Thursday, May 28, 2009

Make Shots

The 2001 Western Conference Finals were an eagerly anticipated matchup between the 58-24 San Antonio Spurs and the 56-26 Los Angeles Lakers, a showdown between the two previous NBA champions - the teams with the top two records in the league, who were widely considered to be the best two teams in the league.

The Lakers blitzed through the series in a four-game sweep, winning by an average score of 104-81 after catching fire from outside, connecting on 32-72 (.444) from three-point land for the series, after shooting just .344 from long range during the season. And they did so against a Spurs defense which ranked 1st in opponents 3pt FG% at .329. The key player was Derek Fisher, who went 15-20 (.750), after connecting on 25-63 (.397) during his 20 games in the regular season.

Meanwhile, the Spurs shot just 13-59 (.220) from behind the arc in the series, after leading the league with a .407 percentage during the 2000-01 regular season.

When David Robinson was asked after Game 4 to come up with a strategy for how those Lakers could be beaten, he said, "No. 1, you have to make shots."


Make shots. For all the analysis, sometimes basketball just boils down to something so simple: can you make your open shots? Simply making or missing open threes has been a key factor not only in the Magic-Cavs series, but in the entire Orlando postseason.

The three has of course been a huge weapon for Orlando all season long - they were 2nd in the NBA in both threes made (10.0 pg) and attempted (26.2 pg), and 6th in 3pt FG% (.381).

In the First Round, Orlando struggled to outlast an inferior Philly team in part because they only hit .346 for the series, while the Sixers - who were the worst 3pt-shooting team in the regular season at .318 - outshot them from distance for the series at .368.

In the Conference Semis, both the Magic and the Celtics (who were 1st in the NBA in 3pt% at .397) suffered colossal shooting slumps until Orlando broke through with a 13-21 performance on threes which keyed the Game 7 blowout in Boston. To that point, Orlando had been just 43-141 (.305) for the series (the C's were just .289 for the entire series).

Now, mercifully for Magic fans, the tide has finally turned, as they have connected on an average of 10.5-24.5 (.429) 3's in Conference Finals, including 17-38 in Game 4, and they've done it against a Cleveland team that ranked 1st in 3pt FG% defense at .333.

It's the Cavs who have lost the touch from downtown, averaging just 6-23 (.261) for the series, after ranking 2nd in the league in the regular season at .393. How do you trail 3-1 in a series when you have a player averaging a 42-7-7? Well, a lot of it is right here, in the three-point percentages of the supporting cast:
    PLAYER      SEASON   SERIES     
    M Williams .436 .222
    D West .399 .294
    W Szczerbiak .411 .000
    D Gibson .382 .333
Orlando was 2nd in 3pt% D for the season, but still, the Cavs have had plenty of good looks. With Games 5 and 7 scheduled for Cleveland, the Cavs certainly still have a chance to rally and avoid a disappointing exit. How can they do it? More than anything, knock down open shots.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Game 2: Stan VG Has a Great 47:59

Whew, we are spent after the epic Game 2 of the Cavs-Magic series, after the epic four straight games which have begun these Conference Finals.

We thought that Stan Van Gundy did an exceptional job of exploiting matchups throughout the 4th quarter. At one point, we looked up and said something to the effect of "What in the Tyrone Hill?" when we saw Courtney Lee handling the ball in a pick-and-roll. Then - aha! - Orlando caught the Cavs in a switch and all of a sudden Delonte West was on Rashard Lewis, and Shard took him down in the post (we can't even fathom how scary LeBron will be if he ever starts taking people down on the low blocks) and it all made sense. Rashard calmly shot over Delonte and also opened up looks for others after drawing help defenders. Then, even the rookie Lee himself stepped up with buckets. And of course, the Magic also put the ball in Hedo's hands to great effect once again. It was just a methodical, expert display of execution under the direction of SVG. But...

On Tuesday, George Karl was pilloried for lining up 6-2 Anthony Carter to inbound the ball with the length of 6-10 Lamar Odom flailing in his face.

Somewhat amazingly, just three days later, Mike Brown called upon 6-1 Mo Williams to make the inbound pass with :01 left, but Stan had 6-10 Rashard playing rather passively off the ball for some reason.

That's OK if there are six or seven seconds left, when he could go help, but with just :01 on the clock, it seemed like there were two and only two options for deploying Lewis: 1) Right up in Mo's face, waving his arms a la Odom v AC to close off the passing lanes, or 2) Doubling LeBron, to at least force him much further away from the basket, at a more difficult angle.

We have no idea why Rashard was in no man's land, and thought it was a pretty huge blunder on an otherwise brilliant night by Stan, a night when he proved why he easily should have won the Coach of the Year award, no matter what happened in the final second (and they even defended that shot pretty well, no matter where Rashard was or what Reggie Miller thinks).

OK, we need to get some sleep, hydrate and get ready for the Game 3s. Can't wait.

Friday, May 22, 2009

NBA Musings: LeBron D Hurts Cavs, Where Was Bynum?, JVG on the Press, Quick Shaq Check

Upon re-watching the final five minutes of Game 1 of the Cavs-Magic series, we noticed that LeBron's (lack of) defense on Hedo Turkoglu down the stretch - often because he couldn't get through a high screen, forcing a switch - really hurt the Cavs.

Hedo was the primary ballhandler down the stretch for Orlando on eight straight possessions. Let's break 'em down quickly:

5:15 ORL 90 CLE 90: Pick/Roll - Hedo-Howard v LBJ-Varejao
LeBron goes under the screen, Hedo nails the 3 (3 pts).

4:25 ORL 93 CLE 90: Pick/Roll - Hedo-Howard v LBJ-Z
LeBron can't get through screen, forcing a switch. Orlando resets the offense, and James ends up with a steal after Hedo tries a poor lob pass to Howard (0 pts).

3:45 ORL 93 CLE 92: Pick/Roll - Hedo-Howard v LBJ-Z
LeBron can't get through screen, forcing a switch. Hedo drives past Z for the hoop (2 pts).

3:05 ORL 95 CLE 94: Pick/Roll - Hedo-Howard v LBJ-Z
LeBron and Z trap, which leads to a missed 3 by Rafer Alston (0 pts).

2:35 ORL 95 CLE 94: Fast-Break Transition Action
Hedo gets a defensive rebound and goes, beating LBJ upcourt w/help from a Pietrus screen in the backcourt. LeBron tries for a steal from behind, but Hedo hits Rashard for 3 (3 pts).

2:00 ORL 98 CLE 97: Pick/Roll - Hedo-Howard v LBJ-Z
LeBron and Z trap, which leads to a backcourt foul by Z. 2 FT for Hedo (2 pts).

1:40 ORL 100 CLE 98: Pick/Roll - Hedo-Rashard v LBJ-Varejao
Varejao in the PnR instead of Z seems good for CLE, but LeBron can't get through the screen and they have to switch. Hedo gets Andy into the air with a head fake, drawing the shooting foul (2 pts).

1:10 ORL 102 CLE 100: Pick/Roll - Hedo-Howard v LBJ-Z
LeBron and Z trap, which leads to a missed 3 by Pietrus (0 pts).

On the last two possessions, Orlando went away from the Hedo high screen:
:40 ORL 102 CLE 103: Pick/Roll - Alston-Howard v Mo-Varejao
Out of a time out, Stan mixes it up, leading to Rashard nailing the long tough 2-point jumper (2 pts).

