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Monday, August 01, 2022

Remembering Bill Russell, The Greatest Champion in North American Team Sports History

Bill Russell, who led the Boston Celtics to an unprecedented and unsurpassed 11 NBA titles in his 13 season career, passed away yesterday at the age of 88. He led a remarkable life filled not only with accomplishments on the basketball court but also imbued with intelligence, courage, dignity, and tenacity away from the basketball court.

Russell led McClymonds High School to two California state basketball titles. During an era when the sport of basketball was only beginning to integrate, he was not heavily recruited, but he accepted a scholarship to the University of San Francisco and promptly led the Dons to a 55 game winning streak plus two NCAA championships. Russell is one of a select group of Division I players who have career averages of at least 20 ppg and at least 20 rpg. Although shotblocking statistics were not kept during that era, Russell was such a dominant defensive player that he would tell his teammate K.C. Jones to run to a particular spot where Russell would direct a blocked shot to start the fastbreak! Russell led the United States basketball team to a gold medal in the 1956 Olympic Games at Melbourne, Australia before returning to the United States and leading the Boston Celtics to the 1957 NBA championship as a rookie. 

The Celtics lost to the St. Louis Hawks in the 1958 NBA Finals--Russell was hobbled by an injured ankle during that series--and then won an NBA record eight straight championships from 1959-66. Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia 76ers ended that streak in 1967. Chamberlain and Russell had perhaps the greatest rivalry not only in NBA history but in sports history. Chamberlain was the most dominant individual player, setting scoring and rebounding records that will likely never be broken, including most points in a season (4029), most points in a game (100), most career rebounds (23,924), most rebounds in a season (2149), and most rebounds in a game (55). Chamberlain was the first player to score more than 30,000 career regular season points, the only center to lead the NBA in assists, and the only player who has ranked first in scoring, rebounding, and assists at least once each for an entire season. Russell was not dominant in any statistical category other than rebounding (where he only trails Chamberlain in the record books), but Russell's teams won 11 titles while Chamberlain's teams won two titles. 

Could Chamberlain have won more championships with better supporting casts? Would Russell have won fewer championships if he had played with Chamberlain's supporting casts? We will never know the answers to such hypothetical questions, but we know that Chamberlain was the most dominant offensive player ever while Russell was the most dominant defensive player ever.

During that era, the players voted for the regular season MVP award while media members voted for the All-NBA Teams. Russell won five MVP awards (1958, 1961-63, 1965) but received just three All-NBA First Team selections (1959, 1963, 1965), while Chamberlain won four MVP awards (1960, 1966-68) while receiving seven All-NBA First Team selections (1960-62, 1964, 1966-68). For some reason, the players ranked Russell higher, while the media members preferred Chamberlain.

The Celtics bounced back to win the 1968 title. In 1969, the aging Celtics finished fourth in the seven team Eastern Division in 1969, but they nevertheless reached the NBA Finals, where they faced a powerful L.A. Lakers squad featuring Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor. My favorite Bill Russell story is about his last game: game seven of the 1969 NBA Finals. His Celtics faced the Lakers in Los Angeles. The Lakers published an elaborate description of how they would celebrate after winning the title, down to the details about which players would be interviewed after the game and about how 20,000 balloons would be released from the rafters while a band played "Happy Days Are Here Again." Russell saw those plans, and told his team simply that there were many things that could happen that day but one thing that could not happen was L.A. winning, so he looked forward to watching those balloons being taken down one by one. The Celtics won, 108-106, and Russell rode off into the sunset with 11 championship rings for 10 fingers.

The NBA Finals MVP award was first given out in 1969--West became the first and only player from the losing team to receive the honor--but in 2009 the NBA named the NBA Finals MVP award after Russell. Russell likely would have won more Finals MVPs than anyone else had the award existed throughout his career. Russell transformed a high scoring Boston team that could not win the big one into the greatest dynasty in North American sports history.

The way that championship ring counting is currently discussed is odd, because media members pretend that Michael Jordan--who won six NBA titles as a player--holds a record that was chased by Kobe Bryant (who finished with five NBA titles), LeBron James (four titles) and others. These media members ignore the six NBA titles won by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and they neglect to mention that Bill Russell won as many championships as Jordan and Bryant combined! The players closest to Russell on that list are former teammates, such as Sam Jones (10), K.C. Jones (eight), Tommy Heinsohn (eight), Satch Sanders (eight) and John Havlicek (eight, including two after Russell retired).

Russell served as player-coach during his final three seasons, winning back to back titles. He was the first Black coach in any of the four major American pro sports leagues. He had less successful stints coaching in Seattle and briefly in Sacramento. Russell joined John Wooden, Bill Sharman, Lenny Wilkens, and his teammate Tommy Heinsohn as the only people inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach

A lot has been said about the relative athletic ability of NBA players in the 1950s and 1960s, much of it ignorant babbling by people who do not have the faintest idea of what it means to be a great athlete or a great basketball player. Russell represented USF in track and field events, and in 1956 he was ranked as the seventh best high jumper in the world. Russell ran the 440 in 49.6 seconds. Remember, Russell posted those numbers as a 6-9 athlete whose primary sport was basketball, not track and field; someone who had world class jumping ability and speed under those conditions in the 1950s would surely have also been an elite athlete in the modern era with today's superior training conditions. If there is a plumber then or now who could keep up with Russell, I'd pay to see him.

Inevitably, Russell will be most remembered for his considerable on court accomplishments, but his life away from basketball should not be forgotten. Russell was a champion for social justice when that was not just a slogan but it meant actually taking a stand, taking risks, and possibly even putting your life in danger. Russell was front and center in Washington, D.C. in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Russell marched in Mississippi after civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated. Russell refused to play in games when he and other Black players were not provided accommodations equal to the accommodations provided to White players. Russell's house was vandalized by racists who defecated on his bed and smashed his trophies. He was not a man who spoke platitudes while safely ensconced far away from the battles; Russell was on the front lines in the fight for racial equality. Russell was one of the leaders of the 1967 Muhammad Ali Summit in Cleveland, along with Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor). Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

My basketball hero is Julius Erving, and I know that Bill Russell is Erving's basketball hero. Both of them felt unfulfilled about the time that they spent as TV basketball commentators because they understood that the deeper meaning of the sport cannot be conveyed in brief soundbites sandwiched between commercials. As Erving put it in his autobiography, "It is remarkable to me how we can fill hours, days even, of television talking about basketball, and yet I always feel that we are failing to communicate the truth of the game. Even here, in this book, I worry that I am not up to the task of explaining the essence of basketball as it is played at the highest levels. I feel that it is like trying to explain music through words or to describe a painting through text. You can give a feeling of the work, or compare it to something else, but you can't re-create the actual feeling of being on the court, or making that move, imposing your will, of the precise moment that you realize you can reach the front of the rim." I suspect that Russell agreed with those sentiments, and I always enjoyed listening to Russell's insights about basketball.

I never interviewed Russell, but I met him at an NBA Cares event. I shook his hand, and told him how much I respect what he accomplished. I hope that I made clear and that he understood I was not talking only about basketball.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:53 AM

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Thursday, July 14, 2022

NBA Belatedly Provides Limited Benefits to Retired ABA Players

The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) jointly announced that the two organizations will partner to fund payments to approximately 115 retired ABA players who are not currently receiving any pension payments from the NBA. The program will provide an annual payment of  approximately $3828 for each year of service; for example, a player who played five ABA seasons would receive $19,140 per year. The payments are designated as "recognition payments" and not as pensions, no doubt for legal reasons as the NBA does not want to connect these payments in any way with their pension plan.

The Dropping Dimes Foundation deserves credit for pressuring the NBA until the league felt so ashamed about neglecting its legal and moral obligation to retired ABA players that it had to do something. Scott Tarter, the CEO and founder of Dropping Dimes, said after the announcement, "It's an incredible day for former ABA players, one that we and the players have been hoping for and working so hard toward for many years." Hall of Famer Mel Daniels, who passed away in 2015, was a major supporter of Dropping Dimes. Tarter noted, "Too bad Mel is not here to see this in person. This was his idea all along, saying, 'We've got to do something for these guys.'"

I am happy that the retired ABA players will--belatedly--at least receive something from the NBA other than excuses and neglect, and I acknowledge that even this relatively small amount of money may indeed be life-changing (as some have described it) for retired players who are in dire financial straits, but it must be emphasized that the ABA-NBA merger took place in 1976, so this payment plan is 46 years overdue and contains no provisions for makeup payments. Further, many retired ABA players have passed away, and their family members will not receive a penny, even though those players should have been receiving pension money (or "recognition payments") for many years, if not decades.

Also, let's place the "recognition payments" in context. The plan will cost the NBA and NBPA $24.5 million, but the NBA is a multi-billion dollar per year business, which means that $24.5 million is the NBA equivalent of spare change found in between couch cushions. The value of NBA franchises has soared since the ABA-NBA merger thanks not only to the brilliance of great players including but not limited to Julius Erving, Moses Malone, George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Bobby Jones, but also because of the adoption of ideas either created by and/or popularized by the ABA, including the three point shot rule and the Slam Dunk Contest. 

