Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 6 thread

Final, 131-92. Celtics were just awesome all season: 66 wins, a couple of hiccups in the early rounds, but consistent, punishing defense, throughout the Finals and a beautiful togetherness. Doc Rivers made some questionable strategic moves, but he did an amazing job of meshing all of these new pieces together into a championship team. The Celtics played so hard all year. Well deserved.

This one was over in the first quarter. Celtics pouring it on now, 101-70.

Ray Allen is one of the best 3-point shooters in NBA history. Somebody might want to guard him ... still waiting ... how about now? No? Allen spins the ball, reads the laces, cradles it, rocks it to sleep, then drains a 3.

Boston is looking to run more now than at any time in this series. The Celtics clearly get it: run more with the lead, keep the pressure on.

Allen for 3. Celtics, 63-36. Radmanovic could care less who wins this game.

Rondo opens the second half with a jumper. Everything going Boston's way. Celtics, 60-35.

Halftime: Celtics, 58-35. Lakers are 8-for-27 from the field with 11 turnovers and -12 on the boards. Ouch.

Perkins denies Odom, then scores over him at the other end. Celtics, 58-35.

Garnett hangs, is mugged, and scores off the glass, and 1. Celtics, 56-35.

Kobe just turned it over. Lakers are about to crack.

Great ball movement by Boston. Rondo in the lane. Celtics, 51-35.

Garnett again. Celtics, 51-35.

By all statistical measures, the Celtics are one of the greatest defensive teams of all-time. Just how good? Well, the Lakers' offense clicked for three rounds: against Denver, Utah and San Antonio, also one of the league's best defensive teams. So, maybe the Lakers' struggles in this series are due only to Boston's greatness. That said, LA could use another guy who could create his own shot from the perimeter. Bynum's return will help with rebounding and interior defense, but the Lakers don't have another player on their roster who can attack the rim.

Radmanovic just fouled on a dead ball, 25 feet from the basket. Over/under on Radmanovic brain cells: 1.3. I'll take the under.

Radmanovic just chipped paint on that 3-point attempt.

Gasol almost threw away his 23rd outlet pass this postseason.

Kobe just got ripped by Posey, which leads to a Posey 3. Celtics, 43-29. 11-0 run.

The Lakers aren't close to matching the Celtics' force. Another foul on Fisher. House with two from the line. Boston, 40-29.

Is this 1984 all over again? Boston is winning this game with energy and aggression: 20-12 on the boards (including 8-0 on the offensive end), seven steals.

House for 3. Celtics, 38-29. Terrible defensive organization by the Lakers, who aren't locating shooters, rotate for no reason, rotate for the wrong reason. Ugh.

Two more offensive rebounds on the same possession, which lead to Posey's 3. Celtics, 35-29.

Kobe is forcing 3s again. The Lakers can't get anyone else going offensively, which means the Celtics should shade even more defenders onto Kobe and not give him any even semi-open looks. Celtics, 31-26.

Danger time for LA. Celtics lead, 29-24, and the game is getting very physical. Advantage Boston.

Celtics have just the right emotional pitch to start.

Celtics lead after one, 24-20. Kobe is 4-for-7; other Lakers are 1-for-7. LA also has six turnovers (four by Gasol). For Boston, meanwhile, Garnett is 5-for-7, but Pierce is 1-for-6.

Celtics swarming the boards with two and three guys going up for every missed shot by the Lakers.

Farmar has to pass that to Kobe, who was wide-open for 3. Instead, Farmar clanks a 2 to follow his turnover out of bounds on the previous possession. Too many Lakers tentative early.

Good sign for Boston that Garnett is 4-for-6 to open the game. The Celtics are also up 11-8 on the boards, including five at the offensive end.

Garnett with six straight for the Celtics, who lead 20-18.

Walton with four off the bench. Lakers, 18-16.

ABC has to stop with the split screen. We don't need to see a player going to the locker room.

Celtics are trying to pound inside. Odom is holding is ground; Gasol is not.

Kobe hits back-to-back 3s. He's 3-for-3, eight points.

Radmanovic gives up an offensive rebound. He is practically useless.

Kobe opens with a deep 2. Lakers, 2-0.

The Lakers need to follow the prescription to win an elimination-game on the road: stay within striking distance, control the boards, defend for 48 minutes.

Bill Russell, Cedric Maxwell, Jo Jo White, M.L. Carr, John Havlicek among the former Celtics in attendance.

The 1984 Finals have been well-documented. The Lakers probably should have swept, but made crunch-time mistakes in Games 2 and 4 that let the Celtics back in the series. By the time Game 7 rolled around, the Boston Garden faithful helped will the home team to victory. The boisterous, blue-collar crowd was much like the Celtics: hard hats, lunch pails, physical to the nth degree. Boston won the battle of the boards, 52-33, including 20 at the offensive end, and earned 51 free-throw attempts in a 111-102 victory. Lakers coach Pat Riley said afterward: "It was their night, their town, their fans, their friends." The Celtics are severely banged up heading into tonight's Game 6. Can the crowd spur them to another victory? The longer this series goes, the more the advantage shifts to LA.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 5 analysis

Through five games in this series, the Celtics are the better team and the more disciplined team. Despite two victories at home to extend the series, the Lakers' performances were not good. They were littered with defensive breakdowns and lapses in focus down the stretch. They don't seem capable of sustaining offensive excellence for long stretches, let alone 48 minutes.

As discussed earlier, teams leading 3-2 in the NBA Finals and heading home are 8-for-8 in winning the championship. On seven of those occasions, the home team closed it out in Game 6. In the other one, the 2005 Spurs lost in Game 6, but then bounced back to defeat the Pistons in 7.

In order for the Lakers to win in Boston and stave off elimination, they will have to lock in defensively for four quarters, move the ball better for four quarters, battle on the boards for four quarters, get Gasol, Odom and one shooter going, while also having Kobe in rhythm down the stretch. Those are a lot of things to ask of the Lakers, who haven't strung together a 48-minute game yet.

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 5 thread

Lakers win, 103-98.

House for 3. Celtics within 3, 101-98. Lakers almost turn over the ball. Terrible display trying to close out this game. Fisher at the line: make, make. Lakers, 103-98. 9.0 seconds to go.

Kobe at the line: make, miss. Lakers, 101-95. 15.4 seconds to go.

Fisher at the line: miss, make. Lakers, 100-95. 24.8 seconds to go.

Allen misses a drive and Garnett misses a follow. Lakers ball, up four, 26.8 seconds left.

Kobe strips Pierce again. Odom sends Kobe free for a dunk. Lakers, 99-95. 37.4 seconds to go. Five steals for Kobe.

Fisher misses a long 3.

Kobe can't blow by Allen, whose defense against the world's greatest player is underrated. Kobe forces a long 3, which misses. Odom fouls on the rebound. Pierce at the line: make, make. Lakers, 97-95. 1:14 left. The game is right there for the Celtics.

Kobe at the line: make, make. Lakers, 97-93. 2:14 left.

Gasol misses over Garnett, then fouls him. How can Kobe not have the ball in his hands? Garnett at the line: miss, miss. Lakers, 95-93. 2:31 left.

Pierce blows past three Lakers, fouled. Pierce at the line: make, make. Lakers, 95-93.

Bryant strips Pierce. Fisher at the line: miss, make. Lakers, 95-91. 3:07 left.

Great pass from Kobe to Odom, who goes soft and misses a chance for a 3-point play. Odom at the line: make, make. Lakers, 94-91.

Garnett and Pierce both pick up their fifth fouls in the span of 10 seconds. Lakers lead, 92-91. 3:31 to go.

Gasol over Garnett inside. Lakers, 92-90.

Garnett jumper. Tie game, 90-90. 4:25 left.

With five minutes to go and the game now close, the Lakers' inability to defend Pierce at all could bury them. Bryant is now on Pierce. Every LA possession must run through Kobe.

Odom drops another rebound out-of-bounds. Boston is making a final push. Do the Lakers really want to extend this to another game? Or are they defeated?

Posey for 3. Celtics within 3, 90-86.

Another turnover by Kobe.

More careless fouls by the Lakers. Walton just bumped Pierce 46 feet from the basket. Lakers in the penalty the final 6:22. Celtics within seven, 90-83.

Lakers are settling again. Gasol just made a weak attempt on the block, Kobe launched a contested jumper.

Walton pulls up on the break. Lakers, 88-74.

Gasol has found a bit of inner strength. He's fought harder in block-out situations and just blocked Ray Allen's drive.

Pierce is abusing every defender the Lakers send his way right now. And Kobe, with four fouls, can't afford to aggressively check him.

Odom for 3. Lakers up, 84-72.

Lakers close the third strong, lead, 79-70. They need to dig deep right now and unleash a fastbreak the entire final 12 minutes. Now is not the time to get tentative and walk the ball up the floor.

Fisher gets a conventional 3-point play, Radmanovic adds a corner 3. Lakers fighting back, now lead, 71-64.

Kobe picks up another charge; Celtics team defense is so solid.

At this point, if Boston can stay strong and impose its will on the game they can finish it at the end. Similar to how Miami closed out Dallas on the road in 2006. The Heat were the tougher team in that series too.

Celtics are just tougher, physically too, but mostly mentally. The Lakers have been plagued throughout the Finals by lapses in concentration, lapses in desire to push the ball, lapses in defensive intensity. Being down 3-1, they have to summon the desire to extend this series even though a championship now is unlikely. I'm not sure they can do it.

Second half starting, Lakers lead 55-52, again giving away most of what once was a huge lead.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 5 outlook

Since the NBA adopted the 2-3-2 format for the NBA Finals in 1985, here's how the eight teams trailing 3-1 in the series fared in a Game 5 at home:

1986 -- Rockets vs. Celtics (W, 111-96)
1987 -- Celtics vs. Lakers (W, 123-108)
1990 -- Blazers vs. Pistons (L, 92-90)
1991 -- Lakers vs. Bulls (L, 108-101)
1996 -- Sonics vs. Bulls (W, 89-78)
1999 -- Knicks vs. Spurs (L, 78-77)
2000 -- Pacers vs. Lakers (W, 120-87)
2001 -- 76ers vs. Lakers (L, 108-96)

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 4 analysis

Statistics will prove that if you flip a fair coin a few billion times the number of "heads" and "tails" outcomes will be fairly equal. And the closer that "n" approaches infinity, the closer the distribution will approach 50/50. Within those billion flips, however, it is not unusual to see long runs, of say 10 or even more, of one outcome.

Let's translate this theory to basketball. The Lakers and Celtics are fairly equal teams. If these teams traded "n" possessions a few billion times, the score would approach a tie game. Within those billion possessions, however, it wouldn't be unusual to see long scoring runs, for one team, then the other. This happens in basketball games all the time, right? Team A goes on an 8-0 run. Later, Team B goes on an 11-3 run. No big deal.

