20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Mike Lupica Underestimated Phil Jackson, but Made a Valid Point About "Genius" in Coaching

Mike Lupica's column for the May 4, 1998 issue of ESPN the Magazine ("Not Everybody is a Genius") opens by declaring, "Phil Jackson's genius days may be numbered." Jackson, then the coach of the Chicago Bulls, was on the verge of winning his sixth NBA title in eight seasons, but Jerry Krause told Jackson before that campaign that he would break up the team even if the squad went 82-0.

Lupica anticipated that another team would eagerly hire Jackson but Lupica did not expect Jackson to have much success: "Jackson will make the score of a lifetime and be set for life. What he won't ever be is as much of a genius as he was in Chicago. Here is just a partial genius list from the last 20 years: Jackson, Pat Riley, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells, Tony La Russa, Whitey Herzog, Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh. What we have found with all of them is that genius doesn't travel so well. And it never returns with another championship trophy."

Before his stint with the Bulls, Jackson coached the Albany Patroons to the 1984 CBA title. After that, he also coached a team to the Finals in the Puerto Rican professional league despite not speaking the language. Lupica's overall point about "genius" in coaching may have had some general validity but Lupica did not realize that Jackson was a specific exception.

Jackson left Chicago after the Bulls' "Last Dance" sixth championship in 1998. He sat out the lockout-shortened 1999 NBA season and then the L.A. Lakers hired him to mold Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant into champions. Prior to Jackson's arrival, the Lakers had suffered three lopsided playoff losses in O'Neal and Bryant's first three years with the franchise, including sweeps in 1998 (Utah) and 1999 (San Antonio). Under Jackson's leadership, the Lakers won three straight championships (2000-02) and in the 2001 playoffs they set a record for best single-season playoff winning percentage (15-1; the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers went 12-1 under a different playoff format). Jackson left the Lakers after the team lost in the 2004 Finals, then he returned for the 2005-06 season. During Jackson's first two years back, Kobe Bryant carried a subpar roster to a pair of first round playoff losses. The Lakers acquired one-time All-Star Pau Gasol early in the 2007-08 season and advanced to the Finals that season before losing to the Boston Celtics. Jackson coached the Lakers to back to back titles in 2009 and 2010 before retiring after the Lakers lost in the second round of the 2011 playoffs.

So, using Lupica's language, Jackson's "genius" not only traveled well but it returned with five championships, resulting in Jackson setting the all-time NBA record for most championships by a head coach (11), breaking the record of nine set by Boston's Red Auerbach.

Auerbach, never a huge fan of Jackson, often dismissed Jackson's accomplishments by noting that Jackson--unlike Auerbach--had never built a team but rather coached teams built by other people (and, in light of Jackson's brief, unsuccessful tenure as President of the New York Knicks, maybe Auerbach had a valid point that he displayed a more versatile set of talents than Jackson did).

In his article, Lupica quoted Auerbach: "You know what genius is? A nice word to say. You want to hear one time when I was a genius? Game seven of the '62 Finals. Us against the Lakers. The score's 100-all, and Frank Selvy takes the last shot. The ball rolls around the rim for about 15 seconds, then falls off. We beat 'em in overtime. Yeah, I was some big genius that year."

Auerbach was being very modest. Yes, there is a certain amount of chance/variance/good fortune involved in being successful but Auerbach did a masterful job of annually preparing his teams to be at their best. Fortune favors the brave--and the well-prepared.

Auerbach mentioned a pet peeve to Lupica that I share about coaches who play to the TV cameras during blowouts: "They could sit down at least once in a while. You turn on the game and these guys are ahead 40 points, and they're still coaching their (butts) off because they know they're on TV. I always get a kick out of that one, too."

Auerbach's points about coaching and "genius" are well taken, and Lupica's contention that among coaches "genius doesn't travel so well" is generally true, but Lupica erred when he chose Jackson as an example. There is a short list of basketball coaches who deserve the "genius" tag, and both Auerbach and Jackson belong on that list.

Labels: , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 9:40 PM


James Harden's Scoring Streak and His Motivation

James Harden has scored at least 35 points in six straight games, tying Carmelo Anthony (2012-13) for the third longest such streak in the past 20 seasons. Kobe Bryant scored at least 35 points in 13 straight games (2002-03) and LeBron James accomplished the feat in nine straight games (2005-06). Harden's scoring exploits have, according to some accounts, vaulted him back into MVP contention.