The ABA's impact is not acknowledged and recognized by the NBA and its media partners, as I noted in The Legacy of the ABA:

The ABA developed and nurtured many of the players who became the NBA's marquee stars in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Moses Malone, George Gervin, David Thompson and Dan Issel. The scintillating Erving had an excellent NBA career but those who saw him in his ABA days got a special treat. Mike Gale, a two-time ABA All-Defensive Team guard who played with Erving on the 1974 ABA champion New York Nets and later played against him in both leagues, says, "Doc was an awesome player. Because of the way the ABA was at that time (not having a national TV contract), most of America did not get to see him in what we would call his prime. Some of the moves that he made, you will never see again. It was amazing to see his work ethic. After practice, we'd be out there playing and shooting. He just loved the game. He'd try to think of things that were out of the ordinary and not done the regular way. It was a sight to see. We sat back (as teammates) and would say, 'How'd he do that?'"

The ABA changed the way that basketball is played and the way that it is packaged and presented. The ABA did not introduce the three point shot--it had been previously used in the ABL and some college teams had experimented with it decades earlier--but the ABA popularized it. The rivalry between the leagues was so bitter that the NBA could not bring itself to start using the three point shot until four years after the merger. College basketball began using the three point shot a few years later. It is impossible to imagine basketball at any level today without the three point line. March Madness would not be the same without the possibility of an underdog team getting hot from three point range and knocking off a blue chip school.

The ABA wrapped a concert and a Slam Dunk contest around the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, essentially creating the concept that has morphed into what is now known as All-Star Weekend. The NBA scoffed at that idea for years before finally embracing it in 1984. The ABA's influence can even be felt in the box score. Steals, blocked shots, turnovers (the ABA called them "errors") and offensive rebounds are statistics that were first tracked by ABA scorekeepers before the NBA decided to make them part of the game's official numerical language. Ironically, while the NBA adopted these categories for its own use it stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the statistics compiled by ABA players. The NFL recognizes that the AFL’s Joe Namath was the first pro quarterback to pass for 4000 yards in a season but the NBA acts as if the 11,662 ABA points scored by Namath's New York contemporary Julius Erving do not exist. The careers of great ABA players like Roger Brown and Mel Daniels exist in a statistical netherworld; sometimes, they are mentioned in articles or on TV but often their accomplishments are completely disregarded.
The NBA's stubborn refusal to officially count ABA statistics is as foolish as it is petty. The NFL had a fierce rivalry with the AFL, but after the AFL-NFL merger the NFL as a league as well as the NFL's individual teams included AFL statistics in the sport's official records. Contrast the NFL's sensible approach to this issue with the NBA pretending that most of Julius Erving's 40 point games never happened or that Kyrie Irving holds the Nets' single game scoring record that actually is still held by Julius Erving. The NBA wants you to believe that Erving is the 74th leading scorer all-time with 18,364 NBA regular season points instead of accepting the reality that Erving is the eighth leading scorer in pro basketball history with 30,026 regular season points. Younger fans who think that they know who is the greatest forward of all-time may be surprised to know that Erving is the first non-center in pro basketball history who scored at least 30,000 career points, and that he retired as the third leading scorer in pro basketball history behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.

Despite the ABA's immense cultural and historical impact, the "recognition payments" for ABA players pale in comparison to what is received by retired NBA players via the NBA's pension plan. The NBA's pension plan for players who retired post-1965 currently pays out more than $800 per month for each year of service. A 62 year old retired NBA player who played at least 10 seasons receives an NBA-funded pension of $215,000 per year, and the minimum that a 62 year old retired NBA player who played just three seasons receives is an NBA-funded pension of $56,988 per year. As mentioned above, the NBA's belated "recognition" of retired ABA players is coming in the form and amount of money that the NBA found in between couch cushions.

The "recognition payments" are a small first step, but if the NBA is serious about acknowledging its debts--financial and historical--to retired ABA players then the NBA will increase those payments to place them on par with the payments from the NBA's pension plan, and the NBA will remove ABA statistics from the "memory hole" and place those numbers in the official records.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:18 PM

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Friday, June 17, 2022

Warriors Overwhelm Celtics, Win Fourth NBA Title in Eight Seasons

Stephen Curry scored a game-high 34 points on 12-21 field goal shooting and won his first Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP after leading his Golden State Warriors to their fourth title in eight years. The Warriors hit the Boston Celtics with a 21-0 first half run--the longest such run in the NBA Finals in 50 years--to take a lead they never relinquished en route to a 103-90 win. In the popular imagination and in many media narratives the Warriors are associated with three point shooting, but they won this game and this series because of their stout defense. The Celtics scored at least 116 points in two of the first three games of this series, but in games four through six the Warriors held the Celtics to 97, 94, and 90 points. 

Curry was the best player in this game and in this series, but the Warriors are far from a one man show. In the game six series clincher, Curry had the team's fourth best plus/minus number (+8). Plus/minus numbers in a small sample size are not a definitive measure of greatness or impact, but in this instance the numbers at least indicate that Curry had a lot of help. Andrew Wiggins contributed 18 points, six rebounds, five assists, four steals, and three blocked shots, winning his head to head matchup with All-NBA First Team member Jayson Tatum (13 points, seven rebounds, five turnovers). Jordan Poole poured in 15 points in 18 minutes with a +11 plus/minus number, and he played a major role in Golden State's huge first half run. Draymond Green had his best overall game of the series (12 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, +16 plus/minus number) as he orchestrated both the offense and the defense. Green's skill set strengths mesh perfectly with what the Warriors need from him, and the skill set strengths of his teammates mask his skill set limitations. Gary Payton II scored just six points in 20 minutes but he had a game-best +18 plus/minus number as his defense and energy provided a major boost.

Klay Thompson struggled with his shot, scoring just 12 points on 5-20 field goal shooting, but his comeback after missing more than two years due to two serious leg injuries is inspirational--and he is not on the court just as a feel good story: Thompson can still play at a high level, albeit less consistently than he did pre-injury.

Jaylen Brown tied Curry for game-high scoring honors while shooting 12-23 from the field, and he had a +1 plus/minus number even though the Celtics lost by double digits. Al Horford (19 points on 6-8 field goal shooting, game-high 14 rebounds, +2 plus/minus number) played very well, and Marcus Smart (nine points, game-high nine assists, six rebounds) had a team-high +7 plus/minus number, but the other Celtics did not show up. Tatum was below average in the first half before completely disappearing in the second half, and the reserves shot a combined 2-11 from the field. 

After the Celtics opened game six with a 14-2 run in less than four minutes, it seemed as if the Celtics would force the Warriors to play game seven back in California--but by the end of the stanza the Warriors were up, 27-22. The Celtics were only down by five points, but they never led again the rest of the way. It would not be fair to say that they quit, but it would be fair to suggest that the rapid turn of events in the latter part of the first quarter extending into the second quarter broke their collective spirit: the Celtics understood that winning game six would be very difficult, and perhaps they sensed that winning game seven on the road would take more energy than they could muster. The Celtics have the bigger and more athletic team, but in game six they were outrebounded 44-41, they committed 23 turnovers compared to 17 turnovers committed by the Warriors, and they only won the points in the paint battle by six (38-32). The Celtics forced mismatches via switches (such as Curry guarding Horford one on one in the post), but then they either did not feed the ball to the player who enjoyed the matchup advantage, or the player who had the matchup advantage did not exploit that advantage after receiving the ball.

From the Celtics' perspective, this series is about blown opportunities: they won game one on the road, they took a 2-1 series lead, they led 54-49 at halftime of game four with a real chance to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, and they jumped out to an early 12 point advantage in game six at home, but in the end they lost three straight games and watched the Warriors celebrate a championship on their court. 

History is written from the winners' perspective, though, so this series will be remembered for how the Warriors won, and what that win means. The Warriors won with Curry being the best player in the series while leading a talented ensemble cast that is known for offense but vanquished Boston with gritty defense. The vaunted Warriors' offense did not exceed the 108 point mark in six games, and anyone who knew before the series that this would happen would have picked the Celtics to win easily. I picked the Celtics to win the series based on the expectation that the Celtics could hold the Warriors to 105-110 ppg overall, AND that the Celtics would average more than 105-110 ppg. I was correct about my first expectation but wrong about my second expectation: I did not foresee how many layups the Celtics would miss, nor did I foresee that the Celtics would continue to turn the ball over at such a high clip. The Warriors deserve credit for putting enough pressure on the Celtics to wear them down, but the Celtics also made a lot of unforced errors.

The Warriors became just the fifth NBA franchise to win at least four titles in an eight year span, joining Mikan's Lakers, Russell's Celtics, Magic's Lakers, and Jordan's Bulls. Do the Warriors' four titles elevate Curry to Pantheon status? Many will say yes, but I still say no. Mikan, Russell, Magic, and Jordan were almost always the best player on the court whenever they played, and that was even more the case during the NBA Finals. In contrast, this is the first time in six NBA Finals appearances that Curry was clearly the best player on the court. During two of the Warriors' three previous championship runs, Kevin Durant was without question the best player on the team and the best performer in the NBA Finals. As I wrote in my NBA Finals preview, "Nothing that happens in the 2022 Finals changes or invalidates what Durant accomplished in the 2017 and 2018 NBA Finals. If Curry has an epic performance in the 2022 NBA Finals--30-plus ppg with efficient shooting numbers--that adds to his already impressive resume but it does not retroactively make him the Warriors' best player in 2017 and 2018, nor does it make him a better player than Durant."

