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Saturday, May 04, 2013

San Antonio Versus Golden State Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 San Antonio (58-24) vs. #6 Golden State (47-35)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Golden State can win if…Stephen Curry is the best guard--if not the best player--during the series. That is not necessarily a far-fetched proposition; Curry had an All-NBA caliber season and he elevated his game during the Warriors' upset win against the third seeded Denver Nuggets. The Warriors also need to receive solid rebounding/defense from Andrew Bogut to offset the loss of All-Star forward David Lee.

San Antonio will win because…the Spurs will limit the Warriors' three point shooting attack without giving up too many points in the paint. The Spurs execute their half court offense very efficiently but they are also capable of running up and down the court with the Warriors.

Other things to consider: Much like the New England Patriots, the Spurs are a model organization that annually contends for top honors but it has been awhile since they reached the summit. Although the Spurs' core players--Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili--have won three championships together they have not captured the title since 2007; the Spurs advanced to the Western Conference Finals last season but in each of the prior three years they lost in the first or second round of the playoffs. The Spurs have much more playoff experience than the Warriors and should thus be the more poised team down the stretch of close games but health--the dominant theme so far in the 2013 NBA playoffs--and the ability to consistently execute the game plan at both ends of the court will decide who advances to the Western Conference Finals.

The Warriors are known as a run and gun, high scoring, three point shooting team but they displayed a lot of defensive tenacity versus the Nuggets--and that should not be shocking: the Warriors only ranked 19th in points allowed during the regular season (largely because they played at a fast tempo) but they ranked fourth in defensive field goal percentage. The Warriors often utilize small lineups and, other than Bogut, they do not have any shot blockers but they are a scrappy team that ranked third in rebounding and first in defensive rebounding.

Curry's game continues to develop and expand. He had at least seven assists and at least four three pointers in each of the first four games of the Denver series (the first four playoff games of his career); no other player in NBA playoff history has ever had four such straight games. Curry is not just a catch and shoot three point marksman; he creates shots off of the dribble for himself and for his teammates and even though he has a slight build he is a solid, crafty defender.

I thought that Denver's deep roster would overwhelm the Warriors; both teams lost key players--and Golden State's Lee is more valuable than Denver's Danilo Gallinari--but the Warriors adjusted very well on the fly, they were not rattled by losing game one on Andre Miller's buzzer beating layup and they outexecuted the Nuggets down the stretch. Denver's George Karl is a very good coach but his teams have been on the wrong end of some big playoff upsets so he either gets the most out of limited squads during the regular season and/or his teams underachieve during the postseason. Mark Jackson has done a wonderful job of instilling a defensive mindset in Golden State and convincing his players to be disciplined and accountable; his inexperienced Warriors play much harder and much smarter (other than a slight meltdown that almost cost them game six) than more celebrated/publicized teams like the L.A. Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:03 PM


Indiana Versus New York Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#3 Indiana (49-32) vs. #2 New York (54-28)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

New York can win if…the Knicks shoot a high percentage from three point range, keep their turnover rate low and avoid making knucklehead moves on and off the court.

Indiana will win because…the Pacers are a suffocating defensive team that will force the Knicks out of their comfort zone. The Boston Celtics had a good game plan against the Knicks but they lacked the young legs necessary to execute that game plan over the course of a seven game series; the Pacers are well stocked with young, talented players.

Other things to consider: Much like a boxer who "carries" an inferior opponent instead of knocking him out, the Knicks buried the Celtics into a 3-0 hole but--after a series of knucklehead moves on and off the court--the Knicks then dropped two games before barely holding to victory in game six to close out the series. Give the Celtics credit for fighting hard and for being well coached but the Knicks showed signs of reverting back to some lamentable habits: sloppy offensive execution punctuated by low percentage shots or turnovers, indifferent transition defense and collective immaturity (including J.R. Smith's flagrant foul that cost him a one game suspension and the Knicks wearing ludicrious "funeral" outfits prior to losing game five).

Is it possible to win a championship with a roster that includes three players with knucklehead tendencies? You never know when Carmelo Anthony is going to start trying to drill holes in the hardwood while dribbling the basketball as his teammates watch helplessly, J.R. Smith can shoot either team into/out of the game and Kenyon Martin provides defense/physicality but he can also provide momentum for the opposing team with ill-timed fouls/silly plays. Anthony shot often (26.7 FGA/game) versus the Celtics but he did not shoot accurately (.381 FG%, .265 3FG%). He averaged 5.3 rpg--subpar for a small forward, let alone a power forward (the position he now plays in New York's small lineup)--and 1.8 apg and he played his usual indifferent defense; he can be a deadly--at time unstoppable--scorer but his individual statistics and lack of team success in the playoffs throughout his career show that he is not really an elite player, regardless of how much he is hyped up by the media.

Indiana's frontcourt of center Roy Hibbert, power forward David West and small forward Paul George matches up very well with New York's frontcourt of center Tyson Chandler, power forward Carmelo Anthony and small forward Iman Shumpert; the Pacers have great size, length, versatility and toughness.

