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Friday, June 15, 2018

The Sad Saga of The Ringer's Gleeful Takedown of Bryan Colangelo

The website The Ringer is not merely content to bury Bryan Colangelo's career (or at least the Philadelphia portion of it) but is also pouring dirt on the grave.

A few weeks ago, The Ringer broke the story that several anonymous Twitter accounts that could be linked to Colangelo had posted information critical of Sam Hinkie and of various 76er players. The 76ers hired an independent law firm to conduct an investigation and that investigation determined that Colangelo's wife had made the offensive posts. Although Colangelo denied any knowledge of his wife's activity and declared that he did not agree with what she had posted, the two-time NBA Executive of the Year who had rebuilt the 76ers into a contender in the wake of Hinkie's infamous and disastrous tanking "Process" resigned under pressure.

Now The Ringer has posted a second article that essentially states that everything good that happened for the 76ers last season was a result of Hinkie's brilliance, while any questionable decisions came from Colangelo. Specifically, The Ringer accused Colangelo of failing to resolve the "logjam" of big men on the roster and of choosing Markelle Fultz with the first pick in the 2017 draft over the alleged objections of various unnamed 76ers' staffers. The Ringer conveniently failed to note that the 76ers were a losing team every season under Hinkie and only became a contender after Colangelo remade the culture and the roster in the wake of Hinkie's departure. The Ringer also left out that Hinkie whiffed on the opportunity to draft Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner or Devin Booker in 2015 (Hinkie selected Jahlil Okafor) and that Hinkie chose Nerlens Noel in 2013 instead of Giannis Antetokounmpo or C.J. McCollum.

Thus, The Ringer left out the "minor" detail that the aforementioned "logjam" of Okafor and Noel was created by Hinkie's poor drafting and unwillingness to get rid of either big man. Colangelo inherited a mess and rapidly turned it into a playoff team, yet The Ringer proposes that Hinkie should get the credit.

Not only is that a bizarre take, but it is an odd thing to post right after Colangelo resigned.

Sirius XM NBA Radio's Frank Isola made some excellent points regarding Colangelo's situation. First, Isola noted that the burner Twitter accounts in question hardly had any subscribers and he joked that Colangelo's wife could have reached a larger audience by opening up a window and shouting than by posting to a feed that few people follow. Second, Isola pointed out that it is commonplace for NBA executives and other insiders to feed information to media members, who then disseminate that information to a large audience. Third, Isola stated that it is ironic that Colangelo was forced out because his wife leaked team information and now The Ringer is posting an anti-Colangelo story filled with information that could only have been leaked to The Ringer by team sources. "Where is the investigation of that?" Isola asked.

Isola's broadcast partner Brian Scalabrine added this observation: the Boston Celtics require each member of the personnel department to write out their preferences before each draft, so no one can later claim 20/20 hindsight regarding the team's selections. If people within the 76ers organization want to throw Colangelo under the bus, let them step up publicly and prove with written time-stamped notes that they did not support the Fultz selection.

Isola joked that apparently Hinkie is responsible for every good decision that the 76ers have made--even the ones that took place after his departure--and Isola said that The Ringer's piling on with Colangelo is starting to seem personal. Isola could not fathom what The Ringer's motive is but I have an idea. The Ringer is Bill Simmons' brainchild. Simmons (1) loves "stat gurus" like Hinkie and (2) is on the record stating that he could do a better job than most NBA executives. Taking down a respected executive like Colangelo while simultaneously rewriting Hinkie's career in a favorable fashion is right up Simmons' alley.

There is little doubt that Colangelo could have and should have handled the Twitter account situation better, but The Ringer's coverage of Colangelo reeks of personal animus, a hidden agenda and double standards (Isola called the hand-wringing about the tweets while ignoring the more widespread leaking of information "fake outrage"). Isola is right to call out The Ringer for its biased coverage of Colangelo and Hinkie.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:11 AM

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

NBA Finals Notes and Comments: Warriors’ Dominance, LeBron’s Hand/Mind and How Legacies Are Defined

The 2018 NBA Finals featured the league's emerging dynasty team versus a player who is being increasingly touted as the greatest player of all-time. Sometimes the historical storylines and subplots threatened to overtake coverage of what was happening in the moment and--as is too often the case--context, perspective and balance went out the window as various commentators tried too hard to make definitive statements about the greatness (or lack thereof) of a team or of a player.

Now that the series is over and that the Golden State Warriors won their third championship in four years while dropping LeBron James' career Finals record to 3-6, it is worth trying to put both the Warriors and James into proper context.

Let's start with James, since that is where the media tends to start anyway; it often seems like every story about the NBA is spun in some way to reflect how that story affects James or how James could affect that story. "The 76ers are an emerging team--but how good would they be if LeBron James signs with them?" is one constant theme, while "The Houston Rockets won 65 games and pushed the Warriors to seven games--but should they rearrange their roster to sign James?" is another one.

We can stipulate for the record that whether you love James or you hate James, he is without question one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. The abridged version of his extensive basketball resume includes three championships (2012-13, 16), three Finals MVPs (2012-13, 16), four regular season MVPs (2009-10, 2012-13) and 12 (soon to be 13) top-five finishes in regular season MVP voting (2006-17). He is the only player in pro basketball history who has amassed at least 30,000 points, at least 8000 rebounds and at least 8000 assists.

The only relevant question about James' legacy is how high he ranks on the select list of greatest players of all-time: top 15, top 10, top 5, 1?

These kinds of discussions are inherently impaired by a number of factors, including recency bias (the tendency to believe that what we are seeing right now is better than anything we have seen before), the personal biases (and/or ignorance) of whoever is doing the analysis and the very real challenges of trying to weigh the importance of rules changes, stylistic changes and so forth.

Over a decade ago, I wrote about the Pantheon, a group of 10 retired players (plus four players who were active at that time) who each have a credible case to be considered the greatest player of all-time. I did not rank the players within the Pantheon, choosing instead to focus on each player's greatness as opposed to pitting them against each other. Since that time, I have publicly indicated why I would take certain Pantheon players over others but I have still resisted ranking all of them. In September 2015, I wrote an addendum to my Pantheon series in the wake of a lot of discussions about whether or not Julius Erving belongs in the greatest player of all-time conversation and I explained why each Pantheon player at least belongs in that conversation; selecting a single greatest player in a team sport is an objectively impossible task, but I still think that it is reasonable to suggest that there is a finite number of players who are legitimately in that conversation because they have elevated themselves over everyone else based on skill set, accomplishments, peak value and longevity.

It is difficult to compare players who played different positions more than 40 years apart; anyone who really thinks he has figured out definitively whether or not Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain is a greater basketball player than Michael Jordan is fooling himself (or trying to fool others). Russell and Chamberlain played center in a league with much fewer teams than Jordan's NBA, a league that had no three point shot, had just started integrating (and featured few if any players from countries outside the USA) and differed in many other ways in terms of rules, playing style, etc.

It is a little easier to compare Jordan with LeBron James; Jordan is a 6-6 shooting guard who played in the NBA from 1984-85 to 2002-03, while James is a 6-8 small forward who has played in the NBA since 2003-04.

It is even easier to compare Kobe Bryant with LeBron James; Bryant is a 6-6 shooting guard who played in the NBA from 1996-97 to 2015-16. Bryant and James faced each other directly many times, guarded each other on some occasions, played against the same great players/teams (at least during the regular season) and they were teammates on Team USA's gold medal winning teams in 2008 and 2012. They even had some of the same teammates in their supporting casts; Shannon Brown could not crack the rotation on James' deep 2007 and 2008 Cleveland teams but he was part of the rotation for Bryant's 2009 and 2010 NBA championship teams.

Prior to the 2018 Finals, it seemed as if many media members decided to just bypass the logical Bryant-James comparison and jump straight into the cross-generational Jordan-James comparison. The same thing happened during last year's Finals and after Golden State took a 3-0 lead over Cleveland in that series I wrote:
Is it James' fault that the Warriors are poised to sweep his Cavaliers? No, but if James had the mentality to reach the gear that Russell, Jordan, Bryant and other Pantheon members often reached in the Finals then this series would, at the very least, be more competitive than it has been.

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

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

If you are comparing James to Jordan then you are arguing that Jordan would have found a way to lose a Finals game in which his sidekick dropped nearly 40 points and in which his team had a two possession lead with barely two minutes to go. Sorry, I am not buying that for one second.
After game four of the 2018 NBA Finals--when James played very passively in the second half of a winnable contest--Charles Barkley put it succinctly and bluntly in his inimitable fashion, looking into the NBA TV cameras and declaring that the next time any media member states that James is better than Jordan he will punch that person in the face.

While I do not advocate resolving the debate through violence, I agree with Barkley's point. If we are going to make intergenerational comparisons (which are difficult to make for the reasons that I listed above) then we have to go beyond statistics (which do not always translate between eras and which were amassed under different rules against different competition) and consider intangible but relevant factors such as mindset and leadership; James may be at or near the top of the Pantheon in terms of athletic ability but he does not crack the top 10 in mindset or leadership.

Forget the numbers for a moment and leave aside whatever you may think about Golden State's roster compared to Cleveland's roster. Consider the "little" storyline that James dropped in the media's lap after game four: James admitted to injuring his right hand by punching a whiteboard due to an emotional outburst after losing game one of the series in overtime.