Curry and the Warriors deserve a lot of credit for bouncing back from injuries and other forms of adversity to win another title. Curry is a great player, and he played great in the 2022 NBA Finals. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging those facts while also refusing to give in to the recency bias that insists that whoever just won the Finals MVP must be considered a top 10 player of all-time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:15 AM

184 comments

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Andrew Wiggins Leads the Way as Warriors Beat Celtics to Take 3-2 NBA Finals Lead

The Golden State Warriors squandered a 16 point first half lead before dominating the fourth quarter en route to a 104-94 game five win over the Boston Celtics. The Warriors lead the NBA Finals 3-2, and can clinch their fourth title in the past eight seasons with a victory on Thursday night in Boston. During the fourth quarter, ABC's Mike Breen praised Golden State's "championship DNA," but Jeff Van Gundy correctly responded that Golden State's best player by far in game five was Andrew Wiggins, who has no championship experience and little playoff experience. Wiggins scored a team-high 26 points on 12-23 field goal shooting, and he grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds while also playing excellent defense against Boston's All-NBA First Team forward Jayson Tatum. Wiggins had 10 points on 5-6 field goal shooting plus five rebounds in the fourth quarter alone. 

Klay Thompson added 21 points on 7-14 field goal shooting. As has often been the case during Golden State's NBA Finals appearances, Stephen Curry was not the best (or second best) player on the court. Curry finished with 16 points on 7-22 field goal shooting. He had a game-high eight assists and just one turnover, but Curry did not make a three pointer for the first time in his playoff career, and if commentators are going to wax poetic about Curry's all-time greatness based on his excellent game four performance then they also have to note that Curry's game five performance was reminiscent of James Harden's frequent meltdowns in crucial playoff games

It is indisputable that Curry is a great player. Nothing that I have seen in this series convinces me that Curry is even close to top 15 all-time status, but you can be sure that if the Warriors win this series that narrative will dominate the post-series conversations in many quarters. 

Without Wiggins leading the way and without Thompson performing well, the Warriors would be facing elimination in game six--and please don't talk about Curry's "gravity" being the reason for Wiggins' great performance: Wiggins created his own offense with strong drives, superior athleticism, and excellent shooting touch.

Gary Payton II (15 points on 6-8 field goal shooting, five rebounds, three steals) and Jordan Poole (14 points on 4-8 field goal shooting in just 14 minutes) made key contributions off of the bench. Payton is primarily a defensive player, but he provided timely scoring in this game; Poole is primarily a scorer who has been relentlessly "hunted" by the Celtics because of his subpar defense--which is why his minutes have been slashed--but his point per minute production in limited playing time was much needed. 

Draymond Green had his usual "triple single": eight points, eight rebounds, six assists. He fouled out in 35 minutes, and he had more complaints to the officials than made field goals (three) by a wide margin. Green contributed to Golden State's excellent defensive performance, but he is the quintessential example of a good player who is along for the ride while superior players do most of the work as opposed to being an all-time great future Hall of Famer.

Jayson Tatum led the Celtics in scoring (27 points on 10-20 field goal shooting), rebounds (10), and assists (four, tied with Jaylen Brown) in 44 minutes. It cannot be said that Tatum played poorly, but if you watched the game then you also felt like somehow a player with his skill set, size, and athletic ability should have done even more. Maybe that is not fair because he did not get much help from his teammates, but if Tatum's goal is to be a perennial All-NBA First Team member--let alone an MVP and a champion--then that is the standard: if your team did not win then you did not do enough. 

Marcus Smart scored 20 points on 7-15 field goal shooting, but has there ever been a Defensive Player of the Year who flops more often and gets beat more often by falling asleep on inbound plays/backdoor cuts? He is a very good player, but he is also frustrating to watch at times. Jaylen Brown is usually consistent if not always spectacular, but he had just 18 points on 5-18 field goal shooting. His nine rebounds and four assists were somewhat offset by his game-high five turnovers, a number that nearly matched Golden State's team total (seven turnovers). Al Horford has had some big moments in the 2022 playoffs, but he had a game-worst -19 plus/minus number after scoring nine points and grabbing nine rebounds.

The only Boston starter who had a positive plus/minus number was Robert Williams II (+11), who had 10 points and eight rebounds in 30 minutes. His energy and athleticism are very impactful. One suspects that if he were fully healthy then he would be playing closer to 40 minutes.

The Warriors played excellent defense, outscored the bigger Celtics in the paint 50-36, and were only outrebounded 47-39. Golden State deserves credit to some extent for putting pressure on Boston, but the Celtics made a lot of unforced errors, throwing away a winnable game by missing too many free throws (21-31, .667), missing too many layups, and committing too many turnovers (18).

The overreliance on high variance three point shooting inevitably results in play that lacks rhythm and flow. The Celtics missed 12 straight three pointers before later making eight straight three pointers and finishing 11-32 (.344) from beyond the arc. The Warriors shot 9-40 (.225) from three point range, but they survived their horrific outside shooting by--as noted above--winning the possession battle (rebounds, turnovers) and by scoring prolifically in the paint. Commentators love to focus on the Warriors' three point shooting, but this game was a classic example of the extent to which the Warriors have mastered other, more fundamentally important aspects of the game. The difference between the Curry-led Warriors and the Harden-led Rockets is that the Warriors are a complete team that plays defense, rebounds, and scores in the paint, while the Rockets were a team that chucked up a ton of three pointers, hoped for the best, and had no backup plan. 

This game had a weird flow. Golden State jumped out to a 24-8 lead, and Boston looked like a team deflated by the game four loss at home. Curry was cold from the start--he had four points on 2-6 field goal shooting in the first quarter--but the Warriors have more talent and depth than Curry's supporters prefer to admit. The Celtics played much better in the second quarter, but still trailed 51-39 at halftime, an ominous position to be in versus a team that is renowned for third quarter scoring explosions. However, in game five the teams switched identities, with the Celtics dominating the third quarter before the Warriors dominated the fourth quarter.

Boston opened the third quarter with a 10-0 run before tying the score at 55 on a Smart three pointer at the 6:55 mark and then taking a 58-55 lead on a Horford three pointer with 6:28 remaining in the period. Neither team led by more than five points for the rest of the third quarter. Poole heaved in a three pointer just before the buzzer ending the third quarter to give Golden State a 75-74 lead heading into the final stanza. 

You would not expect a team as resilient as Boston to be demoralized by one last second shot, but the Celtics looked shell-shocked during the fourth quarter as the Warriors scored 10 straight points in just 2:55. The Celtics never found their bearings, scoring 20 points on just 4-15 field goal shooting while committing four turnovers--yes, the Celtics had as many turnovers as field goals made in the most important 12 minutes of the season!

The Celtics have matchup advantages, but their unforced errors plus the Warriors' energy and effort are negating those matchup advantages. Less than a month ago, the Celtics beat the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in games six and seven, so it is not impossible for the Celtics to win two straight games to take this series, but they have no margin for error now not just on a game to game basis but also on a play to play basis: each squandered possession pushes them closer to the brink of elimination.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:21 AM

35 comments

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Curry Shines as Warriors Tie Series, Regain Homecourt Advantage

Stephen Curry authored perhaps the best NBA Finals game of his storied career to lead the Golden State Warriors to a 107-97 win over the Boston Celtics. The Warriors not only tied the series at 2-2, but they also reclaimed the homecourt advantage that they lost after dropping game one. Curry scored 43 points on 14-26 field goal shooting while also grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing for four assists. He was one of only three Warriors with a double digit plus/minus number (+11). Curry was consistent throughout the game, scoring 12 first quarter points, seven second quarter points, 14 third quarter points, and 10 fourth quarter points. Curry's scoring outburst is unexpected not because he is incapable of scoring efficiently at a prolific rate, but simply because it is unusual for him to score efficiently at a prolific rate in the NBA Finals, particularly in game four or later. 

While Curry is without question this game's headliner and dominant performer, he received significant help from Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney. Wiggins scored 17 points while grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds. During this series, Wiggins has often been one of the few Warriors capable of matching up athletically and physically with the Celtics, and his +20 plus/minus number in game four indicates that the Warriors would have struggled to win this game without him. Looney only scored six points, but he had 11 rebounds in 28 minutes, and he led both teams with a +21 plus/minus number. Looney plays in the paint like a traditional big man, and the Warriors figured out that they do not have much chance of winning this series by going small with Draymond Green at center; in game four, Green was again outmatched physically, finishing with two points on 1-7 field goal shooting, though he did offset his anemic scoring to some extent with a very good floor game (nine rebounds, eight assists, four steals). Green's plus/minus number of +0 in 33 minutes reflects the reality that the Warriors did most of their damage in the 15 minutes that he did not ply.

Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole made solid contributions. Thompson scored 18 points on 7-17 field goal shooting, while Poole added 14 points on 6-13 field goal shooting. 

The Warriors outrebounded the Celtics 55-42, and they outshot the Celtics from the field, .440 to .400. Most significantly and unexpectedly, the Warriors outscored the Celtics in the paint 38-32 after losing that category 52-26 in game three. The Warriors set an NBA record by winning at least one road game for the 27th straight playoff series.

Jayson Tatum had solid boxscore totals (23 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, +1 plus/minus number), but he squandered too many possessions, shooting just 8-23 from the field while committing six turnovers; Tatum's missed layups and careless ballhandling proved to be very costly for the Celtics. Throughout this series, Tatum has been inefficient with his scoring opportunities at the rim, seeming at times to be more focused on trying to draw a foul than on converting the shot regardless of whether or not the referee will blow their whistles.

Jaylen Brown did his part, scoring 21 points on 9-19 field goal shooting and committing just two turnovers. Robert Williams III scored seven points on 3-3 field goal shooting, grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds, and blocked two shots in 31 minutes. He was the only Celtic other than Tatum with a positive plus/minus number (+6), but he did not get enough help inside from Al Horford (eight points, six rebounds, four assists) and Grant Williams (three points, one rebound in just 13 minutes).