This should be a very competitive, hard fought series and the Knicks certainly have enough talent to win but the way that they concluded the Boston series hardly inspires confidence that they are primed for a long playoff run.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:40 PM


Memphis Versus Oklahoma City Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#5 Memphis (56-26) vs. #1 Oklahoma City (60-22)

Season series: Memphis, 2-1

Oklahoma City can win if…Kevin Durant channels the 1965 version of Jerry West; after Elgin Baylor suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game of that postseason, West averaged 40.6 ppg in the playoffs to lead the L.A. Lakers to the NBA Finals. It will take that kind of performance from Durant--plus timely scoring by Kevin Martin and great team defense--for the Thunder to beat a physical, defensive-minded Memphis team.

Memphis will win because…the Grizzlies matched up well even with a full-strength Oklahoma City team; without Russell Westbrook, the Thunder simply are not an elite level squad. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will pound the Thunder inside and the Thunder sans Westbrook will not be able to counter by speeding up the tempo of the game.

Other things to consider: Injuries have been the dominant theme of the 2013 playoffs so far; virtually every team that even had half a thought about challenging the Miami Heat has lost at least one All-Star to a season-ending injury, a list that includes Chicago (Derrick Rose), Boston (Rajon Rondo), Indiana (Danny Granger) and Oklahoma City (Russell Westbrook). The Memphis Grizzlies and the San Antonio Spurs--who are both banged up but have not lost any key players to season-ending injuries--are probably the only remaining teams that can remotely threaten the Heat. I still do not think that trading Rudy Gay was the right decision--and none of the players who the Grizzlies acquired for Gay made a significant contribution in Memphis' first round victory over the L.A. Clippers--but the Westbrook injury wrote the Grizzlies' ticket to the Western Conference Finals.

As Oklahoma City struggled to close out the eighth seeded Houston Rockets without Westbrook, perhaps Westbrook's critics began to understand why Tim Grover said that Westbrook, not Durant, is the Thunder's "Cleaner"--Grover is correct that Westbrook is "100% fearless" and it is glaringly obvious that the Thunder miss not only Westbrook's production but also his mindset/attitude.  

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:06 PM


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sleepwalking Lakers End "Nightmare" Season by Being Swept

Dwight Howard called the Lakers' 2012-13 season a "nightmare"--and that nightmare came to its inevitable, inexorable conclusion on Sunday as the San Antonio Spurs clinically dispatched the listless Lakers 103-82, completing the sweep. The Spurs' point differential versus the Lakers was 18.8 ppg, tied for the fourth largest margin of victory in playoff history and the worst such performance in Lakers' history. The Lakers are only the second team in playoff history to lose back to back home games by at least 20 points each (the Spurs won game three 120-89).

The Spurs dismantled the Lakers in clinical fashion. Tony Parker led the Spurs in scoring (22.3 ppg). He shot .493 from the field while also topping the Spurs in assists (6.5 apg). Manu Ginobili was very productive in limited minutes, averaging 11.3 ppg in just 19.5 mpg. Tim Duncan averaged 17.5 ppg and 7.5 rpg while shooting .517 from the field. Though the numbers do not make this obvious, Duncan consistently outplayed both Lakers' big men; this is a great example of how statistics often do not tell the complete story: it is important to use an "educated eye" to place statistics in proper context. In this particular case, it is vital to understand that the Spurs feature a disciplined and balanced offensive attack; that philosophy--and the fact that the games were not very competitive--did not enable any Spur to author flashy individual statistics. Duncan is the Spurs' hub offensively and defensively. He provides scoring from both the low post and with his faceup game, he sets solid screens and then rolls effectively to the hoop and he is an excellent passer; on defense he can guard any post player without needing much assistance and he is an outstanding help defender who protects the paint against drives and cuts.

Anyone who thought that the Spurs were a good playoff matchup for the Lakers should be drug tested; no playoff team was a good matchup for the Lakers and the only team that they would have had a realistic chance to beat--even with a fully healthy Kobe Bryant--is the Houston Rockets. The Lakers were a lethargic, mentally weak and inefficient team at the start of the season and they were a lethargic, mentally weak and inefficient team versus the Spurs; the Lakers made some progress after the All-Star break but that may have been a mirage created at the cost of breaking down Kobe Bryant's body.

Before the season, I predicted that a Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard-Pau Gasol-Steve Nash nucleus surrounded even by a mediocre bench would be good enough to contend for a title--a thesis that remains untested one year after the Lakers put that group together: according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Lakers' projected starting five (the aforementioned quartet plus Metta World Peace) only played 189 minutes and 11 seconds together. The initial returns are not encouraging, though; the Lakers went just 8-14 in the 22 games in which all five of those players played (though that statistic is a bit skewed because in several of those games at least one of those players either got injured and/or was coming back from being injured).

After watching the Lakers struggle just to make the playoffs, I crafted a new thesis; in my 2013 Playoff Preview I wrote:

I am going to channel Yoda here: "For a long time these Lakers I have watched. Always their minds are on their contracts or their past or their future--never on where they are now, on who they are playing. A true champion does not think of such things. A champion must have the most serious mind and the highest level of dedication. They are careless. They lack focus."

