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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cleveland Versus Boston Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

# 1 Boston (53-29) vs. #2 Cleveland (51-31)

Season series: Cleveland, 3-1

Boston can win if…Isaiah Thomas is the best player on the court for extended periods of time and if Boston's rugged crew of perimeter defenders can "limit" LeBron James to something along the lines of "merely" 25 ppg, 8 rpg, 6 apg while not letting Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love exceed their regular season averages and not letting Kyle Korver shoot open three pointers like fish in a barrel.

Thomas has been a fourth quarter killer all season long and the Celtics will need his finishing touch (assuming that they can keep the games close enough for this to matter). It has become fashionable to pick against Boston as a "weak" number one seed but the Celtics overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat Chicago in the first round--albeit with Rajon Rondo's injury obviously affecting that result--and then survived a seven game battle royale against Washington, one of the hottest teams in the NBA after starting off the season sluggishly.

Thomas has been Boston's best playoff performer (25.4 ppg, 6.5 apg) but he has received a lot of help, including double figure scoring from Al Horford (16.1 ppg), Avery Bradley (15.8 ppg) and Jae Crowder (13.2 ppg). Also, Kelly Olynyk (9.7 ppg) came up huge in game seven versus Washington. Horford was brought in to be a difference maker and help this team rise to contending status. While Horford's numbers do not jump off the page, his impact on both ends of the court is significant.

Cleveland will win because…LeBron James is playing at a historically great level in the 2017 playoffs, averaging 34.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 7.1 apg while shooting .557 from the field.

Kyrie Irving is a big-time shot maker; he reminds me a lot of Andrew Toney--a fearless player in clutch moments who is primarily a scorer but who has underrated passing skills. Like Toney, Irving is perhaps not quite good enough to be the best player on a championship team but he is perfectly cast as a secondary star on a championship team. Irving is averaging 23.8 ppg and 5.8 apg in the playoffs after averaging 25.2/5.8 in the regular season, though Irving's field goal percentage has dropped precipitously in the postseason (from .473 to .399).

Kevin Love is playing the Chris Bosh third option role to perfection, averaging 13.8 ppg and 9.1 rpg in the playoffs while spreading the court with his shooting touch (.401 3FG% in the playoffs).

Kyle Korver is shooting .485 from three point range in the playoffs, making it difficult to send double teams at James, Irving or Love.

Cleveland is a solid rebounding team, while the Celtics ranked 27th in the NBA in that category during the regular season. The Cavaliers will likely make more three pointers than the Celtics and thus the Celtics are doomed unless they can compensate by generating extra possessions via rebounds and/or turnovers.

James complained about his supporting cast not being good enough and now he has former All-Stars Korver and Deron Williams coming off of the bench to supplement the efforts of the James-Irving-Love Big Three. This is one of the deepest and most complete teams in recent memory, although the Cavaliers are obviously not quite as top heavy with talent as the Golden State Warriors, who sacrificed depth for starting lineup star power, while the Cavaliers actually have both starting lineup star power and depth.

Other things to consider: I do not like the way that LeBron James and the Cavaliers treated the regular season like it was a secondary consideration but they must feel vindicated by that approach after sweeping through the first two playoff rounds with an 8-0 record. The Cavaliers have the better team on paper and they have the best player in the league performing at a very high level. Boston's only trump is home court advantage. Cleveland is clearly the favorite.

Yet, Boston has a chance. The Celtics have proven to be tough-minded and resilient. There is also the undeniable fact that on several occasions in the playoffs--2010, 2011, 2014--LeBron James has allowed lesser players to outperform him for significant stretches of key games. Whether one terms this quitting or entering "chill mode," it is very unusual for an all-time great to do this, particularly on multiple occasions on the biggest stage.

One could argue or assume that James has outgrown this flaw/tendency but because it happened several times--and as recently as three years ago--it is hard to ever completely trust James' effort in the clutch the way one would trust Russell, Jordan, Duncan or Bryant.

I expect the Cavaliers to win in six games. By mentioning James' history I am not "hating" and I am not hedging on my prediction--but I am saying that if Boston wins in seven after Thomas scores 15 in the final stanza while James is passive this would be surprising but not shocking, because we have seen a similar script before.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 PM

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Friday, May 12, 2017

Golden State Versus San Antonio Preview

Western Conference Finals

#1 Golden State (67-15) vs. #2 San Antonio (61-21)

Season series: San Antonio, 2-1

San Antonio can win if…Kawhi Leonard is the best player on the court and the Spurs dominate the paint with their big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. The Spurs will also need outstanding defense from all of their perimeter players in order to contain Golden State's potent outside shooting.

The Spurs are a well-coached, defensive-minded team that can play slow or fast and big or small. Tony Parker's season-ending injury did not tip the scales last round versus Houston thanks to James Harden's predictable disappearing act but Parker will be missed against the Warriors. Patty Mills is a solid replacement but, as is often the case, the problem when a top player goes down is that a team's depth is compromised and players further down the rotation are thrust into roles that they might not be quite ready to fill.

If Kawhi Leonard's effectiveness is limited by his ankle injury or if he is not able to play at all, then the Spurs have no chance. Beating a team with two legitimate MVP caliber players--Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry--in a seven game series is a lot different than beating a gimmick-based team whose star player has been overhyped for several years. If Leonard can play at his usual level, though, then the Spurs have a better chance than many people seem to think. Post play is supposedly inefficient but the reality is that effective post play enables a team to control the tempo, wear down smaller players and get the opposing team in foul trouble. The key word is "effective"; Gasol shooting fadeaway jumpers over smaller defenders is not "effective" and Gasol has always been the kind of player who needs another star (and/or his coach) to push and prod him but to do so in ways that don't result in him shrinking from the moment.

The Spurs need to alternate Aldridge and Gasol in the post, depending on matchups, with the other big stationed in the foul line extended area; put a shooter in each corner and a healthy Leonard at the top of the key and even Golden State's excellent defense could be stretched to the breaking point. The key question is whether the Spurs have the game-plan discipline necessary to play this way and execute at a high level under duress and to stick with the program even if the Warriors hit three three pointers to spark a quick 9-0 run.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors have too much offensive firepower and--unlike many previous offensive juggernauts--they are also very strong defensively.

That is the exact reason that I gave for why the Warriors would beat the Jazz in the second round and there is no need to get creative here. The Warriors are a potent, unselfish offensive team that is also a highly committed defensive team. Durant and Draymond Green have provided just enough rim protection/shot blocking to enable the Warriors to play small and the Warriors' roster/positional flexibility is difficult to overcome; they can switch, they can trap and they have several defenders who need little if any help to handle their matchups on most nights.

Durant is a marvelous all-around player. He has minimized or eliminated just about every weakness in his game. Stephen Curry, the reigning two-time MVP, had a great season, even though some people are acting like his game fell off of a cliff. I had him ahead of Harden on my MVP list even before Harden finally helped the rest of the world understand what I have been saying about him for years, namely that he is an All-Star caliber player who has been overhyped by "stat gurus" and various media members.

Klay Thompson would be the best player on most NBA teams. Green is a loudmouth whose behavior is out of control at times but he is also an excellent all-around player. The supporting cast is talented, versatile and mature; each player understands his role within the overall team concept.

Steve Kerr certainly did an excellent job coaching this team but after his back issues forced him to hand the reins over--at least on an interim basis--to Mike Brown the team has not missed a beat. Brown is an underrated coach who led the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals and might have already won at least one title if LeBron James had not quit during the 2010 playoffs. Brown is one of the media's favorite punching bags--kind of like Bill Belichick before he arrived in New England--and even if Brown guides the Warriors to the championship his role in that success will be minimized and belittled. It sure is odd that someone who supposedly understands so little about how to win at the NBA level is hired by coaches like Kerr and Popovich. Somehow I just cannot convince myself that Brown's media critics know more about NBA coaching than those two men do.

Other things to consider: I disagree with the notion that the Spurs cannot play both of their bigs at the same time versus the Warriors; the Spurs may be able to selectively go small in certain situations but their best lineup features their two bigs and if they go small for too long then the results will probably not be pretty.

The new math says that threes are better than twos. Ask the Rockets about that one after game six. Threes beat twos when the team shooting twos is not committed to the right plan at both ends of the court. Otherwise, the three point shooters can be worn down and their performance will have high variance.

If this series were played 100 times under equal conditions, I would pick the Warriors to win about 70 times--but if the Spurs play to their maximum potential they absolutely are capable of winning this series even if the Warriors play very well; if both teams play to their maximum potential (which rarely happens in any competitive endeavor) then the Warriors will win. In other words, this will be a good matchup but the Warriors have a larger margin for error.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:49 PM

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Harden Disappears as the Spurs Embarrass and Eliminate the Rockets

The James Harden for MVP hype crashed into a serious reality check as the San Antonio Spurs routed the Houston Rockets 114-75 to win the series 4-2 and advance to a Western Conference Finals showdown versus the Golden State Warriors. High turnovers and low field goal percentage have consistently been Harden's trademarks in key postseason games, going all the way back to the 2012 NBA Finals, and this game was no exception: Harden finished with 10 points on 2-11 field goal shooting with six turnovers.

LaMarcus Aldridge led the Spurs with 34 points and 12 rebounds. Jonathon Simmons contributed 18 points, Patty Mills had 14 points and seven assists and Pau Gasol added 10 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Mills started in place of Tony Parker, who suffered a season-ending injury earlier in this series. Kawhi Leonard missed game six with an ankle injury that also forced him out of the overtime and most of the fourth quarter of San Antonio's game five win. The Spurs were without the services of their two best players this postseason--Leonard and Parker are two former Finals MVPs--and yet Harden still could not conjure up a home win to at least push the series to a seventh game.

We have heard all season about how Houston general manager Daryl Morey, Coach Mike D'Antoni and Harden are all on the same page. We just saw what is written on that page: jack up a bunch of three pointers, play small and defense is optional. That has never been a championship formula in the NBA. If Morey, D'Antoni and Harden are going to share the credit for a good regular season then it must also be recognized that they deserve the "credit" for this game and this series. No one can say that the Rockets did not have enough to win this series, because this is exactly the team that Morey, D'Antoni and Harden wanted. We heard how innovative and smart it is to shoot three pointers and free throws while eschewing post ups and most other two point shots. The Rockets followed that strategy to perfection in game six, making just nine two pointers while firing up 40 three point attempts--and they got blown out.
 
