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Friday, June 14, 2013

James, Wade and Bosh Lead the Way as the Heat Melt the Spurs

LeBron James resumed playing like he is the world's best basketball player and the Miami Heat followed his lead, beating the San Antonio Spurs 109-93 to tie the NBA Finals at 2-2. James finished with a game-high 33 points on 15-25 field goal shooting while also grabbing 11 rebounds, passing for four assists, swiping two steals and blocking two shots. Dwyane Wade finally performed at an All-Star level, scoring 32 points on 14-25 field goal shooting while also playing a great floor game (six rebounds, four assists, six steals). The Heat utilized Chris Bosh in the paint instead of relegating him to spot up shooting duty and he responded with 20 points, a game-high 13 rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 20 points on 6-10 field goal shooting but he only had five rebounds and one blocked shot as the Heat uncharacteristically won the rebounding battle (41-36) and outscored the Spurs in the paint (50-38). Tony Parker posted solid numbers (15 points, nine assists) but he had a very uneven game--great in the first half, scoreless in the second half on 0-4 field goal shooting. Manu Ginobili played 26 very ineffective minutes (five points on 1-5 field goal shooting, two assists). Game three heroes Danny Green and Gary Neal combined to score 23 points while shooting 6-9 from three point range; they did their jobs but that was not nearly enough to compensate for the way that Miami's Big Three destroyed San Antonio's Big Three.

Almost any playoff series that involves LeBron James is viewed as a referendum on his legacy and while there is some validity to that perception--a four-time MVP should be held to a high standard, particularly in the NBA Finals--the Spurs' three future Hall of Famers should not be given a free pass: the Spurs need for Duncan to play at a high level at both ends of the court, they need for Parker to be effective in both halves (though he may be limited by the hamstring injury he suffered in game three) and they need for Ginobili to make some kind of positive contribution at either end of the court. Duncan's defense and rebounding were exceptional in the first three games but he struggled to make shots; in game four he shot well but did not get enough opportunities (in part because the Spurs wasted so many possessions by committing turnovers) and he did not have quite the same defensive presence in the paint that he did in the first three games. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili scored 24 first half points on 10-18 field goal shooting, which is an acceptable output, but they only had 16 second half points on 4-13 field goal shooting, which is not acceptable from San Antonio's perspective. Although the Spurs' best players are "made men" in the sense that they have already won multiple championships, they have the opportunity to add a very nice page to their collective resumes if they can knock off a Heat team that looked unbeatable for extended stretches of the 2012-13 season.

James' numbers do not always indicate whether or not he played well; he had a triple double in game one but he did not assert himself offensively--and by game three even his staunchest advocates conceded that James was playing very passively and very tentatively. James vowed to do better in game four and he backed up his words with a strong performance--literally and figuratively: his numbers were strong and his game was strong as he played with a great sense of purpose, relentlessly attacking the hoop both on the fast break and also from the post in the half court set. When James forces his way into the paint he not only scores but he draws fouls, which is important for several reasons: this puts the opposing team in the penalty, creates individual foul trouble and generates potential free throw opportunities for his team. Even if James misses a shot in the paint and does not get fouled he attracts so much defensive attention that his teammates have offensive rebounding opportunities.There is no excuse for James to pound holes into the hardwood with pointless dribbling and/or to bail out the defense by shooting long jumpers; while it is true that in some cases he should take what the defense is giving him--open midrange jump shots--it is also true that whenever a big man switches on to him he should take the ball to the hoop and force the defense to take what he is giving: pain--the physical pain of dealing with his size/strength and the psychological pain of dealing with just how difficult it is to stop him when he is in attack mode.

Wade supported James by playing hard for the whole game instead of disappearing in the second half. The Spurs' employed the same defensive approach against James and Wade that worked in the first three games but three things changed: (1) James attacked immediately at full speed instead of holding the ball and/or dribbling the ball passively, (2) James and Wade took and made open jump shots and (3) the Spurs committed several careless live ball turnovers that gave James and Wade far too many easy transition baskets. The Spurs will continue to concede as many two point jump shots as James and Wade want to take but that strategy will only work if (1) James and Wade miss those shots (or refuse to even take those shots, deferring to teammates who have less talent and are not expecting to carry the load) and (2) the Spurs eliminate live ball turnovers.