It seems like winning a second consecutive MVP is a major motivation for Harden. Harden said, "I mean, yeah. Of course I should be in the conversation. I mean, I receive a lot of hate, but it won't stop me from killing every single night, being that dog that I am. You can name a few other people that should be in the conversation. But realistically? It's coming back."

Harden's Houston Rockets won a league-best 65 regular season games in 2017-18 but began this season in embarrassing fashion, at one point ranking as low as 14th in the 15 team Western Conference. It is no secret that Harden began the season in less than stellar shape. One would think that the eighth highest paid player in the NBA this season ($30,570,000) should begin the season in top condition and that he would be criticized for not doing so. Instead, Harden is being praised for his recent commitment to training, which apparently did not begin until Harden got motivated by "hate" and by not being mentioned as an MVP candidate.

How does Harden's scoring streak compare to Bryant's 2003 streak?

During Bryant's 13 game streak in 2002-03, he averaged 42.4 ppg, with two 50-point games and a streak of nine straight games during which he scored at least 40 points. That 40-point scoring streak tied Michael Jordan for the fourth longest ever (not just the past 20 years), surpassed only by three Wilt Chamberlain streaks of 14, 14 and 10 games. Bryant put together seven 40-point scoring streaks of at least three games (the January 2012 streak referenced in that article lasted one more game to reach four before being snapped) and his teams went 25-9 (a .735 winning percentage equivalent to a full season record of 60-22) during the games in those various streaks.

Bryant's L.A. Lakers went 11-2 during his 2013 streak. They had a scoring differential of +90. Bryant's plus/minus total during those games was +127, meaning that the Lakers were outscored by 37 points when he was on the bench. Essentially, the Lakers played like one of the most dominant teams of all-time while he was on the court during that stretch, and they played like a Lottery team when he was not on the court. Bryant shot .487 from the field in those 13 games, including .455 from three point range.

During Harden's ongoing six game streak, he has averaged 40.3 ppg. The Rockets have gone 5-1 in those games, with a scoring differential of +46. Harden's plus/minus total during those games is +38, which means that the Rockets have outscored their opponents even when Harden has been on the bench. Harden has shot just .413 from the field overall, including .411 from three point range. Harden is averaging 15 three point field goal attempts per game during his streak, while Bryant attempted five three point field goals per game during his streak.

So, at this point Harden's streak is not even half as long as Bryant's, Harden is scoring slightly less with a much worse shooting percentage and Harden's team success is much less directly linked to his on court time than Bryant's team success was linked to his on court time.

Bryant often received criticism for shooting too much but that complaint is rarely if ever uttered about Harden, who shoots a lower percentage than Bryant and whose performance is less directly connected to his team's performance.

All that being said, it would not be shocking to see Harden join the two MVP club, even though Bryant finished third in the 2013 balloting and only won one regular season MVP (2008) despite being the best all-around player in the league for several years.

NBA regular season MVP voting started to go off the rails in the 1990s, when the media voters decided that it was boring to keep giving the award to Michael Jordan and thus they started to find reasons/excuses to give MVPs to other players based on the premise that while Jordan may be the league's best player he was not the best performer in a given season. Thus, Charles Barkley (1993) and Karl Malone (1997) won MVPs when Jordan was near the height of his powers as an individual performer and at his peak as the driving force (along with Scottie Pippen) of one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.

At least Jordan won five regular season MVPs, tied with Bill Russell for second on the all-time list behind Kareem Abdul Jabbar's six. Shaquille O'Neal was the most dominant force in the league for years, yet he only received one regular season MVP (2000). Allen Iverson and Steve Nash each received MVPs that should have gone to O'Neal (2001 for Iverson, 2005 for Nash; Nash's 2006 MVP should have gone to Bryant). While Tim Duncan was a worthy MVP winner in 2001 and 2002, it could be argued that O'Neal should have won one or both of those MVPs as well.

James Harden is a very talented offensive player but awarding him one MVP--let alone two (if he wins this year)--while LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis are better all-around players defies logic.

Making this argument seems to be a losing battle, because the pro-Harden narrative is so deeply entrenched that it probably will not be seriously reexamined during this era. Nevertheless, it is still important to point out the flaws in that narrative.

