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Friday, June 21, 2013

LeBron James Dominates as Miami Heat Win Second Straight Championship

LeBron James authored one of the greatest seventh game performances in NBA Finals history, winning his second consecutive NBA Finals MVP and his second consecutive championship after carrying the Miami Heat to a 95-88 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. James scored an NBA Finals career-high 37 points on 12-23 field goal shooting (including 5-10 from three point range), grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds and passed for a team-high four assists. James tied Tommy Heinsohn's 1957 record for the most points scored in an NBA Finals game seven by a member of the winning team. James played a game-high 45 minutes and he guarded multiple positions, including spending a lot of time smothering San Antonio's All-Star point guard Tony Parker. James hit the jump shot that put the Heat up 92-88 with :27.9 remaining and then he stole the ball before making two free throws to clinch the win. He averaged 25.3 ppg, 10.9 rpg and 7.0 apg in the NBA Finals, leading his team in all three categories by wide margins; James averaged 25-10-7 in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year--an NBA Finals stat line that no other player has equaled even once--and he joined Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the only players who won both a championship and the regular season MVP in consecutive seasons. James averaged 25.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 6.6 apg during the 2013 playoffs while shooting .491 from the field, .375 from three point range and .777 from the free throw line.

James' production can best be described by two words: "great" and "necessary." There are many perks, awards and honors that come with being the best basketball player in the world but that status also carries with it a tremendous responsibility, something that James understands much better now than he did earlier in his career. Great players do not put up ordinary statistics in the NBA Finals; great players dominate the NBA Finals and impose their will on the opposing team. In the first three games of the 2013 NBA Finals, James scored 18, 17 and 15 points as the Heat fell behind two games to one; in the final four games of the series, James scored 33, 25, 32 and 37 points as the Heat won three times to capture the title. There are many statistics and strategies from this series that can be discussed and analyzed but the bottom line is that when James was a 16.7 ppg scorer in the first three games the Heat were headed for a very disappointing loss but when James averaged 31.8 ppg in the final four games he carried the Heat to the championship. James is an all-around player who can rebound, pass and defend at a very high level but his greatest attribute--no matter what anyone says--is that he is one of the best scorers in pro basketball history.

James' primary job is not to pass the ball or defer to others; his primary job is to score at least 25 ppg. The same thing is true of Kobe Bryant--and every time Bryant led the Lakers to the NBA Finals after the creation of this web site I wrote that he needed to average at least 25 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field: that is the standard and that standard has nothing to do with "loving" one player or "hating" another player. James averaged 25.3 ppg on .447 field goal shooting versus the Spurs and the Heat did not clinch the championship until the final seconds of the seventh game at home--and they easily could have lost the championship in the final seconds of game six. James had a great series by the standards of most NBA players but he also barely met the 25 ppg/.450 threshold and that is why his team barely won; if he had performed better in the first three games then this series would not have lasted seven games but if he had not stepped up to the challenge in the final four games then the Heat would have lost. That is part of the confusing legacy of James: he is a great player who has already won two championships and may very well win several more championships but he has a strange propensity to not play his game when the stakes are highest. Maybe the glimpses he provides of his talent raise expectations to unreasonable levels--but I don't fault James for missing shots in the first three games as much as I fault him for not being aggressive enough. In the fourth quarter of game six and during most of game seven, James played decisively: he shot open jump shots without hesitation and he relentlessly drove to the hoop whenever he had the opportunity to do so. Any objective observer has to admit that James played very tentatively during the first three games, hesitating to shoot open jumpers and shying away from attacking the hoop.

Despite all of the talk about James not receiving enough help during his Cleveland years, consider these numbers: his 2007 team that reached the NBA Finals had three players who averaged between 11.3 and 12.6 ppg during the postseason, his 2008 team had three players who averaged between 10.8 and 13.1 ppg during the postseason, his 2009 team had three players who averaged between 10.5 and 16.3 ppg during the postseason and his 2010 team had three players who averaged between 11.5 and 15.3 ppg during the postseason. What about this year's Miami Heat featuring two perennial All-Stars other than James plus future Hall of Famer Ray Allen? Three Heat players averaged between 10.2 ppg and 15.9 ppg during the playoffs. Only four Heat players other than James scored in game seven and one of them, Chris Andersen, contributed just three points; both Chris Bosh and Ray Allen did not score, though Bosh made some key defensive plays and Allen matched James with four assists. No matter how you slice the numbers or analyze the skill sets of the Cleveland players and the Miami players, the reality is that for a team to win a championship the best player must not only post great numbers but he also must dominate the action down the stretch of close games. James has won two championships in Miami after failing to win a championship in Cleveland because James has improved his skill set, strengthened his mindset and committed himself to consistently dominating playoff games versus elite competition. If he had posted a 20-10-10 triple double in game seven that might have looked great on paper to some people but the Heat would have lost; James has an obligation to be a big-time scorer and he fulfilled that obligation in the 2012 NBA Finals and the 2013 NBA Finals after failing to do so in the 2011 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals. Revisionist historians are eager to say that James has now refuted his critics but the truth is that James heeded some very valid critiques, worked hard to improve himself as a player and as a person and now he is reaping the rewards of that self-improvement.

Dwyane Wade was ineffective--and at times looked indifferent--during most of the 2013 playoffs but he played with tremendous energy and aggressiveness in game seven. He not only scored 23 points on 11-21 field goal shooting while grabbing 10 rebounds but he also made several hustle plays. For someone who says that he does not talk about injuries, Wade talks about his injuries a lot but I do not doubt that he really is injured and he deserves credit for saving his best for last, even if it seems like maybe he could have done a little more earlier in the playoffs; some people act like it is a crime against humanity to criticize Wade but, even after he boosted his statistics with his performances in games six and seven, he averaged a career-low 15.9 ppg during the 2013 playoffs and he only surpassed the 20 point plateau four times in his 22 playoff games.

Chris Bosh shot 0-5 from the field but he grabbed seven rebounds and he played excellent defense; the Heat left him on an island one on one versus Duncan, which enabled the Heat's perimeter players to smother the Spurs' perimeter players and hold them to 6-19 (.316) three point shooting. Bosh rarely touched the ball on offense, so it is not fair to judge his performance based on his scoring; on one play he approached Wade to set a screen but Wade turned the ball over and then glared at Bosh for daring to venture over to the strong side of the court when Wade wanted to go one on one. The Heat do not utilize Bosh like the eight-time All-Star that he is but they instead treat him like a glorified Horace Grant, someone who is expected to do the dirty work and occasionally hit a spot up jumper.

Championship teams often have a role player who makes a major, unexpected contribution during their playoff run; Shane Battier put his name alongside John Paxson, Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher by scoring 18 points while shooting 6-8 from three point range, tying the record for most three pointers made in a seventh game of the NBA Finals. Battier received the dreaded DNP-CD (Did Not Play--Coach's Decision) during Miami's 99-76 game seven win against Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals but when Coach Erik Spoelstra called Battier's number in this game seven Battier responded with a clutch performance.

Tim Duncan had a very good overall game--24 points on 8-18 field goal shooting, 12 rebounds, four steals--but he admitted that he will forever be haunted by his critical late game mistakes, including two missed shots from point blank range that could have tied the score. Tony Parker looked completely drained, which is what happens when a small player is hounded by a much bigger and more athletic defender--especially if that defender is LeBron James. Parker had 10 points on 3-12 field goal shooting, plus four assists and three steals; he is an excellent player and he has been a key member of the ensemble cast for three San Antonio championship teams but--as Bill Russell mentioned before game six--Duncan is San Antonio's most valuable player. Anyone who doubts that size matters in pro basketball or who thinks that a small point guard can be the best player on a championship team should look very carefully at what happened in the final two games of this series: James dominated at both ends of the court and played a major role in shutting down Parker, while Parker had very little impact offensively or defensively. Size is significant not just because it affects what a player can and cannot do in a game but also because a smaller player is more likely to become worn down by the end of a long series than a bigger player is.

Manu Ginobili's overall FIBA/NBA resume will likely earn him induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame but the 2013 NBA Finals will not provide many clips for his career highlight video. He finished game seven with 18 points, five assists, four turnovers and a +6 plus/minus rating, providing an excelllent example of how misleading statistics can be; with the result up for grabs in the final 7:14, Ginobili committed three turnovers--including fumbling an easily catchable pass out of bounds plus firing two horribly off target passes that were easily stolen--and shot an air ball from three point range. Ginobili's butter fingers had a lot to do with San Antonio fumbling away the championship, regardless of what the numbers might suggest.

The good news for every future Hall of Famer in this series not named LeBron James is that so much attention is focused on James' legacy that few people care that much about the performances of any other player; Parker's late-series fade, Duncan's miscues at the end of game seven and Ginobili's atrocious ballhandling throughout the series will all be ignored by the vast majority of people who are trying to determine where James ranks among the greatest players in pro basketball history. I focus a lot of my coverage on James, too, but the performances of Wade, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili should at least be mentioned. Wade's excellent showings in games six and seven elevated his series scoring average to 19.6 ppg and he shot a very solid .476 from the field; he was not dominant but overall he was an effective second option. Duncan averaged 18.9 ppg and a series-high 12.1 rpg while shooting .490 from the field, which is about as much as can be reasonably expected from a 37 year old post player--and if the Spurs had closed out game six then he would have deserved serious NBA Finals MVP consideration. Parker averaged 15.7 ppg and 6.4 apg while shooting .412 from the field, numbers that are not good enough considering his role. Ginobili is only asked to be the third scoring option and second playmaking option but he averaged just 11.6 ppg (fifth on the team) and 4.3 apg (second on the team) while shooting .433 from the field and leading the NBA Finals with 3.1 turnovers per game despite only ranking ninth in the series in minutes played.