Frank Isola put it best during his Monday show on SiriusXM NBA Radio: "LeBron is getting the pass of the century" for a self-inflicted injury incurred at the most important time of the season. Isola noted that James' action immediately demoted J.R. Smith's game one flub from the dumbest mistake of the series to the second dumbest and Isola said that what James did was both dumb and selfish. Isola made an apt analogy to Yankees' closer Mariano Rivera, saying that if Rivera had punched something with his pitching hand and hindered his ability to pitch in the World Series then he would have justifiably been roasted by the media. Of course, the media treated James with kid gloves after James showed up after game four with some kind of brace or soft cast on his previously unbandaged right hand (was James expecting Mark Schwartz to take a shot at his hand while he walked up to the podium?).

Isola also stated that James' hand injury does not explain or justify the way that James lay down in the second half of game four. Finally, Isola noted James' word choices: "Pretty much played with a broken hand." Did James actually break his hand or not? That is a simple question to ask and to answer but not one media member stepped up to ask the question, which is particularly sad considering that a previous post-game press conference in the series featured SiriusXM NBA Radio's Justin Termine--a self-styled historian of the game--wasting time asking Draymond Green about his wardrobe. The next day, Isola justifiably roasted his colleague Termine for asking such an inane question at a press conference when other media members are working on deadline to put out their game stories. Termine, who spends most of his show screaming at co-host Eddie Johnson (who is a knowledgeable and insightful commentator), seems to operate under the delusion that he was hired for his basketball knowledge as opposed to his ability to banter and be an on-air agitator. The NBA would benefit greatly if its broadcast partners hired more people like Isola--and fewer people like Termine--to provide commentary and to ask questions at post-game press conferences

James' injury and the ensuing coverup also raises the not so minor issue of the NBA's "integrity tax" regarding gambling. The NBA is poised to profit from sports gambling becoming legalized on a national basis, yet the best player in the game just got away with not reporting a supposedly serious injury for the last three games of the Finals. Do you think that James having an injured hand might have affected the betting line for those games? Between the rampant tanking and the league's apparently non-existent (or unenforced) injury reporting protocols, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver may soon be presiding over a league that resembles professional wrestling more than a legitimately competitive sport. You may recall some media members lauding Silver as a kinder, gentler leader--in contrast to their opinion of his predecessor, David Stern--but Stern's stronger leadership style helped him navigate the league through troubled waters on many occasions.

The bottom line in terms of the greatest player of all-time conversation is that James has not only failed too often on the sport's biggest stage but he has quit too often and made too many excuses to ever pass Bryant, let alone Jordan. Even if James wins three more titles (which is doubtful) to tie Jordan and move one ahead of Bryant, what are we to make of the several series during which James has played below his considerable abilities--if not outright quit--and then made weak excuses?

Maybe James thought that his press conference antics would elicit sympathy but what those antics did is provide further evidence of how James falls short in comparison to the very best of the best.

Bryant has made some interesting comments in the past week or so about comparing James to himself and to other great players (as quoted in a recent article by Howard Beck): "Phil used to say this thing to me a lot, when I was doing a lot on the court. He'd say, 'You have to do less.' And I'd say, 'Well, my teammates got to step up more.' Phil would say, 'Well, it's your responsibility to thrust the game upon them.'"

Bryant added these pertinent thoughts and observations:
All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That's all I cared about. That's how I valued Michael. That's how I valued [Larry] Bird. That's how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody's going to value things differently, which is fine. I'm just telling you how I value mine. If I'm Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It's not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out. Michael gave me some really good advice after the '08 Finals: "You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship." Going into the 2010 series, I said, "Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They're stacked." That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, "Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There's no other alternative." And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now...

It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them?...Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That's not what it is. It's about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it's not pretty. Some of it's challenging, some of it's confrontational. Some of it's pat on the back. But it's finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.
There is a lot of wisdom contained in those remarks but three points stand out: (1) This is not about "narrative" but about results. James is too often concerned more about controlling the "narrative" than he is about doing whatever it takes to win; (2) great players historically have been judged largely based on championships won, because every player has possible excuses/contextual factors to mention but the best of the best figure out how to get the job done; (3) leadership is not just about throwing the ball to players (particularly in situations when the great player should be assuming the obligation to score) but about empowering those players to improve on a daily basis.

The media narrative states that James is a great teammate and leader. The reality is that his tenure ended badly the first time in Cleveland (and may end badly this time as well) and his tenure in Miami ended with the great Pat Riley referring to "smiling faces with hidden agendas." 

At some point, a resume contains too many black marks to go to the top of the list, no many how many positives are on the resume as well. I have often said that James confounds me more than any other Pantheon level player and that remains true. I am disappointed that he not only injured himself during the 2018 Finals but that he waited until he got swept to reveal the injury, an announcement that not only comes across as a weak excuse but also takes attention away from what the Warriors accomplished. For me, the enduring image of this series will be the several sequences in game three during which the Warriors set fake screens and James switched off of Durant unnecessarily as opposed to accepting the challenge of guarding the eventual Finals MVP down the stretch.

James is now 1-2 versus Tim Duncan in the NBA Finals, 0-1 versus Dirk Nowitzki, 1-2 versus Kevin Durant and 1-3 versus Stephen Curry. I will not put things as bluntly as Barkley did but he is right that there needs to be a moratorium on the Jordan-James comparisons. Sparky Anderson once said that he would not embarrass another catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench; that line of thinking applies here.
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The focus at this time should be on the Warriors. Few teams have won at least three titles in a four year span and each team is legendary (most of them won additional titles before and/or after capturing three titles during four years): Mikan's Lakers (1949-50, 52-54), Russell's Celtics (1957, 59-66, 68-69), the Abdul-Jabbar-Magic Johnson Lakers (1980, 82, 85, 87-88), the Jordan-Pippen Bulls (1991-93, 96-98), the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers (2000-02).

Are the Warriors the greatest team of all-time?

That question is as unanswerable as the question about who is the greatest player of all-time.

The Warriors are clearly on the short list, much as James is on the short list of greatest players of all-time. The challenge is that teams can only meaningfully be compared against their contemporaries.

The Warriors are the best team of this era. Would they beat the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers? To answer that, we first need to stipulate the rules and the style of play. It is hard to picture Draymond Green having much success guarding O'Neal under the early 2000s rules. Meanwhile, O'Neal's presence in the paint shuts down the Warriors' lob game while Bryant, Ron Harper and Robert Horry menace the Warriors' perimeter players.

It is even harder to picture the Warriors winning three titles in four years in the 1980s while facing the Lakers, Celtics, 76ers and others under the rules of that time. During that era, you had to have a dominant Hall of Fame caliber center to win a championship. Julius Erving takes a back seat to no perimeter player from any era but when he played alongside center Darryl Dawkins several of his championship quests were foiled by teams featuring Hall of Fame centers such as Bill Walton, Wes Unseld/Elvin Hayes (those two argued publicly about who was actually the team's center), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. It would have been difficult for any perimeter player to lead a team to a title in that era--but when Erving teamed up with Moses Malone suddenly the 76ers were not only title contenders (as they had been for the previous six years) but they were now perhaps the most dominant single season team in the sport's history.

In that era, Durant-Parish would have been a much deadlier duo than Durant-Curry. In the 1980s, a team with a lot of perimeter firepower and no post up game had a ceiling of reaching the Conference Finals. Think of squads such as the Milwaukee Bucks and the Denver Nuggets. They were excellent teams with many talented players but in that era under those rules they just could not quite beat the Celtics, 76ers or Lakers. One might argue that the modern Warriors are better defensively than those Milwaukee and Denver teams but it should be noted that the defensive rules in this era are vastly different from the rules in that era--and it is doubtful that the increased physicality of the 1980s would be advantageous for Durant and Curry at either end of the court.

We can speculate about which players/teams are best equipped mentally and physically to adapt to different conditions but there is no objective way to determine this.

I tend to go in the opposite direction of recency bias and operate with a default assumption that players/teams from the past are underrated to some extent.

I suspect that the great teams from previous eras would adjust quite well to the modern game, while some of the modern teams would struggle to adjust to the old school rules and style of play. That supposition is not meant to diminish the value of what the Warriors have accomplished. The Warriors are one of a handful of elite dynasties in pro basketball history. Whether or not they would fare well in head to head matchups against the dynasties listed above does not change the Warriors' well-earned place in pro basketball history.
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Speaking of legacies and dynasties, what are we to make of Kevin Durant? He has now been the Finals MVP for back to back championship teams. He has twice outplayed James on the sport's biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line.

It is no secret that I dislike the way Durant handled his business off of the court. Instead of embracing the challenge of facing the Warriors with Russell Westbrook at his side, Durant ran to the Warriors just one season after he and Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder had taken a 3-1 lead against the Warriors. It would have been better for the sport if we had seen a few more matchups of those two teams.

That being said, (1) Durant had every right to sign with the team of his choice and (2) no championship is cheap or worth less than another. Yes, Durant signed with a team that was already a powerhouse but he has been that team's best player during two championship runs. His on court contributions since joining the Warriors are beyond reproach. At the end of the day, Durant will be remembered as a basketball player for how many championships and MVPs he wins, just like every great player before him. The funny thing is that James is the first modern player who tried to play GM by building a super-team in Miami and then hand-picking his teammates the second time around in Cleveland but Durant has one-upped James as a player-GM; Durant signed with a team full of unselfish players who sacrificed money, glory and statistics to win titles. The Warriors built their roster in a balanced way, as opposed to just signing players who are represented by Durant's management team. In contrast, part of the Faustian bargain the Cavaliers made with James was to sign all of James' "guys," which is yet another reason that James' complaints about his supporting cast ring hollow.