Marcus Smart (18 points on 7-18 field goal shooting) and Derrick White (16 points on 4-12 field goal shooting) missed far too many shots, and they had the worst plus/minus numbers in this game (-17 and -19 respectively). 

Golden State's 10 point margin of victory obscures the fact that Boston controlled the action for most of the game. Boston jumped out to an 11-4 first quarter lead, and the Celtics were up 54-49 at halftime. The Celtics led for most of the third quarter--withstanding the Warriors' typical surge during that stanza--but the Warriors entered the fourth quarter with a slim 79-78 edge after Curry drained a three pointer to close out the third quarter scoring.

The Celtics have been the better fourth quarter team throughout this series, and they were up 94-90 after Smart's three pointer with 5:18 remaining, but their offense fell apart just short of the finish line as the Warriors went on a 10-0 run. During that key stretch, the Celtics--who enjoy advantages in size and athleticism--did not attempt a single shot from closer than 13 feet, and they missed five straight three pointers. Holding the Warriors to 107 points should be good enough to win, but the Celtics did not convert enough of their defensive stops into high percentage scoring opportunities. Curry's 43 point performance will deservedly receive headlines, but the Celtics would enjoy a 3-1 series lead now despite Curry's heroics if they had scored more efficiently in the paint.

Why should we believe that the Celtics will win this series after losing game four at home? The Warriors are not going to become bigger or more athletic, so their disadvantages in this series cannot be fixed. In contrast, the Celtics are capable of cutting down on their turnovers, improving their clutch time shot selection, and finishing more efficiently in the paint. If the Celtics do those things, they will win game five, and they will win game six as well.

Throughout the playoffs, I have noted that momentum is a myth and I have stated that I am not a commentator who changes his series prediction after every game. I picked the Celtics to win this series in six games and the Celtics are still in position to make that happen; during the 2022 playoffs,  the Celtics have not lost two consecutive games and they are 8-3 on the road.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:46 AM

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Thursday, June 09, 2022

Bigger, Stronger, Faster Celtics Overwhelm and Outlast Warriors

Anything can happen in a quarter or even in one game, but over the course of a seven game NBA playoff series the bigger, stronger, and faster team will most likely prevail. Three games into the 2022 NBA Finals, it should be obvious which team is bigger, stronger, and faster--namely, the Boston Celtics team that showcased their size, strength, and speed in a 116-100 game three win over the Golden State Warriors to take a 2-1 series lead while maintaining the home court advantage that the Celtics obtained by winning game one on the road. The Celtics dominated the boards (47-31), and they won the points in the paint battle, 52-26. Proponents of "advanced basketball statistics" value three point shooting over two point shooting, but the Warriors got blown out despite making more three pointers (15-13) while shooting a better three point field goal percentage (.375 to .371). Simply put, the Warriors cannot make enough three point shots to compensate for the Celtics' decisive physical advantages.

Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 27 points on 9-16 field goal shooting. He also had nine rebounds and five assists. Brown did most of his scoring damage in the first quarter (17 points on 6-9 field goal shooting), but his size and skill required significant defensive attention throughout the game, even if no one will credit him with having "gravity." Jayson Tatum added 26 points, a game-high nine assists, and five rebounds. Tatum's "gravity" is even more significant than Brown's, because Tatum's size and skill set leave the Warriors with two unenviable options: cover Tatum one on one, and watch him score 30-plus points on high efficiency shooting, or force Tatum to play in a crowd while leaving his teammates wide open. The Warriors have consistently signed up for the second option, and have thus watched Tatum dissect them with pinpoint playmaking while still contributing as a scorer as well. Marcus Smart scored 24 points on 8-17 field goal shooting while also grabbing seven rebounds and passing for five assists. 

The Celtics' three best perimeter players not only outplayed the celebrated "Splash Brothers," but they became the first trio to each post a 20-5-5 stat line in an NBA Finals game since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Michael Cooper accomplished this in game six of the 1984 NBA Finals.

Meanwhile, Robert Williams III scored eight points, ripped down a game-high 10 rebounds, spiked a game-high four blocked shots while looking like Karch Kiraly, and posted a game-best +21 plus/minus number. He looked like a man among boys in the paint at both ends of the court.

Stephen Curry scored a game-high 31 points on 12-22 field goal shooting, but it should be noted that he had two assists, three turnovers, and four fouls. We are told that Curry is one of the top 15 players of all-time, but we see that in the 2022 NBA Finals the Celtics "hunt" him defensively like a lion pursuing a lame wildebeest on the Serengeti--and this is not the first time that Curry has played the role of "prey" in such scenarios. The greatest guards of all-time--the guards in my pro basketball Pantheon--are (in chronological order) Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant. Johnson was the worst defensive player of that group, but not only was he not "hunted" like Curry, he was capable of being assigned to guard an elite player: in the 1982 NBA Finals, the Lakers matched the 6-9 Johnson up with Pantheon small forward Julius Erving to try to keep Erving off of the offensive boards. Johnson was an elite rebounder who could capably guard multiple positions. 

Klay Thompson scored 25 points, but his 7-17 field goal shooting is not going to concern or bother the Celtics. Thompson was an elite defender prior to his two serious leg injuries, but now he is just a solid defender.

Draymond Green, the Warriors' mouth that roared, went beyond "triple single" status to coin a new statistical category: the straight flush (four rebounds, three assists, two points). If there were an "advanced basketball statistic" depicting an inverse correlation between words spoken and impact created, Green would lead the league in that category by a wide margin. He tells everyone how great he is, how smart he is, and how great his team is, and he hopes that his torrent of words will distract us from the reality that he is overrated. Yes, he is a very good player who can have a positive impact, but at the core he is an undersized power forward who is not a scoring threat and who can be overpowered by any big player who has a modicum of skill. There is no way that Green could be the best player on a playoff team, and no one would have ever heard of him if he had not been blessed to play with multiple All-Star caliber players throughout his career.

From a wider historical perspective, we are getting just a glimpse of what it would look like if a championship team from the 1980s or 1990s teleported into the 2022 NBA Finals to face the Warriors: Green is outmatched by Robert Williams III playing on one healthy knee, so it is obvious that Green could not do much versus Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Robert Parish, or Hakeem Olajuwon. Green could not play center against those guys without being embarrassed, and Green would not have fared well versus that era's elite power forwards, either. Kevin McHale once said, quite correctly, that Green "could not grow enough to guard me." McHale also has derisively noted that the "7-11 defense" (a defensive player holding his arms straight in the air as if he is being robbed at a 7-11) never works. Green often had no choice but to play the "7-11 defense" as Williams III outmuscled and outjumped Green for rebounds. 

It was also annoying to watch Green bark at the referees after he fouled out; fouling out should not come with a license to endlessly complain, so the referees should have hit Green with a technical foul to encourage him to sit down and shut his mouth. The extent to which the NBA permits Green to run roughshod over their referees is embarrassing. The officiating crews in the NBA Finals graded out as the best of the best during the regular season; letting Green loudly and publicly belittle and berate them gives the impression that the referees are not doing a good job and are also too afraid to exert control over bad player conduct.

Size matters in the NBA, and ABC's Jeff Van Gundy spoke the obvious truth that many commentators refused to acknowledge prior to this series and are still reluctant to admit even now: the Celtics outmatch the Warriors in size and athleticism. Van Gundy suggested that the Warriors should consider altering their lineup and rotations to try to minimize the impact of the Celtics' advantages. 

The 2022 NBA Finals are poised to become the series where popular narratives go to die. We are told that Stephen Curry's three point shooting revolutionized the NBA, but the most revolutionary aspect of Golden State's run is not Curry's three point shooting but rather the impact of Kevin Durant fleeing Oklahoma City in 2016 to become a two-time champion/two-time Finals MVP with the Warriors. LeBron James formed a superteam from scratch in Miami in 2010, but Durant did something at least as revolutionary: he left an established elite team to join another established elite team, adding fuel to the "player empowerment" trend. Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons, and James Harden are just a few of the All-Stars who determined that the grass is greener elsewhere and then forced their way onto other teams. This notion of building a team instantly instead of organically is not good for the game; hopefully, the success of the Milwaukee Bucks last season and the Boston Celtics this season will help to end (or least curb) this trend.

Any player analysis that results in the conclusion that Curry is a top 15 player of all-time but the Warriors can replace Durant with Andrew Wiggins without losing anything is, to put it mildly, highly suspicious. Curry is a great player, but he is just not the revolutionary player who he is depicted as being. In my March 2020 article The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, Part III, I noted that Curry's Warriors only led the NBA in three pointers made one time (2016) while James Harden's Houston Rockets ranked first in that category five times (2014-15, 2017-19; after I finished that article, Harden's Rockets led the NBA in three point field goals made in 2020 as well). Further, the Warriors never embodied the notion of jacking up three pointers all the time while playing scant attention to defense; the Warriors at their best were always a very good defensive team, while Harden's Rockets were mediocre at best defensively.

Turning our attention back to game three, the Celtics punched the Warriors in the mouth from the start, and they led most of the way. Boston led by as many as 15 points in the first quarter, and the Celtics were up 33-22 by the end of the first stanza. They outshot the Warriors .545 to .348, and they outrebounded the Warriors 16-8. 