Two other Spurs should be mentioned. Kawhi Leonard tied James with 45 minutes played, finishing with 19 points and a game-high 16 rebounds; Leonard is an excellent rebounder/defender whose offensive game is still developing. Danny Green set three point shooting records during the first five games of this series but the Heat made a concerted effort to deny him open looks in games six and seven. Green scored five points on 1-12 field goal shooting in game seven; the Heat forced him to dribble instead of allowing him to catch and shoot and he looked extremely uncomfortable trying to make plays with a live dribble.

This series was notable not only for its great drama and high level of competitiveness but also because it thoroughly refuted the idea that it is necessary to hate and/or disrespect an opponent; after game seven, both teams demonstrated commendable sportsmanship as the players and coaching staffs exchanged hugs, handshakes and congratulations/consoling words. During the series there were no flagrant fouls, no technical fouls and no trash talk; rivalries are formed by great players making great plays, not by players doing a lot of extracurricular nonsense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:20 AM

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Heat Build Huge Lead, Hold off Late Thunder Rally to Even Finals at 1-1

Game two of the NBA Finals almost looked like a replay of game one, with the Miami Heat again building a big first half lead only to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder storm back in the second half, but this time the Heat held on for a wire to wire 100-96 win to even the series at 1-1. LeBron James led the Heat with 32 points--establishing a new NBA Finals career high for the second game in a row--and he also had a good floor game with eight rebounds and five assists. James shot 10-22 from the field and 12-12 from the free throw line, significantly better in both categories than his career Finals averages. Dwyane Wade added 24 points, six rebounds and five assists and Chris Bosh--inserted in the starting lineup for the first time since his return from an abdominal muscle strain--had a strong double double (16 points plus a game-high 15 rebounds). Shane Battier scored 17 points for the second game in a row. He has shot 9-13 (.692) from three point range in the first two games of this series, spreading the court to provide driving lanes for James and Wade.

Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 32 points and he now ranks third on the all-time list for most points scored in the first two games of a player's NBA Finals career (68, just behind Allen Iverson's 71 and Michael Jordan's 69). Durant shot 12-22 from the field overall but he only had six points on 3-9 shooting in the first half and his floor game was subpar as he amassed just three rebounds and one assist. He committed a couple silly fouls that landed him in foul trouble and that seemed to affect his aggressiveness in every aspect of the game except for scoring. Russell Westbrook finished with 27 points, a team-high eight rebounds (starting center Kendrick Perkins also had eight rebounds) and a game-high seven assists but, predictably, he received a lot of postgame sniping from the talking heads. Westbrook only had two turnovers but he shot 10-26 from the field, so instead of blasting his ballhandling his critics highlighted his shot selection--but the problem with that narrative is that there is a difference between taking bad shots and just shooting poorly. Yes, Westbrook took a couple questionable shots but that is true of every single player in the NBA who averages more than 20 ppg (and many of the less productive players as well); Westbrook's real problem in game two was that in the first half he inexplicably missed several point blank shots, shots that he normally makes. It is ridiculous to criticize an explosive point guard for penetrating all the way to the basket just because the ball rolled out instead of falling through the hoop. Westbrook made the same moves and attempted the same shots in the second half but in the final 24 minutes he made a much higher percentage of his shots and, not coincidentally, the Thunder got right back into the game. James Harden kept the Thunder alive in the first half with 17 points but he only scored four points in the second half. No other Thunder player scored more than seven points; will the people who screamed after game one that LeBron James needs more help now make the same plaintive plea on Durant's behalf?

Miami started the game with an 18-2 run that essentially decided the outcome; it is not realistic to expect to win after spotting a good team that kind of advantage in the NBA Finals. The Heat led 51-34 late in the first half but Miami's half court offense is still quite erratic--that "clown car" offense is a major reason that the Heat often have trouble executing well enough down the stretch to maintain a lead: whenever they slow the game down and try to work the clock they have a lot of empty possessions that result in poor shots or turnovers. The Heat were still up 98-93 with less than 45 seconds remaining when Wade did his best Michael Jordan impersonation--not the Jordan who won six championships but rather the Jordan from 1995 who, after taking a year and a half off to play baseball, turned the ball over late in Chicago's game one Eastern Conference semifinal loss to Orlando. Wade's blunder resulted in a Durant three pointer and then after James bailed out the Thunder by settling for--and missing--a three pointer the Thunder had a chance to tie or possibly even win the game. The Thunder ran a nice out of bounds play and fed the ball directly to Durant on the left block but he missed a short running shot with less than 10 seconds left. Replays clearly showed that James hooked Durant's right arm and should have been called for a foul but during the postgame press conference Durant quite correctly refused to criticize the referees and instead said that the reason the Thunder lost is that they fell behind by so much so early in the game. Many teams say that they are "no excuse teams" only to make plenty of excuses after they lose but the Thunder truly live by that mantra--and Durant is quite correct: the Thunder lost because of all of the shots that they missed in the first quarter, not because of one shot that Durant missed just before time expired.

Durant's miss and the Heat's victory will likely prevent most people from noticing that James once again did not have a great fourth quarter, scoring six points on 1-3 field goal shooting. If the Thunder had won this game, we would rightly be questioning why James can be so passive late in games after being aggressive for three quarters--but the Heat survived and James did score four crucial points that helped preserve Miami's lead: He hit a tough bank shot from the left wing to put the Heat up 96-91 at the 1:25 mark and then after Durant's miss he grabbed the rebound and made the two game-clinching free throws with seven seconds remaining.

The same people who just got finished saying that the Thunder are too talented for the Heat and that James needs more help to win a championship will now likely place most if not all of the blame squarely on Westbrook. Magic Johnson knows a lot about playing the point guard position but it is far from clear that he is a student of the sport's history; at halftime he boldly declared that Westbrook had just played the worst half a point guard had ever played in the NBA Finals--but Westbrook's only first half "sin" was that he missed several layups after blowing by Wade and anyone else who tried to check him. Westbrook played below his normal standard in the first half but only in the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader's universe of nonstop hype, hyperbole and noise does that mean that Westbrook played worse than any point guard in NBA Finals history. Dennis Johnson was a natural shooting guard who, like Westbrook, converted to point guard at the NBA level; Johnson won the 1979 Finals MVP and earned induction in the Hall of Fame but he missed every single shot that he attempted in game seven of the 1978 NBA Finals. Technically Johnson was still a shooting guard at that stage of his career but the Sonics did not have a true pass first point guard, much like the Thunder do not have a true pass first point guard. There are plenty of examples of point guards, combo guards and other guards who had worse halves in the NBA Finals than Westbrook did in the first half of game two--not to mention that right after Magic Johnson made his ill-considered remark Westbrook bounced back to have an outstanding second half and flirt with a triple double!

No Heat player has consistently been able to stay in front of Westbrook in the first two games of this series and if that continues to be the case then he will finish plays at the rim and the Thunder will eventually prevail. When Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant were the second best players on their championship teams they repeatedly received most of the blame for any losses while Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal respectively get most of the credit for any wins and that storyline is repeating itself now with Durant and Westbrook: when the Thunder win we mainly hear about Durant's greatness (and he is truly great, just like Jordan and O'Neal were) but when the Thunder lose we mainly hear about all of Westbrook's supposedly fatal flaws. The good news for Westbrook is that it would not be surprising to see Durant and Westbrook lead the Thunder to multiple championships; the bad news for Westbrook is that even after Pippen won six titles and Bryant won five titles the media still often found (or made up) reasons to belittle their accomplishments.

As the series shifts to Miami for the next three games it will be interesting to see if the pattern continues to hold that the Heat build big leads only to fade down the stretch; if the pattern is broken it is more likely that the Thunder will get off to better starts than that the Heat will close more strongly: there is no reason that the Thunder cannot do the same things early in games that they do late in games but the Heat's inconsistent half court offense will always be a problem late in games when fatigue sets in and it is more difficult to score in transition. On paper, the Heat have the advantage now because they can clinch the title by winning their home games but history shows that it is very difficult to sweep the middle three games in the 2-3-2 format; the 2004 Pistons and 2006 Heat are the only home teams to accomplish this (oddly, three road teams have swept the middle three games: 1990 Pistons, 1991 Bulls, 2001 Lakers). The likelihood is that this series will return to Oklahoma City with the Thunder having the opportunity to win the championship in front of their home fans.

The two most important team statistics in this series are points in the paint and fast break points: those numbers are impacted by offensive execution (particularly shot selection and turnovers), defensive transition and post play. The Thunder dominated both categories in the first game and won going away despite their slow start; in game two the Heat outscored the Thunder 48-32 in the paint, while fast break points were almost even (11-10 in favor of the Thunder). Perhaps the Thunder will utilize the Durant-Westbrook screen/roll play earlier in the upcoming road games to jump start their offense; that action and the pin down action with Durant receiving the ball on the move on either wing have both been deadly in the second halves of both games and there is no reason that those plays cannot be effective at the start of the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:15 AM

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Energetic Lakers Shut Down Rockets in Game Seven

It has often been said that defense wins championships--and the reason this is often said is because it is true. The L.A. Lakers' vaunted frontcourt finally played defense with energy, hunger and determination, resulting in an 89-70 game seven victory over the resilient Houston Rockets. This is the second biggest game seven victory margin in the history of the Lakers franchise. Pau Gasol led both teams in scoring (21 points) and rebounds (18) but the numbers alone don't tell the full story of how well he played; in game seven, Gasol was much more effective than he had been when he produced 30 points and nine rebounds in a 99-87 game four loss to the Rockets: Gasol dominated the paint at both ends of the court, contesting shots, scooping up six offensive boards and finishing with authority. It was like someone flipped a switch and Gasol suddenly figured out that as a talented 7-footer going against players who are four to six inches shorter than he is he should be able to use his length to his advantage. Andrew Bynum apparently experienced a similar revelation, adding 14 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots. Gasol shot 10-19 from the field, while Bynum made six of his seven shots. Trevor Ariza contributed 15 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots, scoring nine points in the first 6:52 of the game as the Lakers opened the game with a 13-2 run, never trailed and built the lead as high as 31 points. Lamar Odom added six points and seven rebounds off of the bench; he played OK but the sad thing is that if you look at his numbers it is hard to tell whether he is still hampered by his back injury or if he is just displaying his typical inconsistency, because even when Odom was fully healthy during the season it was not uncommon for him to follow up a double double with a "triple single."