The Spurs opened the game with a 15-5 run as Parker made three of his first four field goal attempts but things unraveled as soon as Parker went to the bench to rest; the Heat settled down, fed James in the post and took advantage of careless San Antonio turnovers to go on an 8-0 run that tied the score at 19. Miami led 29-26 by the end of the quarter as the Heat feasted on six San Antonio turnovers. The Heat extended that margin to 47-38 late in the second quarter but the Spurs countered with an 11-2 run--keyed by Parker's seven points--to tie the score at 49 by halftime. One interesting moment happened during a second quarter timeout: San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich sat and watched as Parker did most of the talking in the huddle. Popovich believes that sometimes the players who are in the game have a better handle on things than the coaches on the sidelines, so he lets the players speak their minds and he is rightly praised for enabling his players to take on leadership roles--but when Mike Brown, a former Popovich assistant coach, did the exact same thing as Cleveland's head coach the media relentlessly ripped him for not having a strong enough presence. This illustrates the ridiculous double standards often applied by some media members who do not have a clue about what is actually involved in coaching a team; the coach does much of his most important work behind closed doors in practice, developing the necessary habits and mindset for his team to be successful--but media members make a big deal about in-game adjustments and histrionics during timeout huddles, as if a coach is going to come up with some brand new insight on the fly in the middle of a game; even if a coach makes an in-game adjustment, that adjustment will almost certainly be based on something that the team practiced throughout the season. This is what Bill Belichick calls "situational football" and the same principle applies in basketball; a good coach prepares his team for various scenarios so that his players are ready to handle different situations. What is significant is not the in-game adjustment or the words that are said in the huddle but rather the months of preparation that enable the players to adapt to changing circumstances (with or without specific prompting from the coach during the game)--and that is why Phil Jackson often did not even call a timeout when his team struggled: he had already prepared his players to deal with challenges, so he did not have to make a grand spectacle in a huddle but rather he expected them to execute at both ends of the court the way that they had been trained to execute. I am not impressed by a coach who constantly jumps up and makes hand signals to his team throughout a game; that is not coaching, it is showing off for the TV cameras. I don't need to hear Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich or Mike Brown talk in a huddle to evaluate their coaching acumen; the way that a team executes under pressure at both ends of the court tells you whether or not that team's coach is doing a good job. Jackson won 11 championships, Popovich has won four championships and Brown built the Cavaliers from a non-playoff team to an NBA Finalist and a franchise that twice posted the best regular season record in the NBA.

Despite their turnovers and some defensive miscues, the Spurs seemed to be in good position to win game four; Parker looked unstoppable in the first half and Wade had been terrible in the second half of each of the previous games, making one wonder if the Heat could score enough points down the stretch if the Spurs kept the game close. Danny Green's three pointer at the 6:30 mark of the third quarter put the Spurs up 61-60 but San Antonio never led again: in the next 1:08, Ray Allen scored on a layup, Mario Chalmers drilled a three pointer and James went coast to coast for a dunk after stealing the ball. The Spurs stayed in contact until Wade scored eight points in a 2:12 stretch of the fourth quarter to put the Heat up 92-83; the Spurs never mounted a serious threat the rest of the way.

In order to win this series, the Spurs have to limit their turnovers, use post ups/drive and kick action to create open shots (either three pointers or layups, depending on how the defense reacts), control the paint at both ends of the court and force James and Wade to shoot contested two point jump shots; the Spurs fell short in all four areas in game four, so it is no surprise that the Heat routed them. Even if the Spurs execute their game plan efficiently, it is difficult to picture any team beating the Heat four times in a seven game series if James plays at his best--and it is even more difficult to picture that happening if Wade continues to be effective and if the Heat continue to utilize Bosh in the paint as opposed to treating the eight-time All-Star like he is nothing more than a spot up shooter.

As I predicted in my series preview, the Spurs will have to win at least two games in Miami to dethrone the Heat; game five at home is a must win situation for the Spurs but even if the Spurs take a 3-2 lead it will not be easy to eliminate the Heat in Miami. If James plays up to his capabilities, then the Heat will defeat the Spurs regardless of what else happens or where the games are played--but the strange and perplexing thing about James is that, as great as he is, there is no way to predict how he will play from game to game. When Michael Jordan was in his prime, how he played did not vary from game to game; his statistical output varied but his mental approach of relentless aggressiveness did not change--and the same is true of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan (in his prime), Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the great players of the past four decades who each led their teams to at least three championships. James has some work to do to join that club and it will be interesting to see how he responds to this challenge.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 AM

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Three-mendous: Spurs' Long Range Barrage Buries Heat

The San Antonio Spurs dominated the boards 52-36 and rained down an unprecedented three point barrage to blow out the Miami Heat 113-77 and take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals. The Spurs shot 16-32 from beyond the arc, setting an NBA Finals single game record for three pointers made. This was the worst playoff loss in Miami Heat history, the worst loss in the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Big Three Era and the third worst loss in NBA Finals history. Danny Green scored a game-high 27 points while shooting 9-15 from the field, including 7-9 from three point range; he has shot 16-23 (.696) from three point range overall and he is the leading scorer in the series (18.7 ppg). Gary Neal scored 24 points while shooting 9-17 from the field, including 6-10 from three point range. Kawhi Leonard contributed 14 points, 12 rebounds and four steals. Tim Duncan had a solid performance: 12 points, 14 rebounds, two blocked shots, 5-11 field goal shooting. It is easy to overlook Duncan when three point bombs are exploding from every direction but his defense in the paint and his post up presence on offense should not be ignored or diminished. Manu Ginobili added seven points and six assists; his deft passing played a role in San Antonio's perimeter shooting prowess. Tony Parker only scored six points but he had a game-high eight assists and just two turnovers before missing most of the fourth quarter due to a hamstring injury; he is scheduled to have an MRI on Wednesday morning and is listed as questionable for game four. If Parker cannot play then that could turn out to be a bigger story than anything else that happened in game three.

Dwyane Wade played very aggressively in the first quarter and then he disappeared for the rest of the game; that has been his pattern recently and it does not seem likely that this will change. He finished with a team-high 16 points (including eight in the first quarter) on 7-15 field goal shooting, five assists, four steals and no rebounds. Whether his leaping ability has been limited by injury or taken away by Father Time, it is evident that Wade has no backup plan when he cannot just elevate over everyone; he has been transformed from an All-Star into a hesitant role player who does not have the footwork or perimeter shot to be a consistent scorer and the Spurs are guarding him like he is a scrub: no double teams are sent his way and he is being dared to shoot any shot outside of six to eight feet.

