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Monday, July 26, 2021

Assessing Team USA After the 83-76 Loss to France

Gregg Popovich is a lock to be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but it is fair to say that his FIBA exploits will not figure prominently in his Hall of Fame display. Team USA has lost five of the last eight FIBA games that he has coached since 2019, including France's 83-76 win over Team USA in Team USA's first game in the 2020 Olympics (being held in 2021). This defeat snapped Team USA's 25 game Olympics winning streak, dating back to 2004 when Popovich was a Team USA assistant coach for Larry Brown. 

It is fair to say that France's Coach Vincent Collet outcoached Popovich, who had the much more talented roster yet could not figure out a way to stop France down the stretch. This is just Team USA's sixth loss in Olympic competition, and it might have been the worst from a coaching standpoint, as Popovich's crew blew a 74-67 lead with less than four minutes remaining.

Evan Fournier poured in a game-high 28 points versus a Team USA squad featuring--among others--All-Stars Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Khris Middleton, and Devin Booker. Before the contest, I wondered why NBC had relegated Team USA's games to Peacock streaming, but maybe NBC suspected that the U.S. squad--which should never, ever, ever again be called any kind of "Dream Team"--may become known as the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players." 

Rudy Gobert had 14 points, nine rebounds, and no blocked shots, but those numbers do not reflect the impact that he had on winning. He was very disruptive at both ends of the court, converting high percentage shots in the paint while also deterring Team USA players from venturing into the lane; Gobert did not block any shots at least in part because Team USA players were very reluctant to shoot when he was nearby. It should be noted that the official scorer possibly missed at least one Gobert block around the 3:19 mark of the second quarter on a Damian Lillard drive.

Jrue Holiday led Team USA with 18 points, but he shot just 5-13 from the field. Kevin Durant, who is closing in on the Team USA career scoring record held by Carmelo Anthony, had just 10 points on 4-12 field goal shooting. Lillard scored 11 points on 3-10 field goal shooting. Logo shots and one on one forays are not quite so easy when the opposing team is permitted to play defense, which is too often not the case in the modern NBA.

I am the last person to overreact to one game, or to assert something absurd such as a player's legacy or a coach's legacy should be defined by one game, particularly a game that is not an elimination game. However, Team USA's loss is embarrassing for a talented squad led by a highly respected coach. No matter what reasons and/or excuses are provided, Team USA should not lose to France. It is perhaps understandable for international teams that have several NBA players and more internal cohesion--based on playing together for a longer time--than Team USA to play competitively against Team USA, but when Team USA sends anything close to our A Team victory should be the only expectation. Popovich's indignant responses to legitimate media questions about this surprising loss and his coaching decisions are pathetic; if Popovich is truly not surprised that he lost to France coaching this roster then perhaps he is the wrong person for this job.

There is a tendency to seek simple, one dimensional answers/explanations, but the reality is that several factors contributed to this loss, and most of these factors are the same factors that led to previous Team USA losses in FIBA play. There are many commentators who insist that the most important thing for Team USA in FIBA play is to build a roster stacked with shooters, but the reality is that the most important thing for Team USA in FIBA play is to have guards who can pressure opposing ballhandlers, forcing turnovers to fuel the fast break attack. The best Team USA squads since the one and only real Dream Team in 1992 are the squads that had Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd in the backcourt. I interviewed Steve Kerr--then the Suns General Manager--in 2007, not long after he spoke with then Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni about D'Antoni's experience as a Team USA assistant coach and Kerr told me that D'Antoni raved about Bryant's defensive impact: 

Prior to each game in last summer's FIBA Americas tournament, Bryant asked the coaching staff, "Who do you want me to take out?" In other words, Bryant wanted to know who was the toughest perimeter threat on each team so that he could study his tendencies on film and then completely neutralize him on the court. I said to Kerr, "That sounds like a sniper zeroing in on a target" and Kerr replied, "Yeah--and he was serious." Kerr went on to say that Bryant's "focus" and "bravado" added an essential missing element to the squad and elevated everyone else's play. Kerr noted that the previous Team USA squad had performed reasonably well other than the infamous loss to Greece but that it lacked a certain "swagger," as he termed it, and that Team USA did not have a "player who everyone feared." Kerr literally shook his head in wonderment as he described Bryant's impact on Team USA.

Bryant was the difference maker for Team USA in the 2008 Olympics, and Kidd retired with a perfect record in FIBA play. There is a reason that Team USA's 2004 squad with young perimeter players LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, and Stephon Marbury did not win gold, but the 2008 and 2012 squads won gold after adding Bryant and Kidd. When Team USA loses in FIBA play, poor perimeter defense is usually a main culprit, resulting in wide open three pointers and/or easy cuts to the hoop. It is not essential for Team USA to make a lot of three pointers--Team USA can win with pressure defense, fast break points, and points in the paint--but it is essential that Team USA make opposing guards uncomfortable and ineffective. 

Team USA would not have lost to France with prime Kobe Bryant guarding Evan Fournier. Period. 

Another factor is that Team USA always has to make adjustments to the differences between the NBA game and the FIBA game. FIBA games are only 40 minutes long instead of 48 minutes long, the FIBA three point line is closer to the hoop, goaltending is permitted under FIBA rules after the ball hits the rim, there are fewer timeouts in FIBA, in FIBA timeouts can only be called by the coach, in FIBA a player is disqualified after five fouls (instead of six in the NBA), and in FIBA a technical foul also counts as a personal foul.

Also, NBA officiating has always differed from FIBA officiating, but the differences are now more pronounced than ever; in the NBA, offensive players can get away with murder on the perimeter--including traveling, carrying, and running over defenders--while any defender who is in close proximity to an offensive player (especially an offensive player who is viewed as a star) is liable to be whistled for a foul. In the loss to France, five Team USA players had more fouls than field goals made! Durant, Booker, Lillard, and the other NBA All-Stars who are big time scorers are used to not only attempting a lot of free throws per game but they are also used to (1) not being whistled for fouls, and (2) having a lot of space to operate because defenders are wary of being whistled for fouls that not only put them in foul trouble but also put their team in the penalty. 

I am not a "get off my lawn" guy who thinks that today's players are terrible and old school players were perfect, but I do think that if Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, and Michael Jordan played under today's rules they would be setting records. At his best, Maravich averaged 31.1 ppg in a league with handchecking and no three point shot. Erving at his best averaged 31.9 ppg in the wide open ABA, and 26.9 ppg in an NBA with handchecking plus a three point shot that was then considered a novelty, not an offensive staple. Jordan at his best averaged 37.1 ppg in a league with handchecking and a three point shot that was still more novelty act than consistent weapon. 

Maravich was a great outside shooter, while Erving and Jordan were just adequate--but if they had grown up with the three point shot it is fair to assume that Maravich would have been an even better shooter, and that Erving and Jordan would have been better shooters as well. Even if Erving and Jordan did not become premier three point shooters, if they played in an era during which (1) three point shooters opened up the floor and (2) defensive players could not touch them on the perimeter then there would be no way to stop them from scoring and/or drawing fouls. Maravich, Erving, and Jordan would not be as flustered by FIBA play as the current NBA stars are because players in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s understood how to effectively play through contact.

One Team USA loss does not invalidate Popovich's coaching legacy, nor does it invalidate the legacies of Team USA's players--but one loss does show that the people responsible for assembling and coaching this team either forgot or did not fully learn the lessons from previous Team USA losses. Popovich's poor overall FIBA coaching track record, dating all the way back to his time as an assistant coach for the 2004 Olympic team that settled for a bronze medal, gives one pause.

Team USA can still win the gold medal if Popovich can formulate an effective defensive game plan--and inspire his players to execute that plan. Great defense will generate easy scoring opportunities, which will in turn take pressure off of Team USA's sputtering half court offense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM


Friday, July 23, 2021

ESPN's Clown Show NBA Coverage, Featuring Stephen A. Smith and Kendrick Perkins Being Wrong About Almost Everything

The NBA Finals were a treat, culminating in a performance for the ages by Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, ESPN's NBA Finals coverage was often nothing more than a clown show, from the Rachel Nichols/Maria Taylor controversy to the futile and failed attempts of Stephen A. Smith and Kendrick Perkins to utter a remotely intelligent sentence. 

Smith's loud and tired act has gone on for too long, and his shortcomings have been well documented here and elsewhere. It is sad that ESPN has sunk to branding a specific edition of SportsCenter with Smith's name, but this is not surprising, as I explained several years ago: "ESPN either hires people who are buffoons and instructs them to act like buffoons or ESPN hires people who used to be real journalists and pays them a lot of money to act like buffoons." Smith leads the pack in the first category.

Perkins is a former player who should know something about the NBA, and once in a while he makes sense, but he understands that he is being paid to provide headline-grabbing hot takes, not to provide intelligent analysis. Jalen Rose did a great job of listing just a few of Perkins' hot takes gone wrong about the Milwaukee Bucks and the 2021 NBA Finals:

Young folks like this that have been doing this job, like five years, they get one or two things right, they get one or two catchphrases, then they come over here with their Dr. Seuss lines wearing their 80s pastor suits and think all of their takes are going to be hot. So let me tell you a couple of things that I heard Perk say about this series. Didn't he just slander Coach Bud the entire year about not making adjustments? Hey Perk, the number one adjustment this year was giving the ball to Middleton the last couple of minutes of a game. Jrue Holiday isn't the best two way player in the NBA. Last night you saw the best two way player in the NBA. That's actually Giannis Antetokounmpo. And Khris Middleton is not Batman. That happens to be The Greek Freak. And don't try to flip it and say now he's Superman. You can just say that take was off. By the way, what happened to your guy Deandre Ayton? Is he still David Robinson? I didn't see him. Are the Suns still a dynasty? I don't see that with a 36 year old point guard. So again, it's great to come over here and talk really loud and have all of the catchphrases, but you were so very dead wrong about the Bucks as a guy who said that Giannis should leave Milwaukee. You said Giannis should leave Milwaukee. He stayed and he delivered.

