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Friday, May 12, 2017

Golden State Versus San Antonio Preview

Western Conference Finals

#1 Golden State (67-15) vs. #2 San Antonio (61-21)

Season series: San Antonio, 2-1

San Antonio can win if…Kawhi Leonard is the best player on the court and the Spurs dominate the paint with their big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. The Spurs will also need outstanding defense from all of their perimeter players in order to contain Golden State's potent outside shooting.

The Spurs are a well-coached, defensive-minded team that can play slow or fast and big or small. Tony Parker's season-ending injury did not tip the scales last round versus Houston thanks to James Harden's predictable disappearing act but Parker will be missed against the Warriors. Patty Mills is a solid replacement but, as is often the case, the problem when a top player goes down is that a team's depth is compromised and players further down the rotation are thrust into roles that they might not be quite ready to fill.

If Kawhi Leonard's effectiveness is limited by his ankle injury or if he is not able to play at all, then the Spurs have no chance. Beating a team with two legitimate MVP caliber players--Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry--in a seven game series is a lot different than beating a gimmick-based team whose star player has been overhyped for several years. If Leonard can play at his usual level, though, then the Spurs have a better chance than many people seem to think. Post play is supposedly inefficient but the reality is that effective post play enables a team to control the tempo, wear down smaller players and get the opposing team in foul trouble. The key word is "effective"; Gasol shooting fadeaway jumpers over smaller defenders is not "effective" and Gasol has always been the kind of player who needs another star (and/or his coach) to push and prod him but to do so in ways that don't result in him shrinking from the moment.

The Spurs need to alternate Aldridge and Gasol in the post, depending on matchups, with the other big stationed in the foul line extended area; put a shooter in each corner and a healthy Leonard at the top of the key and even Golden State's excellent defense could be stretched to the breaking point. The key question is whether the Spurs have the game-plan discipline necessary to play this way and execute at a high level under duress and to stick with the program even if the Warriors hit three three pointers to spark a quick 9-0 run.

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

That is the exact reason that I gave for why the Warriors would beat the Jazz in the second round and there is no need to get creative here. The Warriors are a potent, unselfish offensive team that is also a highly committed defensive team. Durant and Draymond Green have provided just enough rim protection/shot blocking to enable the Warriors to play small and the Warriors' roster/positional flexibility is difficult to overcome; they can switch, they can trap and they have several defenders who need little if any help to handle their matchups on most nights.

Durant is a marvelous all-around player. He has minimized or eliminated just about every weakness in his game. Stephen Curry, the reigning two-time MVP, had a great season, even though some people are acting like his game fell off of a cliff. I had him ahead of Harden on my MVP list even before Harden finally helped the rest of the world understand what I have been saying about him for years, namely that he is an All-Star caliber player who has been overhyped by "stat gurus" and various media members.

Klay Thompson would be the best player on most NBA teams. Green is a loudmouth whose behavior is out of control at times but he is also an excellent all-around player. The supporting cast is talented, versatile and mature; each player understands his role within the overall team concept.

Steve Kerr certainly did an excellent job coaching this team but after his back issues forced him to hand the reins over--at least on an interim basis--to Mike Brown the team has not missed a beat. Brown is an underrated coach who led the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals and might have already won at least one title if LeBron James had not quit during the 2010 playoffs. Brown is one of the media's favorite punching bags--kind of like Bill Belichick before he arrived in New England--and even if Brown guides the Warriors to the championship his role in that success will be minimized and belittled. It sure is odd that someone who supposedly understands so little about how to win at the NBA level is hired by coaches like Kerr and Popovich. Somehow I just cannot convince myself that Brown's media critics know more about NBA coaching than those two men do.

Other things to consider: I disagree with the notion that the Spurs cannot play both of their bigs at the same time versus the Warriors; the Spurs may be able to selectively go small in certain situations but their best lineup features their two bigs and if they go small for too long then the results will probably not be pretty.

The new math says that threes are better than twos. Ask the Rockets about that one after game six. Threes beat twos when the team shooting twos is not committed to the right plan at both ends of the court. Otherwise, the three point shooters can be worn down and their performance will have high variance.