Chris Bosh is trying to do the right thing, largely abandoning the three point line in favor of the midpost area, but he is an afterthought in Miami's offense; he finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. It is fashionable to criticize Bosh when the Heat lose but the reality is that he does not get to touch the ball very often; he is supposed to watch James and Wade dribble around and then be ready to shoot jump shots when they deign to pass him the ball.

LeBron James scored 15 points on 7-21 field goal shooting while grabbing 11 rebounds and passing for five assists but his performance was even worse than those mediocre numbers (by his standards) suggest. James made just two of his first 12 field goal attempts, the second game in a row that he has missed 10 of his first 12 shots, and even after he padded his statistics with a one man 9-0 run late in the third quarter the Heat still trailed 76-63; he did not play aggressively until the game was out of reach and he combined with Wade to shoot 0-8 from the field as the Spurs extended their 50-44 halftime lead to 73-52.

The emergence of Green this season--and especially in this series--is fascinating. Green could barely even get on the court for the 2009-10 Cleveland team that went a league-best 61-21 in the regular season and could very well have won a championship if LeBron James had not quit versus Boston in the playoffs. Just two years later, Green started 38 games for an excellent San Antonio team--and now he has outscored James through the first three games of the 2013 NBA Finals. There is little doubt that Green has matured since his Cleveland days and that he has further developed his skill set, but the larger point is that he did so while starting for one of the league's best teams because they did not have anyone better to put in the game ahead of him--and he did not get the same opportunity in Cleveland precisely because the Cavaliers possessed so much depth, contrary to popular belief. It is true that the Cavaliers never brought in an All-Star in his prime to play alongside James, but that is in no small part because James would not entice such a player to come to Cleveland by definitively saying that he was going to stay in Cleveland. Despite James' refusal to recruit players to come to Cleveland, the Cavaliers' front office built a very deep, defensive-minded team that was good enough to reach the NBA Finals once and to post the NBA's best regular season record in two other campaigns.

Like Danny Green in 2009-10, Shannon Brown could barely get on the court for the 2006-07 Cleveland team that advanced to the NBA Finals; two years later Brown was the first guard off of the bench for the Lakers as they reached the NBA Finals and in the next two seasons Brown was the first guard off of the bench for the Lakers' back to back championship teams. Many pundits claimed that those Lakers were very talented and/or very deep but I made the case that the 2009 Lakers were one of the least talented championship teams of the past two decades. It should be obvious that if a guy who cannot even get off of the bench for one of the 2007 NBA Finalists becomes part of the seven man rotation for a championship team then that championship team is not very talented. Furthermore, look at what happened to those "talented" Lakers since 2009: Lamar Odom, the team's third best player, has looked like garbage since he stopped living off of Kobe Bryant being double-teamed; starting point guard Derek Fisher became a seldom-used reserve in Oklahoma City; Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar--two young players who were endlessly praised by the same media members who still mock LeBron James' Cleveland teammates--are not even in the league anymore! The 2009 Lakers won the championship because Kobe Bryant relentlessly attacked opposing defenses. Here are Bryant's scoring and assist numbers in the 2009 NBA Finals:

Game one: 40 points, eight assists
Game two: 29 points, eight assists
Game three: 31 points, eight assists
Game four: 32 points, eight assists
Game five: 30 points, five assists

Bryant averaged 32.4 ppg and 7.4 apg in that series. He posted the fourth highest scoring average in NBA history for a five game NBA Finals and in the decisive game he led both teams in scoring while also leading the Lakers in assists, steals and blocked shots in addition to grabbing six rebounds and committing just one turnover. Here is part of what I wrote in my series recap:

[LeBron] James certainly had a tremendous postseason but watching Bryant lead the Lakers to the title you could see the significance of some of the skill set advantages Bryant has over James--particularly the ability to consistently make the midrange jump shot: teams simply cannot ever concede that shot to Bryant and thus Bryant is very difficult to single cover in the 15-18 foot area, which opens scoring opportunities for all of his teammates. It is no accident or coincidence that Pau Gasol has played the most efficient ball of his career since joining the Lakers (see below for more on that subject) or that career journeymen like Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown suddenly become much more productive playing alongside Bryant: Bryant's teammates know that they are going to be wide open and, just as importantly, they know exactly when and where they will be open and they know that Bryant is a willing passer, so all they have to focus on is knocking down wide open shots.

In many ways, Bryant saved his best for last in the 2009 postseason; Jerry West is the only player to match or exceed Bryant's scoring and assists averages in the same NBA Finals. West won the NBA's first Finals MVP in 1969 after averaging 37.9 ppg and 7.4 apg in a seven game loss to the Boston Celtics; West remains the only player to ever win that award despite playing on the losing team.


Bryant lived up to his responsibility and obligation as an elite player; he scored, he passed, he rebounded and he defended: he did not defer to anyone or wait for anyone to do anything but instead he dictated his terms to the opposing team and he instilled confidence in his teammates with his aggressiveness. The notion that James must choose between being Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan is ludicrous. James will never be Magic Johnson because Magic Johnson was a pass-first point guard on a team full of scorers while James is an all-time great scorer on a team that needs for him to score at least 25 ppg. Furthermore, the idea that James has to choose between scoring and passing is nonsense; Jordan scored and passed as his teams won six championships, as did Bryant as his teams won five championships.