Bryant said it best: Magic, Bird and Michael were judged by rings, not excuses and not context. There can be excuses made or context provided for every season in NBA history but the best of the best rise above those circumstances. Magic, Bird and Michael "could" have won more titles had things gone differently and they also "could" have won fewer titles.

It is interesting how the media is trying to not so subtly shift the narrative to shortchange anyone who is a "threat" to placing James at the top of the list.

Supposedly Jordan did not face tough enough competition, even though he played during the Magic/Bird/Isiah era at the start of his career and the Dream Team era during his prime. Jordan prevented a lot of great players from winning even one ring.

Supposedly, Bryant's five titles in seven Finals don't "count" compared to James' three rings in nine Finals because Bryant played with O'Neal during three Finals runs--but Russell had a fleet of Hall of Famers next to him during his 11 title runs, as did Magic, Bird and most other Pantheon players. James has been handpicking his teammates for nearly a decade and he has played with multiple future Hall of Famers yet he still is stuck on three rings as opposed to challenging the ring total amassed by the sport's premier winners of the past 40 years, including Abdul-Jabbar (six), Jordan (six), Magic (five), Bryant (five) and Duncan (five, with two wins in three tries against James).

Supposedly, Conference Finals wins now are a metric for greatness. We keep hearing about James making eight straight Finals appearances. That is a great accomplishment, no doubt about it--but Magic not only made it to eight Finals in 10 years during the 1980s but he won five of them. Going back further in time, Julius Erving made it to 10 Conference Finals and six Finals in a more competitive era when he had to often face multiple teams with future Hall of Famers as opposed to cruising to the Finals.

When did making the Finals or Conference Finals become more significant than winning championships? The answer is that it became more significant when the media decided to elevate James above all other basketball players but James did not cooperate by winning enough championships to earn that consideration the way that James' predecessors did.

Durant is one ring short of James right now. If Durant keeps winning and keeps outplaying James in the Finals, Durant is going to play his way into Pantheon consideration the old fashioned way: by his accomplishments on the court, not by trying to control the "narrative."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 AM

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Saturday, June 09, 2018

Warriors Sweep Cavaliers and Earn Third Title in Four Years With 108-85 Win

Stephen Curry scored 37 points and Kevin Durant added 20 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and a game-high 10 assists as the Golden State Warriors broke Cleveland's spirit with a 108-85 victory that was not as close as the final score might indicate. Durant started his Finals career by scoring at least 25 points in 13 straight games (the third longest such run in history, trailing only Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal); in game four, he snapped that scoring streak but he notched his first career Finals triple double.

Durant averaged 28.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 7.5 apg versus Cleveland to clinch his second straight Finals MVP, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan in the elite group of players who have won at least four scoring titles and at least two championships. Durant edged Curry 7-4 in the MVP balloting. Durant had a staggering +30 plus/minus number in game four, nine points better than any other player.

Curry shot 12-27 from the field, including 7-15 from three point range. He also had six rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocked shots. Golden State's only other double figure scorers were Andre Iguodala (11 points in 23 minutes off of the bench, +11 plus/minus number) and Klay Thompson (10 points, six rebounds). McGee had a tremendous impact that demonstrates the limits of relying on individual statistics to evaluate players: he had six points, three rebounds and one blocked shot in 16 minutes, yet the Warriors outscored the Cavaliers by 21 points when he was on the court, two points better than Curry's plus/minus number. No "stat guru" can account for what McGee did; the only way to understand McGee's effectiveness is to apply the "eye test" with understanding and realize the ways that his presence in the paint at both ends of the court provided a huge spark.

Golden State accomplished the first Finals sweep since the San Antonio Spurs swept LeBron James' Cavaliers in 2007. James joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson as the only Pantheon-level players who have been swept twice on the sport's biggest stage--but Abdul-Jabbar went 6-4 in the Finals and Johnson went 5-4 in the Finals, while James is 3-6; James is the only regular season MVP winner who has lost six times in the Finals.

James led the Cavaliers with 23 points and eight assists in addition to grabbing seven rebounds but--as is too often the case--his numbers were empty and his impact was far less than the box score might suggest. ABC's Mark Jackson picked up on this during the game, as cameras captured James speaking emphatically to his teammates during a third quarter timeout after the Warriors took a 67-52 lead: Jackson dismissed the significance of James' display and said, "It's about inspiring the guys in between these lines and he has not done it tonight." Moments later, the Warriors extended the margin to 81-63 and Jackson compared the Cavaliers to boxer Roberto Duran, who famously quit against Sugar Ray Leonard by stating "No mas." Jackson said, "It's disappointing. James' effort has been disappointing." Mike Breen made some excuses for James by stating that James carries a huge load and has only seemed tired a few times during the playoffs but Jeff Van Gundy retorted that it is OK to speak the truth about James, citing specific plays that had nothing to do with fatigue but rather showed that James was not competing hard enough.

Later, Jackson and Van Gundy also stated that James deserves credit for taking this team to the Finals in his 15th season. That is the paradox that has been a recurring theme in James' career: he is one of the greatest players ever, he has done some unprecedented things and what he did this season ranks among his greatest achievements--but he has also repeatedly quit in key moments. I have said it before and it bears repeating now: James mystifies me more than any other great NBA player who I have ever seen or researched.

Kevin Love added 13 points and nine rebounds. The only other Cleveland players who scored in double figures were J.R. Smith and Rodney Hood (10 points each). The Cavaliers shot just .345 from the field, which is a testament to Golden State's defense but also an indictment of how lethargically Cleveland played.

Stephen A. Smith is hardly known as a voice of reason but he nailed it when he called the Cavaliers' effort--starting with James and trickling down to the rest of the roster--"deplorable." 

However, James' pre-game lament that he needs to be surrounded by smart, high-IQ players rings hollow. The Cavaliers have spent a record amount of money to sign James' guys, including overpaying Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith (the Cavaliers bid against themselves in both instances because James wanted those players). The Cavaliers replaced a GM and a coach to appease James. Meanwhile, James still will not commit to returning to a franchise that has done everything possible to please him and that has put together a good enough roster to reach the Finals for four straight years.

It takes a unique supporting cast to play with James; James insists on monopolizing the ball, so he can only play with stars who are willing to accept this: Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Kevin Love accepted this to at least some extent, while Kyrie Irving did not. James wants to be surrounded by guys who can make three pointers, play defense and not get in the way of him amassing huge statistics. He is not going to take a pay cut to win a title and any team other than Cleveland that signs him will have to (1) give up a lot of assets in a sign and trade (so that James can get the max deal that he will insist on getting) and (2) be willing to pay out a record amount in salaries/luxury tax with no assurance on a year to year basis of whether or not James is committed to staying with the team. James is a great player and there is no doubt that many teams will line up for the opportunity to sign James--and there is no doubt that along with the benefits of signing James there is also a huge price (literally and figuratively) to pay.

The media narrative that has been drummed into everyone's heads is that James is a superhero who is playing alongside a bunch of stooges--as if James could singlehandedly beat strong Toronto and Boston teams. Kobe Bryant, who knows a lot about what it takes to win championships--not to mention what it takes to win championships with less than stellar supporting casts, as he did in 2009 and 2010--does not buy that narrative at all:

"It seems like he has some good talent (around him) to me. He's got Korver, who's a great shooter, J.R. Smith who has always been a solid player. We focus on his one mistake and that tends to overshadow all the things he' s done to help them win a championship before. You've got Kevin Love, who was an All-Star and an Olympian; Rodney Hood, who was a 17-point scorer in the Western Conference; you've got Tristan who is back to playing like he played a few years ago."

Bryant disagrees with those who seem to think that it is necessary to denigrate James' teammates in order to elevate James' reputation: "He's got some workable pieces there. I don't understand how, in order to talk about how great LeBron is, we need to [crap] on everybody else. That's not OK. Those guys have talent. I don't buy this whole thing that he's playing with a bunch of garbage."

It seems pointless to provide a detailed recap of a game during which James and the Cavaliers clearly gave up. Cleveland fell down 10-3 at the start, rallied to take a 39-38 second quarter lead but trailed 61-52 at halftime. Then, Golden State pushed a little harder in the third quarter and Cleveland capitulated.

It is disappointing but not surprising that immediately after the loss at least one prominent media member tried to make excuses for James, who apparently suffered a right hand injury from punching a blackboard in the wake of Cleveland's game one loss. ESPN's Brian Windhorst mentioned James' injury shortly after game four ended, claiming that the swelling in James' hand is so bad that it is not yet possible to determine if the hand is broken. Windhorst hastened to add that James is not the one who revealed the injury now to get sympathy or makes excuses but rather James had been concealing the injury so as to not give the Warriors any edge. It is not clear how Windhorst suddenly found out about the secret if James is not the one who revealed the injury to him.

In any case, one would hope that James would not expect sympathy for an injury apparently suffered as a result of an immature outburst. James has a responsibility to not engage in reckless conduct that would potentially inhibit his ability to work for his employer (much like a baseball pitcher should not punch a wall with his pitching hand and then miss several starts as a result).

It is interesting that of all of the media members who cover the Finals only Windhorst--who has made a career out of being Boswell to James' Johnson--knew that James is injured (Windhorst also added as an afterthought that James' ankle is injured). I thought that teams and players have a responsibility to the league to fully and accurately report injuries (this will be even more important of an issue as legalized gambling becomes more widespread in the wake of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision about that matter).

