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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Put Away the Brooms: Feisty Cavaliers Defeat Warriors

Put away the brooms. Shelve the greatest team of all-time talk--at least for three days. The Golden State Warriors were one win away from completing the only perfect postseason in NBA history but the Cleveland Cavaliers set a boatload of Finals scoring records en route to posting a 137-116 win. The Cavaliers now trail 3-1, the same deficit that they faced last season before rallying to claim the franchise's first NBA title. Of course, last year the Warriors did not have Kevin Durant, so it seems improbable that the Cavaliers will win four straight games against this team--but a game like this is a lot more satisfying as a fan than just watching the Cavaliers lay down and die, which many observers thought/feared might happen in game four.

Kyrie Irving led the Cavaliers with a game-high 40 points on 15-27 field goal shooting but this was a true team effort for Cleveland. LeBron James had 31 points, a game-high 11 assists and 10 rebounds; his ninth Finals triple double broke the previous mark of eight, set by Magic Johnson. James posted an eye-popping +32 plus/minus number, easily the best total on either team. Kevin Love added 23 points. J.R. Smith had 15 points on timely 5-9 three point shooting.

Kevin Durant had another big scoring night (35 points) but he shot just 9-22 from the field and he had a pedestrian floor game (four rebounds, four assists) compared to the standard he set in the first three games of the series. Draymond Green had 16 points and a game-high 14 rebounds; he is a talented player but he is also a hothead (and cheap shot artist) who is allowed to get away with way too much complaining/gesturing. He claims that he is remorseful for getting suspended during last year's Finals but he almost got ejected (and should have been ejected) in this game, so it does not appear that he really has learned his lesson. Stephen Curry did not make his presence felt, finishing with just 14 points on 4-13 field goal shooting, though he did have 10 assists.

Perhaps the two biggest stories of the game were (1) Cleveland's record-setting three point shooting (24-45) and (2) some very uneven officiating. Cleveland has been a great three point shooting team all season, so it is not surprising that the Cavaliers could make a lot of three pointers but it is surprising that they made 13 more three pointers than Golden State considering how well the Warriors shoot and how well they (usually) defend. The officiating did not decide the outcome but it was disappointing nonetheless: obvious calls were missed (not in a biased way but just in an inexcusably sloppy way) and Draymond Green was clearly whistled for a technical foul in the first half but when he received another technical foul in the second half--which should have resulted in automatic ejection--one official bizarrely insisted that Green's first technical foul had actually been assessed to Golden State Coach Steve Kerr.

After Cleveland's late collapse in game three, it was reasonable to wonder if the Cavaliers had any fight or spirit left--but any doubts about that were erased very early in the game: Cleveland led 49-33 after the first quarter, setting a record for most point in one quarter in Finals history--and the Cavaliers missed eight free throws! Cleveland's Big Three had their fingerprints all over the fast start, with Love scoring 14 points, Irving adding 11 and James contributing eight points plus six assists.

The Warriors are such a potent offensive team and such an excellent defensive team that one wondered if they could/would make a run but instead Cleveland led 69-49 by the middle of the second quarter and 86-68 at halftime. Cleveland broke the record for most points in one half of a Finals game (81, set by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982). Irving (28 points), James (22 points, eight assists, six rebounds) and Love (17 points) led the scoring barrage.

The third quarter seemed like it was played in mud: a lot of pushing and shoving and skirmishes and replay reviews but in the end Cleveland won the quarter 29-28 and the Warriors never seriously threatened the rest of the way.

