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Saturday, June 08, 2013

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part III: Consistency, Frustration and then a Glorious Championship Run

"I've always tried to tell myself that the work itself is the thing, that win, lose or draw, the work is really what counts. As hard as it was to make myself believe that sometimes, it was the only thing I had to cling to every year--that every game, every night, I did the best I could."--Julius Erving

Julius Erving and the New York Nets did not have much of a chance to celebrate after winning their second ABA championship in three years; during the summer of 1976, the ailing ABA reached an agreement with the NBA to form--as a Sports Illustrated cover called it--"one big league" featuring "Dave" (Cowens) and "The Doctor." Four ABA teams--the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs--joined the NBA at a cost of $3.2 million each; Kentucky owner John Y. Brown received a $3 million settlement for folding his franchise, while the Silna brothers--owners of the St. Louis franchise--negotiated what was later called "the greatest sports deal of all-time": instead of getting a lump sum payment in 1976, they arranged for each of the surviving ABA teams to pay them a share of NBA television revenue in perpetuity.

In addition to the $3.2 million payment to the NBA, the Nets also had to compensate the New York Knicks $4.8 million over the next 10 years as indemnification for operating in the Knicks' territory. While Nets' owner Roy Boe scrambled to put together enough cash to keep his franchise afloat, Erving declared that the Nets had promised to redo his contract if the leagues merged; Erving's sublime talents and his box office value were a major reason for the merger, so Erving understandably wanted to be properly compensated but Boe denied that he had ever made that agreement with Erving and, in any case, Boe did not have the necessary funds to pay Erving more money. Erving missed training camp and the preseason as a result of the contract dispute. Boe tried to trade Erving to the Knicks in exchange for cash plus cancellation of the indemnification payment but the Knicks refused that offer. Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams seized the opportunity to acquire the game's best player and right before the 1976-77 season began the New York Nets sold Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers in a $6 million deal, a staggering sum for that era, with roughly half of that amount paid to the Nets and the other half to Erving over the course of a six year contract.

Pat Williams' 20-20-20 Vision

Erving joined a Philadelphia team that already had two All-Stars: forward George McGinnis (who shared 1974-75 ABA MVP honors with Erving before jumping to the NBA) and guard Doug Collins. Erving explained the situation to this writer: "The first day that I reported to Philadelphia, Pat Williams said, ‘We are going to be a really good team, but we really need to have three guys scoring 20 points. We don't need anybody scoring 30 points on our team.' He said, 'You, Doug Collins and McGinnis can be 20 point scorers for us and that will make us a better team.' That was a specific conversation. Hey, I had no problem scoring (only) 20 points. I’m trying to collect the 'Ws.' I had already been on title teams in the ABA and we thought that this would bring us to the championship."

The 76ers started out 0-2 before winning four straight games to take over first place in the Atlantic Division, a position that they maintained the rest of the way (save for a couple days when they slipped a half game behind Boston) en route to a 50-32 record and the franchise's first division title since 1968. The 76ers were maligned as a run and gun, one on one offensive team that did not play defense but they ranked first in the league in blocked shots, third in the league in defensive field goal percentage and fourth in the league in defensive rebounds. Erving made a strong contribution at that end of the court, ranking second on the team in defensive rebounds (6.1 drpg), steals (1.9 spg) and blocked shots (1.4 bpg).

Erving instantly turned the 76ers into the biggest gate attraction in the NBA. The 76ers improved to 1-2 with a 110-101 win over the New Orleans Jazz in front of an NBA-record crowd of more than 27,000 in the Louisiana Superdome. The next night, Erving scored 27 points (tying McGinnis for game-high honors) in a 116-94 win at Houston, playing before a crowd of 15,676--the best attendance ever for an NBA game in Texas. Only 5832 fans showed up for the Nets' NBA home debut without Erving but a few days later 18,116 fans packed the Spectrum to watch Erving's 76ers improve to 3-2 after pounding his former team 104-80.

Erving finished fifth in the MVP balloting; he led the 76ers in scoring (21.6 ppg, 15th in the NBA) and the team came close to achieving the 20-20-20 balance that Williams wanted: McGinnis averaged 21.4 ppg (16th in the NBA) and Collins averaged 18.3 ppg despite missing 24 games due to injuries. Erving averaged 8.5 rpg (second on the team), and 3.7 apg (fourth) in addition to his aforementioned defensive contributions; he was still an excellent all-around performer but his per game statistics declined across the board because he played fewer minutes than he had played in his first five seasons. Erving's rebounding average was 2.2 rpg lower than his lowest ABA rebounding average but it turned out to be the highest rebounding average of his NBA career. This is not unusual; as the following chart shows, most of the top 10 rebounders in pro basketball history (based on rpg average) posted their best rebounding average early in their careers:

Rank Player Career RPG average/Best RPG average (season)

1) Wilt Chamberlain 22.89/27.2 (second season)
2) Bill Russell 22.45/24.7 (eighth season)
3) Bob Pettit 16.22/20.3 (seventh season)
4) Jerry Lucas 15.61/21.1 (third season)
5) Nate Thurmond 15.00/22.0 (fifth season)
6) Mel Daniels 14.91/18.0 (fourth season)
7) Wes Unseld 13.99/18.2 (first season)
8) Walt Bellamy 13.65/19.0 (first season)
9) Dave Cowens 13.63/16.2 (third season)
10) Elgin Baylor 13.55/19.8 (third season)

Selected Others:

50) Larry Bird 10.00/11.0 (fourth season)
111) Julius Erving 8.47/15.7 (first season)
176) Magic Johnson 7.24/9.6 (third season)
222) Michael Jordan 6.22/8.0 (fifth season)

Rebounding is a skill set that does not tend to improve with age/experience, at least at the professional level. It is important to note that even Erving's reduced NBA rebounding averages still annually ranked among the best at the small forward position.

The 1976-77 season shattered any old guard NBA pretense about the ABA being inferior; ex-ABA players accounted for four of the NBA's top 10 scorers, two of the top four rebounders and 10 of the 24 All-Stars. Erving won the All-Star Game MVP, one of the few individual honors that he did not capture during his ABA career. Indiana Pacer Don Buse led the league in assists and steals. Five of the starters in the NBA Finals began their careers in the ABA: Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Caldwell Jones, Maurice Lucas and Dave Twardzik. David Thompson made the All-NBA First Team, while Erving, McGinnis and George Gervin made the All-NBA Second Team. The Nuggets and Spurs kept their rosters intact and immediately became perennial playoff teams; the Nets understandably had to rebuild after Erving's departure, while the Pacers similarly had to rebuild after the core players from their three championship teams aged, retired or finished their careers on other teams.