James showed up at the game four post-game press conference with a huge brace/cast on his right hand. It would seem logical to assume that if James did not medically need such protection in the first three post-game press conferences, then it is likely that he did not need to wear it in the game four post-game press conference.

Long-time James' watchers no doubt remember that on the previous occasions when James quit he supposedly had mysterious injuries that seemingly only Windhorst knew the details about--injuries that oddly did not seem to require much if any treatment after Cleveland's season ended. I certainly will not forget James shooting half court shots during pre-game warmups when he was supposed to be nursing an elbow injury during the 2010 playoffs.

James has earned the right to sign with any team that he prefers--but, by the same token, it is fair to evaluate his decisions and actions in an objective context, as opposed to filtering them through a particular lens the way that some media members who value access to James do. 

That is more than enough words to devote to the best player on the losing team. James will drag out his free agency process for the next few weeks but the Golden State Warriors deserve the bulk of our attention.

The Warriors are a complete team. They do not play "small ball" or "stat guru" ball; they defend, they share the ball on offense and their stars are selfless. As Pat Riley might put it, there are no "smiling faces with hidden agendas" and there is no "disease of me." The Warriors do not care who gets the credit or the accolades. I hate the way that Durant fled a contending Oklahoma City team to join a powerful team that had already won a title but Durant had the right to do this and he has played brilliantly as a Warrior. Stephen Curry is a wondrous shooter who is also an underrated passer, rebounder and defender--yes, defender: he is smart and quick, even though he can be overpowered at times; teams pick on him at that end not because he is so bad but rather because every other Golden State starter is even better defensively than he is.

Could the Warriors beat Russell's Celtics, the Magic-Kareem Lakers, the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics, the Jordan-Pippen Bulls or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers? Tell me the playing conditions and rules and maybe I can provide a sensible answer. As Chauncey Billups said after the Warriors won last night, with three championships in four years the Warriors have earned the right to be in the conversation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM

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Thursday, June 07, 2018

Kevin Durant Leads the Way as Golden State Takes a Commanding 3-0 Lead Over Cleveland

Kevin Durant scored a playoff career-high 43 points as his Golden State Warriors withstood a fast start by the Cleveland Cavaliers to post a 110-102 win and take a 3-0 NBA Finals lead. It had seemed like Stephen Curry was cruising toward his first Finals MVP--one of the few significant individual honors that Curry has not won--but now Durant has at least entered that discussion after shooting 15-23 from the field while grabbing a game-high tying 13 rebounds and dishing for seven assists. Durant shot 6-9 from three point range, including the 30-plus foot trey with less than 50 seconds remaining that gave the Warriors a 106-100 lead. Durant posted a game-high +15 plus/minus number and he has scored at least 25 points in each of his 13 career Finals games.

Remarkably, no other Warrior scored more than 11 points, though five Warriors reached double figures. Curry had a miserable shooting performance (3-16 from the field, including 1-10 from three point range just one game after setting a Finals single-game record with nine three pointers made), finishing with 11 points, six assists and five rebounds. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, JaVale McGee and Jordan Bell had 10 points each. McGee had a significant impact despite playing just 14 minutes; he shot 5-7 from the field and played a key role in Golden State's early third quarter run that transformed a 58-52 Cleveland halftime lead into a 69-64 Golden State lead. Bell shot 4-5 from the field and had six rebounds in 12 minutes off of the bench, while Green shot 4-8 from the field and snared nine rebounds. Thompson's numbers were pedestrian (4-11 field goal shooting, four rebounds) but he tied Andre Iguodala (eight points, two rebounds in 22 minutes in his 2018 Finals debut after missing the past six playoff games due to injury) with a +14 plus/minus number.

LeBron James had 33 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in what must be one of the emptiest triple doubles in NBA Finals history. As ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said late in the contest, "James has not been great tonight. He needs to be great in the last 4:45..He’s going to have to bring them home by living in the paint." Golden State led 94-93 at that point. During those final minutes as the curtain essentially fell on Cleveland's season, James scored five points but attempted just two shots in the paint. At the 3:21 mark, with Golden State clinging to a 96-95 advantage, James inexplicably fired up an errant three point attempt from well behind the arc, prompting Mark Jackson to state the obvious, "That’s a bad shot."

This is not about nitpicking the details of what superficially was a strong individual performance; the point is that there is a big difference between posting good numbers and having an impact on the outcome of the game. James has long had a paradoxical tendency to put up statistics that look great but--upon examination--did not have much impact. James also did much of his work early (he had nine of his assists and six of his rebounds in the first half) while fading down the stretch. His supporters will say that he became fatigued from the weight of carrying his team (he played 47 minutes), while his critics will say that this is yet another example of him not delivering with a Finals game on the line; the truth may be somewhere in between, but the reality--as I noted last year after Golden State took a 3-0 Finals lead over Cleveland en route to a 4-1 win--is that a player who it has become fashionable to call "the greatest of all-time" has one of the worst Finals winning percentages among the serious contenders for that title: for instance, Bill Russell went 11-1, Michael Jordan went 6-0, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went 6-4, Magic Johnson went 5-4, Larry Bird went 3-2 and Julius Erving went 3-3.

At the start, it looked like the Cavaliers might win at home and possibly turn this into a series instead of the coronation of a Warriors dynasty that is now poised to capture a third title in four seasons. The Cavaliers jumped out to a 16-4 lead by playing with great physicality and aggression (though, oddly, they did not attempt a single free throw during the first half). Durant kept the Warriors in touch by scoring 13 first quarter points on 4-4 field goal shooting and Golden State trimmed the margin to 29-28 by the end of the first stanza.

The Cavaliers rebuilt their lead to 45-35 in the second quarter but even at that point I wondered if the Cavaliers were committed to making this a competitive series or if they were just satisfied with not being blown out/not being swept. Cleveland led 58-52 at halftime, but it was apparent that Durant was in the midst of authoring a signature performance as he already had 24 points on 7-8 field goal shooting while the other Golden State starters had combined for just 13 points on 5-20 field goal shooting. For all of the talk about how poor James' supporting cast supposedly is, the Cavaliers led for most of game one and they led for most of game three as well; what the Cavaliers lack is the ability to finish, as demonstrated by their collapses at the conclusion of both of those contests. Those are the moments when a "greatest player of all-time" candidate should shine. The end of game one has been discussed ad infinitum and is not entirely James' fault--but he should have attacked the hoop instead of giving up the ball (which resulted in the fateful George Hill free throws) and he still had a chance to lead Cleveland to victory in overtime instead of succumbing to a double digit loss.

Kevin Love supported James with 20 points and a game-high tying 13 rebounds. He attacked the hoop strongly early in the game (15 points, 10 rebounds, 6-10 field goal shooting in the first half) but--like all of James' teammates over the years--he is dependent on getting the ball from the "pass first" James, who launched a game-high 28 field goal attempts (five more than Durant and 15 more than Love), including 1-6 shooting from three point range. I have always said that the best player should willingly shoulder the burden of taking the most shots, so I cannot criticize James too much for shooting that often--but it should be noted that the media typically lets James off of the hook for doing the same things that result in other great players being labeled as "selfish" gunners who supposedly do not "make their teammates better." Like all great players, James ideally should walk the fine line of leading the way in scoring while also keeping his teammates involved.

Yet, somehow, James is often not the best player on the court or the central figure in the action when the NBA Finals are decided. One could argue that his team is simply outgunned in this series but then how does one explain James losing to Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks in the 2011 Finals when James had two future Hall of Famers in their primes (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) while Nowitzki had Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler and the ghost of Jason Kidd (a future Hall of Famer to be sure, but one who was 38 years old at that time)?

If the Cavaliers had held serve at home in games three and four, then they would have just needed one road win in game five to put a lot of pressure on the Warriors. It is evident that Golden State has the better team but by the same token it is also evident that when the Cavaliers slow the game down, play physically and avoid turnovers they can more than hold their own.

Cleveland's halftime lead evaporated early in the third quarter. McGee scored six points in a 9-3 run as the Warriors tied the score. Curry then connected on a pair of free throws to put Golden State up 63-61, the Warriors' first lead of the game.

The margin remained close the rest of the way but Durant made most of the big plays down the stretch. As Van Gundy noted, in the closing moments the Warriors set "fake" screens for Durant and James willingly switched off of Durant, creating unnecessary mismatches. It is not clear why James did not accept the challenge of guarding Durant on those crucial possessions.

The Cavaliers are capable of winning game four to avoid the sweep but--barring significant injuries or some other unlikely occurrence--this series is over and the countdown for James' free agency decision has started; after inducing the Cavaliers to go deep into luxury tax territory without providing any assurance that he would stay (thus making it practically impossible to add another star to the roster), James may leave the team that he created to seek glory by joining forces with stars on another contender. After all, that is the route that Durant took (imitating what James did the first time that he left Cleveland) and Durant is about to win his second ring at James' expense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM

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Monday, June 04, 2018

Stephen Curry Hits Finals Single-Game Record Nine Three Pointers as Warriors Rout Cavaliers, 122-103

Stephen Curry scored a game-high 33 points and set an NBA Finals single-game record by making nine three pointers as his Golden State Warriors turned what had been a relatively competitive game two into a 122-103 rout over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Curry shot just 11-26 from the field but he connected on 9-17 from three point range while also dishing for a team-high eight assists and grabbing seven rebounds. Curry poured in 16 fourth quarter points while shooting 5-5 from three point range and the Warriors used a 26-10 run over an eight minute stretch to bury the Cavaliers.