Perkins was indeed "very dead wrong," and his attempt to respond to Rose was pathetic, focusing on Rose's hair line; Rose's joke about "Dr. Seuss lines" was funny, and he followed it with basketball analysis, but Perkins' jokes fell flat and were not followed by any basketball analysis. Rose may be the only ESPN commentator who directly calls out fellow ESPN commentators. As Kwame Brown recently noted, Rose deserves credit for attempting to set Stephen A. Smith straight years ago about using the words "bust" and "scrub" to refer to any NBA player. Rose has sometimes provided mixed or muddled messaging on racial issues but his basketball analysis is generally on point.

In addition to the foolish commentary that has become as much an ESPN trademark as anything else, the network also foisted on the public a soap opera pitting Rachel Nichols versus Maria Taylor. In my recap of game four of the 2021 NBA Finals I briefly addressed the Nichols/Taylor controversy:

Can anyone honestly say that either Nichols or Taylor consistently add something meaningful and profound to the telecasts? In 20 years, NBA fans and historians will still be talking about Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Booker, and Paul, but it is doubtful that many people will remember or care who served as the pregame and halftime host for ESPN/ABC's Finals coverage. It is worth noting that Taylor, ESPN/ABC's newly anointed NBA Finals studio host, was the only one out of 100 media award voters who did not select Anthony Davis for the All-NBA Team after the 2019-20 season (Davis made the First Team after receiving 79 First Team votes and 20 Second Team votes). Taylor's excuse for leaving one of the NBA's top five players completely off of her ballot for the NBA's top 15 players is that she forgot about him. Anyone can make a mistake, and one hesitates to make extreme and/or absolute statements, but it must be asked: How can a media member who "forgets" about one of the league's elite players be elevated to a job that makes her the face of ESPN/ABC's pre-game and halftime NBA Finals coverage?

Nichols is not bad at what she does, and she is better than Taylor, but both of them are quite replaceable. For those who are unaware of the basic facts of the controversy, a private phone conversation that Nichols had with one of LeBron James' advisors was recorded--unbeknownst to Nichols, which is illegal in Florida (where Nichols was staying at the time she participated in the phone call)--and then excerpts of that recording were intentionally leaked by at least one ESPN staffer who did not approve of what Nichols said. Nichols asserted that it is written into her contract that she will be the pregame and halftime host for the NBA Finals, and she declared that if ESPN wants to prove its wokeness by expanding Taylor's role then it should find a way to do so without violating that contractual obligation. Nichols praised Taylor's work and at no time asserted that Taylor is not qualified to be the pregame and halftime host; Nichols just claimed that ESPN has no contractual right to give those assignments to Taylor.

I have not read Nichols' contract, but assuming that she knows what is in her contract and that she stated those terms accurately, she has every legal right to feel wronged if her employer essentially demotes her without cause and in violation of a signed agreement. Nichols also has every right to feel violated that her private phone call was recorded without her knowledge and then broadcast to the public without her consent. All of that being said, there is not a little irony that Nichols is facing the cancel culture after she has been so outspoken and politically slanted during many of her basketball broadcasts. Self-proclaimed "progressives" now portray Nichols as a hypocrite, as someone who claims to be down with the cause but is really more focused on herself. Nichols opened herself up to such criticism by portraying herself in a certain fashion and then daring to utter private remarks that do not live up to others' expectations of her. It is never pretty when self-proclaimed "progressives" turn on their own, as we have seen throughout history (perhaps most notably in the Soviet Union, where a person could be a hero one day and literally cut out of state-controlled newspaper headlines the next day).

The problem--which neither Nichols nor Taylor nor most people who have commented about this acknowledge--is that once you accept the view that hiring practices should be based on any form of proportional representation as opposed to solely based on qualifications then you are going to open the door to resentment, to assumptions that certain people are not qualified for the positions they have, and to a host of other problems. ESPN spends more time and energy trying to act "woke" than it does trying to fill positions based on merit, and that is a bigger issue than Nichols' privately expressed resentment of ESPN's assignment shuffling.

Taylor took great offense to what Nichols said, and Taylor subsequently refused to appear on camera with Nichols. Nichols, who is often outspoken about being woke and certainly does not need a weather report to understand which way the wind is blowing, offered a public apology to Taylor that Taylor neither acknowledged nor accepted. Taylor probably correctly assumed that the apology was not sincere, because if Nichols were given truth serum she would most likely not think it necessary to apologize for privately griping that her employer is violating her contract. We are just watching an elaborate song and dance: Nichols' apology was a necessary damage control move, and Taylor's non-acceptance of the apology was an expected response from someone who feels entitled to be aggrieved despite being elevated to a position contractually promised to another person who has more seniority and experience on the NBA beat.

ESPN removed Nichols from its Finals coverage for a day or two, and then figured out how to ease her back in without having her ever appear on the same show as Taylor. Even though Taylor won the battle to be the pregame and halftime host, it was obvious that this would be her last assignment with ESPN. After the NBA Finals ended, ESPN and Taylor announced that they have mutually agreed to part ways. Taylor will no doubt grab adoring headlines--and huge dollars--regardless of where she goes next. 

No one would dream of putting together an NBA team based on some kind of proportional ethnic representation of the U.S. or world population, and it does not make any sense to put together any organization with such proportional ethnic representation as the goal. I don't care if the pregame/halftime host is White, Black, Asian, male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or belongs to any other racial group, gender, sexual orientation, and/or religion. All I care about is that the pregame/halftime host understands NBA basketball, and can be a "traffic cop" for the other participants in the broadcast. Bob Costas and Ernie Johnson are the gold standard for the past 30 years, if not all-time. We all know that Nichols and Taylor are nowhere near that level, and it is a reasonable assumption that ESPN bypassed more qualified candidates to put first Nichols and then Taylor in the role--and even if Nichols and Taylor are the best that ESPN has, the focus on "representation" will always leave lingering doubts about how they achieved prominence.

When the focus shifts from creating equal opportunities to creating equal outcomes, we all lose.

I cannot wait until the current NBA media contracts expire, and I hope that TNT will cover the NBA Finals under the next deal.

Just to put a bow on all of this, it should be mentioned that some ESPN basketball commentators/analysts are first rate, including Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, Tim Legler, and Jalen Rose. Hubie Brown's role has been reduced, but in his prime he was the absolute best, and he is still top notch even now. That is not an exhaustive list of qualified ESPN broadcasters, but the problem is that the unqualified ones are often provided the most attention, air time, and compensation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:31 AM


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Antekounmpo Dominates as Bucks Capture Their First NBA Title Since 1971

Giannis Antetokounmpo refused to let his Milwaukee Bucks lose, imposing his skill and will at both ends of the court en route to scoring a game-high 50 points, grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds, and blocking a game-high five shots as the Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns 105-98 to capture the franchise's second NBA championship. Antetokounmpo shot 16-25 from the field and 17-19 from the free throw line in one of the most complete and dominant Finals performances ever. Antetokounmpo is just the seventh player to score at least 50 points in an NBA Finals game, joining Elgin Baylor (61), Rick Barry (55), Michael Jordan (55), Jerry West (53), LeBron James (51), and Bob Pettit (50). Anteokoumpo tied Pettit for the most points scored in a Finals-clinching victory, and he became just the sixth player to have at least three 40 point games in one NBA Finals. Antetokounmpo is the first player to have at least 50 points, at least 10 rebounds, and at least five blocked shots in a playoff game since the NBA made the blocked shot an official statistic in 1973-74

Antetokounmpo was an easy choice for Finals MVP, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon on the short list of players who have won a regular season MVP, a Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year award (the Finals MVP was first awarded in 1969, and the Defensive Player of the Year award was first bestowed in 1983). There was some foolish talk before this game about whether Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton should receive the Finals MVP if the Bucks clinched the title in game six--but anyone who watches basketball with understanding realized, even before Antetokounmpo's historic game six performance, that Antetokounmpo is by far the best player on either team. Middleton is an outstanding--and often underrated--player, but he does not have the same impact in any area of the game that Antetokounmpo does. Antetokounmpo averaged 35.2 ppg, 13.2 rpg, and 5.0 apg in the Finals while shooting .618 from the field, the first player in Finals history to post all of those numbers in the same series. His 35.2 ppg is the third highest scoring average posted by a player in his NBA Finals debut; Rick Barry and Allen Iverson scored more in their Finals' debuts, but both played for the losing team.

Middleton capped off a nice series with a solid performance, posting 17 points, five rebounds, and five assists while shooting 6-13 from the field. Jrue Holiday again struggled with his shot (4-19 field goal shooting), but he played great defense and he finished with 12 points, a game-high 11 assists, and nine rebounds (more than anyone except for Antetokounmpo and Phoenix forward Jae Crowder, who had 13). Bobby Portis came up big with 16 points on 6-10 field goal shooting in 23 minutes off of the bench. 

Chris Paul led the Suns with 26 points on 11-19 field goal shooting and he tied Devin Booker for team-high honors with five assists. Booker scored 19 points but shot just 8-22 from the field. Crowder scored 15 points on 4-11 field goal shooting, while Deandre Ayton had just 12 points on 4-12 field goal shooting, plus six rebounds. A major key for the Bucks was to limit Ayton's effectiveness in the paint without having to tilt their defense in a way that opened up opportunities for Booker and Paul. Ayton posted field goal percentages of .796, .610, and .693 in the first three rounds of the playoffs, but the Bucks held him to .531--a very good number, but obviously a big decline from the three series that the Suns won.