The Warriors battled back to take an 83-82 lead with 3:45 remaining in the third quarter, but their glory was short-lived, and the Celtics never trailed again after the 3:12 mark of the third quarter. Just prior to taking that brief lead, the Warriors had a seven point possession consisting of a Curry three pointer, a Curry free throw after Al Horford was called for a flagrant foul for not letting Curry land safely, and an Otto Porter three pointer. The Warriors scored almost as many points on that possession as they did in the entire fourth quarter!

Much has been said about the "third quarter Warriors," but it is odd that so little is being said about the "fourth quarter Celtics": the Celtics are not only winning the fourth quarters in the 2022 NBA Finals, but they are leading the series 2-1 in no small part because of their fourth quarter dominance, so that would seem to be more significant than whatever the Warriors are doing in the third quarters. Boston won the fourth quarter of game three 23-11 as Curry scored two points on 1-4 field goal shooting and Thompson did not score while missing all three of his field goal attempts. The Warrior's 11 fourth quarter points are the third fewest in an NBA Finals game dating back to the beginning of the shot clock era.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 AM

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Monday, June 06, 2022

Warriors Ride Late Third Quarter Run to Blowout Victory

The Boston Celtics won game one of the NBA Finals convincingly and they were within striking distance of a game two victory before the Golden State Warriors hit them with a 19-2 run in the final 4:58 of the third quarter. The Celtics never recovered, and the Warriors won 107-88 to tie the series at one game apiece as the action shifts to Boston for games three and four. The main story of game two was Golden State's excellent defense (or Boston's bad offense, depending on how you view it); the Warriors' offensive efficiency improved little from game one, but Boston's offensive efficiency cratered from 120 points on .506 field goal shooting to 88 points on .375 field goal shooting.

It is not surprising that the Warriors responded to their game one loss by being more energetic and physical in game two, but it is surprising that Draymond Green is permitted to repeatedly throw opposing players to the ground, hit opposing players with forearms and/or elbows aimed above the neck, and instigate confrontations while only being punished with one technical foul. As ABC's Jeff Van Gundy has repeatedly noted, there is a bizarre double standard that works in Green's favor: Green is expected to behave poorly, so he is therefore given a benefit of the doubt that is not given to players who are more mild-mannered. Had another player fouled a three point shooter, landed on top of the shooter, rested his legs on the opposing player, and then grabbed the opposing player's shorts after the opposing player pushed his legs aside--as Green did to Jaylen Brown late in the second quarter--that player would have received a technical foul; unfortunately, because Green was the offender here and he had already received a technical foul, the referees assessed no penalty. Basically, after Green received his first technical foul he had a license to commit any mayhem short of a flagrant foul without being penalized. In the good old days, the game was more physical than this and yet also more sensibly officiated: players had a lot contact when the ball was live, but dead ball contact was not tolerated, and the issuance of a first technical foul was not a license to commit future mayhem but a warning that you are one false step away from being ejected. 

If Green behaves in a similar way in a subsequent game and receives an ejection and/or suspension, no one should sympathize with him or the Warriors; Green pushes the envelope deliberately and repeatedly, so he, his team, and his team's fans have to accept the logical consequences of his actions. That is why I dismiss as irrelevant the notion that the Warriors would have won the 2016 NBA Finals if Green had not been suspended for one game during that series: being suspended is a logical consequence of how Green behaves, so if/when he is suspended no one should be surprised or sympathetic. Green and the Warriors apparently believe that the benefits that Green provide outweigh the risks of him being ejected and/or suspended.

I have no problem with the Warriors (or any other team) pressuring the ball, being physical (within the rules) with cutters, and playing with great energy--but much of what Green does is not physical but just cheap (if not dirty). Again, in the gold old days there were ways to deal with such conduct; one way was to put your 10th, 11th, or 12th man in the game, and make sure that he squared off with the offender: maybe the reserve would crack the offender with a hard screen, maybe he would get in his face, but the message would be clear that the offender needed to settle down, or else risk getting caught up in a fracas with a player whose basketball value is minimal. 

Instead, in game two the referees gave Green a metaphorical license to kill, and the Celtics seemed puzzled about how to respond; it looked and felt like at a certain point the Celtics just gave in and figured, "We already took home court advantage, and we can finish this series at home even if we don't win game two." I am not suggesting that the Celtics should take that approach or even that they took that approach consciously, but rather I am suggesting that it is human nature to be a bit satisfied with a 1-1 road split as opposed to digging deep to win a second road game against a very determined team.

Stephen Curry led the Warriors in scoring for the second straight game, netting 29 points on 9-21 field goal shooting, including 5-12 from three point range. Jordan Poole added 17 points on 6-11 field goal shooting. Kevon Looney contributed 12 points on 6-6 field goal shooting, plus a team-high seven rebounds. Looney had a +24 plus/minus number, tying Curry and Otto Porter Jr. (who had just three points in 15 minutes) for game-high honors. Klay Thompson (11 points on 4-19 field goal shooting) and Andrew Wiggins (11 points on 4-12 field goal shooting) were Golden State's other double figure scorers. Green led the Warriors in histrionics while posting yet another "triple single" (nine points, seven assists, five rebounds) with a +7 plus/minus number.

Jayson Tatum topped the Celtics with 28 points on 8-19 field goal shooting, but he had a game-worst -36 plus/minus number, and his scoring total had more empty calories than nourishment, much like Curry's game one performance; both players scored a lot early during their respective big performances, but then disappeared down the stretch when the opposing team blew the game open. Jaylen Brown added 17 points on 5-17 field goal shooting but he was a non-factor in the second half. Derrick White (12 points on 4-13 field goal shooting) was the only other Boston player who scored more than six points. Game one heroes Al Horford and Marcus Smart disappeared in game two, finishing with two points each while combining to commit seven turnovers.

Did the Warriors make some incredible adjustment between games--or at halftime of game two--that changed everything? No; what we saw is the home team play with great desperation to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole, while the road team fought for a while before giving in and setting their sights on game three.

It is amusing to observe the game to game overreactions during an NBA playoff series; when a team wins, commentators act as if there is no way to imagine the other team ever winning another game, and then when the other team bounces back commentators act as if there is no way to imagine the first team ever winning another game. I never expected or predicted that the Celtics would sweep the Warriors, so a Golden State home win does not change my belief that the Celtics are the superior team that will eventually take the series. Frankly, a game two win by the Celtics would have been at least a mild surprise to me, because then the series would be unlikely to last six games, which is how long I expect the series to last. The so-called "momentum" from game two will last about as long and mean about as much as the so-called "momentum" from game one; game three will be a separate entity played in a different venue with a different officiating crew, and it is almost always the case that role players perform better at home than on the road. One trend worth noting is that the Celtics have yet to lose back to back games in the 2022 playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 AM

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Friday, June 03, 2022

Celtics Prove to be Road Warriors, Rally from 15 Point Deficit to Beat Golden State

Stephen Curry had his way early, but he and his teammates disappeared late as the Boston Celtics outscored the Golden State Warriors 40-16 in the fourth quarter to win game one of the NBA Finals, 120-108. The Celtics tied the NBA Finals record for point differential in a quarter. Al Horford led the Celtics with 26 points on 9-12 field goal shooting, including 6-8 from three point range, and he had 11 fourth quarter points on 4-4 field goal shooting. Jaylen Brown added 24 points on 10-23 field goal shooting, and he initiated the Celtics' fourth quarter rally, finishing with 10 fourth quarter points on 4-6 field goal shooting. Derrick White provided a major lift off of the bench with 21 points on 6-11 field goal shooting. Marcus Smart played a very efficient game (18 points on 7-11 field goal shooting, five rebounds, four assists, no turnovers in 30 minutes). Jayson Tatum struggled with his shot (12 points on 3-17 field goal shooting) but he had a game-high 13 assists, repeatedly finding open teammates when the Warriors trapped him.

The NBA is often a first quarter league, but this series may be a fourth quarter series as the Celtics use their size and physicality to wear down the Warriors. Curry scored 21 points on 7-9 field goal shooting in the first quarter, but the Warriors only led 32-28 after the first 12 minutes. Curry scored 13 points on 5-16 field goal shooting the rest of the way, and he was invisible in the fourth quarter (four points on 2-6 field goal shooting) as his Warriors lost home court advantage. Curry's game-high 34 points on 12-25 field goal shooting may look impressive, but he was not the best player on the court when it mattered most, and we have seen this movie many times before with Curry. For example, in the 2021 Play-In Tournament, Curry had a big game versus the L.A. Lakers but he faded down the stretch, and I wrote the following:

Remember all of the foolish talk a couple years ago about how much better Golden State's offense supposedly was with Kevin Durant out of the lineup? Do you think that Durant would have gotten off a shot in the final minute of this game? We already know the answer, because we have seen Durant dribble the ball up the court in the NBA Finals, and hit a pressure shot over James en route to outplaying James, winning a championship, and earning the Finals MVP. 

Curry is a great player. He had a game-high 37 points on 12-23 field goal shooting--but a great 6-3 player will never be more valuable than a great player who is taller, bigger, and stronger. It is baffling that anyone would think that Curry, as great as he is, is a more valuable basketball player than Nikola Jokic or Giannis Antetokounmpo this season, or that in previous seasons Curry was more valuable than players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant when those players were healthy enough to play most of the regular season games.

Curry is a great player, and he put up great numbers in game one, but he can't carry a team to a title against a physical, tough defensive team. It also must be noted that Boston's first quarter defense against him was uncharacteristically horrific, as the Celtics repeatedly conceded wide open three pointers to Curry; once the Celtics stopped blowing defensive assignments and started using their size against Curry, he had no answer. I would not be surprised if this 34 point game ends up being his top scoring performance in the 2022 NBA Finals; at the very least, if he scores 34 points again he will not do it by launching wide open shots.