This will be portrayed as a shocking result but I predicted that the Spurs would hold the Rockets to 100-105 ppg and win in five games while Harden averaged 25 ppg and 7 apg but shot between .400 and .420 from the field with between 5-7 turnovers per game. Here are the final numbers: San Antonio won in six games and held the Rockets to 103.5 ppg (the Rockets averaged 115.3 ppg in the regular season) as Harden averaged 24.5 ppg (on .414 field goal shooting) and 9.7 apg with 5.2 turnovers per game.

I added that "the Rockets are a high variance team (they might have a home game during which they sink 15 or 20 three pointers)" and that proved true as well: Houston won game one in San Antonio 126-99 on the strength of 22-50 three point field goal shooting; that result inspired a lot of silly articles about how the Spurs could not beat the Rockets because they played an outdated style featuring players who are too big and/or too old. In contrast, I never wavered and I correctly called that first game "an aberration."

I knew that over the course of a series the Spurs would follow the correct game plan: defend Harden with high hands, avoid fouling him and use their big men to dominate the paint. At the start of the game six telecast, ESPN's Mike Breen quoted San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich's defensive philosophy regarding Harden: "Keep your hands out of the strike zone." In other words, play with high hands and do not foul. Jeff Van Gundy said that Aldridge and Gasol must be more aggressive and punish Houston's smaller defenders. He also suggested that Gasol use an inside pivot to set up his dribble to power to the hoop. After an early first quarter shot when Gasol settled for a turnaround fadeaway over Harden, Van Gundy said that this was "awful offense." The funny thing about watching Harden guard Gasol is this is a matchup of two players who are not suited to be the best player on a championship team--and Morey actively tried to build around both of them, though he only was able to acquire Harden. Gasol won two championships with the Lakers as Kobe Bryant led the way and he might win a title as a complementary player with the Spurs but he never had the right mindset to be the best player on a championship team.

Gasol did not carry the load on this night, either, but he filled his role quite well. Aldridge took Leonard's spot as the offensive focal point. He scored 10 points on 5-7 field goal shooting as the Spurs jumped out to a 25-16 lead and never looked back. The Rockets shot 4-11 from the field with five turnovers during that stretch. The Spurs led 31-24 at the end of the first quarter and Harden had two points on 0-0 field goal shooting with three turnovers. Mark Jackson said, ''This is as bad as I've seen him play." 

Breen commented that there was a "late arriving crowd." The crowd arrived so late that the game was basically over and they could have left by halftime. San Antonio led 50-29 midway through the second quarter before Harden made his first field goal and the halftime score was 61-42. Harden had five points and five turnovers. He attempted the fewest shots of the eight Rockets who played in the first half.

During the halftime show, Jalen Rose bluntly declared "Is James Harden freezing up? I'm not surprised he's a turnstyle on defense but where's the passion? What I am seeing from James Harden and the Houston Rockets is unacceptable. Did we see a C-H-O-K-E?"

Chauncey Billups added that Harden's 1-2 field goal shooting is "inexcusable. If he were 1-10, at least that would mean he is trying. Are you serious? You've got to give me more than that."

Before the second half began, Van Gundy declared that Harden needs "a hype man" to pump him up. Really? An MVP candidate needs someone to pump him up in an elimination game at home? Actually, Harden has "hype men" throughout the media: the folks who have been hyping him as an MVP candidate. What Harden needs--if his goal is to win a championship--is to be the second or third best player on his team, as I have been saying since he rejected Oklahoma City's contract offer.

Van Gundy added that great players have the capacity to bounce back and "I'd be shocked if Harden does not have a great second half." The first half of his statement is true. As for the second half--well, at some point Van Gundy and others may have to concede that Harden is not really as great as they have touted him to be. Harden is an All-Star caliber player but he is miscast as the best player on any team with championship aspirations. Harden missed his first three field goal attempts in the third quarter as the Spurs jumped out to their largest lead of the game (up to that point), 69-43. Harden shot 1-9 from the field in the second half, which may have "shocked" Van Gundy but should not be surprising to anyone who watched Harden lay bricks in key games versus the Heat, Clippers and Warriors in previous postseasons. This is who Harden is and this is why he is not an MVP-caliber player; Harden is an All-Star player who cannot handle the burden of carrying a team to a title. How many times does he have to not just fail but fail abysmally in such situations before media members will figure this out? This is not a one game aberration; this is a predictable result--and, as noted above, I predicted not only the final result of the series but also the numbers that both Harden and the Rockets would post overall.

The Harden narrative dies hard, though. Any time the Rockets scored in the second half--which was not that often--Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson kept saying things like the Rockets are showing signs of coming back or the three point shot can be a powerful weapon. The reality is that Harden and the Rockets never made a serious run, which is unusual for an NBA team and inexcusable in an elimination game.

Again, if this outcome were an aberration or unpredictable then I would agree that an MVP caliber player should not be judged by one game--but this was not an aberration, it was predictable and it is yet more evidence that what I have written about Harden for the past five years is true.

Harden's apologists will say that Harden needs more help but the issue is not getting more help for Harden. His game and temperament are not suited for being the best player on a championship team, so in order to win a title what he needs is not a better supporting cast--he needs to play alongside a better player and to become part of the supporting cast (a leader of the supporting cast, to be sure, but not the team's top star).

Morey can keep tinkering with the roster and the coaching staff and he actually makes some good moves from time to time--but as long as the Rockets are Harden's show, they will lose in the first round most of the time, as they have done in three of Harden's five Houston seasons.

Harden was the Shaqtin' A Fool MVP in 2015-16! That whole thing is a bit silly and hardly a scientific measurement of a player--but has any championship team ever been led by a player who would have even remotely been in consideration for that "honor"? There is a saying that if you mess with the game the game will mess with you and I think of that saying every time I see Harden go through his bricklaying/turnover extravaganza during key postseason moments. Will Harden have an epic game seven someday and lead his team to a playoff series victory? Sure, it could happen--he has the talent to do it--but if I were a betting man I would bet that if Houston makes it to a game seven Harden is going to fumble the ball all over the place and shoot blanks; if Houston advances in that situation, it will be with Harden on the bench and someone else making the plays, just like what happened versus the Clippers in 2015.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:05 PM

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Harden Comes Up Empty in Clutch as Rockets Fall to Spurs in Game Five

The San Antonio Spurs persevered without the injured Kawhi Leonard down the stretch to defeat the Houston Rockets 110-107 in overtime and take a 3-2 series lead. Leonard led the Spurs with 22 points and a game-high 15 rebounds but he sprained his left ankle in the second half. Leonard already was struggling with a right knee injury and he tried to play through the sprained ankle as well but he could not put weight on his left leg, forcing Coach Gregg Popovich to leave him on the bench for most of the fourth quarter and during the entire overtime. Patty Mills scored 20 points as the starting point guard in place of the injured Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge had 18 points and 14 rebounds but the overtime stars were Danny Green and Manu Ginobili. Green finished with 16 points, including seven of the Spurs' nine overtime points. Ginobili had 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists in addition to making perhaps the biggest play of the game by blocking James Harden's game-tying three point attempt as time expired.

Harden finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. That looks like a great line, but he also had nine turnovers and shot just 4-15 from three point range. Those numbers help explain why the Rockets outscored the Spurs by three points when Harden was on the bench but were outscored by six points when he was on the court. Harden was awful down the stretch when the game was up for grabs: he committed an offensive foul on Houston's last possession in regulation and then he shot 0-3 from the field with three turnovers in overtime. 

It is fitting that Ginobili made the big play against Harden, because Ginobili is in many ways the anti-Harden. Ginobili made a decision early in his career to sacrifice individual glory for team success, while Harden has spent the past few years running away from and/or running off every one of his star teammates, including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Dwight Howard. Almost four years ago to the day, I wrote an article titled The Difference Between Being the Third Option and Being the First Option and I compared Harden to Ginobili:
Ginobili has won three NBA championships so far and he has earned two All-Star selections, two All-NBA selections and the 2008 Sixth Man Award; combined with his stellar FIBA career, those honors and accomplishments may be enough for Ginobili to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Harden won the Sixth Man Award in 2012 and if he had stayed in Oklahoma City he likely would have earned at least one All-Star nod. Even if he and the Thunder would not have beaten Miami this season or next season, time would have been on their side; the young Thunder would have peaked just as the Heat's core players entered their 30s and started to decline.

Is getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs every year as "The Man" better than being the third option on a perennial championship contender? Ginobili has no reason to regret his answer to that question; five years from now it will be interesting to reevaluate Harden's answer.
Unlike Harden, Ginobili can make game-winning plays at either end of the court. Ginobili's role at 39 years old is obviously vastly diminished from his role during his prime but he never whines or complains; he wants to be part of a winning team and he is not concerned about individual glory.

Houston seized home court advantage by winning game one in San Antonio and caught two huge breaks with Parker's season-ending injury and Leonard's game five injuries but now the Rockets must win at home in game six and on the road in game seven in order to advance. Game five winners in 2-2 series prevail more than 80% of the time, so when the wheels fell off for Harden down the stretch the outcome of the series was likely decided. You cannot feel too badly for Harden, though, because he has exactly what he wanted when he rejected Oklahoma City's contract offer five years ago: big money, big stats and everything revolves around him. Winning a championship is a tangential concern for Harden. LeBron James and Kevin Durant can be rightfully criticized for their free agency decisions but no one can doubt that each player thought at the time that he was making a move that maximized his chance of winning a title, whether or not one believes that each player could have won a title by remaining with his original team. Harden fled from a team with two MVP caliber players so that he could receive all of the shine in Houston and that was most assuredly not a choice that maximized his chance to win a championship.

Game five versus the Spurs was a quintessential Harden performance and a prime example of what I have been writing about him for years: he is a talented player who is not well-suited to being the best player on a championship team. Harden's supporters will tout his points, assists and alleged "efficiency," but the real story is that with the game and the series hanging in the balance he fell apart. The lasting image of this series will either be Ginobili's block or perhaps Harden blaming one of his late-game turnovers on Clint Capela while the Spurs headed downcourt for a fast break basket. That play reminded me of two very different situations involving two all-time greats: (1) Rookie of the Year David Thompson cried after a game in the 1976 ABA Finals when he felt that the officials should have called a foul on one of his missed shots but Julius Erving was incredulous at that reaction, stating that when he missed a shot as a rookie he would just go get the ball and then score; (2) when Michael Jordan, near the end of his career and basically playing on one leg, thought that he had been fouled by Ron Mercer, Jordan raced downcourt, blocked Mercer's layup from behind, pinned it to the glass, caught the ball and barked something at Mercer.