:25 ORL 104 CLE 106: Random offense
Orlando runs a play which doesn't go anywhere, LeBron contains Hedo when he has the ball, and then Rashard knocks down the 3 after Hedo swings it (3 pts).

As stagnant as Cleveland's offense was down the stretch, they still produced points. On the defensive end, they gave up 17 points on the last 10 possessions, and 12 points on the 8 straight possessions where Hedo handled the ball while guarded by LeBron. Both of those are poor numbers.

Whether by design of scheme or LeBron's fatigue, switching the pick and roll really hurt Cleveland down the stretch, as LeBron and the Cavs were unable to contain Hedo as a playmaker.

We have felt all season that Andrew Bynum is the X-factor for the entire league. When he defends the basket with vigor, we think the Lakers are unbeatable.

That's why we wonder if we're the only ones asking: where was he last night in Game 2? Bynum played 18 minutes, and checked out for good at the 7:18 mark of the third quarter. He had a team-high +7 for the night (in part because he was not on the floor for Denver's big run at the end of the first half).

It's a ridiculously small sample size, but DEN was 15-36 (.417) when Bynum on the floor and 20-43 (.465) when he was on the bench. We'd have to re-watch to see if that was random or if Drew actually had a big impact on team D, but we thought he looked pretty active last night, with 9 pts, 2 reb, 1 stl, 1 blk in his 18 minutes.

Of course, Kleiza was in at the 4 for DEN, which made it hard for Gasol and Bynum to be on the floor at the same time, but bad matchups go both ways, you know, and it's not like LA was covering Kleiza successfully as it was. But we still believe what we have all season: when Bynum is active, this Lakers team is unbeatable. We thought he at least deserved a shot in the 4th quarter.

We consistently enjoy listening to and reading what Jeff Van Gundy has to say about basketball, whether it's on the ABC/ESPN broadcasts (when he's not on a hysterical rant), on the Bill Simmons podcast recently, or in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, Malcolm Gladwell's recent New Yorker piece on how underdogs should use pressing defenses to better their chances against more talented teams has been widely discussed in basketball circles.

I was interested to read JVG's take on the concept:
    WSJ: Malcolm Gladwell in a recent New Yorker article asked why few coaches are willing to employ a full-court press even though it gives weaker teams a greater chance against far-stronger teams. You were an assistant coach at Providence College under Rick Pitino, very much a full-court pressing coach. What do you think of this premise?

    Mr. Van Gundy: I haven't seen the article, but I'd say the key to success in coaching is getting your team more better shots than your opponent and more free throws than your opponent. As a coach, you look at anything that helps in those two areas. Hubie Brown used a press successfully with the Knicks, mostly a pressing second unit coming off the bench. Rick Pitino used it with success in New York and then for some of his time in Boston. But if you have talent, any style of play can work in the NBA, and there are lots of talented players in the NBA. But style can't overcome a lack of talent.
I added the emphasis to the Hubie sentence above not just because of the picture on the upper right of this page, but also because I found it intriguing. Whereas Gladwell's theory had plenty of holes because he was a bit breezy and fast-and-loose with the facts as he often can be, Bill Simmons really boiled the pressing concept down to a premise that made a lot of sense, and that sounds a lot like what Hubie did:
    With a 12-man roster, you'd only need to train five or six guys to pull off that press. Let's say next season's Bulls trained the following five: Joakim Noah, Ty Thomas, Kirk Hinrich, Lindsey Hunter and Generic Athletic/Hungry Swingman X. They practice and practice until they become a well-oiled pressing machine. For the first five minutes of every second and fourth quarter, they unleash that killer press on their opponents … who, by the way, would be playing backups during that time, making it even more effective. Wouldn't that be an ENORMOUS advantage? Wouldn't that swing a few games? Wouldn't opponents dread playing them? Wouldn't opponents have to waste practice time preparing to break that press? Wouldn't it be even better at home with the Bulls flying around and their fans going bonkers? The key would be not putting "press miles" on your top guys and your wealthiest guys (who would never be totally invested because, again, they're really, really wealthy and don't need this crap). In this scenario, the Bulls wouldn't press with Rose, Deng, Brad Miller, Ben Gordon or even John Salmons if they could help it.
I had forgotten that Hubie had an employed a similar concept with New York. Sure enough, Darrell Walker was quoted as saying the following in a recent obituary for Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster:
    "That second unit we had when I was here, it was myself, Trent Tucker, Louis Orr, Ernie Grunfeld and Marvin Webster was our center on that second unit," Walker said before the Pistons faced the Knicks. "The second unit, we’d press and trap, and Marvin was back there erasing it. He was a great shot blocker, one of the best shot blockers of all time."
In 1981-82 under Red Holzman, the Knicks were 33-49 while ranking 17th of 23 teams in defensive efficiency.

In Hubie's first year in 1982-83, the Knicks jumped to 44-38 and 3rd in defensive efficiency. Then in 1983-84, New York went 47-35 (and took a legendary Celtics team to a seventh game) and ranked 1st in defensive efficiency.

Of course, if it's good enough for Hubie, it's good enough for us. Score one for the dilettante GM-wannabe. Intriguing concept.

In answer to the question "Have you ever taken performance-enhancing steroids?" in a recent appearance on 790 The Zone in Atlanta, Shaquille O'Neal said the following:
    Like me, like I've told the world before, only thing I had was Frosted Flakes: Super Enhancement Cereal. That's the only thing I've put in my body. Frosted Flakes Athletic Performance Enhancement Cereal. They ain't even out yet… For all the little kids, the Performance Enhancement Cereal is you take the Frosted Flakes, and you take the Froot Loops, and you mix them together, and then you get some of them sliced bananas and you put them on that thing, and then you get a big old bowl. The kind of bowl if you pull out out your mother say, "Boy, you better put that bowl back!" And, then you pour that milk… "You better get a job eating all that milk." Mama, we ain’t got no milk. "You better put some water on that boy!"
Very entertaining, of course. For an alternate viewpoint, we turn to Shaquille O'Neal, in the book Shaq Talks Back, page 185:
    [W]hen I ripped the backboard down in New Jersey my second year in the league, the league gave me a urine test two days later. I'm serious. Maybe they thought I was on steroids or something.

    I tried Creatine when it first came out and androstendione, the pill that Mark McGwire has used. But I didn't feel anything. I think I used it for one summer, and then they started testing for it. So I gave it up.
All right, enjoy the Conference Finals over the holiday weekend, folks.


Also see: Musings: LeBron D hurts Cavs, Where was Bynum?, Van Gundy on pressing, Quick Shaq check

Playoff basketball is about making adjustments on the fly. The Cavs took a mighty, surprising bodyblow in Game 1 vs. Orlando after ripping thru the first month of the playoffs.

Granted, they easily could have won the game if Delonte & Mo Williams could have hit their shots at their normal clips. You can still expect some adjustments from Coach Brown, particularly since the Cavs underachieved on the defensive end in Game 1.

Let me suggest a possible adjustment for the Cavs: Hack-a-Howard.

The stat line from Game 1 that jumped out to me the most was this part from Dwight Howard's: 20 field goal attempts to only 2 free throw attempts. Need to get those field goal attempts down in the stat column, while getting his free throw attempts up won't hurt.

Not sure they need to employ the classic Hack-a-Shaq method of fouling Dwight Howard off the ball. But Coach Brown does need to consider the strategy of liberally using fouls on Dwight when he's going at the rim. His mentor, Popovich, was not averse to employing this tactic, and had some success with it.