The 76ers earned a first round bye and then faced their old rival the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Celtics were the defending NBA champions but the 76ers enjoyed home court advantage because the Celtics only went 44-38 in the regular season. Erving scored a game-high 36 points in the series opener, including a dunk with eight seconds left in regulation to tie the score at 111--but after being fouled on that play he missed both free throws in a two to make one penalty situation. Jo Jo White missed a jumper and the game seemed to be headed to overtime after Erving blocked Sidney Wicks' shot but the ball bounced to White, who hit the game-winning jumper from the left baseline as time expired. White scored 21 points in the Celtics' 113-111 victory. "I feel empty," Erving said after the game. "We came here to win and we don't have anything. We are 0-1." However, Erving also noted that even if he had completed the potential three point play, "We would have lost by one instead of two." Erving's former Virginia teammate Charlie Scott led Boston with 22 points.

In a battle pitting a veteran future Hall of Fame forward against a Hall of Fame forward in his prime, 37 year old John Havlicek poured in a game-high 31 points on 11-25 field goal shooting but the 27 year old Erving had 30 points on 14-24 field goal shooting as the 76ers evened the series with a 113-101 victory. Havlicek also had nine rebounds and six assists, while Erving countered with six rebounds and four assists.

Erving scored a game-high 27 points as Philadelphia reclaimed home court advantage with a 109-100 game three win in Boston. Collins added 25 points and Lloyd Free--he had not yet legally changed his first name to World--scored 22 points on 9-13 field goal shooting in just 18 minutes. The Celtics had not lost at home in the playoffs since 1975, a 13 game streak. Havlicek led the Celtics with 25 points.

Dave Cowens had 37 points and 21 rebounds for the Celtics--including 23 first half points on 10-10 field goal shooting--in Boston's 124-119 game four win. Collins led the Sixers with 36 points, McGinnis added 27 and Erving had 23. White contributed 26 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. Havlicek only scored 12 points but he dished off for 15 assists.

The 76ers achieved Pat Williams' 20-20-20 balance in game five at home--but the third member of the 20 point trio was Steve Mix, not McGinnis: Collins (23 points), Erving (22) and Mix (20) led the way as Philadelphia took control of the series with a 110-91 win. Scott topped Boston with 20 points.

The proud Celtics forced a seventh game as both White and Havlicek played all 48 minutes to carry Boston to a 113-108 game six win. White scored a playoff career-high 40 points and Havlicek added 25 points. Collins led the Sixers with 32 points, McGinnis scored 22 points and Erving had an off game with just 14 points on 7-20 field goal shooting.

The first six games of the series were high scoring and free wheeling but game seven was a grind it out slugfest. Free missed his first six field goal attempts before scoring a game-high 27 points on 10-27 field goal shooting as his 76ers outlasted the Celtics 83-77. McGinnis scored 22 points before fouling out. Erving contributed 14 points on 6-19 field goal shooting and he also had eight rebounds. Erving said, "Our bench and depth was the key to the win. We had more depth than they did. I never thought the starters would neutralize each other as much as they did." Collins was the only other 76er who scored in double figures (10 points on 3-11 field goal shooting). White led the Celtics with 17 points on 7-24 field goal shooting but he did not score in the second half. Cowens pulled down a game-high 27 rebounds and blocked three shots but he only scored 11 points on 5-16 field goal shooting. This was just Boston's second loss in 13 seventh games.

Erving and Collins each scored 166 points (23.7 ppg) versus Boston. In his first NBA playoff series, Erving averaged 6.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.9 spg and 1.3 bpg while shooting .464 from the field and .800 from the free throw line. This was the first time in 10 career playoff series that Erving averaged less than 26.0 ppg but he decisively won his matchup with Havlicek, outscoring his rival in five of the seven games (Havlicek averaged 19.9 ppg). McGinnis averaged 15.6 ppg and shot just .380 from the field.

Philadelphia faced the 49-33 Central Division champion Houston Rockets in the Eastern Conference Finals. The 76ers led 100-81 with 28 seconds remaining in the third quarter of game one but the Rockets cut the margin to 120-113 late in the fourth quarter before Erving hit a jumper and two free throws to seal Philadelphia's 128-117 win. Erving led the 76ers with 24 points, Collins added 23 points and McGinnis finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Erving said, "I thought we were capable of getting good shots any time we wanted. If we rebound and go to the boards like we did, we can run. If we do, we'll continue to win."

Moses Malone poured in a game-high 32 points but he only scored 10 points in the second half as McGinnis--not known as a staunch defender--used his brawn to knock young Malone off of his favorite spot in the post. Houston Coach Tom Nissalke declared that Erving and McGinnis comprised "the best two players on one team in the league."

In game two, the 76ers' three star attack flourished again; this time McGinnis led the way with 21 points while Collins scored 20 points and Erving added 18 points as Philadelphia won 106-97. Malone only had seven points but Calvin Murphy (32 points) and Rudy Tomjanovich (22 points) picked up the slack.

When the series shifted to Houston, Malone returned to his dominating form with 30 points and 25 rebounds as the Rockets cruised to a 118-94 game three victory. This was the second of Malone's five 30-20 playoff games as a Rocket. Nissalke called Malone "the best rebounder in the game today" and Nissalke predicted, "In three years he will be one of the best players in the game"; Malone fulfilled that prophecy in 1978-79 when he won the first of his three MVPs. Nissalke changed his starting lineup for game three, replacing Goo Kennedy with the seven footer Kevin Kunnert. Kunnert responded with 12 points and 14 rebounds as the bigger Rockets won the rebounding battle 59-34 and slowed the 76ers' fast break to a crawl.

Erving led the 76ers with 28 points and he also had six assists but McGinnis only had 15 points on 6-18 field goal shooting and Collins scored nine points on 4-12 field goal shooting. "They killed us on the boards, they shot a lot better than we did, they had more control of the game than we did and they won the game," Erving said. "It might have been that we were lackadaisical or it might have been good defense. We were too liberal with the ball. We pushed it up fast, went for the jumper and missed it. The first two games we made it."

Free left the game in the second quarter with a bruised rib cage, an injury that would limit him for the rest of the postseason. 

The 76ers' running game was back in high gear in game four and they raced to a 107-95 win to take a 3-1 series lead. Collins scored 36 points--including 10 straight points during the decisive fourth quarter run--and Erving added 29 points. Kunnert had another strong game (21 points, 17 rebounds) but an ineffective Malone only scored five points. Rudy Tomjanovich led the Rockets with 24 points.