A 24-point lead (i.e., a run or series of runs equaling a +24 in outcomes) is different for two reasons. First, a game has a set stopping point, one that obviously is far short of a billion or so possessions. Typically, Team B just runs out of time before it can even the score with an equalizing run of its own. Second, and perhaps even more important, however, is that once Team A has a 24-point lead, the game is no longer "fair." Teams often try peculiar lineups, rest their best players, and neither team performs with the same focus and concentration as when the game was close.

How did the Celtics pull off a historic comeback last night and stun the Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals? First, they had help. Human nature kicked in, and the Lakers relaxed. It's impossible to fake or mimic a tie game or a deficit when they don't exist. In their minds, I'm sure the Lakers knew a comeback was remotely possible, but really, it wasn't. Second, the big LA lead had an element of fool's gold. Kobe was never in the flow offensively. Yes, the Lakers needed scoring and involvement from other players, but not at the expense of a sharp Kobe. Why? Well, eventually when the other players cooled off (which they did), and when the Celtics' defense locked in (which it did), Kobe was not in the Game 3-type rhythm that he needed to be in in order to carry home a victory once the game was close.

To actually pull off the comeback, however, the Celtics needed heavy doses of belief and toughness. They stayed in the "fair" game and didn't give up. Belief and togetherness and toughness -- not physically tough (although they have that too), but mentally tough -- aren't born overnight. They are the product of individuals and a roster put together beautifully by Danny Ainge. Once the Big 3 was assembled, Ainge set out to complete a championship roster with tough-minded role players. And certainly Boston's situation was attractive to veteran free agents.

The Celtics signed Eddie House and James Posey. They signed P.J. Brown in February after Paul Pierce and Ray Allen visited Brown during the all-star break and convinced him to join the team. They added defensive coaching guru Tom Thibodeau. They signed Sam Cassell in March. Veteran players, professionals, guys caring more about the end result than personal glory.

Still, you can't just throw a bunch of mismatched pieces against a wall and expect them to stick. Oft-maligned coach Doc Rivers did a stellar job of fitting together the pieces, of developing a cohesive system and also team chemistry.

Year-long effort and commitment and toughness were at the crux of the monumental Game 4 rally.

House had 11 points and zero turnovers in 25 minutes in place of injured and ineffective starter Rajon Rondo. Posey, who has a championship ring from Miami in 2006, chipped in with 18 points, including four 3-pointers, in 25 minutes. Cassell, who has been a role player on two title teams in Houston and also a main cog with the Bucks and Clippers, didn't score in seven minutes last night, but he was repeatedly the first one off the bench to shout encouragement for two quarters straight.

Boston's comeback was improbable, but it was made possible because the Celtics never quit and never stopped believing that the game was fair. And because of that, they gave themselves a chance to catch their own run of success long before the billionth repetition.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The NBA, refs, and fouling

The NBA Finals are taking a bit of a backseat to talk about former referee Tim Donaghy, betting on games, fixing games, officiating games in a certain manner, league mandates on which outcomes should be "helped," etc., etc., etc. As much as David Stern wants this chapter of his tenure to go away, it won't. In the coming weeks and months, look for more and more information, innuendo, facts, and witnesses to step forward.

In general, I'm not a big believer in conspiracy theories. I find them interesting, like a good TV crime drama: fun to talk about and consider the possibilities, but ultimately not true if only because too many people would have to be involved to pull it off. How would it ever work logistically? (Here's my article on NBCSports.com that looks at some of league's most notorious conspiracy theories).

Then, with the Celtics leading Game 3, 62-60, after three quarters, I wondered aloud how soon Boston would be in the penalty in the fourth quarter.

Foul No. 1: Leon Powe, away from-the-ball, bumps Lamar Odom, 0:39 elapsed.
Foul No. 2: Eddie House, away-from-the-ball, grabbing Kobe Bryant, 1:23 elapsed.
Foul No. 3: James Posey, on a Kobe Bryant shot attempt, 2:49 elapsed.
Foul No. 4: Ray Allen, away from the ball, vs. Luke Walton, 3:41 elapsed.
Foul No. 5: Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher, 5:34 elapsed.

Now, the Celtics aren't the first team to spend the final 5:34 of a tough defensive game in the penalty, but if you're ever wondering how officials can really impact the game this is it. Block/charge calls, traveling calls, etc., are going to be replayed and critiqued numerous times on TV. They're going to be challenged.

But it's the away-from-the-ball bumping, holding, hand-checking calls early in quarters that never are mentioned. Analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson didn't question any of these five fouls, three of which happened 15-20 feet away from the basket and even farther away from the action. The first two, in particular, were highly dubious.

They are calls that could be made on every possession, but aren't. Yet, in the fourth quarter of a pivotal game in the NBA Finals, they were called and they all went in favor of the home team that needed to win to extend the series.

Radio Interview

Joining Greg Pogue on WNSR (Nashville, Tenn.) to discuss the NBA Finals the morning after Game 3. Click here to hear the audio.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 3 analysis

The Lakers were better, but still shouldn't feel too great about their 87-81 victory in Game 3. The triangle offense isn't netting them much, Gasol and Odom aren't producing and are playing soft, and without 20 points off the bench from Vujacic, LA doesn't win.

The Celtics, meanwhile, got very little from Pierce and Garnett, who were 8-for-35 combined, yet held a lead in the fourth quarter of a road game in which the Lakers were desperate.

LA's defense was improved -- and that made a huge difference.

Ultimately, for the Lakers to win the next two games, they need to get out and run and get more easy baskets. We're three games into this series now, and it doesn't appear LA's offense will be anywhere near as good as it was earlier in the playoffs. The Celtics' defense is too locked in.

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 3 thread

Lakers win, 87-81.

Bryant over Allen. Lakers, 87-81. Doc Rivers left Allen on an island against Joe Johnson and Rip Hamilton earlier in the playoffs, so you knew this was coming. Rivers just left Allen to guard Kobe alone on consecutive possessions. Bryant hit two jumpers.

House for 3. Lakers, 85-81.

Bryant a long 2. Lakers, 85-78.

Garnett free for a dunk. Lakers, 83-78.

Fisher fouled on a drive: make, make. Lakers, 83-76. 1:33 left.

Vujacic for 3. Lakers, 81-76. 1:53 left.

Garnett off glass. Lakers, 78-76.

Lakers don't get the ball to Kobe on the entire possession, Gasol shoots an air ball.

Pierce at the line: make, make. Lakers, 78-74.

Gasol fouled inside: miss, make. Lakers, 78-72.

Pierce muscles to the hoop, and 1. Celtics within five, 77-72.

Gasol follows up Odom's miss. Lakers, 77-70. Odom is attacking Garnett off the dribble now, which is creating offensive-rebound lanes for Gasol.

Gasol tips in Odom's miss. Lakers, 75-70.

Bryant fouled on a drive, earns two free throws: make, make. Lakers, 73-68.

Fisher fouled on a drive. Celtics in the penalty for the final 6:27. Fisher makes a pair. Lakers, 71-68.

Bryant for 3 off a busted play. Lakers, 69-68.

Vujacic off another curl, buries a long 2. Tie game, 66-all.

Four team fouls on the Celtics, 8:20 to go.

Lakers run another set play for a Vujacic 3, which is on target but just long.

Here come the whistles as Powe and House are called for away-from-the-ball fouls in the first 1:30 of the quarter.

Allen answers for 3. Celtics, 65-63.

Vujacic knocks down a 3 off a set play to open the fourth. Lakers, 63-62.

Over/under on free-throw attempts by the Lakers in the fourth quarter: 15.

Celtics lead after 3, 62-60. Odom and Gasol finally made their first field goals, but the Celtics lead despite Pierce missing 9 of his 10 shots, and Garnett missing 11 of his 15.

Vujacic on Allen. This is trouble for LA.

Kobe on the bench with the Lakers down 61-58 with 1:07 to go in the third.

Allen makes three free throws. He now has 22 on 7-for-10 shooting, including 4-for-4 on 3s. His slump is clearly a distant memory, and that fact has changed the outlook on this series.

Lakers have to run and get some easy baskets. At this point, their entire offense is Kobe trying to beat his man and any and all help defenders. Vujacic is the only other player for LA who showed up and isn't completely overwhelmed by this situation.

Allen for 3. Celtics, 54-50.

Gasol holds it, loses it on a drive. Garnett answers with a deep two. Celtics, 51-49.

Garnett in the lane. Tie game, 49-all.

Gasol and Odom look tentative. They catch the ball and immediately look to get rid of it.

House for 3. Celtics within two, 49-47.

At this point Radmanovic should leave the floor and just keep on walking.

Are you serious? ABC just went split-screen to show Rondo walking back to the locker room with a sprained ankle. What is this, the OJ car-chase?

What's up with Rondo going to that wrap-around, fake-behind-the-back pass so often?

Allen for 3. Celtics within six, 43-37, at halftime. Boston has been outplayed, but this game is well within reach.

Gasol is so soft right now. On back-to-back possessions he was easily doubled and made a predictable pass that was easily picked off, then he rolled to the rim and missed a layin.

Vujacic back-to-back jumpers. Lakers, 38-27.

Farmar for 3. Lakers, 34-25.

Vujacic loses Allen, who comes off a screen and buries a 3. Celtics within four, 29-25. I've said it before, everything Vujacic contributes on offense he gives right back.

Farmar and Brown get tangled up on a rebound. Technicals are issued to both players. Ridiculous. That was nothing. The NBA is hyper-sensitive about every skirmish.

Five Lakers touch the ball, which crisply swings to Vujacic, who knocks down a 3. Lakers, 29-22.

Kobe with a pull-up and two free throws. Lakers, 24-20.

Odom, outworked by Powe for a rebound, picks up No. 3 just 20 seconds into the second quarter.

After the expected early energy, the Lakers are flat again. The crowd is quiet. Fastbreak opportunities are at a minimum, and the game is being played to the Celtics' style again. Tie game at 20 after one quarter.

Garnett is 0-for-5, Pierce 0-for-4, yet Celtics down 1.

Radmanovic loses Posey, who knocks down a 3. Radmanovic picks up another foul, his third, while chasing a loose ball.

Fisher a pull-up in transition. Lakers, 15-7.

Other than standstill, open 3s, Radmanovic is a liability. He can't defend, and his shots off the dribble are very low percentage.

Lakers much more aggressive early, lead, 8-2.

Lakers forcing it into Kobe in the post. This isn't their offense, and Kobe ends up forcing difficult off-balance jumpers.

Bryant on Rondo; Fisher on Allen. I thought the Lakers would align this way the entire series. It does three things that work to LA's advantage: 1) Allows Kobe to roam on defense because Rondo isn't a threat to shoot from outside; 2) Allows Fisher, whose focus is defense to keep close to Allen, who is primarily a jump-shooter; 3) Forces the Celtics to align the same way (i.e., Rondo on Kobe).

Lakers introduced to The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again."