The Bucks built a 13 point first quarter lead, but the Suns came all the way back to go ahead by seven in the second quarter. The Suns led 47-42 at halftime, and it may have seemed like the game and the series were up for grabs--but the reality is that Antetokounmpo was poised to take over, and do whatever was necessary for the Bucks to prevail. He has had well-documented struggles at the free throw line, but that did not deter him from relentlessly attacking the hoop and drawing fouls. This is very valuable even when he misses his free throws, because the fouls put the opposing team in foul trouble and put the Bucks in the bonus, which creates free throw opportunities for their players who are good free throw shooters. In game six, though, Antetokounmpo shot 17-19 from the free throw line. Inconsistent or poor free throw shooters often claim to "make them when they count," but in this game Antekounmpo really did that.

The Bucks were up 58-55 after Antetokounmpo made a pair of free throws and then added a putback off of his own miss. At that point, he had shot 7-11 from the field since the start of the second quarter, while the rest of the Bucks shot 2-19 from the field during that span. The best player on a championship team has the obligation and responsibility to score prolifically, particularly in physical playoff games when points are hard to obtain. It is not enough to "make the right play" and pass to teammates who may not have the necessary skill or will to score in certain situations. Kobe Bryant won five championships because he understood and embraced this mentality from day one; LeBron James did not win his first title until he understood and embraced this mentality, after enduring Finals losses during which he was outplayed by smaller, less-skilled players such as Tony Parker and Jason Terry.

While his teammates struggled, Antetokounmpo scored 20 third quarter points on 6-11 field goal shooting, and the score was tied 77-77 heading into the fourth quarter. This was Antetokounmpo's second 20 point quarter in the 2021 NBA Finals after no player had even one such quarter since Michael Jordan did it in 1993. Antetokounmpo is the only player in the past 50 years to have two 20 point quarters in the same NBA Finals.

Antekounmpo added 13 fourth quarter points as the Bucks outscored the Suns 28-21 in the final stanza. Throughout the game it seemed like he was in multiple places at once, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, and then attacking the hoop with force. By the end of the game, any Sun attempting a shot anywhere near Antetokounmpo was noticeably hesitant, if not blatantly intimidated; Ayton shied away from attempting a dunk and instead threw up a soft fadeaway when challenged by Antetokounmpo. Any time Antetokounmpo was switched onto Paul the matchup looked like the big brother not letting the little brother even get off a good shot. Size matters in the NBA, so even if Paul's skills were as good as Antetokounmpo's he still would not be nearly as good of a player as Antetokounmpo because Antetokounmpo is seven feet tall while Paul is barely six feet tall. This clinching game and this series provided a vivid demonstration of what I have been saying for years about players like Steve Nash and Chris Paul: they cannot possibly be as good or as dominant--particularly when it counts the most--as bigger players such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kawhi Leonard, or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

If you still stubbornly doubt this despite the mountains of evidence regarding the importance of size, just go back and look at game six again. Watch Paul often struggle to even get a shot off over Antetokounmpo on offense, and then have no choice at the other end of the court but to foul Antetokounmpo to prevent him from dunking. Anyone who compares Paul to Isiah Thomas just needs to stop. Thomas was the best player on two championship teams, and Thomas had a winning aggregate record against Larry Bird's Celtics, Magic Johnson's Lakers, and Michael Jordan's Bulls. That was incredible at the time, and it looks even more incredible three decades later. Paul's playoff resume does not hold a candle to Thomas' playoff resume. Paul has made it to the Finals once in 16 seasons, and during this playoff run the Suns benefited from an injury to at least one All-NBA caliber player in each series victory. Listed above are some of the milestones Antetokounmpo reached during the Finals, but it should be noted that Paul reached a milestone, too: he is now the first player in NBA history whose teams have lost four series in which they enjoyed a 2-0 lead. 

It has been fashionable for well over a decade to call Paul the best leader in the NBA. I am not trying to bash Paul--he is without question an outstanding player--but he is praised well beyond what the factual record supports. Since I started 20 Second Timeout in June 2005, the best leaders in the NBA have been the players who have led their teams to multiple titles, including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard. Leadership means actually taking a group of people somewhere significant that they have not been to before. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said something very interesting while Antetokounmpo took over game six, noting that Antetokounmpo's play is speaking so loudly that Antetokounmpo does not have to say a word. Leadership, as Van Gundy defined it, is not so much about what you say but rather about what you do. Antetokounmpo plays so hard and so unselfishly that he sets the standard and the tone for his team.

The only current star player who plays as hard as Antetokounmpo is Russell Westbrook--but the difference is that Antetokounmpo is seven feet tall, while Westbrook is 6-3. Antetokounmpo can reach a level that even Westbrook cannot quite reach. 
Last season, even with the Bucks on the verge of playoff elimination, I touted Antetokounmpo as "an MVP caliber player who could be the best player on a championship team" and I contrasted his skill set and mentality with James Harden's skill set and mentality. My long term predictions about players who can--or cannot--lead a team to a title are often correct (which is not to suggest that every prediction that I made was correct, but my skill set based player evaluations have aged well, and I have often contradicted the "experts"). After the Lakers got rid of Shaquille O'Neal, I was right that even if O'Neal's Heat won that trade in the short term the Lakers would be the long term winners by building around Bryant, who I asserted only needed a competent big man to lead the Lakers back into championship contention--and that is exactly what happened after the Lakers acquired a one-time All-Star who was never considered an elite player, let alone a future Hall of Famer, until after he played alongside Bryant. I never ranked Gilbert Arenas, Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, or James Harden as highly as many media members did/do, and those players were/are who I thought they were/are in terms of championship-level success. I tapped Russell Westbrook as a future MVP at a time when many "experts" doubted that he could even play point guard in the NBA. I continued to believe that Antetokounmpo was on a championship path while the "experts" bashed him and his coach.
There is so much emphasis on tanking, three point shooting, and building "super teams" that it is refreshing to see a championship won the old fashioned way. Antetokounmpo mentioned during the post-game press conference that he could have taken the easy route by joining a "super team" to win a title, but that he is "stubborn" and thus he stayed in Milwaukee. All championships matter, but there is a good subjective argument that this title means more than several of the titles that have been won recently by players who fled their original teams to join forces with other star players. The Bucks did not tank--Antetokoumpo is not even a Lottery pick--and Antetokounmpo remained loyal to the team that drafted him. The Bucks attack the paint on offense, and they often play a "drop" defense that protects the paint at the expense of giving up some open three pointers.

It looked like Stephen A. Smith was going to burst into tears when he described how badly he feels about Paul not winning a title. Disregarding Smith's obvious biases--no serious-minded person considers Smith to be an authentic, objective journalist anyway--the sentiment is misplaced. Paul is not some tragic figure who has been denied a title due to unfair forces or events beyond his control; he has hopped from team to team trying to latch on to a group that can carry him to a ring, and in a closely contested six game series versus Milwaukee he had multiple opportunities to take over and lead his team to a championship. He is just not good enough. Paul is not as good as Antetokounmpo--or Bryant or James or Duncan or Leonard or Durant or Nowitzki. That is the simple reason that Paul has not won a title.

Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee Coach Mike Budenholzer have been the targets of harsh criticism from uninformed commentators (including Smith, of course), but they are now champions (Budenholzer already was a champion as an assistant coach in San Antonio), and if the Bucks stay healthy and stay together they will have a good opportunity to win more titles.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM


Sunday, July 18, 2021

Bucks Mount Big Comeback, Win Game Five in Phoenix

The Phoenix Suns looked unbeatable while building a 16 point lead in the first quarter of game five of the NBA Finals versus the Milwaukee Bucks, but the well-coached and highly focused Bucks kept their poise, outscored the Suns 43-24 in the second quarter, and achieved a 123-119 road victory to move within one win of capturing the 2021 NBA title. The game five winner of an NBA Finals series that is tied 2-2 wins the series 72% of the time, so even though I tend to avoid referring to "legacy games" it is possible that this was the most important game in the careers of several future Hall of Famers.

Giannis Antekounmpo scored a team-high 32 points while also grabbing a team-high nine rebounds, and dishing for six assists. He shot 14-23 from the field, the 13th straight playoff game in which he has shot at least .500 from the field. Antetokounmpo is the most dominant and efficient playoff scorer in the paint since prime Shaquille O'Neal, and he is demonstrating that paint scoring/paint dominance still matter--regardless of what the "stat gurus" might say. The Suns shot .552 from the field (including .684 from three point range) and .909 from the free throw line, but they could not maintain a double digit lead at home against a bigger and more physical team. Khris Middleton added 29 points, seven rebounds, and five assists while shooting 12-23 from the field. It could be argued that the star of the game was Jrue Holiday, who not only scored 27 points on 12-20 field goal shooting but he also passed for a game-high 13 assists to become just the sixth player in NBA Finals history to score at least 25 points while also assisting on at least 30 points. Holiday played outstanding defense, punctuated by a late steal from Devin Booker that sealed the victory.

Booker scored a game-high 40 points on 17-33 field goal shooting. He is the first player in NBA Finals history to score 40 points in consecutive games but lose both games. He posted a team-best +12 plus/minus number while Chris Paul--who media members anointed the best player on the team and a candidate for regular season MVP honors--had a -6 plus/minus number. Supposedly Paul is leading the Suns, but what is actually happening is Booker is the team's best player and he needs more help from Paul, who finished with 21 points on 9-15 field goal shooting plus 11 assists. Paul's individual numbers were not bad, but he was no better than the fifth best player on the court in arguably the most important game of his career. Deandre Ayton contributed 20 points on 7-12 field goal shooting plus a game-high 10 rebounds.

The Suns made 11 straight field goals in the first quarter, tying the longest such streak in an NBA Finals game in the past 20 years. The Bucks were not impressed or rattled, and they turned a 37-21 first quarter deficit into a 64-61 halftime lead. The Bucks' 43 second quarter points is tied for the second most points in a quarter of an NBA Finals game in the past 35 years. The Bucks attack the paint on offense and focus on defending the paint on defense. They also utilize the midrange game to good effect, as both Middleton and Holiday are lethal in that area of the court. "Stat gurus" may disagree with the Bucks' approach, but there is no denying that what the Bucks are doing is working.

