurd for anyone to think that Turkoglu--whose game has been on hiatus since he scored a big money contract--would be an impact player for a championship contending team at this stage of his career. Turkoglu is averaging 7.8 ppg and shooting .229 from the field versus Atlanta.
  4. The Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson acquisitions were widely praised but I offered a much more sober and prescient evaluation of Orlando's midseason trades: "It looks like the best case scenario is that the Magic turn into Phoenix Suns East--bombing away from three point range in the regular season only to get pushed aside by the Celtics or out 'run and gunned' by the Heat in the playoffs--while the worst case scenario is that Turkoglu's complacency, Arenas' questionable attitude and the team's general lack of defensive focus results in the Magic fading completely from championship contention."
  5. If I am so smart and if I have such a dismal view of Orlando's prospects then why did I pick the Magic to win this series? In my series preview I said that the Hawks could win if they could single cover Dwight Howard and thus shut down the Magic's three point shooters but I reluctantly picked Orlando to win because the Magic have the series' best player and best coach plus homecourt advantage. It turns out that the Magic are even worse than I expected: Atlanta seized homecourt advantage in game one and eliminated Orlando's three point shooters by successfully single covering Howard (with "success" being defined not by Howard's gaudy individual numbers but rather by Orlando's collectively poor offensive efficiency). It may just be my imagination or the view from certain camera angles, but it seems like Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy's hair has become both grayer and more sparse since the Magic dealt away Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Mickael Pietrus.
Memphis 2, San Antonio 1
  1. I predicted that the keys for Memphis would be (1) Zach Randolph outplaying Tim Duncan, (2) containing the Spurs' three point shooters and (3) playing intelligently and unselfishly. Randolph averaged 20.3 ppg and 8.0 rpg in the first three games of the series, scoring 25 points in each of Memphis' wins; Duncan averaged 15.0 ppg and 11.3 rpg in those three games. The Spurs shot just .319 from three point range, well short of their league-leading .397 regular season percentage. The young, playoff-inexperienced Grizzlies have shown a lot of poise thus far, while the Spurs have been uncharacteristically sloppy--culminating in the final seconds of game three when Manu Ginobili dribbled into a corner, got trapped and was unable to even attempt a shot as time ran out with the Spurs trailing 91-88.
  2. A right elbow injury forced Ginobili to miss San Antonio's game one loss; he provided great energy--albeit with poor shooting percentages (.385 from the field, .538 from the free throw line)--in San Antonio's game two win but in game three the Spurs could not overcome the poor first half performances authored by Ginobili, Duncan and Tony Parker. Ginobili did better in the second half but his last second gaffe cost the Spurs an opportunity to at least try to send the game to overtime.
  3. Now is the time to officially put to rest the idea that the L.A. Lakers "stole" Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies for nothing; Pau's younger brother Marc is a very good player who is still improving and who actually has outperformed Pau in the early stages of the 2011 playoffs: Marc has averaged 17.7 ppg and 11.7 rpg as the Grizzlies posted the first two playoff wins in franchise history, while Pau has averaged just 12.3 ppg and 6.3 rpg as the Lakers split the first four games with underdog New Orleans. The Grizzlies dealt Pau because in six-plus seasons with the team he did not lead them to a single playoff victory; Pau is not a franchise player, so the Grizzlies decided to get rid of his salary and rebuild their team around a new, younger nucleus. Pau has certainly been a very good second option for the Lakers but Memphis has also benefited from the trade, constructing a very talented team.
  4. The Spurs can take back homecourt advantage by winning game four and I still expect the Spurs to eliminate the Grizzlies but I definitely underestimated how tough this series would be for San Antonio; much has been made of how Memphis is causing San Antonio trouble due to the Grizzlies' frontcourt size but the larger story is that the Spurs simply have not been the same since Ginobili, Duncan and Parker suffered various injuries down the stretch: the Spurs had an undersized frontcourt all season long but they were on pace for nearly 70 wins until February and it seemed like they had the overall best record sewn up until injuries--most notably Duncan's--contributed to a six game losing streak.
L.A. Lakers 2, New Orleans 2
  1. Chris Paul has posted some historic numbers in the first four games of this series while Derek Fisher has averaged 9.3 ppg on .429 field goal shooting (which is actually better in both departments than Fisher performed during the regular season); I understand that Fisher's value cannot be summarized by numbers and I have great respect for Fisher's toughness, competitiveness, unselfishness and ability to make clutch shots but he simply cannot stay in front of top level point guards nor can he produce enough offensively to be a major threat over the course of a game. Fisher's deficiencies force the Lakers to either switch Kobe Bryant to point guard on defense--a maneuver that Bryant has done in the past but that certainly does not get any easier for Bryant as the years and mileage add up on his body--or make adjustments that could lead to open opportunities for other players.