With the game on the line, do you make it happen or do you watch it happen?

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:51 AM

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Thursday, May 04, 2017

Spurs Rout Rockets, Tie Series at 1-1

Written off as dead by the "experts," the San Antonio Spurs gave Mike D'Antoni some flashbacks to the Spurs-Suns playoff series from last decade en route to beating his Rockets 121-96 in game two of the Western Conference semifinals. Kawhi Leonard finished with 34 points on 13-16 field goal shooting plus eight assists and seven rebounds for the Spurs. Leonard received ample support from Tony Parker (18 points on 8-13 field goal shooting in 26 minutes before suffering what appeared to be a serious knee injury late in the game) and LaMarcus Aldridge (15 points, eight rebounds). Ryan Anderson led the Rockets with 18 points on 7-9 field goal shooting and eight rebounds.

James Harden finished with 13 points on 3-17 field goal shooting, along with 10 assists and seven rebounds. He shot 1-9 from the field in the first half and the Rockets trailed 65-55 at halftime. Harden did not attempt a single free throw in the first half and it was evident that he struggles to score against tough defense when the referees do not bail him out with free throws. In contrast to Harden's subpar performance, Leonard dominated the first half with  20 points on 7-9 field goal shooting. 

Houston's game one blowout win was an aberration, despite the apocalyptic wailing of various overreacting commentators who are apparently quite eager to bury the Spurs. The Spurs beat the Rockets three out of four times during the regular season and there is no reason that the Spurs cannot maintain that head to head winning percentage in the playoffs. Players and teams who heavily rely on three point shooting but are not consistent with their defensive effort will inevitably be high variance performers. Phrasing this a different way, if the Rockets get hot they can smoke any team once during a playoff series but it is unlikely that they could sustain that kind of shooting over the course of a series against a well prepared team. The Rockets are not the Golden State Warriors, a team that can rely on defense on those nights when the three point shots are not connecting.

As a high variance player whose playoff performances will often fall short of his regular season output, Harden is similar to Gilbert Arenas and this is what I wrote about Gilbert Arenas after his 60 point game several years ago against the L.A. Lakers:
Some 20 Second Timeout readers asserted that since Arenas shoots a good three point percentage that his low overall field goal percentage and high number of three point attempts should be excused but I responded that if Arenas shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 in the next that the Wizards will go 1-1 at best in those games despite the fact that his three point percentage would be .389. Having your point guard jacking up 8 or 9 three pointers a game--particularly on a team that is not good defensively anyway and has poor court balance--is not a formula for postseason success. Look again at the numbers: some of the categories are close, but Bryant outdid Arenas in every single area and his team won by 16 points in regulation. So, in the two Lakers-Wizards games this season, the Wizards won once in overtime when Arenas hit a much higher percentage of his shots than normal (and shot a very high number of free throws) and then got routed at home when Arenas shot 3-15 from three point range.
One might argue that as the visiting team the Rockets accomplished their goal, obtaining a split in San Antonio. In theory, Houston is in a great position to win this series simply by protecting home court. The reality of playoff basketball is quite different. As TNT's Reggie Miller noted, typically the underdog needs two road wins to advance, because the favorite will likely win at least one road game.

Am I overreacting to San Antonio's win in a similar fashion to the way that I am asserting that some people overreacted to Houston's win? No; the difference between the Spurs' blowout and the Rockets' blowout is that what the Spurs did is repeatable: they played smart, aggressive basketball at both ends of the court, while the Rockets' win was fueled by record-setting three point shooting that is unlikely to be duplicated again during this series.

These two games are an excellent microcosm of why D'Antoni and Harden do better in the regular season than the playoffs: it is one thing to deal with a relentless barrage of three pointers during the fourth game in five nights in the regular season with no time to prepare and quite another thing to counter this helter skelter style when your team is well-prepared and well-rested during the playoffs. The Spurs just finished a physical, grind it out series against Memphis and, as Miller suggested during the game two telecast, they likely underestimated the Rockets. After all, the Rockets were involved in several close games with the Oklahoma City Westbrooks, so why would the Spurs think that the Rockets would be much of a challenge?

The Rockets deserve a certain level of respect and concentration but once those two factors are in place--as they appear to be now--the Spurs are in great shape in this matchup.

It will be entertaining to read and listen to all of the "experts" trying to explain this game, particularly after they wrote off the Spurs as too old, too slow and too big to compete with the Rockets!

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM

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Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Isaiah Thomas and the Triumph of the Human Spirit

Isaiah Thomas scored 53 points--including 29 in the fourth quarter/overtime--to lead the Boston Celtics to a 129-119 overtime victory against the Washington Wizards. John Wall scored 40 points and dished 13 assists in defeat. Boston now leads this second round series 2-0. Thomas is the only player in the storied history of the Celtics to have a 50 point game in the regular season and the playoffs in the same campaign. John Havlicek (54 points) is now the only Celtic ahead of Thomas on the franchise's single game playoff scoring list. The last player to score more than 53 points in a playoff game is Allen Iverson, who dropped 55 in 2003.

However, this game was not about numbers or skill set analysis; this game was about heart and the triumph of the human spirit. We all know that Isaiah Thomas just buried his sister Chyna, who recently died in a car accident. But did you know that Tuesday would have been her 23rd birthday? TNT's David Aldridge asked Thomas how he managed to play at this level during this trying time and Thomas gave all of the credit to Chyna, saying that he did it for her and that she is watching over him.

Thomas also said that as soon as leaves the court the reality hits him that she is not here.

Thomas was a remarkable story even before this tragedy happened; he is a 5-9 superstar in a league where the average player is 6-7 and thus he was already a great example of the triumph of heart over measurables--but now he is also showing the capacity of the human spirit to overcome devastating loss and suffering by creating positive energy.

It should be noted Thomas lost a front tooth in game one of this series on Sunday and he had several hours of oral surgery on Monday after the initial attempt to reposition the lost tooth failed. Thomas will likely have to undergo more oral surgery, as other teeth were affected as well. 

Even if you are rooting for Washington, Thomas is inspirational.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:13 AM

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Monday, May 01, 2017

Golden State Versus Utah Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 Golden State (67-15) vs. #5 Utah (51-33)

Season series: Golden State, 2-1

Utah can win if…Rudy Gobert controls the paint defensively, Gordon Hayward/George Hill/Joe Johnson provide timely scoring/playmaking and if the Jazz slow down the pace of the game.

The Jazz are a tough-minded, defensive-oriented squad that plays at the slowest pace of any NBA team. They imposed that pace and their will in the first round, winning on the road in game seven to eliminate the L.A. Clippers, 4-3. That seventh game may be the last time we see the current incarnation of the Clippers on the court together, so now is a good time to say a few words about the Clippers before turning our attention fully to Warriors versus Jazz.

Jazz-Clippers is the only first round series that I predicted incorrectly--and I may have gone 8 for 8 if Blake Griffin had stayed healthy, though any pick involving the Clippers should factor in injuries as as part of the equation.

The big question about the Clippers is whether the team will be "blown up," "shaken up" or largely left intact. Some of those choices will be made by management and some of those choices will be made by players who are free agents. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both have player options for the 2017-18 season. Griffin is the team's best player but it is questionable if he has the necessary mental toughness and physical durability to lead a team to a title. Paul has been one of the top point guards in the NBA for about a decade but he is small and because of that in the playoffs he wears down in general and/or is just overpowered by bigger players. He is often praised as a great leader but it is reasonable to question that assertion based on the fact that--despite playing for some very talented teams--he has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

Game seven versus Utah was a microcosm of these larger concerns: Paul shot 4-7 from the field in the first quarter and 2-12 from the field the rest of the way. If Paul is going to be lauded as a leader, then let's note that he has "led" the Clippers to blown advantages in five straight playoff years, an all-time NBA record: the Clippers squandered advantages of 2-1 versus Utah (2017), 2-0 versus Portland (2016), 3-1 versus Houston (2015), 1-0 versus Oklahoma City (2014) and 2-0 versus Memphis (2013). The Clippers were the higher seeded team in three of those five series.

Of course, injuries played a role in some of those debacles but that just brings us back to the main question: are Paul and Griffin tough enough mentally and physically to lead a team to a title?

If that question is answered affirmatively, then the Clippers just need a "shake up" to add some more scoring punch at small forward. Otherwise, "blowing it up" may be the best option--but the one problem with that is winning 50-plus games but losing in the playoffs may end up looking like the good old days if the Clippers mess up the rebuilding process and end up once again as annual participants in the Draft Lottery.

The bottom line is that Paul and Griffin are flawed stars who are not elite players but they also will not be so easy to replace.

With Griffin sidelined by injury and Paul apparently worn down by the rigors of a seven game series, Hayward/Hill/Johnson made all of the plays as Utah achieved an NBA rarity by winning on the road in game seven. Hayward is emerging as an All-NBA caliber player, Hill has always been a solid two-way threat and Johnson--who was rightly mentioned by the broadcasters during this series as a credible Hall of Fame candidate--showed why he dislikes his "Iso Joe" nickname: Johnson not only can score from anywhere on the floor but he is also a crafty playmaker who can deliver a variety of passes on time and on target.

Utah has a lot of young talent and is a team on the rise--but, barring injury, it is almost inconceivable that the Jazz will beat the Warriors in a seven game series.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors have too much offensive firepower and--unlike many previous offensive juggernauts--they are also very strong defensively.

This season revealed two paradoxical truths: (1) Kevin Durant is the best player on this team and (2) this team is so talented that it can sustain success for an extended period of time even if he is not in the lineup. When Durant has been fully healthy, the offense has run through him--even two-time reigning regular season MVP Stephen Curry clearly deferred to Durant--and Durant has also been a force defensively both on the perimeter and also as a rim protector. When Durant has been sidelined or limited, the Warriors shifted to a Curry-centric attack and hardly missed a beat. If Klay Thompson is perhaps not quite as good as he has been in previous seasons he is still nevertheless one of the league's best two-way players. Draymond Green is a defensive force who is also a triple double threat.

