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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Boston Versus Washington Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Boston (53-29) vs. #4 Washington (49-33)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Washington can win if…John Wall dominates the series at both ends of the court. He is a modern-day Micheal Ray Richardson but without Richardson's off-court baggage. Richardson was an elite player when his mind and body were right and he spearheaded the Nets' shocking 1984 upset of the defending champion 76ers. Like Richardson, Wall scores despite not being a great shooter, he passes very well and he can be very disruptive defensively.

The Wizards will also need a high level performance from Wall's backcourt mate Bradley Beal, a smooth and deadly perimeter shooter.

This team started the season slowly but rallied down the stretch and is viewed in some quarters as the biggest threat to LeBron James' streak of six straight Eastern Conference championships. First, though, the Wizards must deal with the number one seed Boston Celtics.

Boston will win because…the Celtics may be one of the weakest number one seeds in recent memory but they are still the number one seed and they showed a lot of resilience while rallying from a 2-0 first round deficit versus the number eight seed Chicago Bulls.

The Celtics rely heavily on the wizardry of 5-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is mourning the recent death of his younger sister in a car accident, but they also have four-time All-Star center Al Horford, defensive ace Avery Bradley and gritty forward Jae Crowder.

Coach Brad Stevens is considered a rising star and it will be interesting to see which buttons he pushes as this series progresses.

Other things to consider: The Eastern Conference pecking order is interesting. The Cavaliers are the established champions and the Raptors are the veteran challengers while the Celtics and Wizards are the up and coming young teams. At some point the Cavaliers will either fall off or be knocked off and it will be intriguing to see which of these three teams accomplishes that feat (not necessarily this year)--or if the task is ultimately accomplished by a different team, such as Milwaukee.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:26 AM

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Cleveland Versus Toronto Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#2 Cleveland (51-31) vs. #3 Toronto (51-31)

Season series: Cleveland, 3-1

Toronto can win if…DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are the second and third most productive players in this series--LeBron James will almost certainly be the most productive player--and if the Raptors do not have multiple games during which they score less than 95 points.

The Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks 4-2 in the first round but Toronto scored 92 points or less in four of those games. If the Raptors have four games with 92 points or less versus the Cleveland Cavaliers then they will be swept; the Cavaliers are an inconsistent team defensively but they are an offensive juggernaut, averaging 110.3 ppg in the regular season (fourth in the NBA) and 112.8 ppg in their first round sweep of the Indiana Pacers.

The Raptors fell down 2-0 versus the Cavaliers in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals but rallied to extend the series to six games; I had predicted that Toronto's physicality and two All-Star guards could cause some trouble for the Cavaliers and--after some initial jitters--the Raptors validated that assessment. If the Raptors can earn a split in the first two games then they have a solid chance to ultimately win this series. The Cavaliers are talented but vulnerable.

Cleveland will win because…LeBron James is rested and dominant, while his All-Star teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are also playing at a high level.

A good case can be made that the Raptors are capable of beating the Cavaliers (see above). However, I expect that James, Irving and Love will rise to the occasion after cruising through substantial portions of the regular season.

As a basketball purist, I don't like the Cavaliers' attitude that they can flip the switch whenever they want to do so--but the reality is that they will probably get away with this, at least until the NBA Finals. James averaged 32.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 9.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.0 bpg versus the Pacers, while Irving contributed 25.3 ppg and Love added 15.3 ppg and 9.3 rpg. Tristan Thompson provides inside muscle (team-high 11.0 rpg versus the Pacers), while Channing Frye, Deron Williams, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver space the floor with timely three point shooting. The key question--which may not matter or be answered until the NBA Finals--is if this group is willing and able to play championship level defense on a nightly basis.

Other things to consider: At times, the Cavaliers look like a team that will not take things entirely seriously until at least the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors are good enough to win this series if they play at their absolute best while the Cavaliers do not play their best but it is hard to picture the Raptors winning if both teams play their best. Both teams surely understand this and that could have a psychological impact on the series: perhaps it will make the Cavaliers overconfident or perhaps the Raptors will press because they know (or believe) that they must play at a very high level to prevail.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:23 AM

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Friday, April 28, 2017

San Antonio Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 San Antonio (61-21) vs. #3 Houston (55-27)

Season series: San Antonio, 3-1

Houston can win if…James Harden performs at an MVP level, the Rockets shoot a high percentage from three point range and the Rockets hold the Spurs to under 105 ppg (because the Rockets are unlikely to average more than 105 ppg versus the Spurs).