In game six, Luis Scola abused Gasol in the post like Gasol had stolen something from him but right from jump in game seven Gasol made it clear that this would not happen again. On Houston's second possession, Gasol blocked a Scola jumper and recovered the ball, leading to a Kobe Bryant "semi-transition" layup. That play and that phrase are very interesting, because when Bryant scored I made a note about "semi-transition" only to hear ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy use the exact same adjective to describe the play; Bryant's layup was not technically a transition or fast break score but Gasol's blocked shot enabled Bryant to get the ball in the open court and attack the Rockets before they could set up their half court defense. Van Gundy noted that such "semi-transition" plays are a perfect time to drive to the hoop. People who assert that Bryant should have been driving all the way to the hoop more often in previous games simply don't understand basketball; in those games the Lakers generally had few transition or even "semi-transition" opportunities because their defense was so poor. Driving all the way to the hoop against an entrenched half court defense as good as Houston's leads to turnovers, offensive fouls and low percentage shots. Against Houston in this series, Bryant drove to the hoop when he had high percentage opportunities to do so but he resisted any temptation to overpenetrate.

This game was billed in some quarters as the most important 48 minutes of Bryant's career; of course, it is utter nonsense to say such a thing about a player who has already won three NBA championships in addition to coming through in the clutch in the gold medal game of the 2008 Olympics--but, sadly, utter nonsense is what I have come to expect from mainstream NBA coverage and that goes double when the subject is Kobe Bryant. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson told Bryant before the game to be a playmaker and get all of his teammates involved but Van Gundy expressed some skepticism about that plan: "I would want him to be a playmaker by shooting 30 times if necessary to win. He should play the entire game or until it's decided." Bryant averaged 34.7 ppg on .600 field goal shooting in the games after the Lakers' first three losses in this year's playoffs, so there certainly was good reason to think that he might score a lot of points in game seven in the wake of the Lakers' disappointing game six defeat but Bryant followed Coach Jackson's advice and made sure that his big men got involved early in the game. Bryant finished with 14 points on 4-12 field goal shooting while playing just 33 minutes; he only made a 97 second cameo appearance in the fourth quarter and did not attempt a shot in the final stanza. Much like Gasol's box score numbers do not fully convey the difference between his performances in game seven and game four, Bryant's point total and shooting percentage do not reflect his impact on this game; he had seven rebounds (tied for second on the team with Odom), five assists (tied for game-high honors), three steals and two blocked shots.

Although journalists masquerading as psychoanalysts have propounded all kinds of kooky theories about Bryant's performances in certain games, Bryant has always insisted that he makes his decisions to shoot or pass based on reading what the defense is doing. Since the Lakers' big men played so lackadaisically for most of this series it is not surprising that the Rockets focused most of their defensive attention on Bryant, who responded by doing a lot of things at both ends of the court that created opportunities for Gasol, Bynum and others to be productive. For instance, at the 3:32 mark of the second quarter Bryant made a hard drive to the hoop and missed a contested layup but Gasol got the rebound and converted a putback dunk. Van Gundy said, "There was a blow-by by Bryant. That's an assist--he missed but because Scola had to come over to help no one was there to put a body on Gasol." Years ago, Doug Collins made a similar point about Allen Iverson when the "Answer" led the 76ers to the NBA Finals but "stat gurus" steadfastly maintain that anyone can miss shots, completely failing to understand just how significant it is to break down a defense with dribble penetration (provided, of course, that the dribbler does not overpenetrate, as mentioned above)--and it most assuredly is not true that "anyone" can dribble penetrate as effectively as Bryant (or Iverson). There is a huge difference between driving to the hoop, collapsing the defense and missing on a high percentage shot versus overdribbling on the perimeter before launching a low percentage fadeaway jumper; certain opening move sequences in chess are named after their most famous practitioners and it would be fitting if the latter basketball maneuver would be named after Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury or Ron Artest, the Rocket who went down in an inglorious blaze, making just four of his final 26 three point attempts in this series, including a 1 for 6 outing in game seven.

In addition to his rebounding, passing and dribble penetration, Bryant was also very active defensively; his boxscore numbers (three steals, two blocked shots) give some sense of that but you had to watch the game to fully appreciate the multiple efforts that he made on many defensive possessions, sliding into the lane to deter drivers, hustling back out to contest perimeter shots and just being a disruptive force in general. As Bryant explained in "Kobe: Doin' Work", he reads situations and understands when to be a "roamer" like NFL defensive backs Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu and when to be a "lockdown" defender zeroed in on one man. On one play early in the game, Aaron Brooks blew by Derek Fisher but Bryant flew in out of nowhere, contested Brooks with his left hand and forced Brooks to miss a layup. That play by Bryant did not even generate a stat and it certainly was not as beautiful or flashy as one of LeBron James' "chase down blocks" but it was very effective and very important.

The contrast between Bryant's efficient contesting of Brooks' shot and James' dramatic, high-flying blocks is an example of why I think that Bryant is almost like a human Rorschach test: people look at him and see whatever they want to see; ESPN blogger Henry Abbott is obsessed with the idea that James is effective but not beautiful to watch, while (according to Abbott) Bryant is beautiful to watch but not as effective as James. Abbott's whole conception about both players is just a contrived notion that Abbott thought up to try to make himself sound clever, but if you actually think it through logically it does not sound clever at all because it really makes no sense: James is a powerful, explosive athlete who literally covers the court in leaps and bounds, soaring through the air for incredible dunks, rebounds and blocked shots. Who could watch James and not dream about being able to fly in such a beautiful, artistic way? Although Bryant's game contains some elements of beauty, one could argue that it was more beautiful when he was younger and more regularly apt to fly through the air. Bryant's game now is less based on beauty and much more based on technical precision. I agree with the general consensus that James has surpassed Bryant as the game's best player but I think that the reasoning that most people give to justify that claim is completely incorrect. I maintain that Bryant was the best player in the NBA from 2005-06 through 2007-08 and that he received his most serious challenge for that title from James--but until this season, James had several notable skill set weaknesses, including defense, free throw shooting, midrange jump shooting and three point shooting. James' powerful and beautiful athleticism (to give James the credit that Abbott bizarrely denies him) compensated somewhat for those weaknesses but not enough to give him the overall edge versus Bryant. This season, James eliminated all of his skill set weaknesses except for the midrange jump shot, so he is now a beautifully athletic player who has also refined his skill set from a technical standpoint. The difference in value between James and Bryant is still small but I give the edge now to James, whereas last year I gave the small edge to Bryant. If you read the "great debate" about this issue--as discussed seprately at ESPN.com and in Slam Magazine--then you will note that the "experts" do not mention the factors outlined above. When comparing the relative value of two players it should not really matter which player's game is more "beautiful" but the suggestion that Bryant's game is more beautiful while James' game is more effective sounds like something a seventh grade creative writing teacher would come up with--"Class, compare and contrast the beauty of Bryant with the efficiency of James"--as opposed to the serious and objective skill set comparison that someone who understands basketball would make.

Bryant's all-around ballhawking combined with the heightened activity levels of Gasol and Bynum in the paint made life very difficult for the Rockets. Three players who hurt the Lakers significantly during Houston's wins in this series--Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola and Carl Landry--were non factors: Brooks finished with 13 points, three assists and five turnovers while shooting 4-13 from the field, Scola had 11 points and six rebounds while shooting 4-12 from the field and Landry ended up with four points and two rebounds while shooting 2-10 from the field. Artest had a solid floor game--eight rebounds, five assists--but his overdribbling and poor shot selection caused ABC's Mark Jackson to repeatedly say that point guard Brooks needed to assert control over Houston's offense by making sure that Artest did not have the ball in his hands so much.

Van Gundy does not think that this series either strengthened the Lakers for what lies ahead or provided much of a blueprint for other teams to use to attack the Lakers; he says that they are who they are, a team with "great competitors in the backcourt, a little inconsistent in the frontcourt."

The most important thing to understand about this game seven and this series in general is that the Lakers won for two reasons: Kobe Bryant and homecourt advantage--and those reasons actually go hand in hand, because without Bryant's regular season play the Lakers would not have had homecourt advantage in the first place. As discussed above, Bryant's play created opportunities for his teammates to excel. Without Bryant's presence, Gasol does not put up 21-18, nor does Bynum play as solidly as he did; in fact, if this game seven had taken place in Houston, those guys may very well have not come through even with Bryant leading the way (and that is an ominous thought for Lakers fans considering that the Cavaliers will enjoy homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals, assuming that both teams make it that far).