This season, the Warriors ranked first in scoring (115.9 ppg), first in FG% (.495), first in DFG% (.435) and seventh in rebounding. In theory, the Warriors lack rim protection and depth but is any team strong enough across the board to meaningfully exploit those weaknesses? The Spurs possibly could challenge the Warriors but this edition of the Spurs just seems to lack some kind of edge or focus that San Antonio's championship teams had. The Cavaliers have enough talent to beat the Warriors but after mailing in the second half of the season can they regain peak form in time to not only avoid being upset but to also defeat one of the greatest teams of all-time?

Those questions will be answered within the next couple months but it is exceedingly unlikely that the Jazz will get in the way of Golden State's seemingly inevitable march toward San Antonio and Cleveland.

Other things to consider: The Warriors are in the midst of the best three year regular season run in pro basketball history, posting 207 wins--including a record 73 wins last season, bookended by a pair of 67 win seasons. If the Warriors win the 2017 title to claim two championships in three seasons then they will rank among the great dynasties--or mini-dynasties, if you prefer--in pro basketball history. Of course, the thin line between how success and failure are defined means that if the Warriors do not win the 2017 title then they will probably be viewed as flawed underachievers who did not fully maximize their potential.

Before the storyline is set in stone--two-time champs or regular season powerhouse that "only" won one title--it is worth comparing the Warriors to some of the NBA's previous dynasties and great champions. Clearly, the Warriors are not close to matching Bill Russell's Celtics, who claimed eight straight championships and 11 in 13 years. I would still take the '67 76ers and '72 Lakers over any one of the Warriors' past three teams but it is also clear that the Warriors have sustained high level play for multiple seasons in a way that the 76ers and Lakers of that era did not. The '82 Lakers are one of the most underrated championship teams of all-time and I would take the '83 Sixers over any other single season team in pro basketball history. The '84-'86 Celtics and '87-'89 Lakers could match these Warriors star for star and I would take the best player on either of those squads over Durant (or Curry, if you are inclined to believe that he is still the Warriors' best player).

Fans under 35 may scoff but I would absolutely take either Bulls' three-peat squad over the current Warriors' team. I would also take the Shaq-Kobe Lakers--or at least for sure the edition that went 15-1 in the playoffs, a team that could go blow for blow even with the '83 Sixers or Jordan-Pippen Bulls.

What about the Bryant-Gasol Lakers, the various Spurs championship teams and the Big Three Heat? I don't think that the Bryant-Gasol Lakers had quite enough depth or talent to beat these Warriors. The first and last Spurs championship teams could possibly beat the Warriors--with inside power and spread the floor brilliance, respectively--but I am not sure about the three San Antonio title teams in between. The Big Three Heat's fate always depended on which LeBron James showed up. James beat the Warriors last year with Irving and Love, so he would at least have a chance of winning with Wade and Bosh.

The point is that the Warriors are in the midst of an incredible run but I do not necessarily buy the premise that they are the greatest team of all-time, even if they win the title this year. There is a lamentable recency bias that presumes that the best now must be the best of all-time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:38 PM

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Boston Versus Washington Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Boston (53-29) vs. #4 Washington (49-33)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Washington can win if…John Wall dominates the series at both ends of the court. He is a modern-day Micheal Ray Richardson but without Richardson's off-court baggage. Richardson was an elite player when his mind and body were right and he spearheaded the Nets' shocking 1984 upset of the defending champion 76ers. Like Richardson, Wall scores despite not being a great shooter, he passes very well and he can be very disruptive defensively.

The Wizards will also need a high level performance from Wall's backcourt mate Bradley Beal, a smooth and deadly perimeter shooter.

This team started the season slowly but rallied down the stretch and is viewed in some quarters as the biggest threat to LeBron James' streak of six straight Eastern Conference championships. First, though, the Wizards must deal with the number one seed Boston Celtics.

Boston will win because…the Celtics may be one of the weakest number one seeds in recent memory but they are still the number one seed and they showed a lot of resilience while rallying from a 2-0 first round deficit versus the number eight seed Chicago Bulls.

The Celtics rely heavily on the wizardry of 5-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is mourning the recent death of his younger sister in a car accident, but they also have four-time All-Star center Al Horford, defensive ace Avery Bradley and gritty forward Jae Crowder.

Coach Brad Stevens is considered a rising star and it will be interesting to see which buttons he pushes as this series progresses.

Other things to consider: The Eastern Conference pecking order is interesting. The Cavaliers are the established champions and the Raptors are the veteran challengers while the Celtics and Wizards are the up and coming young teams. At some point the Cavaliers will either fall off or be knocked off and it will be intriguing to see which of these three teams accomplishes that feat (not necessarily this year)--or if the task is ultimately accomplished by a different team, such as Milwaukee.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:26 AM

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Cleveland Versus Toronto Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#2 Cleveland (51-31) vs. #3 Toronto (51-31)

Season series: Cleveland, 3-1

Toronto can win if…DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are the second and third most productive players in this series--LeBron James will almost certainly be the most productive player--and if the Raptors do not have multiple games during which they score less than 95 points.

The Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks 4-2 in the first round but Toronto scored 92 points or less in four of those games. If the Raptors have four games with 92 points or less versus the Cleveland Cavaliers then they will be swept; the Cavaliers are an inconsistent team defensively but they are an offensive juggernaut, averaging 110.3 ppg in the regular season (fourth in the NBA) and 112.8 ppg in their first round sweep of the Indiana Pacers.

The Raptors fell down 2-0 versus the Cavaliers in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals but rallied to extend the series to six games; I had predicted that Toronto's physicality and two All-Star guards could cause some trouble for the Cavaliers and--after some initial jitters--the Raptors validated that assessment. If the Raptors can earn a split in the first two games then they have a solid chance to ultimately win this series. The Cavaliers are talented but vulnerable.

Cleveland will win because…LeBron James is rested and dominant, while his All-Star teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are also playing at a high level.

A good case can be made that the Raptors are capable of beating the Cavaliers (see above). However, I expect that James, Irving and Love will rise to the occasion after cruising through substantial portions of the regular season.

As a basketball purist, I don't like the Cavaliers' attitude that they can flip the switch whenever they want to do so--but the reality is that they will probably get away with this, at least until the NBA Finals. James averaged 32.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 9.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.0 bpg versus the Pacers, while Irving contributed 25.3 ppg and Love added 15.3 ppg and 9.3 rpg. Tristan Thompson provides inside muscle (team-high 11.0 rpg versus the Pacers), while Channing Frye, Deron Williams, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver space the floor with timely three point shooting. The key question--which may not matter or be answered until the NBA Finals--is if this group is willing and able to play championship level defense on a nightly basis.

Other things to consider: At times, the Cavaliers look like a team that will not take things entirely seriously until at least the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors are good enough to win this series if they play at their absolute best while the Cavaliers do not play their best but it is hard to picture the Raptors winning if both teams play their best. Both teams surely understand this and that could have a psychological impact on the series: perhaps it will make the Cavaliers overconfident or perhaps the Raptors will press because they know (or believe) that they must play at a very high level to prevail.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:23 AM

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Friday, April 28, 2017

San Antonio Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 San Antonio (61-21) vs. #3 Houston (55-27)

Season series: San Antonio, 3-1

Houston can win if…James Harden performs at an MVP level, the Rockets shoot a high percentage from three point range and the Rockets hold the Spurs to under 105 ppg (because the Rockets are unlikely to average more than 105 ppg versus the Spurs).

James Harden will almost certainly average at least 25 ppg and 7 apg in this series. Those numbers are simply a product of his role in Coach D'Antoni's system; Harden will have the ball a lot, he will shoot the ball a lot and when he is on the court he will make most of the passes that lead directly to field goal attempts by his teammates. The problem for Houston is that Harden will also almost certainly shoot less than .450 from the field and very probably less than .420 or even .400 from the field--and he will likely commit turnovers at a very high rate (between 5-7 per game). In addition, Harden will play little to no defense. None of these things mattered very much in the first round, when the Rockets defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder despite Russell Westbrook's incredible numbers (37.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg and 10.8 apg)--but all of those things will matter very much now that the Rockets are facing a complete team.

Westbrook averaged a series-high 39 mpg versus Houston and the Thunder easily outplayed the Rockets during those minutes; Houston advanced based largely on outplaying Oklahoma City during the 9 mpg that Westbrook sat. Bench players Lou Williams (18.8 ppg), Eric Gordon (13.6 ppg) and Nene 13.6 on .848--that is not a typo--FG%) destroyed the Thunder; those players are all proven NBA veterans but they are not going to dominate against the Spurs the way that they did against the Thunder.

San Antonio will win because…the Spurs will not commit silly fouls, they will hold the Rockets to between 100-105 ppg and they are well-equipped not only to execute in the half court but also to selectively play at a fast tempo.

The Spurs have a sustained championship-contending pedigree over the past two decades that is rivaled in professional sports only by the New England Patriots. The first two San Antonio championship teams (1999, 2003) were focused on a Twin Towers attack (Tim Duncan/David Robinson) that played at a slow tempo and were stifling defensively. After Robinson retired and Duncan aged, the Spurs' approach evolved. Defense has remained a calling card but the offensive attack is more wide open and incorporates the three point shot, particularly from the corner (because the corner three is a valuable shot, as it is closer to the hoop than any other spot behind the three point arc).

Kawhi Leonard began his career looking like an improved version of Bruce Bowen but now he is the best two-way player in the league; that does not mean that he is the MVP, an honor that should go to Westbrook in recognition of his record-setting production while leading an undermanned team to the sixth seed in the Western Conference, but he is an MVP caliber player. Leonard has no skill set weaknesses as a player but he is not as explosive or dominant as Westbrook in terms of scoring, rebounding and passing; Leonard is a more efficient scorer and a more effective defensive player but some of his superiority over Westbrook in those areas is a result of playing with a better overall team.

The Rockets rely heavily on drawing fouls, shooting open three pointers and scoring 110-plus ppg; they are unlikely to be consistently successful in any of those endeavors versus the Spurs: the Spurs will emphasize not fouling Harden and Williams (who both benefited from many stupid fouls committed by the Thunder in the first round), they will run the Rockets off of the three point line and they will shave at least 10 ppg off of the Rockets' 115.3 ppg regular season scoring average.