If this series were played 100 times under equal conditions, I would pick the Warriors to win about 70 times--but if the Spurs play to their maximum potential they absolutely are capable of winning this series even if the Warriors play very well; if both teams play to their maximum potential (which rarely happens in any competitive endeavor) then the Warriors will win. In other words, this will be a good matchup but the Warriors have a larger margin for error.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:49 PM

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Harden Disappears as the Spurs Embarrass and Eliminate the Rockets

The James Harden for MVP hype crashed into a serious reality check as the San Antonio Spurs routed the Houston Rockets 114-75 to win the series 4-2 and advance to a Western Conference Finals showdown versus the Golden State Warriors. High turnovers and low field goal percentage have consistently been Harden's trademarks in key postseason games, going all the way back to the 2012 NBA Finals, and this game was no exception: Harden finished with 10 points on 2-11 field goal shooting with six turnovers.

LaMarcus Aldridge led the Spurs with 34 points and 12 rebounds. Jonathon Simmons contributed 18 points, Patty Mills had 14 points and seven assists and Pau Gasol added 10 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Mills started in place of Tony Parker, who suffered a season-ending injury earlier in this series. Kawhi Leonard missed game six with an ankle injury that also forced him out of the overtime and most of the fourth quarter of San Antonio's game five win. The Spurs were without the services of their two best players this postseason--Leonard and Parker are two former Finals MVPs--and yet Harden still could not conjure up a home win to at least push the series to a seventh game.

We have heard all season about how Houston general manager Daryl Morey, Coach Mike D'Antoni and Harden are all on the same page. We just saw what is written on that page: jack up a bunch of three pointers, play small and defense is optional. That has never been a championship formula in the NBA. If Morey, D'Antoni and Harden are going to share the credit for a good regular season then it must also be recognized that they deserve the "credit" for this game and this series. No one can say that the Rockets did not have enough to win this series, because this is exactly the team that Morey, D'Antoni and Harden wanted. We heard how innovative and smart it is to shoot three pointers and free throws while eschewing post ups and most other two point shots. The Rockets followed that strategy to perfection in game six, making just nine two pointers while firing up 40 three point attempts--and they got blown out.
 
This will be portrayed as a shocking result but I predicted that the Spurs would hold the Rockets to 100-105 ppg and win in five games while Harden averaged 25 ppg and 7 apg but shot between .400 and .420 from the field with between 5-7 turnovers per game. Here are the final numbers: San Antonio won in six games and held the Rockets to 103.5 ppg (the Rockets averaged 115.3 ppg in the regular season) as Harden averaged 24.5 ppg (on .414 field goal shooting) and 9.7 apg with 5.2 turnovers per game.

I added that "the Rockets are a high variance team (they might have a home game during which they sink 15 or 20 three pointers)" and that proved true as well: Houston won game one in San Antonio 126-99 on the strength of 22-50 three point field goal shooting; that result inspired a lot of silly articles about how the Spurs could not beat the Rockets because they played an outdated style featuring players who are too big and/or too old. In contrast, I never wavered and I correctly called that first game "an aberration."

I knew that over the course of a series the Spurs would follow the correct game plan: defend Harden with high hands, avoid fouling him and use their big men to dominate the paint. At the start of the game six telecast, ESPN's Mike Breen quoted San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich's defensive philosophy regarding Harden: "Keep your hands out of the strike zone." In other words, play with high hands and do not foul. Jeff Van Gundy said that Aldridge and Gasol must be more aggressive and punish Houston's smaller defenders. He also suggested that Gasol use an inside pivot to set up his dribble to power to the hoop. After an early first quarter shot when Gasol settled for a turnaround fadeaway over Harden, Van Gundy said that this was "awful offense." The funny thing about watching Harden guard Gasol is this is a matchup of two players who are not suited to be the best player on a championship team--and Morey actively tried to build around both of them, though he only was able to acquire Harden. Gasol won two championships with the Lakers as Kobe Bryant led the way and he might win a title as a complementary player with the Spurs but he never had the right mindset to be the best player on a championship team.

Gasol did not carry the load on this night, either, but he filled his role quite well. Aldridge took Leonard's spot as the offensive focal point. He scored 10 points on 5-7 field goal shooting as the Spurs jumped out to a 25-16 lead and never looked back. The Rockets shot 4-11 from the field with five turnovers during that stretch. The Spurs led 31-24 at the end of the first quarter and Harden had two points on 0-0 field goal shooting with three turnovers. Mark Jackson said, ''This is as bad as I've seen him play." 