The Bucks led 117-107 after Middleton completed a three point play with 3:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, but the Suns answered with a 12-3 run to pull within 120-119 with 57 seconds left in the game. With the game and likely the series up for grabs, Holiday made the play of the game by not only stripping Booker, but then running point on the fast break and throwing a lob pass to Giannis Antetokounmpo that resulted in a dunk plus a Chris Paul foul. Antetokounmpo missed the free throw but he tipped the offensive rebound to Middleton, who split a pair of free throws to push Milwaukee's lead to 123-119. 

Much is made of Antetokounmpo's poor free throw shooting, but his Bucks just won a very important road playoff game despite his 4-11 free throw shooting. Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 titles despite being an awful free throw shooter, Wilt Chamberlain was the best player on two of the most dominant single season championship teams ever despite his bad free throw shooting, and Shaquille O'Neal dominated the early 2000s with four championships in seven seasons despite his well-documented free throw shooting issues. It is obviously preferable that a player shoot at least .700 from the free throw line, but the notion that bad free throw shooting by a dominant player can cost his team a championship seems a bit far-fetched. The most important thing to note down the stretch in game five is not how many free throws Antetokounmpo missed but rather (1) the impact that he had on both ends of the court and (2) his eagerness to attack the hoop even though he knew that he would be fouled hard and forced to make free throws. Antetokounmpo is not going to win a free throw shooting contest versus Paul or James Harden or other players who are adored by "stat gurus," but anyone who understands basketball would choose Antetokounmpo over Paul or Harden overall as well as down the stretch of a key NBA Finals game. Harden and Paul together in Houston were not able to win an NBA title, Harden has also now failed to win a title alongside Kevin Durant on two different teams, and Paul has hopped from team to team chasing a championship that Antetokounmpo seems likely to win without jumping around the league to team up with other stars.

It is amazing that even after such a devastating home loss there is still talk about what a great leader Chris Paul is, based on cliches that he uttered during the post-game press conference. You know who has been the best leader in this series by far? Giannis Antetokounmpo. He came back from what looked like a season-ending knee injury to establish himself as clearly the best player in this series through five games, and he has led his team to three straight victories, including a pivotal game five road win. That is leadership--actually accomplishing something, as opposed to talking about accomplishing something. 

Media members keep alluding to some mysterious Chris Paul injury, much like excuses are often made for LeBron James' many playoff failure (to James' credit, he--unlike Paul--has led his teams to four NBA titles)--but it is unlikely that Paul is dealing with an injury as severe as Antetokounmpo's knee injury. Antetokounmpo's injury has become a non-story now because (1) he does not talk about it or allude to it and (2) he has been the dominant player in the series. If Paul is truly injured, that is nothing new--a major reason that he has never won an NBA title is that he wears down and/or gets injured if his teams advance past the first round.

Phoenix could come back to win this series, so it is at least one game too soon to make broad, definitive conclusions, but it seems fair to say--barring an unlikely turn of events--what we have seen thus far in this series demonstrates that (1) Devin Booker, not Chris Paul, is clearly Phoenix' best player, (2) Paul may not be good enough to be the second best player on a championship team, and (3) two-time regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo may actually be underrated as a player and as a leader.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 AM


Thursday, July 15, 2021

Antetokounmpo and Middleton Lead the Way as Bucks Defeat the Suns 109-103 to Tie the Finals at 2-2

Khris Middleton poured in a playoff career-high 40 points, and Giannis Antetokounmpo authored a brilliant all-around performance (26 points, team-high 14 rebounds, game-high eight assists, three steals, two blocked shots--including an electrifying late game snuff of Deandre Ayton) as the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns 109-103. Jrue Holiday had an excellent floor game (seven rebounds, seven assists, one turnover) but he only scored 13 points on 4-20 field goal shooting. Brook Lopez contributed 14 points in just 19 minutes, though the seven foot center inexplicably only grabbed one rebound. The Bucks outrebounded the Suns 48-40, they outscored the Suns in the paint 48-40, and they led the Suns in fastbreak points 15-0. Size matters in the NBA, it matters more in the playoffs, and it matters the most in the NBA Finals. The Bucks have a seven foot center, a seven foot do-it-all elite player, and several wing players who are tall and/or strong; the Suns are relatively small, and they can be overpowered by teams that are disciplined enough to keep attacking the paint.

Devin Booker--the Suns' best player, regardless of the pro-Chris Paul narratives pushed by many media members--scored a game-high 42 points on blistering 17-28 field goal shooting, but he missed a significant amount of fourth quarter action after committing his fifth foul, and he would have fouled out several minutes before the end of the game if not for a blatantly missed call--a fact admitted by crew chief Jim Capers after the game. Deandre Ayton snared a game-high 17 rebounds, but the Bucks used their size and athleticism to good effect as they held him to 10 points on 3-9 field goal shooting. As for the "Point God," he looked more like "Point Goof" as he accumulated a team-worst -10 plus/minus number in 37 minutes; Paul scored 10 points on 5-13 field goal shooting while dishing for seven assists and coughing up a game-high five turnovers, matching the Bucks' team total in that category. Five turnovers may not sound like an outlandish number, but in an otherwise low turnover game Paul's miscues were costly, all the more so because a couple of them happened late in the fourth quarter with the outcome still in doubt. While Middleton and Antetokounmpo starred throughout the game and were at their best when it mattered most, Paul looked worn down as Milwaukee outscored Phoenix 10-4 down the stretch. 

One of the main reasons that I did not pick Phoenix to win the title is that throughout his career Paul has consistently worn down and/or gotten injured during the playoffs. This postseason, Paul avoided serious injury while each Suns' opponent suffered at least one serious injury to an All-NBA caliber player, but as the Finals progress Paul's play is regressing at a rate that has to alarm the Suns and their fans: Paul helped close out the Clippers in game six of the Western Conference Finals by dropping 41 points, but in the first four games of the NBA Finals his point totals are 32, 23, 19, and 10. He posted between seven and nine assists in each of those games, but his turnovers have gone from zero versus the Clippers in game six to two, six, four, and five against the Bucks. It has taken longer than ever before--in no small part because of the injuries suffered by Phoenix' opponents--but Paul seems to be wearing down like he always does. Maybe he will have a monster game five performance, but if he does that will not only buck the recent trend but also go against the pattern of his entire postseason career. Paul is often called the best leader in the NBA. Where has he been throughout his career when it matters the most? Where was he in the final minutes of game four, when a Phoenix victory would have all but clinched the championship?

The Bucks have recovered from a 2-0 deficit to tie a series at 2-2 for the second time this postseason. "Momentum" is often a media created and media driven narrative, but there is no doubt that the Bucks have now placed tremendous pressure on the Suns to win game five in Phoenix, because otherwise the Bucks can close out the series at home in game six. 

I picked the Bucks to win the championship before the playoffs started, and I did not waver after the Suns took a 2-0 lead. I had good analytical reasons to choose the Bucks, and the outcomes of two games did not undermine or change the basis for my analysis. I am not bragging, nor am I suggesting that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The Suns could still win this series, but even if they do that would not necessarily prove that my analysis was unsound. I also had good reasons to pick against the Suns in each of the prior three series, but injuries to Anthony Davis, Jamal Murray, and Kawhi Leonard had a significant impact on the outcomes of those series.  

In contrast, many people who have long been touted as basketball "experts" routinely spout nonsense without factual basis, and draw unfounded conclusions. For example, the ridiculous negative assertions made by Stephen A. Smith, Mike Wilbon, Jay Williams, and others about Milwaukee Coach Mike Budenholzer's alleged deficiencies made no sense two games ago, and have aged very poorly as the Bucks have fought their way back into the series. Poorly coached teams do not recover from 2-0 deficits--and poorly coached teams do not post the best regular season record in the NBA in back to back seasons prior to making a run to the NBA Finals.

Smith proved himself to be a clown many years ago, and more recently Kwame Brown has exposed Smith as a loudmouth fraud. Why is ESPN paying Smith millions of dollars to scream at the audience while belittling people who actually are elite at what they do? Brown played in the NBA for over a decade, so he demonstrably and provably was better at playing basketball than 99% of the people in the world. Is Smith demonstrably and provably better than 99% of the people in the world at anything other than being loud, obnoxious, and often wrong? 

Over a decade ago, Wilbon cited incorrect facts to draw illogical conclusions about Kobe Bryant's efficiency as a scorer and effectiveness as a team leader. Wilbon is an excellent general sports columnist/commentator, but he is miscast as an NBA expert. 

Williams played at an elite level in college and he made it to the NBA, so he sometimes says something insightful, but he also had no clue that the Boston Celtics have a long history of hiring Black head coaches. He should be working his way up the food chain providing analysis about college games, not being portrayed as some kind of authority on the NBA game.

I am going to wait until after the NBA crowns a champion before wading into the much-discussed Rachel Nichols/Maria Taylor controversy, but can anyone honestly say that either Nichols or Taylor consistently add something meaningful and profound to the telecasts? In 20 years, NBA fans and historians will still be talking about Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Booker, and Paul, but it is doubtful that many people will remember or care who served as the pregame and halftime host for ESPN/ABC's Finals coverage. It is worth noting that Taylor, ESPN/ABC's newly anointed NBA Finals studio host, was the only one out of 100 media award voters who did not select Anthony Davis for the All-NBA Team after the 2019-20 season (Davis made the First Team after receiving 79 First Team votes and 20 Second Team votes). Taylor's excuse for leaving one of the NBA's top five players completely off of her ballot for the NBA's top 15 players is that she forgot about him. Anyone can make a mistake, and one hesitates to make extreme and/or absolute statements, but it must be asked: How can a media member who "forgets" about one of the league's elite players be elevated to a job that makes her the face of ESPN/ABC's pre-game and halftime NBA Finals coverage?