The Rockets overcame Erving's 37 point explosion to avoid elimination, sending the series back to Houston after a 118-115 game five win. The 76ers squandered an 84-69 third quarter lead. John Lucas and Tomjanovich each scored 21 points.

Houston led for most of game six until Darryl Dawkins and Mike Dunleavy hit consecutive baskets to put Philadelphia on top 91-87 near the end of the third quarter. Dawkins, who jumped to the NBA straight out of high school in 1975, scored 13 of his 20 points in the third quarter. The 76ers pushed the lead to 104-97 with 5:27 remaining in the fourth quarter but then they went scoreless for three minutes, allowing the Rockets to make one final rally. Erving broke that drought with a basket and two free throws to make the score 108-105 and then Houston countered with hoops by John Lucas and Mike Newlin. Henry Bibby made what turned out to be the game-winning shot with :37 remaining. Lucas' driving layup with five seconds left was disallowed by Jake O'Donnell, who ruled that Lucas had charged into Collins. Erving scored a game-high 34 points, snared nine rebounds and dished off for six assists in the 112-109 win.Collins added 27 points. Free did not play due to his rib injury and a partially collapsed lung. Lucas led the Rockets with 24 points.

"They didn't come out with any of that cheetah stuff," said Nissalke, referring to the 76ers' fast break attack. "They were coming down and setting up and shouting, 'Where's Doc?' It's unbelievable that a team that has lived and died by the fast break would run set plays like that, but he's the best forward who has ever played the game."

Erving averaged 28.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 6.0 apg, 2.0 spg and 1.2 bpg versus Houston in the Eastern Conference Finals while shooting .570 from the field and .800 from the free throw line. Erving's rebounding was below the standard he set during his ABA career but in all other statistical categories his performance mirrored his outstanding all-around production in his three previous "Final Four" (Division Finals/Conference Finals) appearances. Collins averaged 23.5 ppg and shot .604 from the field. McGinnis averaged 13.7 ppg and shot just .353 from the field. Malone averaged 17.2 rpg in the Eastern Conference Finals, the best rebounding performance in a series in franchise history at that time (Malone later surpassed that mark twice).

Philadelphia faced the Portland Trailblazers in the NBA Finals. Portland center Bill Walton finished second to the L.A. Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the MVP voting, earned a spot on the All-NBA Second Team and beat out Abdul-Jabbar for All-Defensive First Team honors. Walton led the NBA in rebounding (14.4 rpg) and blocked shots (3.2 bpg). Portland finished second in the Pacific Division with a 49-33 record but defeated the 53-29 Pacific Division champion Lakers 4-0 in the Western Conference Finals.

Philadelphia Coach Gene Shue closed the team's practices to the public and the media prior to game one. Asked if Shue did this out of secrecy, a 76er official quipped that Shue did it because of "embarrassment" (the 76ers were not known for their diligent practice habits, something that irritated the hard-working Erving)--but once game one of the NBA Finals began it became clear what the 76ers had been hiding: the 76ers nullified the aggressive trapping of Portland's guards by having center Caldwell Jones bring the ball up the court. After Philadelphia's 107-101 win, Shue explained, "The strength of the Portland team is in the pressure their guards apply, so we attacked them at their weakest link."

"It was a good tactic," Portland Coach Jack Ramsay admitted. "It worked very effectively. We tried several things against it, but none worked very well." Ramsay also said that to win the series Portland had to hold the Erving-McGinnis-Collins trio to around 60 total points.

"This is what I call net cutting time," Erving said. "The playoffs--I love them. This is the best time of year, what we work for all winter. Not everybody gets the chance to be here and as long as I'm here I'm going to do something. I'm going to make my presence felt."

Erving scored a game-high 33 points, shooting 14-24 from the field and making all five of his free throws. He also had five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Collins had a similar stat line: 30 points, 12-23 field goal shooting, 6-6 free throw shooting, six rebounds, six assists, two steals. McGinnis scored just eight points on 3-12 field goal shooting in 22 foul-plagued minutes and his game one struggles foreshadowed what would become one of the major stories of the series. Walton's performance also provided some foreshadowing: he produced 28 points, a game-high 20 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. Portland committed 34 turnovers, an astounding total for any game, let alone game one of the NBA Finals. Philadelphia also enjoyed the advantage from the free throw line, shooting 27-32 compared to Portland's 15-18.

Collins scored a game-high 27 points as the 76ers took a 2-0 lead with a 107-89 win. Erving added 20 points, four rebounds, four assists and five steals. Bibby scored all 15 of his points in the first half as the 76ers built a 61-43 lead and he finished with a game-high 11 assists. "People put us down all the time," Bibby said. "They say we're a bunch of one on one players, we can't play team ball, we don't execute our plays well, we can't do the job on defense. They keep saying it--but we keep winning."

Erving added, "A lot of people think that we're a bunch of renegades. They think that a good, well-drilled team can run us apart. We are trying to prove them wrong. Portland is very singular in its offensive strategy. There is one basic play they like to run 75 percent of the time--they set up Walton in the pivot and then try to free their cutters for layups. We know this, we've drilled against it and we've been able to stop it."

Walton led Portland with 17 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. Portland turned the ball over 29 times.

In the fourth quarter, Dawkins threw Portland small forward Bobby Gross to the court as they battled for a loose ball. Dawkins took a swing at Gross but missed him and instead connected with Collins, who needed stitches above his right eye after the game. As the officials tried to restore order--not just among the players but also among dozens of fans who came on to the court--Portland power forward/enforcer Maurice Lucas came up behind Dawkins and hit Dawkins in the head. Dawkins and Lucas squared off to fight but emerged unscathed after several wild punches failed to connect. Both players were ejected; NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien fined Dawkins and Lucas $2500 each but did not suspend either player. That skirmish may have initially seemed like just an afterthought--tensions erupting in a blowout game as one team takes a seemingly commanding 2-0 series lead--but in retrospect the entire tide of the series turned. The Blazers pulled together and rallied, while the 76ers--an emotionally fragile group under the best of circumstances--fell apart the rest of the way, a development that would have seemed improbable after their two impressive victories. Dawkins ripped a urinal off of the wall in the locker room and later expressed disappointment that none of his teammates had warned him about Lucas' sneak attack.

Enjoying the comforts of home after suffering two brutal road losses, the Blazers ambushed the 76ers in the first quarter of game three, taking a 32-12 lead. The 76ers battled back to only trail by four in the fourth quarter but Walton's consecutive hoops ignited a 26-10 run to put the game away. Portland won 129-107, their 16th straight victory at Memorial Coliseum and their 44th in 49 games (regular season and playoffs). The Blazers slashed their turnover total to 16 and Walton dominated at both ends of the court: 20 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists, four blocked shots, two steals. Lucas scored a game-high 29 points and he swiped 12 rebounds. Erving paced the 76ers with 28 points and five assists while also grabbing 11 rebounds but he received little help from anyone other than Collins (21 points on 9-13 field goal shooting). McGinnis scored 14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, though he did contribute a team-high 12 rebounds.