  2. Phil Jackson delivered the line of the playoffs after the third quarter of game two when TNT's Cheryl Miller asked a lengthy question about whether or not Pau Gasol was being tough and doing the things he was supposed to do; Jackson simply smiled wryly and replied, "No." Gasol has been breathtakingly soft, tentative and ineffective versus New Orleans. I joked before the series that the only thing that could enable the Hornets to beat the Lakers is if a black hole engulfed Los Angeles and swallowed Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol but in light of Gasol's disappearing act that offhand comment probably does not seem very humorous to Laker fans right now.
  3. Toughness has nothing to do with trash talking or flexing your muscles; toughness means playing through adversity and forcing your opponent to deal with you on your terms: if you are a tough faceup shooter, then you will deal with being bumped and pushed as you move without the ball to get free for your shot; if you are a tough postup player then you will assess your skills and your opponent's skills and act accordingly: when you have a quickness advantage you will face up and drive without fear of contact and when you have a height/length advantage you will fight for position, catch the ball and shoot over your defender. What you will not do is allow yourself to be bullied off of your spot and/or out of your game. Pau Gasol is not soft because of his skin color, because he is European or because he is an intelligent, well-rounded human being off of the court; Pau Gasol is soft because there are too many occasions when he submits to his opponent's will, something that should never happen to a player with his mental and physical gifts. There are only a handful of legitimate franchise players/MVP level players in the NBA; no matter what kind of stats Gasol puts up on his best days, he is NOT one of those players. However, Gasol is a very good second option on a team with a Hall of Fame coach and with a first option player who is not only personally aggressive but who also instills aggressiveness and confidence in his teammates. Unfortunately for Gasol, Phil Jackson is retiring after this season and Kobe Bryant is rapidly heading toward the point where his battered body will no longer be able to fully respond to the demands issued by his strong, willful mind. The day that Gasol is truly the best player on the Lakers is the day that the Lakers cease to be a championship contender.
  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, Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant are players who 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 in recent seasons has been 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. The Lakers curbed Bryant's regular season minutes in 2010-11 with the idea of preserving his energy; Bryant's minutes have increased from 33.9 mpg in the regular season to 36.8 mpg in the playoffs but Bryant's production has decreased: his scoring, rebounding and assist averages are all down slightly but the most disturbing Bryant statistic for the Lakers is that his field goal percentage has declined from .451 in the regular season to .419 in the playoffs. Bryant is a career .449 playoff shooter and he shot at least .457 from the field in each of the last three postseasons as the Lakers made three straight trips to the NBA Finals and won back to back championships.
  6. Kobe Bryant, not Phil Jackson, made the decision to switch defensive assignments with Derek Fisher at the start of game two (Bryant guarded Chris Paul, while Fisher guarded Marco Belinelli). Though Jackson was unsure about the move at first, after the game he conceded that Bryant's pressure against Paul "made us feisty. There was a real aggression that went into the game." Matt Barnes added, "It cut off the head of their snake." Bryant's deliberate decision to sacrifice his scoring to focus on limiting the opposing team's point guard is reminiscent of the role that Bryant played for Team USA during the 2008 Olympics and also of the way that Scottie Pippen harassed various point guards (including Magic Johnson and Mark Jackson) during the Chicago Bulls' championship runs in the 1990s.
  7. Here is an interesting Kobe Bryant quote from after game three, when Fisher and Bryant switched back to their normal defensive assignments and Bryant scored 30 points as the Lakers took a 2-1 series lead: "The system that we play in doesn't dictate one player to have 30 points (and) 15 assists, like you see a Chris Paul or some of the other players around the league that control the ball the majority of the game. This offense allows other players to make plays, to make decisions, to make passes but the last game I wanted to send a clear message to my teammates that you can have an impact on the game without shooting the ball. Stop worrying about how many shots you get; you still have to impact the game and you can do that in various ways. It's not just how many times you shoot the ball. The message was sent, so (now) it's my responsibility to be me, which is to score first. Once attention comes, once the double comes it's my responsibility to move the ball." That is an excellent message not only for Pau Gasol--who whines too much about not getting the ball but is often not aggressive when he does get the ball and in any case should never let his "touches" affect his rebounding/defense--but also for the "stat gurus" who get mesmerized by the gaudy numbers posted by certain players and fail to understand what those numbers really signify in terms of the correct way to rank the NBA's best players.
