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Friday, April 26, 2013

Why James Harden and Pau Gasol Should not be Considered Elite Players

The difference between being an elite player and being an All-Star is not just about a player's skill set; an elite player also has a different mindset than an All-Star (just like an All-Star has a different mindset than an above average player and an above average player has a different mindset than an average player). An elite player is an All-NBA First Team caliber performer, a legit MVP level player, someone who is capable of leading a contending team to a championship. The term superstar is thrown around far too liberally, because at any given time there are only a handful of elite players in the NBA. An elite player is willing and able to shoulder a tremendous load on and off of the court. Tim Grover calls such a rare performer a Cleaner.

James Harden and Pau Gasol are clearly All-Star caliber players--not just because they have been selected as All-Stars but because both of them have the mindset and skill set necessary to be ranked among the league's top two dozen players--but are they elite players? Some "stat gurus," media members and fans may choose to anoint Harden and Gasol as superstars/elite players but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Harden averaged 28.0 ppg as his Houston Rockets fell behind 2-0 in their first round series versus the Oklahoma City Thunder but Harden shot just .349 from the field (including .154 from three point range) and he averaged 4.0 turnovers per game. Harden does not have a midrange game or a post up game, so his only plan of attack is to bomb away from three point range and/or hurl his body into the paint hoping to draw fouls. That is why I predicted that Harden "is likely to shoot a low percentage and commit a high number of turnovers against the Thunder" if the Thunder "run him off of the three point line and then meet him in the paint with either shot blockers and/or players who are willing to take charges." The Thunder have committed a few senseless fouls that boosted Harden's point total but overall Harden has performed exactly as I expected. Harden is a very good player but his limitations make him much more suited to being a second option (or the first option off of the bench, as he was last year for the Thunder) than to being the first option.

As a reserve player with the Thunder, Harden feasted against other, less talented reserves--and, when he played in the fourth quarter, he faced starters who had logged heavy minutes and thus were more fatigued. If Harden were Houston's second option then he would benefit from the double teams drawn by the first option; he would have open driving lanes and/or uncontested three pointers. Harden is not LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant or Russell Westbrook (which is why Harden came off of the bench for Oklahoma City); his offensive game is more limited, regardless of how high his regular season scoring average soared for a Houston team that plays at a fast pace: Harden is Monta Ellis with a beard, not a franchise player who can be the first option for a championship team.

Harden is a young player, so if he works on his game perhaps he can become a franchise player--but because he turned down Oklahoma City's reasonable contract offer and gave up the chance to win a ring in order to be the best player on a mediocre team and because Houston has already paid him as if he is a franchise player I am not convinced that Harden has the mindset or motivation to change his game in that fashion: he clearly believes that he is a franchise player and he is being paid like he is a franchise player, so what voice--inside his head or outside his head--is going to convince him that he has a lot of work to do to reach that level?

Before Pau Gasol teamed up with Kobe Bryant, Gasol was a one-time All-Star with an 0-12 career playoff record. No one thought of Gasol as an elite player and, indeed, Memphis traded him to L.A. precisely because he is not an elite player; the Grizzlies knew that they had to rebuild their roster if they ever hoped to contend for a title. After Gasol joined the Lakers, his field goal percentage and offensive rebounding rate both improved because Gasol benefited from all of the defensive attention that Bryant attracted. Gasol sometimes whined that he did not get the ball enough, but he had already proven that he could not shoulder first option responsibilities for a championship team.

With Kobe Bryant sidelined by a season-ending Achilles injury, Gasol averaged 14.5 ppg and shot just .400 from the field as his L.A. Lakers fell behind 2-0 in their first round series versus the San Antonio Spurs. Gasol averaged 2.0 offensive rebounds per game, his lowest postseason average in that category since becoming a Laker. Gasol is a skillful player but--contrary to popular belief--he is not the most skilled big man in the game; Tim Duncan and a healthy Dirk Nowitzki are every bit as skilled as Gasol and they have both proven that they are willing/able to be the first option for a championship team. Like Gasol, Chris Bosh is not an elite player but Bosh's overall skill set is no worse than Gasol's; Gasol is taller and a slightly better passer but Bosh is more mobile and he is a better defender. However, the main reason that Gasol is not an elite player is not because of his skill set but because he does not have the mindset of an elite player; he seeks to fit in, not take over, so during the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 championship runs Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson constantly had to prod Gasol to be more aggressive at both ends of the court.