If Harden does win his second MVP, it will be interesting to see how long it takes him to get into shape next season. Will he wait until January? Or will two MVPs satisfy his personal goals, so that he can just collect his guaranteed money for the duration of his contract without bothering to get into peak condition at all?

Labels: , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 6:55 PM


Wednesday, December 26, 2018

"The Mamba Mentality"

Kobe Bryant's new book The Mamba Mentality overflows with insights that the five-time NBA champion learned during his 20 year career. The text is illustrated by photos taken by Andrew Bernstein, the visual James Boswell to Bryant's Samuel Johnson during Bryant's career. This book is an excellent read for anyone who is interested in what makes Kobe Bryant tick, and for any basketball player who is looking for a blueprint for improving one's basketball skills.

Bryant mastered all facets of the game. It is that technical, all-around completeness combined with incredible competitive drive, a fanatical will to win and the capacity to play through injuries that separated Bryant from all of his contemporaries and elevated him into basketball's Pantheon.

I had the privilege of watching Bryant play in person on many occasions, during several of which he went head to head against LeBron James. During most of the times that they faced each other when I attended in person, Bryant was at the top of his game while James was a great player who was still learning his craft. The mainstream media narrative had James surpassing Bryant some time before that actually happened; even during a 94-90 Cleveland win over L.A. in 2007, an observer with an educated eye could see the difference between Bryant and James:
Andrew Bynum had 17 points and 11 rebounds but he missed two free throws that could have tied the game with 11.9 seconds left. Bryant stormed in to the lane to rebound the second miss and called a timeout, giving his team one last chance to win or tie. Someone asked Bryant about how he got that crucial rebound but Bryant laughed and said, "I'm not giving up my secret. I told him (James) I was going to get it. That's just years of experience." Bryant winked to a courtside camera after the play, provoking boos from the crowd when that image was displayed on the giant overhead screen...
Later, after most members of the media had left, I asked Bryant if in his current injured state the court seems much larger and harder to traverse than usual due to his limited mobility and his eyes widened in acknowledgment as he said "Yes" before reiterating his earlier comment: "But I'm going to go in the gym, work on my jumper and figure out how to get through this."
In The Mamba Mentality, Bryant--while not specifically referencing that crucial rebound or that game--explained his approach to playing against James and, in the process, confirms what educated, informed observers could detect when watching these two all-time greats square off. The book includes Bryant's scouting report-like take on his matchups versus several different players. The section on James begins with, "I enjoyed contact. LeBron is bigger than me in height and width, but I enjoyed hitting, and getting hit, a lot more than him. That impacted our head to head matchups" (side note: as enjoyable as this book is, it would have been even better with a more skilled co-writer, or with an editor who knows to write "LeBron is bigger than I am" and "a lot more than he did"). A major part of the "secret" of Bryant grabbing that key rebound versus Cleveland is that Bryant thrived on contact and knew how to use body contact/leverage to his advantage. By virtue of size, position and team role, James was always going to average more rebounds than Bryant, but from a fundamental standpoint Bryant was a superior rebounder, and it was always apparent that, if necessary for one key possession, Bryant could go get the ball in ways that James could not or would not, much like Michael Jordan put together a string of big rebounding performances for the second three-peat Chicago Bulls during one of Dennis Rodman's extended absences from the lineup.

Bryant added, "When he was defending me, LeBron would use his body and not cushion with his forearm because he was used to being stronger than everybody else. With me, though, that worked to my advantage. I like the physicality, and I know how to use my hands to move him back just enough where I could turn the corner." Bryant noted that sometimes James would front him in the post to combat Bryant's superior technique/footwork and Bryant would play mind games with James, teasing James about fronting a much smaller player.

James' footwork and defense improved over time, but he never used his physical advantages--which are greater than Bryant's--to the extent that Bryant used his, because James has never enjoyed physicality to the extent that Bryant did.