There is a glaring contrast between ESPN's NBA coverage and the coverage provided by other networks past and present. Look at archival clips of NBC's Bob Costas and Hannah Storm as studio hosts, or watch TNT's Ernie Johnson as a studio host now. Can anyone honestly say that Nichols or Taylor are even close to that level? Not every NBC studio analyst was great, but the overall quality was much higher than ESPN's, and no NBC studio analyst screamed and spewed as much nonsense as Stephen A. Smith does. TNT's studio analysts Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O'Neal are the gold standard for combining insight with humor; they do not always agree with each other, and they are sometimes wrong, but they almost always make you think and make you laugh. 

There is an oasis of sanity in ESPN/ABC's NBA coverage. Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson do a first rate job as color commentators during the game telecasts, Mike Breen is an elite play by play announcer, Tim Legler is very good (and underutilized) at breaking down game film on SportsCenter, and Jalen Rose is a very good studio analyst despite his sometimes mixed or muddled messaging on racial issues. One of the reasons that I love tournament chess is that there are no self-proclaimed Experts or Masters in chess; a chess Expert is someone who attains an Expert level rating, and a chess Master is someone who attains a Master level rating--period, point blank, full stop. Who you know, who your parents are, politics, race, gender--those things are irrelevant regarding chess expertise and chess mastery. Unfortunately, in the writing business anyone can become or be proclaimed an expert, even if that person has no achieved no expertise at all.

To the extent that ESPN/ABC's 2021 NBA Finals coverage is remembered at all, it will remembered as distracting from and detracting from the greatness that we are seeing on the court.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM


Monday, July 12, 2021

Antetokounmpo Dominates as Bucks Rout Suns in Game Three, 120-100

Giannis Antetokounmpo has not only bounced back from what looked like a possibly devastating knee injury, but he has clearly established himself as the best player in the 2021 NBA Finals. In game three, Antetokounmpo erupted for 41 points on 14-23 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 13 rebounds, and six assists while leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a 120-100 win over the Phoenix Suns. This gem came on the heels of his 42 point, 12 rebound game two masterpiece as Antetokounmpo became just the fourth player in Finals history with back to back games of at least 40 points and at least 10 rebounds, joining Shaquille O'Neal, Julius Erving (who accomplished this feat in the 1976 ABA Finals), and Connie Hawkins (1968 ABA Finals). Erving and O'Neal are Pantheon members, and Antetokounmpo is putting together a body of work that may well merit his addition to that select company. This is Antetokounmpo's 11th playoff game this year with at least 30 points and at least 10 rebounds. With last night's performance he not only broke the single-postseason franchise record for such games set by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974, but he trails only Shaquille O'Neal (13 such games in 2000) and Elgin Baylor (12 in 1962) on the all-time list. Antetokounmpo also ranks fourth for most points scored in a player's first three career NBA Finals games (103), behind only Rick Barry (122), Allen Iverson (106), and Willis Reed (104). Erving scored 103 points in his first three ABA Finals games

Antetokounmpo dominates the paint like elite centers Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal, but he also has ball-handling skills and open court flair reminiscent of Baylor and Erving. The word unicorn has perhaps become overused--if everyone is a unicorn then the description loses its distinction--but Antetokounmpo's combination of size, strength, and skill set is one of a kind.

The main difference between game three and game two is that Antetokounmpo received little support from his teammates in game two but he received a lot of support in game three as Jrue Holiday (21 points, nine assists, and five rebounds) and Khris Middleton (18 points, seven rebounds, six assists) played not only aggressively at both ends of the court but they also were much more efficient than they had been during the first two games in Phoenix. Holiday (+22) and Antetokounmpo (+20) were the only two players whose plus/minus numbers matched or exceeded the final margin of victory.

Chris Paul had a solid, if not spectacular, game, leading the Suns in scoring (19 points) and assists (nine). Deandre Ayton played well (18 points on 8-11 field goal shooting, nine rebounds) but foul trouble limited him to 24 minutes (the Suns were -6 during those minutes). Jae Crowder added 18 points on 6-7 field goal shooting, but Devin Booker had just 10 points on 3-14 field goal shooting as he and Middleton reversed roles as All-Stars not playing well or efficiently on the road.

The game was close for the first 12 minutes, but the Bucks stuck with their plan to pound the ball inside, and they ended the second quarter with a 30-9 run. Then, they concluded the third quarter with a 16-0 run that made the score 98-76 Bucks with 12 minutes left. The Suns never seriously threatened in the fourth quarter. Overall, the Bucks outscored the Suns in the paint 54-40, and they outrebounded the Suns 47-36. 

This was a must-win game for the Bucks, and they won in convincing fashion, but it is just as much a mistake to overreact to this game as it was to overreact to the Suns' wins in the first two games. If the Suns win game four then they are in the driver's seat, with a chance to clinch the title at home in game five. We do not yet know if this is going to be a series in which home court proves to be the decisive factor, or if the Bucks have turned things around after a slow start, or if the final narrative will be something else altogether. I picked the Bucks to win the title not only prior to this series, but in my 2021 NBA Playoff Predictions, because I think that the Bucks are the league's best all-around team led by the league's best all-around player (though I have no problem with Nikola Jokic winning the 2021 NBA regular season MVP). I see no reason to back down from my initial analysis/prediction, but I also recognize and acknowledge that the Suns are a better team than I thought they were prior to the playoffs.

During the ABC telecast, Jeff Van Gundy decried what he termed "slanderous" comments by people "who don't know anything" about coaching criticizing the alleged "lack of adjustments" by Milwaukee Coach Mike Budenholzer. Van Gundy termed Budenholzer the "punching bag" of the 2021 playoffs. Citing the poet Joseph Brodsky, Van Gundy said that there are only "bad" and "worse" options to defend Chris Paul in screen/roll actions when Paul is hitting his shots, Ayton is so highly efficient, and Booker is a major threat who draws attention from the defense.

Van Gundy did not identify by name the people "who don't know anything" about coaching, but if criticizing Budenholzer for a supposed "lack of adjustments" is proof that someone does not understand the NBA game--and I agree with Van Gundy that it is--then the group of people who Van Gundy is talking about includes but is not limited to his ESPN/ABC colleagues Stephen A. Smith, Mike Wilbon, and Jay Williams. Unless I have missed something, Van Gundy rarely shares screen time with those three commentators; it would be fascinating to see a substantive basketball debate featuring those four, and moderated by a competent person who would keep the debate focused on substance, not bombast.

Possessions, games, and series are decided--barring injuries, suspensions, or other factors outside of the control of the coaches--by the exploitation of matchup advantages. The best coaches identify the favorable matchups for their teams, and then figure out how to maximize their advantageous matchups while minimizing the impact of the matchups that are not favorable. These matchups take place within the framework of the overall offensive and defensive game plans that the coaches installed during the preseason. Sure, there may be more than option to attack in a given offensive situation, or to react in a given defensive situation, but no coach is coming up with a brand new offense or defense between games or at halftime, much less during a timeout.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:06 AM


Friday, July 09, 2021

Suns Overcome Antetokounmpo's 42 Points, Take 2-0 Lead

Giannis Antetokounmpo was brilliant, but the Phoenix Suns were balanced, and they were blazing hot from three point range as they defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 118-108 to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals. Devin Booker led the Suns with 31 points on 12-25 field goal shooting, including 7-12 from three point range. He also had six assists and five rebounds. Mikal Bridges scored 27 points, while Chris Paul added 23 points plus eight assists and four rebounds as all five Suns starters scored in double figures. Deandre Ayton had a subpar offensive game (10 points on 4-10 field goal shooting) but he made his presence felt defensively and he grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds.

Antetokounmpo finished with 42 points on 15-22 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 12 rebounds, four assists, and three blocked shots in 40 minutes. Of the 10 Bucks who played, he was the only one with a positive plus/minus number (+3). The Bucks are better than the Suns when Antetokounmpo is in the game--this was also true during his 35 minutes of game one action--but the Bucks lose a lot of ground very quickly when he is not in the game. Unless he gets more help, it seems like he may have to play 45 minutes and score 50 points for the Bucks to win. Of course, that is an overreaction, because each game is an entity unto itself, and we know (or should know) that after the series shifts to Milwaukee many of the Bucks players will most likely perform better while at least some of the Suns players will most likely perform worse. 

Two players who have to step up for the Bucks to have a chance are Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. They are playing hard and they are taking their shots, but--as Jeff Van Gundy often says--the Bucks need "makers," not "shooters." Middleton scored just 11 points on 5-16 field goal shooting, while Holiday finished with 17 points on 7-21 field goal shooting. Holiday missed several layups and point blank shots in the paint, and many of his misses were not close. He played excellent defense, and he notched seven assists with just one turnover in 39 minutes, but .333 field goal shooting is not going to cut it unless you are completely shutting down your counterpart, which is not the case in his matchup versus Paul.

The Bucks started the game with the right attitude and the right actions; they fought aggressively through screens, they attacked the paint, and they jumped out to a 21-12 lead. Antetokounmpo had six points during that opening blitz, and all three of his field goals were dunks. At that moment, it would have been difficult to believe that the Bucks would lose by double figures, but the Suns nailed eight three pointers during the first quarter to briefly take a 26-24 lead before the Bucks went back on top 29-26 by the end of the stanza. The Bucks outscored the Suns 20-0 in the paint during the first quarter. When the Bucks attack the paint on offense and do not overreact/overhelp in response to dribble penetration they are better than the Suns, but the key for Milwaukee is to do both of those things consistently for 48 minutes.

