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Thursday, May 04, 2017

Spurs Rout Rockets, Tie Series at 1-1

Written off as dead by the "experts," the San Antonio Spurs gave Mike D'Antoni some flashbacks to the Spurs-Suns playoff series from last decade en route to beating his Rockets 121-96 in game two of the Western Conference semifinals. Kawhi Leonard finished with 34 points on 13-16 field goal shooting plus eight assists and seven rebounds for the Spurs. Leonard received ample support from Tony Parker (18 points on 8-13 field goal shooting in 26 minutes before suffering what appeared to be a serious knee injury late in the game) and LaMarcus Aldridge (15 points, eight rebounds). Ryan Anderson led the Rockets with 18 points on 7-9 field goal shooting and eight rebounds.

James Harden finished with 13 points on 3-17 field goal shooting, along with 10 assists and seven rebounds. He shot 1-9 from the field in the first half and the Rockets trailed 65-55 at halftime. Harden did not attempt a single free throw in the first half and it was evident that he struggles to score against tough defense when the referees do not bail him out with free throws. In contrast to Harden's subpar performance, Leonard dominated the first half with  20 points on 7-9 field goal shooting. 

Houston's game one blowout win was an aberration, despite the apocalyptic wailing of various overreacting commentators who are apparently quite eager to bury the Spurs. The Spurs beat the Rockets three out of four times during the regular season and there is no reason that the Spurs cannot maintain that head to head winning percentage in the playoffs. Players and teams who heavily rely on three point shooting but are not consistent with their defensive effort will inevitably be high variance performers. Phrasing this a different way, if the Rockets get hot they can smoke any team once during a playoff series but it is unlikely that they could sustain that kind of shooting over the course of a series against a well prepared team. The Rockets are not the Golden State Warriors, a team that can rely on defense on those nights when the three point shots are not connecting.

As a high variance player whose playoff performances will often fall short of his regular season output, Harden is similar to Gilbert Arenas and this is what I wrote about Gilbert Arenas after his 60 point game several years ago against the L.A. Lakers:
Some 20 Second Timeout readers asserted that since Arenas shoots a good three point percentage that his low overall field goal percentage and high number of three point attempts should be excused but I responded that if Arenas shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 in the next that the Wizards will go 1-1 at best in those games despite the fact that his three point percentage would be .389. Having your point guard jacking up 8 or 9 three pointers a game--particularly on a team that is not good defensively anyway and has poor court balance--is not a formula for postseason success. Look again at the numbers: some of the categories are close, but Bryant outdid Arenas in every single area and his team won by 16 points in regulation. So, in the two Lakers-Wizards games this season, the Wizards won once in overtime when Arenas hit a much higher percentage of his shots than normal (and shot a very high number of free throws) and then got routed at home when Arenas shot 3-15 from three point range.
One might argue that as the visiting team the Rockets accomplished their goal, obtaining a split in San Antonio. In theory, Houston is in a great position to win this series simply by protecting home court. The reality of playoff basketball is quite different. As TNT's Reggie Miller noted, typically the underdog needs two road wins to advance, because the favorite will likely win at least one road game.

Am I overreacting to San Antonio's win in a similar fashion to the way that I am asserting that some people overreacted to Houston's win? No; the difference between the Spurs' blowout and the Rockets' blowout is that what the Spurs did is repeatable: they played smart, aggressive basketball at both ends of the court, while the Rockets' win was fueled by record-setting three point shooting that is unlikely to be duplicated again during this series.

These two games are an excellent microcosm of why D'Antoni and Harden do better in the regular season than the playoffs: it is one thing to deal with a relentless barrage of three pointers during the fourth game in five nights in the regular season with no time to prepare and quite another thing to counter this helter skelter style when your team is well-prepared and well-rested during the playoffs. The Spurs just finished a physical, grind it out series against Memphis and, as Miller suggested during the game two telecast, they likely underestimated the Rockets. After all, the Rockets were involved in several close games with the Oklahoma City Westbrooks, so why would the Spurs think that the Rockets would be much of a challenge?

The Rockets deserve a certain level of respect and concentration but once those two factors are in place--as they appear to be now--the Spurs are in great shape in this matchup.

It will be entertaining to read and listen to all of the "experts" trying to explain this game, particularly after they wrote off the Spurs as too old, too slow and too big to compete with the Rockets!