It isn't often that the team with homecourt advantage (i.e., won more games during the regular season) isn't favored, yet that is what happened this year. So, if you are a conspiracy theorist, you could argue that the Celtics needed help from the referees to secure two wins at home, and thus guarantee a longer series. Had the Lakers won either one or both games in Boston, they could have closed on the series quickly at home.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 2 analysis

Throw away the big comeback. The bottom line is this: the Lakers are in an 0-2 hole because they've been beat up for two games and have shown very little ability, poise or desire to reverse some disturbing trends.

First off, the Celtics have proved quicker off the dribble, quicker to loose balls, quicker to get into their offense. As a result, LA is a step behind on everything and too often fouls trying to catch up.

The Celtics' defense, meanwhile, has completely blown up the triangle. The Lakers have been forced into post-ups and isolations. The ball isn't moving, Kobe is taking difficult shots, and role players are not well-positioned in order to contribute.

Things, of course, can change in California, but LA has to be more forceful in everything that it does.

Even so, is it too late?

Since the NBA went to the 2-3-2 Finals format in 1985, the team with homecourt advantage has won 17 of 23 series. When that team wins the first two at home, it has won 10 of 11.

Here's more bad news for the Lakers. In 23 series, the middle three games have been swept just four times and only once by the home team (2004 Pistons vs. the Lakers).

* Teams leading 3-2 and going home are 8-0 (seven close-outs in Game 6; one loss in Game 6, followed by a win in Game 7).

* Teams leading 3-2 and going on the road are 4-2 (close-outs in Game 6 by the 85 Lakers, 93 Bulls, 98 Bulls and 06 Heat; Game 6 and Game 7 losses by the 88 Pistons and 94 Knicks).

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 2 preview and radio interview

Click here to hear me discuss the NBA Finals with JT the Brick on Fox Sports Radio (June 6, 2008).

Game 2 preview

Larry Bird's Celtics and Magic Johnson's Lakers met three times in the NBA Finals (1984, 1985 and 1987).

It's been well-documented that in 1984 LA could have easily won in a sweep: convincing win in Game 1, blowout win in Game 3, and late leads lost in Games 2 and 4, courtesy of improbable turnovers, clock management and choked free throws. The Lakers' mistakes opened the door, and the Celtics, thanks to some physical and inspired play, shoved their way through.

LA's reputation was fastbreak and finesse. Boston's? Hard hats and lunch pails. In the four games the Celtics won in the series, they outrebounded the Lakers by these margins: 9, 6, 14, 19. By the time the teams met for the rematch in 1985, the Lakers were aware of coach Pat Riley's mantra: "No rebounds, no rings."

LA, of course, responded, held its ground, drew even on the boards, even gained substantial advantages in two of its four victories (+12 each in Games 2 and 3), and finally defeated the Celtics in a championship series.

It raises a question that is also relevant in this year's series: Even if one team is at a rebounding disadvantage (due to size, strength, individual matchups, style of play, etc.), how much can that advantage be negated with increased commitment?

In 1985, some additional desire went a long way. In 2008, can Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf, even guards Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, push back? Or will the Celtics, who carried out their blueprint for winning these Finals in Game 1, duplicate that performance, especially in the paint, three more times?

Game 2 should give us the answer.

Here come the Trail Blazers

Not only did Portland win half of its games in 2008 (a nine-game improvement from the previous season), that 41-41 record included some impressive feats: three victories over the Jazz (including one in Utah), two apiece against the Lakers, Mavs and Hornets, one vs. the Pistons. And don't forget ... a 13-game winning streak.

What's next for the Blazers?

* They're adding the No. 1 overall selection in last year's draft, center Greg Oden. Reports are Oden is on schedule with conditioning and rehabilitation following knee surgery. Even if he eases his way back into the flow, it shouldn't take long for Oden to anchor the middle of Portland's defense with his rebounding and shot blocking. A polished offensive game was Oden's biggest weakness, and with this roster he won't be asked to do too much, too soon.

* All-star Brandon Roy leads a core group, including LaMarus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, Jarrett Jack and Martell Webster, of Portland's top-five returning players who are all younger than 25.

* Word Friday that Rudy Fernandez, whose NBA rights are owned by the Blazers, will leave his Spanish team and sign with Portland. Fernandez, a 6-foot-6 guard who is 23 years old, averaged 21.2 points as one of Spain's top players. He is a slasher and has shooting range, but needs to get stronger. Odds are he'll develop. How much and how fast? That, of course, remains to be seen.

* The 13th selection in this month's draft. Some projections have the the Blazers landing Joe Alexander, the 6-8 forward from West Virginia. Given how Alexander's athleticism has just blown away observers during recent workouts, his stock is soaring, and the buzz surrounding him is growing. Would be a great score for the Blazers, although I'd be surprised if Alexander is available at 13. Regardless, a quality rotation player will be.

Here's one look at a potential Blazers rotation:

Starters: Oden, Aldridge, Webster, Roy, Fernandez.
Reserves: Outlaw, Jack, Alexander, Frye, Przybilla.

Things are definitely looking up in Portland.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 1 analysis

Aside from a few short stretches, the Celtics made sure Game 1 was played to their liking: methodical, efficient and with hard hats. Boston was locked in defensively, rarely out of position, and committed to making life difficult for Kobe Bryant and even more difficult for his teammates.

Even with the attention given to Bryant, the Celtics didn't surrender the 3-point line as the Lakers connected on just 3 of 14 from beyond the arc.

Boston won the battle of the boards, 46-33, but the margin seemed even wider. Even on those 33 rebounds, the Lakers had trouble securing many of them cleanly as the Celtics, even guards Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, crashed in from the wings in search of loose balls. LA never moved Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe or P.J. Brown out of the paint.

Game 1 was a blueprint for Boston to win games in this series. The Lakers, meanwhile, must get tougher inside, move the ball quicker on offense, and look to get out and run.

Celtics-Lakers join elite company

Boston won 66 games. With Pau Gasol in the lineup, Los Angeles was 22-5, which projects to 66.8 wins. Prior to this season, on only 10 occasions had teams won 66 or more games. It's quite an accomplishment. Here's a look at those 10 teams and how their seasons ended:

Year Team----Record----Outcome
1967 76ers-------68-13-----won title
1971 Bucks-------66-16----won title
1972 Lakers------69-13----won title
1973 Celtics------68-14-----lost East finals
1986 Celtics------67-15-----won title
1992 Bulls--------67-15-----won title
1996 Bulls--------72-10-----won title
1997 Bulls--------69-13-----won title
2000 Lakers-----67-15-----won title
2007 Mavs-------67-15-----lost first round

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Finals Preview

The Celtics were 66-16 during the regular season. The Lakers were 22-5 with Pau Gasol in the lineup (67-15 pace). Never have two teams with this many victories squared off for the title.

Boston also turned in one of the greatest seasons ever at the defensive end of the floor, ranking first in field-goal defense, 3-point defense and efficiency (fewest points per 100 possessions).

The Celtics' main concern, however, is that their offense has become rather ordinary in the postseason. As a result, they are just 12-8 in the playoffs, struggling to close out the Hawks and Cavs in seven games each.

In short, Boston has not shown much of that 66-win form. A big reason why is the drop in production from Ray Allen, whose numbers are down across the board (17.4 points, 44.5 FG%, 39.8 3FG% to 14.2, 40.3, 34.0). Without an effective Allen, the Celtics struggle to score.

The Lakers, meanwhile, are rolling. In the 27 regular-season games with Gasol, LA outscored its foes by a bunch: +11.6 per game. In the playoffs, the Lakers are 12-3 overall (8-0 home, 4-3 road). The scoring margin is down a bit, but still impressive at +6.4. In order, they've dispatched of the Nuggets (a 50-win team and a formidable eight-seed), the Jazz (nearly unbeatable at home and a pick by many to win it all), and the defending champions, the Spurs.

LA's offense is clicking. Kobe is getting his numbers, but for the most part, he's doing it within the offense, which means Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Derek Fisher, etc., are more effective, too. Given the focus on the offense, the Lakers' defense has sailed under the radar, but it's better than advertised.

This series is LA's to lose. Boston's defense has been so tough all year, but the Celtics haven't seen an offense this dialed in with post options, shooters and the best player on the planet. Look for Fisher to lock in on Allen. As we've seen, a shutdown there makes Boston's offense predictable and stagnant. It would absolutely shock me if the Celtics beat LA four times in seven games.

Lakers in 6

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Pistons fire Saunders

The Detroit Pistons firing of coach Flip Saunders essentially boiled down to one reason: Saunders was the reason Detroit failed get back to the NBA Finals and/or win a title during his three seasons.

In other words, GM Joe Dumars, who wasn't going to fire himself, felt that the roster he put together was right, that is was good enough to win, and that it was Saunders fault it didn't.

Dumars was wrong on all three accounts.

Essentially with the core of guards Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, and forwards Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons have reached the Eastern Conference finals six consecutive seasons. In four of those seasons, they lost in that round. Two other times, both under Larry Brown, the Pistons reached the NBA Finals. In 2004 they won the championship. Brown left after the 2005 season.

Enter Saunders, a good coach (certainly in the league's top third) with a mind for offense. It seemed like a good fit. In Saunders' three seasons, the Pistons won 64, 53 and 59 games. At times, Detroit's offense opened up. Other times, it bogged down just as it had under Brown. More troubling, however, was the fact that the Pistons' collective attitude was still amiss. Not all the time, but at inopportune times. Whether it was Wallace's lack of effort, Prince's aloofness, or Billups' arrogance, this team never seemed to have the right harmony, the right chemistry. Despite the championship, this wasn't a problem that Brown was able to fix. Saunders wasn't able to either.

Dumars and Saunders together deserve credit for drafting well and developing youngsters Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell, both of whom are ready for greater roles, thus making it easier to break up the core group.

But until Dumars actually pulls the trigger on a deal, the Pistons will head down the same path for their new coach: alternating between impressive and maddening. Ultimately, however, they'll continue to fall short.

Dumars announced the decision by saying, "it's time for a new voice to lead our team." Dumars would have been better served with a new team to hear Saunders' voice.

Time for a roster change is now. The coach was fine.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Yao Ming and the Olympics

Yao Ming's NBA season ended in late February because of a stress fracture in his left foot. Yao had screws placed in the foot on March 3. Recovery time for such an injury is approximately four months. In this case that would be July. Under normal circumstances, a team would push out that timetable a bit further to take advantage of the offseason. These, however, aren't normal circumstances.

Yao is China's most famous athlete, and with the Summer Olympics in Beijing starting in August, a lot of people -- oh roughly, 1/5 of the world's population -- are counting on him to be there, leading the country's basketball team, giving its people something to cheer about and rally around in the wake of tragedy. In addition, the economic impact of Yao's participation is monumental.

The Rockets, meanwhile, also have invested a lot in Yao, who is under contract for $15 million in 2009, $16.3 million in 2010, and $17.7 million in 2011. If I owned the Rockets, a significant part of me would dread Yao playing in these games so soon after the injury. I might even seek compensation for his participation. I realize this isn't a likely possibility due to the prior agreement between China and the Rockets that permits him to play in the United States.

Yao will play because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's also the right thing to do.