While Harden is young enough to perhaps develop into an elite player--though I do not expect that to happen--Gasol is an older player who is clearly in the declining phase of his career and thus his numbers have trended downward the past few years even while playing alongside Bryant; it is evident that playing without Bryant does not open up offensive opportunities for Gasol but rather makes it more difficult for Gasol to score because the defense can pay more attention to him. Bryant's individual field goal percentage is adversely affected by "hand grenade" shots (i.e., shots that he has to take so that the ball does not "explode" in his hands because the shot clock is about to expire) but what "stat gurus" fail to understand is that Bryant's ability to create shots for himself and for his teammates makes his team much more efficient offensively. It must be very puzzling to "stat gurus" and certain commentators that the Lakers are struggling to score against the Spurs with the supposedly inefficient, ball-hogging, gunning Bryant out of the lineup.

It is "dangerous" to write this article now; a two game sample size is small and it is likely that as their respective series shift venues both Harden and Gasol will perform better at home in games three and four than they did on the road in games one and two--but the underlying truths expressed in this article transcend sample size and the vicissitudes of one playoff series: Harden and Gasol both lack the skill set and the mindset to be elite players, so unless/until that changes their production--particularly against top level teams in postseason play--will reflect this, regardless of what "stat gurus" and media members say or write.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:20 AM

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Kevin Durant's Evolution

It has been fascinating to observe Kevin Durant's evolution from skinny, one dimensional rookie to fully grown, multidimensional veteran. After Durant struggled during the summer league as a rookie, I wrote a skill set evaluation that included this comment about Durant's ballhandling: "...what I saw was a player with a high dribble (a quick handed NBA guard would have picked Durant clean at midcourt) who did not attack the hoop straight on but launched a soft shot that turned out to be an airball." Durant came into the NBA as a very raw talent and, instead of just hyping him up like some commentators did, I informed readers about Durant's strengths and weaknesses, concluding with these words: "If you are a University of Texas fan or a Seattle fan and think that I am being too harsh on Durant, just go to NBA.com and watch the webcasts of his games. As they say, the eye in the sky doesn't lie. I have nothing against him and wish him all the best but he's got an uphill climb ahead of him and all of the breathless praise and lofty predictions really do him a disservice; somebody needs to get in his ear about the things that he doesn't do well and help him out. If all Durant hears is how great he is going to be then what incentive is he going to have to work on his game?"

Durant's first coach, P.J. Carlesimo, foolishly shifted him from forward to shooting guard; contrary to the bleatings of some so-called experts, positional designations matter, and the young Durant was ill-suited to play shooting guard. After the Oklahoma City Thunder replaced Carlesimo with Scott Brooks, Brooks immediately moved Durant back to forward and Durant thrived as soon as he returned to his comfort zone. Durant could have rested on his laurels and been content as a one-dimensional scoring machine but Durant eagerly attacked his skill set weaknesses in order to become a much better all-around player.

Research has demonstrated that "effortful study" is essential to achieving skill set mastery in many fields and Durant is yet another example of this; Lee Jenkins' recent Sports Illustrated article about Durant states that Durant realized that he "dribbled too high," that his shot selection needed improvement and that he must become a better passer. Durant became great precisely because he was smart enough to recognize his flaws and because he worked very hard to improve his game. Working hard does not guarantee success but not working hard guarantees failure.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:54 AM

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Home Teams Remain Dominant During Second Day of NBA Playoffs

Game one winners in NBA playoff series usually advance to the next round, a statistic that does not bode well for the underdogs in the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs: all eight home teams won their first games this weekend and several of the contests were not close. Charles Barkley is already worried that this round of the playoffs is not going to be very entertaining and Bill Simmons wondered if there will not be a single series that lasts seven games. There are several mismatches but I think that there is a chance that some of these series could still be competitive and that at least one might go the distance (Clippers-Grizzlies, which went the full seven games last year).

Here are some bullet points about the second quadrupleheader of the 2013 NBA playoffs:

Indiana Pacers 107, Atlanta Hawks 90

1) Both teams survived the regular season--and will try to survive the postseason--without the services of key injured players: the Pacers are missing All-Star Danny Granger, while the Hawks are missing Lou Williams and Zaza Pachulia.
2)  Josh Smith, a 27 year old veteran of nine NBA seasons, is a very good player but he is not an elite performer who deserves the max level contract that he is seeking. Smith had 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists; he frequently settled for long jump shots and even though his numbers were solid he did not have a significant impact on the game at either end of the court: he does not draw double teams on offense and he does not control the action defensively. At best he could be the third option on a championship caliber team, a la Lamar Odom with the Lakers a few years ago.
3) The Pacers were much more aggressive than the Hawks, as evidenced by a huge advantage in both rebounds (48-32) and free throws attempted (34-14).
4) Paul George shot just 3-13 from the field but still posted a triple double with 23 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds. He had game-high totals in all three categories and he shot 17-18 from the free throw line, attempting more free throws than Atlanta's entire team.
5) Atlanta's starting frontcourt of Al Horford, Josh Smith and Kyle Korver grabbed just 16 rebounds combined and missed all three of their free throw attempts.
6) The Hawks consistently make the playoffs but they often do not seem particularly enthusiastic to be there; they are a very low energy team that seems to give up at the first sign of adversity.

San Antonio Spurs 91, L.A. Lakers 79

1) Does any sensible person still think that the Lakers are somehow better off without Kobe Bryant? The Lakers shot  30-73 (.411) from the field and committed 18 turnovers. Without Bryant scoring 25-30 points and regularly attracting double teams, the Lakers' offense stagnated; Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol dominated the defensive glass--grabbing 15 defensive rebounds apiece--but they only had one offensive rebound. What the "stat gurus," many media members and many fans do not understand is that even when Bryant shoots poorly he still distorts the opposing defense, creating driving/cutting lanes and making it easier for his team's bigs to get open shots and offensive rebounds. It is no coincidence that Gasol's offensive rebounding improved after he became Bryant's teammate; players do not generally become better offensive rebounders after being in the league for several years but Gasol took full advantage of all of the defensive attention that Bryant attracted.
2) The Lakers led 2-0 after Steve Nash hit a jumper but the Spurs quickly went on a 13-4 run and never trailed again. Howard and Gasol put up good-looking box score numbers (20 points, 15 rebounds and 16 points, 16 rebounds, six assists respectively) but they did not dominate at either end of the court; they settled for too many jumpers early in the game, they committed 10 turnovers and they did not make the Spurs pay for aggressively double-teaming them in the post (on those occasions when they actually went into the post instead of drifting outside). Howard shot 1-4 from the field and scored just two points as the Spurs took a 28-16 first quarter lead.
3) ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said that the Lakers' only matchup advantage was Pau Gasol being guarded by Matt Bonner and that therefore Gasol should go into the low post (which is also what Kobe Bryant tweeted during the game and what Magic Johnson said during the halftime show). The aspect of Bryant's impact that no statistics can directly measure is that when he is on the court with Gasol he pushes and prods Gasol to be more aggressive; Gasol may not like this and he may whine about it at times but Bryant's exhortations helped Gasol to perform at a higher level and enabled Gasol to be the second best player on two championship teams after failing to win a single playoff game in six seasons in Memphis.
4) The Spurs led 45-35 with 34.1 seconds remaining in the first half when Coach Gregg Popovich instructed his team to intentionally foul Dwight Howard. The Lakers were struggling to score against the Spurs' defense and fouling at that time gave the Lakers a chance to potentially get two possessions to the Spurs' one, so Van Gundy questioned why the Spurs did not just play defense. Van Gundy said that if Howard made even one free throw then the Lakers would be getting more points per possession than they had been averaging thus far. Howard made both free throws and then the Spurs missed a long, contested three pointer against the Lakers' half court defense (the Lakers have very poor transition defense, which is yet another reason not to slow the game down by fouling). Several years ago, I interviewed Hank Egan--who was an assistant coach under Popovich for eight years, including San Antonio's 1999 championship season--and he told me that Popovich uses the intentional fouling strategy as a psychological weapon with the full knowledge that this approach could backfire if the fouled player can make just half of his free throws. It is interesting that a coach who has won four NBA championships knowingly and deliberately eschews pure numbers in favor of psychology.
5) The Lakers played solid defense for most of the game and if they had exerted that much energy defensively for the entire season it would not have been necessary to literally run Bryant into the ground just to capture the seventh seed.
6) The Spurs only led 60-52 at the 2:02 mark of the third quarter when Howard went to the bench after committing his fourth foul. The Spurs then extended the margin to 70-57 and the Lakers did not mount a serious threat the rest of the way. Two things have been consistently true for the Lakers throughout this tumultuous season: they struggle mightily to generate offense without Bryant on the court and their defense--which has usually been mediocre at best--is atrocious when Howard is not on the court.
7) Manu Ginobili had a major impact, scoring 18 points in just 19 minutes. This game once again demonstrated the importance of having perimeter players who can create shots for themselves and for their teammates. The Spurs have two great creators--Ginobili and Tony Parker--while the Lakers currently do not have any (Steve Nash is still hobbled by his injuries and he is also a tremendous defensive liability, while Ginobili showed no obvious effects from his injuries and he is not a defensive liability).