James is averaging 16.7 ppg on .389 field goal shooting in the 2013 Finals; his scoring has declined in each game (18-17-15), as has his field goal percentage (7-16, 7-17, 7-21). He did not attempt a free throw in game three and he has only attempted six free throws so far in the series. In 18 career Finals games he has scored less than 20 points seven times. When he won the 2012 Finals MVP while leading the Heat to the championship he averaged 28.6 ppg and he scored between 26 and 32 points in each game; it seemed like James had finally figured out how to excel on the sport's biggest stage but so far in the 2013 Finals he has regressed.

I very much respect Kenny Smith's basketball acumen but I disagree with his defense of James' play in the first two games of this series and I don't see how anyone can defend James after game three. James is naturally going to put up big rebounding numbers as the power forward in Miami's small lineup but in game three the Heat got killed on the boards anyway. James is not Magic Johnson and the Heat cannot win this series unless he plays aggressively on offense; the Heat need for James to resume being a big-time scorer and their players must be very puzzled by James' passivity and apparent lack of confidence. Bryant exuded personal confidence and instilled confidence in his less talented teammates, while James is doing the opposite in the 2013 Finals.

What we are seeing from James in this series is a good example of why I did not include any active players in my pro basketball Pantheon; James is a great player but he has played on several championship caliber teams so far while winning just one title. All of the players in the Pantheon either won multiple titles or else put up outrageous statistics while losing in the Finals to other Pantheon members. James may play in several more Finals, he may win multiple titles and he may push his way to the top of the Pantheon--but if he keeps scoring in the teens in the Finals then he is going to end up with one championship on his resume and he will not deserve to be mentioned ahead of the Pantheon members no matter what the "stat gurus" say about his "advanced basketball statistics."

One major improvement for James over his Cleveland days is that he now takes responsibility for his poor play instead of saying things like he has "spoiled" the fans with his consistent excellence; after game three, James said, "I gotta be better. It's that simple. If I'm better, we're better. I gotta be better. I'm putting everything on my chest and on my shoulders. I gotta be better. It's that simple. My teammates are doing a good job; they're doing a great job and I'm not doing my part."

James is right that he must do better but saying the correct words is one thing and putting those words into action at the highest level of the sport is another thing. After one of the Chicago Bulls' painful playoff losses to the Detroit Pistons, Michael Jordan's father tried to console Jordan by saying that there would be more chances to win a championship but Jordan replied that one never knows how many chances he will get. We do not know if James is only beginning to write his Finals story, if he is in the middle of that story or if this is his last Finals appearance but James' 1-2 Finals record (pending the outcome of the 2013 Finals)--while scoring far below his normal average and shooting far worse than his normal field goal percentage--does not stack up very well against the Finals records posted by the greatest players of the past 40 years; each of these players won at least three titles and none of them had a losing record in the Finals. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won a championship in his first Finals appearance and he finished with a 6-4 Finals record. Julius Erving won championships the first two times he reached the Finals (both in the ABA) and he finished with a 3-3 Finals record (including the NBA). Larry Bird won championships in his first two Finals appearances and he finished with a 3-2 Finals record. Magic Johnson won championships in his first two Finals appearances and he finished with a 5-4 Finals record. Michael Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals. Shaquille O'Neal lost in his first Finals appearance and he finished with a 4-2 Finals record. Kobe Bryant won a championship in each of his first three Finals appearances and he now has a 5-2 Finals record. Tim Duncan has a 4-0 Finals record (pending the outcome of the 2013 Finals). A great player should not be judged solely on how many championships he wins but when the best player in the league annually plays for a top contender he should be expected to be at the top of his game in the Finals and he should be expected to win multiple titles.

"Stat gurus" mocked Jordan for saying that he would take Bryant over James because "five beats one" but every time in the NBA Finals that James settles for a long two point jumper or passes the ball instead of attacking the defense he is proving Jordan right.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:22 AM

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"The Doctor": Julius Erving's Life Story in his Own Words

ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt perfectly summarized the emotional impact of NBA TV's "The Doctor," which premiered on Monday night; Van Pelt reminded his listeners of the great Jim Valvano quote that every day each person should laugh, cry and think: Van Pelt said that if you watch this documentary you will fulfill your quota in all three areas.

Erving's grace--on and off the court--and his remarkable basketball career resonate in a way that is both deeply felt and difficult to explain. Erving is not a perfect man, nor is he considered to be the greatest basketball player of all-time, yet in many ways he embodies what we think a man should be like and what we most enjoy watching in a basketball player; he is confident but not boastful, he is serene but possesses deep reservoirs of inner strength, he played the game with great flamboyance and joy but he was unselfish and very focused on winning.

A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich is a catchy book title but we need heroes to inspire us. Julius Erving's athletic prowess awed and inspired me as a kid, as did his elegance and class. I wanted to be like him and--when I was really young and really dreaming big--I hoped that his career would last long enough for me to play with him for the Philadelphia 76ers; I imagined running alongside him on the fast break, either throwing him a lob or else receiving a lob from him. I know that I am far from the only person who had that fantasy. In Julius Erving's Transcendence, Scoop Jackson mentions Erving's answer to a question about the impact Erving has had on people who he has never even met:

Well, you never know who is watching, so you can do one of two things. You can assume everyone's watching or you can take the attitude that you really don't care who is watching and who is not. I kind of always liked to assume that there were a lot of eyes--particularly young people--on any professional athlete once they start to get on the big stage, once they have a platform. They have a responsibility that you are a role model. Now I have been far from perfect in my professional life and personal life in terms of role modeling, but, you know, only our Creator is perfect. So perfect is not an option.