But for the Rockets it's also scary.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Celtics-Pistons -- Game 6 thread

Celtics win, 89-81. They held the Pistons to 13 fourth-quarter points in an elimination game. Boston won 66 games during the regular season, but hasn't showed that form much during the postseason so far. The Celtics, however, have been resilient at times. And tonight's performance in a close-out game was impressive. The big guys and the role players all came through. And for all of his wacky moves, such as random player rotations and leaving Ray Allen on an island against Joe Johnson, etc., Doc Rivers did an excellent job with this team. He stayed on the guys about playing hard, didn't desert Allen when he struggled, and pulled this group together beginning in October.

Celtics on a 23-6 run to open the fourth quarter, now lead, 83-76. They're 2:30 away from the Finals.

Pistons played a passionate third quarter, lead, 68-60.

Billups has 18 at the half, but the Celtics lead, 40-37. The Pistons have yet to turn up the intensity, energy and urgency that needs to be displayed to win an elimination game. It's time.

Detroit's greatest strength -- four legitimate all-star caliber players -- is also it's greatest weakness. The Pistons don't have a dominant player. Not only do they not have LeBron James, they don't even have Joe Johnson, who has more sheer talent than anybody on their roster. The Pistons don't have a single player that requires a double-team. Rasheed Wallace has the skills to require a double-team, but he isn't aggressive about posting up often enough to force teams into doing it.

Look back at the loaded 2003 NBA Draft: 1. James (Cle); 2. Darko Milicic (Det); 3. Carmelo Anthony (Den); 4. Chris Bosh (Tor); 5. Dwyane Wade (Mia). Pistons GM Joe Dumars has been criticized for selecting Milicic, and yes, it's deserved. But most arguments have centered on the fact that Dumars should have taken Anthony or Wade. But given Anthony's inability to lead a team at this point, and given Wade's injuries, the pick that would have helped the most is Bosh.

Picture, for a moment, Bosh on this Pistons team. He would be their best player, someone who would require a double-team on the block, which would open up 3-point shooting for Wallace, Billups and Hamilton. Bosh is also a relentless rebounder and shot-blocker too. In some ways, Bosh is the type of player Dumars hoped Milicic had become. That's what he was drafting for, adding that type of player to the roster. He just picked the wrong guy.

Pistons defense is soft early. Both Allen and Pierce have knocked down wide-open 3-pointers with a defender nowhere near the area. Celtics, 14-10.

Pistons are 12-5 when facing elimination the past six postseasons.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Finley for 3! -- Part 2

Here's a photo taken with 0.9 seconds to go. Note how Finley has moved into position. The ball should already be in his hands at this point, ready to be released.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Finley for 3!

The reason coaches put their best shooters on the floor for final offensive possessions is because it makes the defense respect numerous options. Having said that, the difference in field-goal percentage between contested shots and open ones is substantial. The Spurs needed to get the highest percentage shot possible on their final play. What they got, however, was one of the lowest. Brent Barry, closed out by Derek Fisher, off one dribble, off-balance, with a release point from his waist? Just guessing here, but only a couple of those out of 100 go in.

In situations like this, since a team has already put its best shooters onto the floor, it matters less who shoots the ball, but rather how open they are, i.e., the highest possible probability of making that shot.

2.1 seconds are enough to catch and make a pass for a rhythm 3 to win. Fisher made an aggressive rotation that could have turned into a monumental error in judgment. He raced to Barry on the inbounds pass, completely leaving Michael Finley on the right wing, who was moving perfectly into that rhythm 3 on the right wing (see photo below, taken with 2.0 seconds left). Barry absolutely needed to make that pass to Finley, who shot 37 percent on 3s during the regular season and is at 35 in the playoffs. Those numbers, of course, are for all 3s. I'd like to think they're higher for open ones, ones where nobody is within 15 feet of him.

Regardless of the exact number, I'm certain Finley is stroking that shot at better than a 2 percent clip. One trademark during the Spurs' successful run is their ability to runs plays such as this to give themselves the best chance to win. Do they always win? Of course not. But if a team puts itself in the best position possible time and time again, it will come through more often than otherwise, and more often than its opponents who lack such precision.

With its season essentially on the line in Game 4, the correct shot for the Spurs was Finley, based on how the play developed.

Lakers-Spurs -- Game 4 thread

Lakers win, 93-91.

2.1 seconds to go. Horry inbounding the ball to Barry, who is bumped by Fisher and fires an errant shot at the buzzer. Terrible shot. You have to get a clean look there. It matters less who takes the shot, but how open it is. Barry had Finley open to his right, and Ginobili and Horry to his left. Instead, Barry tried to draw a foul and took an off-balance shot that he released from his hip.

To save the season, what does Pop come up with? A two to Duncan, who would likely be fouled and have to tie the game at the line? A three for the win? If so, is it Ginobili, Finley, Barry, Horry?

Spurs force a Fisher air ball, but Horry can't secure the defensive rebound. Two seconds left on the shot clock, 5.6 in the game. Let's see what Jackson comes up with on a quick out-of-bounds play. Bryant forced deep to catch the inbounds pass, fades a long 2 that comes up way short. Spurs call timeout.

Ginobili for 3. Bryant misses on a breakaway layup. Parker scores for 2. Spurs within 2, 93-91. 28.1 seconds.

Bryant misses, but Odom is fouled on the offensive glass. Offensive rebounds were the difference early and now late. Lakers up, 93-76. 56.5 seconds to go.

Parker rolls one in. Spurs down 5, 91-86. 1 minute left.

Duncan inside. Spurs down 6, 90-84.

Gasol beats Duncan to a key offensive rebound, which results in a jumper by Fisher. Lakers, 90-82. Duncan looked a step slow in reacting to the ball off the rim and then trying to track it to the corner.

Barry for 3. Spurs within 6, 88-82.

Kobe dunks off a turnover by Oberto/Ginobili. Lakers on a 7-0 run, 88-79. 3:26 left.

Odom past Oberto. And 1. Lakers, 86-79.

Odom dunks from Gasol. Lakers, 83-79.

Ginobili's 3 attempt for the lead was rushed and way off.

Following Kobe's lead, the Lakers have completely thrown the offense in the trash. Everything is isolation. Farmar just tried to go 1-on-4 and threw up an air ball with the shot clock near zero. Big test for LA: Can these guys trust the offense? Kobe can still get the shot, but it will be a cleaner look if it happens in the triangle.

Ginobili a step-back 2. Spurs within 2, 81-79.

Kobe another long 2. Lakers, 81-77.

Bryant is back and immediately drills a long 2. Lakers, 79-75.

Barry for 3, his fourth. He has 18 points. Spurs within 2, 77-75. 10 minutes to go.

Spurs are going to ride Duncan, who is getting a post touch every trip right now.

Bottom line is that the Spurs, given their current roster, have very little margin for error against a quality opponent. Every player needs to do his part. When one falters, such as Ginobili tonight, it's very, very difficult for them to win. The Lakers, meanwhile, are the better, deeper team. Odom is 2-for-6, Gasol has a quiet 10, yet LA is in position to get a huge road win and grab this series by the throat.

Vujacic for 3. And 1. Lakers lead, 77-70, after 3. Spurs missed their last seven shots of the quarter.

Ginobili to the line. First point at 1:32 to go in the third. 2-for-2 at the line. Spurs within 1, 71-70.

Parker ties it with a short jumper. 65-all.

Spurs are hanging close, but the Lakers are controlling this game: the flow, the rebounding, and Bryant hasn't exerted much energy to get his 20 points. He should be fresh down the stretch to try and steal this one.

Lakers close the half on an 8-2 run to lead, 53-47. They have 11 offensive rebounds, and lead the overall battle of the boards, 28-14. They're outworking the Spurs, who won't win if they don't limit second-chance opportunities.

Tony Parker is unstoppable in the open floor. And 1. Tie game, 43-all. No player is faster end-to-end, but what makes him truly special is the ability to make small changes in direction without slowing down. And he gets just enough of an angle on the defender to avoid a charge.

Barry has been a savior tonight: 12 points. His two free throws pull the Spurs within 3, 43-40.

Ginobili is 0-for-3 with a turnover in 11 unproductive minutes so far.

I can't believe we're stuck with Marv Albert in this game. The guy who gets screwed when TNT only has one series left is Kevin Harlan, who is superior to Albert.

Spurs close the quarter on a 15-6 run to stay in the game, down 28-23, after 1.

Lakers with five offensive rebounds already.

Parker was just matched up in the corner with Fisher, who was in triple-threat. Parker initially closed out a 3-point attempt. Fisher jabbed once, then Bryant walked into Parker's peripheral vision as if he was going to set a screen. Parker took a peek at Bryant. Fisher then jabbed again, creating just enough room to launch a successful 3-pointer. Fisher's only threat in that situation is a 3-point attempt. Parker should have crowded him to force either a dribble or pass.

Lakers efficient at both ends. Bryant 4-for-4. Lakers, 22-8.

Ginobili in. Spurs down, 12-4.

Gasol and Odom going strong to the board at both ends. Lakers lead, 10-4.

As expected, the Spurs played with a tremendous amount of urgency in Game 3 and picked up a home victory in must-win situation. Manu Ginobili rebounded from a pair of sub-par games in LA and delivered 30 points. Is his ankle healed enough to do it again?

Can the Lakers, meanwhile, take a big step toward a title? Winning Game 4 for an all-but-over 3-1 advantage would do it.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Banged up and battered, the Spurs fight on

The Spurs' team bus navigated the steep ramp inside KeyArena and came to a stop outside the visiting team's locker room. It was Jan. 29, two hours before tip-off against the Seattle Sonics, and San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich appeared harried.

Never to be confused with a fashion model, Popovich, wearing gray sweatpants with a T-shirt and a black leather jacket, was on the move. In one door, out another, pace quickening. He stopped to talk to an assistant coach, then the training staff.

Inside the locker room, inside a small training room where players receive pre-game treatments (e.g., taped ankles, ice baths, electro-stimulizations, etc.), Tony Parker was being examined. Popovich entered the room and closed the door shut behind him. Words were not audible, but voices (mostly Popovich's) could be heard coming from the room. A minute or so later, the door opened. Popovich, still moving with a purpose, had made his decision.

Parker, coming off a 1-for-7, four-turnover game the night before in Utah, would not play against the Sonics. Parker's injured left foot was bothering him and playing on it wasn't helping. Popovich, against Parker's wishes, decided to shut down his point guard.

Popovich later explained this to the media: The only way to survive the playoffs is by being at full-strength physically. Pop didn't want Parker's injury to linger any longer, to jeopardize his postseason. Parker missed a total of nine games. He returned to play the final two months of the regular season. And he's been the Spurs' best performer thus far in the postseason.

Playoff teams, particularly in the West, are simply too evenly matched to expect success when key guys are hobbling. While Parker is healthy, Manu Ginobili is not. His ankle is Jello, thanks to an injury suffered in Game 1 of the first round against the Suns. His versatile game, which typically includes a big dose of explosive drives to the basket, has been reduced to 3-pointers and free throws.