In my series preview I wrote, "This series will be an interesting litmus test for the theory that Houston can use 'advanced basketball statistics' to come up with an effective game plan to slow down Bryant; the evidence from this season emphatically suggests that this is not the case: the Lakers won all four games as Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range." While Bryant did not match his exceptional regular season production versus Houston, during this series he still averaged 27.4 ppg on .453 field goal shooting and .344 three point shooting. Bryant averaged just 1.6 turnovers per game in the series despite being guarded by All-Defensive Team members Artest and Shane Battier and despite being almost constantly double and triple teamed; Bryant had no turnovers in two of the games and his series-high four turnovers took place in the Lakers' 118-78 game five rout. Bryant averaged 26.7 ppg and 2.6 tpg in the regular season while shooting .467 from the field and .351 from three point range, so there is an 11 game sample size (four regular season games versus Houston plus this playoff series) that suggests that even with two All-Defensive Team members at their disposal the Rockets' "stat gurus" have not been able to prove--on the court, where it counts, as opposed to in newspaper articles--that their "advanced metrics" give them any kind of real advantage versus Bryant. In fact, after the Rockets seized homecourt advantage with a game one win and could have taken control of the series with a game two victory Bryant bounced back with 40 points on 16-27 field goal shooting, a clutch performance in a must-win game for the Lakers. I absolutely agree that the Rockets are correct to try to use statistics to gain some kind of advantage and I respect that Houston General Manager Daryl Morey seems to understand the limitations of basketball statistical analysis but I think that it is unfortunate that some people act like the search for the basketball statistical "Holy Grail" is over when that search has really only just begun.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:11 AM

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Rockets Lead Wire to Wire, Blast Lakers 95-80

Luis Scola, not Pau Gasol, looked like an All-NBA forward as the Houston Rockets defeated the L.A. Lakers 95-80, forcing a game seven and improbably putting the Western Conference's number one seed on the brink of elimination. Scola scored 24 points on 10-17 field goal shooting and had 12 rebounds, thoroughly abusing any and all Laker frontcourt players who tried to guard him: Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom all ended up looking like David Robinson being taken apart by Hakeem Olajuwon a decade and a half ago. Scola is a very good player but ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy lambasted the Lakers' horrible post defense, calling it "inexcusable (lack of) attention to detail" because Gasol, Bynum and Odom repeatedly let Scola catch the ball deep in the paint and turn to shoot over his left shoulder. The defense was so bad that Van Gundy offered a radical solution, suggesting that the Lakers put 6-6 shooting guard Kobe Bryant on the 6-9, 245 pound power forward Scola: "I want someone who wants to compete with him right now and I don't see any competitive spirit in the post defensively." Bryant has made the All-Defensive First Team seven times--including this year--but if the Lakers have to resort to guarding a power forward with their shooting guard then they are in pretty big trouble. Bryant was visibly displeased with the performance of several of his teammates, including Gasol, who Bryant spoke to very animatedly during a timeout early in the game--and you know what that means: we are all about to be subjected to yet another batch of articles by sportswriters posing as psychiatrists providing detailed commentary about every facial expression Bryant made and every harsh word that he uttered.

The Rockets knocked out the Lakers with a three punch offensive combination: Scola softened them up with low post jabs--especially in the first quarter, when he had 14 points on 6-9 shooting--then Carl Landry came off the bench to hit them with body blows (15 points on 6-6 field goal shooting, nine rebounds) and Aaron Brooks used his speed and deft shooting (26 points on 8-13 marksmanship) to put the Lakers down for the count. The Lakers' pick and roll defense is in shambles and their big men are so reluctant to protect the hoop you'd think that the basket is radioactive; a typical "defensive" sequence for the Lakers begins with Gasol showing up softly in a halfhearted attempt to trap Brooks on a screen/roll play and ends with Brooks lofting an easy shot over Odom or Bynum.

Scola, Brooks and Landry were so productive that the Rockets survived Ron Artest's awful shot selection; Artest scored 14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, often breaking off plays to simply dribble around aimlessly before firing up low percentage bricks. The problem with Artest is not merely his shooting percentage but the quality and timing of the shots he takes, because when you take bad shots your team has little chance to get offensive rebounds or even properly balance the court in transition defensively.

The Rockets outscored the Lakers 15-1 to start the game, with Scola pouring in eight of those points. The Lakers did not score a field goal until Bryant made a layup at the 6:21 mark of the first quarter and by that time they trailed 17-3. Scola made the score 19-3 by drilling a jump hook in Gasol's eye and Van Gundy said, "He's coming back to his left shoulder. The catch is too easy, the jump hook is too easy." In other words, Gasol provided no resistance either prior to Scola catching the ball or after Scola received the ball in the paint. That is simply unacceptable. After the game, Gasol said, "I have faith in our team. I think we're going to respond to this loss. We're going to be mentally ready." That just begs the question of why they--and specifically he--were not mentally ready for this game. Gasol is a skillful player but it is clear that it is not an accident that he had an 0-12 record in playoff games prior to joining forces with Bryant last season.

Near the end of the first quarter, Van Gundy declared, "They (the Rockets) are just dominating the paint and again it comes back to frontcourt toughness. If you have people who want to protect the basket you have a chance. If you don't you have no chance." Van Gundy is a great game analyst but I don't know what kind of future he has at ESPN if he continues to tell the truth and does not adhere to the journalistic convention of blaming Bryant for everything that goes wrong with the Lakers.

When Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was interviewed after the first quarter with his team trailing 27-15, he said, "Pau is playing a lackluster kind of game. We have to get him going."

Some people talk about how talented this Lakers team supposedly is and how offensively explosive they can be but the reality is that this team is mentally soft and the reason that they can be offensively explosive is that Bryant constantly attracts multiple defenders; without Bryant, this team would struggle to win 40 games, particularly in the West: can anyone really say with a straight face that a Bryant-less Lakers team would be as good as the Nash-Shaq-Richardson Suns that won 46 games and did not even make the playoffs this year?

Bryant led the Lakers with a game-high 32 points but he shot 11-27 from the field as the Rockets did a good job of sending multiple defenders at him; one of his misses was a half court heave just before the halftime buzzer but there is no denying that the Rockets--spearheaded by Shane Battier--made Bryant work for everything that he got. So much has been made of Houston's plan to force Bryant to shoot contested two point jumpers but Bryant managed to get to the hoop often enough to shoot 9-10 from the free throw line; he also missed several shots in the lane that could not accurately be described as long jumpers, so depending on your perspective he either missed some makeable shots or the Rockets defended him well on those attempts or Bryant was fatigued due to having to carry such a heavy load. However you look at it, the bottom line is that he is averaging 29.7 ppg on .463 field goal shooting while committing just 1.7 turnovers per game this series so it cannot objectively be said that the Rockets have uncovered some magic formula for stopping Bryant: they are alternating two All-Defensive Team members on him plus sending multiple help defenders and he is still exceeding his regular season scoring average while matching his regular season field goal percentage and cutting down his turnover rate.

One situation with Bryant that bears watching--assuming that the Lakers win game seven--is that at the 2:03 mark of the second quarter he picked up his fifth technical foul of the playoffs; by NBA rule, any player receiving seven technical fouls in the playoffs is automatically suspended for one game. Van Gundy immediately said of Bryant's technical foul, "That's a joke" and Mark Jackson chimed in, "That's an awful call, no question about it--a missed call." What happened was Artest committed a loose ball foul against Bryant--which the officials called--and then Artest jumped backwards as if Bryant had unloaded a massive blow to his face. Artest's theatrics completely fooled the officials, who whistled Bryant for a technical foul. Moments later, Artest and Bryant were standing next to each other calmly talking during a stoppage of play and Van Gundy narrated what viewers could see by reading Bryant's lips: "Kobe just told him he flopped and that's exactly what happened." The league office has the authority to rescind technical fouls and since there is absolutely no question that this particular technical foul was bogus look for the NBA to issue yet another apology and wipe that call out of the record books.

Gasol finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, which simply is not good enough considering that he is being guarded by players who are much smaller and less skilled than he is. Odom had a game-high 14 rebounds but scored just eight points; he is hindered by the back injury that he suffered in game four but it's not like the Lakers can consistently depend on him to be productive even when he is fully healthy. Bynum scored zero points and had seven rebounds in 19 minutes; I have a vivid imagination but I cannot picture a scenario in which he either would have made a difference in last year's Finals versus Kevin Garnett/Kendrick Perkins/Leon Powe or in which he will make a difference in this year's Finals versus Cleveland's versatile and deep frontcourt--assuming that the Lakers make it to the Finals.

Let's not forget that vaunted Lakers bench. Bynum was the nominal starter, though Odom played more minutes than Bynum did; as for the other guys, Jordan Farmar played very well (13 points on 5-10 field goal shooting) but Luke Walton (zero points on 0-5 field goal shooting), Sasha Vujacic (two points on 1-3 field goal shooting) and Shannon Brown (two points on 0-3 field goal shooting) contributed nothing. The Rockets are now missing two All-Star players--Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, who has been out of the lineup for months--which means by definition that their bench has been depleted because two reserves have been converted into starters but they got an outstanding performance from Landry and a couple timely shots from Von Wafer (five points on 2-3 field goal shooting in five minutes). Kyle Lowry did not shoot well but he had four assists in 15 minutes, twice as many as the five Lakers' reserves produced in 88 combined minutes.