Even with Curry scoring 34 points, the Celtics held the Warriors below 110 points, and that 105-110 point range is the target that I predicted Boston can achieve defensively. Andrew Wiggins had a solid game (20 points on 8-15 field goal shooting), but Klay Thompson (15 points on 6-14 field goal shooting) and Jordan Poole (nine points on 2-7 field goal shooting) were non-factors. The Celtics are more than happy to give up open shots to Draymond Green (four points on 2-12 field goal shooting) and Otto Porter Jr., who scored 12 points on 4-5 field goal shooting but also had a -18 plus/minus number. Green and Porter are open by design; Curry was open in the first quarter by accident.

This was a game of runs, including 33-16 for Golden State in the third quarter to build an 87-72 lead, but the defining run was 40-13 for Boston in the fourth quarter before Golden State hit a meaningless three pointer. The Celtics made 10 straight field goals during their big run.

After the game, Green noted that Horford, Smart, and White shot 15-23 from three point range. He acknowledged that they are good shooters, but then he shrugged as if to say, "That won't happen again." Green may be right, but we can also be confident that Tatum will not shoot this poorly again the rest of the series, and we can be confident that if the Warriors close out on the three point shooters then they will get murdered in the paint; many of Boston's three point shots came after the Celtics attacked the paint, collapsed the defense, and then passed to open shooters. The Celtics can get into the paint almost at will versus the Warriors, and that is unlikely to change. If the Warriors hug the three point shooters too closely, then they will be giving up a parade of dunks and layups.

The Warriors' post-game narrative was that they outplayed the Celtics for three quarters but then just lost the fourth quarter. The reality is that the Warriors had a couple hot streaks in the first and third quarters, but they trailed 56-54 at halftime, and they were not able to put pressure on the Celtics. Tatum passed the ball well, but he was pressing every time he shot, and after he settles down he will be a major matchup problem. In other words, the things that the Celtics did well are more likely sustainable than the things that the Warriors did well.

After the game, it was fascinating watching and listening to the "experts" express puzzlement about this outcome; they have overrated Curry and the Warriors to such an extent that they are not able to objectively analyze the matchups. The series is not over after one game, but this one game is not surprising to anyone who has watched these teams play and understands how they match up.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:54 AM

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Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Boston Versus Golden State Preview

NBA Finals

Boston (51-31) vs. Golden State (53-29) 

Season series: Tied, 1-1

Golden State can win if…the "Splash Brothers" trio--Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole--not only maintain their long distance sharpshooting but they continue to attack closeouts with aggressive drives to the hoop. The Warriors also must move actively off of the ball, and they must defend Boston's big wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown without committing so much help defense that the paint becomes open for drives, post ups and offensive rebounds.

Curry is leading Golden State in 2022 playoff scoring (25.9 ppg) and playoff assists (6.2 apg). His shooting splits (.449/.380/.822) are below his career norms across the board, but not by much (other than free throw shooting). Curry averaged 23.8 ppg, 7.4 apg, and 6.8 apg with shooting splits of .444/.439/.840 in the Warriors' Western Conference Finals win against the Dallas Mavericks en route to receiving the inaugural Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP.

Thompson's 2022 playoff averages (19.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.4 apg, shooting splits of .457/.399/.800) almost mirror his career playoff averages of 19.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.2 apg with shooting splits of .444/.412/.838. The eye test says that he is not quite at the level he reached before suffering devastating knee and Achilles injuries, but the numbers say that he is still a very effective player. To the extent that he has lost a step, this is more evident on defense, which is why Andrew Wiggins now draws the toughest defensive assignment on the wings.

During the 2022 playoffs, Poole has been the most efficient of Golden State's three main sharpshooters, with shooting splits of .531/.393/.917. He is averaging 18.4 ppg and 4.5 apg.

In 2022, Andrew Wiggins made the All-Star team for the first time in his career. He is averaging 15.8 ppg in the playoffs, but his primary value (at least in the postseason) has been on defense.

Draymond Green is the quintessential example of a player who is very important for a good team but would be much less important for a weak team. As Charles Barkley jokingly notes, Green is averaging a "triple single" (8.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 6.3 apg) in the 2022 playoffs. The valuable things that Green does best are not easily measured: setting screens, making good reads (assist only partially track this), orchestrating the defense, guarding the opposing team's best big man, and being a willing and skilled help defender. If he did all of those things for a bad team, that team would still lose, but when he does all of those things for a stacked team that stacked team becomes very dangerous.

Kevon Looney's playoff numbers are not sensational (6.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg), but he is the only player in the Warriors' rotation who is big for his position. Size bothers the Warriors, but they get by with Looney taking care of one big man and Green's active defense filling in the gaps while Wiggins and Thompson do most of the perimeter work.

Boston will win because…size bothers the Warriors, and the Celtics have effective size at each position: big men Al Horford and Robert Williams will punish the Warriors in the paint, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are big wing players, and Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart plays bigger than his height/weight might suggest. 

The Celtics have been a legit contender for several years--reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017, 2018, and 2020--but because they had not reached the NBA Finals since 2010 they have flown under the radar to some extent. After their slow start this season, they were not only under the radar but they were sinking beneath the sonar as well. 

Tatum is averaging 27.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 5.9 apg, and 1.2 spg with shooting splits of .446/.375/.833 in 18 playoff games. He won the inaugural Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP after averaging 25.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 5.6 apg, and 1.1 spg with shooting splits of .462./.353/.860 in a seven game series win versus the number one seeded Miami Heat. 

Brown averaged 24.1 ppg and 7.1 rpg versus the Heat, and during the playoffs overall he is averaging 22.9 ppg and 6.8 rpg. He is not as spectacular as Tatum, but he is perhaps the more consistent player.

Horford led the Celtics in rebounding versus the Heat (10.0 rpg), and he just missed averaging a double double during that series, scoring 9.8 ppg. He is averaging 11.9 ppg and a team-high 9.6 rpg during the playoffs.

Smart struggled with his shot versus the Heat (.360 FG%), but he contributed 16.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg, and a team-high 6.2 apg. Overall, his playoff averages are 15.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and a team-high 6.2 apg. Smart can defend point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards.

The Boston Celtics started slowly this season, but reemerged as an elite team after becoming the league's best defensive team while also playing more unselfishly on offense, as Tatum and Brown worked better together while Smart assumed increased playmaking duties.

Other things to consider: Media members have their narratives ready: the Golden State Warriors are a great dynasty, Stephen Curry is a top 10 all-time player, and Kevin Durant was not the best player on the Warriors' back to back 2017-18 championship teams. 

The Warriors have reached the NBA Finals six times in the past eight seasons, which by historical standards is unquestionably a dynasty: only Bill Russell's Boston Celtics, the Jerry West-Elgin Baylor L.A. Lakers, the Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar L.A. Lakers, and the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls made it to the NBA Finals at least six times in an eight year span. It should be emphasized that Russell's Celtics are in a category by themselves, winning 11 titles in 13 seasons. One difference between the Warriors and most of those other dynasties is that the other dynasties had the same top two players throughout their runs, with the exception of the West-Baylor Lakers adding Wilt Chamberlain after already losing five times in the NBA Finals. The Warriors won one title with Curry and Thompson leading the way, then they won two titles with Durant as clearly the best player, and now they have reached the NBA Finals for the first time since Durant departed.

Four Warriors are averaging double figures in scoring in the playoffs, but that number increased to six versus Dallas in the Western Conference Finals as Green and Looney joined Curry, Thompson, Poole, and Wiggins. The Warriors have a tremendous ensemble cast, superior to other teams that won the NBA Finals with ensemble casts (most notably Seattle in 1979 and Detroit in 2004). Curry is better than Dennis Johnson and Chauncey Billups (the Finals MVPs in 1979 and 2004 respectively), but he is not at the same level as Russell, West, Baylor, Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan, Pippen, or Durant. Curry is the best player on a team that relies on strength in numbers, and on a very underrated defense that is--to put it mildly--not built around Curry.

However, I would be surprised if six Warriors averaged double figures against Boston's defense. The Celtics are not going to shut down the Warriors, but they are going to hold the Warriors to somewhere between 105-110 ppg instead of the 114.5 ppg that the Warriors have averaged so far in the 2022 playoffs.

Nothing that happens in the 2022 Finals changes or invalidates what Durant accomplished in the 2017 and 2018 NBA Finals. If Curry has an epic performance in the 2022 NBA Finals--30-plus ppg with efficient shooting numbers--that adds to his already impressive resume but it does not retroactively make him the Warriors' best player in 2017 and 2018, nor does it make him a better player than Durant.

The reality is that Curry's previous track record and Boston's current defense make it very unlikely that Curry will average 30 ppg in the Finals, let alone post efficient shooting numbers. If the Warriors win, they will win because their collective firepower overwhelms Boston's collective firepower.

The Warriors, by virtue of being completely healthy, are the best team that the Celtics have faced in the 2022 playoffs, but the Celtics are also by far the best team that the Warriors have faced in the 2022 playoffs. In their first three playoff series, the Warriors have yet to battle a team that can not only match up with them on the perimeter, but can also attack them in the paint.