Kevin Durant, the 2017 NBA Finals MVP who has been performing below his usual level for the past several games, scored 26 points on 10-14 field goal shooting while also leading the Warriors in rebounding (nine) and passing for seven assists. Curry's amazing three point shooting provided both momentum sustaining substance and eye-popping style but Durant had the better plus/minus number (+24 compared to +19).

Klay Thompson, who injured his lower left leg in game one and was a game-time decision for game two, was noticeably gimpy at the start of the contest but he battled through the adversity and his leg seemed to loosen up as the game progressed. He contributed 20 points on 8-13 field goal shooting, plus his usual top notch defense.

Speaking of defense, defensive specialist Draymond Green scored just five points but he made his impact felt on the other end of the court while also grabbing eight rebounds and distributing seven assists.

JaVale McGee, who provided a boost during six minutes of game one action off of the bench, received the game two start at center for Golden State and he made an immediate impact at both ends of the court. The Warriors needed someone to protect the rim on defense and dive to the hoop on offense to counteract the big lineup that the Cavaliers have often used--and McGee answered the call with 12 points on 6-6 field goal shooting while also contesting/altering many shots in just 18 minutes.

LeBron James could not reasonably be expected to match his game one 51 point outburst but he finished with 29 points, a game-high 13 assists and nine rebounds. As ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said at halftime, though, James had great numbers but he was not playing great, at least by James' standard. James is the most paradoxical elite player I have ever seen. His numbers are almost always exceptional but sometimes it feels like he is not having the impact that those numbers would suggest. The plus/minus numbers from game two hint at this, as James had a team-worst -18 (tied with Kyle Korver, who scored one point in 17 minutes).

James has led his teams to nine NBA Finals, including eight straight, and his team has been the underdog several times, as is the case this year--but someone who is now often being called the greatest player of all-time should be more consistently the best player on the court when the games mean the most. James was clearly the best player on the court in game one but it could be argued that he was just the third best player in game three (behind Curry and Durant)--and that has often happened during James' Finals appearances, as a variety of players, several of whom are far less renowned, have outplayed James in individual games or even won the Finals MVP while being matched up with him directly.

Bottom line, I just don't get the comparisons with Michael Jordan--and this is not a "hot take" based on one game but rather a cool, logical analysis based on the body of work compiled by both players. How often during his six NBA Finals was Jordan not clearly the best player on the court? As I often write, this is not about numbers but about impact. Pundits are talking about James possibly surpassing Jordan in some hypothetical matchup but in the real world matchups that we can actually observe and analyze, Durant got the best of James in the 2017 Finals and Curry is getting the best of James this time around, at least in terms of making key plays in clutch situations. If the Warriors win this series, James' head to head Finals record against regular season MVPs from his era will be 1-2 against Tim Duncan, 0-1 against Dirk Nowitzki, 1-3 against Stephen Curry and 1-2 against Kevin Durant (James is 1-0 against Russell Westbrook, who won his MVP several years after facing James in the Finals). Jordan's resume does not contain such blemishes.

James is often credited with "making his teammates better" but, at most, that characterization applies to certain kinds of teammates: players who cannot create their own shots and are content to wait until James creates a shot for them tend to perform better when playing with James--but star players like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have to sublimate their games to James' ball dominance. When evaluating James' supporting cast, it is important to remember that he essentially hand-picked this roster, either by asking the Cavaliers to keep/get rid of specific players or by limiting the Cavaliers' options by refusing to commit to staying with the team beyond this season. James cannot both wield his immense power as a giant hammer hanging over the organization and then complain that he does not have enough help. 

Kevin Love scored 22 points and controlled a game-high 10 rebounds. The Cavaliers' strategy of going big and attacking the paint enabled them to keep the score close even as the Warriors unleashed a barrage of three pointers accompanied by rim attacks when the Cavaliers closed out overzealously to the three point line.

At one point, the 6-6 J.R. Smith was the shortest Cavalier on the court. Golden State led 90-83 with 11 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, so the game was up for grabs--and Curry grabbed it, as noted above. Meanwhile, James had four points and one assist during Golden State's 26-10 game-deciding run. We keep hearing that James' supporting cast is not doing enough but if the margin is seven points with 11 minutes to go then that should not be an insurmountable obstacle for the self-proclaimed "Chosen One"/"Best Player in the World."

LeBron James is one of the 10 greatest basketball players of all-time but the comparisons to Jordan are not apt and are ultimately a disservice to both players. Some say that is not fair to compare James' 3-5 Finals record to Jordan's 6-0 Finals record because James has carried supposedly inept squads to the Finals--but if we are going to accept that reasoning then we also need to throw out James' gaudy game seven career numbers, because Jordan was so dominant that he rarely needed a seventh game to eliminate his opponents.

The main question now is if the Cavaliers will get swept or if they will make this a competitive series by winning the next two games in Cleveland. James has led three comebacks from 0-2 deficits, including one against Golden State in the 2016 Finals. The patterns/habits of both teams strongly suggest that the Cavaliers will win at least one of the next two games; the Cavaliers are much better at home than on the road during this year's playoffs, while the Warriors have shown a tendency to become complacent and sloppy once they think that they have a series under control.

Specifically, the Cavaliers can win in Cleveland if they (1) play big lineups and slow down the pace so that they can dominate the paint at both ends of the court, (2) attack in transition only if they have a clear advantage and (3) tighten up their defensive coverages so that Golden State has to beat them by receiving major contributions from players other than Curry, Durant and Thompson. The keys for Golden State to sweep are (1) limit their turnovers, (2) create/exploit mismatches based on Cleveland's strategy of switching everything on the perimeter and (3) entice James to settle for long jumpers/passes to teammates as opposed to relentlessly attacking the hoop. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 AM

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Friday, June 01, 2018

Golden State Survives LeBron James' 51 Point Outburst, Wins 124-114 in Overtime

LeBron James authored an epic performance--scoring a playoff-career high 51 points on 19-32 field goal shooting--but, thanks to a missed George Hill free throw and inexplicable brain lock by J.R. Smith, the Golden State Warriors survived to force overtime and then defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 124-114 in game one of the 2018 NBA Finals. Stephen Curry led the Warriors with 29 points and nine assists, Kevin Durant scored 26 points--but shot just 8-22 from the field--and Klay Thompson overcame a left leg injury he suffered in the first half to pour in 24 points on 8-16 field goal shooting. Draymond Green nearly had a triple double (13 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) and Shaun Livingston chipped in 10 points on 4-4 field goal shooting in 18 minutes off of the bench.

All of those numbers pale compared to what James did. James started out hot and never cooled off, scoring 12 first quarter points on 4-4 field goal shooting as the Cavaliers led the heavily favored Warriors 30-29 after the first 12 minutes. By halftime, James had 24 points on 9-11 field goal shooting but the score was tied 56-56 after J.R. Smith's bad gamble let Curry get free for a buzzer-beating three pointer; sadly for the Cavaliers, that would not turn out to be Smith's worst gaffe.

A couple first half plays that may get lost in the shuffle could have a lasting impact on the series. First, J.R. Smith slipped on the floor and rolled into Thompson's left leg, causing a lower leg contusion that forced Thompson out of the game to get his leg retaped. After Thompson returned, I thought that it was obvious that he favored one leg when he ran and when he landed after jumping to shoot, although none of the TV commentators mentioned this. The second noteworthy play happened when James drove to the hoop and Green poked him in his left eye. Green inexplicably argued about the foul call and received a technical foul; meanwhile, James' eye soon became bloodshot and James said that his vision became blurrier as the game progressed. 

As I wrote in my series preview, even though the Cavaliers are the clear underdog in this matchup, there is a "strategic road map to maximize their chances of victory." The Cavaliers had a very good game plan that incorporated the "road map" that I described and they executed that game plan very well. They only ran when they had a clear advantage; otherwise, they sought out mismatches in the post, exploiting their size. The Cavaliers also repeatedly ran half-court actions that resulted in Curry being switched onto James, who then attacked the mismatch. James is a great passer--he is a great all-around player who had eight rebounds and eight assists in this game--but he is not a pass-first player; he is one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history. James is now tied with Michael Jordan for the most 30 point games in playoff history (109; Kobe Bryant is next on that list with 88). On the other hand, James set a record that he did not want to set: he is the first player to score at least 50 points in an NBA Finals loss.

The Cavaliers grabbed seven first half offensive rebounds, while the Warriors did not have any. There is a popular notion that the Warriors' small lineups make it essential for their opponents to go small but the truth is that teams with the right personnel can go big and force the Warriors to go big. At the start of the second half, the Warriors started JaVale McGee at center to counter Cleveland's size. McGee had an impact at both ends of the court and at first it looked like the Warriors would go on one of their signature backbreaking third quarter runs but the Cavaliers withstood the charge and kept the game close the rest of the way.