His effectiveness diminished, Ginobili still gutted out 25 and 26 points respectively as the Spurs fought off elimination to win Games 6 and 7 against the Hornets. But the quick turn to face the fresh and impressive Lakers was too much as Ginobili tallied just 17 points on 5-for-21 shooting combined in the first two games, both wins by Los Angeles.

Against the Lakers, a healthy Ginobili may not have mattered. Since acquiring Pau Gasol via trade, the Lakers are 31-6, including 10-2 in the postseason (7-0 in LA, where they have enjoyed homecourt advantage throughout the West bracket).

With a banged up Ginobili, however, the Spurs' chances were slim to begin with. Now down 2-0, and again forced to win four of the final five, those chances are rapidly slipping away to nothing. But even if they come up short of a title this year, San Antonio's dispatching of the Suns and Hornets deserves to be ranked alongside some of its greatest accomplishments.

Sunday's Game 3 will be the Spurs' 15th playoff game in 2008 and 105th since 2003. Essentially, they've crammed another season-and-a-half's worth of games (all high intensity against quality opposition, too) into the span of six years. Not only does that put additional stress on bodies that just completed a grinding regular season, playing into June also means shorter offseasons, and thus, less recovery time.

I'm not saying that Ginobili's injury is the product of overuse, but rather that in order to beat the best team in the league, one that is performing at its peak, everyone needs to be at full-strength and that includes Tim Duncan, who isn't dominating as much or as frequently as he once did.

Sometimes, players who have been through the ringer, oh, say, 105 extra times in six years, summon the energy to get it done again -- and their bodies don't respond.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Lakers-Spurs -- Prediction

The Lakers have clearly been the class of the West so far, actually ever since the Gasol trade. Their level of efficiency on offense, the easy baskets, and of course, Kobe, make them a very difficult cover. It's hard to take anything away from them.

The Spurs, meanwhile, showed some deficiencies (Games 1, 2, 5 vs. New Orleans), but they also showed the mettle of defending champions (Phoenix series, Game 7 vs. New Orleans). They're still good, but not as good. Duncan doesn't dominate as frequently, and Ginobili still has no explosiveness pushing off that gimpy ankle. His drives have been reduced to almost nothing.

Lakers in 6

Celtics-Pistons -- Prediction

A couple of things stand out here ...

1) These Celtics are not the same ones who went 66-16 during a historic regular season. Ray Allen is a shadow of the all-star he used to be. They've been very good at home, but were fortunate to escape Cleveland in Game 7. On the road, meanwhile, they've been abysmal.

2) It's impressive that through two rounds the Pistons have yet to begin what's become their annual "in-fighting, it's Flip's fault routine." Have they matured? Are they trying to set a good example for the kids (i.e., Stuckey, Maxiell)?

If Detroit gives an even effort throughout, they'll win one game in Boston and wrap up this series at home.

Pistons in 6

Sunday, May 18, 2008

LeBron's Game 7 -- a closer look

LeBron James (45 points) and Paul Pierce (41) engaged in a magnificent duel in Sunday's Game 7 between the Cavs and Celtics, becoming just the second pair -- joining Sam Jones (47) and Oscar Robertson (43) in the 1963 East finals between the Celtics and Royals -- to go for 40-plus in Game 7 history (now 99 games in all).

LeBron's effort was valiant for many reasons: in part because trying to win a Game 7 on the road is a difficult task, in part because the Celtics had just about steamrolled everyone in winning their first seven home postseason games this spring, in part because the Celtics had won 66 games during the regular season (a total that puts them in quite elite company, historically), and in part because LeBron's teammates, well, they're just not very good.

While likely spirited, MVP discussions including Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and LeBron won't reach conclusion. They're all worthy candidates. My uncounted vote went to Kobe, but one part of the MVP conversation could not be clearer: LeBron has less to work with. If you lined up those three guys' teammates and held a draft, only Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, out of 33 players, likely would be among the first 10 selections.

Still, LeBron dragged the Cavs inside the final two minutes with a victory still within reach. One more rebound, one more free throw made, one more loose ball secured might have pushed the Cavs over the top. Here's a look at LeBron's day and just how much Cleveland needed him to be spectacular just to have a chance:

By Quarter
Quarter 1---12:00--3-7-----0-0----3-4----0-1-----0---0----0-----1-----0-----9
Quarter 2---10:48--4-8-----0-2----6-7----0-0-----1---0----0-----1-----2-----14
Quarter 3---12:00--3-5-----1-3----2-3----1-2-----4---1----0-----0-----1-----9
Quarter 4---12:00--4-9-----2-6----3-5----0-2-----1---1----0-----0-----1-----13

By Shot Selection
Quarter 1---2-4-----1-3-----0-0
Quarter 2---2-4-----2-2-----0-2
Quarter 3---1-1-----1-1-----1-3
Quarter 4---2-3-----0-0----2-6

By Involvement----------------------------------Paint Outcomes---------------
Quarter 1---23------16-------5------2-4---------1------2-2---------0------0-----0
Quarter 2---25------20------9------2-4----------3-------5-6--------1-------1-----0
Quarter 3---24------21-------2------1-1---------2*------2-3---------0------0-----0
Quarter 4---24------21-------7------2-3---------3-------2-4---------0------0-----1
* Includes one "and-1"
While LeBron was in the game, the Cavs had 96 possessions. He had at least one touch on 78 of those possessions. Of those 78, he got to the paint on 23 of them, resulting in 7-for-12 shooting, being fouled nine times (one was a continuation) and three miscellaneous outcomes (hence, 12 + 9 + 3 - 1 = 23).

Non-LeBron Possessions
While LeBron was in the game, the 18 possessions where he didn't get a touch ended like this:
West-------2-4 (2-2 free throws, 5 turnovers, 3 assists)
Ilgauskas ---0-2
Jones-------1-2 (3-pointer)
Totals------6-12, 5 turnovers
^ 18 possessions resulted in 15 points.
^ The 78 possessions where LeBron got a touch resulted in 77 points.
^ In the 1:12 that LeBron sat in the second quarter, the Cavs did not score (0-for-2 with one turnover).
^ When LeBron was not involved, West was the only player with the ability and desire to attack. Unfortunately for the Cavs, while he made a couple of shots and nice passes, West also had five of his six turnovers on those possessions.

LeBron doesn't shy away from contact, from attacking. But even LeBron, for all his greatness, especially when his tank is approaching empty and opponents are trying to force him to a certain area on the floor, occasionally convinces himself that his jumper will get the job done when the right play is to keep attacking.

LeBron's entire body of work in Game 7 was brilliant, and overall (he had touches on 42 of the Cavs' 48 second-half possessions!) the numbers show he was plenty aggressive, but ... for the Cavs to overcome all of the obstacles noted earlier, they needed even more driving from James (especially late).

With Cleveland down 89-88 with 2:01 left, James snared a defensive rebound. With a chance to give his team the lead, James ground down 21 seconds on the shot clock before rising with a long 3-pointer that missed. On the game's biggest possession, James went with his least effective option (see shot chart). In fact, despite connecting on 4 of his 6 2-point jumpers through three quarters, James didn't take any of them in the final 12 minutes.

On Cleveland's next possession, with the Cavs now down, 91-88, LeBron started on the left side of the floor (instead of the preferred top in a 1-4 set, where a trap is easier to escape), where he was easily doubled near the sideline and forced to give up the ball. West missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer.

So, on the two biggest possessions of his season, LeBron was either unable or unwilling to get to the basket, or even get into 2-point range.

The Cavs needed so much from their superstar all season, but with the roster in its current state, they needed even more from him, even more than those 45 points, to beat the Celtics on Sunday.

Celtics-Cavs -- Game 7 (pre-tipoff)

* Sasha Pavlovic, the starting guard on last year's Cleveland team that reached the NBA Finals, has showed some signs of rounding back into shape. Look for him to get more of Gibson's minutes. He could be a huge X-factor for the Cavs today.

* The best way to win a road game of this magnitude is to allow the home team and its fans to feel comfortable. In other words the longer the Cavs can keep the scoring margin +/- 5, the better. Just lull everyone along.

* Given Ray Allen's struggles, the Celtics need Paul Pierce's offense more than ever today. Although Pierce's defense on LeBron James has been stellar, it has also sapped him of energy and focus at the offensive end of the floor. Boston should put James Posey on James and let Pierce focus almost exclusively on offense.

* Daniel Gibson first emerged as a rookie last season as a big-time shot-maker. Gibson, who won't play today because of a separated shoulder he suffered in Game 5, will be sorely missed. Gibson is shooting 45.2 percent from beyond the arc in this year's postseason, averaging 9.0 points in nearly 26 minutes per game.

* On the pregame studio show Michael Wilbon has made no less than four errors regarding Game 7 history.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Utah Jazz and fouling

If a coach patrols the sidelines long enough, eventually his team's personality and style will match his as an individual.

It should come as no surprise then that the Utah Jazz are a reflection of Jerry Sloan, who has guided the NBA team in Salt Lake City for the past 20 years.

As a player, Sloan, who spent 10 of his 11 seasons with the Chicago Bulls, was all about toughness, defense (four first-team selections, two second-team), effort and ... fouling. Make no mistake -- all those things go together. Although he was also a better than average offensive player (14 ppg for his career), defense was his game. Sloan was a scrapper. He bumped, pushed through, pursued the ball and the man, and he did all of them relentlessly.

Sloan's 2008 Jazz were whistled for more fouls that any other team in the league: 24.0 per game on average. (By comparison, the league average was 21.0; New Orleans, meanwhile, committed the fewest, 18.7).

In fact, in six of the past eight years, the Jazz have been the most foul-prone team in the NBA. Coincidence? Unlikely. Even though personnel matters, did Utah acquire players to execute Sloan's style? Or did Sloan mold the players to fit his image?

Watch the Jazz play for a quarter or two. Don't, although it is easy to do because Deron Williams does some amazing things, get caught staring the ball. Watch inside. On offense, no team runs off-the-ball cuts with more purpose, and sets screens with more conviction. Ditto on defense, where no team bumps more cutters, fights through more screens, and bodies up to more perimeter players.

Imagine gauging defense in this manner ... One end of the scale is as far from fouling as possible, say standing 10 feet away from your opponent, feet planted, hands at your sides, never moving. The other end of the scale is the most obvious foul possible, say reaching out with two hands to grab the opponent, perhaps even wrapping them up.

For the defensive team, every possession then -- both for the five players on the floor as individuals and collectively as a group -- involves defending somewhere between those two extremes. And somewhere on that continuum is the pivot point where the contact is too much, where fouls are called. It's not black-and-white, of course. Every referee has his/her own slightly different point.

Now, given that the goal of defense is to prevent the other team from scoring, one good way to do this is to spend as many possessions as possible as close as possible to -- and just to the left of -- that pivot point where fouls are called. The Jazz do this more than any other team in the NBA. They're physical for 48 minutes. They're constantly on the edge of being called for fouls. It's who they are and a big part of why they're successful.