Miami Heat 110, Milwaukee Bucks 87

1) The Heat opened the game with a 7-0 run and eventually took a 13 point lead before the Bucks ended the first quarter with a 16-5 run to cut Miami's lead to 26-24. The Bucks are heavily reliant on their pint-sized starting guards to generate offense; Brandon Jennings (listed at 6-1, 169 pounds) scored 26 points on 8-20 field goal shooting and Monta Ellis (listed at 6-3, 175 pounds) scored 22 points on 10-19 field goal shooting but no other Buck scored more than six points or attempted more than seven field goals. While it is important to have perimeter players who can create their own shots it is also important to have some kind of paint presence and it is not ideal if a team's starting guards attempt 39 shots while dishing out just five assists--and neither Jennings nor Ellis are attracting double teams like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant do: Jennings and Ellis are just running around jacking up shots.
2) Prior to the series, Jennings predicted that the Bucks would win in six games. Some commentators have criticized his statement, while others have said that Jennings had no other choice but to be confident when responding to media questions. What should Jennings have said? How about nothing? He needs to understand that he is not Muhammad Ali or Joe Namath. Jennings should just play ball and see if his team can win one playoff game. There is nothing wrong with being quietly confident; be about it, don't talk about it.
3) LeBron James had a remarkably efficient game, scoring 27 points on 9-11 field goal shooting while grabbing 10 rebounds and passing for eight assists; he posted game-high totals in all three major statistical categories.

Oklahoma City Thunder 120, Houston Rockets 91

1) The Thunder executed my anti-James Harden defensive game plan to perfection: "Harden does not post up often, nor does he do much from the midrange area, so the correct defensive philosophy against him is to run him off of the three point line and then meet him in the paint with either shot blockers and/or players who are willing to take charges. Last year, Harden's productivity and efficiency progressively dropped off in each round of the playoffs and that pattern is likely to repeat itself in this series, with Harden failing to match his regular season numbers; Harden may erupt for one big game but overall he is likely to shoot a low percentage and commit a high number of turnovers against the Thunder if they execute the defensive game plan described above." Although Harden only officially had two turnovers it was interesting to watch the Thunder defenders consistently run him off of the three point line and then meet him in the paint while standing straight up (or even leaning backward) in order to try to draw charges and/or block his shots. Harden scored 20 points on 6-19 field goal shooting and 7-7 free throw shooting. He shot just 1-6 from three point range as the Thunder rarely gave him clean looks form behind the arc and he only had two assists. Harden is a very good player and this is just one playoff game but I just do not believe that he is an elite player regardless of how many points he averaged during the regular season. His offensive game is too simplistic: he shoots open threes or he crashes into bodies in the paint while hoping to get a favorable whistle. Look at the difference between how Russell Westbrook drives and how Harden drives: Westbrook tries to score first but is strong enough to still draw contact but Harden contorts his body, seemingly more interested in drawing a foul than in making the shot. This looks great when Harden gets the call but often it leads to a missed shot or a turnover. He shot just 2-15 from the field in a half court set; Harden has no midrange or postup game, so any good defensive team can contain him during a playoff series if he is the primary option. Even if the Rockets surround Harden with a better supporting cast it still would not be difficult for a good defensive team to contain Harden in a playoff series; Harden is best suited to being the third option on a championship caliber team, as opposed to being the first option on a team that barely made the playoffs.
2) Harden's Oklahoma City replacement, Kevin Martin, scored 16 points on 5-15 field goal shooting in 26 minutes. That is a subpar game by Martin's standards but he still led the Thunder's bench with a +9 plus/minus number.
3) After a slow start, the Rockets pulled to within 50-45 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half--but then a flurry of turnovers and bad shots fueled a 10-2 Thunder run. Harden scored 17 first half points but he shot just 5-13 from the field and his team trailed 60-47. The Thunder outscored the Rockets 29-19 in the third quarter and could have won by 40-plus points if they had been so inclined.
4) The Rockets have no answers for the Thunder at either end of the court. This will be a sweep unless the Thunder become sloppy due to gross overconfidence and/or the Rockets get incredibly hot from three point range in one game.
5) The Rockets paid max money to Harden but he would be no better than the third best player on any of the three teams that are most likely to win the championship this season (Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio). Houston's 34-32 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season projects to a 42-40 mark in an 82 game season; the Rockets went 45-37 this season and will need to add at least one great player--if not two--in order to realistically compete with the elite teams, so I just do not understand all of the enthusiasm in some quarters regarding Houston's future: the Rockets missed the playoffs for three straight years in order to put together a squad that is likely going to be swept in the first round.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:39 AM