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM

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Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Isaiah Thomas and the Triumph of the Human Spirit

Isaiah Thomas scored 53 points--including 29 in the fourth quarter/overtime--to lead the Boston Celtics to a 129-119 overtime victory against the Washington Wizards. John Wall scored 40 points and dished 13 assists in defeat. Boston now leads this second round series 2-0. Thomas is the only player in the storied history of the Celtics to have a 50 point game in the regular season and the playoffs in the same campaign. John Havlicek (54 points) is now the only Celtic ahead of Thomas on the franchise's single game playoff scoring list. The last player to score more than 53 points in a playoff game is Allen Iverson, who dropped 55 in 2003.

However, this game was not about numbers or skill set analysis; this game was about heart and the triumph of the human spirit. We all know that Isaiah Thomas just buried his sister Chyna, who recently died in a car accident. But did you know that Tuesday would have been her 23rd birthday? TNT's David Aldridge asked Thomas how he managed to play at this level during this trying time and Thomas gave all of the credit to Chyna, saying that he did it for her and that she is watching over him.

Thomas also said that as soon as leaves the court the reality hits him that she is not here.

Thomas was a remarkable story even before this tragedy happened; he is a 5-9 superstar in a league where the average player is 6-7 and thus he was already a great example of the triumph of heart over measurables--but now he is also showing the capacity of the human spirit to overcome devastating loss and suffering by creating positive energy.

It should be noted Thomas lost a front tooth in game one of this series on Sunday and he had several hours of oral surgery on Monday after the initial attempt to reposition the lost tooth failed. Thomas will likely have to undergo more oral surgery, as other teeth were affected as well. 

Even if you are rooting for Washington, Thomas is inspirational.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:13 AM

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Monday, May 01, 2017

Golden State Versus Utah Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 Golden State (67-15) vs. #5 Utah (51-33)

Season series: Golden State, 2-1

Utah can win if…Rudy Gobert controls the paint defensively, Gordon Hayward/George Hill/Joe Johnson provide timely scoring/playmaking and if the Jazz slow down the pace of the game.

The Jazz are a tough-minded, defensive-oriented squad that plays at the slowest pace of any NBA team. They imposed that pace and their will in the first round, winning on the road in game seven to eliminate the L.A. Clippers, 4-3. That seventh game may be the last time we see the current incarnation of the Clippers on the court together, so now is a good time to say a few words about the Clippers before turning our attention fully to Warriors versus Jazz.

Jazz-Clippers is the only first round series that I predicted incorrectly--and I may have gone 8 for 8 if Blake Griffin had stayed healthy, though any pick involving the Clippers should factor in injuries as as part of the equation.

The big question about the Clippers is whether the team will be "blown up," "shaken up" or largely left intact. Some of those choices will be made by management and some of those choices will be made by players who are free agents. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both have player options for the 2017-18 season. Griffin is the team's best player but it is questionable if he has the necessary mental toughness and physical durability to lead a team to a title. Paul has been one of the top point guards in the NBA for about a decade but he is small and because of that in the playoffs he wears down in general and/or is just overpowered by bigger players. He is often praised as a great leader but it is reasonable to question that assertion based on the fact that--despite playing for some very talented teams--he has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

Game seven versus Utah was a microcosm of these larger concerns: Paul shot 4-7 from the field in the first quarter and 2-12 from the field the rest of the way. If Paul is going to be lauded as a leader, then let's note that he has "led" the Clippers to blown advantages in five straight playoff years, an all-time NBA record: the Clippers squandered advantages of 2-1 versus Utah (2017), 2-0 versus Portland (2016), 3-1 versus Houston (2015), 1-0 versus Oklahoma City (2014) and 2-0 versus Memphis (2013). The Clippers were the higher seeded team in three of those five series.

Of course, injuries played a role in some of those debacles but that just brings us back to the main question: are Paul and Griffin tough enough mentally and physically to lead a team to a title?

If that question is answered affirmatively, then the Clippers just need a "shake up" to add some more scoring punch at small forward. Otherwise, "blowing it up" may be the best option--but the one problem with that is winning 50-plus games but losing in the playoffs may end up looking like the good old days if the Clippers mess up the rebuilding process and end up once again as annual participants in the Draft Lottery.

The bottom line is that Paul and Griffin are flawed stars who are not elite players but they also will not be so easy to replace.