It is difficult to know what to make of this game, because so many odd (and probably not repeatable) things happened. This is what I believe: Golden State is the better team but Cleveland has enough talent to compete with and, if the Cavaliers execute the correct game plan at a high level, beat the Warriors. If both teams play their best, then the Warriors will win this series but if Cleveland somehow takes game five on the road then this series becomes very interesting; the members of last year's Warriors would then start to feel the pressure of a flashback from last year's collapse versus Cleveland in the Finals, while Durant (who has yet to win a title) could have flashbacks of his own from playing a major role in the Thunder's collapse from a 3-1 lead versus the Warriors. A comeback from a 3-0 deficit is unlikely, to say the least, but by all rights Cleveland should have won game three and the Cavaliers dominated game four, so the idea touted by some that Golden State is unbeatable is demonstrably false. Kyrie Irving is a basketball assassin, particularly in games when his team faces elimination, and it is apparent that no one on the Warriors can contain him off the dribble. The question, as always, is what kind of tone James will set and whether or not he will sustain his energy/effort throughout the game; he did so in game four and we see the result.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:46 AM


Friday, June 09, 2017

Warriors Stun Cavaliers With Late 11-0 Run to Take 3-0 Series Lead

The Cleveland Cavaliers squandered a great opportunity to beat the Golden State Warriors in game three of the NBA Finals. Cleveland led 113-107 with 2:25 remaining in the fourth quarter but the Warriors ended the game (and, for all practical purposes, the series) with an 11-0 run spearheaded by Kevin Durant's seven points. Durant's clutch three pointer over LeBron James at the :45 mark put the Warriors up 114-113 and James' slump-shouldered look after the ball went through the net made it clear that the Cavaliers were not going to retake the lead. The Cavaliers missed their last eight field goal attempts of the game, punctuated by Andre Iguodala's block of James' three point attempt with 12 seconds to go and Golden State up 116-113.

Durant, who is well on his way to claiming 2017 NBA Finals MVP honors, finished with 31 points on 10-18 field goal shooting, plus eight rebounds and four assists. During the Finals, Durant is averaging 34.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 6.0 apg, 2.0 bpg and 1.3 spg while shooting .561 from the field (including .524 from three point range) and .895 from the free throw line. He did not commit a single turnover in game one and he has just six turnovers overall. He has scored at least 25 points in each of his first eight career NBA Finals games, tying a mark held by Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.

Klay Thompson continues to play great defense and he rediscovered his shooting stroke as well, pouring in 30 points on 11-18 field goal shooting. Stephen Curry contributed 30 points, a game-high 13 rebounds (remarkable for any point guard not named Russell Westbrook) and six assists.

James authored a monster stat line: 39 points on 15-27 field goal shooting, 11 rebounds and a game-high nine assists in 46 minutes. He had a +7 plus/minus number that was not only better than any other Cavalier but also better than all but three members of the winning Warriors (Draymond Green +14, Curry +11, Iguodala +10). He is an all-time great player having a very impressive series statistically for a team that is an underdog by any reasonable measure or conception.

However, greatness is not merely defined by numbers but also by impact. During the 1983 NBA Finals telecast, Bill Russell and Dick Stockton made the point that Julius Erving was a special player not only because of his impressive statistics but because of "when" he got those numbers. Each of the first three games of the 2017 NBA Finals has been competitive in the first half and game three went down to the wire but James has repeatedly disappeared just when his team needs him the most.

James spent most of the second half of game three getting into the paint and then passing to the perimeter instead of finishing at the rim, despite the fact that he was usually the biggest and strongest player on the court. Brian Windhorst identified the issue years ago: "Everything that LeBron does, his going into a bunker, turning off social media; these are all anti-choking maneuvers…the choke is what Lebron is prone to do. And so everything he's doing in the postseason is to avoid that choke."

Did James choke in the final minutes of game three? He did not score in the last 4:28, after scoring at will for most of the game and most of the series. Is he tired? Is he frustrated? Is he overwhelmed?

Many reasons/explanations/excuses are offered on James' behalf but the bottom line is that the reasonable expectation for a Pantheon-level player is to come through more often than not in clutch situations. Michael Jordan went 6-0 in the NBA Finals with six Finals MVPs. Bill Russell won 11 championships in 13 seasons and would likely have won a host of Finals MVPs if the award had existed in the first 12 years of his career. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went 6-4 in the Finals and he won a pair of Finals MVPs, including one when he was 38.