By halftime, the Suns led 56-45, and they did not trail in the second half. Their final points of the first half came on a three point play by Ayton that punctuated a beautiful possession during which the Suns crisply passed the ball all over the court until Ayton broke free under the hoop. Paul and Booker are the team's primary playmakers, but every Suns player is a willing and able passer. The Suns are masters at giving up good shots to get great shots. They are fun to watch, and it looks like it would be fun to play for this team as well. 

In the first half, Antetokounmpo had 12 points on 5-10 field goal shooting plus eight rebounds, but Middleton and Holiday combined to shoot just 5-24 from the field, which is obviously not nearly good enough. 

During the third quarter, Antetokounmpo--whose playing status was in doubt until just prior to game one of the NBA Finals in the wake of the knee injury that he suffered in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals--went on a scoring tear not seen in the NBA Finals since Michael Jordan had a 22 point quarter versus the Suns in the 1993 Finals. Antetokounmpo scored 13 straight Milwaukee points en route to pouring in 20 points during the quarter; since Jordan's outburst 28 years ago, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James each had one 19 point Finals quarter but no player had a 20 point quarter on the sport's biggest stage. The Finals record for points in a quarter is 25, set by Julius Erving during the 1976 ABA Finals and tied by Isiah Thomas during the 1988 NBA Finals.

Despite Antetokounmpo's heroics, the Suns led 88-78 heading into the fourth quarter. The Bucks never got closer than five points the rest of the way. The Bucks outscored the Suns 54-38 in the paint, but the Suns shot 20-40 from three point range while the Bucks shot just 9-31 from long distance. The three pointer is a high variance shot, but when one team gets hot the other team is in trouble, at least in that game.

Many of ESPN's talking heads have been obsessed for years with "in game adjustments" but Jeff Van Gundy is one of the few ESPN commentators who downplays such talk, perhaps because he is the only current ESPN commentator who has actually coached in the NBA Finals. During the 2010 NBA Finals, Van Gundy explained that playoff series are not decided by in game adjustments because "You are who you are by this time of the year and you have to go with your best stuff and expect them to go with their best stuff." During last night's telecast, Van Gundy made similar points, and after the game he mentioned that NBA games are often decided by one or two key plays, or simply by shots made/missed, and that there are not adjustments that can change those things.
Bill Russell refuted the in game adjustment nonsense years ago, cautioning, "You have to make adjustments that your team can make" and explaining, "When I played, when we had to make adjustments we would adjust not to what we did wrong but we would try to get back to what we did right and do that. That is the only way you can take control of the game," to which I added, "The idea that a coach can come up with something completely new between games--let alone during a 15 minute halftime break--is absurd and that is why San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich gives snarky answers when media members ask him stupid questions about what kind of adjustments he is going to make." 
Unfortunately, many NBA commentators do not understand what they are watching, and are incapable of coming up with anything other than declaring that a team lost because that team's coach did not make the right adjustments. Stephen A. Smith repeats this tired refrain after almost every game, not realizing that his nickname is "Screamin' A", not "Strategy A" (though "Strategy F" would be an accurate assessment of what passes for analysis by him). 

Perhaps when someone is paid millions of dollars per year to pose as an expert about something for which he does not have anything approaching expert level understanding there is pressure--self-imposed and/or from the bosses who sign those checks--to make bold statements and assertions. 
The NBA must be so thrilled that ESPN is broadcasting the league's showcase event instead of TNT. If only this were the Gong Show, and we could just push ESPN's clown show off of the stage so that the first stringers could take over. ESPN's well publicized grade school infighting among on-air "talent" is embarrassing, and the quality of the pre-game, halftime, and post-game analysis is inconsistent at best (Van Gundy and Mark Jackson provide excellent in game analysis). Tim Legler is very good at breaking down tape, and Jalen Rose is solid, but ESPN trots out a lot of people who generate more heat than light. For example, Jay Williams recently praised the Boston Celtics for hiring the first Black coach in team history, forgetting that the Celtics not only hired the first Black coach in NBA history more than 50 years ago but also that the franchise has had several other Black coaches since Bill Russell, including championship winning coaches K.C. Jones and Doc Rivers. Such lack of historical knowledge and perspective is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable. Williams has a big obsession with the in game adjustments that he thinks that Milwaukee Coach Mike Budenholzer should make. As a former NBA player, Williams should know better.
The first two games of the NBA Finals have not been decided by adjustments and/or in game adjustments. Mike Budenholzer and his Phoenix counterpart Monty Williams cannot grab loose balls or make open shots. Their job is to come up with game plans that put their teams in the best possible position to succeed. The persistent notion that Budenholzer does not know what he is doing is silly, if not pernicious. Are the commentators who keep promoting that false notion angling for a coaching job for themselves or for one of their friends? The Bucks had the best record in the East two years in a row, and then this year they reached the Finals after posting the third best record in the East. They have won playoff series by taking command from the start, and they have won playoff series by coming back from deficits. All of those accomplishments are tributes not only to the players' skill and hard work, but also to the game plan preparation of Budenholzer and his staff. 
During the 2021 playoffs, the Bucks are 7-1 at home and 5-6 on the road. It is not shocking that they are trailing 2-0 after playing two games in Phoenix, nor would it be shocking if they win two home games to turn this into a three game series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 AM


Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Paul, Booker, and Ayton Shine as Suns Beat Bucks 118-105

Chris Paul (32 points, nine assists, four rebounds, 12-19 FG), Devin Booker (27 points, six assists, 10-10 FT), and Deandre Ayton (22 points, 19 rebounds, 8-10 FG) dominated as the Phoenix Suns led most of the way en route to a 118-105 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in game one of the NBA Finals. After not scoring during the first quarter, Paul picked apart Milwaukee's defense in the final three quarters, as the Suns ran screen/roll actions until they got the matchup they wanted, and then they attacked that matchup relentlessly. Booker did not shoot well from the field (8-21 FG) but he used his quickness and ballhandling to draw fouls, and he was perfect from the free throw line. Meanwhile, Ayton provided inside punch at both ends of the court, dominating the glass, providing timely paint points, and making all six of his free throws as the Suns shot 25-26 from the free throw line; only a late Jae Crowder miss stopped the Suns from setting the Finals single game record for most free throws made without a miss. 

As ABC's Jeff Van Gundy wryly noted, there is nothing that the Bucks can do about their "free throw defense." It is not likely that the Suns will shoot that kind of free throw percentage again during this series, and if the Suns had shot a "normal" free throw percentage then this game would have been much closer down the stretch. However, the Bucks have to be concerned about (1) how many fouls the Suns drew, and (2) how easily the Suns created and exploited the matchups that the Suns wanted. The Bucks must either fight over screens (as opposed to switching so often), or they must initiate hard traps to force Paul (or Booker when he is involved in the screen/roll action) to give up the ball. 

The biggest story at the start of the game was the return of two-time regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who missed the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals after suffering a knee injury in game four. The injury looked horrific, but imaging detected no structural damage, and it is remarkable--and wonderful--that Antetokounmpo returned to action. Antetokounmpo looked confident throughout the game, and physically he looked healthy as he scored 20 points on 6-11 field goal shooting while grabbing 17 rebounds, passing for four assists, and contributing a chase down blocked shot versus Mikal Bridges that removed any doubt about Antetokounmpo's post-injury speed, mobility, and agility. Antetokounmpo had a +1 plus/minus number, while the other four Bucks starters had plus/minus numbers ranging from -11 to -17. The Bucks had few problems during the 35 minutes that he played, but they had plenty of problems during the 13 minutes that he did not play. He has been out of action for a week, and he typically plays around 35 minutes because he plays so hard, but in this series the Bucks may need 40 productive minutes from Antetokounmpo so that they only have to figure out how to survive eight minutes per game without him.

Khris Middleton led the Bucks with 29 points on 12-26 field goal shooting, and Brook Lopez had a solid game (17 points, six rebounds). The Bucks need more from Jrue Holiday, who scored just 10 points on 4-14 field goal shooting. Holiday had nine assists and seven rebounds, but the Bucks need for him to score 18-20 points on efficient shooting while also being the primary defender on Paul; the Bucks cannot permit Paul to seek out the matchup that he wants.

The Bucks took an early three point lead, but trailed 30-26 by the end of the first quarter as Booker scored 12 points, including 6-6 free throw shooting. The Suns pushed that margin to 57-49 at halftime, and then they broke the game open as Paul scored 16 third quarter points on 6-7 field goal shooting. Paul was masterful as he authored one of the best Finals debuts ever, and one of the best Finals performances by a 36 year old.

The Suns outscored the Bucks 44-42 in the paint, 20-17 on the fast break, and 25-9 from the free throw line. The Bucks need to do a better job of exploiting their size advantage inside. One of the biggest mistakes that fans and even commentators make is assuming that whatever happened in one playoff game will carry over to the next game and the rest of the series. The Suns played about as well as they can play, but the Bucks are capable of making adjustments and playing better than they played. It would not at all be surprising if the Bucks play better defense, increase their paint scoring, and win game two.

The game one winner typically wins an NBA playoff series, but in the past couple years we have seen teams--including the Bucks--bounce back from a game one loss.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:50 AM


Monday, July 05, 2021

Milwaukee Versus Phoenix Preview

NBA Finals

Milwaukee (46-26) vs. Phoenix (51-31) 

Season series: Phoenix, 2-0 

Phoenix can win if…the Suns continue to be the healthiest team left standing. Sadly--but perhaps inevitably, considering the compressed time frame from the end of the "bubble" to the beginning of the 2020-21 season--the 2021 NBA playoffs have been a war of attrition more than a battle of skill, and the losers have been the fans. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, and Trae Young are just a few of the stars who have been seriously affected by an injury during the 2021 playoffs. It is not a coincidence that the Suns defeated three teams (Lakers, Nuggets, Clippers) who each have at least one player on that list. 