Cleveland's competitiveness throughout this game should put a rest to the notion that the Cavaliers' playoff run consists of LeBron James alone against the world; James is playing at a very high level but he has a good supporting cast around him. Kevin Love--who returned from a concussion suffered in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals to post 21 points and 13 rebounds--is a five-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA Second Team member. Kyle Korver is a former All-Star and Smith is a former Sixth Man of the Year. Jeff Green is a talented player who never blossomed into a star but who is nevertheless valuable because of his size, athleticism and versatility. George Hill is a solid two-way player. Many people seem to forget that the Cavaliers have a record-setting payroll, with players essentially hand-picked by James; if James does not think that his supporting cast is adequate he only has himself to blame, as he is never going to attract another star to Cleveland if he is unwilling to commit to staying with the franchise. James enjoys using his leverage to potentially leave as a free agent if the team does not do his bidding but the flipside of that power play is that it hinders the Cavaliers' ability to build around James now.

The fact is that this group is good enough to hang with the Warriors for 48 minutes on Golden State's home court. The final moments of regulation included a questionable foul call, some great plays and a staggering mental lapse. Cleveland led 104-102 when Durant drove to the hoop with 36.4 seconds remaining. Durant collided with LeBron James and the initial foul call was a charge on Durant but NBA rules permit officials to consult video review on such plays in the final two minutes. Upon review, the officials determined that James had not established legal guarding position and thus they reversed the call, awarding two free throws to Durant. My initial impression was that a block should have been called; ESPN's Tim Legler said the same thing after the game but I can understand someone legitimately believing that Durant committed a charge. The key question is whether Durant began his shooting motion before James was set; contrary to popular belief, the defender is allowed to move in such situations--to "firm up" as retired official Steve Javie termed it--but the defender has to assume legal guarding position before the offensive player starts his shooting motion. I think that James read the play very well but just did not quite make it in time--and I also think that it was so close that it could have been called either way. Reversing a call that is that close is not a good look for the NBA; the NFL requires "indisputable evidence" to overturn a call and that would have been a good standard to apply here.

After Durant made both free throws, James drove to the hoop and scored to put Cleveland up 106-104. Curry responded with a three point play to give Golden State a 107-106 lead. The Cavaliers forced a switch with Curry guarding James but instead of attacking James elected to pass to George Hill, who was fouled. Hill hit the first free throw to tie the game but he missed the second one. Durant did not box out J.R. Smith, who grabbed the offensive rebound--and proceeded to dribble out the clock as if the Cavaliers were up by one! The incredulous look on James' face after regulation time ended said it all. If you read lips, you could see Smith telling James that he thought the Cavaliers were up by one, though after the game Smith backtracked and claimed that he had dribbled out of the paint to look for a better shot as opposed to trying to shoot over Durant.

Whatever the reason for Smith's miscue, the Cavaliers still had an opportunity to stay the course and win the game. During the overtime--with the outcome still up for grabs--the Cavaliers looked deflated and tentative, while the Warriors played aggressively and confidently. The Warriors opened the extra session with a 9-0 run in less than three minutes, essentially delivering a knockout blow. Instead of seizing the opportunity to win the game, the Cavaliers fell apart. There is no excuse for Smith's mental breakdown but there is also no excuse for the team to collapse with five minutes of basketball left to play. Winning a championship inevitably requires overcoming adversity. The team huddle before the overtime was a great opportunity for the Cavaliers to come together but it seems like they splintered instead.

Hey, if Smith were my teammate I would be furious. I would probably have some choice words for him after the game, especially if we lost--but during the game the only valid response is to move on to the next play and do everything possible to win until the clock hits triple zeroes.

The Cavaliers' frustrations boiled over near the end of overtime, as Tristan Thompson took exception to Livingston shooting a jump shot; the outcome of the game had already been decided but Livingston shot the ball instead of just accepting a shot clock violation. Thompson was ejected based on being called for a flagrant two foul as the officials determined that he had swung an elbow at Livingston's head. Naturally, hot head Green had to stroll over and express his two cents about the situation, to which Thompson responded by shoving the ball in Green's face. Green acted like he wanted to fight, which is easy to do when you know that many people are about to jump in between to make sure that a fight does not happen. Thompson signaled to Green that if Green really would like to continue the confrontation then they could meet outside.

Some media members suggested that Kevin Love could face a potential suspension for wandering on to the court while all of this took place but Love was already on the court before the altercation happened, as play had been stopped. I suspect that the NBA will issue fines to Thompson and Green but that no one will be suspended.

The Cavaliers can use the bizarre, heartbreaking ending of this game as an excuse to fold or they can focus on the fact that they played the Warriors dead even for 48 minutes; if the Cavaliers bring that same effort level and execution on Sunday night, then they have a real chance to win game two and seize homecourt advantage.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:11 AM

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Golden State Versus Cleveland Preview

NBA Finals

Golden State (58-24) vs. Cleveland (50-32)

Season series: Golden State, 2-0

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James continues to perform at a record-setting level and if the Cavaliers continue to play much better defense than they did during the regular season.

LeBron James has been spectacular during the 2018 playoffs, averaging 34.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 8.8 apg, 1.4 spg and 1.1 bpg while shooting .542 from the field. Cleveland outlasted Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals as James averaged 33.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 8.4 apg, 1.1 spg and 1.1 bpg while shooting .524 from the field. James seemed like he was either pacing himself or in what he has called "chill mode" during substantial stretches of the regular season but he is fully engaged now and he is making it look foolish to consider anyone else to be the real MVP. If you need to win one playoff game or one playoff series and you have first pick among all active NBA players, there is no way that you take anyone other than James.

While James has been fantastic, it is worth remembering that basketball is a team sport and that James' individual heroics would have been in vain were it not for the fact that his much-maligned teammates have stepped up during the postseason, particularly at the defensive end of the court versus Toronto and Boston.

James' most talented and productive teammate is Kevin Love (13.9 ppg, 10.0 rpg during the 2018 playoffs), who missed Cleveland's game seven win over the Boston Celtics after suffering a concussion in game six of that series. Even though Love is Cleveland's second best player, in certain situations the Cavaliers perform better when he is not on the court, as Tristan Thompson and Jeff Green are more skillful defenders who can guard multiple positions after switches. In this series, Love's defense will likely be targeted by the Warriors but the Cavaliers will need Love on the court to post up, to space the floor by shooting three pointers, to provide timely passing and to rebound. Love is still in the NBA's concussion protocol, so his status for game one and the rest of the series is unknown at this time.

Former All-Star Kyle Korver has provided excellent shooting (team-best .449 3 FG%) and has even contributed defensively at times. George Hill missed three games during the first round but he is a key piece for Cleveland, a heady point guard who can shoot, defend and pass. J.R. Smith has struggled with his shot throughout the playoffs and the Cavaliers need for him to get going to have a realistic chance to beat the Warriors.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors have survived the regular season gauntlet plus a seven game series versus the Houston Rockets and those experiences have revived their sometimes wavering focus.

Winning two championships in three years and advancing to four straight NBA Finals is mentally, physically and emotionally draining. The cracks showed for the Warriors this season as they battled injuries, mental fatigue and boredom. Like the Cavaliers, they did not always seem fully engaged with the task at hand. Falling down 3-2 versus the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals was perhaps just the challenge/wake up call that this group needed and the Warriors responded very well: they routed the Rockets at home in game six after falling behind by double digits and then they overcame a double digit deficit on the road to capture game seven.

Kevin Durant is averaging 29.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 4.1 apg during the playoffs while shooting .479 from the field. He averaged 30.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 2.7 apg while shooting .461 from the field during the Western Conference Finals. Durant has reverted to playing too much isolation basketball at times, perhaps because Stephen Curry was out for the first six games of the playoffs or perhaps because Durant wanted to personally outduel his former teammate James Harden of Houston; Durant accomplished that mission, as Harden averaged 28.7 ppg, 6.0 apg and 5.6 rpg in the Western Conference Finals but he shot just .415 from the field and he committed 34 turnovers, seven more than any other player.

The Warriors are at their best when they are passing and cutting to get everyone involved in the offense. They are also a very stout defensive team, as demonstrated by holding Houston to under 100 points in the last five games of the Western Conference Finals.

Curry is averaging 24.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 4.9 apg during the playoffs while shooting .472 from the field and .385 from three point range. He does not always look quite like himself as he recovers from a left MCL sprain but he has nevertheless often still been the best player on the court. Harden scored a few more points than Curry during the Western Conference Finals, but Curry had more impact at both ends of the court on the outcome of the series.

Klay Thompson would be the number one option on many teams but he is the Warriors' third option, scoring 20.5 ppg in the playoffs while shooting .462 from the field and a team-high .426 from three point range. Thompson is also an outstanding defender, though the Warriors survived his early foul trouble in game seven at Houston to post a come from behind win.

Unless Draymond Green plays for a different team, there will be an eternal debate if he is really a great player or if he is just a very good player who has been fortunate to land on the perfect team for his strengths/weaknesses. Green defends, rebounds, passes and has the luxury of taking less than 10 field goal attempts per game during the playoffs because the Warriors do not need his scoring.

Andre Iguodala, who won the 2015 NBA Finals MVP largely because he at least made LeBron James work for everything that he got, has missed four straight games due to a bone bruise in his left knee. His status is still questionable. Iguodala's absence was felt at both ends of the court during the Houston series.

Other things to consider: Last season, the Warriors and Cavaliers became the first two teams to meet in three straight NBA Finals; the closest thing that we have seen to that in the past several decades happened in the 1980s: the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-Magic Johnson L.A. Lakers faced Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers three times in a four year span from 1980-83 and then the Lakers faced the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics three times in a four year span from 1984-87. The Lakers are viewed as the team of the 1980s mainly because they won two out of three times in both of those matchups.