Make Dwight Howard work for his points at the free throw line. He's not quite as woeful as Shaq, but poor enough. When Dwight has good position and looks like he's got a sure basket, drill him. Send him to the line, where he will most likely shoot 1/2. This could also have the added benefit of getting Dwight mentally off his game, and possibly forcing Van Gundy's hand.

The Cavs don't have a big who matches up with Dwight quite as good as Kendrick Perkins. So, rotate big bodies on Dwight, try to single-team as much as possible, and send the edict to take fouls on Dwight often.

Mike Brown should just view Ben Wallace as six fouls. Tell Ben to be as physical as possible, realizing he's somewhat expendable with Varejao & Joe Smith available. Big Z needs to be a little bit more careful guarding Dwight, but Ben should be aggressive as possible when he's on floor.

I wouldn't fear too much about putting Orlando in the bonus early because their personnel is not naturally inclined to attack the rim. Stay glued to their shooters getting them off the 3-pt. line, try to force mid-range 2-pointers, kinda like playing recent vintage Suns.

Wouldn't you rather the Magic getting the 1 point per possession Howard will likely produce from the line as opposed to letting the deadliest long-range shooting team in league trying to get 3 points per possession?

Not saying this has to be Cleveland's main strategy, just a viable option Coach Brown can consider in his Game 2 game plan.

Also see: Musings: LeBron D hurts Cavs, Where was Bynum?, Van Gundy on pressing, Quick Shaq check

Monday, May 11, 2009

Playoffs Musings

Just wanted to empty out the notebook with a few quick observations. We'd have to say it's been a frustrating playoff season due to injuries more than anything so far, with the key injuries to KG, Ginobili and now Yao really putting a damper on things, as they've forced contending teams to compete at far less than 100%, even though it certainly hasn't affected how hard those teams have competed.

John Hollinger touched upon this in his Insider Gems on Friday, but the statistical performance of LeBron James in the 2009 postseason has just been out of this world. Of course, Hollinger's note on how LeBron's PER was off the charts was before LBJ casually dropped a 47-12-8 on Atlanta on Saturday.

LeBron is now averaging 33.7 pts, 10.0 reb, 6.6 ast on .551 FG% in 7 games, giving him a staggering playoff PER of 44.82. Remember that his regular-season PER of 31.76 was an all-time great number; 44.82 is hard to even comprehend. Put it like this: the difference between James and the no. 2 player on the playoff PER leaders (Tony Parker, at 29.28) is 15.54. The difference between Parker and the no. 64 player on the list (Tyrus Thomas, at 13.80) is 15.48.

Do you not care for new-fangled metrics like PER? Fine, let's put this in simpler terms. In 2006, Bill Simmons created what he called the "42 Club," a shorthand way of calculating postseason greatness, which he described by saying, "Just add up the point, rebound and assist averages for franchise guys during the playoffs: If the number tops 42, you're probably talking about a pantheon guy."

Here was the list he came up with:
    Since it's my idea, I only allowed guys who played 13 or more playoff games in one postseason to be eligible, since that's a legitimate sampling (more than a month of basketball at the highest level). Here's what the 42 Club looks like since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976:

    Michael Jordan (six times) -- 49.4 ('89); 50.7 ('90); 45.9 ('91); 46.5 ('92); 47.8 ('93); 43.8 ('97)
    Shaquille O'Neal (four times) -- 43.6 ('98); 49.2 ('00); 49.0 ('01); 43.9 ('02)
    Larry Bird (four times) -- 42.0 ('81); 44.4 ('84); 43.4 ('86); 44.2 ('87)
    Moses Malone (twice) -- 43.0 ('81), 43.3 ('83)
    Magic Johnson (twice) -- 43.8 ('86), 42.5 ('91)
    Karl Malone (twice) -- 43.0 ('92), 42.9 ('94)
    Hakeem Olajuwon (twice) -- 44.2 ('94), 47.8 ('95)
    Tim Duncan (twice) -- 42.7 ('01), 45.4 ('03)
    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- 47.1 ('80)
    Charles Barkley -- 44.5 ('93)
    Kobe Bryant -- 42.8 ('01)
    Allen Iverson -- 43.7 ('01)
    Kevin Garnett -- 44.0 ('04)
    LeBron James -- 44.7 ('06)
    Dirk Nowitzki -- 45.1 ('06, ongoing)
The point of the column was that Nowitzki had entered the pantheon of all-time greats, but then he went on to falter in the Finals and ended up at 41.6 for the playoffs.

Since '06, LeBron has added another "42 Club" postseason with a 43.6 in 13 games in '08.

Now, in '09, LBJ is at 50.3 through 7 games, topped only by MJ's 50.7 in 1990, dating back to the NBA-ABA merger. Michael was 27 when he did that; LeBron is 24. James is working on his third 42 Club season at 24. Only Bird and Bryant on this list did it even once by that age.

[LeBron's updated playoff numbers through the end of the Atlanta series:
32.9 pts, 9.8 reb, 6.8 ast, .532 FG%, 41.61 PER, 49.5 "P+R+A"]

Certainly, the Celtics, Rockets, and Spurs aren't crying for anyone after the key injuries they've suffered, but the Portland Trail Blazers have to be considered a mild tough-luck team of this year's postseason at this point. Now that we've seen how well Houston has performed vs. L.A., and how poorly Dallas has fared against Denver, it increasingly seems like the two last-second shots (one disputed) by Michael Finley which lifted San Antonio to a 3 seed at the end of the season really skewed things in the West.

If I had to create a power ranking for the Western Conference after watching the playoffs, it would go something like this:
    1. LAL
    2. DEN
    3. HOU
    4. POR
    5. DAL
    6. SAS
Nothing major, I just think Portland deserves to still be playing.

To further the point, there was an interesting tidbit on the APBRmetrics message board last week, noting that Blazers opponents shot .803 at the free-throw line this season, which was the highest number for opponent FT% in the 39 years that the number has been recorded.

Of course, part of the reason for that record is that this season's .771 FT% overall nearly set a league record. Still, the outlier .803 mark for the Blazers - pretty much entirely based on luck, unless you think the Blazers didn't hold up their hands properly while standing on the lane, or that the fans weren't terribly effective with their Thunderstix - is estimated to have cost them 1-2 wins over the course of the season. Alas, one win would have given Portland the 2 seed.

Talking about the Blazers, I found it interesting to hear Brandon Roy say that the team needed, "Maybe a banger, a power forward, a rebounder in back of LaMarcus. Something like that."

I thought that GM Kevin Pritchard got more to the point: "For us to take the next level up, it has to come from Greg [Oden]. He can take a 54-win team and take it to another level."

I couldn't agree more: it's largely on Greg Oden from here. Portland doesn't even really need his offense - they were no. 1 in the league in points per possession this season, but they were just an average-to-subpar defensive team.

The Blazers need Greg Oden to be a dominant defensive player. Yes, he was a productive player per-minute, and suffered from a league-high propensity for picking up fouls more than anything. But there were too many times that I saw players unafraid to challenge him and shoot right over him without fear. Perhaps, as Kevin Pelton suggested to me, Oden was a bit spooked by all his fouling to truly be aggressive in patrolling the lane.

Draft Express did an outstanding Rookie Retrospective scouting report on Oden at midseason, the thesis of which was mainly that Oden can still be great, but he still needs to regain full confidence and ability in his knee in order to regain the athleticism that allowed him to have superstar potential as a defender patrolling the lane.