There is no doubt that the Suns are a very good team--but if all teams had been at full strength during the regular season and the playoffs, it is very doubtful that the Suns would have outperformed the Lakers, the Clippers, the Nuggets, or the Jazz. Taking a broader, historical perspective, consider the teams that have reached the NBA Finals in the past 10-15 years: how many of those teams would it be reasonable to expect these Suns to beat if both teams were at full strength?

Objectively assessing the Suns takes nothing away from what they have accomplished: they eliminated the three teams they have faced thus far in the 2021 playoffs, and they earned the right to play in the NBA Finals. 

Offensively, the Suns' utilize the midrange game to good effect, Deandre Ayton is a high percentage scorer in the paint, and several Suns are excellent three point shooters. Defensively, the Suns use their speed, agility, and craftiness to good effect, though they can be overpowered in the paint by a team that has the necessary personnel and discipline to do so.

Milwaukee will win because…the Bucks' version of a Big Three--when healthy, and that is the major key, as noted in the above discussion about injuries--is better, bigger, and more versatile than the Suns' version of a Big Three. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 26.5 ppg, 10.0 rpg, and 5.5 apg while shooting .608 from the field in the first four games of the Eastern Conference Finals before spraining his knee during the fourth game. His overall 2021 playoff numbers are 28.2 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 5.2 apg, and .551 FG%. He missed the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Bucks have not publicly released a timetable for his return. If Antetokounmpo returns to action and is reasonably healthy, the Suns have no answer for him; if Antetokounmpo does not return, or if he returns at less than 100%, the Bucks could still win the series but the path to victory would be much more difficult.

Khris Middleton averaged 23.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg, and 6.5 apg in the Eastern Conference Finals, and he is averaging 23.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, and 5.1 apg overall in the 2021 playoffs. He is an All-NBA caliber performer who, for some inexplicable reason, is not given the respect that he deserves. Middleton does not have any skill set weaknesses; that is not to say that he is the best at any one particular skill set, but it means that it is difficult to exploit him in a matchup at either end of the court because of his size, mobility, shooting touch, rebounding, passing ability, and defensive prowess. He can explode for 15-20 points in a quarter or 35 points in a game at any time, and he can do that while also having a positive defensive impact.

Jrue Holiday contributed 22.0 ppg, 10.0 apg, and 5.0 rpg in the Eastern Conference Finals, and he is producing 17.6 ppg, 8.4 apg, and 5.6 rpg overall in the 2021 playoffs. He has struggled with his shooting efficiency at times, but he filled a big void at both ends of the court after Antetokounmpo got hurt.

In addition to the Big Three, the Bucks have a good supporting cast. Brook Lopez is a solid three point shooter who also can score inside, and he is a good rim protector (1.8 bpg in the 2021 playoffs). Bobby Portis provides rebounding, toughness, and timely scoring. P.J. Tucker is often assigned to harass the opposing team's best scorer. Pat Connaughton has filled in capably for the injured Donte DiVincenzo.

Sans Antetokounmpo, the Bucks pounded the Hawks into submission in the paint in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals, and then finished the series off with a strong inside/outside attack in game six. The Bucks' size, versatility, and defense will pose challenges that the Suns have not yet faced during the 2021 playoffs.

Other things to consider: This is Chris Paul's first NBA Finals appearance in 16 NBA seasons. In game six of the Western Conference Finals, Paul tied his playoff career high with 41 points as the Suns eliminated the L.A. Clippers, but throughout most of his career Paul has gotten injured and/or worn down as the playoffs progress; this year, he has been more durable than usual despite dealing with a shoulder injury suffered during the first round and despite having a brief stint in the league's COVID-19 protocols. Not only has Paul been more durable than usual, he has been more durable than most of the stars on the other top contenders--and the disparity between the Suns' health versus the health of the league's other top contenders is the biggest single factor explaining how the Suns advanced to the NBA Finals. 

Paul has received most of the headlines and accolades during both the regular season and the playoffs, but a strong case could be made that Devin Booker is the Suns' best and most valuable player. Booker led the team in scoring during the regular season (25.6 ppg), during the Western Conference Finals (25.5 ppg), and during the playoffs overall (27.0 ppg). When Paul missed the first game of the Western Conference Finals because of the NBA's COVID-19 protocols, Booker dominated the Clippers with 40 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists. The media narrative throughout Paul's career is that he "makes his teammates better"--a meaningless phrase--but the reality is that he is a great player who has been able to bring out the best from talented teammates. Booker clearly does not need Paul to "make him better"; Booker can control a game without Paul even being on the court.

Similarly, Deandre Ayton is a talented player who does not need Paul to "make him better." Ayton was the number one overall selection in a draft class that included both Luka Doncic and Trae Young, so it is silly to pretend that Paul is creating something out of nothing when he passes the ball to Ayton.

Holiday has the necessary physical and mental traits to match up well with Paul. Middleton versus Booker should be a draw, or perhaps a slight edge to Booker. Ayton is superior to Lopez, but the Bucks' "drop" coverage should prevent Ayton from matching the .706 FG% he has posted thus far in the 2021 playoffs. Antetokounmpo is obviously the key. The Suns cannot match up with him, while he can guard multiple positions. If Antetokounmpo is able to perform anywhere close to his normal capabilities, the Bucks are too big and too versatile for the Suns.

My expectation is that Antetokounmpo will lack some explosiveness and lateral mobility, but he will still be able to attack the hoop, rebound, make plays, and be an effective defensive presence.

Based on that expectation, I predict that the Bucks will win in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:58 PM


Thursday, July 01, 2021

Chris Paul Scores 41 Points as Suns Obliterate and Eliminate Clippers

Chris Paul had a playoff career high-tying 41 points on 16-24 field goal shooting, plus eight assists, four rebounds, three steals, and no turnovers as his Phoenix Suns routed the L.A. Clippers 130-103 to win the Western Conference Finals 4-2 and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993. The Suns led 66-57 at halftime and then pushed that advantage to 89-72 in the third quarter before the Clippers rallied to pull within seven, 89-82. Paul scored eight points in the final 1:28 of the third quarter to extend the Suns' lead to 97-83 heading into the last stanza, and he poured in 19 fourth quarter points as the Clippers mounted little resistance in the closing 12 minutes. Devin Booker added 22 points, though he shot just 10-26 from the field. Deandre Ayton contributed 16 points on 8-10 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 17 rebounds. Jae Crowder, the only Suns player with NBA Finals experience, scored 19 points. Marcus Morris Sr. led the Clippers with 26 points, while Paul George had 21 points on 6-15 field goal shooting after scoring 41 points in game five as the Clippers extended the series with a win in Phoenix.

The Suns have clinched three playoff series in a row on the road, knocking off the defending champion Lakers and the 2021 NBA regular season MVP (Denver's Nikola Jokic) along the way. That is impressive and worthy of praise, and it does not diminish the value of those accomplishments to point out that the Lakers were without Anthony Davis for most of the series, that the Nuggets were without Jamal Murray for the entire series, and that the Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard for the entire Western Conference Finals after Leonard suffered a knee injury in game four of the Clippers' 4-2 second round win versus the Utah Jazz, the team with the best regular season record in the NBA. The Suns have no control over who they face in the playoffs, so it is not their fault that they have eliminated three teams that were missing top level players.

Paul shot .420 or worse from the field in two of those series, though it should be noted that he shot .627 from the field as Phoenix swept Denver in the second round. Paul missed the first two games of the Western Conference Finals due to the NBA's COVID-19 protocols, but he has played better in each game since he returned to action, as his field goal percentage shows: .263 in game three, .273 in game four, .421 in game five, .667 in game six. Of course, those numbers also show that for most of the series he was either out of action or not particularly efficient, and that the Suns were able to overcome those absences and inefficient performances to be in position to close out the series in game six. Paul chose wisely when he decided to go to Phoenix, even if that was not fully apparent until the 2021 playoffs.

Booker is leading the Suns in playoff scoring (27.0 ppg) by nearly 9 ppg over Paul while also ranking second on the team in both rebounding (6.4 rpg) and assists (4.8 apg). Ayton is a beast in the paint. The addition of Paul to a team that went 8-0 in the "bubble" last summer was the final piece, but it is more than a bit deceptive for anyone to act like Paul has turned a losing team into a contender; the Suns were rising before the addition of Paul, and Paul has made the most of the opportunity to play alongside Booker and Ayton.

Paul is a great player, but for some reason he gets more credit for his (limited) playoff success and less blame for his (extensive) playoff failure than other great players do. It is obvious and indisputable that Paul authored a tremendous performance in game six, but that is part of a larger legacy, and does not define his career--particularly if this playoff run does not result in a title. Many media members have a strange way of quantifying leadership. If our mission is to go to point Z, and our leader only takes us to point M, then it is difficult to rationally argue that our leader is a better leader than someone who led his team to point Z five times--or, to put it more bluntly, when I think about the best leaders in the NBA in the post-Jordan era, I think about Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and LeBron James. Each of those guys has/had a different leadership style, but each played a major role in multiple championship runs; love them or hate them, they led their teams to point Z. Chris Paul is in his 16th season, and this will be his first NBA Finals appearance. You may retort that Paul has not always had the best supporting cast around him, but the reality is that he has had a lot of talent around him in multiple organizations while spending most of his career losing in the second round or earlier; either his leadership has been overrated, or leadership itself does not matter as much as raw talent. I am not saying that Paul is not a good leader, but the popular notion that he is the best leader in the NBA is not supported by the most important evidence: sustained team performance at an elite level.

Also, Paul's greatness does not make his flopping and other antics acceptable; to the contrary, as a great player he should be above all of that. It continues to surprise me that referees apparently do not resent or push back against players like Paul and James Harden who get away with flopping. If I were a referee (or the league office), I would have a very jaundiced view of players who put so much effort into fooling the referees. It is one thing to draw attention to the fact that you have been fouled; well-coached players know that if they are hit they should yell or gesture to make sure that the referees are aware of the contact. It is quite another thing to fall down like you have been shot after minimal to no contact; that is not calling attention to a foul, but rather attempting to cheat the game.