But to be good and to be consistent, to be dedicated and to have goals that are achievable and to reach them and then handle that situation with humility...those are doable things. So knowing that there are people out there who are watching, it became important to me. And it will always be important to me. I can't help it. It's something I don't wish on everybody because there are clearly some people that don't want the role, but it is a role.

The challenge of having a balanced perspective versus seeking impossible perfection is fascinating; I struggle fiercely with perfectionistic tendencies that, if unchecked, can lead my thoughts and emotions down a very dark path. Jackson articulates the feelings of so many of us who deeply admire Erving while also realizing that, as Erving said, "perfect is not an option":

Those imperfections upon their discoveries hurt--I can't lie. The children he bore outside of his marriage, the divorce from Turquoise Erving, the auctioning off personal memorabilia that led to speculation of severe financial troubles, the "Reign On" ad.

But those made him human instead of mythological. Something needed to help make many of us face the realization that Erving, as great of a role model and human being as he'd been in many of our eyes and lives, was mortal. A god, but not God.

The one thing I learned directly from Julius Erving is that he never wants a story about himself to be told too soon or before its time.

He held off on an interview once with me because he wanted to make sure other players were interviewed before him: Elgin Baylor, Earl Monroe, Pete Maravich, Connie Hawkins, etc. He felt their stories should have been told before his. Almost as if the Dr. J story was not worthy without others being given similar attention.

Even though no other is similar.

"The Doctor" traces the arc of Erving's life from his Long Island childhood to the present day and in addition to plenty of basketball highlights it also includes his memories of the two most painful tragedies of his life: the death, at 16, of his younger brother Marvin and the death, at 19, of his son Cory. His brother's untimely passing gave Erving both a sense of purpose and a glimpse of his own mortality and it seems like the 63 year old Erving has a heightened awareness of his mortality now; the once intensely private Erving is telling his story to the world (his authorized biography is scheduled for a November 2013 release), no longer content to let others define the meaning of his life and career. As Erving ages and is forced to face mortality, those of us who have admired him since childhood are likewise compelled to think about the meaning/mystery of life and death. At the start of the documentary, Erving buys flowers--and at the end of the documentary, he brings those flowers to the cemetery where his mother, sister and brother are buried. It is easy to think of great athletes like they are invulnerable comic book heroes but they have frailties and strengths--and they even have their own heroes: Erving adored his younger brother and he said that after his brother died he carried his spirit within him, feeling as if he enjoyed a 2 on 1 advantage even when facing the toughest foe on the court.

When Erving graduated high school, he was a lightly recruited 6-3 forward/guard but at the University of Massachusetts he blossomed into a 6-6 multifaceted pro prospect who signed with the ABA's Virginia Squires after his junior year. During that time, Erving made a name for himself by excelling at Rucker Park while competing against NBA players and streetball legends. The Rucker Park stories and footage are priceless; Erving played with joy and ferocity but he never disrespected anyone and he never showboated: not many of today's players could imitate Erving's moves and even fewer of them live up to the standard he set with his personal demeanor.

Erving was much more than just a guy who could fill up a highlight reel; his game contained plenty of substance and that is a big reason why his teams enjoyed so much success. In a February 1985 Esquire article, Erving explained to writer Mark Jacobson how he viewed his impact on the evolution of basketball: "I'd say I've had an effect in three main areas. First, I have taken a smaller man's game, ball-handling, passing, and the like, and brought it to the front court. Second, I've taken the big man's game, rebounding, shot-blocking, and been able to execute that even though I'm only six-foot-six. What I've tried to do is merge those two types of games, which were considered to be separate--for instance, Bill Russell does the rebounding, Cousy handles the ball--and combine them into the same player. This has more or less changed the definition of what's called the small forward position, and it creates a lot more flexibility for the individual player, and, of course, creates a lot more opportunities for the whole team. The third thing I've tried to do, and this is the most important thing, is to make this kind of basketball a winning kind of basketball, taking into account a degree of showmanship that gets people excited. My overall goal is to give people the feeling they are being entertained by an artist--and to win. You know, the playground game...refined."

As Magic Johnson once put it, Erving made the playground official. Near the end of "The Doctor," LeBron James said that without Erving there is no Michael Jordan and that without Jordan there would have been no LeBron James. Many people love to compare James to Magic Johnson but, in both style and substance, James' game is much more similar to Erving's, from the arm-extended overhead dunks to the chase down blocked shots to the ability to blend together backcourt skills with frontcourt skills and even to the question about how much a superstar should defer to less talented teammates. After Erving joined the Philadelphia 76ers, he voluntarily reduced his scoring to blend in with a cast of All-Stars and "The Doctor" includes a clip of Erving answering a question about whether it bothered him that players who he routinely outscored in the ABA were now outscoring him in the NBA. Erving replied, "Scoring is an individual statistic and I think the objectives of the team are the things that have to be paramount and have to come first." Erving's second NBA coach, Billy Cunningham, recalled, "He didn't want to rock the boat. He was too nice a man to say, 'Hey, I'm Dr. J." One big difference between Erving and James, though, is that Erving tended to defer during the regular season but take over during the playoffs--and especially the NBA Finals--while James tends to score big during the regular season only to defer during the NBA Finals. In 22 NBA Finals games, Erving scored less than 20 points only once, while James has scored less than 20 points in six of his 17 NBA Finals games.