But again, the Blazers need Greg Oden to dominate and intimidate on defense, to own the lane. That is ultimately why he was drafted no. 1, and that could ultimately be the decisive factor in determining whether the Cleveland/New York LeBrons or the Portland Trail Blazers become the team of the 2010s.

Shouldn't the Denver-Dallas series be Exhibit A in the evidence showing why Byron Scott should no longer be the coach of the New Orleans Hornets? The Hornets bench was atrocious, yet New Orleans castoffs J.R. Smith and Brandon Bass are talented, young, athletic, affordable bench players in the series (and we're not even holding Scott accountable for ex-Hornet Chris Andersen, because of Birdman's drug problems).

Now, it feels like it's happening again as Scott has been unable to properly develop Julian Wright, who still has a lot to prove, but I have the sinking suspicion he will end up developing into a solid player for his next coach. A franchise which is as tenuous as New Orleans in terms of the wealth of both its owner and the market as a whole can't afford to waste any potential, especially players who can be productive at inexpensive salaries. For this reason alone, Scott must go.

(Note that the good folks at both Hornets247 and At The Hive, who both watch the team more closely than I, have come to a different conclusion, though their respective votes of confidence are clearly of the "lukewarm" variety.)

We quickly compiled a list of the biggest playoff upsets of this decade, simply by finding the teams which had overcome the biggest deficits in terms of regular-season wins. Here's the entire list of series where a team has overcome a deficit of 5 wins or more in the '00s:
    '07 GST v DAL 25
    '06 MIA v DET 12
    '06 MIA v DAL 8
    '04 DET v IND 7
    '07 NJN v TOR 6
    '05 DET v MIA 5
The funny thing to us is that we did this with a specific idea in mind: to help prove that the Detroit Pistons had been the biggest underachievers of the decade. Yet, it turns out that, by this simplistic metric, they were actually an overachiever as much as underachiever.

Their '04 run is a little skewed because they were certainly better than a 54-win team after they acquired Rasheed in February (that '04 Lakers team was only a 56-win team, by the way), and the '05 team benefited from Miami injuries, but still, those team basically played to their potential. The 64-18 '06 team was the one which really blew its opportunity, for sure, but I had forgotten that the '07 team which lost to Cleveland, in what seemed like a big upset, only had a 3-win advantage in that series (53-50).

But, more notably, what this exercise shows is that it is actually the Dallas Mavericks who have clearly been the biggest playoff underachievers of the decade. They should have been the champs in '06 and they should have been playing the Spurs to essentially determine the champs in '07. Instead, they will walk away from the decade with zero championships.

We enjoyed reading this excerpt of J.A. Adande's report from Game 3 of the Rockets-Lakers series, about the Ron Artest foul on Pau Gasol which caused him to be ejected:
    After a video review and a cordial discussion with the officials (he even had his arm around Ron Garretson at one point) Artest was kicked out. Afterward he was optimistic about avoiding further penalties, and appreciated the officials' explanation, which he called "cool."

    "He said they were thinking about rescinding it, making it a 1, but [Gasol] fell awkwardly, so they made it a 2," Artest said.
Thank you, Ron. That's what we said.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Warriors-Mavs Revisited

As I was researching a few things for our recent post on the greatest first-round series since 1984, I ran across an e-mail I had sent to a friend who was traveling around Europe while the Warriors-Mavs series was going on in 2007. After updating the highlights of her trip, she said, "no idea whats going on in the world of american sports.
give me an update!!"

So I gave her the full rundown on the Warriors-Mavs series, which was heading into Game 6 at that point. I found it quite fun to read that e-mail, and to simply be transported back into the wild heart of that series - which can really be described no other way than "insanity" - so I'm going to print it in entirety below, in case you'd like to do same.

A few thoughts I had after re-reading:
- There are so many important details which provided color and excitement to this series that I had completely forgotten, and this is from a series just two years ago. It speaks to how difficult it is to rate playoff series from the last 10, 20, 30 years, when you mainly have the final scores to look back on in an attempt to jog your memory. Games can be compelling even if the score is not close (I'd cite Lakers-Rockets Game 2 as an example of this), and they can be drudgery even if the score is close (hello, Knicks-Heat).

- I was reminded again that the Warriors-Mavs series was just complete insanity, unlike any other series I've ever seen. Insane upset, insane style of play, insane crowd, with an insane coach orchestrating the whole thing. As great as Celtics-Bulls was, I'd have to say Warriors-Mavs is still my favorite first-round series.

- I am amused that the one Mavericks player I praised without reservation in this e-mail was also the youngest player in their rotation at that time (23)... yet was also the main player that they chose to trade in the aftermath of this debacle. I still can't believe that Dallas did not overhaul the top of its roster after the trauma of two consecutive playoff meltdowns.

All right, here you go, hope you enjoy:

the dallas-golden state series is turning into one of the all-time great first-round series. the only way i can describe is 'insane in the membrane' because it's almost beyond my comprehension at this point.

baron davis has been playing absolutely out of his mind, and the warriors basically just play a completely cuckoo style - think the suns but with better athletes and much less discipline.

gs stole game 1 in dallas and then the mavs came back in game 2 after looking shaky. the warriors kind of unraveled as baron got thrown out (kinda lame ejection) followed by crazy steve jackson getting very justifiably tossed and then not leaving the court "in a timely manner", although quite an entertaining manner in which the word "b****" could be lip-read approx 456 times.

now, game 3, remember, was the first playoff game in oakland in 13 years and those people went ABSOLUTELY NUTS - wildest NBA environment I've seen in a few years. GS blew them out of the gym.

game 4 was an absolute classic. crowd was crazy again and really lifted the warriors. lots of crazy plays - baron hit a halfcourt shot at halftime and then made a crazy steal and race to the basket at the end of the third. but then the warriors fell down 8 late in the 4th before a frantic rally to win with lots of people like matt barnes making 3s. the crowd really willed them to this one.

at this pt, mavs looked totally discombobulated on offense and dirk had really not stepped up and was taking a lot of [doo-doo] for it (and avery keeps running out of time outs).

I thought G4 would be the best game of the entire playoffs... and then G5 was even better. mavs went up 21 in the 2nd quarter and i thought that no way would GS get back in it. they fought back to within 6 at the half and then made it even throughout the third and fourth. strangely, GS had built the 3-1 series lead by shutting Dallas down more than by outscoring them, but G5 was an absolute shootout.

back and forth in the fourth quarter - three-pointers galore, devin harris unstoppable off the dribble, baron hitting j-rich with a halfcourt alley-oop late in the game, matt barnes dunking in traffic left-handed. then the warriors pulled ahead and baron hit a ridiculous off-balance three to put GS ahead 112-103 with about 2-3 minutes left, and i thought 'oh my god, this series is over' and started wondering if dallas might trade dirk for KG b/c this was such a huge failure.

THEN, dirk FINALLY stepped up, hit back-to back threes, made a huge block, was aggressive and drew some fouls. harris made more big plays, baron fouled out, the warriors got a little tight, and dallas closed on a 15-0 run to win 118-112.

just two absolutely insane games in a row, with dallas on the ropes both times, and now GS is up 3-2 with the series headed back to Oakland and that crowd tonight, and i absolutely can't wait.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A Minnesota Precedent for Bill Simmons

So, Bill Simmons has thrown his hat in the ring for another NBA GM job opening, announcing his candidacy for the Timberwolves GM job. I must say, Simmons really laid out a pretty compelling argument in terms of non-basketball reasons in a Q&A with Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I certainly would be in favor, just based on the entertainment value.