James surpassed Bryant as a regular season performer some time around 2009, as James hit his physical prime while Bryant entered a stage in his career during which managing his body so that he peaked during the playoffs was the primary concern. Bryant remained the more technically sound player--James has still not surpassed prime Bryant in that regard--and Bryant remained the better, more consistent playoff performer but the younger, bigger, stronger James was better equipped to weather the 82 game regular season grind. However, despite the physical advantages James enjoys over Bryant, peak James never quite reached the same level as peak Bryant. Slightly past his peak Bryant won back to back titles alongside Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and a bunch of role players, while peak James went 2-2 in the NBA Finals while playing alongside future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Bryant went 5-2 in the NBA Finals overall, while James' Finals record currently is 3-6. No, that is not the only metric that matters and yes, one could write a book dissecting all of the contextual factors that affected both players' Finals resumes--but the bottom line is that prime Bryant had no skill set weaknesses, he lifted bad teams to the playoffs, when he had the weapons he almost always brought home the title and he did not make excuses or pout or quit.

Put even more simply, Bryant played 20 seasons for one franchise and during that entire time his main focus was winning championships. That does not mean he did not make mistakes or did not have other interests--he is now an Oscar-winning filmmaker--but Bryant's life centered around winning titles. James has always been chasing the next contract, the next team, the next side interest; he has put up great individual numbers and he has won championships but no one can honestly say that he devoted his life to winning championships the way that Bryant did.

Bryant was by no means a flawless technician from the start but he was a quick study. The book includes a picture of a young Bryant defending Jordan in the post. Bryant points out flaws in his balance and technique, and states that he looked at pictures and film in order to eliminate those weaknesses. I remember a young Bryant struggling to guard Portland's Scottie Pippen and Steve Smith in the post during the playoffs but Bryant's post defense markedly improved in a short period of time after that.

Bryant discussed the evolution of his relationship with Phil Jackson. I remember Jackson once publicly calling Bryant a "hard-headed learner" who would not accept anything at face value and who constantly had questions. Bryant acknowledges that Jackson interpreted those questions as a challenge to his authority but Bryant insists that he simply thirsted for knowledge. Jackson and Bryant worked together much more smoothly the second time that Jackson coached the Lakers, and Jackson accepted Bryant's need to understand the reasoning behind certain decisions.

Bryant's observations about his various rivals and about the nuances of the game crackle with insight. I will offer just a couple examples and I urge you to read the book to get a full taste.

One, Bryant described a 1997 matchup with Clyde Drexler as a "seminal moment"; after an awful first half, Bryant scored 27 points in the second half. Bryant declared, "I always admired Clyde" and Bryant noted he learned a lot about defense from competing against him. For instance, Drexler would use one hand to obstruct the offensive player's vision while using the other hand to go for deflections/steals, a technique that Bryant added to his defensive repertoire.

Two, Bryant explained his mentality about playing through injuries, which was the point of the question that I asked the hobbled Bryant after the game during which he used one of his "secrets" to snare a crucial late game rebound, and which is why Bryant was pleasantly surprised by a question that acknowledged the essence of the nature of the challenge he faced in that moment. When Bryant was injured, he assessed what he could do and what he could not do and then adjusted accordingly. That may sound simple and obvious but Bryant's approach took this to the next level. For instance, Bryant admits that the avulsion fracture to the index finger on his shooting hand never completely healed and this forced him to permanently change his shooting stroke. His index finger used to be the last finger to touch the ball prior to releasing the shot but Bryant switched to using his middle finger. "Making that change took a couple of practices. Not average practices, though. Days flooded with mental and physical work. I had to mentally download the software that was the new form, and then drill it in." Bryant is not sure if the new form made him a better shooter or not. He deems that to be an irrelevant question; the injury forced the change, and the change was good enough to win a championship that season (and the next season), which is "the only thing that matters."

Labels: , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 11:56 PM


Several Stars Shine During the Christmas Day Quintupleheader

A full recap of each game from the Christmas Day quintupleheader may be a bit much to digest but here are some bullet point thoughts and observations distilled from over 12 hours' worth of holiday hoops:

Game One: Milwaukee Bucks 109, New York Knicks 95

1) Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged this season as the best in the paint scorer since prime Shaquille O'Neal destroyed defenses (and rims) in the early 2000s. The Knicks are not equipped to slow down, let alone stop, Antetokounmpo's onslaught, as he finished with a game-high 30 points, a team-high 14 rebounds, plus three assists, four steals and two blocked shots. Those numbers do not much exceed his MVP-caliber season averages: 26.2 ppg (ninth in the league), 12.8 rpg (fifth in the league), 6.0 apg (a career-high), 1.4 bpg and 1.2 spg. Antetokounmpo is shooting a career-low .130 from three point range; lack of a consistent jump shot is the only weakness in his game but he is so dominant in the paint that it does not matter much. Of course, it would be ideal if he could shoot three pointers well but if he can even just develop a reliable 15-18 foot jumper he will be unstoppable.