James is 3-4 so far in the NBA Finals, which is a subpar Finals resume compared to most Pantheon members:

Bill Russell: 11-1
Michael Jordan: 6-0
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 6-4
Magic Johnson: 5-4
Julius Erving: 3-3
Larry Bird: 3-2
Wilt Chamberlain: 2-4
Jerry West: 1-8
Oscar Robertson: 1-1
Elgin Baylor: 0-7

I classify Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James as the four greatest players of the post-Jordan era. O'Neal went 4-1 in the Finals with three Finals MVPs. Duncan went 5-1 in the Finals and he won three Finals MVPs. Bryant went 5-2 in the Finals and he won two Finals MVPs. It seems unlikely that James' eighth Finals appearance will net him a championship or a Finals MVP, so his record is about to drop to 3-5. James recently lamented that it is his fate to face dynasty teams at the peak of their powers (apparently referring to Duncan's Spurs and the current Warriors, while ignoring the not so little detail that he twice switched teams to personally create a Big Three that was supposed to become a dynasty)--but the only Pantheon players who fared worse than James in the Finals had to contend with Bill Russell and a roster stacked with Hall of Famers. I suspect that Chamberlain, West, Robertson and Baylor would happily trade teams and eras with James, because they would do quite well in a watered down 30 team league that has legislated physicality out of the game. The Warriors cannot guard Kevin Love when he actually posts up and the Cavaliers decide to give him the ball; how are they going to guard Chamberlain? Before you say that Chamberlain could not keep up with a fast-paced game, remember that he was a track and field star with sprinter's speed.

Is it James' fault that the Warriors are poised to sweep his Cavaliers? No, but if James had the mentality to reach the gear that Russell, Jordan, Bryant and other Pantheon members often reached in the Finals then this series would, at the very least, be more competitive than it has been.

The bottom line is that James is not playing badly but he is providing a lot of footage that can be shown to put a stop to the foolish comparisons to Jordan; let's just put a moratorium on such talk and see if James can actually get within striking distance of O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant.

Game three was a winnable game in a must win situation and O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant did not let many of those slip away during the primes of their respective careers. Golden State hit Cleveland with a barrage of 39 points (including a Finals record nine three pointers) in the first quarter but the Warriors only led 67-61 at halftime. The Cavaliers attacked the paint in the first half and James led the way with 27 points. The argument that the Cavaliers are a flawed team because they need James to score a lot of points flies in the face of basketball history. Were the Bulls flawed because Jordan scored over 40 ppg versus the Suns in the 1993 Finals? That Bulls team had one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of All-Time (Scottie Pippen), an All-Star caliber power forward (Horace Grant) and several outstanding role players but Jordan still scored at a record-setting clip; that is the responsibility of a Pantheon-level player in such situations. Let's not compare James to Russell Westbrook, either; in the 2017 playoffs, Westbrook's second best teammate was Andre Roberson, who spent significant portions of the series running around playing tag because he did not want to be fouled since he cannot make a free throw. In marked contrast, in game three James had another superstar on his own team matching him point for point: Kyrie Irving finished with 38 points on 16-29 field goal shooting, including 16 points in the third quarter as James cooled off.

If you are comparing James to Jordan then you are arguing that Jordan would have found a way to lose a Finals game in which his sidekick dropped nearly 40 points and in which his team had a two possession lead with barely two minutes to go. Sorry, I am not buying that for one second.

It may be true that James was too tired to drop another 20 or 25 points in the second half but, again, that means he is not quite at the level of Jordan or Bryant, guys who logged heavy minutes while playing hard at both ends of the court. James coasted through the regular season and had more than a week off before the Finals. Playing 46 minutes in a Finals game used to be a badge of honor, not an excuse for failure.