However, those of you who care about piddling things such as Timberwolves wins and losses might be a bit concerned based on basketball reasons, based on his history of emphatically favoring Jay Williams over Yao and Okafor over Howard, coming up with some dodgy ideas for trades (see Trade 1A) and the Team USA roster, and wildly overrating guys who are prominent in college, such as Adam Morrison, Corey Brewer and Acie Law.

That said, it should be noted that there is no better precedent for him than in Minnesota, where the George Mikan-led teams which won five championships in six years between 1949-54 were built in large part by a sportswriter, Sid Hartman, who kept his newspaper job while working for the team, and still has a column for the Star-Tribune today at age 89. In fact, he L.A. Times had a story on Hartman's role in building the Lakers just a week or so ago.

Michael Schumacher's Mikan biography Mr. Basketball recounted how Hartman and his partner building the team, Max Winter, signed Mikan when he was something of a free agent in 1947:
    Getting George Mikan had taken some work - and a dash of trickery. A couple days after being drafted by the Lakers, Mikan flew up to Minneapolis to meet with Max Winter and Sid Hartman. The group talked for several hours but Mikan and the Lakers were unable to reach an agreement. Mikan, still prepared to walk away from basketball and pursue a career in law, asked Hartman to drive him to the airport.

    If he gets on that plane, Winter thought, there'll be no way he'll sign with us. It'll be with another team or nothing.

    Hartman, as it turned out, was having the same thought. There had to be a way to prevent Mikan from returning to Chicago before signing a contract. The Lakers' general manager quickly concocted a plan, and he communicated it to Hartman in an unusual way.

    "Winter suggested, in Hebrew so the others couldn't understand, that we get lost," Hartman recalled. "And we did. I drove Mikan around for more than an hour, until I knew the last flight had left Minneapolis."

    "The route to the airport," Hartman quipped, "took us to Anoka, New Brighton and other suburbs, and when we got to the airport, the plane had left. The next day Mikan signed."
Certainly, the job hasn't changed too much since 1947, has it? Kevin Love chimed in with a quick Tweet today:
    Bill Simmons "The Sports Guy"? I haven't heard much of the GM lately...I am representing the Wolves in the Draft Lottery on the 19th though.
Nothing yet from Mad Dog - looking forward to hearing his opinion.

The Making of a Great Playoff Series:
Celtics-Bulls in Perspective

The thrilling, instant-classic Celtics-Bulls playoff series is justifiably being considered to be among the best playoff series in NBA history.

Do I think Celtics-Bulls was the best series in NBA Playoffs history? Certainly not, there was simply not enough at stake - I would rate Celtics-Sixers '81, Celtics-Lakers '84 and Mavs-Spurs '06, for starters, as clearly better.

Do I think Celtics-Bulls was the best first-round series in NBA history? Quite possibly, and perhaps even probably. It's just so hard to remember the details of specific series going way back to yesteryear.

Let's just say that I include Celtics-Bulls pretty much at the top of my favorite first-round series dating back to when the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984, a list comprised of the following:
    Nets-Sixers 1984
    Knicks-Pistons 1984
    Bulls-Cavs 1989
    Celtics-Pacers 1991
    Suns-Lakers 1993
    Jazz-Kings 1999
    Mavs-Jazz 2001
    Warriors-Mavs 2007
    Celtics-Bulls 2009
I offer quick breakdowns of those series below, but first of all, let's do a deeper breakdown of the Celtics-Bulls series in a wider context. Let me preface this by saying: I thought Celtics-Bulls was awesome. I loved watching it from start to finish, and it featured some of the most exciting basketball games I've ever seen.

By bringing up some potential reasons why it was maybe not the best series ever, I am not trying to take the fun out of the series or to try to argue that it was anything less than awesome. I just think that if you're considering whether it was the greatest first-round series ever, well, that's a pretty high standard to meet, first of all, and I think that the wider context does matter when considering that kind of lofty standard. I'm just trying to have to fun with the topic, really, so remember: Celtics-Bulls was awesome.

With that in mind, here are some of my pro and con points regarding Celtics-Bulls as an all-time great series:

Pro: Competitiveness
Obviously, what Celtics-Bulls had going for it more than anything else was the staggeringly competitive and back-and-forth nature of the ballgames, with 7 overtime periods in 7 games and an unreal 108 lead changes over the course of the series, with about 107 of those seeming to come in 4th quarters or overtimes (or 2nd or 3rd overtimes!).

One of the few that didn't go to OT, Game 2, was decided by a last-second Ray Allen three, and even Game 3, a 21-point Celtics win, was compelling for the way Paul Pierce and the C's came to Chicago so determined to recapture home-court advantage.

Con: Quality of Teams
All that said, I couldn't shake the observation that these two teams, as constituted during the series, were both pretty flawed and that the series got a bit sloppy at times, often due to poor execution/coaching. Doug Collins noted on the Game 7 broadcast that this was really more of a 4-5 series than a 2-7, and I agree.

I think Chicago was actually better than its 41-41 record. They were 16-11 after the Salmon/Miller trade, the equivalent of a 49-win team, and that's about what they looked like to me.

Meanwhile, without Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe, Boston was significantly worse than its 62-20 record. I'd say that they looked more like a 50-win team. That seems fair - how can you say these teams were anything but evenly matched? It's ultimately not a terrible thing, I guess, but it relates to the next "Con" below....

Pro: Champs on the Ropes
One of the great playoff storylines across all sports is when a defending or former champion is fighting to stay alive, seemingly on heart and memory alone. Certainly, that attribute was wholly on display thanks to the gritty Celtics, not just old vets Pierce and Allen, but also guys like Perkins, Big Baby, and Rondo, who seemed to be applying their championship experience even at their young ages, as they defended the crown with vigor.

It's also always a nice contrast to have the vets of a championship team trying to hold off a team and turn back time against some young upstarts trying to make their name and establish their team, as was seen in this series. Time will tell if this was actually a first step toward greater things for these Bulls.

Con: Upsetting the Apple Cart of the Playoffs
Ideally to me, a great first-round series has a larger impact on the Playoffs as a whole, on influencing which teams ultimately compete for the championship. I think that many people viewed this series as a potentially big upset b/c it was a 2-7 series. As noted above, I felt that, with these rosters, this was a 4-5 series between two evenly-matched teams.

I'm sorry, but, without KG, Boston is not that good. They're good, but clearly not championship-caliber. I think they'll be handled fairly easily by the Magic. Ultimately, I think Celtics-Bulls will not have a larger impact on the Playoffs - they were basically competing to get wiped out by Orlando.

Contrast that to a 67-win Mavs team getting knocked out in the first round, or the top-seeded Suns in 1993, who eventually made the Finals, fighting for their playoff lives in the first round.

I do think that this factor will lessen the impact of this series in memory over time.

Pro: Great Individual Performances
What can you say here? Several different players turned in performances for the ages. There was Derrick Rose announcing his presence with authority with 36 points and 11 assists in his rookie debut in Game 1. There was the UConn shootout in Game 2, with Ben Gordon hitting for 42 as Ray Allen scored 28 of 30 in the second half (and Rajon Rondo posted a 19-12-16). There was the point guard duel in Game 4: Rose (23-11-9) v. Rondo (25-11-11). And, of course, there was Ray Allen's 51 points on 9 threes in 59 minutes in the epic Game 6. Rondo went for an incredible 19-9-12 for the entire series.