Other things to consider: The Spurs defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 4-2 in the first round. The Grizzlies are often described as a team no one wants to face (or words to that effect), but the Spurs have defeated the Grizzlies in four out of their last five playoff series. The Spurs' margins of victory in this year's series were 29, 14, 13 and seven, while Memphis had an 11 point win and a two point win at the buzzer in overtime. That works out to an 8.3 ppg differential, which is rather sizeable.

Houston's ppg differential versus the Oklahoma Thunder was comparable (8.6) but after the Rockets' 31 point game one blowout the next four games were decided by four, two, four and six points. The Rockets enjoyed an advantage in every matchup other than Westbrook-Harden and still struggled to advance.

This series should be a San Antonio sweep but the Rockets are a high variance team (they might have a home game during which they sink 15 or 20 three pointers) and the Spurs have had more clunkers this season than usual, so I expect the Spurs to win in five games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:02 AM

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Rockets Outlast Thunder and Advance to the Second Round

The Houston-Oklahoma City series was like the movie Groundhog Day; everyone knew the plot but no one had the capacity to change it: Russell Westbrook almost single-handedly delivers the lead to his team, his team immediately squanders the lead when Westbrook rests and then an exhausted Westbrook tries valiantly (but inefficiently) to carry his flawed team to victory. The final result: Houston 105, Oklahoma City 99 in game five, meaning that the Rockets won the series four games to one.

Here are the numbers that really tell the story: Oklahoma City 22, Houston 16 in the first quarter before Westbrook takes a breather--and Houston 27, Oklahoma City 27 when Westbrook reenters the game. Houston led 51-44 at halftime and pushed that margin to 61-50 in the third quarter before Westbrook unleashed an incredible scoring barrage. When Westbrook finished, he had scored 20 points in the quarter and the Thunder were up 77-72. Westbrook sat for the first 2:45 of the fourth quarter and when he returned to action Houston led 86-81. The Thunder's best strategy when Westbrook sits is apparently to just accumulate 24 second shot clock violations, because running time off of the clock with neither team scoring would actually be more effective than permitting the opposition to race up and down the court to the tune of 14 points in less than three minutes. That 2:45 stretch of futility, projected over 48 minutes, works out to something on the order of 224-64!

Let's not forget these numbers, either: 47 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists. That was Westbrook's line on the road in an elimination playoff game. As I write these words, numerous "experts" are drafting articles to tell you just how poorly Westbrook supposedly played. I hope that anyone who visits this website is too smart to read that nonsense, let alone believe it.

The Thunder outscored the Rockets by 12 points when Westbrook was on the court and they were outscored by 18 points during the six minutes that Westbrook rested. Before anyone talks about Westbrook's fourth quarter shot selection, please mention that his starting small forward, Andre Roberson--the team's second leading scorer in this series--shot 14% from the free throw line in the series. In the waning moments of game five, Houston's star player James Harden was chasing Roberson to intentionally foul him and Roberson was trying to avoid being touched. It looked like a game of tag had broken out in the middle of the playoffs.

This series was billed as a battle between the two leading MVP candidates. By the end of the series, you could tell that even Houston's fans do not really believe that James Harden is the MVP. Sure, they serenaded him with the almost mandatory home crowd "MVP" chant but I don't think that I have ever heard a quieter or less enthusiastic such chant. It sounded like they were saying, "Yes, James, we love you and in our hearts you are our MVP but we know the real deal."

Harden had a playoff line that is fairly typical for him: 34 points on 8-25 field goal shooting and a -6 plus/minus number. Yes, sports fans, the Rockets were actually outscored while Harden was in the game. "Take that for data," as Coach Fizdale might say. This is not unusual for Harden's Houston career; we saw the same phenomenon during Houston's fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, which is why then-Coach Kevin McHale benched Harden with the season on the line in the fourth quarter of game six versus the L.A. Clippers. Harden shot 5-20 from the field in that game six and 7-20 from the field in game seven, so his 8-25 bricklaying in game five versus the Thunder should not surprise anyone. Rest assured that this "productivity" will continue in the second round but the outcome of the games will be different.

Harden is very talented--but if you watched this series and still believe that he is in any way a better basketball player than Russell Westbrook then there is something wrong with your understanding of basketball.

Westbrook averaged 37.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg and 10.8 apg in this series. The 6-3 point guard led both teams in those three categories. Harden averaged 33.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 7.0 apg while playing in a system tailor-made for him and while surrounded by an armada of shooters. Harden is bigger and stronger than Westbrook but Westbrook averaged 39 mpg while Harden averaged 37.4 mpg. Neither player shot particularly well from the field. When Westbrook sat, his team was immediately and decisively destroyed. When Harden sat, the Rockets sailed merrily along without missing a beat. Switch those two players and keep everything else the same and Westbrook's team would have won in a sweep with each game decided by double digits; put Westbrook in D'Antoni's system and surround him with shooters and the possibilities are mind-boggling: 35 ppg and 15 apg is not out of the question.

The amazing thing is that even though the Thunder are almost completely inept when Westbrook sits they may actually be just one player away from winning 55-60 games and being a legit contender; based on what we saw in this series, if the Thunder had one player who could either create his own shot or create good shots for role players while Westbrook sits for 12-15 mpg then Westbrook could play 34-36 mpg at optimum efficiency. It is apparent that Westbrook is not prime Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or LeBron James in terms of stamina but that is understandable considering that those guys are between 6-6 and 6-8, while Westbrook is 6-3. I tend to be skeptical that a 6-3 player can lead a team to a title--and the few guards in that size range who led teams to the Finals did not shoulder the responsibilities ("usage rate," in modern parlance) that Westbrook does.

That being said, Westbrook is unique and it is silly to assert that a player who can average 30-10-10 in 34 mpg cannot lead a team to a title. Westbrook just needs one teammate who can competently run the offense for a few minutes and who can take pressure off of Westbrook when they are on the court together.

Congratulations to the Rockets; you struggled to put away a deeply flawed team that many people did not even expect to make the playoffs in the first year after Kevin Durant's departure. The reward for beating the Thunder will likely be a showdown with the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs will not repeatedly foul Harden beyond the three point line, nor will the Spurs go through huge scoring droughts. However, Harden will likely again struggle to shoot better than .400 from the field and for the second consecutive series he will likely be outplayed by an MVP candidate (Kawhi Leonard).

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM

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Monday, April 24, 2017

LeBron James Excels As Cavaliers Sweep Pacers

The sometimes disinterested Cleveland Cavaliers swept the often disorganized Indiana Pacers in the first 2017 NBA playoff series to finish. The Cavaliers will now have a week off before facing the winner of the Toronto-Milwaukee series, while the Pacers will have all summer to ponder the possibility of a future without Paul George. Addressing the latter situation first, the Pacers are a poorly constructed team with mismatched talent; Larry Bird purportedly wanted to put together an offensive-oriented, high tempo team but he did not acquire enough players who can effectively play that style--and his coach, Nate McMillan, is known for defense, not offense. If George decides to exercise his option after next season and leave as a free agent, it will likely be a long time before the Pacers contend for a championship--but if he stays it will also be a long time before the Pacers contend for a championship (which tends to suggest that he will either leave or else pressure the Pacers to trade him by threatening to leave).

During the regular season, the Cavaliers displayed little interest in fighting for the number one seed in the East and for long stretches of the series against Indiana they also displayed little interest in competing against the Pacers. This indifference reached its nadir in the first half of game three, when the mediocre Pacers (who backed into the playoffs with a 42-40 record) jumped out to a 72-46 first half lead against the reigning NBA champions.

There is sometimes talk of the "switch" and whether or not a team can turn it on and off. If you ever wondered what it looks like when a team turns the "switch" from off to on, just watch the second half of game three. LeBron James apparently decided that four games versus Indiana would be quite sufficient and that he had no interest in extending this series to five games, so he carried the Cavaliers to a 119-114 victory. He finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists (including 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the second half), joining Russell Westbrook in the elite playoff 40 point triple double club.

The Pacers looked like the Washington Generals in the second half. If this had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the series right then and declared Cleveland the winner by knockout. Instead, we were "treated" to one more game of the Cavaliers being interested at times and the Pacers being organized at times. After Paul "I must have the ball" George bricked a last second three pointer with a chance to tie the score, the Cavaliers won 106-102 to put the Pacers out of their misery. During the game, one of the announcers said something about the Pacers believing that they should have been up in the series and I about fell out of my chair; in this series, Cleveland was the cat and the Pacers were the ball of yarn: the Cavaliers played with their toy until they tired of it and then they swatted it away.

George is ultimately going to get a max deal, but his performance and attitude during this series were uneven at best. I don't necessarily have a problem with a great player saying that he must have the ball and I don't necessarily have a problem with a great player missing shots. Either of those things can happen--but when a supposedly great player insists that he must have the ball, presides over one of the worst blown leads in playoff history and then bricks his way to 5-21 shooting while getting swept on his home court then that combination is problematic.

The last three pointer that George took reminded me of the Peja Stojakovic three pointer versus the Lakers during the playoffs that started in one corner, sailed clear over the hoop and landed in the other corner. It's OK if the moment is too big for you. That can happen to anyone--but when you say after game one that you have to have the ball, then it is not OK if the moment is too big for you. Call it the Muhammad Ali/Reggie Jackson/Deion Sanders rule: if you can win the heavyweight title three times or belt three home runs in a World Series game or single-handedly shut down one side of a football field, then you can talk trash and say whatever you want--but if you are bricking three pointers at the end of playoff games after demanding the ball, then you probably should not have been so vocal in the first place.

I don't begrudge anyone his money and I fully understand the economics of pro basketball but--purely on the merits--there are only a handful of guys in the NBA who truly "deserve" max money; those are the guys who clearly could be the best player on a championship team. We all know each of them by one name: Westbrook. LeBron. Durant. Curry. Kawhi. You might be able to convince me that there are one or two more or that there are a few young guys who will reach that status soon. You would have a hard time convincing me that George's name belongs in that group. This is not about numbers and it certainly is not about "advanced" numbers. This is about watching a player try to perform and try to lead under pressure.