One unexpected but fascinating anecdote in "The Doctor" concerns Mike Piazza, the former All-Star catcher; Piazza described being in the Spectrum as a little kid and watching Erving deliver one of his most famous dunks, a windmill over Michael Cooper. Piazza said that Erving provided inspiration for him to become a Major League Baseball player and that even now he sometimes is moved to tears when thinking about Erving's profound influence on his life; Piazza admitted that his wife is surprised by how emotional he gets when he thinks about Erving but he insisted that Erving's example had a huge effect on him. There are many great athletes but very few have Erving's unique combination of skill, style, flair, grace and class--and even fewer can move men to tears nearly 30 years after they retired.

Erving won two championships and three MVPs in the ABA but his 76ers lost three times in the NBA Finals before they paired Erving with another former ABA player, Moses Malone; in 1982-83, the 76ers ran roughshod over the NBA, going 65-17 in the regular season before winning 12 of their 13 playoff games--including a 4-0 Finals sweep of the defending champion L.A. Lakers. Pat Riley, who coached the Lakers at that time, said, "Even though we really would have loved to beat them again and we would have loved to keep him in that pain, you give those who really deserve it their just due when it's time."

Erving said, "It was such a relief, like a brick that was sitting over your head waiting to hit you and suddenly it went the other way and now it wasn't there anymore."

Cunningham remembered, "I was so happy for him, because if there was one player who deserved to have that one little piece that he was missing for his legacy, he had it now."

Erving played four more seasons, making the All-Star team each year, and then he glided seamlessly into retirement, unlike so many athletes who cannot let go of past glories and/or search in vain for something that thrills/challenges them the way that being a professional athlete thrilled/challenged them. Erving neither brags about his own considerable accomplishments nor does he diminish the accomplishments of the players who came after him. One point that Erving gently but firmly mentions now in some interviews--and perhaps he should be less gentle and more firm but that is not his style--is that ABA Numbers Should Also Count; it is a travesty that the NBA and the league's media partners act as if ABA statistics do not exist and/or do not matter. Julius Erving was just the third professional basketball player to score at least 30,000 points and he was the first "midsize" player to score 30,000 points, blazing a trail later followed by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Erving ranked third on the all-time regular season career scoring list when he retired (behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain) and he still ranks sixth on that list 26 years after playing his last game. Erving is also the sixth leading playoff scorer in pro basketball history--and when he retired he ranked second on that list behind only Abdul-Jabbar.

When Erving's numbers and accomplishments are placed in proper context it is obvious that contemporary commentators often vastly underrate his place in basketball history; he is not the first retired legend to face that fate but in his case these errors are correctable because the statistics exist and the footage exists: his impact can be quantified and demonstrated. For instance, as a rookie Erving averaged 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg during the 1972 playoffs while shooting .518 from the field and .835 from the free throw line. Those numbers include a 53 point game--tying the ABA's single game playoff scoring record--plus a 39 point, 27 rebound game and an unprecedented triple double of 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists; I have yet to find another 26-20-15 stat line in pro basketball history. College basketball coaches John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski are celebrated for reaching the Final Four 12 times in 29 seasons and 11 times in 38 seasons respectively; Erving led his team to pro basketball's "Final Four" (the Division Finals/Conference Finals) 10 times in his 16 year career.

Erving's impact extended beyond his statistics and accomplishments. M.L. Carr, who played against Erving in the ABA and the NBA, recalled, "He was carrying the weight of the league on his shoulder. He realized he was an ambassador for the league. He was the ultimate ambassador for the league."

Erving was one of the first athletes who had what was referred to in the 1970s as "crossover" appeal; as Dr. Todd Boyd noted, "Major corporations decided that they wanted this guy to endorse their products. The idea that a black guy would be the face of a national brand--that was really radical."

Erving's importance as a crossover figure is undeniable, as is the influence that he had on multiple generations of young black people, but I never looked at Julius Erving as a black man.

I just looked him as my hero--and, despite his admitted flaws, in my heart he will always be my hero.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:04 AM

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Sizzling Second Half Run Propels Heat to Game Two Win

The San Antonio Spurs led the Miami Heat 62-61 with 3:50 remaining in the third quarter of game two of the NBA Finals and were in prime position to take a commanding 2-0 series lead but then the Heat went on a 33-5 run to save their season; the Heat's 103-84 win puts the pressure on the Spurs to win three straight games at home in the NBA's outdated 2-3-2 Finals format. Mario Chalmers led the Heat with a game-high 19 points; he is not a traditional point guard--Chalmers had just two assists--but he is a fearless scorer, equally able to attack the hoop off of the dribble and to drain long jumpers. LeBron James finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocked shots while shooting 7-17 from the field. Chris Bosh contributed 12 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals. Although Bosh's numbers are not eye-popping, he made a subtle but important adjustment by eschewing the three point shot in favor of stationing himself within 18 feet of the basket on offense; this enabled him to improve his shooting percentage, grab more rebounds and have more of an impact on the game. Dwyane Wade added 10 points and six assists, with all of the points and four of the assists coming in the first half. Danny Green led the Spurs with 17 points on 6-6 field goal shooting, including 5-5 from three point range. San Antonio's Big Three came up very small: Tony Parker had 13 points, five assists and five turnovers while shooting 5-14 from the field, Tim Duncan had nine points and 11 rebounds while shooting 3-13 from the field and Manu Ginobili had five points on 2-6 shooting in 18 unproductive minutes.