With Griffin sidelined by injury and Paul apparently worn down by the rigors of a seven game series, Hayward/Hill/Johnson made all of the plays as Utah achieved an NBA rarity by winning on the road in game seven. Hayward is emerging as an All-NBA caliber player, Hill has always been a solid two-way threat and Johnson--who was rightly mentioned by the broadcasters during this series as a credible Hall of Fame candidate--showed why he dislikes his "Iso Joe" nickname: Johnson not only can score from anywhere on the floor but he is also a crafty playmaker who can deliver a variety of passes on time and on target.

Utah has a lot of young talent and is a team on the rise--but, barring injury, it is almost inconceivable that the Jazz will beat the Warriors in a seven game series.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors have too much offensive firepower and--unlike many previous offensive juggernauts--they are also very strong defensively.

This season revealed two paradoxical truths: (1) Kevin Durant is the best player on this team and (2) this team is so talented that it can sustain success for an extended period of time even if he is not in the lineup. When Durant has been fully healthy, the offense has run through him--even two-time reigning regular season MVP Stephen Curry clearly deferred to Durant--and Durant has also been a force defensively both on the perimeter and also as a rim protector. When Durant has been sidelined or limited, the Warriors shifted to a Curry-centric attack and hardly missed a beat. If Klay Thompson is perhaps not quite as good as he has been in previous seasons he is still nevertheless one of the league's best two-way players. Draymond Green is a defensive force who is also a triple double threat.

This season, the Warriors ranked first in scoring (115.9 ppg), first in FG% (.495), first in DFG% (.435) and seventh in rebounding. In theory, the Warriors lack rim protection and depth but is any team strong enough across the board to meaningfully exploit those weaknesses? The Spurs possibly could challenge the Warriors but this edition of the Spurs just seems to lack some kind of edge or focus that San Antonio's championship teams had. The Cavaliers have enough talent to beat the Warriors but after mailing in the second half of the season can they regain peak form in time to not only avoid being upset but to also defeat one of the greatest teams of all-time?

Those questions will be answered within the next couple months but it is exceedingly unlikely that the Jazz will get in the way of Golden State's seemingly inevitable march toward San Antonio and Cleveland.

Other things to consider: The Warriors are in the midst of the best three year regular season run in pro basketball history, posting 207 wins--including a record 73 wins last season, bookended by a pair of 67 win seasons. If the Warriors win the 2017 title to claim two championships in three seasons then they will rank among the great dynasties--or mini-dynasties, if you prefer--in pro basketball history. Of course, the thin line between how success and failure are defined means that if the Warriors do not win the 2017 title then they will probably be viewed as flawed underachievers who did not fully maximize their potential.

Before the storyline is set in stone--two-time champs or regular season powerhouse that "only" won one title--it is worth comparing the Warriors to some of the NBA's previous dynasties and great champions. Clearly, the Warriors are not close to matching Bill Russell's Celtics, who claimed eight straight championships and 11 in 13 years. I would still take the '67 76ers and '72 Lakers over any one of the Warriors' past three teams but it is also clear that the Warriors have sustained high level play for multiple seasons in a way that the 76ers and Lakers of that era did not. The '82 Lakers are one of the most underrated championship teams of all-time and I would take the '83 Sixers over any other single season team in pro basketball history. The '84-'86 Celtics and '87-'89 Lakers could match these Warriors star for star and I would take the best player on either of those squads over Durant (or Curry, if you are inclined to believe that he is still the Warriors' best player).

Fans under 35 may scoff but I would absolutely take either Bulls' three-peat squad over the current Warriors' team. I would also take the Shaq-Kobe Lakers--or at least for sure the edition that went 15-1 in the playoffs, a team that could go blow for blow even with the '83 Sixers or Jordan-Pippen Bulls.

What about the Bryant-Gasol Lakers, the various Spurs championship teams and the Big Three Heat? I don't think that the Bryant-Gasol Lakers had quite enough depth or talent to beat these Warriors. The first and last Spurs championship teams could possibly beat the Warriors--with inside power and spread the floor brilliance, respectively--but I am not sure about the three San Antonio title teams in between. The Big Three Heat's fate always depended on which LeBron James showed up. James beat the Warriors last year with Irving and Love, so he would at least have a chance of winning with Wade and Bosh.

The point is that the Warriors are in the midst of an incredible run but I do not necessarily buy the premise that they are the greatest team of all-time, even if they win the title this year. There is a lamentable recency bias that presumes that the best now must be the best of all-time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:38 PM

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