The fully loaded Celtics--with a healthy Kevin Garnett, plus James Posey and P.J. Brown coming off of the bench--were pushed to seventh games twice last season and still won a championship. NBA history shows--and we have already seen in this series--that momentum does not carry over from game to game, particularly when there is a shift in venue. The likelihood is that the Lakers will win on Sunday, quite possibly by double digits, but the way that the Lakers are playing does not bode well for their championship ambitions, even if they do eliminate the Rockets and move on to face the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:41 AM

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bryant Scores 26 as Lakers Rout Rockets, Move Within One Win of the Conference Finals

Led by Kobe Bryant's efficient 26 points on 10-19 field goal shooting, the L.A. Lakers bounced back from their embarrassing game four loss to post a dominating 118-78 game five win versus the Houston Rockets. This is the Lakers' biggest margin of victory in a playoff game since 1986 and the Rockets tied a franchise record for their most lopsided playoff defeat. Bryant, who also had four rebounds and three assists, played just 31 minutes and sat out the entire fourth quarter. Pau Gasol had 16 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots, providing a classic demonstration of why it is so wrong to evaluate basketball players purely by numbers: Gasol's game four line of 30 points and nine rebounds looks more impressive but in game four Gasol was tentative and soft, accumulating what Jeff Van Gundy correctly called "fake" numbers long after the outcome of the game had been decided. In game five, Gasol was decisive and aggressive. Andrew Bynum scored a playoff career-high 14 points, a total that is an encouraging sign for the Lakers but also makes a mockery of the idea that he is a main offensive threat for the team; when your playoff career-high is 14 points, it is charitable to say that you have yet to establish yourself as a dominant postseason scorer. The Lakers need for Bynum to provide a consistent effort defensively and on the boards--and to not let his performance in those departments be affected by how many points he scores. Bynum had six rebounds, no turnovers and two fouls in 20 minutes, shooting 5-6 from the field and 4-4 from the free throw line.

Seven Lakers scored in double figures but special mention should be made of Lamar Odom, who was doubtful to even play in this game due to the bruised lower back he suffered in the previous game; Odom came off of the bench to score 10 points and grab six rebounds in 19 minutes. One can question his focus and his decision making at times but no one should ever question his heart; I remember one game when he played for Team USA he was getting IVs at halftime so that he could go back out and play in the second half.

Aaron Brooks again led the Rockets in scoring but this time he had 14 points on just 4-11 field goal shooting, a far cry from his career-high 34 points on 12-20 shooting in game four. Von Wafer added 13 points--mainly in garbage time--and Luis Scola had 12 points, 13 rebounds and four assists. Ron Artest has largely escaped criticism in this series--mainly because people are so busy talking about the Lakers--but he finished with just nine points, four rebounds and one assist while shooting 4-15 from the field, including 1-7 from three point range. Artest might have the worst shot selection of anyone possessing a comparable amount of athletic gifts; in this series he is shooting .394 from the field and .294 from three point range, numbers that are inexcusable considering his abilities, particularly because he is launching nearly seven three point attempts per game but only shooting 2.6 free throw attempts per game. You'd think that with all of Houston's well advertised--or self-promoted, depending on how you look at it--emphasis on "advanced basketball statistics" that someone in their organization would figure out that a 6-7, 260 pound athlete should not be jacking up threes left and right, especially when he is not shooting a good percentage. Maybe one of the "stat gurus" should sidle up to Ron-Ron, show him some pie charts and inform him about the intricacies of offensive efficiency.

Shane Battier scored 23 points in game four and some people questioned why Bryant so often roams away from Battier to provide defensive help but the reality is that Battier is a minor offensive threat and that the Lakers needed Bryant's presence elsewhere to try to plug up holes in their defense. Bryant guarded Battier the same way in game five that he did in the previous four games and Battier finished with five points on 2-7 shooting; Battier is averaging 9.2 ppg on .394 shooting in this series, so Bryant's approach is clearly correct.

In game four, the Rockets jumped out to a 9-0 lead and never looked back. The Rockets started off game five in very strong fashion with an 11-4 run but then the Lakers clamped down defensively and they forced some turnovers that led to easy scores in transition. Bryant set the tone by scoring 12 first quarter points on 5-7 shooting and the Lakers led 35-24 after the first 12 minutes. The Lakers' bench has not been a strength for this team recently but with Gasol and Odom serving as anchors playing alongside three reserves, the Lakers pushed the margin to 47-33 while Bryant rested for just over four minutes. When Bryant returned to action, the Lakers' attack at both ends of the court kicked into overdrive and by halftime he had scored 20 points and the Lakers led 64-39.

While the Lakers made a run in game four--even if that run was somewhat "fake"--the Rockets never even hinted at making a comeback in this contest. Bryant went to the bench for good with 1:00 remaining in the third quarter and the Lakers up 90-54.

TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith asserted after the game that the Lakers have the most talented team in the league and even went so far as to bizarrely claim that Coach Phil Jackson and Bryant are taking too "lackadaisical" (Barkley's word) or "arrogant" (Smith's word) of an approach at times. The analysts who have actually been broadcasting these games--Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson for ESPN/ABC and Doug Collins for TNT--have repeatedly and correctly made the point that the Lakers' bench this year has been extremely inconsistent and that several Lakers' bench players (most notably Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar) have underperformed compared to last season. I actually thought that the Lakers' bench was overrated even last year but there is no question that the Lakers' bench is performing worse this season than they did last season--that is obvious to anyone who has followed this team closely and is also quite clear if you look at the statistics of Vujacic and Farmar: Vujacic shot .454 from the field last season, .387 this season and .241 (that is not a typo) so far in this year's playoffs; Farmar shot .461 from the field last season, .391 this season and .406 so far in this year's playoffs.

As for this "lackadaisical"/"arrogant" business, Jackson explicitly warned the Lakers prior to game four to not take anything for granted even with Yao Ming out of the lineup. Bryant certainly does not skip any steps in terms of his preparation or his performance and, quite frankly, if the rest of his teammates--particularly the bigs--had his attitude and demeanor then this series would already be finished.

This is the time of year when everyone becomes an amateur psychiatrist and tries to psychoanalyze Bryant's body language, shot attempts, lack of shot attempts, etc. We saw this phenomenon rear its ugly head during the 2008 Finals and it is cropping up again now. I just read an entire article devoted to criticizing Bryant for scowling. When Bernard King did this everyone praised his "game face"; when Michael Jordan screamed at teammates, punched Steve Kerr in the face or trash talked with opponents and/or courtside fans everyone raved about how singularly competitive he is. How about this: instead of getting sidetracked by Bryant's scowl or about how Houston's Daryl Morey is going to revolutionize the usage of basketball statistics, let's look at the real story of this series, the story that no one is talking about: despite all of Houston's scouting and all of Houston's detailed statistics--and despite having two All-Defensive Team players in Shane Battier and Ron Artest--Kobe Bryant is averaging 29.2 ppg versus the Rockets while shooting .475 from the field and .391 from three point range and he has his Lakers on the brink of advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row. Scoring averages and shooting percentages tend to decline in the playoffs because the competition is tougher and because each team can zero in on their opponent's tendencies but whatever advantage the Rockets claim to have in terms of statistical preparation is not showing up where it counts the most: Bryant's raw individual numbers and, even more significantly, wins and losses. Instead of focusing on a scowl or on one play or on one game, it would be nice if members of the media who discuss this series had the necessary attention span/analytical ability/intellectual honesty/communication skills to not bury the lead under a mountain of gibberish.

As I mentioned in my analysis of the New York Times' article about Morey's use of basketball statistics, I respect what Morey is trying to do and I believe that he has a good grasp of both the possibilities and limitations of basketball statistical analysis but I think that a lot of the fans of basketball statistical analysis do not have a similarly nuanced understanding; for that reason, after this series is over the New York Times should do a followup article detailing how Bryant overcame Houston's defensive preparation by utilizing his skill set strengths to maximum effectiveness.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Soft Lakers Crumble Versus Yao-less Rockets

It is not surprising that the Houston Rockets played with great energy and heart on Sunday, beating the L.A. Lakers 99-87 despite being without All-Star center Yao Ming, who will miss the rest of the playoffs due to a broken foot--but the Lakers should be ashamed of a soft, listless performance in which the Rockets outscored them 9-0 at the start, never trailed and led by as many as 29 points. Aaron Brooks completely abused the Lakers, scoring a career-high 34 points on 12-20 field goal shooting. Shane Battier shot 5-10 from three point range and contributed a playoff career-high 23 points, feasting on open opportunities in transition and when the Lakers' defense collapsed due to dribble penetration by Brooks and others. Kyle Lowry added 12 points off of the bench, while Luis Scola had 11 points and a game-high 14 rebounds, thoroughly outplaying Lamar Odom. Ron Artest scored just eight points and exercised horrible judgment with his shot selection (4-19 from the field, including 0-6 from three point range) but he had 10 rebounds and six assists.

Pau Gasol led the Lakers with 30 points and nine rebounds in what was, without question, the worst, least effective 30 point game I have ever watched in my life; he was so soft for most of the game that you could have cut him to ribbons with tissue paper. It must be emphasized that he scored 18 points in the fourth quarter, which began with the Lakers trailing 83-56. Can you say "extensive garbage time"? ABC's Jeff Van Gundy offered the perfect take on Gasol's numbers: "These are all fake stats for the Lakers. This is fake. They got run out of here. You got some big numbers put up by some guys in a meaningless quarter." I can hardly wait for the Wages of Wins post explaining how this game "proved" that Gasol is clearly the best player on the Lakers, which will of course be picked up by True Hoop and probably placed right next to another gossip page report spewing rumors about Bryant that have already been refuted by the concerned parties; I still have not figured out why ESPN's basketball blog tried to cast aspersions on a Spike Lee documentary that the network will be airing commercial free next Saturday but the best part of True Hoop's National Enquirer-inspired "journalism" in this case is the "update" that does not in any way indicate that the original True Hoop post left out the fact Lee had immediately contradicted the anti-Bryant report (the comments section to the anti-Bryant True Hoop offering is an interesting indicator that more and more people are realizing that the emperor of the basketball blogosphere is wearing no clothes).