James Harden will almost certainly average at least 25 ppg and 7 apg in this series. Those numbers are simply a product of his role in Coach D'Antoni's system; Harden will have the ball a lot, he will shoot the ball a lot and when he is on the court he will make most of the passes that lead directly to field goal attempts by his teammates. The problem for Houston is that Harden will also almost certainly shoot less than .450 from the field and very probably less than .420 or even .400 from the field--and he will likely commit turnovers at a very high rate (between 5-7 per game). In addition, Harden will play little to no defense. None of these things mattered very much in the first round, when the Rockets defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder despite Russell Westbrook's incredible numbers (37.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg and 10.8 apg)--but all of those things will matter very much now that the Rockets are facing a complete team.

Westbrook averaged a series-high 39 mpg versus Houston and the Thunder easily outplayed the Rockets during those minutes; Houston advanced based largely on outplaying Oklahoma City during the 9 mpg that Westbrook sat. Bench players Lou Williams (18.8 ppg), Eric Gordon (13.6 ppg) and Nene 13.6 on .848--that is not a typo--FG%) destroyed the Thunder; those players are all proven NBA veterans but they are not going to dominate against the Spurs the way that they did against the Thunder.

San Antonio will win because…the Spurs will not commit silly fouls, they will hold the Rockets to between 100-105 ppg and they are well-equipped not only to execute in the half court but also to selectively play at a fast tempo.

The Spurs have a sustained championship-contending pedigree over the past two decades that is rivaled in professional sports only by the New England Patriots. The first two San Antonio championship teams (1999, 2003) were focused on a Twin Towers attack (Tim Duncan/David Robinson) that played at a slow tempo and were stifling defensively. After Robinson retired and Duncan aged, the Spurs' approach evolved. Defense has remained a calling card but the offensive attack is more wide open and incorporates the three point shot, particularly from the corner (because the corner three is a valuable shot, as it is closer to the hoop than any other spot behind the three point arc).

Kawhi Leonard began his career looking like an improved version of Bruce Bowen but now he is the best two-way player in the league; that does not mean that he is the MVP, an honor that should go to Westbrook in recognition of his record-setting production while leading an undermanned team to the sixth seed in the Western Conference, but he is an MVP caliber player. Leonard has no skill set weaknesses as a player but he is not as explosive or dominant as Westbrook in terms of scoring, rebounding and passing; Leonard is a more efficient scorer and a more effective defensive player but some of his superiority over Westbrook in those areas is a result of playing with a better overall team.

The Rockets rely heavily on drawing fouls, shooting open three pointers and scoring 110-plus ppg; they are unlikely to be consistently successful in any of those endeavors versus the Spurs: the Spurs will emphasize not fouling Harden and Williams (who both benefited from many stupid fouls committed by the Thunder in the first round), they will run the Rockets off of the three point line and they will shave at least 10 ppg off of the Rockets' 115.3 ppg regular season scoring average.

Other things to consider: The Spurs defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 4-2 in the first round. The Grizzlies are often described as a team no one wants to face (or words to that effect), but the Spurs have defeated the Grizzlies in four out of their last five playoff series. The Spurs' margins of victory in this year's series were 29, 14, 13 and seven, while Memphis had an 11 point win and a two point win at the buzzer in overtime. That works out to an 8.3 ppg differential, which is rather sizeable.

Houston's ppg differential versus the Oklahoma Thunder was comparable (8.6) but after the Rockets' 31 point game one blowout the next four games were decided by four, two, four and six points. The Rockets enjoyed an advantage in every matchup other than Westbrook-Harden and still struggled to advance.