One problem, of course, is that when a team spends so much time close to the line, it also crosses that line more often than others. And in this series against the Los Angeles Lakers, who have the practically unguardable Kobe Bryant, a smooth post player in Pau Gasol, the length, size and quickness of Lamar Odom, and an effective offensive system, the Jazz are fouling even more.

In the first five games of the series, Utah has been called for foul totals of 33, 30, 28, 27 and 31 (contributing to an average of nearly 39 free-throw attempts per game for Los Angeles). Given the Lakers' offensive skills, as well as the more intense nature of the postseason, these numbers aren't entirely unreasonable.

Every coach says his team needs to defend without fouling. That is true, but defending well means defending very close to fouling. Keeping from crossing that line, especially against a talented offensive team with matchup advantages, is difficult to do.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Hornets-Spurs -- Game 5 thread

The point differentials in the first five games: 19, 18, 11, 20, 22. The 1993 Western semifinal between the Sonics and Rockets, which went seven games (all won by the home team), had the following point differentials: 9, 11, 18, 11, 25 and 13 for the first six games. Game 7 then went overtime, which the Sonics won by three. The Rockets missed go-ahead shots in the closing seconds of regulation and overtime.

It's over. Hornets, 101-79.

West: 38 points, 14 rebounds, 5 blocked shots. One of San Antonio's many trademarks during its run of titles is the assembling of a roster with role players who can contribute unique skills (e.g., 3-point shooting, rebounding, defense, etc.) when they are needed. This roster lacks a single player who can slow West. Perhaps Luis Scola? Oh, that's right. He's gone.

Spurs played another good first half in New Orleans, but the Hornets just took control in the third quarter and ran away. Hornets lead the series, 3-2. Can either team win a road game? Game 6 in Thursday. Game 7 would be Monday.

Udoka for 3. Spurs within eight, 85-77. 4:45 left.

West has 34. Hornets, 78-63.

Hornets outscore the Spurs, 28-11, in the third quarter, lead, 72-58. West has 30. Duncan, meanwhile, is 4-for-16.

Peterson for 3. Hornets, 68-54.

Paul fouled again, more free throws coming. Hornets, 65-54.

Peterson for 3. Hornets, 64-51.

Chandler from Paul. Hornets, 61-51. The run is now 17-4.

Spurs' offense is stagnant. Ginobili and Parker need to get going to the basket.

Paul hits two at the line. Hornets, 59-51.

Paul again inside. Hornets, 57-51. New Orleans is continuing the trend from the first two games -- a big third-quarter surge, 13-4, to open.

Chandler blocks Duncan, and the Hornets are running and outhustling the Spurs.

Paul for 3. Hornets, 55-51.

Paul's runner gives the Hornets the lead, 50-49.

West has 24. The Spurs have no answer.

Spurs lead at the break, 47-44. They held leads in the first two games in New Orleans too, but the Hornets blew open the games with huge third quarters. Can they force the tempo again?

Parker has disappeared during stretches of some of the Spurs' playoff runs in the past, but he has been absolutely fearless throughout the first two series this year. He is settling for nothing, constantly attacking the defense, taking heavy punishment, and coming back for more.

Hornets taking advantage of slips/turnovers by Parker and Ginobili to crank up their fastbreak. Tie game, 43-all.

Neither team is shooting well. The game has no flow. Play is somewhat ragged. All of this favors San Antonio, which leads, 38-32.

Ginobili for 3. Spurs, 37-30.

Paul gets his first field goal on a drive with 6:09 to go before halftime, and 1. Hornets within 3, 31-28.

West now guarding Duncan 1-on-1 and holding his own without a double-team.

Ginobili's first attack of the basket, draws a foul. Spurs, 29-22.

Duncan gets his first basket, and 1. Spurs, 28-22.

Spurs lead, 23-21, after 1.

Double personals and double technicals on Ely and Oberto. In the end, this will have no impact on the game. But step up and make a call. Gutless move by Joey Crawford.

Parker pushes through Ely on the break, and 1. Spurs, 19-13.

Offensive foul on Chandler, who goes to the bench with two personals. 3:17 left in the first.

Parker and Bowen for 3. Spurs, 14-13.

West is 4-for-4. Hornets, 13-8.

Spurs open 1-for-9; Duncan 0-for-4.

West has found his outside shot again. Hornets, 9-3.

Hornets are delaying the double on Duncan until after the second dribble.

Ginobili's ankle is still bothering him -- and significantly more than he's letting on. He has no explosion off the dribble, failing to take Peja on consecutive drive attempts.

Hornets active on defense early, but they give up two offensive rebounds on the first possession.

The Spurs' adjustments the past two games -- most notably, Bowen guarding Stojakovic -- have not only help even the series, they've positioned San Antonio well for tonight and beyond.

For New Orleans to bounce back in Game 5 and ultimately win this series, the Hornets will have to outwork the Spurs, and relentlessly push the basketball, which would do wonders for all, especially Stojakovic and his transition 3s.

O.J. Mayo: The rise or fall of USC?

A lot has been written about ESPN's report of O.J. Mayo accepting gifts or cash, or gifts and cash, or just gifts.

The biggest question surrounding this story was not if, but when. Several people I talked to even months before Mayo's arrival at USC believed that Southern Cal coach Tim Floyd was either directly involved in player "incentives" or simply turned his back while the impropriety was taking place.

Let's see where this story goes, but I think we all have a good idea how it's going to turn out.

In the meantime, consider this ...

Of the 29 Trojans who went on to play in the NBA, the three best -- Gus Williams, Paul Westphal and Bill Sharman -- all entered the pro ranks before the mid-1970s had passed. USC's most notable player in the past 30 years was Harold Miner, aka "Baby Jordan," who followed three spectacular college seasons with four unspectacular NBA seasons. By 1996 he was gone for good.

In a nutshell, USC has zero basketball tradition.

In Floyd, it has a kinda geeky, kinda nondescript head coach, who washed out of the NBA after the equivalent of four seasons and .280 winning percentage, and whose greatest collegiate success took place at Iowa State.

And, yet, Mayo, widely considered the No. 1 college recruit in the country in 2007, decided that USC was the best fit for him. Never mind that Mayo is from Huntington, W.V. Never mind that he could have played for Duke, or Florida, or Kentucky, or North Carolina, or Kansas, or any of the other big-time powers.

USC. It's always been in Los Angeles, where the benefits are many and obvious. But none of that has ever before lured a top recruit capable of making the Trojans an elite program.

Mayo to USC? It just doesn't add up. It's something that one of many TV crime dramas could neatly unravel and tie back into a bow in a tidy 60 minutes (commercials included).

And now for 2008 Floyd has signed Demar DeRozan, another top-10 recruit (at least he's from Los Angeles). Three players in the class of 2009's top-10, meanwhile, are also considering USC.

Maybe Floyd is taking the Trojans to greater heights.

Or maybe he's going to drag them down with him.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Lakers: From up to even

The Lakers won their first six playoff games, and with a couple more stops and a couple more buckets this weekend, they could have swept the Jazz, too. Everything was going great for LA: Kobe was on top of his game, Odom and Gasol were flourishing in the triangle, Fisher was knocking down open 3s, the ball was moving, both the initial defense and rotations were sharp enough. Quite simply, they had the look of a champion.

What a difference a weekend in Salt Lake makes.

Where are the Lakers now?

Kobe injured his back in Game 4, and Utah's physical style at both ends of the floor has gotten the best of LA's frontline the entire series, but most notably in Utah. Most important, however, is how the ball stopped moving during crucial junctures in the fourth quarter and overtime on Sunday.

Look, Kobe has won countless games by taking over down the stretch and scoring at will. And he has plenty of those games left in his future. But Kobe's, and the Lakers', biggest growth this season (and why they're title contenders) is trusting the teammates who have become more viable options, and trusting the offense that puts those teammates in the best positions to contribute.

And so, with his stiff back limiting his explosiveness and lift, Kobe, now more than ever, needed to trust the offense, and the teammates who earned that trust, throughout a first-place season. In particular, Gasol, Odom and Fisher -- the latter two combined for 20 fourth-quarter points and led the late charge that forced overtime. Instead, much of LA's late-game and overtime offense consisted of clear-outs for Bryant, who forced errant 3-pointers and stalled the offense.

There is no way the Lakers should lose to the Jazz. They are the better team. They have the matchup advantages. But now this is a series. And regardless of whether or not Kobe's condition improves, more games in this series (and perhaps beyond) will be in doubt coming down the stretch. How will Kobe and the Lakers play it?

Hornets-Spurs -- Game 4

Spurs win comfortably, 100-80. They are better positioned to win in New Orleans now than they were in Game 1 and Game 2.


Key adjustments by Popovich.

* Switching Bowen onto Stojakovic. Accepting that Paul will get certain point-assist totals regardless of who's guarding him, the Spurs are manning up with Parker and helping the best they can. But Peja gets almost all of his points when guys help off of him or via the break trailer. Bowen is taking away both of those options.

* Giving the Hornets an early, large and steady dose of Parker, who is being as aggressive as ever.

* Properly spacing the floor to give Duncan easy angles to find 3-point shooters when the double-teams come, which is on every catch. Look for the Hornets to delay the doubles, perhaps on the first or second dribble. I'm sure Duncan and the Spurs are preparing for this (i.e., not holding the ball, going 1-on-1 immediately).

Thursday, May 8, 2008

On the perimeter -- news and notes

* I wrote earlier about the power of desperation, and that's clearly what we saw tonight from San Antonio. The Spurs not only are the defending champions and a very proud bunch, they're also talented enough to get a win against a very good New Orleans team that played superbly for two consecutive games.

Much like a baseball manager going to his closer in the eighth inning of an elimination game, Popovich started Ginobili in Game 3. Despite the tender ankle, Manu delivered with 31 points. Parker added 31 and 11 assists, and Duncan chipped in with 16 to give with Big Three 78 much-needed points.

The game was evenly played except in one area: 3-point shooting. In part thanks to Bowen's defense that limited Stojakovic to eight points, the Hornets were 2-for-11 from beyond the arc. The Spurs, meanwhile, were 11-for-25.

San Antonio now catches a big break as Game 4 isn't until Sunday night, almost three full days of rest.

* Give the Celtics' effort and schemes credit, but LeBron has obviously been off his game as well. He followed the 2-for-18, 10-turnover line in Game 1 with 6-for-24 and seven turnovers tonight. Naturally, the Cavs have no chance if LeBron plays this poorly. Everything, of course, has been off.

Keep and eye on ... On his hard drives to the basket that he can't finish with dunks, if LeBron's angle to the glass is taken away, he seems to have much more difficult time than others with his layup attempts. Too many of his tries hit the back rim. A finger roll would work wonders here, but that shot isn't in many bags of tricks anymore. Calling George Gervin ...

* The way the Lakers are playing, especially on offense with huge matchup advantages for Kobe and Odom and Gasol, it's hard to imagine them not getting at least one (and maybe both) against the Jazz in Utah. At 6-0, LA has a lot of confidence and has yet to be dealt a reason to doubt itself. A huge step for their title moxie would be a win in Game 3.