James' biggest supporters say that his personal 3-5 mark in the NBA Finals should not be held against him in the greatest player of all-time conversations because James is carrying teams to the Finals that otherwise had no chance of getting there. However, it does not make sense to "credit" James for winning the Eastern Conference eight years in a row (and nine times total, including 2007 during his first stint with the Cavaliers) without also acknowledging that it is highly unlikely that he would have accomplished the same feat in this era had he been playing in the Western Conference. Magic Johnson is remembered not so much for leading the Lakers to eight Western Conference championships during the 1980s but rather because he won five titles in those eight appearances--and it is not like the Lakers faced the Sisters of the Poor in the NBA Finals: the Lakers beat strong Boston and Philadelphia teams, plus a rising Detroit team that soon won back to back titles.

James' won-loss record in the Finals is fair game when ranking the greatest players of all-time; context should be considered--which is true of any statistic or fact--but it would be odd if James becomes the first player who is measured by conference finals wins as opposed to championships, which is the rhetoric that some of his supporters seem to be spouting.

James' Cavaliers are clear underdogs in this matchup but there is a strategic road map to maximize their chances of victory. That road map obviously starts with James being far and away the best player during the series; the Cavaliers also must defend at an extremely high level for sustained periods of time, they must limit their turnovers and they must run selectively: when the Cavaliers have an advantage in transition they must push the ball to score but if they don't have an advantage then they must slow the game down and use the size of James, Love and Thompson to wear down the Warriors in the paint.

The Warriors must cut down on the careless turnovers and they must maintain an appropriate confidence level, one that involves being focused on the task at hand without skipping steps and relying on talent to carry the day.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:07 PM

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A Tale of Two Game Sevens: The Difference Between Being a Superstar and Being an All-Star

NBA fans received a special treat this Memorial Day Weekend: two game sevens in the Conference Finals, something that has not happened since 1979. Home teams win game sevens 80% of the time but this time around the road team prevailed both times: Cleveland beat Boston 87-79 to win the Eastern Conference for the fourth straight time and Golden State defeated Houston 101-92 to win the Western Conference for the fourth straight time. This will be the first time in NBA history that the same two teams have met in the NBA Finals four years in a row.

A player's career should not be defined by one game, one series or even one season but it is fair to say that over a period of time a superstar will display the ability to consistently elevate his play in crucial moments in order to lift his team to victory. This trait is not necessarily defined by statistics but rather by impact, which may be hard to quantify at times but is recognizable to those who watch the sport with an informed eye. LeBron James struggled to have that kind of impact during some of his early playoff runs, culminating in disappointing performances versus Boston (2010 Eastern Conference semifinals) and Dallas (2011 Finals). While those failures will always be on James' resume, James has without question learned from those setbacks: he added a post up game, a midrange jump shot and even a three point shot to his offensive arsenal--and, more importantly, he finally accepted that as his team's best player he must carry the scoring burden during key moments against top playoff teams. As a result, James has led his teams to eight straight NBA Finals (Miami, 2011-14; Cleveland 2015-18) and won three championships (2012-13, 16). James has also authored some signature performances in elimination games, including several pressure-packed game sevens.

James' performance on Sunday versus Boston ranks among his very best and most significant, as he posted 35 points on 12-24 field goal shooting while also leading both teams in rebounds (15) and assists (nine) in a full 48 minutes of action. James' teammates did their part by playing excellent defense collectively while also making just enough shots to keep the defense honest. There is a lot of talk about how James is doing so much with little help but if you look back at pro basketball history most championship teams are led by a player who accepts the burden of scoring a ton of points and/or drawing so much defensive attention that his less talented teammates have wide open shots; that is not meant to take anything away from James but rather to emphasize how much he is making it clear that his name belongs on the short list of candidates for greatest basketball player of all-time. During the second half of James' career, he is showing that he understands aspects of basketball greatness demonstrated by Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, who each led their respective teams to at least five NBA titles.

I have steadfastly resisted the temptation to rank the players within my Pantheon but I will say that James' level of play during the 2018 playoffs is most impressive. I wish that James had the Jordan/Bryant mentality about every single game--including regular season games in January and February--but during the playoffs James is accepting the challenge to be great and to impose his will on the game. He is not standing passively beyond the three point line but rather he is attacking the hoop, while also selectively unleashing the midrange and long range shots that he gradually added to his repertoire over the past few years.

James was fantastic during Sunday's game seven at Boston but his performance was only a little above "average" compared to his numbers during the series (33.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 8.4 apg) and during the entire 2018 playoffs (34.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 8.8 apg). When he is engaged, James is clearly still the best/most outstanding player in the NBA. Whether or not he is the "most valuable" depends on how you define "value," as his Cavaliers only posted the fourth best record in the East while often looking even worse than that ranking.

The other game seven featured two former regular season MVPs--Kevin Durant (2014) and Stephen Curry (2015-16)--plus the presumptive 2018 regular season MVP James Harden. Durant and 2017 regular season MVP Russell Westbrook teamed up to lead Oklahoma City to a 3-1 lead over Curry's Golden State Warriors during the 2016 playoffs but after Golden State won that series Durant decided that since he did not beat the Warriors he might as well join them. Durant played marvelously well while winning the 2017 Finals MVP as the Warriors captured their second title in three years, though it is a little hard to assess Durant's "value" since the Warriors had already posted 73 regular season wins (in 2016) and won a title (in 2015) without him.

Another interesting subplot of the Golden State-Houston series is that before Harden forced his way to the Rockets he had been Oklahoma City's third option behind Durant and Westbrook; that seemed to be an ideal role for Harden but Harden wanted to prove that he could be the man. Unfortunately for Harden, since departing Oklahoma City he has assembled a playoff resume that makes it abundantly clear that when the chips are down he is not James, Durant or Curry--and Monday's game seven is just the most recent example confirming this.

During Golden State's game seven win over Houston, Durant led Golden State with 34 points on 11-21 field goal shooting, including 5-11 from three point range. He also had five rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots and just two turnovers. Curry added 27 points on 10-22 field goal shooting, including 7-15 from three point range. Curry  contributed 10 assists, nine rebounds and five steals.

Yet, despite both of those players playing very well, Houston took a 54-43 halftime lead and was 24 minutes away from advancing to the NBA Finals. That type of situation is where a superstar takes over and imposes his will on the game. Instead, Harden posted a -13 plus/minus number during game seven, tied with Clint Capela for second worst on the team behind only Trevor Ariza (-15), who shot 0-12 from the field in 42 scoreless minutes. Harden finished with 32 points on 12-29 field goal shooting, including a couple meaningless buckets in the last minute that barely boosted his field goal percentage for the game above .400. He shot an abysmal 2-13 from three point range, "leading" a record-setting barrage of missed three pointers: the Rockets now own the NBA single game playoff records for most three pointers missed (37) and most consecutive three pointers missed (27). The Rockets started out 6-14 from three point range as they built a 15 point first half lead and then they made just one of their next 30 three point attempts.

When comparing Harden to MVP caliber players, it is worth looking at Harden's entire series, not just game seven. Harden missed 22 straight three pointers over a three game stretch, including an NBA playoff single game record 0-11 performance in Houston's 98-94 game five win. Harden scored 19 points on 5-21 field goal shooting in game five but the Rockets prevailed thanks to Chris Paul's clutch second half scoring. Paul injured his hamstring in the final moments of game five but the Rockets still had a golden opportunity to advance to the NBA Finals in game six; the Rockets led 61-51 at halftime but collapsed in the second half, scoring just 25 points as Golden State won 115-86.

Harden shot 5-9 from three point range in Houston's game one win, then made just eight of his next 44 three point attempts. Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni was unconcerned: "Boy, he's due, right? Next game he might make 10 straight, right? The thermostat will go off." The thermostat did not exactly go off: Harden shot 4-12 from three point range in game six as Golden State won 115-86 and he followed that up by shooting 2-13 from three point range in game seven. Harden shot 19-78 (.244) from three point range overall during the series and 52-174 (.299) from three point range during the 2018 NBA playoffs. That is just not good enough for superstar status, particularly for a player who is touted as the best one on one player ever primarily because of his supposedly unstoppable stepback three pointer; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook was unstoppable, as was Michael Jordan's turnaround shot in the midpost, but Harden's shot is nowhere near that category.

When Harden's three pointers are not falling, his backup plan is to flop/fall down and pray that the officials bail him out with foul calls. Just to be clear, Harden is a strong and talented player who has a knack for drawing fouls; it is also true that he is a flopper who tries to fool the officials, which is a tactic that should not be necessary for a player who supposedly has an unstoppable weapon. Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan both had the ability to draw fouls but during crunch time situations they put the ball in the basket as opposed to relying on an official to save them.

Again, this is not about judging Harden based on one game or even based on one series but rather based on a consistent pattern. For instance, Harden had a game six meltdown as the San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Rockets during last year's playoffs; while his individual game seven numbers versus Golden State this year are much better than his game six numbers versus the Spurs last year, it should be noted that Harden has now presided over the largest blown halftime lead for a home team in a seventh game. Rather than making excuses for Harden, root causes must be sought and identified. Magic Johnson led his team to victory as a rookie on the road in game six of the 1980 NBA Finals despite not having the services of injured regular season MVP Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Frazier led the Knicks to the 1970 NBA title despite regular season MVP Willis Reed being hobbled by injury. Paul is not Abdul-Jabbar or Reed, so if Harden is as good as he is supposed to be then he should be able to take over for a 24 minute stretch.