  8. It was natural to assume that Bryant would again lead the way with his scoring in game four but Bryant instead had his first scoreless half in playoff competition since 2004, though he did create shots for his teammates (registering seven assists in the first half). Bryant scored more effectively in the second half (17 points) but the game and the series may have turned when Bryant severely twisted his already injured left foot; his left ankle has been listed on the Lakers' injury report even though he has yet to miss a game since spraining it back in March but Bryant looked very hobbled after he stumbled while guarding Willie Green late in the game: Bryant fell into Green--resulting in a two shot foul--and Bryant looked so unsteady on his feet that Jackson brought in Shannon Brown to replace Bryant. The Lakers had to burn a timeout to keep Bryant in the game after he refused to come out. Remarkably, Bryant was able to drive to the hoop and spoonfeed Gasol for what should have been a dunk to cut New Orleans' lead to 86-84 at the 1:13 mark of the fourth quarter but instead Gasol fumbled the ball and then compounded that error by fouling Paul, who canned two free throws to extend the lead to four; the palpable disgust and disdain on Bryant's face at Gasol's lack of toughness and focus will be the enduring image of this series if the Hornets pull off the upset. Note to "stat gurus": the play in which a one-legged Bryant created what should have been an easy dunk for Gasol was logged officially on the play by play sheet as a turnover by Bryant. In other words, there is no substitute for watching the games if you actually want to understand what happened, because what the boxscore calls a turnover by one player may actually have been something quite different.
  9. It would be ludicrous for anyone to suggest that Gasol is not getting enough opportunities to score; the play mentioned in the previous note is just the most glaring and most costly example of the chances that Gasol has squandered in this series: Gasol is not aggressively fighting for post position and when the ball is passed to him he often either fumbles it or simply immediately gives it up without even trying to score.
  10. Jackson said that the Lakers "punked out" in game four, no doubt referring to how the Lakers--despite their vaunted frontcourt--were outrebounded 39-32 by a smaller New Orleans team that is without the services of injured All-Star forward David West. Paul shredded the Lakers with a triple double that included a game-high 13 rebounds, while Gasol had just four boards (Andrew Bynum led the Lakers with nine rebounds, while Bryant ranked second with six).
  11. The Lakers have the most road playoff wins since 2008 (16) and that is why I have said that when the Lakers have homecourt advantage their opponent will likely have to win twice in L.A. to eliminate the Lakers; the Lakers squandered homecourt advantage versus New Orleans with a game one loss but regained it with a game three win, so if the Lakers capture the pivotal game five they will probably advance even if New Orleans pushes the series to seven games. However, Bryant's injury--and the way that he seems a bit worn down in general--plus Gasol's disappearing act are very disturbing signs for Laker fans, because it is possible that Bryant may no longer simply be able to single-handedly overcome Gasol's shortcomings, the team's lack of depth and Fisher's defensive problems.
Dallas 2, Portland 2
  1. When the Mavericks won the first two games it looked like the Trail Blazers were poised to become yet another "team nobody wants to face" that lost in the first round but then the Blazers earned a close game three victory and made a stirring fourth quarter comeback in game four to knot the series at 2-2; Portland is just the third team in the shot clock era to win a playoff game after trailing by at least 18 points in the fourth quarter.
  2. Some media members may be tempted to cite Portland's comeback and Dallas' recent sketchy playoff results as reasons to believe that the Blazers have seized the momentum but the reality is that--except for injuries that keep players out of the lineup--there generally is not a lot of momentum that carries over from one game to the next in the NBA playoffs; as Kenny Smith correctly noted, each game is its own entity, with a different officiating crew, a different pace and a different story line.
  3. I expect the Mavericks to win game five and to ultimately close out the Blazers.
  4. The Mavericks have not matched up particularly well with the Lakers in recent seasons and it seemed like the Lakers gaining the second seed (which ensured homecourt advantage versus Dallas) dealt a serious blow to the Mavericks' chances to advance past the second round but the Lakers' stumbles versus New Orleans surely give the Mavericks (or the Blazers, if they win this series) reason to feel more confident about facing the two-time defending champions. However, neither Jason Kidd nor Andre Miller present the kind of matchup challenge for the Lakers that quick point guards like Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo do, so if Bryant is healthy and if the Lakers advance the second round could actually be relatively easier for the Lakers than the first round has been.
  5. Brandon Roy is a class act and it is sad that injuries have reduced him from All-Star to role player but it was nice that he had a flashback moment in Portland's game four comeback.
Oklahoma City 3, Denver 0
  1. While many pundits selected the Nuggets as yet another "team nobody wants to face," I said that if that description really applies to anyone (other than the obvious choices among the top seeds) it applies to Oklahoma City, a young and talented team that acquired some much needed size thanks to a couple of nice midseason deals.
  2. Kevin Durant struggled during his first postseason experience last season thanks to Ron Artest's bump and run defense but Durant is averaging 30.0 ppg versus Denver while shooting a respectable .458 from the field.
  3. The Nuggets closed the season looking like a focused, mature team but this series has brought some internal issues to the surface--most notably J.R. Smith's perpetual immaturity and selfishness (he seems to be more concerned about his minutes and shot attempts than he is about the team's success).
  4. It hardly seems likely that the Nuggets would have done any better in this series if they still had Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. The New York Knicks have been a .500 team since acquiring that duo from Denver, while the Nuggets moved up in the standings sans their "franchise player" (Anthony) and the player who supposedly "changed the culture" in Denver (Billups).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 AM