2) The Bucks have the second best record in the Eastern Conference after finishing seventh last season. They rank first in defensive field goal percentage (.435) and first in point differential (8.4 ppg), two statistics that strongly correlate with championship contention.

3) The 9-26 Knicks have the second worst record in the NBA and have been "rebuilding" for the better part of the past two decades. Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown and Phil Jackson have not been able to turn the franchise around. It has become fashionable to bash one, two or all three of those guys but considering that the problems preceded each of their tenures and then continued after each of them left it might be worth contemplating the notion that the real issue may be the one constant: owner James Dolan.

Game Two: Houston Rockets 113, Oklahoma City Thunder 109

1) James Harden scored 41 points on 15-35 (.429) field goal shooting. We used to be sagely informed that such shooting percentages and points per shot ratios were inefficient but now apparently this is considered efficient--at least when Harden does it. I doubt that a 15-35 shooting performance by Russell Westbrook will ever be viewed with favor.

2) Whenever Kobe Bryant attempted 30 or more shots in a game, ESPN and other media outlets pounded a non-stop drumbeat about how selfish Bryant is and how much better off his team would be if he shot the ball less frequently. I think that evaluating any player's effectiveness by only looking at one statistic is not intelligent but--that being said--it is odd that when James Harden shoots the ball more than 30 times none of Bryant's critics say the same things about Harden that they said about Bryant.

By the way, in case you forgot, Bryant once scored 81 points on 28-46 (.609) field goal shooting. I recall some commentators suggesting that it was never good for a player to shoot 46 shots--and I remember wondering how scoring 81 points on 46 shots could possibly be a bad thing. The "efficient" Harden would need about 70 shots to score 81 points based on how he shot against the Thunder. 

If Harden ever scores 81 points in a game I suspect that the media will petition to have him immediately inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame and retroactively named to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List.

Bryant was also widely criticized for scoring 60 points on 22-50 (.440) field goal shooting in the last game of his 20 season career. That is slightly more points per shot spread out over a larger workload that Harden's performance against the Thunder.

3) An interesting moment happened at the 7:29 mark of the second quarter. Eric Gordon jumped into Russell Westbrook while Westbrook attempted a three pointer. Gordon fouled Westbrook on the shot and did not give Westbrook room to land (which would be a foul even if Gordon had not fouled Westbrook on the shot). Westbrook missed the shot and was incensed when no foul was called. Westbrook fouled Gordon and then Westbrook got a technical foul for complaining about the non-call.

Westbrook's foul and technical foul were not smart plays. The Thunder led 35-33 before Gerald Green made the technical free throw and the Thunder later lost a close game in which every possession/shot/free throw mattered. However, it is baffling that Harden is the beneficiary of numerous phantom foul calls yet a Houston defender can get away with two obvious fouls on the same play. It is also baffling that the ESPN announcers did not believe that Gordon committed a foul on the play.

The Thunder went on a run after the bad call to take a 48-38 lead and they were up 60-52 at halftime. At that point, Westbrook had 14 points, five rebounds, six assists, four steals and a game-high +14 plus/minus number. Meanwhile, Harden had a game-high 23 points and a -5 plus/minus number.

Westbrook finished with 21 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, four steals and a +6 plus/minus number even though his team lost by four points. Harden ended up with 41 points, seven assists, six rebounds, two steals and a +4 plus/minus number.

So, the Thunder led by six points while Westbrook was on the court and trailed by 10 points when he rested, while the Rockets built a small lead during Harden's on-court time and were able to extend it by one point even when he sat.

Yes, this is just one game but this is the kind of thing I am talking about when I suggest that Harden's individual numbers are not strongly correlated with winning.

Harden is an All-Star caliber player. He is a streaky shooter and a crafty scorer.

However, the hype about him is so out of control that I don't think that it will ever get back under control. Maybe 20 years from now dispassionate historians will be able to place his career in proper context but I have given up any hope that Harden will be compared fairly and objectively with his contemporaries, let alone with all-time great players from previous eras. A whole generation of basketball fans is going to be indoctrinated with the false narrative that Harden is the best one on one scorer ever.