The Lakers' bench also padded their numbers in garbage time but Van Gundy--whose commentary during this game was as on point as the Rockets' play--spoke the truth about a team that some people falsely call the deepest in the league. Van Gundy said that the Lakers need to get "consistent performance" from Andrew Bynum and Jordan Farmar because "If you don't have at least two guys off of your bench every night who you can trust to play effectively then you are really going to struggle." Bynum had no points and two rebounds in 12 minutes, while Farmar scored seven points on 2-7 shooting in 21 minutes. Odom, who has taken Bynum's spot in the starting lineup, sleepwalked to two points and six rebounds in 25 minutes before charging into Battier and taking a nasty fall that induced back spasms that sidelined Odom for the rest of the game; Odom's status is unknown for game five on Tuesday but what is known is that after playing well versus Utah in the first round Odom has once again pulled a disappearing act, scoring in double figures just once in four games against the Rockets despite playing at least 25 minutes in each outing. The Lakers' vaunted frontcourt depth may really be on full display for a national TV audience on Tuesday because if Odom cannot play and Bynum continues his Invisible Man routine then Josh Powell and D.J. Mbenga will receive significant minutes. Lakers' fans, debate and discuss amongst yourselves which is the more frightening scenario: Odom is healthy but puts up another "triple-single" or Odom is not healthy and your season rises or falls based on Powell or Mbenga making a positive contribution in 15-20 minutes of action.

Van Gundy declared that the Lakers "need frontcourt toughness. Their toughness is all in the backcourt." That weakness is the primary reason that the Lakers lost this game, combined with the fact that none of the Lakers' point guards could stay in front of Brooks--but even that problem could have been at least somewhat mitigated if the Lakers' bigs had rotated correctly and effectively to cut of dribble penetration. Mark Jackson illustrated this point perfectly with two film clips: one showed the Rockets driving to the hoop with abandon as no Lakers rotated to protect the rim, while the other showed Battier sliding into Odom's path to take a charge on the play when Odom got hurt.

Of course, the player whose performance will be (incorrectly) dissected shot by shot, possession by possession and who will be cast as the scapegoat is none other than Kobe Bryant, who scored 15 points on 7-17 field goal shooting and had five assists, four steals, two rebounds and no turnovers in 35 minutes. Since many people will no doubt try to convince you that Bryant played terribly, let's take an objective look at exactly what he did and did not do during this Lakers debacle. The Lakers began the game with Trevor Ariza throwing a lazy pass that Artest intercepted and converted into an easy fastbreak layup. The Rockets led 9-0 before Bryant put the Lakers on the board by making a jumper at the 8:31 mark of the first quarter. With 4:52 remaining in the quarter, the Rockets led 22-7; Bryant had scored all seven Lakers' points on 3-5 shooting, while Gasol was 0-3 from the field and Odom was 0-2 with a turnover. At the 4:33 mark, Derek Fisher nailed a jumper to become the first Laker not named Bryant to score a point. The Lakers trailed 29-16 at the end of the first quarter, with Bryant scoring nine of the 16 points on 4-8 shooting; Bryant had shouldered more than half of the offensive load with efficient scoring but the Lakers had already dug themselves a deep hole.

What about Battier getting loose for 12 first quarter points? Isn't that Bryant's fault? Yes and no. For most of the series, Bryant has been playing off of Battier in order to help out defensively in other areas--and the Lakers need all of the help that they can get, as will be documented throughout this article. Battier is a good three point shooter who is often reluctant to shoot but with Yao out Battier decided to become more aggressive; he got some of his baskets because Bryant was sagging off of him but some of his opportunities came in transition when the Lakers were cross-matched; when Bryant picks up a cutter or drops into the lane to stop a driver then someone else should close out on Battier.

Here is Van Gundy's assessment of the first quarter: "The Lakers are not playing hard enough." Jackson added that while the Lakers "certainly" are capable of winning a championship, right now they are performing like the third best team in this year's playoffs, behind Cleveland and Denver. Van Gundy responded to Jackson's statement by saying, "Denver is a more committed team defensively than L.A. at this point in time but L.A. has much more offensive talent." I wholeheartedly agree with his first point but the second point is debatable; the Lakers have Kobe Bryant, who is obviously better than any single Denver player, but the Nuggets have a prime wing scoring threat in Carmelo Anthony, a point guard whose postseason play this year has been off the charts in Chauncey Billups, a deadly (if sometimes erratic) sixth man in J.R. Smith and a solid postup threat in Nene. The Nuggets have five double figure scorers, while the Lakers have four; Derek Fisher is averaging just shy of 10 ppg but Odom may be out of action and the Lakers are getting nothing from their bench, so the comparison is closer than Van Gundy suggests even with Bryant in the mix and it would be a landslide in Denver's favor without Bryant.

Bryant sat out the first 4:46 of the second quarter and the Rockets extended their lead to 41-22. After Bryant returned to action the Lakers cut the margin to 47-35 but by halftime the Rockets had forged a 54-36 advantage. Bryant had 13 first half points on 6-12 field goal shooting. Van Gundy said that the recipe for success in the NBA is "skill, unselfishness and effort. Where is the effort for the Lakers?"

One sequence from late in the first half epitomized how the Lakers were playing: Bryant drove into the lane and drew three defenders--with a fourth defender poised to come over if necessary--and he dished the ball perfectly to a wide open Gasol on the baseline. Gasol could have taken the midrange jumper but instead he drove tentatively and got fouled; I say that his move was tentative because he hesitated after he caught the pass--instead of shooting with confidence--and then when he got in the lane he went up with one hand instead of trying a power move with two hands. Gasol nearly airballed the first free throw and then made the second free throw. This looked like a replay of the 2008 Finals: the opposing team swarms Bryant with three and four defenders, fully realizing that no other Laker is willing or able to make a play. Gasol is a talented player who has a good shooting touch, so the correct play for him when Bryant drives and kicks is to take that open jump shot; driving into the teeth of the defense is just as likely to lead to a turnover or an offensive foul as it is to lead to a score and what Gasol did was simply drive right into the area where all the defenders had congregated around Bryant. During the past year and a half, Gasol has feasted off of the open shots that Bryant has created for him--that is why Gasol's field goal percentage has soared to career-high levels as a Laker--but against physical teams like the Celtics in the 2008 Finals or the Rockets in this series Gasol becomes strangely tentative at times.

During the halftime report, ABC's Magic Johnson--who owns a minority stake in the Lakers--minced no words: "This is an embarrassing effort by the Lakers...We see them standing around hoping and wishing that Kobe will bail them out."

On the opening play of the second half, Brooks drove straight down the lane for an uncontested layup. The Lakers made one field goal in the first 6:28 of the quarter, a drive by Bryant. Bryant tried several times to get to the hoop but since none of his teammates represented viable threats the Rockets simply created a wall in front of the rim and blocked his path without fouling him. Bryant shot 1-5 from the field, Ariza had a point blank shot blocked after a slick feed from Bryant and Gasol missed a pair of free throws as the Rockets pulled away. When Lakers Coach Phil Jackson took Bryant out at the 2:16 mark for his customary rest, Houston led 77-50. Van Gundy asked, "Are the Lakers a together, tough-minded team? Because if not, you can't win it all." Mark Jackson added, "Defense is not a some time thing. It's an all the time thing." All season long, this Lakers team has been inconsistent defensively, which is something that I have emphasized. The Lakers have also had a tendency to play down to the level of their competition--or the level that they perceive their competition to be at, because this game should disabuse the Lakers of any notions about their own greatness.

The third quarter concluded with a mind boggling defensive lapse by the Lakers: Artest inbounded the ball from half court with .7 seconds remaining, throwing a perfect lob to Brooks, who caught the pass and made an uncontested layup. How bad is a defense that concedes a 50 foot alley oop to a 6-0 point guard? Pretty bad.

Bryant spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench as Gasol padded his statistics. Although the Lakers cut the lead to 10 points with :23 remaining that was just window dressing, as Van Gundy rightly noted.

The Lakers bounced back from losing game one of this series at home to win two straight games and retake home court advantage; they still should be considered the favorites to win this series but the concentration lapses that they have repeatedly had during the playoffs do not bode well for the Lakers in terms of their goal of winning a championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Rockets Stun Lakers, 100-92

Yao Ming (28 points on 9-17 shooting, 10 rebounds) outscored Pau Gasol (14 points, 13 rebounds) and Andrew Bynum (10 points, three rebounds) combined as the Houston Rockets beat the L.A. Lakers 100-92 to seize home court advantage in the Western Conference semifinals. Ron Artest scored 21 points, dished off for a game-high seven assists and shot an uncharacteristically efficient 8-15 from the field. The quickness of Aaron Brooks proved to be a real X factor, as the diminutive Houston point guard scored 19 points on 7-14 shooting as no Laker defender could stay in front of him; Brooks created scoring opportunities for himself or for his teammates on several occasions when the shot clock was running down.