This series should be a San Antonio sweep but the Rockets are a high variance team (they might have a home game during which they sink 15 or 20 three pointers) and the Spurs have had more clunkers this season than usual, so I expect the Spurs to win in five games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:02 AM

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Rockets Outlast Thunder and Advance to the Second Round

The Houston-Oklahoma City series was like the movie Groundhog Day; everyone knew the plot but no one had the capacity to change it: Russell Westbrook almost single-handedly delivers the lead to his team, his team immediately squanders the lead when Westbrook rests and then an exhausted Westbrook tries valiantly (but inefficiently) to carry his flawed team to victory. The final result: Houston 105, Oklahoma City 99 in game five, meaning that the Rockets won the series four games to one.

Here are the numbers that really tell the story: Oklahoma City 22, Houston 16 in the first quarter before Westbrook takes a breather--and Houston 27, Oklahoma City 27 when Westbrook reenters the game. Houston led 51-44 at halftime and pushed that margin to 61-50 in the third quarter before Westbrook unleashed an incredible scoring barrage. When Westbrook finished, he had scored 20 points in the quarter and the Thunder were up 77-72. Westbrook sat for the first 2:45 of the fourth quarter and when he returned to action Houston led 86-81. The Thunder's best strategy when Westbrook sits is apparently to just accumulate 24 second shot clock violations, because running time off of the clock with neither team scoring would actually be more effective than permitting the opposition to race up and down the court to the tune of 14 points in less than three minutes. That 2:45 stretch of futility, projected over 48 minutes, works out to something on the order of 224-64!

Let's not forget these numbers, either: 47 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists. That was Westbrook's line on the road in an elimination playoff game. As I write these words, numerous "experts" are drafting articles to tell you just how poorly Westbrook supposedly played. I hope that anyone who visits this website is too smart to read that nonsense, let alone believe it.

The Thunder outscored the Rockets by 12 points when Westbrook was on the court and they were outscored by 18 points during the six minutes that Westbrook rested. Before anyone talks about Westbrook's fourth quarter shot selection, please mention that his starting small forward, Andre Roberson--the team's second leading scorer in this series--shot 14% from the free throw line in the series. In the waning moments of game five, Houston's star player James Harden was chasing Roberson to intentionally foul him and Roberson was trying to avoid being touched. It looked like a game of tag had broken out in the middle of the playoffs.

This series was billed as a battle between the two leading MVP candidates. By the end of the series, you could tell that even Houston's fans do not really believe that James Harden is the MVP. Sure, they serenaded him with the almost mandatory home crowd "MVP" chant but I don't think that I have ever heard a quieter or less enthusiastic such chant. It sounded like they were saying, "Yes, James, we love you and in our hearts you are our MVP but we know the real deal."

Harden had a playoff line that is fairly typical for him: 34 points on 8-25 field goal shooting and a -6 plus/minus number. Yes, sports fans, the Rockets were actually outscored while Harden was in the game. "Take that for data," as Coach Fizdale might say. This is not unusual for Harden's Houston career; we saw the same phenomenon during Houston's fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, which is why then-Coach Kevin McHale benched Harden with the season on the line in the fourth quarter of game six versus the L.A. Clippers. Harden shot 5-20 from the field in that game six and 7-20 from the field in game seven, so his 8-25 bricklaying in game five versus the Thunder should not surprise anyone. Rest assured that this "productivity" will continue in the second round but the outcome of the games will be different.

Harden is very talented--but if you watched this series and still believe that he is in any way a better basketball player than Russell Westbrook then there is something wrong with your understanding of basketball.

Westbrook averaged 37.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg and 10.8 apg in this series. The 6-3 point guard led both teams in those three categories. Harden averaged 33.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 7.0 apg while playing in a system tailor-made for him and while surrounded by an armada of shooters. Harden is bigger and stronger than Westbrook but Westbrook averaged 39 mpg while Harden averaged 37.4 mpg. Neither player shot particularly well from the field. When Westbrook sat, his team was immediately and decisively destroyed. When Harden sat, the Rockets sailed merrily along without missing a beat. Switch those two players and keep everything else the same and Westbrook's team would have won in a sweep with each game decided by double digits; put Westbrook in D'Antoni's system and surround him with shooters and the possibilities are mind-boggling: 35 ppg and 15 apg is not out of the question.