Breen commented that there was a "late arriving crowd." The crowd arrived so late that the game was basically over and they could have left by halftime. San Antonio led 50-29 midway through the second quarter before Harden made his first field goal and the halftime score was 61-42. Harden had five points and five turnovers. He attempted the fewest shots of the eight Rockets who played in the first half.

During the halftime show, Jalen Rose bluntly declared "Is James Harden freezing up? I'm not surprised he's a turnstyle on defense but where's the passion? What I am seeing from James Harden and the Houston Rockets is unacceptable. Did we see a C-H-O-K-E?"

Chauncey Billups added that Harden's 1-2 field goal shooting is "inexcusable. If he were 1-10, at least that would mean he is trying. Are you serious? You've got to give me more than that."

Before the second half began, Van Gundy declared that Harden needs "a hype man" to pump him up. Really? An MVP candidate needs someone to pump him up in an elimination game at home? Actually, Harden has "hype men" throughout the media: the folks who have been hyping him as an MVP candidate. What Harden needs--if his goal is to win a championship--is to be the second or third best player on his team, as I have been saying since he rejected Oklahoma City's contract offer.

Van Gundy added that great players have the capacity to bounce back and "I'd be shocked if Harden does not have a great second half." The first half of his statement is true. As for the second half--well, at some point Van Gundy and others may have to concede that Harden is not really as great as they have touted him to be. Harden is an All-Star caliber player but he is miscast as the best player on any team with championship aspirations. Harden missed his first three field goal attempts in the third quarter as the Spurs jumped out to their largest lead of the game (up to that point), 69-43. Harden shot 1-9 from the field in the second half, which may have "shocked" Van Gundy but should not be surprising to anyone who watched Harden lay bricks in key games versus the Heat, Clippers and Warriors in previous postseasons. This is who Harden is and this is why he is not an MVP-caliber player; Harden is an All-Star player who cannot handle the burden of carrying a team to a title. How many times does he have to not just fail but fail abysmally in such situations before media members will figure this out? This is not a one game aberration; this is a predictable result--and, as noted above, I predicted not only the final result of the series but also the numbers that both Harden and the Rockets would post overall.

The Harden narrative dies hard, though. Any time the Rockets scored in the second half--which was not that often--Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson kept saying things like the Rockets are showing signs of coming back or the three point shot can be a powerful weapon. The reality is that Harden and the Rockets never made a serious run, which is unusual for an NBA team and inexcusable in an elimination game.

Again, if this outcome were an aberration or unpredictable then I would agree that an MVP caliber player should not be judged by one game--but this was not an aberration, it was predictable and it is yet more evidence that what I have written about Harden for the past five years is true.

Harden's apologists will say that Harden needs more help but the issue is not getting more help for Harden. His game and temperament are not suited for being the best player on a championship team, so in order to win a title what he needs is not a better supporting cast--he needs to play alongside a better player and to become part of the supporting cast (a leader of the supporting cast, to be sure, but not the team's top star).

Morey can keep tinkering with the roster and the coaching staff and he actually makes some good moves from time to time--but as long as the Rockets are Harden's show, they will lose in the first round most of the time, as they have done in three of Harden's five Houston seasons.

Harden was the Shaqtin' A Fool MVP in 2015-16! That whole thing is a bit silly and hardly a scientific measurement of a player--but has any championship team ever been led by a player who would have even remotely been in consideration for that "honor"? There is a saying that if you mess with the game the game will mess with you and I think of that saying every time I see Harden go through his bricklaying/turnover extravaganza during key postseason moments. Will Harden have an epic game seven someday and lead his team to a playoff series victory? Sure, it could happen--he has the talent to do it--but if I were a betting man I would bet that if Houston makes it to a game seven Harden is going to fumble the ball all over the place and shoot blanks; if Houston advances in that situation, it will be with Harden on the bench and someone else making the plays, just like what happened versus the Clippers in 2015.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:05 PM

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Harden Comes Up Empty in Clutch as Rockets Fall to Spurs in Game Five

The San Antonio Spurs persevered without the injured Kawhi Leonard down the stretch to defeat the Houston Rockets 110-107 in overtime and take a 3-2 series lead. Leonard led the Spurs with 22 points and a game-high 15 rebounds but he sprained his left ankle in the second half. Leonard already was struggling with a right knee injury and he tried to play through the sprained ankle as well but he could not put weight on his left leg, forcing Coach Gregg Popovich to leave him on the bench for most of the fourth quarter and during the entire overtime. Patty Mills scored 20 points as the starting point guard in place of the injured Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge had 18 points and 14 rebounds but the overtime stars were Danny Green and Manu Ginobili. Green finished with 16 points, including seven of the Spurs' nine overtime points. Ginobili had 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists in addition to making perhaps the biggest play of the game by blocking James Harden's game-tying three point attempt as time expired.