I might be wrong about George and I can't "prove" that I am right. If I owned the Pacers, I might pay him the max rather than lose him and start over from scratch, because it is almost as hard to find the 10th or 15th best player in the NBA as it is to find one of the top five players--but the idea of mentioning George as an MVP caliber player just does not sound right, based on what I see. Again, the numbers were good overall and George is clearly an All-Star and perhaps even an All-NBA player. He is just not elite to me. A few years ago it looked like he had the potential to make that breakthrough but it just has not happened.

During the four game sweep, James averaged 32.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 9.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.0 bpg while shooting .543 from the field (including .450 from three point range). He shot .579 from the free throw line and committed 18 turnovers just to reassure us that he is in fact human and not some alien cyborg designed to play perfect basketball. James is a marvelous basketball player. He confounds me at times with things that he says/does and until my dying day I will find it puzzling and inexcusable that he quit during the 2010 playoffs but he is a very special player. In NBA-ABA playoff history, James ranks fifth in ppg (28.1) and during this series James passed Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA-ABA playoff career scoring list (5703 points, trailing only Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

James is the king of first round dominance and I say that without a hint of sarcasm. I am not sure exactly what it means to dominate the first round the way that James has during his career but it is impressive. Most of the greatest players of all-time had at least one first round stinker during or near their prime but James has not (and if he ever has one it could reasonably be stated that he is now past his prime, even though he is still playing at a very high level).

It may seem petty to say that it would be preferable to own Bill Russell's record (11 titles in 13 years) or to match Michael Jordan's standard (six Finals, six championships, six Finals MVPs) but regardless of what one thinks about the Eastern Conference it is impressive to mow down the competition year after year the way that James has with both the Cavs and the Heat. As a competitive tournament chess player, I know from experience that sometimes the hardest task as a competitor is to get up for games against clearly outmatched opponents; there is a natural human tendency for the mind to wander but James and his teams have avoided this pitfall.

It is easy to look at James' physique and athletic gifts and assume that he was destined for greatness but he often states "I'm not supposed to even be here" and that is the poignant reality: the odds facing a young man from his background are overwhelmingly stacked against achieving the success that he has attained. I respect him greatly for that.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:56 PM

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Houston Overcomes Westbrook's Third Straight Triple Double to Take 3-1 Series Lead

Russell Westbrook posted his third straight playoff triple double--a feat matched by only Wilt Chamberlain, who had four consecutive playoff triple doubles in 1967--but the Houston Rockets came from behind to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 113-109 and take a 3-1 lead in their best of seven first round series. Nene led the Rockets with 28 points on 12-12 field goal shooting. Houston outscored Oklahoma City by 24 points when he was on the court. Nene also had a team-high 10 rebounds in just 25 minutes.

Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each scored 18 points in reserve roles, with Houston outscoring Oklahoma City by 18 when Gordon was in the game and by 10 when Williams played. Trevor Ariza played a game-high 43 minutes and chipped in 14 points plus his usual excellent defense. The Rockets outscored the Thunder by two when he was on the court. James Harden added a quiet 16 points on 5-16 field goal shooting. He led the Rockets with eight assists but he also had seven turnovers and his plus/minus number was 0 in 39 minutes of action.

As has often been the case during Harden's Houston playoff career, when the Rockets made their run he was either on the bench or watching other players do the heavy lifting. Harden attempted seven free throws after living at the free throw line in the first three games of the series. Harden is constantly flopping and flailing but when the referees do not fall for this--and when the Thunder have enough game plan discipline to avoid foolish reach in fouls--Harden is not an elite, efficient playoff scorer. The proper way to defend Harden is play with "high hands"--if the referee sees the defender's hands then he is not likely to blow his whistle.

Harden essentially has two moves: the stepback jumper and the lumbering drive during which he extends his hands low and baits the referee into calling a foul. The Houston/Harden philosophy is to avoid shooting long two point jumpers, so it is baffling that any defender would fall for Harden's shot fakes in that range; just play Harden to either shoot threes or flop while he is in the lane. If Harden is met at the hoop by a big guy with high hands, Harden will throw his body into that player and if he does not get the foul call then the ball will fly harmlessly away; we have seen this happen several times during this series, particularly in the first halves of games when the Rockets routinely get off to slow starts. Can Harden finish at the hoop? Yes, but he is not an explosive finisher at the rim so if he is met by high hands then he has to figure out how to loft a shot over, under or around those arms.

Incidentally, the Rockets are constantly questioning calls but no Rocket should ever complain about fouls considering the calls that Harden typically gets. Harden's flopping has been somewhat obscured in this series by the fact that the Thunder have committed many stupid fouls against him but even in this series it has been clear that when Harden does not receive foul calls he is not the same player; it has also been clear that, at least against the Thunder, Houston is good enough to keep the game close even when Harden is non-factor.

Oklahoma City is awful when Westbrook is not in the game. Westbrook does not enjoy the luxury of winning despite having an off night or even just sitting on the bench for a few minutes while his teammates carry the load. The Thunder outscored the Rockets by 14 points during Westbrook's 39 minutes of action and were outscored by 18 points during his nine minutes off of the court; at that rate, the Thunder would be outscored by 96 points over a 48 minute game!

Westbrook posted 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in the first half, becoming the first player in 20 years to log a first half triple double in a playoff game. He shot a respectable 5-11 from the field, yet the Thunder only led 58-54. Harden had scored six points on 2-9 field goal shooting at that point and this looked like a replay of game two, when Westbrook nearly had a first half triple double before finishing with 51 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds: it was obvious that if someone else on the Thunder did not step up then the Rockets would win, as they did in game two.

Westbrook's gaudy numbers do not fully capture his impact; some of his first half plays were just breathtaking, like when he soared in the air to block center Clint Capela's dunk attempt off of a lob pass or when he grabbed a defensive rebound in traffic, burst up court and spoon fed Stephen Adams for a transition layup. How many point guards in pro basketball history could make such plays? 

The Thunder led by as many as 14 points in the third quarter but when Westbrook took a short breather the Thunder leaked more oil than a broken down jalopy. The Thunder struggled so much to score, defend or just do anything productive that it felt like every reasonable basketball play should be celebrated by a standing ovation or a parade.

Oklahoma City was clinging to a 77-73 lead entering the fourth quarter. Houston wiped out that advantage almost instantly as Westbrook took his customary rest early in the period. The Thunder just as quickly regained the advantage after Westbrook reentered the game. Around that point, ABC ran a graphic showing that the Thunder had outscored the Rockets by 20 points during Westbrook's 31 minutes and had been outscored by 18 points during his eight minutes of rest.

Much will likely be made of Westbrook's second half field goal percentage and/or shot selection but any intelligent, objective person understands that those things did not decide the outcome of the game; this was a double digit blowout in the Thunder's favor when Westbrook played and a double digit blowout in the Rockets' favor when Westbrook sat. That is the main story.

One of the great little sideline sound bytes from Phil Jackson when he coached Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls was, "Don't leave Michael yet. It's not time." Jackson conveyed so much in just a few words: Jackson was not so subtly challenging Jordan's teammates by essentially saying, "I know that you are going to leave Michael but at least wait until later in the game to do so." This was almost a form of psychological warfare or reverse psychology; by asking them to not leave Michael "yet" he was really urging them to not leave Michael at all.

Jackson's point was that even Jordan could not be superhuman for a full 48 minutes but if his teammates could wait to "leave" him until the closing minutes then he could be superhuman down the stretch. Keep in mind that peak Jordan was about 6-6, 225 and peak Kobe Bryant was about the same size. Westbrook is about 6-3, 195. In terms of speed, jumping ability, explosiveness and competitive heart, Westbrook is cut from the same cloth; recently, Jerry West went so far as to call Westbrook a more athletic version of Jordan. However, in terms of size and strength Westbrook will never be able to match Jordan or Bryant and when Westbrook's teammates repeatedly surrender double digit leads in just a few minutes with more than a quarter left in the game he is not physically equipped to single-handedly save the day; even though he actually did just that in several regular season games, the task is much harder during the playoffs.

That being said, the Thunder squandered some golden opportunities down the stretch. Trailing by four, Stephen Adams conferred briefly with Westbrook before attempting the second of two free throws. Adams intentionally missed, grabbed the rebound and immediately passed to Westbrook, who launched a shot from several feet behind the three point arc. Westbrook's bomb cut Houston's lead to 108-107 and all that the Thunder needed to do was commit a foul in order to have a chance to tie or win on the game's final possession. Instead, the Thunder permitted the Rockets to advance the ball up the court with no resistance, culminating in a three point play by Nene that sealed the victory.

Five-time Super Bowl champion Coach Bill Belichick has repeatedly said that stupid players cost you games and/or that he cannot put stupid players on the field. The Thunder's late game execution in that sequence was atrocious and instead of potentially going to Houston with a chance to take a 3-2 lead the Thunder now face the task of simply avoiding elimination.

Westbrook refuses to even discuss what others call his "supporting cast," nor does he whine about not having help. LeBron James has two All-Star teammates, a great group of role players and a roster that is among the best compensated in NBA history, yet he constantly complains that he does not have enough help. When he was asked a couple years ago during the NBA Finals why he was confident that his team could win he replied "Because I am the best player in the world."

In contrast, Westbrook has defiantly challenged media members who refer to his "supporting cast." Westbrook declares that the Thunder are one team and that he does not have a supporting cast. The postgame press conference had an interesting moment. Some reporter who apparently is seeking a Pulitzer Prize nomination for investigative reporting asked Stephen Adams to talk about the Thunder's drop off in performance whenever Westbrook is not on the court. Before Adams could answer, Westbrook replied that he would not let the media divide the team and that they win and lose as a group. The reporter whined that he had asked a legitimate question and that his microphone should not be taken away until Adams answers. It must really be frustrating for this reporter that he cannot just write the narrative that he wants to write--that Westbrook is a bad teammate--but if he is actually worth his salt as a journalist then he knows that Westbrook's quotes are golden and could be the basis for a wonderful story. If the reporter were not trying to make himself the center of attention, he could have pulled Adams aside privately and repeated his question.

Despite his fiery persona, Westbrook's leadership is similar to Julius Erving's or Scottie Pippen's as opposed to Jordan's or Bryant's. Erving and Pippen always sought out public and private opportunities to praise their teammates. Jordan is perhaps the first NBA superstar who talked publicly about his "supporting cast" and his leadership style was almost always confrontational; Bryant took a similar approach, though he perhaps mellowed a bit with age (that did not happen to Jordan). James repeatedly speaks about his teammates' shortcomings but the media generally frame his comments as reasonable concerns, not petulant complaints.  