I don't trust the Lakers. I don't trust Coach D'Antoni's no-defense philosophy, I don't trust the bench players, I don't trust Pau Gasol's ability to be the number one offensive option with Kobe Bryant out of the lineup and I don't completely trust Dwight Howard's health, though Howard has looked much better since the All-Star break. I absolutely do not trust the Lakers to play intelligently in the waning moments of a close game.

Injuries to key players are the main reason that the Lakers did not reach their potential but the Lakers were also poorly coached and their players did not consistently display high basketball IQ or the desire to compete hard; in an ideal world, players--and employees in any line of work--would be self-motivated but the reality is that coaching matters: great coaches inspire confidence and encourage effort not by making rah rah speeches but by devising game plans that players respect. Mike Brown is a young, defensive-minded coach with a track record of playoff success but the Lakers foolishly and impulsively fired him after just five games. The Lakers replaced Brown with Mike D'Antoni, who is now 1-14 in his last 15 playoff games (including his tenures with Phoenix and New York). D'Antoni's celebrated "Seven Seconds or Less" tactics did not bring a championship to Phoenix even though the Suns had a team stacked with All-Stars--including Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire and future perennial All-Star Joe Johnson--and those tactics failed miserably this season; seven seconds or less is how long it took for opponents to score off of sloppy Lakers' turnovers as the Lakers consistently failed to execute on offense or hustle back on defense.

During the Lakers' game three debacle, Hubie Brown declared, "You can use all the excuses you want but the defensive game plan was zero here tonight--the execution of it, whatever it was." In one sentence, Brown cut straight to the point: it is not clear what the Lakers' defensive game plan was and--whatever it was--the players rarely played with much energy. Look at the league's best-coached teams, squads like San Antonio, Chicago, Oklahoma City and Boston; they have different philosophies and their players have various skill sets but those teams consistently play hard and they play smart. The New York Knicks under the direction of Mike Woodson play harder and smarter than they ever did when D'Antoni coached them.

A basketball purist had to cringe while watching the Lakers play this season. The Lakers had more turnovers than field goals made in the first half of game four. As Kenny Smith drily noted, "That's not impressive." The Lakers faced adversity because of the injuries, the coaching change and the lack of depth but, as Hubie Brown said, regardless of the reasons/excuses that one can cite, the Lakers lacked structure/organization. D'Antoni has some innovative offensive ideas and I am not saying that he is a bad coach but he is the wrong coach for this team and the Lakers would be wise to replace him with a stronger leader who is defensive-minded.

The players are not blameless, of course; Jeff Van Gundy rightly called out Howard and Gasol for their "deplorable" lack of effort, especially in the first half of the season when the Lakers dug themselves into the 17-25 hole that they only escaped at the cost of Bryant's health. Howard has played at an elite level for most of his career but he regressed this season. He deserves credit for coming back early after his offseason back surgery and he should therefore get a pass for some of his temporary physical shortcomings--most notably his relative lack of athleticism, particularly prior to the All-Star break--but his problems this season mainly stemmed from his mindset: he is immature and it is not at all clear if it is more important to him to be "The Man" (i.e., the focal point of the offense) or to have fun by being silly or to win his first NBA championship. Howard averaged 17.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 2.0 bpg versus the Spurs. He shot .619 from the field and .444 from the free throw line. By his standards those are solid but not great numbers; he was not dominant and he did not have a significant impact. Nevertheless, it is silly to suggest that the Lakers should not re-sign him; if Howard stays healthy--and he has been a very durable player throughout his career--then he will be the best center in the NBA for at least the next five years and he likely will perform at a high level for as many as 10 more years. A player who can dominate in two areas--defense and rebounding--while also scoring at least 18-20 ppg is very, very difficult to replace. With the right coach and the right supporting cast, Howard is capable of leading a team to a championship--and if Bryant makes a fully healthy return from his Achilles injury then Bryant and Howard could form a potent duo in the short term before the Lakers become Howard's team after Bryant's retirement.

Pau Gasol is not an elite player and this series just reaffirmed that conclusion. Gasol averaged 14.0 ppg while shooting .481 from the field and .545 from the free throw line. He averaged 11.5 rpg but just 1.8 offensive rebounds per game (he averaged at least 3.0 offensive rebounds per game in four of his five previous playoff campaigns with the Lakers, benefiting from all of the defensive attention attracted by Bryant). Gasol attempted just 11 free throws. With Bryant out of the lineup, Gasol had an opportunity to dominate--to score over 20 ppg and take control of the series--but he did not even come close to doing that. Gasol is a very skillful player but he is declining physically and he never had the aggressive mindset of an elite player; he was a very good second option for the Lakers during their 2009 and 2010 championship seasons and he could perhaps be a solid third option on a championship team now but D'Antoni never figured out how to properly deploy Gasol and/or how to keep Gasol energized (something that Phil Jackson mastered when he coached the Lakers, alternately needling and then praising Gasol).

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:46 AM