* A lot of not very bright people out there have commented recently that Rashard Lewis, with his 33-point performance in Orlando's Game 3 win vs. Detroit, has either:

a.) earned his money; or b.) diffused the anger over his large contract.

Have these people not seen the contract?

2008: $15.6M
2009: $17.2M
2010: $18.9M
2011: $20.5M
2012: $22.1M
2013: $23.7M

Let's get one thing straight ... In order to earn that money, Lewis would have to finish top-three in MVP voting and lead Orlando to a title or two. Actually, that still might not be enough.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Celtics-Cavs -- Game 1 thread

This series is going to be more of the same: low scoring, grind it out, defense, etc.

Garnett finishes with 28 and hit some big shots down the stretch.

James misses a 3. Celtics win, 76-72.

Posey at the line: make, make. Celtics, 76-72. 8.5 seconds left.

James makes a great move, gets all the way to the rim, but misses another layup. He did everything but put it down. Not sure he could have dunked it, but his angle to use the board was gone and he hit the back rim. 2-for-17.

Hmm ... Do the Cavs run it down and go for 3? Trailing by two, you have to run the clock down to about five or six seconds. A 2 or a 3? Doesn't matter. Just get the best shot, but you have give yourself a chance at a tip and/or foul and try again.

Garnett over Joe Smith inside. Celtics, 74-72. 21.4 seconds.

Ilgauskas tips in LeBron's layup miss. Tie game, 72-all.

Cassell, who's playing for Rondo down the stretch again, hits two free throws. Celtics, 72-70.

James can't turn the corner going right against Pierce. First time he was called for a charge. Now he's forced into a tough layup attempt while falling out of bounds.

Garnett a deep 2. Tie game, 70-all.

Ilgauskas from James. Cavs, 70-68. 1:30 left.

Gibson for 3. Tie game, 68-all. 2:14 left.

James just picked up his 10th turnover. Gibson in the game for the Cavs. Apparently, this blog is on a live feed to an earpiece worn by Mike Brown.

Why is Daniel Gibson not in the game as the Cavs launch brick after brick?

LeBron to the rim, lefty finish. Cavs within 1, 66-65.

Wally for 3 from James. Cavs within 3, 66-63.

Cassell another jumper. Celtics, 66-60.

LeBron needs to get the hoop instead of settling for jumpers. I realize he's struggling, but this game is ripe for the taking. He needs to go get it.

Cassell for 3. Celtics, 64-60.

Ilgauskas rejects Garnett at the rim.

Cavs up, 60-59, early in the fourth quarter.

LeBron is 1-for-10 with nine turnovers. Pierce is 2-for-12 with five turnovers. Allen is 0-for-4 with three turnovers.

Celtics close the third on an 8-1 run to regain the lead, 53-52.

Wally for 3. Cavs, 51-45.

LeBron is 1-for-9 with seven turnovers, but the Cavs have come back to take the lead, 48-45, midway through the third.

Given his size, speed and strength, LeBron on the break is simply devastating. There's never been another player who attacked in the open floor quite like he does. Rarely do opponents step in to take a charge (not good for their health), but when they do he often has the agility to avoid them. There really is nothing a defender can do except let LeBron go or foul him.

Posey for 3 at the end of the first quarter. Celtics have it going at both ends, lead, 25-15.

Dick Stockton announcing a playoff game in Boston ... how cool. Where is Tommy Heinsohn? I know he's there, but couldn't TNT borrow him for a night? CBS intro music please. I don't ask for much.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Hornets-Spurs -- Game 2 thread

Hornets win, 102-84. Paul with 30 points and 12 assists, and he led another huge third quarter that turned the game in New Orleans' favor.

Peja for 3. Hornets, 92-76. This one is over. Again, the Hornets are more athletic, more active, more efficient, better shooters, better rebounders, etc. The Spurs are going home for two games, but right now it is hard to imagine these games going any differently. New Orleans has advantages in so many areas.

Ginobili for 3. Spurs within nine, 85-76.

Hornets lead after 3, 78-64.

Peja for 3. Hornets, 70-56.

Paul two more at the line. Hornets, 67-54.

Paul for 3. Hornets, 63-53.

Peja for 2. Hornets, 52-43. 10-0 run.

Peterson for 3. Hornets lead, 50-43. 8-0 run.

Chandler amazing block on Parker.

Peja for 3. Paul drives for 2. Five in a row to open the third for the Hornets, who lead, 47-43.

Parker for 3 at the buzzer. Somehow, the Spurs lead at the half, 43-42. The feeling here is that the Hornets are better, that they'll turn it up (particularly Paul) in the second half. Can the Spurs keep up? San Antonio's pick-and-roll game is producing nothing. Parker and Ginobili can't get to the hoop. Although better, Duncan is ordinary. If things stay the same, their entire fate this series will come down to making 3-point shots (3-for-14 in the first half). They're completely being forced into something they don't want.

Wright again for 3. Hornets, 40-36.

The Spurs are not sharp. They either miss an open shot, or more often run a poor set that results in a turnover or the wrong guy forcing.

Peja for 3. Hornets, 34-31.

Julian Wright for 3. Tie game, 31-all.

Paul back in the game. Hornets down, 29-26.

Ginobili to Udoka on the break. Spurs, 29-22.

Ginobili hits two straight jumpers to open the second. Spurs, 27-22.

Somehow, the Spurs lead after 1, 23-22. They shot 38 percent, including 1-for-7 on 3s. Paul leads the Hornets with eight points (4-for-5) and four assists.

Ginobili has three turnovers in six minutes.

Ginobili says his ankle is fine, but he lacks his usual explosion on drives. In fact, he isn't attacking the rim at all. He comes off the pick-and-roll looking to pass and has basically become a standstill 3-pointer shooter.

With West struggling at the start, Paul is aggressive looking for his shot.

Duncan still has no lift on rebounds.

Two fouls on Chandler in the first 5:28.

Paul two in a row in the lane. Hornets, 8-4.

Chandler rejects Parker at the rim.

Bowen on Paul. Thomas on West.

Albert and Miller again. Ugh.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Lakers-Jazz -- Game 1 thread

Lakers win, 109-98. Utah got into its game for a big chunk of the second half and had a 58-41 edge on the boards (including 25 offensive), but they had no answer for Bryant. Lakers were able to turn it up when they needed to.

Bryant at the line: make, miss. Lakers, 99-90.

Bryant to Gasol. Lakers, 98-90.

Brewer at the line: make, miss. Jazz down six, 96-90.

Gasol taps in a miss. Lakers, 96-89.

Vujacic blocked at the rim, Korver misses on a curl.

Williams at the line: make, make. Jazz within five, 94-89, 2:39 left.

Bryant at the line: make, miss. Lakers, 94-87. Boozer fouls out: 15 points, seven turnovers.

Great play out of the timeout. Bryant to Gasol to Odom, and 1. Lakers, 93-87.

Lakers are in hang-on mode, instead of using their strengths: running, passing, finishing open shots. Jazz have 22 offensive rebounds.

Brewer on the break. Jazz within four, 91-87. 4:31 left. Bryant has missed his last three shots.

Korver for 3. Jazz within six, 91-85. 5:03 left.

Another offensive rebound for the Jazz, who keep the deficit at seven.

All of the fouls have taken the flow out of this game. Plus, the Lakers have stopped running.

Okur at the line: make, make. Lakers lead down to 5, 85-80. 7:36 left.

Kobe back in the game, pull-up jumper at the foul line. Lakers, 85-76.

Another foul on the Lakers. The Jazz will get free throws the final 8:46.

Three off-the-ball fouls by the Lakers in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter. They're getting caught trying to chase cutters and screeners.

Utah's 20th offensive rebound leads to a 3 from Williams in the closing seconds of the third. Lakers' lead, which had reached 19, is down to seven after three quarters, 79-72.

Jazz have turned around this game's flow, which is now bump-and-grind. Lakers aren't running anymore.

Gasol with two very soft attempts inside, the biggest weakness in his game. I'll never understand why he doesn't catch and finish with two hands.

Boozer inside. Jazz with seven, 71-64.

Bryant with a strong drive for two. Lakers, 71-60.

Jazz are pounding the offensive glass with 19 offensive rebounds.

Nine in a row for the Jazz. Utah within 10, 68-58.

Gasol from Fisher on the break. Lakers, 66-49.

Kobe gets two more at the line. Lakers lead, 54-41, at halftime. Bryant with 24 at the break (6-for-8 from the field, 11-for-11 from the line).

At predicted, Utah goes through (sometimes extended) scoring droughts. That is a dangerous trend against the Lakers, who threaten to run out the lead every time it happens.

Fisher to Radmanovic on the break. Lakers, 51-34.

Kobe gets a quick five, then lobs to Gasol for a dunk. Lakers on roll, 41-28.

Three 3s for Vujacic, who was left alone in transition. Lakers, 34-26.

Lakers lead, 25-24, after 1. Utah's inability to guard Kobe is more glaring than against other teams.

Kobe a long 3. He now has 15 late in the first quarter.

Radmanovic is worthless and stealing his money from the Lakers.

Gasol picks up two fouls less than six minutes in, heads to the bench.

Kobe steals and dunks. Lakers on a 9-0 run to lead, 9-4.

Gasol opens on Boozer, who drives by for 2.

Celtics-Hawks -- Game 7 thread

Boston's 34-point margin of victory is third highest in Game 7 history.

Hawks' 29.3 percent shooting is the third lowest in Game 7 history and lowest in the shot-clock era (since 1955).

Celtics win, 99-65.

Impressive performance by the Celtics, who clearly overwhelmed the Hawks from the opening tip. For Atlanta, it's one thing if you're not good enough, but not giving a supreme effort is embarrassing.

Boston's starters will take off the entire fourth quarter.

Celtics, 79-43, after 3.

Posey dunks on the break. Celtics, 79-41.

Allen and 1. Celtics, 70-34.

With the Celtics up 30, Garnett and Allen are diving on the floor for loose balls.

Garnett inside. Celtics, 60-30. Boston's reserves are standing.

Allen for 3. Celtics, 56-28.

Williams clotheslines Rondo on the break. It's a flagrant 2, automatic ejection. This play was somewhat similar to McHale's takedown of Rambis in Game 4 of the 1984 Finals. Williams never made a play on the ball, not a clean play.

Garnett again. Celtics, 51-28.

Pierce for 3 to open the third. Celtics, 47-26.

If maintained for a full game, Atlanta's 26.3 percent shooting would be the second lowest in Game 7 history.

Hawks' 10-point second quarter matches the record for fewest ever points in the second quarter of a Game 7 (1948 St. Louis Bombers vs. Philadelphia Warriors, which was pre-shot clock era).

Celtics lead at the half, 44-26. Hawks shooting 26 percent with 10 turnovers and just four free-throw attempts.

Is Josh Smith awake? He can't hang onto the ball, can't dribble, and just shot an airball.