Kobe Bryant had 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals, tying Gasol by playing a game-high 44 minutes. The Lakers trailed for the vast majority of the game, so Bryant played all 24 minutes in the second half; Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson would normally rest Bryant from the last few minutes of the third quarter through the first few minutes of the fourth quarter but Jackson found out the hard way during this season that if he follows that type of substitution pattern when the other Lakers are floundering then the Lakers will lose--but the flip side of that is when the Lakers depend on Bryant to carry the bulk of the scoring load while also grabbing the second most rebounds and tying for the team lead in assists there is a danger that he will become run down. Bryant shot 6-9 from the field in the third quarter and 4-10 in the fourth quarter, finishing 14-31. The Rockets will surely receive a lot of praise for "containing" Bryant but I only agree partially with that assessment; Bryant's .452 field goal percentage in this game is right around his career average so the Rockets did not really force him to miss shots at an unusual rate but they did a very good job of limiting him to just five free throw attempts. Shane Battier guarded Bryant early in the game, while Artest generally handled the assignment in the fourth quarter--but the real adjustment that the Rockets made down the stretch is that they started sending more and more help defenders toward Bryant as it became increasingly apparent that no other Lakers were able to consistently make open shots; that is much like the defensive scheme that the Boston Celtics used versus the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals. The Lakers shot 2-18 from three point range and while Bryant contributed to that poor number with his errant 1-7 long distance shooting the other Lakers shot 1-11 and many of those misses were wide open looks that Bryant created either with dribble penetration or by simply attracting help defenders.

Think about the standard that Bryant has set: 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals while shooting better than .450 is basically an "average" game for him--and some people will surely spin this into being a "bad" game. Yet, Bryant's 32 points are more than Dwyane Wade scored in five of his seven playoff games this year and that field goal percentage--against a team that plays much better defense than the Atlanta Hawks do--is better than Wade's performance in three of seven games and only slightly worse (a difference of one missed field goal) than Wade's shooting in three of the other four playoff games. Paul Pierce has shot worse than .452 in six of his eight playoff games this year and he has yet to score more than 29 points. So, when the "stat gurus" and the media sheep who follow them start talking about how the Rockets "shut down" Bryant in game one, keep the above numbers in mind: the Rockets' needed two All-Defensive Team players plus a 7-6 center and a wall of help defenders in order to "hold" Bryant to 32 points and his normal shooting percentage.

Although Bryant did not play poorly in game one, the likelihood is that he will play even better in game two--and the Lakers will need that kind of performance from him, because game two is a must win for the Lakers, who cannot depend on receiving solid production from their much vaunted "deep" roster. Pau Gasol had a good rebounding game, though some of his board work consisted of collecting his own misses; overall, he was not strong with the ball (four turnovers) and he missed a number of wide open shots, connecting on just six of 14 attempts: considering the fact that his shots are either open jumpers or shots in the paint--often against just one defender--his shooting percentage is a bigger concern for the Lakers than Bryant's. The Lakers can win with Bryant shooting around .450 but they need Gasol to be up around the .550 range that he has maintained since joining the team and benefiting from all of the defensive attention that Bryant receives.

Andrew Bynum scored 10 points in 15 minutes on 5-10 shooting but he shot a lot of jumpers, attempted no free throws, grabbed only three rebounds, committed three fouls in his short stint and missed several defensive assignments. Nothing that I have seen from Bynum convinces me that his presence would have made much difference in the 2008 Finals, nor am I convinced that he is the star in the making that so many people think that he is. What we have seen from Bynum in his brief career is that he can be productive for short stretches but that he is also injury prone and foul prone, two tendencies that make it difficult for him to stay on the court long enough to develop a good rhythm or have much of a consistent impact. If Bynum can stay healthy and if Bynum can stay out of foul trouble then maybe he will develop into a significant contributor but, as former Browns' Coach Sam Rutigiliano used to say, "If 'ifs and buts' were candy and nuts, it would be Christmas every day."

Trevor Ariza played a solid game (10 points on 4-8 shooting, four rebounds, two steals). Usually his defense is a plus for the Lakers but Ariza really struggled to guard Artest due to Artest's significant strength advantage. Here is a thought exercise for you: look up the rosters of the other 15 playoff teams and figure out how many of those teams would play Ariza ahead of their current starting small forward. Don't get me wrong: I think that Ariza is wonderfully suited to be a James Posey-type of impact player off of the bench for a very good team.

Derek Fisher shot poorly (3-10) and might have gotten whiplash from all the times that Brooks blew past him.

In my series preview I noted that Lamar Odom played well in the first round versus Utah "but that most likely means that he is due to have a five point, two rebound disappearing act soon." He was not quite that bad but with Bynum's playing time limited due to foul trouble the Lakers needed more from Odom than nine points and five rebounds in 31 minutes. He also committed five fouls and the Lakers' bench as a whole contributed 18 points and 12 fouls, compared to 16 points versus four fouls for the Rockets' bench.

Shannon Brown--the Lakers' sixth man in minutes played versus Utah--scored two points in 13 minutes, Sasha Vujacic had two points in 14 minutes, while Jordan Farmar (three points in three minutes) and Josh Powell (two points in five minutes) made cameo appearances.

In contrast, the Rockets received good production from every member of the starting lineup--Battier's boxscore numbers are not much to look at but his job was to defend Bryant while keeping him off of the foul line and he did that task adequately. Bench players Carl Landry and Kyle Lowry, who combined to shoot 5-8 from the field, had a positive impact.

The Lakers swept the regular season series versus Houston 4-0 but they needed fourth quarter rallies spearheaded by Bryant to win each of those games. Bryant had nine fourth quarter points on 4-10 field goal shooting in game one but that was not enough to overcome the sluggish offense and sloppy defense played by the rest of the Lakers as the Rockets scored 30 fourth quarter points. As I've said throughout the regular season and during the Utah series, the Lakers are not consistent enough defensively, which is why I picked the Cavs to beat them in the NBA Finals; the Lakers said all of the right things in the wake of their loss to Boston last year but the Lakers had the same problems this season that they did during that series: defensive lapses, blown leads, lack of focus/concentration. That said, the Lakers did win 65 games this season and there is every reason to believe that they can not only win game two but also win at least one game in Houston to retake home court advantage.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:39 AM

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Los Angeles Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 L.A. Lakers (65-17) vs. #5 Houston (53-29)

Season series: L.A. Lakers, 4-0

Houston can win if…the defensive duo of Shane Battier/Ron Artest harass Kobe Bryant into sub.-.450 field goal shooting and Yao Ming and Luis Scola dominate Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.

L.A. will win because…Bryant will accept the challenge of contending with Battier and Artest but he will do so within the context of his team's needs, scoring when he has the opportunity to do so but also creating plays for his teammates with his passing. Gasol will present a matchup problem for whoever guards him but it will be difficult for Houston to effectively double team Gasol when Bryant is on the court with him. Bynum was very ineffective in the first round but it is reasonable to expect that he will perform better versus Houston; it may sound strange to say this, but Bynum will probably be more comfortable playing against Yao than he was playing against the smaller, more mobile Utah frontcourt players, even though Yao is a better player than any of Utah's bigs.

Other things to consider: This series will be an interesting litmus test for the theory that Houston can use "advanced basketball statistics" to come up with an effective game plan to slow down Bryant; the evidence from this season emphatically suggests that this is not the case: the Lakers won all four games as Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range. Bryant scored 31 of his 37 points in the second half in a Lakers 102-96 win on March 11, completely abusing Ron Artest and openly laughing at Artest's attempts to trash talk him, at one point saying derisively, "You're a comedian" after Artest bragged that he could shut Bryant down. Winning in the postseason requires mental toughness and concentration; while Artest has the necessary physical tools to try to challenge Bryant, Artest's mental game is sporadic at best: he loses focus at both ends of the court, which is the main reason that his career playoff field goal percentage is a paltry .389 despite his obvious athletic gifts. This is just the second time in Artest's 10 year career that he has made it past the first round of the playoffs.

Odom played consistently well in the first round but that most likely means that he is due to have a five point, two rebound disappearing act soon. You will probably hear a lot about the Lakers' supposedly superior depth. Even if Bynum plays well--which I expect him to do but this is far from certain--the Lakers' current rotation is hardly deep: based on minutes played versus the Jazz, their sixth man is Shannon Brown. While Brown played well in that series, the Lakers got very little production out of players seven through 11--and Luke Walton may be out for the rest of the postseason. The Rockets used a solid eight man rotation in their first round series versus Portland, though Kyle Lowery did not shoot very well. The Lakers' advantage in this series is not depth but rather that they have Kobe Bryant (and home court advantage).

The Lakers should win this series in five games but because of their concentration lapses, lack of depth and sporadic attention to detail on defense it would not surprise me if the Rockets steal a game--perhaps coming back from a double digit deficit--and extend the series to six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:47 PM

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Difference Between Measuring Defense in Basketball and Baseball

The April 6, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated contains an article by Albert Chen titled Baseball's Next Top Models; Chen describes how baseball teams are using advanced statistics to ascertain which players are the best fielders at each position. The Tampa Bay Rays won the 2008 American League championship largely because they tremendously improved their defense by using advanced statistics as the basis for various personnel moves and for deciding how to most effectively deploy the players on their roster to maximize their defensive skills (for instance, they moved Akinori Iwamura from third base to second base not only because his defensive statistics are better at the latter position but also to make room for Evan Longoria to be called up as the new third baseman). Baseball statisticians have access to data that pinpoints where every single batted ball went and whether or not the fielder converted that play into an out. Although there are at least 10 players on a baseball field at any given time (one pitcher, eight fielders, one batter--assuming that there are no men on base), virtually everything that happens when the ball is in play can be broken down into a series of discrete, one on one actions: the pitcher throws the ball, the batter swings and, if he makes contact, a fielder attempts to catch the ball. Therefore, if one gathers together a large enough sample size of data, it is possible to create reliable models regarding pitchers, batters and fielders.