The amazing thing is that even though the Thunder are almost completely inept when Westbrook sits they may actually be just one player away from winning 55-60 games and being a legit contender; based on what we saw in this series, if the Thunder had one player who could either create his own shot or create good shots for role players while Westbrook sits for 12-15 mpg then Westbrook could play 34-36 mpg at optimum efficiency. It is apparent that Westbrook is not prime Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or LeBron James in terms of stamina but that is understandable considering that those guys are between 6-6 and 6-8, while Westbrook is 6-3. I tend to be skeptical that a 6-3 player can lead a team to a title--and the few guards in that size range who led teams to the Finals did not shoulder the responsibilities ("usage rate," in modern parlance) that Westbrook does.

That being said, Westbrook is unique and it is silly to assert that a player who can average 30-10-10 in 34 mpg cannot lead a team to a title. Westbrook just needs one teammate who can competently run the offense for a few minutes and who can take pressure off of Westbrook when they are on the court together.

Congratulations to the Rockets; you struggled to put away a deeply flawed team that many people did not even expect to make the playoffs in the first year after Kevin Durant's departure. The reward for beating the Thunder will likely be a showdown with the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs will not repeatedly foul Harden beyond the three point line, nor will the Spurs go through huge scoring droughts. However, Harden will likely again struggle to shoot better than .400 from the field and for the second consecutive series he will likely be outplayed by an MVP candidate (Kawhi Leonard).

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM

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Monday, April 24, 2017

LeBron James Excels As Cavaliers Sweep Pacers

The sometimes disinterested Cleveland Cavaliers swept the often disorganized Indiana Pacers in the first 2017 NBA playoff series to finish. The Cavaliers will now have a week off before facing the winner of the Toronto-Milwaukee series, while the Pacers will have all summer to ponder the possibility of a future without Paul George. Addressing the latter situation first, the Pacers are a poorly constructed team with mismatched talent; Larry Bird purportedly wanted to put together an offensive-oriented, high tempo team but he did not acquire enough players who can effectively play that style--and his coach, Nate McMillan, is known for defense, not offense. If George decides to exercise his option after next season and leave as a free agent, it will likely be a long time before the Pacers contend for a championship--but if he stays it will also be a long time before the Pacers contend for a championship (which tends to suggest that he will either leave or else pressure the Pacers to trade him by threatening to leave).

During the regular season, the Cavaliers displayed little interest in fighting for the number one seed in the East and for long stretches of the series against Indiana they also displayed little interest in competing against the Pacers. This indifference reached its nadir in the first half of game three, when the mediocre Pacers (who backed into the playoffs with a 42-40 record) jumped out to a 72-46 first half lead against the reigning NBA champions.

There is sometimes talk of the "switch" and whether or not a team can turn it on and off. If you ever wondered what it looks like when a team turns the "switch" from off to on, just watch the second half of game three. LeBron James apparently decided that four games versus Indiana would be quite sufficient and that he had no interest in extending this series to five games, so he carried the Cavaliers to a 119-114 victory. He finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists (including 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the second half), joining Russell Westbrook in the elite playoff 40 point triple double club.

The Pacers looked like the Washington Generals in the second half. If this had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the series right then and declared Cleveland the winner by knockout. Instead, we were "treated" to one more game of the Cavaliers being interested at times and the Pacers being organized at times. After Paul "I must have the ball" George bricked a last second three pointer with a chance to tie the score, the Cavaliers won 106-102 to put the Pacers out of their misery. During the game, one of the announcers said something about the Pacers believing that they should have been up in the series and I about fell out of my chair; in this series, Cleveland was the cat and the Pacers were the ball of yarn: the Cavaliers played with their toy until they tired of it and then they swatted it away.

George is ultimately going to get a max deal, but his performance and attitude during this series were uneven at best. I don't necessarily have a problem with a great player saying that he must have the ball and I don't necessarily have a problem with a great player missing shots. Either of those things can happen--but when a supposedly great player insists that he must have the ball, presides over one of the worst blown leads in playoff history and then bricks his way to 5-21 shooting while getting swept on his home court then that combination is problematic.