James' inability to seal the deal in this series is markedly contrasted by Durant consistently rising to the occasion at both ends of the court. He is taking his one on one matchup with James very seriously, much the way that Jordan and Bryant tried to destroy whoever they were matched up with individually. Durant's ability to come through in clutch moments has been questioned and it is undeniable that he came up short last year for the Oklahoma City Thunder when they blew a 3-1 lead versus the Warriors. This time around, Durant has been magnificent. One championship and one Finals MVP would not move him past James on the all-time list--but James being bested so decisively by a contemporary is a negative mark on his resume that is missing from Jordan's resume.

I don't like the way that Durant left Oklahoma City to join Golden State and I wish that he would have embraced the challenge of trying to beat the Warriors but I respect the way that Durant has made it clear that his primary focus is winning a championship. Durant has come a long way from the soft-spoken kid who I interviewed when he was a second year player. Durant has grown physically and emotionally in the past decade and it will be interesting to see if this season is a stepping stone toward further achievements for him and his new team or if injuries/complacency/lack of focus will prevent the Warriors from achieving their full potential.

The Warriors are now on the verge of completing an unprecedented 16-0 postseason run. The Warriors are 15-0 in the 2017 playoffs, breaking the record of 13 straight postseason wins set by the L.A. Lakers, who went 11-0 to start the postseason before being swept in the Finals by Detroit (the Lakers also won the last two games of the 1988 playoffs). Worth noting is that the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers went 12-1 en route to winning the title and the 2001 Lakers went 15-1 during their championship run. From a matchup standpoint, I am still not convinced that these Warriors would beat the 1983 76ers, 1996 Bulls or 2001 Lakers in a seven game series--less than a month ago the Warriors were down by more than 20 points to the Spurs before Zaza Pachulia took out Kawhi Leonard, so it is not like the Warriors are invincible even in their own era--but whether they go 16-0, 16-1 or even 16-2 they have carved out a special place in NBA history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:02 AM


Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Durant and Curry are Magnificent as Warriors Roll to 132-113 Win

Game two of the NBA Finals featured two recurring themes: Kevin Durant was again the best player on the court and the Golden State Warriors again routed the Cleveland Cavaliers, this time by the score of 132-113. The Cavaliers played with more energy, effort and physicality in game two than they did in game one--particularly in the first half, resulting in a competitive 67-64 score after the first 24 minutes--but they wilted in all three categories in a lackluster second half. The Warriors have now won 14 straight playoff games, adding to the list of NBA records that they have broken in the past three years.

Durant led both teams in scoring (33 points), rebounds (13), blocked shots (five) and steals (three, tied with LeBron James and Iman Shumpert). He shot 13-22 from the field, including 4-8 from three point range, and he did a lot of his damage one on one versus LeBron James, who has been proclaimed by many (including James himself) to be the best player on the planet. James was the third best player on the court during game two, as Stephen Curry notched his first career playoff triple double (32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds). Klay Thompson continued to play great defense and he emerged from his shooting slump with 22 points on 8-12 field goal shooting.

James' numbers look great, as they almost always do: 29 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds. James cut his turnovers from eight in game one to four in game two (Curry took over the role of Edward Scissorhands with the ball, committing eight turnovers in game two). He tied Magic Johnson's career Finals record with his eighth triple double. No other player in NBA history has more than two Finals triple doubles. James is not performing badly--but he is not performing well enough, either. This is not about numbers but about impact: the Cavaliers need James to be the best player on the court and they need him to win his individual matchup with Durant but neither of those things is happening.

The rush to prematurely crown James as Michael Jordan's successor reminds me of the similar rush to crown Roger Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time. The analogy is not perfect, of course, as there is a big difference between an individual sport and a team sport; the point is that we can only compare James to Jordan via numbers or a subjective eye test of how we imagine they might fare against each other despite playing under different conditions in different eras--the same limitations inherent in comparing Federer to Borg and other greats from the past--but we can get our popcorn ready and watch James versus Durant right now, much like we have been able to watch Federer versus Nadal for over a decade. After watching Nadal beat Federer head to head so many times, it is very difficult to buy the notion that Federer is the greatest player of all-time. Similarly, before James leapfrogs Jordan (not to mention Kobe Bryant) he needs to solidify his dominance among his peers; James does not necessarily have one player who is Nadal to his Federer but James does have a history of being outshined by lesser players on the biggest stage and that pattern seems to be repeating itself in this series. No one is comparing Kevin Durant to Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan (nor should such comparisons be made) but Durant is clearly getting the best of James right now--and this is coming on the heels of a regular season during which James coasted so that he could be well-rested for just this moment, in marked contrast with the approach that Jordan and Bryant took: they did not rest during the regular season and yet they were at their best when it mattered most.