If the 76ers thought that a 22 point blowout loss would be the low point of the series then they were sadly mistaken. The Blazers made nine of their first 10 field goal attempts in game four, sprinted to a 19-4 lead and never let the 76ers get closer than 11 points the rest of the way, cruising to a 130-98 win. During garbage time, the Portland reserves pushed the margin to 41 (126-85). Speedy guard Lionel Hollins scored a game-high 25 points for the Blazers, while Lucas (24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists) and Walton (12 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, four blocked shots) controlled the paint. Erving, who led Philadelphia with 24 points, did not like his team's mindset: "We got to challenge the other team. Be aggressive. Get some big axes and chop arms and legs." No other 76er scored more than 15 points and McGinnis was almost invisible (five points, six rebounds, 2-8 field goal shooting).

Game five started out very much like game four; the Blazers took a 16-9 lead as the 76ers missed 11 of their first 14 field goal attempts. The Blazers led by 22 points in the fourth quarter but this time the 76ers rallied, cutting the margin to 101-96 after Joe Bryant's long jumper with 3:26 remaining. Lucas countered with a jumper and then Hollins' layup extended the lead to nine. The Blazers won 110-104 to move within one victory of the young franchise's first NBA title. Gross led Portland with 25 points, Lucas added 20 points and 13 rebounds and Walton dominated inside (14 points, 24 rebounds, two blocked shots). Erving poured in a game-high 37 points, grabbed nine rebounds and passed for a team-high seven assists but only three other 76ers scored in double figures--and none of them shot better than .400 from the field.

The 76ers led 22-18 in the first quarter of game six before the Blazers went on a 39-20 run. Portland led 67-55 at halftime. The 76ers stayed in contact throughout the second half and then pulled to within two points after McGinnis' jumper with :18 left in the fourth quarter. McGinnis then tied up Gross for a jump ball and won the tap. The 76ers missed three potentially tying shots in the waning seconds--by Erving, Free and McGinnis--as Portland held on for a 109-107 win. Walton posted one of the most awesome stat lines in Finals history--20 points, 23 rebounds, eight blocked shots, seven assists--and he was selected as the Finals MVP. Gross led Portland with 24 points, while Hollins chipped in 20 points. Lucas had a very solid game (15 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals).

Erving authored the first and only 40 point game of his NBA playoff career (he scored at least 40 points in seven of his 48 ABA playoff games). In addition to his 40 points on 17-29 field goal shooting, Erving had a game-high eight assists plus six rebounds and two steals. McGinnis broke out of his long playoff slump with 28 points and 16 rebounds but Caldwell Jones was the only other 76er who scored in double figures (10 points on 5-8 field goal shooting).

Erving averaged 30.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 5.0 apg in the NBA Finals. He shot .543 from the field and .857 from the free throw line. His 2.7 spg is still a record for a six game NBA Finals. Collins scored prolifically (19.7 ppg) and efficiently (.505 field goal shooting), while McGinnis was neither prolific (13.0 ppg) nor efficient (.388 field goal shooting).

According to information collected by Harvey Pollack and published in the 76ers' 1978 media guide, Erving led the team in playoff dunks (34, with a single-game high of five) and three point plays (converting 15 of 20 opportunities). Erving scored at least 20 points in 16 of Philadelphia's 19 playoff games--including each of the final 10--and he also posted six of his 11 highest scoring NBA playoff games. The 1977 postseason turned out to be Erving's most prolific NBA playoff campaign in scoring (27.3 ppg, third in the league), field goal percentage (.523) and steals (2.2 spg, fourth in the league).

Shortly after the 1977 NBA Finals ended, the New York Times' Sam Goldaper wrote, "The recently concluded National Basketball Association season will be best remembered for two significant events--the emergence of Bill Walton as one of the game's dominant centers and the proof that Julius Erving could play the game of basketball as well as anyone who had ever played before him."
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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 AM

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Friday, June 07, 2013

Death by Execution: Efficient Spurs Chill Sloppy Heat

The San Antonio Spurs tied the NBA Finals record for fewest turnovers in a game (four) and they outscored the Miami Heat 23-16 in the fourth quarter en route to a 92-88 game one victory. Tony Parker scored a game-high 21 points on 9-18 field goal shooting and he led the Spurs in assists (six) without committing a single turnover. Tim Duncan controlled the paint at both ends of the court, finishing with 20 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots; he missed his first five field goal attempts but shot 8-14 the rest of the way. Duncan has supposedly handed the reins over to Parker--whatever that means--but the main difference between this Spurs team and the Spurs teams in recent seasons that did not make it to the Finals is that Duncan has lost weight, turned back the clock and resumed being a dominant force in the paint. There have been a few exceptions but in general NBA championship teams have been led by a dominant post player and/or a dominant 6-6 to 6-9 wing player; Parker is without question a great point guard but without Duncan's scoring, rebounding, defense and screen-setting Parker and the Spurs would not have made it to the Finals.

LeBron James had a strange game, as he often seems to do against elite level opponents; the box score numbers look great--18 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists--yet he never took control of the game and he disappeared in the fourth quarter. Dwyane Wade finished with 17 points on 7-15 field goal shooting but, after scoring 13 points on 5-8 field goal shooting in the first half, he scored just four points on 2-7 field goal shooting in the second half--and he went scoreless in the fourth quarter with the outcome up for grabs. Wade played very passively, accumulating just two rebounds and two assists while posting a game-low -11 plus/minus number. As NBA TV's Kenny Smith said, Wade did not have a performance worthy of someone who is considered a potential Hall of Fame candidate. Chris Bosh scored 13 points, ranked second on the Heat with five rebounds and led the team with three steals; those are not great numbers but--as discussed below--the Heat treat Bosh like a role player, not a multidimensional perennial All-Star.

On the first play of the game, the Spurs committed the cardinal sin for a Miami opponent; Duncan turned the ball over, the Heat were off to the races and Wade converted a fast break dunk. After that miscue, the Spurs went on a 9-0 run but then the Heat recovered and took a 38-29 lead. The Heat were up 46-38 late in the first half after making eight of their previous 10 field goal attempts but the Spurs patiently chipped away, pulling to within 52-49 at halftime after Duncan hit a buzzer beating jumper; closing out quarters is very important--Doug Collins used to emphasize this during his broadcasting days--and in a four point victory the Spurs hit big shots at the end of both the second and fourth quarters.