Westbrook will probably score 40 points and/or post a triple double in game five but if his teammates "leave" him again then the Rockets will move on to the second round, even if Harden is again the fourth most effective player on his own team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Houson Survives Westbrook's Historic Triple Double to Take 2-0 Series Lead

Russell Westbrook authored the first 50 point triple double in NBA playoff history (51 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds) but the Houston Rockets came from behind to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 115-111 and claim a 2-0 series lead. Westbrook averaged a triple double this season despite playing just under 35 mpg--and the Thunder went 33-9 when he posted a triple double--but in game two Westbrook played 41 minutes and fatigue clearly had an effect down the stretch, notwithstanding Westbrook's admirable refusal to make any excuses: he shot 13-25 from the field in the first three quarters but just 4-18 in the final stanza. Westbrook's critics predictably focus on the number of shot attempts and the low fourth quarter shooting percentage but the most telling statistic is that the Thunder outscored the Rockets by 11 with Westbrook in the game but were outscored by 15 during the seven minutes that he sat.

Westbrook nearly had a triple double at halftime (22 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds) but the Thunder only led 68-62 and the writing was already on the wall: unless someone else stepped up at some point, Westbrook would inevitably wear down under the massive burden he is being expected to carry just to give his team a chance to win.

Was Westbrook's fourth quarter shot selection great? He took some questionable shots but most of the shots that he took are shots that he normally makes and shots that he made in the first three quarters. Eddie Johnson made a great point on Sirius XM NBA Radio today: when a caller suggested that the Thunder's problem was that Westbrook stopped passing in the fourth quarter, Johnson retorted that plenty of guys who are willing and able to shoot in the first three quarters simply do not want the ball in the fourth quarter of a close game. Westbrook knew that his team's best chance to win was for him to shoot the ball; if he were truly "chasing stats" as his critics suggest, then the easiest way to do that would have been to pass the ball every time in the fourth quarter: he already had a triple double with more than 30 points on an excellent shooting percentage, so shooting the ball when he was tired was more likely to hurt his stats than help them. Westbrook was asked about his stat line and he replied that it did not matter because his team lost.

The easy narrative is that James Harden is outplaying Westbrook but that narrative is false. In two games (admittedly a small sample size but that is the nature of comparing two players early in a playoff series), Westbrook has more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots than Harden. Westbrook's free throw percentage is slightly better than Harden's. The only individual categories that Harden is winning are field goal percentage and turnovers.

The true narrative is that Harden's teammates are dominating Westbrook's teammates. Five Rockets not named Harden are averaging at least 10 ppg and three of Harden's teammates are averaging at least 7.5 rpg; Harden is averaging 5.5 rpg, barely half of Westbrook's series-leading 10.5 rpg. Only one Thunder player not named Westbrook is averaging at least 10 ppg and only one Thunder player not named Westbrook is averaging at least 7.5 rpg--Andre Roberson is averaging 15.0 ppg and 8.0 rpg.

Harden's team is outplaying Westbrook's team but that does not mean that Harden is the better player or even that Harden is having a better series; when evaluating players I look at skill set and production, not necessarily the team result.

It is also worth noting that Houston's team success is only loosely correlated with Harden's minutes and productivity, which was also true during Houston's fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals. Harden was on the bench when the Rockets cut into the Thunder's double digit lead and that is why his plus/minus number for this game was just +2; when he and Westbrook were both on the court, the Thunder outplayed the Rockets. The difference is that Eric Gordon (22 points, +15) and Lou Williams (21 points, +18) annihilated the Thunder's bench players--every single Thunder reserve had a negative plus/minus number!

It is stupefying that after Westbrook accomplishes rare or even unprecedented feats the critics nitpick Westbrook's flaws instead of appreciating his greatness. Prior to last night, there had been just five 40 point triple doubles in NBA playoff history. The players on that list are Oscar Robertson (twice), Jerry West, Charles Barkley and LeBron James. Robertson, West and James are on any sensible list of the top 10-15 players in pro basketball history. Barkley is no worse than a top 30 player. West won the first ever NBA Finals MVP after his triple double, even though his team lost the game and the series.

LeBron James posted the most recent 40 point triple double in a playoff game, with 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in a 104-91 game five loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals. James shot 15-34 from the field, including 7-19 in the second half and his plus/minus number was -11. Thus, his shooting performance was similar to Westbrook's--including excellent first half shooting followed by poor second half shooting--and James' team was actually losing with him on the court, while Westbrook's team was winning while he was on the court but I do not recall James receiving much if any criticism after his triple double. James was carrying an injury-depleted team but he still had Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova (who started 54 games this year for a Milwaukee team that made the playoffs), which is a better supporting cast than Westbrook currently has.

Game three could be interesting. Oklahoma City is clearly a deeply flawed team that is inferior to Houston but home court matters in the playoffs and Houston has weaknesses that can be exploited; if the Thunder defend their turf in this game and in game four then in game five there would be a lot of pressure on the Rockets. It will probably take 35-10-8 or something like that in each game from Westbrook just for the Thunder to have a chance but Westbrook is up for that challenge; the real question is whether or not his supporting cast can at least tread water long enough to permit him to rest for 10-15 minutes so that he can be fresh down the stretch. Westbrook plays so big and with so much energy that it is easy to forget that Westbrook he is 6-3, 190, not 6-6, 225 like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant; no matter how athletic Westbrook is, his body simply cannot take the pounding or workload that Jordan or Bryant could.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:55 PM

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

First Impressions of the First Round of the Playoffs

Here are some quick takes on each of the NBA's first round playoff series:

Cleveland 2, Indiana 0

1) The Pacers are who I thought they were: not particularly good on defense, only good on offense sporadically and a mismatched collection of talent that looks better on paper than it performs on the court.
2) I am not sure that I want to go into battle with Paul George; he is the Pacers' best player and should be the leader but he spends a lot of time publicly talking about his perceptions of what everyone else on the team is doing wrong. Why does he have to "take the last shot"? Michael Jordan did not always take the last shot. Kobe Bryant did not always take the last shot. If George thinks that he is so great that only he can take the last shot, then beat the double team, create the last shot--and make it. Jordan and Bryant did that on more than a few occasions. George's body language at the end of game one would be a serious problem for me if I were one of his teammates--and particularly if I were C.J. Miles, who took a quality shot and just happened to miss it.
3) It is not clear what this series tells us about the Cavaliers, because the Cavaliers know that they can beat this team without exerting full effort--and the Cavaliers are quite content to do just that. Do the Cavaliers have another gear? Most certainly they do. Will they shift into that gear when they face tougher competition? I have no idea. LeBron James has quit in big playoff series and he has authored historic performances in playoff series.

Chicago 2, Boston 0

1) Boston is one of the weakest number one seeds ever but I did not expect them to lose two home games to the inconsistent Chicago Bulls.
2) The Bulls have a lot of talent and they also have some championship pedigree with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo but there is no way that this team should be up 2-0 versus the Celtics.
3) Rondo can be a difficult player to coach but he has also repeatedly proven that he can produce at a high level during the playoffs. I would take him on my team any day, with the realization that he has to be dealt with and communicated with in a particular way.

Toronto 1, Milwaukee 1

1) The Bucks are a talented enigma, at least for me. I struggle to figure out how they will perform over the course of a season or a playoff series.
2) The Raptors are a very well constructed team and, even if it takes seven games, I expect them to win this series.

Washington 1, Atlanta 0

1) John Wall is a spectacular all-around player. If the Wizards can advance one or two rounds, he may start to get the recognition he deserves.
2) Scott Brooks is an underrated coach. He almost annually led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals and, after a rough start to this season, he may very well have the Wizards on a path to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Golden State 1, Portland 0

1) The Blazers are not scared. They look the Warriors dead in the eye and compete. Unfortunately for the Blazers, they just do not have enough talent to win this series.
2) If Kevin Durant misses games or is seriously limited by injury then the door is open for the Blazers to win a game or two--but not the series.

San Antonio 2, Memphis 0

1) Was Memphis Coach Fizdale taking a not so veiled shot at his franchise's "stat gurus" at the end of his rant after game two? His derisive, concluding comment about data did not have anything to do with his complaints about the officiating.
2) Coach Fizdale has a right to be upset with the front office, as the Grizzlies have once again fielded a team that does not have enough shooting prowess or scoring punch to be a serious playoff threat.

Houston 1, Oklahoma City 0

1) The game one blowout confirmed a simple truth: if Russell Westbrook does not play like a basketball superhero then his Oklahoma City Thunder have no chance.
2) Westbrook did not play like a basketball superhero: he shot poorly and he turned the ball over too much. All that being said and acknowledged, even if he had posted 30-10-10 with a good shooting percentage and a reasonable number of turnovers, the Thunder still would have been blown out.
3) Some have suggested that Enes Kanter should be benched. I would give him more minutes and when he is in the game I would post him up every time, forcing a smaller Rocket to guard him. This series is like the 2006 Suns-Lakers series; at that time, the Lakers' Phil Jackson used an "Inside Man" strategy to push the much more talented and deeper Suns to seven games. The Thunder must punish the Rockets in the paint.
4) My gut feeling is that Westbrook has a monster game two leading to a Thunder win but the Rockets take the series in seven.

L.A. Clippers 1, Utah 1

1) The Jazz are missing their best defensive player and the Clippers had to scramble to avoid a 2-0 deficit. I have never understood the sentiment that Chris Paul is a great leader or that he should be mentioned in the same breath with Isiah Thomas just because they are similarly sized. If Paul were a great leader then he would have actually led this very talented team past the second round at some point.
2) The Clippers will probably find a way to win this series but this team just does not have a championship mindset.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:47 PM

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Friday, April 14, 2017

2016-17 Playoff Predictions

Before I make my annual playoff predictions, here are some of my thoughts about the 2016-17 NBA season.