Harden finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. That looks like a great line, but he also had nine turnovers and shot just 4-15 from three point range. Those numbers help explain why the Rockets outscored the Spurs by three points when Harden was on the bench but were outscored by six points when he was on the court. Harden was awful down the stretch when the game was up for grabs: he committed an offensive foul on Houston's last possession in regulation and then he shot 0-3 from the field with three turnovers in overtime. 

It is fitting that Ginobili made the big play against Harden, because Ginobili is in many ways the anti-Harden. Ginobili made a decision early in his career to sacrifice individual glory for team success, while Harden has spent the past few years running away from and/or running off every one of his star teammates, including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Dwight Howard. Almost four years ago to the day, I wrote an article titled The Difference Between Being the Third Option and Being the First Option and I compared Harden to Ginobili:
Ginobili has won three NBA championships so far and he has earned two All-Star selections, two All-NBA selections and the 2008 Sixth Man Award; combined with his stellar FIBA career, those honors and accomplishments may be enough for Ginobili to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Harden won the Sixth Man Award in 2012 and if he had stayed in Oklahoma City he likely would have earned at least one All-Star nod. Even if he and the Thunder would not have beaten Miami this season or next season, time would have been on their side; the young Thunder would have peaked just as the Heat's core players entered their 30s and started to decline.

Is getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs every year as "The Man" better than being the third option on a perennial championship contender? Ginobili has no reason to regret his answer to that question; five years from now it will be interesting to reevaluate Harden's answer.
Unlike Harden, Ginobili can make game-winning plays at either end of the court. Ginobili's role at 39 years old is obviously vastly diminished from his role during his prime but he never whines or complains; he wants to be part of a winning team and he is not concerned about individual glory.

Houston seized home court advantage by winning game one in San Antonio and caught two huge breaks with Parker's season-ending injury and Leonard's game five injuries but now the Rockets must win at home in game six and on the road in game seven in order to advance. Game five winners in 2-2 series prevail more than 80% of the time, so when the wheels fell off for Harden down the stretch the outcome of the series was likely decided. You cannot feel too badly for Harden, though, because he has exactly what he wanted when he rejected Oklahoma City's contract offer five years ago: big money, big stats and everything revolves around him. Winning a championship is a tangential concern for Harden. LeBron James and Kevin Durant can be rightfully criticized for their free agency decisions but no one can doubt that each player thought at the time that he was making a move that maximized his chance of winning a title, whether or not one believes that each player could have won a title by remaining with his original team. Harden fled from a team with two MVP caliber players so that he could receive all of the shine in Houston and that was most assuredly not a choice that maximized his chance to win a championship.

Game five versus the Spurs was a quintessential Harden performance and a prime example of what I have been writing about him for years: he is a talented player who is not well-suited to being the best player on a championship team. Harden's supporters will tout his points, assists and alleged "efficiency," but the real story is that with the game and the series hanging in the balance he fell apart. The lasting image of this series will either be Ginobili's block or perhaps Harden blaming one of his late-game turnovers on Clint Capela while the Spurs headed downcourt for a fast break basket. That play reminded me of two very different situations involving two all-time greats: (1) Rookie of the Year David Thompson cried after a game in the 1976 ABA Finals when he felt that the officials should have called a foul on one of his missed shots but Julius Erving was incredulous at that reaction, stating that when he missed a shot as a rookie he would just go get the ball and then score; (2) when Michael Jordan, near the end of his career and basically playing on one leg, thought that he had been fouled by Ron Mercer, Jordan raced downcourt, blocked Mercer's layup from behind, pinned it to the glass, caught the ball and barked something at Mercer.

With the game on the line, do you make it happen or do you watch it happen?

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:51 AM

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