On top of that, there were several game-winning and game-tying shots in the waning seconds along the way, not to mention several outstanding individual plays in the clutch, such as Joakim Noah's coast-to-coast drive in Game 6 - probably the play of the series - or Rose's last-second block on Rondo in the same game.

Con: Superstar Presence Gets an Asterisk
All that said, I couldn't shake the sense of the impact that KG had on the series by being relegated to a guy making faces and saying bad words in a suit on the sidelines. Of course, if he had been able to play, this series likely wouldn't have even been close.

But, on top of that, most of the playoff series which retain their place in memory over time are ones with a superstar imprint on the series, and this series had its superstar sidelined due to injury. One of the main reasons, for example, that the Bulls-Cavs '89 series has retained and enhanced its place in memory was because "The Shot" was a key moment in the narrative of Michael Jordan's career.

Pro: Good From Game 1/Classic Game 6
I think that an underrated factor in a great playoff series is when a series grabs your attention right from Game 1, often because the underdog serves notice by stealing Game 1 on the favorite's home floor.

This is why I think that the historic Nuggets-Sonics series in 1994 was not a truly great series. The Sonics won the first two games in ho-hum fashion, and everyone expected them to cruise. Even after Denver won Game 3, no one expected them to win. It wasn't until Shawn Kemp missed two FTs that would have sealed the game late in Game 4 did it seem like the Nuggets even had a chance to win the series. In many ways, the drama of the series didn't start until the end of Game 4.

Meanwhile, Bulls-Celtics was certainly compelling right from Game 1 with Chicago grabbing the home-court advantage in dramatic fashion.

Additionally, the series was blessed with a single classic game in the epic triple-overtime Game 6, which Chicago won 128-127.

Con: Game 7 Was Only OK
How important is it to have a great decisive Game 7 (or Game 5, in first-round history)? A great decisive game can lift a series to another level. The Celtics-Bulls Game 7 was certainly OK rather than great. While it may lessen the quality of the series overall by a notch, the consistency of greatness in Games 1-6 was so high that the relative weakness of its Game 7 probably doesn't affect it too much.

A series can also be taken to another level if it is part of a rivalry that builds over a few years, as we've seen with Celtics-Sixers, Celtics-Lakers, Bulls-Knicks, Kings-Lakers and many others over the years. This Celtics-Bulls series does not have a rivalry behind it (though these are now two of the most storied franchises in the league) - I'd take points off in terms of overall series, but most great first-round series have not been part of larger rivalries.

So, all that said, taking in the pros and cons of different factors related to Celtics-Bulls both in a wider context and in and of itself, I think the series scores very high. Certainly, it's a very rare series that can nail *all* the factors that I've described (maybe only Celtics-Sixers '81 in the post-merger NBA).

I think that most of the "Cons" I've described for Celtics-Bulls above drop the series a notch or two in the rankings of best overall series, but don't really affect the series' ranking at the very top of the best of the first round.


Here are some other capsules on some of my favorite first-round series since the playoffs went to 16 teams in 1984, chronologically:
Nets-Sixers 1984
It was assumed that the Celtics and the defending-champion Sixers were headed for their fourth Eastern Conference finals matchup in five years, before the Nets shocked them by winning the first two games at the Spectrum in Philly.

The champs fought back to win two games back in Jersey, before the Nets knocked out Moses and Dr. J with a 101-98 win in Game 5 in Philadelphia in a series where the road team won all five games. Good characters, too, with the Nets featuring ex-Sixer Darryl Dawkins, Micheal Ray Richardson, Buck Williams, Albert King and Otis Birdsong.

Knicks-Pistons 1984
Makes it largely on the strength of the otherworldly decisive Game 5, a 127-123 Knicks win OT in which Bernard King scored 44 points with two dislocated fingers to outlast the Isiah Thomas scoring spree of 16 points in 94 seconds, which brought Detroit back from an eight-point deficit in the last two minutes of regulation.

Gets bonus points and holds a special place in our heart for the images of Hubie patrolling the New York sidelines with the sweat-soaked short-sleeve button-down and Afro.

Bulls-Cavs 1989
This series was carried by the famous Game 5, which featured not only "The Shot" by Michael Jordan at the buzzer, but also three lead changes in the final seven seconds.

Game 4 wasn't too shabby, either, as Cleveland won on the road in OT, 108-105, in a game where MJ had 50 but missed a key FT down the stretch.

Certainly, the place of this series in the Jordan narrative is a key element of its appeal. Jordan was brilliant throughout the series, with 44-9-6 in Game 5 and averages of 39.8 pts, 5.8 reb and 8.2 ast overall. The Shot propelled Chicago into the second round, where they beat the Knicks and advanced to the conference finals for the first time in the Jordan era.

This series also had a little rivalry behind it, as Chicago had beaten the Cavs in 5 in 1988, and both were teams on the rise.

Celtics-Pacers 1991
Larry Bird pulls off the Willis Reed Jr. in Game 5, returning after hitting his head on the floor to spark the C's to a 127-124 win at the Garden. Lots of drama in this one, as 34-year-old Bird spent a night in traction after a 21-12-12 triple-double in Game 1. Great shootout in Game 2, as brash youngsters Chuck Person and Reggie Miller led a surprising 130-118 road win and weren't afraid to talk about it. Boston wins back home-court in Game 3 and Indiana forces a decisive Game 5 with a 116-113 win in Game 4.

Suns-Lakers 1993
This is one of my favorites, as the top-seeded Suns (62-20) experienced a rude awakening against the 39-43 Lakers (with Showtimers Worthy, Scott and Green reaching back for a last hurrah), who shockingly stole Games 1 and 2 in Phoenix.

The Chuckster and friends such as rookie Oliver Miller righted the ship by taking two back at the Forum, but then had to fight to hold off the Lakers in OT, 112-104, back at home in Game 5.

Jazz-Kings 1999
The confluence of the decline of the two-time defending conference champion Jazz and the rise of the exuberant Kings of the early 2000s. In this case, Utah held off Sacramento in a series where four of the five games went down to the final minute, including Game 5, which Utah won in OT after Vlade Divac missed a hook shot at the end of regulation. The Jazz stayed alive in Game 4 on a last-second shot by John Stockton to win at Arco Arena.

Mavs-Jazz 2001
Same contrast of old-and-new as above, but now the changing of the guard is officially afoot as the Mavs beat the Jazz in the full five, with Calvin Booth, of all people, providing the game-winner in Dallas' 84-83 Game 5 win. It's the first playoff appearance of one the most entertaining teams of the decade - the Nash-Dirk-Finley outfit of the Mavs - and meanwhile, Stockton-to-Malone would never win another playoff series together in Utah.

Warriors-Mavs 2007
This series is really one of a kind - it was so unique and even insane that it's really hard to compare it to others. There was a 25-game spread is wins between Dallas (67) and Golden State (42), though the injury-riddled Warriors became a much better team once they finally were able to get Davis-Richardson-Jackson all healthy and together late in the season.

The crazy thing about this series was that it wasn't that close - the wild 118-112 Dallas OT win in Game 5 was the only one that came down to the wire. Still, the three blowout Golden State wins at Oracle in Games 3-4-6 were some of the most wildly entertaining games of basketball I've ever seen, with the Warriors making spectacular plays left and right (punctuated by Baron dropping the Boom Dizzle on AK 47 - from the second-round, duh; still, there were several great plays from this series) in front of an insanely frenzied crowd that fueled the remarkable upset.

Celtics-Bulls 2009
Well, see above. Certainly holds its own among first-rounders. Probably the best of the post-merger era, though I still don't think I've ever enjoyed a first-round series more than Warriors-Mavs.