James has won four of the previous five NBA regular season MVPs, so there is an understandable tendency to view every Miami Heat game through the prism of James' performance--but the real story of game two is just how badly Parker, Duncan and Ginobili played. Duncan is a certain first ballot Hall of Famer and Parker and Ginobili will both likely earn Hall of Fame induction as well, so they should be held to a high standard; Parker and Ginobili were both very careless with the ball, which is inexplicable since the Spurs know that live ball turnovers are death against the Heat because such miscues ignite Miami's potent transition game. If Parker and Ginobili make safe passes and patiently run the Spurs' half court offense then San Antonio can be very effective against the undersized Heat. Duncan played a more poised and intelligent game than Parker and Ginobili did but he has to shoot much better from the field.

Some commentators place great emphasis on one or two statistics from a particular game but it is important to understand the difference between a trend and something that is simply an aberration that has no real significance due to a small sample size. Here are two examples of aberrations: (1) the Spurs tied an NBA Finals record by committing just four turnovers in game one; (2) the Spurs shot 7-10 from three point range in the first half of game two. The Spurs soon regressed to the mean in both categories; they committed 16 turnovers in game two and they shot 3-10 from three point range in the second half of game two. The Spurs cannot reasonably expect to have another four turnover game or to regularly shoot 7-10 from three point range during a half but in order to beat the Heat they should strive to commit fewer than 12 turnovers per game and to shoot around .400 from beyond the arc.

Much has been made about how difficult and/or intimidating it is to interview San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich. I love Popovich's press conferences and in-game interviews because he does not let reporters off of the hook for asking stupid and/or lazy questions. After game one, someone asked Popovich how the Spurs managed to commit just four turnovers and he candidly replied that he has no idea because he does not have a "no turnover drill." In other words, "Why are you asking me to come up with an explanation for something that is obviously an aberration?" In another Finals press conference, Popovich noted that one year his team finished close to the bottom of the league in three point field goal percentage defense and then the next year they finished near the top of the league in that category despite not doing anything differently; he said that he never figured that one out but that he thinks that many people are too narrowly focused on statistics instead of just watching the game as a whole. "Advanced basketball statistics" supposedly bring basketball analysis to a higher, more objective level but in the wrong hands these numbers just dumb things down; instead of watching games with understanding, media members randomly pluck out a bunch of statistics and look for patterns that do not exist and/or are not meaningful because the sample size is too small. It is true that to win this series the Spurs must keep their turnover total as low as possible but it is not logical to draw definitive conclusions based on one game during which the Spurs only committed four turnovers.

The first time that I interviewed Popovich I did not feel intimidated at all; I asked him intelligent questions and I received thoughtful responses. He gives short and/or repetitive answers to some reporters because those reporters asked him stupid and/or obvious questions. After game two, someone asked Popovich what he saw during Miami's 33-5 run and Popovich said, "They did a great job." Many reporters do not even ask fully formed questions; they simply say something like, "Talk about what happened in the third quarter." Some coaches respond to such lazy "questions" by sticking to whatever message they want to deliver but Popovich draws attention to unprepared questioners by issuing direct, curt replies. If you ask Popovich to "talk about" something then he is going to say, "They played well." He is not going to do the reporter's work for him. I have yet to see/hear Popovich give a disrespectful answer to a well formed question, so anyone who tells "horror stories" about interviewing Popovich is essentially admitting his/her own incompetence. One quasi-exception is the celebrated "happy" question that TNT's David Aldridge asked; Aldridge is an excellent, well-informed NBA reporter who made a poor word choice earlier this season at the spur of the moment (pun intended) when he asked if Popovich were "happy" about how the game was going and Popovich replied that no one is "happy" in the middle of a tough contest. Aldridge knew that he had phrased his question poorly and the two of them joked about it later. The rest of the reporters who are so intimidated by Popovich need to stop complaining and do their jobs better.

In addition to taking numbers out of context, media members also like to take spectacular highlight plays out of context and then elevate the importance of those plays. James' block of Tiago Splitter's fourth quarter dunk attempt has already been replayed countless times--but the Heat were up 86-67 and the outcome of the game had already been decided, so this was not a game-changing play. It was a very athletic play and it was nice to see James go for the block without fearing being dunked on but that sequence had very little meaning in the larger context of the game and the series.

While the story of this game should be about how poorly/passively the Spurs' Big Three performed, most of the focus will shine on James; James' performance/box score numbers once again provide a Rorschach test about how one evaluates basketball players: did James play passively and get bailed out by his teammates until he came to life during the big 33-5 run or did James deftly take what the defense gave him while resisting the temptation to force the action? When James quit in the 2011 NBA Finals versus Dallas and in the 2010 playoffs versus Boston no rational observer could dispute what happened: James played lethargically, he gave up the ball early in possessions without making any effort to get the ball back and he looked/acted disinterested. What James did in the first half of game two is harder to quantify/explain. The Spurs have set up their half court defense to make it difficult for James to drive to the hoop--but every team does this against James and he still can get to the hoop when he puts his mind to it. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said during the first half that James was "remarkably uninvolved" offensively. After the Heat took over the game in the second half, Van Gundy resisted the urge to engage in revisionist history (i.e., to act like James had deliberately eased himself into the game) and he reminded viewers, "Until that spurt, he was not himself." This is not just a matter of ignorant fans and/or ignorant media members wrongly blasting James; Van Gundy--a former NBA coach who has no obvious agenda and who has a deep understanding of the NBA game--was puzzled by and critical of James' first half performance. James scored two first quarter points on 1-4 field goal shooting, two second quarter points on 1-3 field goal shooting and four third quarter points on 1-6 field goal shooting before scoring nine points on 4-4 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. James had 11 points and three assists during Miami's decisive 33-5 run. The idea that the Heat are better off without James being a big-time scorer is absurd; this game was up for grabs until James asserted himself offensively.