Obviously, basketball is a much more fluid and complex sport than baseball, at least in terms of constructing meaningful statistical models: even during an "isolation" play ostensbily involving only one ballhandler and one defender the other eight players on the court all have the potential to affect what will happen--the other four defenders may end up trapping and rotating, while the other four offensive players (depending on their size and skill sets) may be called upon to set a screen, cut to the hoop, spot up for an open jump shot or grab an offensive rebound. The play may result in an offensive rebound tip dunk or a made three pointer that never would have happened if the original ballhandler had not been talented enough to attract extra defensive attention but in the box score that original ballhandler may either receive credit for nothing (if he passes the ball and the recipient then swings it to a player who ultimately makes a three pointer) or he may even record a negative statistic (a missed field goal attempt) despite the fact that his actions directly led to the opening that created the putback opportunity.

Clearly, it is difficult for basketball statistics to fully capture what happens offensively; progress has been made in this regard but it is far from an exact science--and it is even more challenging to accurately measure basketball defense, particularly on an individual level. A perfect example of why individual basketball defense is tough to quantify took place in the first quarter of Boston's 106-104 game five overtime victory versus Chicago: Kendrick Perkins caught the ball on the left block versus Tyrus Thomas, spun baseline and scored a layup. TNT's Doug Collins noted that Thomas had positioned himself by Perkins' left shoulder (i.e., overplaying Perkins to force him to go to the baseline) because Perkins' best move from that spot is to go to the middle and shoot a jump hook; Thomas was supposed to receive help on the baseline--on an earlier play, help defender Derrick Rose stole the ball so easily from Perkins it looked like Rose was receiving a football handoff--but this time the help never arrived. How would a basketball "stat guru" evaluate that play in terms of Thomas' individual defense? Thomas' defensive rating would indicate that he allowed Perkins to score against him. Plus/minus data would award Perkins a +2 and Thomas a -2 and would also "indict" the other Bulls' defenders who were on the court at that time but would not reveal who was really at fault. A knowledgeable basketball observer would understand--as Collins immediately explained to the viewers--that Thomas did what he was supposed to do but that the help defender never arrived. Multiply this type of scenario over thousands of plays during the course of a season and it is easy to see why someone who watches basketball with understanding may come to a completely different conclusion about a player's value/skill set than someone who relies on nothing but numbers.

What about the success that Houston's General Manager Daryl Morey has had using advanced basketball statistics, as detailed in a New York Times article that I discussed here? If basketball statistical analysis is truly science and not pseudoscience, then it has to be based on the principles of the scientific method:

One "hypothesis" mentioned in the New York Times article is that Daryl Morey and his staff of numbers crunchers can use advanced basketball statistics to devise a game plan to slow down Kobe Bryant, the 2008 MVP and a two-time scoring champion. If we consider the four games that Bryant's Lakers played against Morey's Rockets this season to be the "experiment," then the "data" show not only that Bryant's Lakers won all four contests (with a convincing 13.0 ppg differential) but that Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg versus Houston while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range, exceeding his overall regular season averages in all three categories; oddly, Bryant's free throw percentage versus Houston was only .680 (well below his .856 regular season average) but I doubt that even the most ardent advocates of basketball statistical analysis will claim that this is a result of Houston's "free throw defense." So, the results of this "experiment" show that advanced basketball statistics have yet to enable Houston to defend Bryant more successfully than other NBA teams--and this is despite the fact that the Rockets have two of the best one on one perimeter defenders in the NBA (Ron Artest and Shane Battier) plus a 7-6 shotblocking center (Yao Ming).

Don't think that I am picking on Morey or Houston; as I wrote in my PBN article cited above, I appreciate that Morey is fully aware of the current limitations of basketball statistical analysis:

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that Morey is not merely looking at spreadsheets and randomly assigning arcane values to certain combinations of numbers; statistics give him an indication of what to look for when he watches game film but he still has to watch game film to determine why players are putting up the numbers they do and to figure out what exactly those numbers mean.

In other words, Morey appears to understand the limits of a purely mathematical approach to the game and thus uses numbers to confirm what his eyes tell him -- and vice versa. This is a completely different approach from the one taken by far too many stat gurus who are so enamored with their formulas that they dismiss the importance of actually watching games -- perhaps because they are in fact not truly capable of watching basketball games with any real understanding of what is happening on the court.

It is a laudable goal for basketball statisticians to strive to analyze the sport as effectively as baseball statisticians evaluate baseball but when "stat gurus" and their buddies in the writing business act as if basketball has already been "solved" from an analytical/statistical standpoint they are actually hurting their cause more than helping it, because intelligent observers can plainly see that such claims are false. As Cleveland General Manager Danny Ferry recently told me about basketball statistical analysis, "to just make decisions off of statistics would be a mistake but it can be an important part of the equation in basketball." It would be foolish for an NBA GM to not look at statistical data but it would be even more foolish for him to rely solely or even primarily on such data at this juncture; in the Perkins/Thomas example, it is much more useful for a GM or coach to know that Thomas did what he was assigned to do--and to find out which player missed the help assignment--than to get a spreadsheet filled with numbers detailing how many times Perkins scored in the post with Thomas as the primary defender, because without the proper context that data could be dangerously misleading if it influenced the GM or coach to make a negative evaluation of Thomas' defense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:48 AM

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Kobe's Complete Skill Set 4, Houston's "Advanced Stats" 0

A little over a month ago, I wrote about a New York Times article that discussed how the Houston Rockets use basketball statistical analysis to make personnel decisions and game plans. As I indicated in my article, I respect the approach taken by Houston General Manager Daryl Morey because "Morey appears to understand the limits of a purely mathematical approach to the game and thus uses numbers to confirm what his eyes tell him--and vice versa. This is a completely different approach from the one taken by far too many stat gurus who are so enamored with their formulas that they dismiss the importance of actually watching games--perhaps because they are in fact not truly capable of watching basketball games with any real understanding of what is happening on the court." That is why I was surprised that Morey later asserted that the New York Times article focused on defending Bryant and not LeBron James because--in Morey's opinion--James is the best player in the NBA and there allegedly is not an effective game plan to use against James; the first part of Morey's statement is debatable and the second part is clearly wrong. To take the latter point first, on Friday night Orlando demonstrated once again that if you wall off the paint and force James to shoot midrange jumpers he can be held to a subpar (7-20 in this case) shooting night--and that was not a coincidence or a one time thing: as I have noted repeatedly, elite defensive teams (Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals, Celtics in 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals) consistently employ that game plan against James. James has improved his three point shooting and free throw shooting this year but his midrange game is still erratic at best; he is so good at getting to the hoop one tends not to notice this flaw until James meets greater defensive resistance.

As for Morey's contention that James is the best player in the NBA, I said last year that it was close between Bryant and James but that I gave the edge to Bryant. This year, it has again been close--contrary to what you may have heard--but since the All-Star break I thought that James had pulled slightly ahead. However, there is a reason that I don't believe in making definitive statements about close contests before those contests are over. It seemed like James and the Cavs had the league's best record all sewn up but now they have dropped two games in a row, enabling the Lakers to pull to within one game of the Cavs (and the Lakers own the tiebreak thanks to sweeping the season series).

Although I respect Morey's overall approach to statistics as described in the New York Times article, we need to completely put to rest the ideas that Shane Battier is some kind of Kobe Bryant stopper and that "advanced" statistics have given the Rockets an advantage versus Bryant. Bryant led the Lakers to a 4-0 sweep of the Rockets this season while averaging 28.3 ppg, 5.0 apg and 4.0 rpg; he shot .530 from the field and .533 from three point range but only .680 on free throws, so perhaps the Rockets have superior free throw defense--they sure did not stop him anywhere else (James averaged 24.0 ppg on .409 field goal shooting and .250 three point shooting as his Cavs split two games versus the Rockets).

On Friday, Bryant scored 20 points on 7-11 field goal shooting (including 4-6 from three point range) and he had a game-high seven assists in a 93-81 win over Houston. This season versus the Rockets, Bryant typically set up his teammates for the first three quarters and then went off in the fourth quarter--he averaged just over 11 ppg in the fourth quarter versus the Rockets, while shooting nearly .700 (that is not a misprint) from the field. In other words, he basically showed that even though Houston is an excellent defensive team that can alternate two great one on one defenders (Shane Battier and Ron Artest) on him, Bryant can score whenever and wherever he wants versus the Rockets. During the ESPN telecast of Friday's game, Mark Jackson repeatedly noted that a large percentage of the Lakers' offense was a direct result of Bryant's presence--not just the plays on which he earned assists, but also plays when he was double-teamed and thus created an open shot for a teammate just by virtue of his presence and the defensive attention that he demands. At one point early in the game, Bryant had only shot 1-3 from the field but the Rockets were still double teaming him because he is so dangerous and that is a major reason why Pau Gasol's field goal percentage has skyrocketed from around .500 to well over .560 since becoming Bryant's teammate. So much is said about various players making their teammates better but not nearly enough credit is given to Bryant for the huge impact he has had on Gasol's game.

The last time the Lakers played the Rockets, Bryant dropped 37 points on Houston, including 31 in the second half (on 11-17 field goal shooting) and 18 in the final 4:13. For some reason, Artest decided in the waning moments of that game to tell Bryant that he could lock him down, whereupon Bryant heartily laughed and retorted, "You're a standup comedian now." I don't know if Artest is really that great of a comedian but the notion that the Rockets have discovered how to stop Bryant is definitely a joke.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:38 AM

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