In game six, Paul's antics resulted in a technical foul being called against DeMarcus Cousins, though Paul missed the resulting free throw (as Rasheed Wallace would say, "Ball don't lie!"). Also, Paul apparently said something to Patrick Beverley after the Suns blew the game open, and Beverley reacted by pushing Paul in the back. Paul laughed and clapped his hands after Beverley was ejected. That play is an example of Paul being an instigator and Beverley being an idiot.

Speaking of Beverley, the Clippers have a lot of hotheads/big talkers who disappear under pressure; we saw that during the 2020 playoffs when the Clippers melted down after taking a 3-1 lead versus Denver, and we ultimately saw that again after Leonard got hurt, as the Clippers lost two of their last three home games versus Phoenix. Leonard was averaging 30.4 ppg with a playoff career high .573 field goal percentage before the knee injury knocked him out of action.

Russell Westbrook summed up Beverley a while ago, telling the media that Beverley has fooled them by running around all over the court without doing much. Beverley's story--which starts with the academic fraud that he committed to end his college career, and then involved many stops before he made it to the NBA--is oft-repeated in admiring tones, but the main thing that I see Beverley do is make cheap and dangerous plays that could cause injuries (and sometimes have). Paul is annoying, but Beverley's cheap shot push to Paul's back does not demonstrate the toughness that so many people attribute to Beverley: a skilled and tough NBA player would have contained Paul when it counted, not pushed him from behind with the game over. Pushing a player from behind when you know that referees, coaches and others will jump in between so that the player you pushed does not even have a chance to get in your face is a cowardly and soft act. It is often said that no one would want to mess with Beverley. Why? Name one actual tough guy who would be afraid of someone who thinks that it is smart and tough to push an opponent from behind. True toughness has a lot more to do with mentality than physical attributes; a player who gets torched when it matters and then delivers a cheap shot to get ejected rather than face the music like a man is not a true tough guy. 

It will be interesting to see who the Suns face in the NBA Finals, but both of their prospective opponents have already seen their best players go down with injuries that have been serious enough to cause those players to miss action (and it is not clear when/if either player will return to action). Will the Suns become the first team to win an NBA title in the four round format without facing a single team in the playoffs whose best player was even close to full health?

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:23 AM


Saturday, June 26, 2021

Scottie Pippen Was One of Just Three Essential Members of the Chicago Bulls' Six Championship Teams

Scottie Pippen has never been afraid to speak his mind regardless of what other people may think, say, or do, and I find that quality refreshing. Ask Pippen about Kevin Durant, and Pippen will tell you that Durant should not have tried to beat the Milwaukee Bucks by himself in game seven but also that first year Coach Steve Nash made a mistake by playing Durant for so many minutes. Ask Pippen about Ben Simmons, and Pippen will tell you that Simmons' inability to shoot well and his consequent reluctance to shoot in the fourth quarter are nothing new, and that Coach Doc Rivers should have adjusted his late game rotations accordingly, much the way that even a player as great as Shaquille O'Neal would sometimes be pulled from a game because of his poor free throw shooting. 

Durant has proven not only that he is a great player but also that he has rabbit ears, so it is not surprising that he quickly clapped back at Pippen with a reference to the infamous 1.8 seconds that Pippen did not play at the end of game three of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals after Pippen was upset that Coach Phil Jackson designed the last shot for Toni Kukoc.

Dismissing Pippen's greatness based on "1.8 seconds" not only mischaracterizes that specific event, but fails to take into account the essential role he played on six championships teams. The numbers 25-8-6 (Pippen's point/rebound/assist totals in the Bulls' win in the next game after the infamous 1.8 seconds) speak eloquently not only about Pippen's talents but also about how thoroughly and quickly he healed any rift with his teammates. It is also important to remember that Pippen was a key member of three Chicago championship teams after those 1.8 seconds.

Only three main cogs participated in all six Chicago championship teams: Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen. Every other participant was replaceable, and was replaced. 

Those who are quick to assert that Jordan could and would have won six titles with any other coach running the team and any other star player alongside him should be reminded of several facts:

1) Prior to teaming up with Jackson and Pippen, Jordan's career playoff record was 1-9, with three first round losses.

2) After teaming up with Jackson and Pippen, Jordan failed to make the playoffs in two seasons with the Washington Wizards.

3) After winning six titles with the Bulls, Jackson won five more titles with the Lakers.

4) After Michael Jordan's first retirement in 1993, the Bulls replaced him in the starting lineup with Pete Myers, and went on to post a 55-27 record, just two wins less their 1992-93 record. The Pippen-led 1993-94 Bulls lost in seven games in the second round to the New York Knicks, who benefited from a game-deciding call by Hue Hollins in game five that Darell Garretson--one of the other officials on the court during that game--later publicly called "terrible."

5) After Jordan returned to the Bulls near the end of the 1994-95 season, the Bulls lost in six games in the second round of the playoffs.

6) Pippen was the heart and soul of Portland's 2000 team that pushed the eventual three-time champion L.A. Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. 

7) Pippen's playoff record without Jordan was 3-6 in series, and 19-21 in games. That may not look great at first glance, but it is much better than Jordan's playoff record without Pippen, and most of Pippen's playoff games without Jordan took place past Pippen's prime and after Pippen had major back surgery. Pippen went 1-1 in playoff series and 6-4 in playoff games in his only playoff run during his prime sans Jordan.

The above seven bullet points contain facts, not opinions or speculation. Those facts can be placed in context in a variety of ways, but the bottom line indisputable fact is that--of the three essential members of the Bulls' six championship teams--Jordan had the least playoff success on his own. That does not mean that Jordan was not great, but it does suggest that efforts to lionize Jordan while marginalizing the contributions of Jackson and Pippen do a disservice to the historical record.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:01 AM


Monday, June 21, 2021

Milwaukee Versus Atlanta Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

#3 Milwaukee (46-26) vs. #5 Atlanta (41-31)

Season series: Milwaukee, 2-1

Atlanta can win if…the Hawks can keep the games close and Trae Young is the best player on the court during crunch time. Young is undersized, not very efficient, and he often takes bad shots, but he is also fearless in clutch moments. He has posted some of the best combined scoring/assists numbers ever for a player making his first playoff run, averaging 29.1 ppg and 10.4 apg in 12 playoff games. Young is shooting just .413 from the field (including .330 from three point range). Shooting percentage is not a perfect measurement of shooting ability or effectiveness as a scorer, but combining those numbers with the eye test it is apparent that Young's shot selection is not the best. His playoff FT% is .877, so there is no question that he has a pure shooting stroke.

Overall, the Hawks did not shoot very well versus the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round (.444 FG%/.335 3FG%), though some of that can be attributed to Young attempting 60 more field goals than anyone else on the team despite having the second worst field goal percentage among the eight players who appeared in all seven games. A team's best player receives the most defensive attention, and he will often not lead the team in FG%, but based on his position, skill set and role Young should be shooting at least .450 from the field, and he shot just .392 versus the 76ers.

Five other Hawks scored in double figures against Philadelphia; that offensive balance combined with a solid defense enabled the Hawks to knock off the East's top seed by winning game seven on the road. Young shot a ghastly .217 from the field (5-23) in that 103-96 win and he also had six turnovers, but he led the Hawks with 10 assists and he controlled the game down the stretch. His impact is similar to Allen Iverson's, but Young shoots three pointers more often that Iverson, which is typical of high scoring guards in this era.

There is a ceiling to how far a high volume, low efficiency guard can take a team, particularly when that guard is undersized and does not have a huge impact on defense, but Iverson proved that a tough player who is fearless in clutch situations can lead a team to the NBA Finals, and that level of success is not out of the question for Young, though sustaining that level of success is improbable unless Young alters his style a bit and/or obtains more help; after leading the 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals in just his fourth season, Iverson had many scintillating playoff performances--including three playoff series during which he averaged at least 30 ppg--but his teams only advanced past the first round one time.

It will be interesting to see how far Young leads the Hawks this season, and then if that turns out to be the first of many deep playoff runs or just an aberration. Prior to the playoffs, I did not think that Young could take the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals, and now it will be interesting to see if he can lead them to the NBA Finals and then sustain that kind of postseason success throughout his career.

Milwaukee will win because…Giannis Antetokounmpo is still playing at an MVP level, and he is the main cog in perhaps the most unheralded "Big Three" in the league: Khris Middleton is an elite shooter/scorer who also can run the offense, and Jrue Holiday is an excellent two-way player. Middleton (shooting splits of .408/.365/.861) and Holiday (.361/.261/.727) both did not shoot well during Milwaukee's seven game upset of the Brooklyn Nets but they were both productive overall (24.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 4.3 apg for Middleton; 15.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.3 apg for Holiday) and they both made key crunch time contributions. It seems unlikely that they will shoot that poorly versus the Hawks.

Milwaukee may be the healthiest team left in the playoffs, with only Donte DiVincenzo (season-ending ankle injury suffered in game three of the first round) missing from the regular rotation. Injuries have been as important as any other single factor in determining the course of the 2021 playoffs, and if Milwaukee continues to stay healthy that will be a huge advantage.

Other things to consider: It is difficult to believe that after avenging last year's embarrassing loss to Miami and then surviving a seven game war versus the paper champion Brooklyn Nets the Bucks will lose to an Atlanta team that had a sub-.500 record more than halfway through this season. The Hawks are now a very good team, and I have already underestimated them for two series in a row, but the Bucks enjoy matchup advantages at multiple positions. Antetokounmpo and Middleton should both have big series, and look for Holiday to bounce back after performing erratically versus the Nets last round.

Milwaukee will win in six games. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:32 AM