Several players performed at a very high level but only one player had a historic season--and his numbers were directly connected to his team's success: Russell Westbrook should win the MVP in a landslide but because of The Tortured Logic of the 2017 NBA MVP Race we are supposed to believe that there are other legitimate contenders. Just to be clear: several players performed at a "normal" MVP level in 2016-17 but Westbrook operated at a distinctly higher level:

1) Westbrook became the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season and along the way Westbrook broke Robertson's single season record by posting 42 triple doubles. Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder went 33-9 when he posted a triple double and 14-26 when he did not--in other words, when Westbrook played at a superhuman level he lifted the Thunder to the level of the San Antonio Spurs but when he was "merely" great the Thunder performed comparably to the Philadelphia 76ers. The only other guards who have had that kind of singular impact on the performance of an otherwise bad team are Pistol Pete Maravich with the Jazz in the late 1970s and Kobe Bryant with the mid-2000s Lakers.

2) Westbrook became the first player 6-3 or under to average at least 10 rpg.

3) Westbrook is the first player to average at least 30 ppg and at least 10 rpg in the same season since Karl Malone in 1989-90; Malone is a Hall of Fame power forward, yet the 6-3 point guard Westbrook accomplished something that Hall of Fame big men including Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing never did once in their entire careers.

4) Westbrook became the first player to average at least 30 ppg and at least 10 apg in the same season since Nate Archibald in 1972-73.

5) Westbrook averaged 31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 10.4 apg, ranking in the top 10 in the league in each category: first in scoring (his second scoring title), third in assists and 10th in rebounding.  

Do you like "advanced basketball statistics"? I don't but all of the "stat gurus" who used such numbers to place Chris Paul or Steve Nash ahead of Kobe Bryant about a decade ago should note that Westbrook ranked first in plus/minus, first in offensive plus/minus, second in defensive plus/minus and first in value over replacement player. Westbrook is derided in some quarters as a bad defensive player but in one of the metrics that the "stat gurus" love--defensive rating--Westbrook ranked 13th, ahead of all of the other MVP candidates except Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, neither of whom had the impact on the boards or on offense that Westbrook had.

The second biggest story of the season was the "rest" epidemic. Commissioner Adam Silver seems to be belatedly figuring out that this is a major issue, though it is still not clear exactly what he will do to remedy the problem. Meanwhile, until he does his job it is fair to say that NBA Primetime Saturday Night is NOT Fantastic. Even worse, the last week of the season turned into a farce, as the Cleveland Cavaliers "rested" their way from first place in the East to second place (thereby sending the message that the regular season does not mean much) while the Brooklyn Nets' tanking for draft picks not only made the Draft Lottery a sham but also affected who received the final Eastern Conference playoff berth as the Nets gladly absorbed a 112-73 beatdown from the Chicago Bulls on the final day of the regular season. Tickets to that game sure were worth the price of admission.

The third biggest story was that Kevin Durant proved to be the best player on an absolutely stacked Golden State team. The Warriors slumped as soon as he was injured and even though they eventually found their way--as they should be able to do considering the amount of talent on the roster--it was very obvious that when the squad was at full strength Durant was the man, not two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry. What ultimately matters is who is the best player on the team when the team is at full strength, not the ability of a team with multiple All-Stars to win some games without Durant.

The fourth biggest story is that the NBA's version of Rasputin, the San Antonio Spurs, won more than 60 games. Every year for about the past decade or so the Spurs are written off and yet in virtually every year they are not only a regular season force but also a legitimate championship contender.

Other storylines of note include the ups and downs of the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the remarkable second half surge of the Miami Heat, who fell just short of securing a playoff berth. We have looked back enough for now, though, so it is time to shift our attention forward to the playoffs.

Here are my first round predictions:

The Cleveland Cavaliers stood atop the Eastern Conference for most of the season but their defense fell apart months ago, enabling the Boston Celtics to nip them at the finish line. Coasting through the regular season only to turn things up in the playoffs worked (sometimes) for Shaquille O'Neal and the L.A. Lakers, though it is worth noting that the Lakers had another MVP caliber player who most assuredly never coasted (Kobe Bryant). The Cavaliers seem to take their cues from James and when he coasts/quits they act like a substitute teacher is running class so anything goes.

The 53-29 Boston Celtics, both on paper and by the eye test, are probably one of the worst NBA teams to earn a number one seed in the past 40 years or so. That is not meant as a knock against what the Celtics have accomplished with a young coach and the 5-9 wunderkind Isaiah Thomas as floor general; it is just a statement of fact. Boston split the four game regular season series with the 41-41 Chicago Bulls but even though the Bulls' veteran backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade has championship pedigree I expect the Celtics to win in six games.

The 2-7 matchup is a battle of underachieving teams--but one is a heavyweight while the other is a lightweight, so the outcome is not in much doubt. The 51-31 Cleveland Cavaliers treated the regular season with indifference at best but the 42-40 Indiana Pacers might be the most disappointing team in the league--at least if you believe what most "experts" predicted before the season began (I correctly pegged the Pacers as a .500 team but mistakenly thought that this would not be good enough to qualify for postseason play). LeBron James may enter "chill mode" during the regular season and he has at times quit during the latter rounds of postseason play but he is even better than Michael Jordan  at mercilessly knocking out weak teams in the first round. The Cavaliers will sweep the Pacers unless they become so bored that they lose a game in Indiana in order to clinch the series in front of the hometown crowd.

The 51-31 Toronto Raptors have fallen out of the Eastern Conference championship conversation but I am not sure why. This is an improved version of the team that pushed the Cavaliers to six games in last year's Eastern Conference Finals and if they stay healthy they are fully capable of making another deep playoff run. I did not expect Milwaukee to make the playoffs after Khris Middleton suffered an apparently season-ending injury but he came back in the final third of the season to lead the Bucks to a 19-12 record down the stretch, just enough to earn the sixth seed with a 42-40 record. This series features some intriguing, fun matchups but in the end Toronto will win in six games.

I expected the Washington Wizards to be a strong team. They started the season very slowly but down the stretch they made a run at the number one seed before setting for the fourth seed with a 49-33 record. The mercurial Atlanta Hawks finished 43-39 to grab the fifth seed. Both of these teams are so inconsistent that they are hard to read but I expect the Wizards to prevail in six games. John Wall is the modern Micheal Ray Richardson (without the off court issues) and he is the best player in this series.

In the Western Conference, the 67-15 Golden State Warriors are in the middle of one of the best three year runs in pro basketball history--but if they finish that run with "only" one championship then they cannot seriously be compared with the Russell Celtics, Magic Johnson Lakers, Jordan-Pippen Bulls or Shaq-Kobe Lakers, dynasties that each captured at least one set of back to back titles. Golden State's first round matchup with the Portland Trailblazers may feature one or two close games but in the end the Warriors will sweep the Trailblazers.

The 61-21 San Antonio Spurs are eight games ahead of any team in the Eastern Conference and just six games behind the Warriors. The 43-39 Memphis Grizzlies are almost annually pumped up as the proverbial team that no one wants to face but in the past six years they have lost in the first round three times and they have lost in the second round twice. The Spurs will win this series in five games.

The 55-27 Houston Rockets won about 10 more games than I expected them to win. I knew that James Harden would put up video game numbers in Mike D'Antoni's system but I thought that new additions Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon would continue to be injury-prone players; I also thought that any team with Harden as the leader would experience a fair amount of chemistry issues. The Rockets' opponent, the 47-35 Oklahoma City Thunder, finished one seed higher than I predicted (but I ranked Westbrook much higher as a leader and impact player than most "experts" did before the season began). In 2015-16, the Thunder squandered more fourth quarter leads than any team in the league. In the playoffs, they blew a 3-1 lead versus Golden State. At that time, the default late game option was for Westbrook to defer to Durant. This season, the Thunder are clearly a less talented team, so it is no surprise that their overall record is worse--but Westbrook has been a fourth quarter beast. When will the media members who wrongly dogged Westbrook for years at least concede that it is possible that Durant, not Westbrook, is the player who should have been deferring in those fourth quarter debacles?

The Harden-led Rockets are usually a safe bet to lose in the first round but the reality of this matchup is that they have a better and deeper overall roster than Thunder. Westbrook will likely outscore, outrebound and outshoot Harden with Harden enjoying a narrow edge in assists but unless Westbrook's teammates keep the games close enough for him to take over down the stretch the Rockets have to be considered the favorite. I predict that Houston prevails in seven games.

The L.A. Clippers annually are a supposed contender that can never advance past the second round. The Utah Jazz are a tough-minded, defensive squad but it is not clear if they can score enough to beat the Clippers. Both teams won 51 games but the Clippers own homecourt advantage thanks to the tiebreaker and that should be enough for the Clippers to win in seven games.

-----

Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Boston-Washington, Cleveland-Toronto, Golden State-L.A. Clippers and San Antonio-Houston. The battle of the backcourts in the first series will be very fun to watch but in the end I will take Boston. Toronto pushed Cleveland to six games in last year's Eastern Conference Finals and the Raptors are capable of at least as much this time around but one suspects that "Playoff LeBron" will show up at least four times, which is enough for Cleveland to advance.

Warriors-Clippers is supposedly a great rivalry with some bad blood but when push comes to shove there will be more Draymond Green technical fouls and flagrant fouls than Clipper wins. The Spurs fell to the Durant-Westbrook duo last season but, as is usually the case, they will not have much trouble sending a Mike D'Antoni team home.

Boston and Cleveland had some great playoff battles during the first part of James' career. Now, as the saying goes, he is the master and they are the student. Cleveland will steal a road game early in the series and then prevail in six games.

The Spurs have the necessary parts to defeat Golden State but something has been off with the Spurs all season. I realize that may seem strange to say about a 61 win team but it is undeniable that at times the Spurs have lacked toughness and focus. Golden State will win in seven games.

If my predictions are right, then we will be treated to the first NBA Finals trilogy enacted over three consecutive seasons. For most of the season, I held firm to my belief that the Cavaliers have a great chance to repeat as champions but I have changed my mind because their defense is just not championship-caliber. Golden State will win in six games and stake a claim as one of the league's top three year dynasties.

********************

Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2016-2017 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked five of this season's eight playoff teams and I went seven for eight in my 2016-2017 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2016: East 5/8, West 6/8
2015: East 5/8, West 7/8
2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 71/96 in the East and 77/96 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .771.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2016: 12/15
2015: 10/15
2014: 13/15
2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 133/180 (.739)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 12 years I have correctly picked 13 of the 24 NBA Finals participants. In four of those 12 years (including 2016) I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began just twice: 2007 and 2013.

I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:26 AM

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