"Analytics" is a popular topic in NBA circles but when evaluating Harden and the Rockets I utilize the analytics that I applied to Gilbert Arenas years ago: a player (or a team, for that matter) that relies too much on erratic three point shooting without having a sound backup plan on offense and consistent effort on defense is not going to win a title; as I wrote about Arenas, if he shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 in the next that adds up to a solid .389 three point percentage but his team would likely go 1-1 at best, losing the second game for sure and possibly losing the first game as well unless the team defense was very good. Just like Arenas had no backup plan other than to jack up more and more shots, the current Rockets have no backup plan other than to jack up tons of three pointers. The Rockets are a high variance team, which is why I predicted that they could very well blow out the Warriors by more than 20 points in one game and still lose the series. 

The Rockets pushed their three pointers at all costs concept about as far as possible this season, winning 65 games and advancing to the Western Conference Finals--but I will stick to my guns until proven otherwise: (1) no team is going to win a championship playing this way and (2) no team is going to win a championship by relying on Harden as its best player. All Harden had to do to reach the Finals is have one signature half in either game six or game seven; Paul and his teammates had carried him to the brink of the Finals but Harden twice proved incapable of taking the final step. We have seen this script with Harden in the playoffs for years and it is unlikely to change. Some might argue that if Paul had been healthy then the Rockets would have won. That might be true, just like it might be true that if Golden State's Andre Iguodala (the 2015 NBA Finals MVP) had been healthy then the Warriors may have won the series in less than seven games, but if Paul had been healthy and the Rockets had won it is almost certain that Harden would have had a subsidiary role, as he did during Houston's game five victory.

Some may defend Harden by stating that Durant and Curry can rely on each other while Harden lacked enough help with Paul sidelined due to injury--but the reality is that Harden has been hyped up as the consensus regular season MVP and his team enjoyed home court advantage in game seven based on lapping the field during the regular season. The second halves of both game six and game seven were prime opportunities for Harden to validate his status as the game's best player--but he emphatically failed to do that and, as a result, James, Durant and Curry will battle for the real heavyweight crown, regardless of what hardware Harden will receive for his 2018 regular season exploits.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 AM

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Golden State Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Finals

# 2 Golden State (58-24) vs. #1 Houston (65-17)

Season series: Houston, 2-1

Houston can win if…Chris Paul picks up the slack when James Harden drops off (assuming that Paul does not wear down, as he often does during the postseason), if Clint Capela dominates the paint as he did during the first two rounds and if Houston's deep roster continues to play well collectively (even if individual players struggle in one game or another).

James Harden is the presumptive 2017-18 NBA regular season MVP. He deserved a lot of credit for Houston's league-leading 65-17 record and he is receiving a lot of credit for Houston's playoff run to this point but the funny thing is that he is not performing at a higher level than he did in previous years when the Rockets flamed out during the postseason; the difference is that now Harden has a better supporting cast, headlined by Paul (who at times--particularly during the playoffs--looks like the team's best player and not Robin to Harden's Batman).

During the first two rounds of the 2018 playoffs, Harden averaged 28.5 ppg while shooting .407 from the field. In Harden's five previous playoff appearances with the Rockets (during only one of which the Rockets reached the Western Conference Finals), Harden averaged between 26.3 ppg and 28.5 ppg while shooting between .376 and .439 from the field. He has always been a high variance player, capable of dropping 40-plus points one night and then disappearing the next night, which is why his averages are deceiving--a player who consistently scores at least 20 points but is capable of erupting for 40 is more valuable than a player who averages 26-28 ppg by scoring 45 points one game and seven points the next.

Harden's playoff numbers for rebounds and assists have also not changed significantly over the past several years; to his credit, he has shaved his turnovers to 3.1 tpg--which would be his best postseason mark as a Rocket--but that clearly has a lot to do with Paul taking over a significant percentage of the ballhandling and playmaking duties.

Harden has a history of disappearing at key moments. Hall of Famer and six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen recently described how he would guard Harden and after making several strategic points Pippen concluded with the most important thing to know about defending Harden: if you take Harden out of his comfort zone, he'll quit. We have seen that happen in almost every playoff run of Harden's career. So far, the Rockets have not faced sufficient resistance to take Harden out of his comfort zone but that figures to change during this series.

Meanwhile, Paul has been the steadiest Rocket during the playoffs and he was sensational during the game five series clincher versus Utah, erupting for 41 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and no turnovers while shooting 13-22 from the field, including 8-10 from three point range (Harden shot 7-22 from the field and scored 18 points). Paul is scoring 21.8 ppg during the playoffs while shooting .485 from the field, .377 from three point range and .879 on free throws. He is averaging 6.4 apg and just 1.9 tpg while also ranking second on the team in rebounding (5.5 rpg). Paul is an undersized but very talented and feisty two-way player. His competitiveness and defensive intensity have had a tangible effect on the Rockets, who were severely lacking in both areas prior to this season. I did not think that Harden and Paul would have good chemistry based on their divergent personalities and skill sets but--to this point--they have proven me wrong.

Clint Capela has emerged as an All-Star caliber big man and he has played a major role in Houston's success. He is averaging 14.4 ppg on .634 field goal shooting during the playoffs while leading the Rockets in rebounding (12.2 rpg) and blocked shots (2.8 bpg). Capela outplayed Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns in the first round and he outplayed Utah's Rudy Gobert in the second round.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon have not shot well during the playoffs but both players have not only had some good moments offensively but they have also performed well defensively. Those two plus P.J. Tucker provide some much needed toughness, particularly since the Rockets tend to play small lineups that require their wings and guards to match up with bigger players.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors are at full strength with Stephen Curry back in the lineup and because Kevin Durant--not Curry or Harden or Paul--will prove to be the best player on the court during this series.

Curry sat out the final 10 games of the regular season and Golden State's first six playoff games due to an MCL sprain in his left knee but he hardly missed a beat after returning to action in the second round, averaging 24.5 ppg in 31.3 mpg in four games versus the New Orleans Pelicans. The Warriors are a very good team even without Curry but they have shown glimpses of dominance again with Curry back in the fold; they won during Curry's first game back as he came off of the bench, they lost on the road to a New Orleans team determined not to be swept and then they closed out the series with victories by 26 and nine points. Curry has started the last three games and looks bouncier/more confident in each outing.

Durant is having another excellent playoff run, leading the Warriors in scoring (28.0 ppg) while ranking second in rebounding (8.0 rpg), assists (5.0 apg) and blocked shots (1.0 bpg). He is shooting .493 from the field and .891 from the free throw line; the only slight chink in his armor is subpar three point shooting during this postseason (.279). Whatever one may think of his decision to leave a perennial contender to join forces with a super team, Durant has lived up to his end of the bargain for the Warriors in terms of his on court performance.

Klay Thompson was the Warriors' second leading playoff scorer (21.2 ppg) while Curry was out. He is a top notch defensive player as well.

Draymond Green has showcased his usual all-around effectiveness (13.1 ppg, team-high 11.5 rpg, team-high 9.0 apg, team-high 1.9 spg (Curry is averaging 2.0 spg but he has only played four games) and a team-high 1.3 bpg while managing to avoid being ejected or suspended. He is not shooting well (.423 FG%) but the Warriors do not need him to be a knock down shooter.

Andre Iguodala joined the starting lineup while Curry was out and he has started nine of the Warriors' 10 playoff games as Steve Kerr has shuffled the rotation due various matchup considerations. Iguodala is averaging 7.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 3.5 apg.

Comparisons are often made between the Warriors and either Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix teams or D'Antoni's current Houston team but those comparisons are not very apt. The Warriors' success is not merely based on a high octane offense powered by shooting three pointers. The Warriors have a very fluid offense based on passing, cutting and taking advantage of the well-rounded skill sets of multiple players--and, just as significantly, the Warriors play tenacious team defense. Neither D'Antoni's Suns nor his Rockets were this complete offensively or this effective defensively. Houston's offense this season is primarily based on isolating either Harden and Paul; it hardly resembles the Warriors' free-floating offense at all, other than in the superficial sense that both teams score a lot of points.

The Rockets are a talented team that can be difficult to contain when multiple players get hot, but it will be a tough task to take four playoff games from the Warriors playing this way. Relying on isolation and shooting dozens of three pointers is a very high variance strategy. The Rockets could very possibly blow out the Warriors by 20 points in one game this series and still not even push the series to seven games.

Other things to consider: The Rockets have openly stated that they are built specifically to beat the Warriors. That is the contention of team architect Daryl Morey and that confidence is shared by the coaching staff and the players. The Rockets outperformed the Warriors during the regular season--both overall and in the head to head matchup--but none of that matters or will be remembered if the Warriors win this series. I have never been one to overstate the importance of one playoff run, one playoff series or one playoff game. The Rockets could lose this series and then win the championship next year. Overreaction and recency bias are two of the worst traits exhibited by far too many people who cover this great sport. However, with all of that being said, there is no doubt that this is an important playoff series and to some extent it is a referendum on Morey's vision--both on how to build a team overall and specifically on whether or not Harden can be the centerpiece of a championship team.

The Warriors have already carved out a place for themselves in pro basketball history based on their accomplishments during the past few seasons. Losing to them is not a basketball sin--but it is also not a vindication of Morey's openly held belief that he has masterminded a basketball philosophy and roster that can topple Golden State.

The Rockets are healthy and they have home court advantage, so--assuming that they remain healthy--they have no excuses if they lose.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 PM

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