Garnett inside. Celtics, 42-23.

Celtics very active on defense, taking away multiple options, lead, 40-23.

Garnett inside. Celtics, 36-20.

P.J. Brown with a block, Cassell with a steal, Brown with an offensive rebound. Celtics dominating in every phase. Boston, 34-18.

Cassell a short pull-up. Celtics, 30-16.

Pierce for 3. Celtics, 27-16, after 1. Hawks just shooting 26 percent. Celtics holding a 17-8 edge on the boards, and Perkins has eight points, six rebounds and two blocked shots.

Johnson hits back-to-back 3s, but Perkins is killing the Hawks inside with eight early points.

Hawks look tentative, nervous, overwhelmed, etc. They're 4-for-18 from the field, not decisive in their actions, and they aren't running either.

Allen on the break. Celtics, 20-10. Another standing ovation.

Celtics pounding the offensive glass with five already. Garnett follows Pierce's miss. Celtics, 16-8.

The Hawks missed one layup, but everything else in their 2-for-8 start has been from the perimeter. They have to get more aggressive.

Another offensive rebound for Boston, which leads 10-5. First standing ovation in Boston.

Celtics strong on the offensive glass with two putbacks. Celtics up, 6-3.

Johnson for 3 to open.

Ozzy's Crazy Train and Guns N' Roses' Welcome to the Jungle take us to tipoff.

I suppose this is somewhat obvious, but Atlanta really needs to withstand what should be a strong surge by the Celtics right out of the gate. The Hawks haven't been competitive in any of the three games in Boston in this series. A slow start would be another killer.

Hawks player introductions accompanied by Led Zeppelin's Kashmir. Can't recall that before, but it works.

Breen-Jackson-Van Gundy. This is going to be fun.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Hornets-Spurs -- Game 1 thread

Big concerns for the Spurs:

* They have nobody who can guard West;

* Paul can take over whenever he decides it's time;

* The only offense the Spurs can get is 3-pointers.

Duncan just five points on 1-for-9 shooting, but even more notable is the paltry rebound total (three). I expect him to bounce back, but he looked very slow tonight.

Hornets win this one going away, 101-82.

Paul on the break, fouled. Hornets, 97-82. Paul rebounds his own missed free throw.

West from Paul on the break; 30 for West. Hornets, 96-82.

Paul drives for 2. Hornets, 92-80.

Finley for 3. Spurs within 8, 88-80, 5:11 to go. Basically, the Spurs are only getting 3s. They've cooled off considerably, and if they don't heat back up quickly, this game is over.

Duncan misses two at the line.

Wells again. Hornets, 88-77, 6:25 to go.

Lots of fouls at both ends right now. Duncan just gave up offensive rebounds to Ely and Wells. He looks even older than before.

Barry in for the Spurs.

Spurs have no answer for West, who has 28. Hornets, 80-71.

Finley for 3 to open the third. Spurs within 5, 74-69.

Hornets lead after three, 74-66.

Paul is taking over too, taking advantage of being in the bonus. He's attacking at every opportunity now. Hornets, 70-62.

Duncan looks old tonight. He has no lift on rebounds. His moves are indecisive and slow, and he's looking for fouls. Chandler and West have a huge edge inside.

Hornets outworking the Spurs now. Peterson chases down an offensive rebound, takes it beyond the arc and knocks down a 3. Hornets, 64-57.

Peja for 3, trailing the break. Hornets, 61-54 ... 13-0 run.

Spurs' offense is out of sync right now. Duncan can't get going because he's being doubled on every catch. The pick-and-roll game isn't producing any layins because the Hornets are clogging the lane and Chandler is lurking to block shots. The Spurs might need to try some clear-outs for Ginobili, or else the entire outcome will rest on their 3-point shooting. Brent Barry, anyone?

Paul steals, scores. Hornets, 58-54. New Orleans on a 10-0 run.

Peja over Bowen. Hornets, 56-54.

West dunks from Paul. Tie game, 54-all.

Spurs with four team fouls less than three minutes into the third. Bonus the rest of the quarter for New Orleans, 8:22.

Spurs with three team fouls less than two minutes into the third.

Spurs lead at the half, 49-45. Hornets have limited Duncan to three points on 1-for-6 shooting, but they've left the 3-point line open and the Spurs are 9-for-17 from 3. Paul, meanwhile, held to four points on 2-for-6.

Hack-a-Chandler: make, make.

Paul just picked up his third foul, 1:27 left before halftime.

Spurs just let Stojakovic inside for an offensive rebound tipin. Popovich calls timeout. Gotta love how Pop uses timeouts. Certain mistakes are just unacceptable.

Thomas wide-open on the perimeter. Spurs, 48-37.

Bowen for 3, and 1. Spurs, 44-35.

Finley for 3. Spurs, 40-35, 4:52 left in the second. Spurs 8-for-13 on 3s.

Bowen for 3, his fourth. Spurs, 37-35.

Stojakovic drives for two. Tie game, 33-all.

Stojakovic with four in a row. Hornets within 4, 31-27.

Parker teardrop. Spurs, 31-23.

Parker steals, scores. Spurs, 29-23.

19-minute delay. Popovich worried about how this will affect the Spurs.

In-game entertainment gone awry ... the Hornets' mascot trampolines through a ring of fire to dunk the ball. The fire, however, doesn't go out properly. Staff workers extinguish the fire, which of course, leaves a wet residue on the floor. Now, they're having trouble clearing it off the floor. The game is being delayed. It's the playoffs, people. Isn't that entertaining enough?

Bowen for 3. Spurs, 27-23, after 1. Spurs 6-for-10 on 3s, eight assists on nine field goals. Ginobili 11 points on 4-for-4 shooting (three 3s).

Wells on Ginobili.

Ginobili for 3. Spurs, 24-19.

Duncan from Ginobili. Spurs, 21-17.

Ginobili for 3. Spurs are getting lots of wide-open 3-point attempts due to all of the doubling on Duncan. Spurs are 4-for-7 from long distance so far. The Hornets' inability to defend Duncan 1-on-1 is why they won't win this series.

Ginobili for 3. Spurs, 16-15.

Oberto can't guard West. And 1. Hornets, 15-10.

Parker from Ginobili on the break. Tie game, 10-all.

Parker hits two at the line, ends 4:25 scoreless drought. Hornets, 8-2.

Stojakovic for 3 on the break. Hornets, 8-0. Breakdown by the Spurs defensively. They had Paul relatively contained on the break, but left Peja. That's what the Hornets love to do. Spurs open 0-for-4 from the field.

Chandler active early with four offensive rebounds, including a tipin. Hornets, 5-0.

Hornets doubling Duncan on the catch.

Chandler guarding Duncan. Bowen on Paul, Thomas on West.

Marv Albert and Reggie Miller. I'm going to take some Tylenol.

Lakers-Jazz -- Prediction

The Jazz -- with their precision cutting and screening on offense, and their aggression and relentlessness on defense -- will give the Lakers more resistance in one quarter than the Nuggets did the entire first round.

That said, they'll need to. Los Angeles is dialed on offense and has numerous matchup advantages, most notably Kobe Bryant over anybody. Utah's biggest problem, however, is the occasional (and sometimes lengthy) droughts at the offensive end, especially against an outmanned Houston team.

If the Lakers are organized on defense and give maximum effort, that firepower edge will be significant.

Lakers in 5

2008 Celtics-Hawks = 1994 Sonics-Nuggets?

For Celtics fans there are several ominous similarities between these two situations:

* The 2008 Celtics won 66 games, were No. 9 in offense and No. 1 in defense, had a point differential of +10.2, won their home games in the series by 23, 19 and 25 points, and they probably feel as though they let both Game 4 and Game 6 in Atlanta slip away.

* The 1994 Sonics won 63 games, were No. 2 in offense and No. 3 in defense, had a point differential of +9.0, won their home games in the series by 24 and 10 points, and they probably feel as though they let Game 4 in Denver slip away.

* The 2008 Hawks and 1994 Nuggets, both No. 8 seeds and huge underdogs, were young teams with very little playoff experience.

Here are some things the Celtics said after last night’s loss, which forced a winner-take-all series finale:

“Our confidence is definitely not shaken. It is what it is. We have a Game 7. And it’s what it is. We’ve got to win.” -- Kevin Garnett

“We put ourselves in this situation. For one of these teams, it’s going to be their last game. Just expect anything and everything.” -- James Posey

“It’s either win or go home. We’ve just got to go out there and get the job done.” -- Rajon Rondo

“We feel good at home all the time. That’s why we fought all year to get home-court advantage. As I said after Game 5, we can’t just hang our hat on being at home.” – Coach Doc Rivers

Here are some things the 1994 Sonics said after the Game 4 loss, which forced a winner-take-all series finale:

“They’re not playing like young fellas now. They’re just going for it. They’re a young team with nothing to lose. They now have confidence in what they’re doing. They feel comfortable with the matchups they have against us.” -- Nate McMillan

“We have our work cut out for us. We knew this would be a tough five-game series. This is just the beginning of a long process. The championship is still our goal. In Game 5, if we play serious basketball, we will find the answers.” -- Coach George Karl

“We did not want a fifth game, but now we have to go get it. A fifth game is always dangerous.” -- Detlef Schrempf

“When you let a team hang around and you are struggling to shoot, anything can happen. But Game 5 is what it’s all about, and it will be on our home court. We fought all season for that. We’ll need to use every edge we can get.” -- Shawn Kemp
Heading into Game 5 in Seattle, Denver’s Bryant Stith summed up what will also be Atlanta’s key against the Celtics:

“The first quarter will be very important for us. They’re going to be playing off a lot of emotion; the crowd’s really going to be into the game. What we have to do is stay within arm’s length, and if we can do that, put ourselves in a position to win the game in the last quarter, I think we have a very good chance to win.”

Just as Stith had hoped, the Nuggets stayed close, trailing 20-19 after the first quarter and 44-41 at halftime. The Sonics ripped off the first eight points of the third quarter to go up 11, but Denver responded and closed to within 62-60 with one quarter to go.

In order to pull off an upset of this magnitude, a team has to get huge contributions, some even from unlikely sources. Denver got them, and then some.

Robert Pack, undrafted and earlier called “turnover” by Sonics assistant coach Bob Kloppenburg, led all scorers with 23 points. He made three 3-pointers after halftime; he was 6-for-29 on 3s during the entire regular season.

Brian Williams, outcast by Orlando after two disappointing seasons, came off the bench for 17 points and 19 rebounds.

After the game, Karl summed it up: “They had a lot of guys who wanted to win the game. They had a lot of guys that wanted to take shots. We were tight and holding the ball. They were loose. They made some big-time shots under a lot of pressure.”

Will the Hawks come out loose with guys wanting to take and make big-time shots? Will the Celtics turn tight and hold the ball? There were some signs of both those things down the stretch in Game 6.

Boston’s best bet is to come hard and fast, hoping to bury Atlanta. If the Hawks stay close, we could witness another monumental upset.