4) ESPN's Jalen Rose pointed out that Paul George--who has been touted as an MVP candidate--benefits a lot from playing alongside Westbrook. Rose noted that the opposing team's defense is geared first toward dealing with Westbrook, which gives George a lot of room to operate. Westbrook's lack of shooting prowess is supposed to be a great detriment and yet it is amazing how much defensive attention he draws: George is able to play one on one most of the time and other Thunder players are often wide open when Westbrook collapses the defense by driving.

Westbrook is having an MVP caliber season, averaging a triple double for the third straight season (!), but there is probably zero chance that he will win the MVP; if the Thunder finish with the best record in the West then perhaps George will be a dark horse candidate and if the Thunder fall off then neither Westbrook nor George will get much consideration.

One cautionary note about Westbrook is that he seems to lack his previous explosiveness. Don't forget that he had knee surgery just before the season began. Westbrook is able to get up in the air occasionally for spectacular blocked shots/rebounds/finishes but during the course of an entire game his athleticism seems muted compared to his previous capabilities. Hopefully, this is just a temporary setback and not a permanent change. It is amazing that he is still averaging over 10 rpg despite being somewhat limited. The lack of explosiveness is evident not only when Westbrook tries to finish in the paint but also on his jump shot. However, I don't think this explains his uncharacteristically poor free throw shooting, unless his knee is so stiff that he is not able to bend it normally during his free throw attempts (that does not appear to be the case but it is harder to determine that when watching TV as opposed to seeing a player in person).

5) ESPN's Paul Pierce called this a bad loss for the Thunder, who were not able to finish off a Houston team that has generally been inept with Chris Paul sidelined by injury. While I don't think that any losses are "good," I agree with Pierce that this is the kind of game that the Thunder need to win to establish themselves as legit contenders and separate themselves from the pack of good but not great teams.

Game Three: Boston Celtics 121, Philadelphia 76ers 114 (OT)

1) Kyrie Irving lives for the big moment and his scoring has an impact on his team's success. Irving scored 40 points on 17-33 (.515) field goal shooting and he accumulated a +19 plus/minus number in a game that his team won by just seven points. He had six of Boston's 13 overtime points--back to back three pointers that turned a 114-112 deficit into a 118-114 lead that Boston never relinquished.

2) Ben Simmons, often touted as the next Magic Johnson, had a near-triple double (11 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists). Despite his individual box score stuffing, he had a -17 plus/minus number. On the other hand, Joel Embiid caused all kinds of problems for Boston, finishing with 34 points, a game-high 16 rebounds and a +2 plus/minus number. Jimmy Butler, whose arrival via trade has boosted Philadelphia's record, had decent box score numbers (24 points, five rebounds, four assists) but did not have his usual impact; long stretches passed during which it was easy to forget that he was on the court and he had a -13 plus/minus number. Butler is the key to this team's success, though it does seem like the 76ers should give Embiid more touches in the post.

3) The Celtics have been hard to figure out so far. They blew out the 76ers on opening night, then limped to a 10-10 record before winning eight games in a row. They lost three straight before this victory over Philadelphia. On paper, the Celtics should be no worse than the second best team in the East (behind Toronto) but they are having problems figuring out how to cohesively blend all of their talent; somewhat paradoxically, they looked better last season when injuries forced them to rely on fewer players. I suspect that the Celtics will be a very tough out come playoff time, but there is a chance that they never quite get their act together consistently enough to vie for conference supremacy.

Game Four: L.A. Lakers 127, Golden State Warriors 101

1) LeBron James left Cleveland for L.A. seeking out a better supporting cast (or to make movies or to enroll his kids in a different school or to join forces with Paul George, Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard--the narrative shifts faster than I can follow). So, this game was supposed to be something of a measuring stick. James' Cavaliers faced the Warriors in the NBA Finals four times and lost three times. The seemingly ageless James is having another MVP caliber season, all the while working feverishly to ship out his brothers--I mean, teammates; no, I mean, impediments to James' plans--in order to stack the roster with one or more All-Stars.