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Playoffs Begin With Two Competitive Games Followed by Two Blowouts

A seven game series can have many twists and turns but history shows the importance of winning game one. Either the higher seeded team protects home court advantage with a game one victory en route to advancing or else the lower seeded team takes the initiative by immediately seizing home court advantage; even if a series ultimately goes the distance, the significance of taking a 1-0 lead should not be underestimated.

Here are some bullet points about the first four game ones of the 2013 NBA playoffs:

New York Knicks 85, Boston Celtics 78

1) Carmelo Anthony got off to a sizzling start--10 points on 4-4 field goal shooting--as his Knicks took a 12-6 lead but he shot just 2-11 from the field in the rest of the first half. It looked like Anthony's game was heading south--as it so often does at this time of year--and that he was going to shoot his team out of contention--as he so often does at this time of year--but Anthony finished very strongly: he stole the ball and drove coast to coast for a layup that put the Knicks up 81-76, he hit a deep two pointer to extend the lead to 83-76 and he made a slick feed to Kenyon Martin for a dunk that pushed the margin to 85-78. Anthony finished with a game-high 36 points on 13-29 field goal shooting; he also had six rebounds--second on the team to Martin's nine--and he swiped a game-high four steals.
2) The Celtics led 53-49 at halftime and 70-67 after the third quarter but the wheels fell off for them in a nightmarish, record-setting fourth quarter; the Celtics scored just eight points--a franchise record low for the fourth quarter of a playoff game--on 3-11 field goal shooting and they committed eight turnovers. Coach Doc Rivers has a very good defensive game plan and the Celtics executed it well--New York shot just .405 from the field--but without injured All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo it will be difficult for the Celtics to score enough points to win four games in a playoff series. All of the fools who suggested that the Celtics are better off without Rondo should be forced to watch that fourth quarter on a continuous loop until they admit that they know nothing about basketball--and if the Spurs-Lakers series goes the way that I expect it to go then that same line will apply, replacing Rondo's name with Kobe Bryant's. "Stat gurus," media members and fans often fail to understand the importance of having a perimeter player who creates shots for himself and for his teammates. A team may survive for a short period of time in the regular season without such a player but in the long run--particularly against strong competition--a team that has a limited ability to create open shots is going to struggle mightily.
3) Jason Kidd had eight points on 2-6 field goal shooting plus five rebounds, three assists and three steals. I am not sure what those numbers mean in "advanced basketball statistics" but I know that Kidd has had a transformative effect on a franchise that for many years has lacked direction and focus. It is no coincidence that Anthony and Sixth Man of the Year candidate J.R. Smith are finally displaying semblances of maturity and it is no coincidence that the Knicks now show some interest in defense and it is no coincidence that the Knicks are now a low turnover team. Does Kidd deserve credit for all of those changes? No--Coach Mike Woodson and center Tyson Chandler have had an important impact as well--but Kidd has a long history of improving teams, including Team USA and the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. Kidd's disruptive defense played a major role in Boston's fourth quarter meltdown and his willingness/ability to get the ball to Anthony in prime scoring position has made Anthony less apt to veer off into kamikaze, one on one solo operations while four teammates watch him pound holes into the court with his dribbling.
4) The Knicks have the horses and should win this series but it should be emphasized that the Celtics have a very good defensive game plan; they contained New York three point shooters not named Anthony (5-19, .263) and for the most part they made Anthony take tough, contested shots. If the Celtics can limit their turnovers and figure out how to score more than 90 points then they could make this series very interesting.

Denver Nuggets 97, Golden State Warriors 95

1) This was supposed to be an ABA-style 125-120 shootout but it took a high scoring fourth quarter (31-26 Golden State) just for the teams to get close to triple digits.
2) The Nuggets ranked first in the league with 58 points per game in the paint, the highest such average since 1996-97, and they outscored the Warriors in the paint 52-40--including Andre Miller's game-winning layup as time expired.
3) The 37 year old Miller said that he had never made a game-winning shot before at any level, let alone in the NBA playoffs. He finished with a game-high 28 points on 11-16 field goal shooting in just 27 minutes. Miller has an uncanny ability to score in the paint for someone who is not that tall (6-2) and does not have a great vertical leap; his game is all about craftiness, footwork, angles and changing pace: he still has some quickness but the way he gets his shot off is by changing speed and getting his defender off balance.
4) Stephen Curry had an inauspicious playoff debut--missing his first nine field goal attempts--before bouncing back to finish with 19 points on 7-20 field goal shooting plus nine assists and four rebounds.
5) During the telecast ESPN's Doris Burke called Andre Iguodala "the difference" and wondered what his plus/minus numbers were for this game; he only scored eight points on 2-4 field goal shooting but he contributed 10 rebounds, five assists and three steals while compiling a game-high +11 plus/minus number. Plus/minus statistics can be noisy--particularly in a small sample size--but in this case Burke is correct that Iguodala's all-around play had a significant impact on the result.

Brooklyn Nets 106, Chicago Bulls 89

1) TNT's Kenny Smith often refuses to analyze halftime highlights from blowouts and it is tempting to similarly dismiss this game in light of Chicago's lethargic effort.
2) The Bulls held their opponents to fewer than 100 points in 60 out of 82 regular season games but the Nets scored 89 points in the first three quarters alone before dialing things back a bit in the final stanza. It is not shocking that the Nets won a playoff game at home but it is shocking that the Bulls did not even compete.
3) Like the Celtics, the Bulls struggle to score at times because they are missing their All-Star point guard--in this case, 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose, who missed the entire regular season and will likely miss the playoffs as well. I thought that the Bulls would perform much better defensively against the Nets and that they would find a way to manufacture 90-95 points. The Bulls won three of four regular season meetings versus the Nets but regular season head to head numbers can sometimes be deceptive because of scheduling quirks, injuries and other contextual factors. I expected the Bulls to be more intense and better coached than the Nets but, obviously, right now my prediction does not look very good; we will soon find out if the first game was just an aberration or if the Nets really are the vastly superior team.
4) The Nets floundered during November but since the All-Star break Deron Williams (22 points, seven assists, three steals) and Brook Lopez (21 points, five rebounds, three blocked shots) have formed a powerful point guard/center duo.
5) If the Bulls can return to defensive form and capture game two then they will still be in good shape; as Chris Paul sagely noted when asked what he has learned about the NBA playoffs, the team that loses a blowout does not start out the next game down by that number of points.

L.A. Clippers 112, Memphis Grizzlies 91

1) The Kenny Smith rule could be applied to this game as well but at least Memphis was competitive for the first three quarters before falling apart in the final 12 minutes.
2) A definite pattern emerged on day one of the NBA playoffs: teams that lacked dynamic shot creators struggled to score enough points. The Celtics miss injured point guard Rajon Rondo, the Bulls miss injured point guard Derrick Rose--and the Grizzlies miss Rudy Gay, who they traded in the middle of the season. Without Gay, the Grizzlies lack a top notch perimeter threat and thus opposing teams can pack their defense in the paint; many squads may not have the necessary personnel to execute that game plan against the big, physical Grizzlies but in order to win a championship Memphis is going to have to defeat teams that do have such personnel.
3) The Grizzlies' normally first-rate defense gave up more than 100 points just 11 times during the regular season--and only gave up more than 110 points once--but the Clippers poured in 112 points on .554 field goal shooting. If the Grizzlies can tighten up their defense then they should be able to survive this series without Gay but--whether it is in this series or in a subsequent series--the Grizzlies will rue giving up their leading scorer for Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Austin Daye; that trio scored eight points on 4-10 field goal shooting in 48 combined minutes versus the Clippers.
4) Chris Paul had a very efficient performance, scoring a game-high 23 points on 7-11 field goal shooting while dishing out seven assists (tying Marc Gasol for game-high honors in that department) and committing just one turnover.
5) The most surprising statistic from this game is that the Clippers outrebounded the Grizzlies 47-23; Gay would not have been a huge factor in that department and this is a category that the Grizzlies not only should control but that they must control to have any chance to win. Five Clippers grabbed between five and eight rebounds while only one Grizzly had more than five rebounds (Davis, six); the Clippers just collectively played with more energy and reacted to the ball more quickly, as opposed to taking advantage of one dominant big man controlling the paint. Marc Gasol (two rebounds in 41 minutes) and Zach Randolph (four rebounds in 25 foul-plagued minutes) both have to do a lot better in this category.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:34 AM

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