These series fall short for me:
Nuggets-Sonics 1994
For reasons described above.

Suns-Lakers 2006
Kobe's dismal Game 7 was so bad that it killed the goodwill of Games 4, 6 and beyond for me.

Any Knicks-Heat matchup
I'm sorry, my eyes still hurt from these.

What are your favorite first-round series? Which ones did I miss?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

'09 Euroleague Final: Panathinaikos 73, CSKA Moscow 71

The end result might indicate a competitive, tight game throughout but Panathinaikos (PAO) had the game well in hand before shutting down offensively midway in the 3rd. PAO was cruising with a 20+ point lead thanks to an outside shooting clinic in the 2nd quarter. But their offense abruptly collapsed, and got stuck on 56 pts. for 8 mins in the 2nd half.

CSKA held their opponent scoreless the last six minutes of the 3rd, and forced a flurry of turnovers in the last half of the 3rd. Also, got back into the game in the 4th by finally getting Ramunas Siskauskas involved offensively, and some timely offensive boards. But Siskauskas could not convert his final look from 3pt. land as time ran out.

The 3pt. line was a major factor on both ends for Panathinaikos' victory. PAO finished 13/27 from 3pt. land, and must have hit seven or eight in the 2nd quarter. The 3-headed point-guard monster of Saras Jasikevicius, Dimis Diamantidis, & V. Spanoulis combined for 8/13 3pt. shooting.

PAO's solid defensive effort should not get buried by their hot outside shooting display. The normally sharpshooting CSKA only shot 5/16 from 3pt., and Vik Khryapa's 3pt. make late in the game was the only clean look in the half-court. Pana did a great job contesting shots all day, especially frustrating Langdon. CSKA could never really get its offense going for most of the game until it was basically too late. Siskauskas really did not get going until late in the 2nd half. And most of Siskauskas' points were incredibly tough shots with guys in his face.

Can't really fault CSKA's defensive approach. They made a concerted effort to shut off the paint from the deadly pick/roll trio of Jasikevicius, Spanoulis, & Diamantidis, and they did an admirable job, especially denying Spanoulis deep penetration, his forte.

But they found out you can't shut down everything that a team as talented as PAO has to offer. And CSKA was dealt a major blow in the 2nd quarter when PAO tore the game open with a 3pt. barrage.

The CSKA's bigs were in very good position all game walling off the painted area on the endless ball screens of PAO's double-high post offense. Did not allow much easy access into the paint by any of the PAO perimeter players, especially Spanoulis' punishing drives. Also, did a nice job corraling the young beast, Nikola Pekovic. Pekovic manhandled Olympiacos bigs in the semis, but CSKA guarded his post-ups well & forced him into 6 TOs. Coach Messina sporadically mixed in some zone as well.

PF Antonis Fotsis did exactly what he was suppose to do--he spread the floor at the 4 spot. Fotsis sometimes has a tendency to disappear when needed, but he came up big on Sunday with 13 pts on 3/6 3pts. & 8 rebs.

One of Fotsis' big shots came when CSKA had cut the game to 56-50 early in the 4th:
    PAO made a slight variation (not sure if it was planned or not) by running the Diamantidis P/R a little higher which gave him more speed to get deeper into the lane. CSKA got sucked in (Khyrapa a little too far), which opened up a great look for Fotsis on the left wing to drill a big 3pt. to extend to a 9-point lead in the midst of a furious CSKA comeback. Fotsis' shot stopped a 17-0 CSKA run that started at the 6:00 mark of the 3rd. Pana had not scored in 8 mins. since Fotsis hit another 3pt. off of Diamantidis P/R action to take a 56-33 lead.
Saras did another masterful job running the high P/R when he had the chance. Wasn't quite as deadly running it with Batiste like in the Semis, but still made a few sweet feeds to Batiste or setting up 3pt. looks. PAO players consistently made the extra pass to open up some of the 3pt. looks--Diamantidis set up a big Spanoulis 3pt. with an extra pass.

After having a very ragged game vs. Olympiacos, Diamantidis came out strong off the bench and was aggessive on the offensive end--scoring 8 of his 10 pts in the 2nd quarter, including a big 3pt. on a quick pull-up off high ball screen.

Spanoulis' couldn't get to the rim, so he decided to do some damage with his outside shot (not really a strength). Spanoulis was 3/5 from deep including a shot-clock beating 3pt in the 1st half, and then a monster one-dribble pull-up 3pt. to give PAO a 68-60 lead with 3:00 remaining.

Former Bucknell Bison JR Holden was the one steady influence for CSKA offensively in the 1st half. Caused problems with his quickness in iso situations and side P/Rs resulting in 14 points & 4 assts, and a handful of drawn fouls.

The one thing that worked consistently all game for CSKA was drawing fouls. Holden & Langdon drew fouls thru-out; Trajan was closely guarded, bumped, & grasped wherever he went. They went to the foul line twice as much as PAO, but only shot (20/30) from the line after shooting around 75% from the year. Siskauskas missed 3, not to mention Khyrapa missed 2 late.

Vik Khyrapa had another sound all-around game with 9 pts, 7 rebs (5 off), 2 stls and versatile defense. But sadly might be remembered more for clanking two free throws in the last minute. [M. Haubs note: Vik also had a technical in the first half (worth 2 FTs in Euroleague) - points they could've used down the stretch.] Matjaz Smodis also helped out on the offensive glass, and did an underrated job defensively in help & post situations.

The season's not done yet for these two squads. CSKA would like to keep their undefeated Russian Superleague record intact with a playoff title. Panathinaikos' '09 title aspirations are not complete just yet, and will likely have to go thru Olympiacos once more. But the most important hardware of the European club season has been handed out, and Panathinaikos has hoisted it for the second time in three years, and the fifth time overall.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Euroleague Final Four: Team-by-Team Analysis

My partner covered the key players to watch at the Euro Final 4 yesterday, today I'll focus on analyzing the teams participating in Berlin this weekend.

All these teams are overflowing with Euro stars (thanks to having generous owners), and all have second strings that could beat most other teams in Europe. Not much separates these four squads, and any team is capable of taking home the hardware. Each team has multiple outside shooting threats, and will look to get up a fair amount of long-range shots.

FC Barcelona meets CSKA Moscow in the first semi of the day, and then followed by the Battle of Greece, Panathinaikos vs. Olympiacos. Team breakdowns follow below:

Semifinal #1: Barcelona vs. CSKA (Fri., 12 pm EST)
Sort of a contrast in styles between the two teams--Barca likes to push the pace while CSKA wants a more controlled atmosphere on both ends of the floor. Though they're alike in that both teams can bury shots from long-range, and have multiple bigs who can float out as well. This game could simply come down to which of these two sweet-shooting teams is hotter from the perimeter. Though, CSKA's superior defensive acumen could likely be the ultimate factor.


Coming off a tough quarterfinal series vs. TAU Ceramica that went the full 5 games, Barca might be considered the slight underdog in Berlin, but by no means are they hurtin' for talent.

Space the floor very well and often like to keep the basket area open. Can put five guys on the floor who can drill from the 3pt. line when they play D. Andersen & E. Ilyasova on the frontline. Barca likes to get out in transition as well.

No surprise Juan Navarro is the linchpin of their offense. Will run him off screens all over the floor, especially baseline screens so he can curl into his patented floaters. Navarro is frequently used in Pick/Rolls, and is especially dangerous running it with Ilyasova. Victor Sada & Roger Grimau will also see some time running the point.