The last three pointer that George took reminded me of the Peja Stojakovic three pointer versus the Lakers during the playoffs that started in one corner, sailed clear over the hoop and landed in the other corner. It's OK if the moment is too big for you. That can happen to anyone--but when you say after game one that you have to have the ball, then it is not OK if the moment is too big for you. Call it the Muhammad Ali/Reggie Jackson/Deion Sanders rule: if you can win the heavyweight title three times or belt three home runs in a World Series game or single-handedly shut down one side of a football field, then you can talk trash and say whatever you want--but if you are bricking three pointers at the end of playoff games after demanding the ball, then you probably should not have been so vocal in the first place.

I don't begrudge anyone his money and I fully understand the economics of pro basketball but--purely on the merits--there are only a handful of guys in the NBA who truly "deserve" max money; those are the guys who clearly could be the best player on a championship team. We all know each of them by one name: Westbrook. LeBron. Durant. Curry. Kawhi. You might be able to convince me that there are one or two more or that there are a few young guys who will reach that status soon. You would have a hard time convincing me that George's name belongs in that group. This is not about numbers and it certainly is not about "advanced" numbers. This is about watching a player try to perform and try to lead under pressure.

I might be wrong about George and I can't "prove" that I am right. If I owned the Pacers, I might pay him the max rather than lose him and start over from scratch, because it is almost as hard to find the 10th or 15th best player in the NBA as it is to find one of the top five players--but the idea of mentioning George as an MVP caliber player just does not sound right, based on what I see. Again, the numbers were good overall and George is clearly an All-Star and perhaps even an All-NBA player. He is just not elite to me. A few years ago it looked like he had the potential to make that breakthrough but it just has not happened.

During the four game sweep, James averaged 32.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 9.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.0 bpg while shooting .543 from the field (including .450 from three point range). He shot .579 from the free throw line and committed 18 turnovers just to reassure us that he is in fact human and not some alien cyborg designed to play perfect basketball. James is a marvelous basketball player. He confounds me at times with things that he says/does and until my dying day I will find it puzzling and inexcusable that he quit during the 2010 playoffs but he is a very special player. In NBA-ABA playoff history, James ranks fifth in ppg (28.1) and during this series James passed Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA-ABA playoff career scoring list (5703 points, trailing only Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

James is the king of first round dominance and I say that without a hint of sarcasm. I am not sure exactly what it means to dominate the first round the way that James has during his career but it is impressive. Most of the greatest players of all-time had at least one first round stinker during or near their prime but James has not (and if he ever has one it could reasonably be stated that he is now past his prime, even though he is still playing at a very high level).

It may seem petty to say that it would be preferable to own Bill Russell's record (11 titles in 13 years) or to match Michael Jordan's standard (six Finals, six championships, six Finals MVPs) but regardless of what one thinks about the Eastern Conference it is impressive to mow down the competition year after year the way that James has with both the Cavs and the Heat. As a competitive tournament chess player, I know from experience that sometimes the hardest task as a competitor is to get up for games against clearly outmatched opponents; there is a natural human tendency for the mind to wander but James and his teams have avoided this pitfall.

It is easy to look at James' physique and athletic gifts and assume that he was destined for greatness but he often states "I'm not supposed to even be here" and that is the poignant reality: the odds facing a young man from his background are overwhelmingly stacked against achieving the success that he has attained. I respect him greatly for that.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:56 PM

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Houston Overcomes Westbrook's Third Straight Triple Double to Take 3-1 Series Lead

Russell Westbrook posted his third straight playoff triple double--a feat matched by only Wilt Chamberlain, who had four consecutive playoff triple doubles in 1967--but the Houston Rockets came from behind to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 113-109 and take a 3-1 lead in their best of seven first round series. Nene led the Rockets with 28 points on 12-12 field goal shooting. Houston outscored Oklahoma City by 24 points when he was on the court. Nene also had a team-high 10 rebounds in just 25 minutes.

Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each scored 18 points in reserve roles, with Houston outscoring Oklahoma City by 18 when Gordon was in the game and by 10 when Williams played. Trevor Ariza played a game-high 43 minutes and chipped in 14 points plus his usual excellent defense. The Rockets outscored the Thunder by two when he was on the court. James Harden added a quiet 16 points on 5-16 field goal shooting. He led the Rockets with eight assists but he also had seven turnovers and his plus/minus number was 0 in 39 minutes of action.

As has often been the case during Harden's Houston playoff career, when the Rockets made their run he was either on the bench or watching other players do the heavy lifting. Harden attempted seven free throws after living at the free throw line in the first three games of the series. Harden is constantly flopping and flailing but when the referees do not fall for this--and when the Thunder have enough game plan discipline to avoid foolish reach in fouls--Harden is not an elite, efficient playoff scorer. The proper way to defend Harden is play with "high hands"--if the referee sees the defender's hands then he is not likely to blow his whistle.

Harden essentially has two moves: the stepback jumper and the lumbering drive during which he extends his hands low and baits the referee into calling a foul. The Houston/Harden philosophy is to avoid shooting long two point jumpers, so it is baffling that any defender would fall for Harden's shot fakes in that range; just play Harden to either shoot threes or flop while he is in the lane. If Harden is met at the hoop by a big guy with high hands, Harden will throw his body into that player and if he does not get the foul call then the ball will fly harmlessly away; we have seen this happen several times during this series, particularly in the first halves of games when the Rockets routinely get off to slow starts. Can Harden finish at the hoop? Yes, but he is not an explosive finisher at the rim so if he is met by high hands then he has to figure out how to loft a shot over, under or around those arms.

Incidentally, the Rockets are constantly questioning calls but no Rocket should ever complain about fouls considering the calls that Harden typically gets. Harden's flopping has been somewhat obscured in this series by the fact that the Thunder have committed many stupid fouls against him but even in this series it has been clear that when Harden does not receive foul calls he is not the same player; it has also been clear that, at least against the Thunder, Houston is good enough to keep the game close even when Harden is non-factor.

Oklahoma City is awful when Westbrook is not in the game. Westbrook does not enjoy the luxury of winning despite having an off night or even just sitting on the bench for a few minutes while his teammates carry the load. The Thunder outscored the Rockets by 14 points during Westbrook's 39 minutes of action and were outscored by 18 points during his nine minutes off of the court; at that rate, the Thunder would be outscored by 96 points over a 48 minute game!

Westbrook posted 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in the first half, becoming the first player in 20 years to log a first half triple double in a playoff game. He shot a respectable 5-11 from the field, yet the Thunder only led 58-54. Harden had scored six points on 2-9 field goal shooting at that point and this looked like a replay of game two, when Westbrook nearly had a first half triple double before finishing with 51 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds: it was obvious that if someone else on the Thunder did not step up then the Rockets would win, as they did in game two.

Westbrook's gaudy numbers do not fully capture his impact; some of his first half plays were just breathtaking, like when he soared in the air to block center Clint Capela's dunk attempt off of a lob pass or when he grabbed a defensive rebound in traffic, burst up court and spoon fed Stephen Adams for a transition layup. How many point guards in pro basketball history could make such plays? 

The Thunder led by as many as 14 points in the third quarter but when Westbrook took a short breather the Thunder leaked more oil than a broken down jalopy. The Thunder struggled so much to score, defend or just do anything productive that it felt like every reasonable basketball play should be celebrated by a standing ovation or a parade.

Oklahoma City was clinging to a 77-73 lead entering the fourth quarter. Houston wiped out that advantage almost instantly as Westbrook took his customary rest early in the period. The Thunder just as quickly regained the advantage after Westbrook reentered the game. Around that point, ABC ran a graphic showing that the Thunder had outscored the Rockets by 20 points during Westbrook's 31 minutes and had been outscored by 18 points during his eight minutes of rest.

Much will likely be made of Westbrook's second half field goal percentage and/or shot selection but any intelligent, objective person understands that those things did not decide the outcome of the game; this was a double digit blowout in the Thunder's favor when Westbrook played and a double digit blowout in the Rockets' favor when Westbrook sat. That is the main story.