I predict that the Celtics will win in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:41 AM

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Monday, May 30, 2022

Celtics Lead Wire to Wire, Beat Heat in Game Seven to Advance to the NBA Finals

The 2022 Eastern Conference Finals featured high peaks and low valleys for both the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat, culminating in a game seven 100-96 win for the Celtics, who never trailed. This playoff series was as competitive and hard fought as it was unpredictable from game to game--and even quarter to quarter. The Celtics rode a 24-2 second half run to a road win in game five, but then Jimmy Butler scored 47 points in Miami's game six win on the road

In game seven, Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 26 points on 9-21 field goal shooting. He also had 10 rebounds, six assists, and just two turnovers while playing nearly 46 minutes. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart each added 24 points. Brown shot 8-15 from the field and had six rebounds and six assists. Smart shot 8-22 from the field with nine rebounds and five assists. Al Horford scored five points on 2-9 field goal shooting, but he snatched a game-high 14 rebounds, and he led the Celtics with a +10 plus/minus number. Tatum received the first annual Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP. During the game, Tatum wore a purple and gold armband to honor Kobe Bryant, his favorite player, and Tatum mentioned Bryant upon accepting the MVP trophy. 

Jimmy Butler scored a game-high 35 points on 13-24 field goal shooting. He had nine rebounds, one assist, and one turnover while playing all 48 minutes. Whether or not you are a Heat fan, you have to respect Butler's effort level, his unselfish leadership, and his no excuse mentality. There are many players who have won regular season MVPs whose playoff resumes pale in comparison to Butler's. Bam Adebayo contributed 25 points on 12-21 field goal shooting plus a team-high 11 rebounds. Kyle Lowry was Miami's only other double figure scorer (15 points, 4-12 field goal shooting). Victor Oladipo, who provided a spark at various points throughout this series, had nine points on 4-12 field goal shooting, but he also posted a game-best +16 plus/minus number in 33 minutes.

The NBA is often a first quarter league, and that proved to be the case in game seven. The Celtics jumped out to leads of 6-0, 9-1, 12-3, and 20-7 in the opening stanza. They were up 32-17 after the first 12 minutes. The Celtics forced six turnovers and shot 12-24 (.500) from the field while holding the Heat to 7-20 (.350) field goal shooting. Tatum topped the Celtics in points (eight), rebounds (six), and assists (three) even though he shot just 3-9 from the field. Butler and Adebayo led the Heat with six first quarter points apiece.

Butler erupted for 18 second quarter points on 5-5 field goal shooting as the Heat trimmed the margin to 55-49 by halftime. The teams played to a virtual standstill in the third quarter, so the Celtics led 82-75 with 12 minutes left in regulation. Both teams struggled to make shots in the fourth quarter, as the Celtics managed just 18 points on 5-16 (.312) field goal shooting while the Heat had 21 points on 10-27 (.370) field goal shooting. The Celtics inched their lead to 98-85 after Smart converted a pair of free throws with 3:35 remaining, but the Heat are a never say die team, and they reeled off nine straight points to claw to within 98-96 with just under 51 seconds left. Smart missed a layup with 22 seconds remaining, Butler grabbed the rebound, burst downcourt, and fired up a three pointer with 16.6 seconds left. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy questioned Butler's shot selection--arguing that Butler should have driven to the hoop in transition versus Horford--but Butler is a big shot maker even though he is not a great three point shooter. As Van Gundy also said, you have to live with that kind of shot from your best player, provided that you are willing to die with that kind of shot.

After the game, Butler said, "My thought process was go for the win, which I did. Missed a shot. But I'm taking that shot. My teammates liked the shot that I took. So I'm living with it." 

Van Gundy and Butler are both right: analytically, Butler's three point shot may not have been the highest percentage play, but in the real world you ride or die with the rhythm shots that your best player takes. The Heat would not have been in position to win this series without Butler, and he had earned the right to go for the win. 

Smart closed out the scoring by making two free throws.

The Heat battled through injuries to post the best record in the Eastern Conference this season, and they had a shot to win game seven at home to advance to the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons. If they are reasonably healthy next season then they will remain a top contender.

Redemption could be the theme for the Celtics' 2022 playoff run so far, as they have eliminated the teams that eliminated them in the last three postseasons: Milwaukee Bucks (2019), Miami Heat (2020), and Brooklyn Nets (2021). The Celtics won the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2010, after losing one round short of the NBA Finals in 2012, 2017, 2018, and 2020. The 2012 Celtics featured the last hurrah of the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen trio, but Brown and Smart were on the 2017, 2018, and 2020 squads, while Tatum was a member of the 2018 and 2020 teams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:07 AM

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Saturday, May 28, 2022

Butler Powers Heat to Game Six Win in Boston

Have I mentioned once or many times that playoff momentum is a myth? The Miami Heat looked dead after losing game five of the Eastern Conference Finals at home to the Boston Celtics--and many commentators spent most of Thursday reciting (premature) eulogies for the Heat--but Jimmy Butler's historic game six performance means that the Heat are now one home win away from making their second NBA Finals appearance in the past three seasons. 

Butler scored 47 points, grabbed nine rebounds, dished for eight assists, and swiped four steals while playing 46 minutes as his Heat defeated the Celtics 111-103. Butler shot 16-29 from the field (including 4-8 from three point range), he made all 11 of his free throw attempts, and he committed just one turnover. Per the ESPN telecast, he is the only player other than Michael Jordan to have two games with at least 40 points and at least four steals in the same playoff series. Butler not only set a franchise record for most points scored in an elimination game, but his output ranks seventh in NBA history in an elimination game. Elgin Baylor holds the record (61), Wilt Chamberlain scored more than 50 points in three elimination games, and both Sleepy Floyd and Jamal Murray had exactly 50 points in an elimination game. 

Another recurring theme that I have mentioned is that the NBA is often described as a fourth quarter league but that the NBA is in fact a first quarter league in the sense that matchups and tendencies from early in the game tend to foreshadow the final outcome. In the first quarter of game six, Butler scored 14 points on 6-10 field goal shooting while grabbing five rebounds and passing for four assists. He scored or assisted on 24 of Miami's 29 first quarter points as the Heat jumped out to a 10 point lead and were still on top by seven after the first 12 minutes. Butler established his dominance early in the game, and his dominance proved to be the main story.

Butler received help from Miami's recently maligned starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Max Strus. Lowry scored 18 points and dished a game-high 10 assists before fouling out. He shot poorly from the field (5-14) but he gave the Heat a much needed lift. Strus added 13 points on 5-12 field goal shooting before he fouled out. Those totals and percentages may not seem impressive, but Lowry and Strus were the team's second and third leading scorers in a must-win road playoff game. P.J. Tucker contributed 11 points, five rebounds, and his usual bulldog-style defense.

Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 30 points on 9-12 field goal shooting. He had nine rebounds and four assists, but he also coughed up seven turnovers. The Heat forced him toward help defenders, and deftly swiped the ball away when he tried his spin move. It may seem paradoxical to say, but it is equally true that Tatum played very well in some respects and yet not well enough overall. 

Derrick White added 22 points and five assists off of the bench. In the past few games, he has emerged as a key weapon for the Celtics. Jaylen Brown had 20 points, six rebounds, and five assists. Marcus Smart scored 14 points, but he shot just 4-15 from the field, and the 2022 NBA Defensive Player of the Year failed to contain Butler--not that it is easy to do so or that Butler's big performance is solely his fault.

The Heat led for most of the game, but unlike the other games in this series the margin never reached blowout proportions. The Celtics hung around, and after White's three pointer gave them a 97-94 lead with 4:43 remaining in the fourth quarter it would have been reasonable to think that the home team had weathered the storm before arriving safely to port--but the Heat outscored the Celtics 16-6 down the stretch, with Butler (seven points) and Lowry (five points) doing most of the late damage. Butler scored 17 fourth quarter points on 6-9 field goal shooting. His 27 total points in the past three games are a distant memory now--the Celtics cannot afford to think about the past, because their future holds a do or die game seven on the road against a team that does not give up and does not pay attention to doubters.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:23 AM

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The NBA and Its Media Partners Continue to Ignore the ABA's History and Statistics

Can you imagine the NFL or its media partners discussing the league's history, statistics, and great players without mentioning legendary AFL players and teams? Joe Namath's guarantee prior to the New York Jets' Super Bowl III upset win over the Baltimore Colts is one of the most iconic moments in pro football history. 

In sad and inexcusable contrast, the NBA ignores the ABA's history and statistics. This leads to absurd conversations like the one that took place on ESPN's pregame show prior to game six of the Eastern Conference Finals when the panel debated where Stephen Curry should rank all-time. The consensus was that Curry probably does not belong in the top 10, and the debate focused on whether or not Curry has surpassed Julius Erving and Moses Malone, two players who ESPN has determined rank in the top 20 but not the top 10. ESPN graphics listing the players' career accomplishments and honors asserted that Erving won one regular season MVP, one championship, and no Finals MVPs. This is equivalent to asserting that Joe Namath's AFL statistics and honors should not be counted. Not counting ABA records does not harm Malone as much as Erving because Malone's ABA career was shorter and less distinguished than Erving's, but one also gets the sense that Malone is somehow "tainted" because he did not spend his entire career in the NBA. Is there any three-time regular season MVP whose career is as ignored as Malone's? How many fans realize that Malone won the same number of MVPs as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson? 

Regarding Erving, no matter how often the NBA and its media partners deny history, these are the facts: Erving won four regular season MVPs, three championships, and two Finals MVPs. Further, in the 1976 ABA Finals, Erving played at a level that Curry cannot even dream of reaching: Erving led both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg). Who was Erving competing against in that series? Just a Denver Nuggets team coached by Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown, and led by Hall of Fame players David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Bobby Jones. 