After the teams played to a 20-20 tie in the third quarter, Parker scored 10 fourth quarter points, capped by a twisting, shot clock-beating bank shot that will forever be on the all-time Finals highlight reel if the Spurs win this series. Throughout the final 12 minutes, Parker attacked the paint off of the dribble and Duncan made his presence felt in the paint; meanwhile, without San Antonio turnovers or missed shots to fuel Miami's transition game, the Heat looked tentative and uncertain.

The whole rest versus rust issue played out the way that I predicted it might: "The Spurs may be rusty in the first half of game one but it is important for them to keep the score close and then make their move against Miami in the second half." The Heat led for most of the game but never by double digits--and they completely collapsed in the final stanza, shooting 5-18 from the field while committing five turnovers. In game two, the Spurs will be less rusty after getting back into the rhythm of playing every two or three days but the Heat should no longer be feeling the aftereffects of their long, physical series with the Pacers; neither rust nor rest should be an issue the rest of the way.

Bosh is often the scapegoat when the Heat lose but the Heat do not utilize him properly; instead of being an integral part of their offense as a post player, a face up player in the midpost area and/or a driver/attacker from the wing, he is relegated to being a long range spot up shooter who creates space for James and Wade to dribble the ball until they decide to shoot or pass. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly said that Bosh should be catching the ball in the midpost area; I made the same comment in my my recap of the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals when I explained why Bosh could be much more effective if he were deployed that way: "Perhaps James and Wade will even permit Bosh to post up once in a while and/or receive the ball in position to drive/attack the hoop, instead of consigning Bosh to the outer limits of the offense so that they have open driving lanes for themselves: Bosh cannot be expected to drive to the hoop from the three point line--he does not have handles like a shooting guard--but if he is given the ball in the midpost area he can face up and either hit the 15 foot jumper or make a nice, two dribble drive into the paint."

The two dominant themes in this series figure to be the Spurs' ability to collectively execute a sound, efficient game plan and James' willingness to take over the game. Players who aspire to be considered all-time greats have an obligation to dominate games at the championship level; they cannot wait for their teammates to step up and they cannot suddenly change how they play: James has established himself as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history and he ranked fourth in the league with a 26.8 ppg scoring average this season--5.6 ppg more than Wade, who has rarely scored 20 points in a playoff game this year--so it does not make sense for James to suddenly become a reluctant shooter. James won the 2012 Finals MVP by averaging 28.6 ppg, 10.2 rpg and 7.4 apg; while he posted good all-around numbers in that series, he also asserted himself as a dominant scorer. In contrast, James averaged just 22.0 ppg when his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept in the 2007 Finals and he only averaged 17.8 ppg as his Heat lost 4-2 to the Dallas Mavericks 2011 Finals.

The comparisons of James to Magic Johnson are ridiculous; James' career-low scoring average is 20.9 ppg as a rookie coming to the NBA straight out of high school and he has never averaged less than 26.7 ppg since that season, while Johnson's career-high scoring average was 23.9 ppg and he averaged more than 20 ppg just four times in 12 full seasons. Johnson was a pass first point guard who played alongside a Hall of Fame center and a Hall of Fame forward in a different era when teams were deeper and his Lakers did not rely on him to consistently put up big point totals; James is Karl Malone with passing/ballhandling skills but he is only at his best--and his team is only dominant--when he relentlessly attacks the hoop as a scorer. James must first make the defense commit to stopping his scoring drives and only then should he pass to open teammates; when James settles for jump shots or passes the ball without distorting the defense by driving he is not fully utilizing his skills, no matter what the box score numbers and/or "advanced basketball statistics" say. The "stat gurus" will never understand this, but the Kobe Bryant in his prime who dominated with scoring first and only passed when trapping defenses forced him to give up the ball was a greater player than the James who lets defenses off of the hook by not asserting himself as a scorer (comparing that Bryant to the James who showed up in the 2012 playoffs--and especially the 2012 Finals--is a different matter but Bryant repeatedly established himself as a great performer in championship level games while James' record in that regard is much more sporadic). The Heat could still win this series but that will only happen if James resumes being a 25-plus ppg scorer; it is not a good sign for Heat fans that James smugly answered a question about his lack of offensive efficiency by noting that he had 18 rebounds and 10 assists in game one: James is a little bit too aware of his personal statistics, when he should be focused on doing whatever it takes to win--and the Heat need James to be a big-time scorer, even if that might mean that his rebound and assist numbers go down.

The Miami Heat suffered death by execution: the Spurs did not play flawlessly--they missed wide open corner three pointers that they normally make and they messed up several defensive rotations in the first half--but in general they executed the anti-Heat game plan described in my series preview, when I wrote that the Spurs could win if they "...take care of the basketball, utilize their advantage in the post with Tim Duncan and break down the Heat's perimeter defense with the driving of Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili; Duncan's post ups and the Parker/Ginobili drives will create open three point shots if the Heat are forced to collapse their defense into the paint. Defensively, the Spurs must force LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to shoot contested two point jump shots." The two part question now is, "Can the Spurs execute this game plan three more times and, if so, can James overcome this by asserting control as the best player on the court?" It is clear how each team must play to win this series but after one game it is not yet clear which team will win this series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:17 AM

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Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Miami Versus San Antonio Preview

NBA Finals

Miami (66-16) vs. San Antonio (58-24)

Season series: Miami, 2-0

San Antonio can win if…the Spurs take care of the basketball, utilize their advantage in the post with Tim Duncan and break down the Heat's perimeter defense with the driving of Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili; Duncan's post ups and the Parker/Ginobili drives will create open three point shots if the Heat are forced to collapse their defense into the paint. Defensively, the Spurs must force LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to shoot contested two point jump shots.

Miami will win because…even though the Heat have some exploitable weaknesses it is difficult to fully exploit those weaknesses four times in a seven game series. LeBron James seems to have reached that rare level inhabited by only a handful of players--including Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan--who simply would not be denied multiple championships during their primes as long as they remained healthy and as long as they had a reasonable supporting cast. While Duncan deserves to be mentioned in that category, he is not in the prime of his career and thus can no longer dominate a series the way that James can.

Other things to consider: The head to head record is meaningless because both teams "rested" players during those matchups; these teams have not faced each other at full strength since the 2011 regular season. During the Eastern Conference Finals, the Indiana Pacers provided a blueprint for how to beat the Heat but the Spurs will probably not be able to bludgeon the Heat in the paint to the same extent that the Pacers did. Roy Hibbert and David West are rugged, physical players, while Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter rely more on finesse and footwork; consequently, Chris Bosh will be more comfortable physically and psychologically in this series. On the other hand, the Spurs will protect the ball much better than the Pacers did and the Spurs will execute their offense efficiently on a more consistent basis.

James made his first trip to the NBA Finals in 2007, after his fourth season; James was already a great player but he was not yet a complete player and the Spurs swept his Cleveland Cavaliers to claim their third title in a five year span. The opportunity to win a championship is motivation enough but the fact that James can become a back to back champion by beating the team that humiliated him six years ago--leaving him wide open to shoot jump shots because his perimeter touch was so erratic--adds some extra spice/historical interest to this series. As Darth Vader said to Obi-Wan Kenobi, "Now the circle is complete."

Dwyane Wade and Manu Ginobili will be the X factors for their respective teams; both players have performed erratically during the 2013 postseason and neither one is likely to play well in every game but if one of these players has a breakout game--or even a breakout half--it could tilt the balance in an otherwise evenly matched series.

Many media members have become infatuated with "advanced basketball statistics"--it is easier to just plug some numbers into an article than to analyze the sport with a high level of technical/strategic understanding--but it is interesting that Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, the two most successful coaches in the NBA in the 2000s, both coach by feel. Jackson trained his players during practice to stay calm so that they could properly read and react to situations and he often let his players play through difficulties during games as opposed to calling a quick timeout; he, like John Wooden, felt that most of a coach's job is done during practice and that during the games it is up to the players to perform. I once asked Coach Popovich how much he incorporates basketball statistical analysis into his coaching decisions and he replied, "I would depend more on what I see and feel than on overdosing on stats." The chess match between Popovich and Erik Spoelstra will be very interesting.

The 2-3-2 Finals format favors the team that has home court advantage; at the championship level it is difficult to win three straight games, so for the Spurs to defeat the Heat they probably will need two victories in Miami: the most likely formula for a San Antonio championship is to earn a split of the first two games in Miami, win two out of three in San Antonio and then take game six in Miami. Game one winners overwhelmingly tend to win NBA playoff series and home teams win game seven roughly 80% of the time, so the Spurs would be well advised to focus on winning that first game in Miami and then making sure that the Heat do not extend the series to a seventh game. The Pacers squandered a great chance to win game one in Miami, they won three of the next five games and then they got blown out on the road in game seven. The importance of game one should not be underestimated; the Spurs will be very well rested, while the Heat just completed a grueling, physical seven game series: the Spurs may be rusty in the first half of game one but it is important for them to keep the score close and then make their move against Miami in the second half.

Physically, the Spurs may not match up quite as well with the Heat as the Pacers did but the Spurs have a lot of championship level experience so they have a very legitimate chance to win this series--but Miami has the best player plus home court advantage and those two factors are hard to overcome.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:51 AM

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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Miami's Big Three Overwhelm Pacers, Earn Third Straight NBA Finals Appearance

The Indiana Pacers pushed the heavily favored defending champion Miami Heat to the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals but in game seven the Heat pushed back: LeBron James led the way as usual (game-high 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists) but this time he had more help from the other two thirds of the Big Three as Dwyane Wade had his best game of the playoffs (21 points, nine rebounds) and Chris Bosh made his presence felt in the paint even though his numbers were pedestrian (nine points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots). The Pacers have all of the necessary physical components to beat the Miami Heat but this series was about mental focus and toughness: could the Pacers execute the right game plan offensively and defensively four times in a seven game series? The answer to that question turned out to be, "Not this year," and Miami rolled to a 99-76 victory, earning their third straight trip to the NBA Finals and a chance to becoming the first repeat champions since the 2010 Lakers.

Game seven went sideways for the Pacers right from the start, even though the Pacers briefly took the lead; the Pacers turned the ball over at an alarming rate, they granted the Heat easy access to the paint--resulting in foul trouble for the Pacers and free throw attempts for the Heat--and when they did not turn the ball over they lacked the patience to create the proper passing angles to exploit their inside advantage with Roy Hibbert (18 points, eight rebounds but just 11 field goal attempts) and David West (14 points, six rebounds, six turnovers). The Heat deserve credit for staying poised and for ratcheting up their defensive pressure to the extent that it fried the Pacers' brains but if the Pacers had remained calm and made the extra pass then they could have exploited gaps in Miami's defense and forced the Heat to refrain from trapping so aggressively; as Hubie Brown always says, you don't beat the trap with the first pass but with the second pass, because no man can outrun the ball: after the first pass, the offense enjoys a four on three advantage and when the second pass is made the result should be a wide open shot. Hit the Heat upside the head with four or five sequences of two passes leading to dunks and/or wide open three pointers and then see how enthusiastic the Heat are about trapping all over the court; nothing saps defensive energy like the sight of the ball going through the hoop. Unfortunately for the Pacers, during game seven they often could not even safely make the first pass out of the trap, let alone make the second pass to get a wide open shot.
 
When Kobe Bryant led the L.A. Lakers to three straight NBA Finals (and two straight championships) from 2008-2010 he dismantled defenses by repeatedly making a pinpoint pass out of the initial trap; the recipient of that pass often made the assist pass but that assist would have never happened if Bryant had turned the ball over or forced a shot. Being a superstar is about more than just accumulating certain box score statistics and/or piling up impressive "advanced basketball statistics." A superstar is such a deadly offensive threat that he forces the opposing team to trap him and then he destroys that trap by splitting it off the dribble (a la Mark Price), shooting before it arrives (Bryant often uses this tactic because he can pivot in either direction to create a high percentage shot) or passing crisply to create the aforementioned four on three advantage. Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and LeBron James were/are superstars but most so-called superstars cannot consistently attack a defense in this manner.

There is a reason that I get irritated when certain players are crowned as MVP candidates or superstars or elite players after a few good games or even a month's worth of good games; those terms should be reserved for players who perform at the highest level over the course of an entire season and then maintain that performance level in the postseason. Paul George is a legit All-Star and perhaps he has superstar potential--but he is not a superstar now; LeBron James ate him alive at both ends of the court in game seven and George had just seven points (on 2-9 field goal shooting) plus seven rebounds and four assists before fouling out midway through the fourth quarter. There is a mental/psychological component of greatness that "stat gurus" will never be able to quantify or understand--and that is precisely the point that Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins made in an interview a while back when he said that he did not want "stat gurus" telling him which lineups to use because "stat gurus" do not understand what is in a player's heart/mind and which players will crumble under pressure even if their statistics supposedly indicate that they should be on the court. Would a "stat guru" have put Scottie Pippen on the court with four reserves during a crucial fourth quarter stretch of game six of the 1992 NBA Finals while Chicago trailed Portland by 15? Chicago Coach Phil Jackson had trained his reserve players to be ready for that kind of situation and he also knew that he needed to rest Michael Jordan for the game's final moments; Pippen and the reserves slashed Portland's lead and then a refreshed Jordan returned to action to win the game--and clinch the championship--with Pippen at his side.

James' brilliance and the Pacers' focus (or lack thereof) were the two main themes of this series but the way that Wade--an All-Star and an All-NBA Third Team member this season--has suddenly become a very ordinary player was a significant sidebar story. It is impossible to know what is really going on with Wade now. Has Wade permanently declined to the extent that he cannot play at a high level for an entire regular season/extended playoff run or is he just very injury prone but otherwise his skills are intact? TNT's Steve Kerr and others noted that Wade seemed disinterested for much of this series; if anything, being injured should increase a player's focus and intensity, not decrease it. It almost seemed like Wade was pouting about his reduced role--but then, seemingly out of nowhere, in game seven Wade found the wherewithal to perform at a solid All-Star level, if not quite an All-NBA level. Wade refuses to talk about his knee injury, though he has made sure that word gets out that it is very unpredictable and that just because he looks good/moves well in one game does not mean that he will be able to play well in the next game. That is certainly very convenient, because it elevates his solid performances to a heroic level while excusing his many poor performances throughout this postseason. I just find the whole Wade act a bit tiresome; he flops around at the slightest hint of contact but he is also a sneaky cheap shot artist (breaking Kobe Bryant's nose in an All-Star Game, taking out Rajon Rondo in a playoff game, "accidentally" hitting Lance Stephenson upside the head earlier in this series, etc.). Wade not only refused to talk about the injury while making sure that everyone in fact knows about the injury but for some reason he grumbled about not getting enough touches--as if LeBron James, the best player in the league by far, should be going out of his way to give up the ball so that Wade can miss some more jumpers and get some more layups blocked. James has handled the situation masterfully, refusing to directly criticize Wade while also making it clear that he expects Wade to be more productive. I greatly respect Tim Grover and I understand why he speaks highly of his client Wade, but the more I watch the Heat the less I buy Grover's contention that Wade has somehow taught James how to be a leader/champion; James has clearly learned a lot in the past few years but I am more inclined to believe that he has learned from Pat Riley, Hakeem Olajuwon and/or others than that he learned from the second best player on his own team. When Wade won his first NBA title, Shaquille O'Neal was Miami's vocal leader and he was also the player who was drawing double teams; in the ensuing years, O'Neal declined and/or missed games because of injury and the Heat quickly descended in the standings. I am not sure what Wade learned from those experiences that would be relevant to James' recent evolution.

Bosh is everyone's favorite whipping boy but what happened to him in this series is easy to understand; he is a slender power forward who was overmatched physically while playing center against Roy Hibbert, a big, low post brute. Bosh was also limited by a sprained ankle but since he really does not talk about his injuries we don't know just how severe the ankle injury is. Bosh's scoring and rebounding figure to increase in the Finals against the Spurs because the matchups will not be so unfavorable for Bosh at either end of the court. Perhaps James and Wade will even permit Bosh to post up once in a while and/or receive the ball in position to drive/attack the hoop, instead of consigning Bosh to the outer limits of the offense so that they have open driving lanes for themselves: Bosh cannot be expected to drive to the hoop from the three point line--he does not have handles like a shooting guard--but if he is given the ball in the midpost area he can face up and either hit the 15 foot jumper or make a nice, two dribble drive into the paint.

After the game, James said that he is 20 times the player he was when his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals. While that is not literally true, it is true that James' accelerated growth curve has continued on a steep upward path, resulting in four MVPs, one Finals MVP and one championship during the past six years. During the 2012 NBA Finals, James demonstrated how much he has improved his focus and to what extent he has refined his skill set. In Jedi terminology, James was just a padawan apprentice when he faced Jedi Master Tim Duncan in the 2007 NBA Finals but now James is a full fledged Jedi Master; the circle is now complete and James has a chance to further establish his Jedi credentials by outdueling a four-time NBA champion on the sport's biggest stage.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 AM

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Monday, June 03, 2013

Hill, Kidd Retirements Mark End of an Era

Grant Hill and Jason Kidd entered the NBA together 19 years ago, they shared the 1994-95 Rookie of the Year award and now they have retired just a few days apart, with Grant Hill making his announcement Saturday night on TNT and Jason Kidd issuing a press release today.

Hill was a durable player early in his career--missing just five games from 1995-99--but a severe ankle injury and resulting surgical complications kept him out of all but 47 games from 2000-2003. He bounced back in 2005 to earn his seventh and final All-Star selection before enjoying several productive seasons as a role player in Phoenix, missing only three games from 2009-2011. Hill averaged at least 20 ppg for five straight seasons and he finished third in MVP voting in 1996-97 when he averaged 21.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 7.3 apg; that season he earned his only All-NBA First Team selection but he also made the All-NBA Second Team four times. He was the leading vote getter for the All-Star Game in 1995 and 1996, one of just 10 players to receive the most votes in at least two seasons.

In addition to his tremendous on court skills/accomplishments, Hill has represented himself well off of the court and he very eloquently responded to the unfortunate comments Jalen Rose made during the "Fab Five" documentary.

Grant Hill averaged 16.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 4.1 apg in his 1026 game NBA career; that sustained productivity, combined with his great college career at Duke, should earn him induction in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Jason Kidd posted some great statistics during his career--he ranks second on the career list for both assists and steals and the player once known as "ason" (because he had no "J") ranks third on the career list for three pointers made--but his impact could never be solely defined by numbers: Kidd is a winner and a champion and--from high school to college to the NBA to Team USA--every squad that he joined became better and every squad that he left became worse. Kidd played an important role for the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks and he posted a 46-0 record in FIBA play, no small feat during an era when Team USA often faltered during international competition.

The Nets have a glorious ABA heritage but they were a sad sack NBA franchise until Kidd arrived in the 2001-02 season and promptly led them to back to back NBA Finals appearances; Kidd finished second in the 2002 MVP voting and even though Tim Duncan is a bigger--and therefore more dominant--player one could argue that few players in history have meant more to their particular team than Kidd meant to those 2002 Nets.