One of the great little sideline sound bytes from Phil Jackson when he coached Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls was, "Don't leave Michael yet. It's not time." Jackson conveyed so much in just a few words: Jackson was not so subtly challenging Jordan's teammates by essentially saying, "I know that you are going to leave Michael but at least wait until later in the game to do so." This was almost a form of psychological warfare or reverse psychology; by asking them to not leave Michael "yet" he was really urging them to not leave Michael at all.

Jackson's point was that even Jordan could not be superhuman for a full 48 minutes but if his teammates could wait to "leave" him until the closing minutes then he could be superhuman down the stretch. Keep in mind that peak Jordan was about 6-6, 225 and peak Kobe Bryant was about the same size. Westbrook is about 6-3, 195. In terms of speed, jumping ability, explosiveness and competitive heart, Westbrook is cut from the same cloth; recently, Jerry West went so far as to call Westbrook a more athletic version of Jordan. However, in terms of size and strength Westbrook will never be able to match Jordan or Bryant and when Westbrook's teammates repeatedly surrender double digit leads in just a few minutes with more than a quarter left in the game he is not physically equipped to single-handedly save the day; even though he actually did just that in several regular season games, the task is much harder during the playoffs.

That being said, the Thunder squandered some golden opportunities down the stretch. Trailing by four, Stephen Adams conferred briefly with Westbrook before attempting the second of two free throws. Adams intentionally missed, grabbed the rebound and immediately passed to Westbrook, who launched a shot from several feet behind the three point arc. Westbrook's bomb cut Houston's lead to 108-107 and all that the Thunder needed to do was commit a foul in order to have a chance to tie or win on the game's final possession. Instead, the Thunder permitted the Rockets to advance the ball up the court with no resistance, culminating in a three point play by Nene that sealed the victory.

Five-time Super Bowl champion Coach Bill Belichick has repeatedly said that stupid players cost you games and/or that he cannot put stupid players on the field. The Thunder's late game execution in that sequence was atrocious and instead of potentially going to Houston with a chance to take a 3-2 lead the Thunder now face the task of simply avoiding elimination.

Westbrook refuses to even discuss what others call his "supporting cast," nor does he whine about not having help. LeBron James has two All-Star teammates, a great group of role players and a roster that is among the best compensated in NBA history, yet he constantly complains that he does not have enough help. When he was asked a couple years ago during the NBA Finals why he was confident that his team could win he replied "Because I am the best player in the world."

In contrast, Westbrook has defiantly challenged media members who refer to his "supporting cast." Westbrook declares that the Thunder are one team and that he does not have a supporting cast. The postgame press conference had an interesting moment. Some reporter who apparently is seeking a Pulitzer Prize nomination for investigative reporting asked Stephen Adams to talk about the Thunder's drop off in performance whenever Westbrook is not on the court. Before Adams could answer, Westbrook replied that he would not let the media divide the team and that they win and lose as a group. The reporter whined that he had asked a legitimate question and that his microphone should not be taken away until Adams answers. It must really be frustrating for this reporter that he cannot just write the narrative that he wants to write--that Westbrook is a bad teammate--but if he is actually worth his salt as a journalist then he knows that Westbrook's quotes are golden and could be the basis for a wonderful story. If the reporter were not trying to make himself the center of attention, he could have pulled Adams aside privately and repeated his question.

Despite his fiery persona, Westbrook's leadership is similar to Julius Erving's or Scottie Pippen's as opposed to Jordan's or Bryant's. Erving and Pippen always sought out public and private opportunities to praise their teammates. Jordan is perhaps the first NBA superstar who talked publicly about his "supporting cast" and his leadership style was almost always confrontational; Bryant took a similar approach, though he perhaps mellowed a bit with age (that did not happen to Jordan). James repeatedly speaks about his teammates' shortcomings but the media generally frame his comments as reasonable concerns, not petulant complaints.  

Westbrook will probably score 40 points and/or post a triple double in game five but if his teammates "leave" him again then the Rockets will move on to the second round, even if Harden is again the fourth most effective player on his own team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM

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