Erving still belongs in the greatest player of all-time conversation; pretending that he is fighting for a spot in the top 20 and that he has been surpassed by a 6-3 guard is ridiculous. The only player shorter than 6-5 whose impact can be compared with Erving's is Jerry West. 

Before Curry is compared to players like Erving and Malone, he needs to surpass a few more of his contemporaries. There is no question that Curry was the second best player behind Kevin Durant on Golden State's 2017 and 2018 championship teams. If the Warriors win the 2022 championship that will not retroactively change what happened in 2017 and 2018. Durant may be a borderline Pantheon player, but Curry is definitely behind Durant (and not next in line, either).

Curry is a great player, and this article is not meant to bash him. I enjoy watching Curry play, and I think that he represents a lot of what is great about basketball, including his skill set development, his superior conditioning, and his unselfishness. The issue is not Curry or anything that he has accomplished; the issue is that the NBA is doing the sport of basketball a great disservice by ignoring vast swaths of history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:51 AM

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Friday, May 27, 2022

Warriors Lead Wire to Wire, Defeat Mavericks to Advance to the NBA Finals

On Thursday night, we saw once again that momentum in the playoffs is a myth. In game four of the Western Conference Finals, the Dallas Mavericks built a 99-70 lead en route to a 119-109 win to avoid being swept--but in game five, the Warriors led wire to wire, and closed out the series with a 120-110 win to advance to the NBA Finals for the sixth time in eight years, a feat that has not been accomplished since the Chicago Bulls won six championships from 1991-98. Klay Thompson had his best game of the series, pouring in a game-high 32 points on 12-25 field goal shooting, including 8-16 from three point range. All five Golden State starters scored in double figures, as did sixth man Jordan Poole, who finished with 16 points, six rebounds, and six assists. Andrew Wiggins had 18 points and 10 rebounds while continuing to be the primary defender versus Luka Doncic. Draymond Green scored 17 points on 6-7 field goal shooting, and he also had a game-high nine assists. Stephen Curry did not shoot well (5-17 from the field) but he accumulated 15 points while matching Green with nine assists. Although game five was not a vintage performance for the two-time regular season MVP, Curry received the first annual Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP. Kevon Looney snared a game-high 18 rebounds while also chipping in 10 points and four assists.

Luka Doncic led the Mavericks with 28 points, but he shot just 10-28 from the field. He only scored six first half points, his lowest first half scoring total this season (regular season and playoffs included), but he scored 15 third quarter points on 5-8 field goal shooting as the Mavericks made one last desperate attempt to extend their season. The Mavericks cut a 21 point lead to eight points (92-84) with 34.2 seconds left in the third quarter, but Poole's layup before the end of the quarter pushed the Warriors' lead back to 10 points, and the Warriors maintained a double digit lead the rest of the way. Doncic received little help outside of Spencer Dinwiddie, who had 26 points on 7-12 field goal shooting.

The Mavericks reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time since their 2011 championship run, but next season they will face the challenge of proving that this season set a foundation and was not a fluke; it is not uncommon for a team to jump out of the woodwork to make one Conference Finals appearance only to fall back to the pack, as happened with the Atlanta Hawks the past couple seasons.

The Warriors await the winner of the Eastern Conference Finals; the Boston Celtics lead the Miami Heat 3-2, and can eliminate the Heat with a win at home tonight. Curry owns three championship rings, but no Finals MVPs. A fourth ring--particularly if accompanied by a Finals MVP award--will elevate Curry's historical status in the eyes of many, though it should be noted that these Warriors won their first championship versus a hobbled Cleveland team, and then won their next two championships with Kevin Durant serving as the clear number one option.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:01 AM

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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Celtics Chill Heat With Second Half Surge

The Boston Celtics broke open a tightly contested game five with a 24-2 second half run en route to beating the Miami Heat 93-80 to take a 3-2 Eastern Conference Finals lead. The Celtics can advance to the NBA Finals by winning game six at home on Friday night. Jaylen Brown scored a game-high 25 points on 10-19 field goal shooting, and he had a game-best +20 plus/minus number. Jayson Tatum struggled with his shot for most of the game, but he finished with 22 points on 7-20 field goal shooting plus game high totals in rebounds (12) and assists (nine). Al Horford had a significant impact with 16 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. Derrick White added 14 points and five assists off of the bench.

The Heat played solid defense but they could not survive their horrific shooting: 30-94 from the field (.319), including an abysmal 7-45 (.156) from beyond the arc. The Heat set a franchise single game record for missed three pointers. Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 18 points on 8-15 field goal shooting, and he also had 10 rebounds, while Gabe Vincent provided 15 points off of the bench on 6-12 field goal shooting, but the other Heat players combined to shoot 16-67 from the field (.239). Jimmy Butler, the Heat's best player, scored just 13 points on 4-18 field goal shooting. Miami's starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Max Strus shot a combined 0-15 from the field after shooting a combined 1-13 from the field in game four.

Both teams have players who are persevering through a variety of injuries, but the Celtics' superior size and skill are wearing down the Heat. This game was a microcosm of the series. Early in the second quarter, Miami led 21-17. At that point, Miami had shot 1-11 from three point range, and Boston had shot 1-9 from three point range. Many NBA teams rely too much on three point shooting, and this high variance style of play is a major reason that teams build (and then often squander) big leads. Over time, size and skill prevail because the bigger, more skillful team can score in the paint and in the midrange game while smaller, less skillful teams are forced (or choose) to rely on getting hot from long distance. 

As the game progressed, the Celtics demonstrated that they could score in the paint and in the midrange game. Their ability and willingness to attack from other areas of the court eventually unlocked their long distance game as well, and they shot 9-24 from three point range after their slow start. Meanwhile, with Butler struggling and Lowry unable to make a shot at all, the Heat jacked up three pointers and hoped for the best. More than a fourth of the Heat's field goal attempts in game five were three pointers fired by Duncan Robinson, Max Strus, and Gabe Vincent--and they combined to shoot 4-24 from beyond the arc. With all due respect to those players, that kind of shot distribution is not a recipe for success in the Eastern Conference Finals. 

It seems like a long time ago that some commentators insisted that the Celtics should break up the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown duo. The Celtics ignored that noise, made their fourth trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in the past six years, and are in great position to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:44 PM

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Mavericks Rain on Warriors' Parade

Rain delays are unusual in the NBA, but the rain delay prior to the second half of game four of the Western Conference Finals foreshadowed the shots that the Dallas Mavericks rained on the Golden State Warriors during the third quarter of a 119-109 win. Dallas led 62-47 after two quarters when a leak in the roof of American Airlines Center delayed the start of the second half; several arena workers dried the court with towels, while other arena workers constructed a makeshift barrier to prevent any more water from falling onto the court. After the arena workers contained the rain, the Mavericks rained eight three pointers on the Warriors in the next 12 minutes, pushing the lead to 99-70 entering the fourth quarter. The Mavericks then sleepwalked through most of the final stanza, forcing Coach Jason Kidd to reinsert his starters. The Warriors cut the margin to 110-102 with 3:23 remaining, but Luka Doncic's driving dunk restored order for the Mavericks, whose lead did not fall below 10 points the rest of the way as the Mavericks posted their first Western Conference Finals win since the team's 2011 championship season.

The Mavericks shot 41-82 (.500) from the field overall, including 20-43 (.465) from three point range. The Mavericks are going to shoot a ton of three pointers no matter what, but the keys to this victory were that the Mavericks won the rebounding battle 45-42 while also scoring efficiently in the paint instead of just relying on feast or famine long range shooting. Doncic, who was named to the All-NBA First Team earlier in the day, led both teams in points (30), rebounds (14), and assists (nine). He did not shoot well from the field (10-26), but he had a +13 plus/minus number in 38 minutes. Dorian Finney-Smith scored 23 points on 9-13 field goal shooting, and he had a game-best +18 plus/minus number. Reggie Bullock (18 points on 6-10 field goal shooting) also had an efficient game. Jalen Brunson chipped in 15 points and five assists with no turnovers. 

Stephen Curry led the Warriors with 20 points and eight assists. The Warriors' next two scorers were bench players Jonathan Kuminga (17 points) and Jordan Poole (14 points). The Warriors' starters lacked energy and urgency, but the bench players keyed a huge fourth quarter rally in which Golden State outscored Dallas 39-20; bench players scored 32 of the Warriors' 39 points. During that big run, the Warriors played a zone defense and the Mavericks went cold from three point range, shooting just 1-7 from beyond the arc in the final 12 minutes. The Warriors shot 15-20 (.750) from the field in the fourth quarter, including 4-4 on three pointers. The Mavericks have a disturbing pattern of not playing much defense if their shots are not falling. Nevertheless, even though the ending was a bit shaky the Mavericks got the job done and extended the series.

The Mavericks overcame a 1-0 deficit to beat the Utah Jazz in the first round before overcoming a 2-0 hole to knock off the number one seeded Phoenix Suns in the second round. Those comebacks are impressive, but not unprecedented. Are the Mavericks content to not be swept in the Western Conference Finals, or are they stubborn enough to try to make history and become the first NBA team to win a playoff series after trailing 3-0? The Mavericks do not have to win three games at once. They have to win one game at a time three times, and in order to win game five on the road they must attack the paint on offense while controlling the boards at both ends of the court. The odds are that the Warriors will close out the series at home, but if this series returns to Dallas for game six then things will start to get interesting.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:37 AM

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