Kidd led the NBA in assists five times during a six year run in the late 1990s/early 2000s and he ranked in the top 10 in that category for 17 straight seasons. He made the All-NBA First Team five times and he earned four All-Defensive First Team selections. He ranks third in regular season triple doubles (107) behind Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson and he ranks second in playoff triple doubles (11) behind Magic Johnson; in 2007 Kidd posted one of the most exceptional postseason triple doubles ever: 16 points, 19 assists, 16 rebounds, just the third 15-15-15 triple double in NBA playoff history. Kidd twice averaged a triple double for an entire playoff series; Wilt Chamberlain (twice) and Magic Johnson (four times) are the only other players who averaged a triple double for more than one playoff series.

Kidd averaged 12.6 ppg, 8.7 apg and 6.3 rpg in 1291 games but it must be emphasized again that his impact was far greater than those numbers might suggest; Kidd was the best point guard in the NBA for an extended period of time--and a top five player overall--so he should be a first ballot Basketball Hall of Famer.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:02 PM

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Sunday, June 02, 2013

Heat's Game Seven Showdown Versus Pacers Will be a Defining Moment in the Big Three Era

No player's career and no team's era can fairly be defined on the basis of one game--but certain games are more important than others. Just like LeBron James' epic 40 point, 18 rebound, nine assist performance against Indiana in the 2012 playoffs will always be remembered as a positive landmark moment in James' career, Monday night's game seven against Indiana will form a significant aspect of James' legacy, particularly as a clutch performer. Winning that game will not automatically boost James to another level, nor will losing that game somehow "invalidate" everything that he has already accomplished--but this is an interesting juncture in NBA history: the Miami Heat may win game seven en route to claiming their second consecutive NBA title but we may also look back at this moment and realize that the Big Three had already peaked collectively, even if James is still improving individually.

The Pacers extended the Eastern Conference Finals to a seventh game by beating down the Heat--literally and figuratively--91-77; the Pacers outrebounded the Heat 53-33 and outscored them in the paint 44-22. After a closely contested first half, the Pacers pounded the Heat 29-15 in the third quarter and, at times, the game resembled big brother pushing around little brother in a backyard game; as TNT's Charles Barkley is fond of repeating, the Heat's big men are not going to grow during the flight back to Miami, so the Heat will have to create enough advantages elsewhere to overcome the inside dominance of Roy Hibbert (24 points, 11 rebounds) and David West (11 points, 14 rebounds, four assists).

"The Pacers have the right kind of team to beat the Heat." I wrote those words in my series preview but I picked the Heat to win the series because I expected James to perform at an incredible level and because I questioned if the Pacers had the necessary focus and toughness to execute the correct game plan not just for a game or two but for the duration of a seven game series. The Pacers have responded well to that challenge and now a seven game series has been transformed into a one game, winner take all scenario: a sprained ankle, foul trouble and/or an ejection could tilt the balance. Miami entered this series as the favorite and the favorite is never happy to be extended to a seventh game; think of it this way: would you have a better chance beating LeBron James one on one in a game played to seven points or in a game played to one point? The Pacers have not only shortened the series but they have demonstrated that they can consistently exploit certain matchup advantages to offset James' individual brilliance.

James played well in game six--29 points, seven rebounds, six assists--but he did not take over for a key stretch the way that he did in game five. Paul George pretty much matched James shot for shot (28 points), rebound for rebound (eight) and assist for assist (five). TNT's Charles Barkley had a great line about George: "We're not going to give out the superstar label after one week. We're not ESPN." Barkley is right--but if George equals his game six performance (not just the numbers but the impact) in game seven then he will have taken a big step on the path to rightly being considered a superstar.

Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh combined for 15 points on 4-19 field goal shooting, their lowest collective one game scoring total since becoming teammates in 2010. Bosh is playing out of position at center, a tactic that works for the Heat against most teams but is not turning out so well against the Pacers; Bosh is being physically worn down from banging against bigger bodies on defense and then he is being misused/underutilized on offense, spotting up for long jumpers instead of relying on his mobility to drive to the hoop and/or attack from the post with spin moves/athleticism. Yes, Bosh should be expected to provide more than he has provided this series but the Miami coaching staff has not helped Bosh by the way that they are deploying him at either end of the court.

It is fascinating to watch Dwyane Wade struggle without the explosive leaping ability that played such a huge role in his earlier success; now everyone can see that he is closer to 6-2 than 6-4--has Wade ever looked smaller than he does now when he spends more time on the ground than in the air?--and that without his hops Wade often looks like just another guy. I do not know if Wade's problems stem from injury and/or represent permanent, age-related decline but I do know that what we are seeing now confirms that I was always right to insist that Wade does not belong in the same category with Kobe Bryant (let's not even bring up Michael Jordan): Bryant is several inches taller than Wade and Bryant is a threat to score from anywhere on the court without having to rely on jumping over people--and that is why Bryant averaged 27.3 ppg in 2012-13 at the age of 34 (the 31 year old Wade is averaging 14.5 ppg versus the Pacers after averaging 21.2 ppg during the regular season). Bryant could still get to the hoop and finish even without dunking, while in the Indiana series Wade seems to miss every shot close to the hoop that he cannot dunk. Wade is not a great finisher at the rim like Bryant or Tony Parker now or like Rod Stickland back in the day (even a young Strickland rarely, if ever, dunked); Wade is an athlete--or, was an athlete--who could outjump and overpower much bigger men. Bryant has played with a bad ankle, a bad knee and/or torn ligaments in various fingers and he was still able to dominate as a number one option even when his mobility and/or ballhandling were compromised by those injuries; Wade deserves credit for trying to play through his current problems--but those problems are also revealing the inherent limitations that have always existed in his game but that were shrouded a bit by his tremendous athletic ability.

After LeBron James' infamous "Decision" I acknowledged that--barring injuries--the Heat would be perennial contenders but I expressed skepticism that the Heat would win multiple championships: I expected Wade to decline soon and I thought that the Heat would lack size and depth because of spending so much money to pay the Big Three. Both of those factors have come into play in this series and could very well prove to be Miami's downfall in game seven; even if James explodes for 40 points that may not be enough to push Miami over the top if Wade is a non-factor and if no other Heat players step up.

All of that being said, the Heat have already won a championship in the Big Three era and they are just five wins away from capturing their second title. They will enjoy the comforts of home in game seven and they will welcome back Chris Andersen, the suspended big man whose energy was sorely missed in game six. Miami's role players will likely play better, while Indiana's role players will likely play worse. All of those reasons, plus the fact that James will be the best player on the court, make Miami the logical pick--but if the Pacers stay focused and execute their game plan then they are absolutely capable of winning this game: the Heat players will not get bigger, so if the Pacers force the ball inside, cut down on their turnovers and prevent the Heat from easily driving to the hoop then the outcome could hinge on one last second score/stop.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:46 AM

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