Have three guards--Navarro, Gianluca Basile, & Jaka Lakovic--who can all handle the ball well, and are extremely dangerous shooters on the catch or off-the-dribble on ball screens. Lakovic has been banged up this year but looked sharp in the Quarters.

Former Buck Ersan Ilyasova has been superb this year and is one of the finest young players in Europe. The young Turk is an inside-out threat who's shooting over 40% from deep, and is one of the best rebounders in Europe. Is a tough guard in the many pick/roll situations Barca uses with him, especially lethal paired with Navarro.

Sweet-shooting 7-footer David Andersen gives them another floor-spreader at the 5-spot. They position him on the perimeter often, but he also will get some touches on the blocks because of his effective turnaround jumper.

Orlando Magic property Fran Vasquez has really improved his play this year after struggling with injury. Not particularly skilled on offense but shoots a great percentage getting easy looks rolling off high screens. His combo of long arms & mobility make him a effective rebounder & a terrific defensive presence (1st in Blocks in Euroleague). 7-foot Daniel Santiago provides Barca with another servicable frontline option with decent post play.


The defending champions are appearing in their 7th straight Euroleague Final 4, and rolled thru Partizan in a 3-game sweep in the quarters. A finely-tuned unit filled with battle-tested Euroleague vets, and are led by hot NBA coaching prospect, Ettore Messina. Arguably the best defensive unit of the Final 4 teams, and finished 22-0 in Russian Superleague.

Veteran backcourt is led by two Americans--JR Holden & Trajan Langdon. We all know Langdon can shoot, and CSKA will run him off screens. '07 Eurobasket hero, JR Holden, is not the pure shooter that Langdon is, but has a knack for hitting tough shots in pressure situations.

Greek combo guard Nikos Zisis brings a nice shooting stroke off the pine, though more from the mid-range. Ex-NJ Net Zoran Planinic is one of the better distributors in Europe, but has been dinged up with injuries lately.

CSKA's best all-around player is 6-6 SF Ramunas Siskauskas, whose combo of a quick first step and nice strength helps him draw fouls constantly. Very purposeful on his drives. Can handle playmaking duties, rebounds, shoot from deep, and provides stout defense.

The frontline is led by a pair of Slovenians, Matjaz Smodis & Erazem Lorbek. Smodis is a multi-skilled big with nice post moves, passing skills & shooting range. Smodis has been struggling with injuries the last few years, but seemed to regain some of his mojo vs Partizan. E. Lorbek has really emerged this year, and is shooting the ball great this year. Somewhat like Barca, can put five deep shooters on the floor together thanks to Lorbek's & Smodis' range

Vik Khryapa gives Messina an underrated jack-o-trades option who will fill in the holes with boards, steals, blocks, assists & versatile defense. Former Maryland standout Terrence Morris is another valuable asset on the frontline who has shooting the ball well & crashing the glass this season.

Take care of the ball very well, solid on the boards, shoot 40% from deep, and maybe most important, are probably the best defensive team in Berlin.

Semifinal #2: Panathinaikos vs. Olympiacos (3 pm EST)
This one should be a raucous affair especially with the amount of Greek fans likely to travel to Berlin. Olympiacos finished 1st in Greek League with a 25-1 record, only loss to Panathinaikos. Pana leads the season series 2-1 this year, but Josh Childress was absent for the Greek Cup Final. These two insanely deep squads are pretty evenly matched, and this game is a toss-up.


Extremely deep squad returning to the Final 4 after winning the title in '07. Handed rival Olympiacos its only loss in Greek League play, and won 2 out of the 3 meetings between them this year.

Coach Obradovic uses a heavy diet of pick/rolls which is a no-brainer when you have three of the top playmakers in Europe with D. Diamantidis, V. Spanoulis, & S. Jasikevicius. Also, will showcase some UCLA type sets and some double-high post sets with either of his 3 great points directing the show.

Saras is a danger to hit 3 pts. on ball screens or deliver precision passes, while Spanoulis is more inclined to dart to the basket, and draw fouls. Spanoulis is not a great standstill deep threat, but is quite dangerous as a mid-range pull-up shooter. Former Maryland standout Drew Nicholas gives this team more offensive firepower on the perimeter, and has played well down the stretch of the season

Painted Area favorite Dimis Diamantidis continues to be a defensive monster (recently took home his 3rd Euro Defensive MVP), but has been more assertive on the offensive end this year, something we've been pleading for the last few years. Dimis was huge in their Greek Cup victory over Olympia in February.

PF Mike Batiste primarily does his damage rolling off high P/Rs, usually finishing with a two-handed flush. The young stud from Montenegro, 6-11 Nikola Pekovic is a physical beast in the interior, who is effective on the block. Wily vet Kostas Tsartsaris gives them a nice defender who can guard multiple positions. PF Antonio Fotsis can float out to the 3pt. line & is an underrated athletic finisher, but lacks assertiveness, and might give you very little.

Do have some issues with turning the ball over, and actually are a subpar rebounding squad. And these two things could be a difference maker considering not much separates these four teams.


Another obscenely loaded Greek team back in the Final 4 after an absence of a decade. Will face rival Panathinaikos for the fourth time this season.

Though it seemed he was losing a step over the last few years, Theo Papaloukas has had himself a pretty impressive season back in his home country after great success with CSKA (led Euroleague with 5 apg). Pick/roll genius creates easy shots for his teammates, and has shot the ball surprisingly well from the perimeter.

Besides Papaloukas P/R action, Olympiacos will incorporate some handoffs into the offensive mix. Also, look to set up Nikola Vujcic in the post, as well as 7- foot Ioannis Bourousis. Bourousis is not very quick, but is crafty around the basket and will hit the glass.

Josh Childress has slowly bounced back from mid-season surgery, and has struggled offensively. The key in this game might be if Childress defends Diamantidis. Diamantidis led Pana to a big Greek Cup win vs. Olympia in February, but Childress was sidelined for that game. And if defensive ace P. Vasilopoulos can't go because of lingering injury, Childress could be the best bet on Dimis.

I feel Forward Giorgios Printezis was a nice pickup by Toronto because he's a nice athlete who can play both forward spots. Often will seal into quick post-ups in the offense, and can attack off the dribble where he loves to finish with his left hand. Makes quick, decisive moves all the time & goes hard to the glass.

Israeli combo guard Yotam Halperin will handle the ball when it's not in Papaloukas' hands, and provides Olympiacos with its best shooter. Ex-Temple star Lynn Greer might be their best pure scorer, and Coach Giannakis will allow Greer to use his quickness in iso situations. The young Serbs, Milos Teodosic & Zoran Erceg, could see some time with Teodosic running some point, and Erceg's a danger to crash the glass.

Can't spread the floor as well as the other Final 4 teams especially when they play Papaloukas & Childress together. Though their numbers look good, they're the weakest outside shooting team in the Final 4; Halperin & Greer need to be located but can test the others, especially if Vasilopoulos can't go. Jannero Pargo & Sofoklis Schortsianitis are on this squad but not sure they will see much time--kinda indicates Olympiacos' deep roster.

Sometimes I've noticed that they have a hard time distinguishing who should be getting the ball in pressure situations. It's like they have too many options, and can't decide if Childress, Greer, Papaloukas, or even Printezis should be getting the ball. Sometimes it seems like the roles are not clearly defined. Maybe I'm blowing a few small instances out of proportion, but something to look for if this game goes down to the wire, like it should.