During NBA TV's pregame show, Shaquille O'Neal mentioned that when he was James' teammate in Cleveland during the 2009-10 season he told James that James sometimes holds the ball too long and thus lets the defense get set; at that time, O'Neal urged James to be aggressive and attack quickly. O'Neal is right; that is how he played when he was dominant and that is how other dominant players who won multiple championships played, from Julius Erving in the ABA to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan: during their primes, those players made the defense react to them. This is not about statistics but about mindset and impact; a great player should have the mindset to dictate the terms of play and he should perform in a way that controls the game. James usually does this but he has displayed a strange tendency to be passive during his NBA Finals career; James' regular season career scoring average is 27.6 ppg and his playoff career scoring average is 28.1 ppg but he only averaged 22.0 ppg in the 2007 Finals and 17.8 ppg in the 2011 Finals before scoring 28.6 ppg in the 2012 Finals. Not surprisingly, James' teams lost both times when his scoring declined significantly but he led the Heat to the 2012 championship and won the Finals MVP when he maintained his normal scoring average. James has now played in 17 Finals games; his teams are 7-10 in those games and he has scored 30 or more points just twice while scoring fewer than 20 points six times. James has yet to consistently make his mark as a scorer in championship play. If that trend continues, the Heat will not win this series and it will be difficult to rank James at the top level of pro basketball's pantheon, no matter what else he accomplishes in the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs: James is not Magic Johnson nor has he ever led a team to the Finals by playing like Magic Johnson; James has led teams to the Finals as a big-time scorer, he won his only championship as a big-time scorer and if he is going to win more championships he will do so as a big-time scorer.

The Heat survived James' passive first half because the Spurs' Big Three all performed badly but if the Spurs rediscover their game in San Antonio then the Heat will need for James to be at least a 25 ppg scorer in order to extend the series to six or seven games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:50 AM

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Twyman-Stokes Award Honors the Enduring Importance of Friendship and Character

Maurice Stokes passed away before I was born and I never had the opportunity to interview Jack Twyman (who passed away on May 30, 2012), so I do not have firsthand knowledge about either of them--but I know that both men are historically significant not just for their achievements on the court but also because of the way that their interconnected lives embody a tremendous triumph of the human spirit. Twyman, who was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, was one of the NBA's greatest scorers in the 1950s and 1960s, averaging 19.2 ppg in his 11 year career and pouring in a career-high 31.2 ppg (second in the league to a rookie named Wilt Chamberlain) in 1959-60. Stokes, who was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004, was one of the most overlooked and underrated players of all-time but the significance of his life story extends far beyond his considerable abilities as a basketball player: he made the All-Star team in each of the first three seasons of his NBA career as Twyman's teammate with the Rochester Royals (the franchise now known as the Sacramento Kings) but in the final game of his third season he suffered a head injury that soon led to permanent paralysis. Stokes, who was on course to become one of the greatest players in NBA history, was struck down before he even reached his prime; he faced massive medical bills and the daunting prospect of life as a physically disabled person but Twyman--then a newly married 23 year old with young children--stepped in, became Stokes' legal guardian and not only raised the money to provide for Stokes' medical care but also regularly visited Stokes and often had Stokes over for dinner. The part of the story that should not matter--but does matter considering our country's history of racism/racial discrimination--is that Twyman was white and Stokes was black. Twyman and Stokes remained close friends until Stokes passed away in 1970, 12 years after suffering that life-changing injury.

The NBA has just created the annual Twyman-Stokes Award to recognize the NBA's teammate of the year, as voted on by NBA players from a pool of finalists selected by NBA legends. NBA Commissioner David Stern says, "The Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award recognizes friendship and selflessness among teammates and celebrates the legacy of Jack and Maurice." This is a great initiative by the NBA to not only honor and preserve the memory of the wonderful Twyman-Stokes friendship but also to commend players who demonstrate strong character. Chauncey Billups is the inaugural winner of the award, finishing ahead of Shane Battier and Jason Kidd. Twyman's son Jay spoke at the award ceremony:

Dad truly felt that he was the one who benefited most from the relationship. He would visit Maurice nearly every day over that period. Also, Maurice would come to our house most Sundays for dinner, which was not a small undertaking for transporting a 6'8" 250‑pound man in and out of the hospital. Dad felt and we all feel that we gained so much from helping to care for Maurice. And here is Maurice Stokes, he was at the top of the NBA, a world‑class athlete one day, paralyzed and bed‑ridden the next, reduced to communicating through blinking his eyes. None of us can ever remember Maurice ever being down, and he always approached each day upbeat ready to fight for his recovery. I remember a poster growing up that Maurice prominently had hung above his bed. It read "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world." And that was his attitude. He was never down. And I think Maurice truly did feel blessed with all the support he received from so many, especially from our father.

Neither Twyman nor Stokes won an NBA championship but they are two of the greatest champions in NBA history and it is very appropriate that the NBA has named this prestigious award for them.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM

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