Most star players at least pay lip service to the idea of being loyal to their teammates and wanting to go into battle with them but that is not the case with James. His teammates are often mentioned in trade rumors (rumors that are almost certainly being fueled by the actions of James and/or his business team) and James is not very sympathetic. Here is what he said about Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who apparently should be renting and not buying in L.A.: "It's a business. If you get traded, that don't mean your paycheck stops. It doesn't matter, you're still going to be in the NBA, just continue to get better and better. If you get traded it's part of the business. It happens. I mean it sucks, that's for sure, but it happens, so you just go about it." I can't imagine why Kyrie Irving did not want to play with James or why Paul George re-signed with the Thunder without even speaking to the Lakers or why Kevin Durant recently described the atmosphere around James as "toxic." ESPN cannot imagine it, either; during its entire Christmas Day coverage no ESPN commentator directly discussed James' recent comparison of NFL team owners to slave owners or James' social media post of rap lyrics containing an anti-Semitic slur. ESPN knows better than to do anything that could restrict access to James.

2) James played very well as the Lakers built a 65-50 halftime lead. He had 17 points, 13 rebounds and five assists before a groin muscle pull forced him out of action at the 7:51 mark of the third quarter. The Lakers were up 71-57 at that point. The Warriors cut the margin to 78-76 in the next five minutes but then Rajon Rondo, Ivica Zubac (who started at center due to JaVale McGee's pneumonia) and several Laker reserves took over, extending the lead to 117-94 before the Warriors threw in the towel at the 3:34 mark of the fourth quarter. Rondo contributed 15 points and a game-high 10 assists but the star of the game was Zubac, who had 18 points on 9-10 field goal shooting, 11 rebounds and a gaudy +25 plus/minus number. Zubac was a seldom-used third year player until injuries/illnesses recently created an opportunity for him. In his last three games (including this one), he has shot 25-32 (.781) from the field. He is mobile and skilled offensively and he even has had some good moments defensively (which is unusual for a young big man), including two blocked shots versus the Warriors.

3) For most of the game, the Warriors looked bored and/or mentally fatigued, which is how they have looked for most of this season. Despite being on cruise control, they still have the second best record in the Western Conference. One could argue that not being mentally engaged now is going to come back to haunt them later, but one could also argue that this team is so talented that whenever they decide to play their best no one will be able to beat them. I tend to incline more toward the latter view but I would also say that the Warriors' doldrums are giving some of these young teams confidence and when young players/teams are confident that can be very important. Tiger Woods lost his dominance not only because of his off-course issues and physical maladies but also because his opponents no longer feared him. If the Warriors lose that fear factor then they may find these other teams to be more competitive and harder to beat come playoff time.

Game Five: Utah Jazz 117, Portland Trail Blazers 96

1) I picked Utah to be the second best team in the West but right now they are struggling just to get into the top eight in the standings. The biggest difference is a drastic decline defensively; last season, the Jazz ranked sixth in defensive field goal percentage and first in points allowed but so far this season they rank 19th and 13th respectively in those categories.

2) That defense returned with a vengeance versus Portland, holding the Trail Blazers to .393 field goal shooting. The Jazz routed the Trail Blazers 120-90 on Friday but in their last 10 games the Jazz are just 5-5. They started slowly last season before becoming a force to be reckoned with down the stretch but one would have hoped that they carry that momentum into this season instead of regressing. In addition to the defensive issues, the Jazz have also been hindered by Donovan Mitchell's struggles. Mitchell looked like a star in the making down the stretch last season and during the playoffs but this season he is shooting less than .410 from the field and less than .290 from three point range. He is undoubtedly the first name on the scouting reports for opposing teams, and sometimes young players need some time/tutelage to develop options/counters after teams learn how to take away their primary, preferred attack methods. Mitchell led Utah with 19 points but he shot just 8-19 from the field and only had two assists. The Jazz featured a balanced attack, with seven players scoring in double figures.

3) Portland had a great season in 2017-18 (49-33) only to lose 4-0 in the first round to the New Orleans Pelicans. They do not seem to have suffered a hangover from that setback, and they are currently in that pack of teams jockeying for the fourth through eighth seeds. They are not quite as talented as several of the other West teams, and once the standings sort out I expect them to drop to the bottom tier of the playoff teams.

Analysis of Previous Christmas Day Quintupleheaders:

Christmas Day Quintupleheader Recap (2012)

Comments and Notes About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2011)

Thoughts and Observations About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2010)

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 3:11 AM