James had just 18 field goal attempts and five free throw attempts in game two. That is not enough. James started out the game with the right mindset by aggressively attacking the hoop, which is a major reason--along with a similar mindset displayed by Kevin Love--that the Cavaliers kept the game close for the first half. However, in the second half James settled for jump shots or just deferred completely to other players; sometimes it looks like once James has reached certain statistical plateaus in a game he figures "I got mine and they can't blame me if we lose, so I am going to keep my field goal percentage intact." Russell Westbrook would have shot the ball 18 times in the fourth quarter alone if he had been in James' place yesterday and both Jordan and Bryant would have gone down firing as well (or, perhaps, emerged victorious by firing...). Justifying James' passivity by calling him a pass-first player is ridiculous; if he stays healthy and keeps playing then he will retire as the all-time leading scorer in the regular season, the playoffs and the All-Star Game. James is a great scorer who also possesses excellent passing skills but in order to win championships he--like every other Pantheon player except Bill Russell--must accept the burden of being a big-time scorer. When James has done that, he has won championships. It is odd that it seems like James has to relearn this lesson almost every time he advances to the Finals.

Love played very well (27 points on 12-23 field goal shooting, along with seven rebounds) and the Cavaliers should feed him the ball in the post even more often than they did. The winning formula for the Cavaliers is (1) physical team defense, (2) James staying in relentless attack mode for the whole game and (3) pounding the ball into the paint with James driving (or posting up), Love posting up and Tristan Thompson diving to the hoop for layups or offensive rebounds.

Try this little trick when you watch game three; instead of looking at the score, spend a few possessions just watching James and Love: if you see them consistently in the paint with the ball, then the score is probably close and Cleveland may even be winning--but if you see James and/or Love spending most of the time on the perimeter, then the Warriors are probably winning by 10 or more points.

I cringe every time James spends a possession camped out behind the three point line. This reminds me of a picture that Sports Illustrated published decades ago during the playoffs: several players actively pursued a rebound in the paint, while Darryl Dawkins--the most athletic and physically imposing big man of his day--stood rooted to the ground and the caption acknowledged the aggressive efforts of most of the players to get the ball while drily noting that Dawkins "awaits future developments." James cannot stand in the corner awaiting future developments; he must get in the paint and make things happen--not just for a quarter or for a half but for the entire game.

James' supporters will retort that Golden State is more talented than Cleveland and that Golden State has two MVP caliber players while Cleveland only has James. They will argue that even if James plays his best the Warriors still might win. Those things may all be true but that is not the point, at least in terms of putting James in the same conversation with Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, because if James is the greatest player of all-time then it is incumbent upon him to play in the way that maximizes his potential and maximizes his team's opportunity to win. When Michael Jordan faced Clyde Drexler in the 1992 Finals, Jordan took this as a personal challenge to prove that he was the best player at his position and the best player in the league, period. Drexler admitted, years later, that he should have accepted that challenge as well, instead of thinking (and publicly saying) that the series was about Chicago versus Portland, not Jordan versus Drexler.

This series will be remembered as James versus Durant--and Cleveland has no chance to win unless James accepts that challenge and wins that matchup. Kyrie Irving showed during last year's Finals that he can match Curry shot for shot, Love can post up anyone in Golden State's frontcourt and Cleveland's bench players have been productive all season when given the right opportunities but this series has hinged and will hinge on the James-Durant showdown.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM