Bill Russell's Insights About the 2013 NBA Finals
Prior to game six, the NBA TV crew interviewed Bill Russell and the 11-time NBA champion made some interesting comments about the 2013 NBA Finals.
Media members make a big deal about in-game adjustments and between game adjustments but Russell--who served as a player-coach for two championship teams--cautioned, "You have to make adjustments that your team can make." An adjustment will only work if it is something that a team has previously practiced and is thus mentally/physically prepared to execute. The idea that a coach can come up with something completely new between games--let alone during a 15 minute halftime break--is absurd and that is why San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich gives snarky answers when media members ask him stupid questions about what kind of adjustments he is going to make.
Media members act as if after every loss the losing team should react to what the winning team did but Russell said, "When I played, when we had to make adjustments we would adjust not to what we did wrong but we would try to get back to what we did right and do that. That is the only way you can take control of the game." This is a very important and underrated point: great teams focus on what they do well and they play their game, as opposed to reacting/overreacting to what the opposing team just did. In the 2007 NBA playoffs, Coach Avery Johnson of the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks changed his starting lineup against the eighth seeded 42-40 Golden State Warriors, a decision that I criticized
for exactly the reason that Russell mentioned: "The Mavericks posted one of the best regular season records in NBA
history but for most of this series they have been changing their lineup
and trying to outthink the Warriors--but you can't outthink a crazy
man. Don Nelson is the crazy man in this series--crazy like a fox. He
knows that his team is not as good as Dallas, which is why he keeps
saying that--but he also knows that by running and gunning on offense
and triple-teaming Nowitzki on defense and just creating a wild and
crazy shootout that there is a chance that his team will be standing at
the end; certainly, the Warriors would have no chance to win by playing
in a more conventional way." In another article about that series, I declared
, "Dallas Coach Avery Johnson made a big mistake--pun intended--by benching
his centers in game one and trying to play 'small ball.' Dallas must
continue to use the starting lineup that rampaged to one of the best
records in league history." Instead of making an adjustment to react to how an inferior team played, Coach Johnson should have focused on making sure that his Mavericks kept doing what they did well.
After San Antonio took a 3-2 series lead over Miami
, most Finals MVP talk focused on Tony Parker and Danny Green but Russell said, "If San Antonio were to win, I would pick Tim Duncan as the MVP because he makes both the offense and the defense for San Antonio; you've got inside presence offensively and inside presence defensively. One thing about Tim Duncan that I like is he is one of the best passing big men." I agree with Russell that Duncan's impact has neither been measured fully by statistics nor has it been appreciated by most media members/commentators; I still think that Duncan should have won the 2007 Finals MVP for the very reasons that Russell mentioned.
Labels: Bill Russell, Miami Heat, NBA Finals, San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan
posted by David Friedman @ 4:59 PM
Heat Force Seventh Game After Spurs Squander Late Fourth Quarter Lead
"Our world's out of order. All I see is missed opportunity."--Hall & Oates, "Missed Opportunity"
The San Antonio Spurs are renowned for their crisp execution
and praised for their championship pedigree but in game six of the NBA Finals they squandered a golden opportunity to win the fifth championship of the Tim Duncan era--and now the Miami Heat are one victory away from claiming the second championship of the Big Three era. The Spurs led 94-89 with :28 left in regulation after Manu Ginobili split a pair of free throws, a time/score situation that simply requires making free throws, not giving the opposing team extra possessions via turnovers/offensive rebounds and not giving up open three pointers; if the Spurs had executed those basic fundamentals for less than 30 seconds then they would have won the 2013 NBA championship. Instead, the Spurs gave up an offensive rebound that led to a LeBron James three pointer, Kawhi Leonard split a pair of free throws, the Spurs gave up an offensive rebound that led to a Ray Allen three pointer and the game went to overtime after Tony Parker missed a tough, low percentage fadeaway jumper as time expired in regulation. The Spurs scored first in overtime and eventually took a three point lead but then they missed three straight shots and suffered a shot clock violation; the Heat finished the game with a 6-0 run and emerged with a 103-100 win. Game to game momentum has been non-existent in this series as the teams have alternated victories but this is a devastating loss for the Spurs and the last time a road team won game seven of the NBA Finals Jimmy Carter was President (Washington 105, Seattle 98 in 1978), so on Thursday the Spurs will face a daunting task.
LeBron James authored yet another Finals performance that will baffle both his critics and his admirers; he scored 14 points on 3-12 field goal shooting in the first three quarters and he seemed to be on pace for one of the worst performances by a reigning MVP in a possible elimination game--but then he took over the game in the fourth quarter, scoring 16 points on 7-11 field goal shooting as the Heat rallied from a 75-65 deficit. James finished with 32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and three steals while shooting 11-26 from the field. He is just the fourth player in NBA Finals history to post a 30-10-10 triple double, joining Jerry West, James Worthy and Charles Barkley. Without James' poor shooting and tentative play in the first three quarters the Heat probably would not have trailed by as many as 13 points but without his forceful, determined and skillful play in the fourth quarter the Heat would not have been able to come back. So what should we make of James? He is a tremendously talented player who has had many great playoff performances, who sometimes becomes passive in the biggest games and who learned last year how to snap out of that passivity to reassert the aggressiveness that makes him unstoppable; no player and no defensive scheme can stop James when he attacks the hoop with force--period
. Anyone who thinks that James did not quit versus Dallas during the 2011 NBA Finals
and versus Boston in the 2010 NBA playoffs
should watch the fourth quarter of game six of the 2013 NBA Finals: that
is what LeBron James looks like when he is playing hard, when he is fully engaged mentally, physically and emotionally--and that kind of effort (not necessarily those numbers but that energy level, that kind of relentless determination to attack the defense) should be expected of James all the time, because that is what Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant--the two wing players who led teams to multiple championships in the past 20 years--delivered. If LeBron James wants to be mentioned in the same breath with those players then that is the standard--not statistics, not awards but rather a consistently high effort level that uplifts his teammates and deflates the opposing team. Prior to the game, NBA TV's Greg Anthony said, "Everyone says how well they are defending LeBron. LeBron is defending LeBron." Does anyone really believe that Boris Diaw can stay in front of LeBron James? Does anyone really believe that any of the Spurs' wing players can guard LeBron James in the post? The Spurs' defensive scheme is to concede two point jump shots to James and hope that James either misses those shots or refuses to even take those shots; there is no plan to stop James when he drives to the basket with a full head of steam and looks to score instead of looking to pass: James did that for the whole fourth quarter and there was nothing that the Spurs could do to slow him down. If James does that in game seven then the Heat will win--and if he had done that more often in the first five games then this series would already have been over.
For a half, it looked like Tim Duncan was the player who was going to deliver a legendary performance; in the first 24 minutes he produced 25 points (a personal high for a half in a Finals game) on 11-13 field goal shooting and he grabbed eight rebounds as the Spurs took a 50-44 lead. Could the 37 year old Duncan really produce a 40-20 game to clinch his fifth title? The predictable answer to that question was, "No"; he finished with 30 points and 17 rebounds and did not score after the third quarter--but Anthony correctly noted that a 30-17 stat line is more than the Spurs could have reasonably expected from Duncan and the Spurs needed to receive more production from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Parker scored 19 points and passed for eight assists but he shot just 6-23 from the field. Ginobili had nine points, four rebounds, three assists, a career-high eight turnovers and a mind-boggling -21 plus/minus rating, by far the worst of any player in this game.
Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra took a page out of Phil Jackson's book; when Jackson coached the Lakers against the Spurs he preferred to single cover Duncan and blanket San Antonio's perimeter players, figuring that Duncan would not score 40 or 50 points and that the Spurs could not win without getting huge production from their three point shooters. Duncan put up great numbers in game six against single coverage but the Spurs shot just 5-18 from three point range (.278). Danny Green--whose record-setting three point shooting in the first five games generated some Finals MVP consideration--scored three points on 1-7 field goal shooting, including 1-5 from three point range.
Meanwhile, the Heat shot 11-19 from behind the arc (.579), with Mario Chalmers leading the way (20 points, 4-5 three point shooting). Dwyane Wade had a quiet game (14 points on 6-15 field goal shooting, four rebounds, four assists) and he was on the bench when the Heat made their fourth quarter run. Chris Bosh had solid numbers (10 points, 11 rebounds, three steals, two blocked shots) but he had an impact far greater than those statistics suggest; his defensive versatility played a huge role as Miami outscored San Antonio 30-20 in the fourth quarter, he collected the offensive rebound that led to Allen's game-tying three pointer and he blocked Green's three point attempt as time expired in overtime. Allen finished with nine points on 3-8 field goal shooting but he scored seven crucial points late in the game: in addition to the huge three pointer at the end of regulation, he converted a drive to cut San Antonio's lead to 100-99 and he made two clutch free throws to put Miami up 103-100 with 1.9 seconds left in overtime.
The Spurs have to be very careful to make sure that game seven does not get out of hand, because it is easy to picture a scenario in which James runs wild (literally and figuratively), Chalmers hits some three pointers and the Heat cruise to victory; the Heat have played two game sevens in the Big Three era and they
won both by double digits (99-76 versus Indiana in 2013
, 101-88 versus Boston in 2012
). On the other hand, if James plays like he did in the first three quarters of game six and the Spurs execute at their normal efficiency level then the Spurs could put themselves in position to transform their game six collapse from a huge missed opportunity into a historical footnote.
Labels: Chris Bosh, Danny Green, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Manu Ginobili, Miami Heat, Ray Allen, San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker
posted by David Friedman @ 6:28 AM
Manu the Magnificent: Revived Ginobili Spurs San Antonio to 3-2 Finals Lead
Manu Ginobili made his first start of the 2012-13 season very memorable, scoring 24 points and passing for 10 assists as the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Miami Heat 114-104 to move within one victory of seizing their fifth championship in the Tim Duncan era. The Spurs never trailed and they led by as many as 20 points before a late Heat rally made the final score more respectable. Tony Parker scored a game-high 26 points on 10-14 field goal shooting and he had five assists. Danny Green scored 24 points, grabbed six rebounds, blocked three shots and set the all-time NBA Finals record for most three pointers made in a single series (25, three more than Ray Allen made in the 2008 NBA Finals). Tim Duncan authored a very efficient performance, scoring 17 points on 7-10 field goal shooting, snaring a game-high 12 rebounds and blocking three shots; he controlled the paint at both ends of the court, drawing double-teams to make it easier for the Spurs' perimeter shooters to get open and challenging Heat players who drove to the basket. Kawhi Leonard added 16 points and eight rebounds; he is the modern-day Jamaal Wilkes--not exceptional in any skill set area but also not possessing any skill set weaknesses and very content to make winning plays at both ends of the court without drawing attention to himself.
LeBron James had a solid stat line--25 points, eight assists, six rebounds, four steals--but he shot just 8-22 from the field and never definitively asserted himself as the best player on the court. James continued the pattern he established in game four, attacking the hoop more than he did in the first three games of the series, but he missed several shots in the paint and he was much less effective in the second half when Boris Diaw proved to be a surprisingly
effective primary defender against him. After sleepwalking through most of the postseason, Dwyane Wade played well for the second game in a row, scoring 25 points while also tying Ginobili for game-high honors with 10 assists. James and Wade shot just 10-26 in the paint, their worst combined field goal percentage in the paint during their three playoff runs together. Wade has struggled to finish at the rim throughout the postseason but James' misses are harder to explain; Green has demonstrated an uncanny ability to anticipate James' moves and either block James' shot or else force James to awkwardly alter his delivery but it was shocking to see James come up short on so many point blank shots: it is hard to believe that anyone can stop James if he consistently posts up and makes quick moves to the hoop (as opposed to holding the ball, waiting for a double-team and looking to pass).
Ray Allen contributed 21 points, including 15 points in the fourth quarter. Chris Bosh scored 16 points, tied James for the team lead with six rebounds and led the Heat with a +7 plus/minus rating; the plus/minus rating can be very "noisy" in small sample sizes but in this particular case I believe that the rating accurately reflects that Bosh had a positive impact even though his box score numbers do not jump off of the page: the Heat's offense revolves around James and Wade so much that the eight-time All-Star Bosh has been transformed into a glorified Horace Grant shooting spot up jumpers but Bosh is an efficient scorer who also is a mobile and versatile defender. It is interesting that the commentators who criticize Kobe Bryant for supposedly not passing the ball frequently enough to Pau Gasol do not have anything to say about the way that the Heat utilize Bosh on offense; Bosh was a more prolific scorer as the number one option in Toronto than Gasol was as the number one option in Memphis, so anyone who believes that the Lakers' offense should revolve around Gasol is being hypocritical if he does not say the same thing about Bosh and the Heat's offense (I do not think that the Lakers' offense should revolve around Gasol nor do I think that the Heat's offense should revolve around Bosh but I also think it is evident that playing with Bryant enhanced Gasol's individual numbers while leading to team success; the jury is still out about how playing with James and Wade has impacted Bosh).
Ginobili's 24 points not only set a season-high but also nearly matched his total for the first four games of the series (30). Ginobili made an immediate impact, hitting the first shot of the game--a long jumper just inside the three point line--before assisting on each of San Antonio's next two hoops and then making two free throws. Ginobili's performance--and the inevitable media reaction to it--reinforces a point that I made during the San Antonio-Golden State series
: "As an injury prone third option, Ginobili is not expected to put up big scoring totals on a nightly basis; he can be the hero--like when he hit the game-winning shot in the series opener--but, no matter how poorly he plays, he will not be the goat unless he makes a serious mental error during a crucial possession down the stretch: in contrast, Tony Parker
and Tim Duncan are expected to be highly productive every game and a team's first option (Parker and Duncan are options 1A and 1B for the Spurs) cannot have an off half, much less an off game. The first option is the focal point of his team's offense and the main concern for the opposing team's defense." Even in his prime, Ginobili was never a player who could average 40 mpg and consistently put up big numbers--and that is what "stat gurus" failed to understand when they looked at his per minute numbers/"advanced basketball statistics" and compared Ginobili to Kobe Bryant. Ginobili has always been a second or third option, a spark plug, a great resource to have but not a franchise player. The same is true of James Harden, which is why Houston's record barely improved
despite all of the hype about Harden's impact this season. Ginobili's team can win a championship with him having one or two good games out of six or seven in the NBA Finals; Kobe Bryant's team could never win a championship under those conditions, nor can LeBron James' team win a championship under those conditions.
Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra changed his starting lineup for game four by replacing Udonis Haslem with Mike Miller and even though Miller did not make much of a statistical contribution his presence as a three point shooting threat spread out San Antonio's defense, creating driving lanes that James and Wade exploited. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich initially stayed with his regular starting lineup but after less than a minute elapsed he also went small, putting Gary Neal in for Tiago Splitter. Since late last season, the Heat have generally done well with their small lineups whether or not the opposing team also went small and this again proved to be the case in game four--but in game five the Spurs used their small lineup more effectively at both ends of the court: on defense, the slow-footed but crafty Diaw kept James out of the paint for the most part in the second half, while on offense the Spurs relentlessly attacked Miller by either isolating him or else setting screens that forced switches so that Miller had to guard a quick ballhandler who had a live dribble. By attacking Miller and exploiting the Heat's lack of size in the paint, the Spurs shredded the Heat's usually stout defense, shooting 42-70 (.600) from the field; that high field goal percentage mitigated the effect of the Spurs' 18 turnovers. The Heat gave up 114 points or more only three times during the 82 game regular season--and two of those three games went to overtime. This was just the third time in 21 playoff games that the Heat gave up more than 100
points--but it has happened twice in the past three games, as the Spurs scored 113 points in their game three win
The Spurs are one of the few teams that can be equally effective with a big lineup or a small lineup; the Indiana Pacers' big lineup gave the Heat fits in the Eastern Conference Finals but the Heat closed out that series by relying heavily on James and Wade to relentlessly attack the hoop on offense while also creating havoc all over the court on defense: the Pacers were unable to impose their will with their big lineup nor were they able to put an effective small lineup on the court to match up with the Heat. The Spurs can play a methodical, half court game with Duncan and Splitter but they can also go small and play at a fast tempo; throughout game five, Popovich exhorted his team to push the ball up the court regardless of whether the Heat scored or not--and it is very rare that a Miami opponent is comfortable playing as fast or even faster than Miami.
In my series preview I picked the Heat but I also outlined the Spurs' correct anti-Heat game plan
: "... take care of the basketball, utilize their advantage in the post with Tim Duncan and break down the Heat's perimeter defense with the driving of Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili; Duncan's post ups and the Parker/Ginobili drives will create open three point shots if the Heat are forced to collapse their defense into the paint. Defensively, the Spurs must force LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to shoot contested two point jump shots." The Spurs have executed this plan well enough to win three games. Before the series began I predicted that the Spurs would have to win twice in Miami to dethrone the 2012 NBA Champions and that is indeed the case; I am still skeptical that the Heat will lose two games at home in one series but I am a bit less skeptical now than I was before the series started.
Green is the Spurs' leading scorer in the Finals (18.0 ppg) and he has set three point shooting records but he is not a one-dimensional player: he also ranks third on the team in rebounding (4.0 rpg) and second in blocked shots (1.6 bpg); barring a significant performance by another Spur in game six and/or game seven, if San Antonio wins the championship then Green has to receive serious consideration for Finals MVP (I think that Duncan's impact is almost as underrated this time as it was in the 2007 Finals but I realize that unless he puts up at least 30 points and 15 rebounds in the clinching game he will not receive any Finals MVP votes). One could make a joke about Green having to leave Cleveland and get away from LeBron James to reach his full potential--but, in all seriousness, think about what a stunning turn of events we may be on the verge of witnessing (to borrow a word formerly used to describe James' performances in Cleveland): this would be like Mike McGee leaving the Lakers in the mid-1980s, landing with another team and then winning Finals MVP honors in a head to head duel with Magic Johnson or like Rick Carlisle doing the same thing versus Larry Bird or like Craig Hodges taking a Finals MVP away from Michael Jordan. If this happens it would not nullify all of James' great accomplishments--but, to put it mildly, it would not enhance James' legacy.
Labels: Chris Bosh, Danny Green, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Manu Ginobili, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker
posted by David Friedman @ 4:19 AM
James, Wade and Bosh Lead the Way as the Heat Melt the Spurs
LeBron James resumed playing like he is the world's best basketball player and the Miami Heat followed his lead, beating the San Antonio Spurs 109-93 to tie the NBA Finals at 2-2. James finished with a game-high 33 points on 15-25 field goal shooting while also grabbing 11 rebounds, passing for four assists, swiping two steals and blocking two shots. Dwyane Wade finally performed at an All-Star level, scoring 32 points on 14-25 field goal shooting while also playing a great floor game (six rebounds, four assists, six steals). The Heat utilized Chris Bosh in the paint instead of relegating him to spot up shooting duty and he responded with 20 points, a game-high 13 rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 20 points on 6-10 field goal shooting but he only had five rebounds and one blocked shot as the Heat uncharacteristically won the rebounding battle (41-36) and outscored the Spurs in the paint (50-38). Tony Parker posted solid numbers (15 points, nine assists) but he had a very uneven game--great in the first half, scoreless in the second half on 0-4 field goal shooting. Manu Ginobili played 26 very ineffective minutes (five points on 1-5 field goal shooting, two assists). Game three heroes Danny Green and Gary Neal combined to score 23 points while shooting 6-9 from three point range; they did their jobs but that was not nearly enough to compensate for the way that Miami's Big Three destroyed San Antonio's Big Three.
Almost any playoff series that involves LeBron James is viewed as a referendum on his legacy and while there is some validity to that perception--a four-time MVP should be held to a high standard, particularly in the NBA Finals--the Spurs' three future Hall of Famers should not be given a free pass: the Spurs need for Duncan to play at a high level at both ends of the court, they need for Parker to be effective in both halves (though he may be limited by the hamstring injury he suffered in game three) and they need for Ginobili to make some kind of positive contribution at either end of the court. Duncan's defense and rebounding were exceptional in the first three games but he struggled to make shots; in game four he shot well but did not get enough opportunities (in part because the Spurs wasted so many possessions by committing turnovers) and he did not have quite the same defensive presence in the paint that he did in the first three games. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili scored 24 first half points on 10-18 field goal shooting, which is an acceptable output, but they only had 16 second half points on 4-13 field goal shooting, which is not acceptable from San Antonio's perspective. Although the Spurs' best players are "made men" in the sense that they have already won multiple championships, they have the opportunity to add a very nice page to their collective resumes if they can knock off a Heat team that looked unbeatable for extended stretches of the 2012-13 season.
James' numbers do not always indicate whether or not he played well; he had a triple double in game one but he did not assert himself offensively--and by game three even his staunchest advocates conceded that James was playing very passively and very tentatively. James vowed to do better in game four and he backed up his words with a strong performance--literally and figuratively: his numbers were strong and his game was strong as he played with a great sense of purpose, relentlessly attacking the hoop both on the fast break and also from the post in the half court set. When James forces his way into the paint he not only scores but he draws fouls, which is important for several reasons: this puts the opposing team in the penalty, creates individual foul trouble and generates potential free throw opportunities for his team. Even if James misses a shot in the paint and does not get fouled he attracts so much defensive attention that his teammates have offensive rebounding opportunities.There is no excuse for James to pound holes into the hardwood with pointless dribbling and/or to bail out the defense by shooting long jumpers; while it is true that in some cases he should take what the defense is giving him--open midrange jump shots--it is also true that whenever a big man switches on to him he should take the ball to the hoop and force the defense to take what he is giving: pain--the physical pain of dealing with his size/strength and the psychological pain of dealing with just how difficult it is to stop him when he is in attack mode.
Wade supported James by playing hard for the whole game instead of disappearing in the second half. The Spurs' employed the same defensive approach against James and Wade that worked in the first three games but three things changed: (1) James attacked immediately at full speed instead of holding the ball and/or dribbling the ball passively, (2) James and Wade took and made open jump shots and (3) the Spurs committed several careless live ball turnovers that gave James and Wade far too many easy transition baskets. The Spurs will continue to concede as many two point jump shots as James and Wade want to take but that strategy will only work if (1) James and Wade miss those shots (or refuse to even take those shots, deferring to teammates who have less talent and are not expecting to carry the load) and (2) the Spurs eliminate live ball turnovers.
The Spurs opened the game with a 15-5 run as Parker made three of his first four field goal attempts but things unraveled as soon as Parker went to the bench to rest; the Heat settled down, fed James in the post and took advantage of careless San Antonio turnovers to go on an 8-0 run that tied the score at 19. Miami led 29-26 by the end of the quarter as the Heat feasted on six San Antonio turnovers. The Heat extended that margin to 47-38 late in the second quarter but the Spurs countered with an 11-2 run--keyed by Parker's seven points--to tie the score at 49 by halftime. One interesting moment happened during a second quarter timeout: San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich sat and watched as Parker did most of the talking in the huddle. Popovich believes that sometimes the players who are in the game have a better handle on things than the coaches on the sidelines, so he lets the players speak their minds and he is rightly praised for enabling his players to take on leadership roles--but when Mike Brown, a former Popovich assistant coach, did the exact same thing as Cleveland's head coach the media relentlessly ripped him for not having a strong enough presence. This illustrates the ridiculous double standards often applied by some media members who do not have a clue about what is actually involved in coaching a team; the coach does much of his most important work behind closed doors in practice, developing the necessary habits and mindset for his team to be successful--but media members make a big deal about in-game adjustments and histrionics during timeout huddles, as if a coach is going to come up with some brand new insight on the fly in the middle of a game; even if a coach makes an in-game adjustment, that adjustment will almost certainly be based on something that the team practiced throughout the season. This is what Bill Belichick calls "situational football" and the same principle applies in basketball; a good coach prepares his team for various scenarios so that his players are ready to handle different situations. What is significant is not the in-game adjustment or the words that are said in the huddle but rather the months of preparation that enable the players to adapt to changing circumstances (with or without specific prompting from the coach during the game)--and that is why Phil Jackson often did not even call a timeout when his team struggled: he had already prepared his players to deal with challenges, so he did not have to make a grand spectacle in a huddle but rather he expected them to execute at both ends of the court the way that they had been trained to execute. I am not impressed by a coach who constantly jumps up and makes hand signals to his team throughout a game; that is not coaching, it is showing off for the TV cameras. I don't need to hear Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich or Mike Brown talk in a huddle to evaluate their coaching acumen; the way that a team executes under pressure at both ends of the court tells you whether or not that team's coach is doing a good job. Jackson won 11 championships, Popovich has won four championships and Brown built the Cavaliers from a non-playoff team to an NBA Finalist and a franchise that twice posted the best regular season record in the NBA.
Despite their turnovers and some defensive miscues, the Spurs seemed to be in good position to win game four; Parker looked unstoppable in the first half and Wade had been terrible in the second half of each of the previous games, making one wonder if the Heat could score enough points down the stretch if the Spurs kept the game close. Danny Green's three pointer at the 6:30 mark of the third quarter put the Spurs up 61-60 but San Antonio never led again: in the next 1:08, Ray Allen scored on a layup, Mario Chalmers drilled a three pointer and James went coast to coast for a dunk after stealing the ball. The Spurs stayed in contact until Wade scored eight points in a 2:12 stretch of the fourth quarter to put the Heat up 92-83; the Spurs never mounted a serious threat the rest of the way.
In order to win this series, the Spurs have to limit their turnovers, use post ups/drive and kick action to create open shots (either three pointers or layups, depending on how the defense reacts), control the paint at both ends of the court and force James and Wade to shoot contested two point jump shots; the Spurs fell short in all four areas in game four, so it is no surprise that the Heat routed them. Even if the Spurs execute their game plan efficiently, it is difficult to picture any team beating the Heat four times in a seven game series if James plays at his best--and it is even more difficult to picture that happening if Wade continues to be effective and if the Heat continue to utilize Bosh in the paint as opposed to treating the eight-time All-Star like he is nothing more than a spot up shooter.
As I predicted in my series preview
, the Spurs will have to win at least two games in Miami to dethrone the Heat; game five at home is a must win situation for the Spurs but even if the Spurs take a 3-2 lead it will not be easy to eliminate the Heat in Miami. If James plays up to his capabilities, then the Heat will defeat the Spurs regardless of what else happens or where the games are played--but the strange and perplexing thing about James is that, as great as he is, there is no way to predict how he will play from game to game. When Michael Jordan was in his prime, how he played did not vary from game to game; his statistical output varied but his mental approach of relentless aggressiveness did not change--and the same is true of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan (in his prime), Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the great players of the past four decades who each led their teams to at least three championships. James has some work to do to join that club and it will be interesting to see how he responds to this challenge.
Labels: Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Manu Ginobili, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker
posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 AM
Three-mendous: Spurs' Long Range Barrage Buries Heat
The San Antonio Spurs dominated the boards 52-36 and rained down an unprecedented three point barrage to blow out the Miami Heat 113-77 and take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals. The Spurs shot 16-32 from beyond the arc, setting an NBA Finals single game record for three pointers made. This was the worst playoff loss in Miami Heat history, the worst loss in the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Big Three Era and the third worst loss in NBA Finals history. Danny Green scored a game-high 27 points while shooting 9-15 from the field, including 7-9 from three point range; he has shot 16-23 (.696) from three point range overall and he is the leading scorer in the series (18.7 ppg). Gary Neal scored 24 points while shooting 9-17 from the field, including 6-10 from three point range. Kawhi Leonard contributed 14 points, 12 rebounds and four steals. Tim Duncan had a solid performance: 12 points, 14 rebounds, two blocked shots, 5-11 field goal shooting. It is easy to overlook Duncan when three point bombs are exploding from every direction but his defense in the paint and his post up presence on offense should not be ignored or diminished. Manu Ginobili added seven points and six assists; his deft passing played a role in San Antonio's perimeter shooting prowess. Tony Parker only scored six points but he had a game-high eight assists and just two turnovers before missing most of the fourth quarter due to a hamstring injury; he is scheduled to have an MRI on Wednesday morning and is listed as questionable for game four. If Parker cannot play then that could turn out to be a bigger story than anything else that happened in game three.
Dwyane Wade played very aggressively in the first quarter and then he disappeared for the rest of the game; that has been his pattern recently and it does not seem likely that this will change. He finished with a team-high 16 points (including eight in the first quarter) on 7-15 field goal shooting, five assists, four steals and no rebounds. Whether his leaping ability has been limited by injury or taken away by Father Time, it is evident that Wade has no backup plan when he cannot just elevate over everyone; he has been transformed from an All-Star into a hesitant role player who does not have the footwork or perimeter shot to be a consistent scorer and the Spurs are guarding him like he is a scrub: no double teams are sent his way and he is being dared to shoot any shot outside of six to eight feet.
Chris Bosh is trying to do the right thing, largely abandoning the three point line in favor of the midpost area, but he is an afterthought in Miami's offense; he finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. It is fashionable to criticize Bosh when the Heat lose but the reality is that he does not get to touch the ball very often; he is supposed to watch James and Wade dribble around and then be ready to shoot jump shots when they deign to pass him the ball.
LeBron James scored 15 points on 7-21 field goal shooting while grabbing 11 rebounds and passing for five assists but his performance was even worse than those mediocre numbers (by his standards) suggest. James made just two of his first 12 field goal attempts, the second game in a row that he has missed 10 of his first 12 shots, and even after he padded his statistics with a one man 9-0 run late in the third quarter the Heat still trailed 76-63; he did not play aggressively until the game was out of reach and he combined with Wade to shoot 0-8 from the field as the Spurs extended their 50-44 halftime lead to 73-52.
The emergence of Green this season--and especially in this series--is fascinating. Green could barely even get on the court for the
2009-10 Cleveland team that went a league-best 61-21 in the regular
season and could very well have won a championship if LeBron James had
not quit versus Boston in the playoffs.
Just two years later, Green started 38 games for an excellent San
Antonio team--and now he has outscored James through the first three
games of the 2013 NBA Finals. There is little doubt that Green has
matured since his Cleveland days and that he has further developed his
skill set, but the larger point is that he did so while starting for one
of the league's best teams because they did not have anyone better to
put in the game ahead of him--and he did not get the same opportunity in
Cleveland precisely because the Cavaliers possessed so much depth,
contrary to popular belief. It is true that the Cavaliers never brought
in an All-Star in his prime to play alongside James, but that is in no
small part because James would not entice such a player to come to Cleveland by definitively
saying that he was going to stay in Cleveland. Despite James' refusal to recruit players to come to Cleveland, the
Cavaliers' front office built a very deep, defensive-minded team that
was good enough to reach the NBA Finals once and to post the NBA's best
regular season record in two other campaigns.
Green in 2009-10, Shannon Brown could barely get on the court for the 2006-07
Cleveland team that advanced to the NBA Finals; two years later Brown was
the first guard off of the bench for the Lakers as they reached the NBA
Finals and in the next two seasons Brown was the first guard off of the
bench for the Lakers' back to back championship teams. Many pundits
claimed that those Lakers were very talented and/or very deep but
I made the case that the 2009 Lakers were one of the least talented championship teams of the past two decades
It should be obvious that if a guy who cannot even get off of the bench
for one of the 2007 NBA Finalists becomes part of the seven man rotation for a
championship team then that championship team is not very talented.
Furthermore, look at what happened to those "talented" Lakers since
2009: Lamar Odom, the team's third best player, has looked like garbage
since he stopped living off of Kobe Bryant being double-teamed; starting
point guard Derek Fisher became a seldom-used reserve in Oklahoma City;
Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar--two young players who were endlessly
praised by the same media members who still mock LeBron James' Cleveland
teammates--are not even in the league anymore! The 2009 Lakers won the championship because Kobe Bryant relentlessly attacked opposing defenses. Here are Bryant's
scoring and assist numbers in the 2009 NBA Finals:
Game one: 40 points, eight assists
Game two: 29 points, eight assists
Game three: 31 points, eight assists
Game four: 32 points, eight assists
Game five: 30 points, five assists
averaged 32.4 ppg and 7.4 apg in that series. He posted the fourth
highest scoring average in NBA history for a five game NBA Finals and in
the decisive game he led both teams in scoring while also leading the
Lakers in assists, steals and blocked shots in addition to grabbing six
rebounds and committing just one turnover. Here is part of what I wrote in my series recap:
[LeBron] James certainly had a tremendous postseason
but watching Bryant lead the Lakers to the title you could see the
significance of some of the skill set advantages Bryant has over
James--particularly the ability to consistently make the midrange jump
shot: teams simply cannot ever concede that shot to Bryant and thus
Bryant is very difficult to single cover in the 15-18 foot area, which
opens scoring opportunities for all of his teammates. It is no accident
or coincidence that Pau Gasol has played the most efficient ball of his
career since joining the Lakers (see below for more on that subject) or
that career journeymen like Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown suddenly
become much more productive playing alongside Bryant: Bryant's teammates
know that they are going to be wide open and, just as importantly, they
know exactly when and where they will be open and they know that Bryant
is a willing passer, so all they have to focus on is knocking down wide
In many ways, Bryant saved his best for last in the
2009 postseason; Jerry West is the only player to match or exceed
Bryant's scoring and assists averages in the same NBA Finals. West won
the NBA's first Finals MVP in 1969 after averaging 37.9 ppg and 7.4 apg
in a seven game loss to the Boston Celtics; West remains the only player
to ever win that award despite playing on the losing team.
Bryant lived up to his responsibility and obligation as an elite player; he scored, he passed, he rebounded and he defended: he did not defer to anyone or wait for anyone to do anything but instead he dictated his terms to the opposing team and he instilled confidence in his teammates with his aggressiveness. The notion that James must choose between being Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan is ludicrous. James will never be Magic Johnson because Magic Johnson was a pass-first point guard on a team full of scorers while James is an all-time great scorer on a team that needs for him to score at least 25 ppg. Furthermore, the idea that James has to choose between scoring and passing is nonsense; Jordan scored and passed as his teams won six championships, as did Bryant as his teams won five championships.
James is averaging 16.7 ppg on .389 field goal shooting in the 2013
Finals; his scoring has declined in each game (18-17-15), as has his
field goal percentage (7-16, 7-17, 7-21). He did not attempt a free throw in game three and he has only attempted six free throws so far in the series. In 18 career Finals games he
has scored less than 20 points seven times. When he won the 2012 Finals MVP while leading the Heat to the championship
he averaged 28.6 ppg and he scored between 26 and 32 points in each game; it seemed like James had finally figured out how to excel on the sport's biggest stage but so far in the 2013 Finals he has regressed.
I very much respect Kenny Smith's basketball acumen but I
disagree with his defense of James' play in the first two games of this
series and I don't see how anyone can defend James after game three.
James is naturally going to put up big rebounding numbers as the power
forward in Miami's small lineup but in game three the Heat got killed on the boards
anyway. James is not Magic Johnson and the Heat cannot win this series
unless he plays aggressively on offense; the Heat need for James to resume being a big-time scorer and their players must be very puzzled by James' passivity and apparent lack of confidence. Bryant exuded personal confidence and instilled confidence in his less talented teammates, while James is doing the opposite in the 2013 Finals.
What we are seeing from James in this series is a good example of why I did not include any active players in my pro basketball Pantheon
; James is a great player but he has played on several championship caliber teams so far while winning just one title. All of the players in the Pantheon either won multiple titles or else put up outrageous statistics while losing in the Finals to other Pantheon members. James may play in several more Finals, he may win multiple titles and he may push his way to the top of the Pantheon--but if he keeps scoring in the teens in the Finals then he is going to end up with one championship on his resume and he will not deserve to be mentioned ahead of the Pantheon members no matter what the "stat gurus" say about his "advanced basketball statistics."
One major improvement for James over his Cleveland days is that he now takes responsibility for his poor play instead of saying things like he has "spoiled" the fans with his consistent excellence; after game three, James said, "I gotta be better. It's that simple. If I'm better, we're better. I gotta be better. I'm putting everything on my chest and on my shoulders. I gotta be better. It's that simple. My teammates are doing a good job; they're doing a great job and I'm not doing my part."
James is right that he must do better but saying the correct words is one thing and putting those words into action at the highest level of the sport is another thing. After one of the Chicago Bulls' painful playoff losses to the Detroit Pistons, Michael Jordan's father tried to console Jordan by saying that there would be more chances to win a championship but Jordan replied that one never knows how many chances he will get. We do not know if James is only beginning to write his Finals story, if
he is in the middle of that story or if this is his last Finals appearance but James' 1-2 Finals record (pending the outcome of the 2013 Finals)--while
scoring far below his normal average and shooting far worse than his
normal field goal percentage--does not stack up very well against the
Finals records posted by the greatest players of the past 40 years; each of these players won at least three titles and none of them had a losing record in the Finals. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won a championship in his first Finals appearance and he finished with a 6-4 Finals record. Julius Erving won championships the first two times he reached the Finals (both in the ABA) and he finished with a 3-3 Finals record (including the NBA). Larry Bird won championships in his first two Finals appearances and he finished with a 3-2 Finals record. Magic Johnson won championships in his first two Finals appearances and he finished with a 5-4 Finals record. Michael Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals. Shaquille O'Neal lost in his first Finals appearance and he finished with a 4-2 Finals record. Kobe Bryant won a championship in each of his first three Finals appearances and he now has a 5-2 Finals record. Tim Duncan has a 4-0 Finals record (pending the outcome of the 2013 Finals). A great player should not be judged solely on how many championships he wins but when the best player in the league annually plays for a top contender he should be expected to be at the top of his game in the Finals and he should be expected to win multiple titles.
"Stat gurus" mocked Jordan for saying that he would take Bryant over James because "five beats one" but every time in the NBA Finals that James settles for a long two point jumper or passes the ball instead of attacking the defense he is proving Jordan right.
Labels: Chris Bosh, Danny Green, Dwyane Wade, Gary Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Manu Ginobili, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Shannon Brown, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker
posted by David Friedman @ 6:22 AM
"The Doctor": Julius Erving's Life Story in his Own Words
ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt perfectly summarized the emotional impact of NBA TV's "The Doctor," which premiered on Monday night; Van Pelt reminded his listeners of the great Jim Valvano quote
that every day each person should laugh, cry and think: Van Pelt said that if you watch this documentary you will fulfill your quota in all three areas.
Erving's grace--on and off the court--and his remarkable basketball career resonate in a way that is both deeply felt and difficult to explain. Erving is not a perfect man, nor is he considered to be the greatest basketball player of all-time, yet in many ways he embodies what we think a man should be like and what we most enjoy watching in a basketball player; he is confident but not boastful, he is serene but possesses deep reservoirs of inner strength, he played the game with great flamboyance and joy but he was unselfish and very focused on winning.
A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich
is a catchy book title but we need heroes to inspire us. Julius Erving's athletic prowess awed and inspired me as a kid, as did his elegance and class. I wanted to be like him and--when I was really young and really dreaming big--I hoped that his career would last long enough for me to play with him for the Philadelphia 76ers; I imagined running alongside him on the fast break, either throwing him a lob or else receiving a lob from him. I know that I am far from the only person who had that fantasy. In Julius Erving's Transcendence
, Scoop Jackson mentions Erving's answer to a question about the impact Erving has had on people who he has never even met:
Well, you never know who is watching, so you can do one of two things. You can assume everyone's watching or you can take the attitude that you really don't care who is watching and who is not. I kind of always liked to assume that there were a lot of eyes--particularly young people--on any professional athlete once they start to get on the big stage, once they have a platform. They have a responsibility that you are a role model. Now I have been far from perfect in my professional life and personal life in terms of role modeling, but, you know, only our Creator is perfect. So perfect is not an option.
But to be good and to be consistent, to be dedicated and to have goals that are achievable and to reach them and then handle that situation with humility...those are doable things. So knowing that there are people out there who are watching, it became important to me. And it will always be important to me. I can't help it. It's something I don't wish on everybody because there are clearly some people that don't want the role, but it is a role.
The challenge of having a balanced perspective versus seeking impossible perfection is fascinating
; I struggle fiercely with perfectionistic tendencies that, if unchecked, can lead my thoughts and emotions down a very dark path. Jackson articulates the feelings of so many of us who deeply admire Erving while also realizing that, as Erving said, "perfect is not an
Those imperfections upon their discoveries hurt--I can't lie. The children he bore outside of his marriage, the divorce from Turquoise Erving, the auctioning off personal memorabilia that led to speculation of severe financial troubles, the "Reign On" ad.
But those made him human instead of mythological. Something needed to help make many of us face the realization that Erving, as great of a role model and human being as he'd been in many of our eyes and lives, was mortal. A god, but not God.
The one thing I learned directly from Julius Erving is that he never wants a story about himself to be told too soon or before its
He held off on an interview once with me because he wanted to make sure other players were interviewed before him: Elgin Baylor, Earl Monroe, Pete Maravich, Connie Hawkins, etc. He felt their stories should have been told before his. Almost as if the Dr. J story was not worthy without others being given similar attention.
Even though no other is similar.
"The Doctor" traces the arc of Erving's life from his Long Island childhood to the present day and in addition to plenty of basketball highlights it also includes his memories of the two most painful tragedies of his life: the death, at 16, of his younger brother Marvin and the death, at 19, of his son Cory. His brother's untimely passing gave Erving both a sense of purpose and a glimpse of his own mortality and it seems like the 63 year old Erving has a heightened awareness of his mortality now; the once intensely private Erving is telling his story to the world (his authorized biography is scheduled for a November 2013 release), no longer content to let others define the meaning of his life and career. As Erving ages and is forced to face mortality, those of us who have admired him since childhood are likewise compelled to think about the meaning/mystery of life and death. At the start of the documentary, Erving buys flowers--and at the end of the documentary, he brings those flowers to the cemetery where his mother, sister and brother are buried. It is easy to think of great athletes like they are invulnerable comic book heroes but they have frailties and strengths--and they even have their own heroes: Erving adored his younger brother and he said that after his brother died he carried his spirit within him, feeling as if he enjoyed a 2 on 1 advantage even when facing the toughest foe on the court.
When Erving graduated high school, he was a lightly recruited 6-3 forward/guard but at the University of Massachusetts he blossomed into a 6-6 multifaceted pro prospect who signed with the ABA's Virginia Squires after his junior year. During that time, Erving made a name for himself by excelling at Rucker Park while competing against NBA players and streetball legends. The Rucker Park stories and footage are priceless; Erving played with joy and ferocity but he never disrespected anyone and he never showboated: not many of today's players could imitate Erving's moves and even fewer of them live up to the standard he set with his personal demeanor.
Erving was much more than just a guy who could fill up a highlight reel; his game contained plenty of substance and that is a big reason why his teams enjoyed so much success. In a February 1985 Esquire
article, Erving explained to writer Mark Jacobson
how he viewed his impact on the evolution of basketball: "I'd say I've had an effect in three main areas. First, I have taken a smaller man's game, ball-handling, passing, and the like, and brought it to the front court. Second, I've taken the big man's game, rebounding, shot-blocking, and been able to execute that even though I'm only six-foot-six. What I've tried to do is merge those two types of games,
which were considered to be separate--for instance, Bill Russell does the rebounding, Cousy handles the ball--and combine them into the same player. This has more or less changed the definition of what's called the small forward position, and it creates a lot more flexibility for the individual player, and, of course, creates a lot more opportunities for the whole team. The third thing I've tried to do, and this is the most important thing, is to make this kind of basketball a winning kind of basketball, taking into account a degree of showmanship that gets people excited. My overall goal is to give people the feeling they are being entertained by an artist--and to win. You know, the playground game...refined."
As Magic Johnson once put it, Erving made the playground official. Near the end of "The Doctor," LeBron James said that without Erving there is no Michael Jordan and that without Jordan there would have been no LeBron James. Many people love to compare James to Magic Johnson but, in both style and substance, James' game is much more similar to Erving's, from the arm-extended overhead dunks to the chase down blocked shots to the ability to blend together backcourt skills with frontcourt skills and even to the question about how much a superstar should defer to less talented teammates. After Erving joined the Philadelphia 76ers, he voluntarily reduced his scoring to blend in with a cast of All-Stars and "The Doctor" includes a clip of Erving answering a question about whether it bothered him that players who he routinely outscored in the ABA were now outscoring him in the NBA. Erving replied, "Scoring is an individual statistic and I think the objectives of the team are the things that have to be paramount and have to come first." Erving's second NBA coach, Billy Cunningham, recalled, "He didn't want to rock the boat. He was too nice a man to say, 'Hey, I'm Dr. J." One big difference between Erving and James, though, is that Erving tended to defer during the regular season but take over during the playoffs--and especially the NBA Finals--while James tends to score big during the regular season only to defer during the NBA Finals. In 22 NBA Finals games, Erving scored less than 20 points only once, while James has scored less than 20 points in six of his 17 NBA Finals games.
One unexpected but fascinating anecdote in "The Doctor" concerns Mike Piazza, the former All-Star catcher; Piazza described being in the Spectrum as a little kid and watching Erving deliver one of his most famous dunks, a windmill over Michael Cooper
. Piazza said that Erving provided inspiration for him to become a Major League Baseball player and that even now he sometimes is moved to tears when thinking about Erving's profound influence on his life; Piazza admitted that his wife is surprised by how emotional he gets when he thinks about Erving but he insisted that Erving's example had a huge effect on him. There are many great athletes but very few have Erving's unique combination of skill, style, flair, grace and class--and even fewer can move men to tears nearly 30 years after they retired.
Erving won two championships and three MVPs in the ABA but his 76ers lost three times in the NBA Finals before they paired Erving with another former ABA player, Moses Malone; in 1982-83, the 76ers ran roughshod over the NBA, going 65-17 in the regular season before winning 12 of their 13 playoff games--including a 4-0 Finals sweep of the defending champion L.A. Lakers
. Pat Riley, who coached the Lakers at that time, said, "Even though we really would have loved to beat them again and we would have loved to keep him in that pain, you give those who really deserve it their just due when it's time."
Erving said, "It was such a relief, like a brick that was sitting over your head waiting to hit you and suddenly it went the other way and now it wasn't there anymore."
Cunningham remembered, "I was so happy for him, because if there was one player who deserved to have that one little piece that he was missing for his legacy, he had it now."
Erving played four more seasons, making the All-Star team each year, and then he glided seamlessly into retirement, unlike so many athletes who cannot let go of past glories and/or search in vain for something that thrills/challenges them the way that being a professional athlete thrilled/challenged them. Erving neither brags about his own considerable accomplishments nor does he diminish the accomplishments of the players who came after him
. One point that Erving gently but firmly mentions now in some interviews--and perhaps he should be less gentle and more firm but that is not his style--is that ABA Numbers Should Also Count
; it is a travesty that the NBA and the league's media partners act as if ABA statistics do not exist and/or do not matter. Julius Erving was just the third professional basketball player to score at least 30,000 points and he was the first "midsize" player to score 30,000 points
, blazing a trail later followed by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Erving ranked third on the all-time regular season career scoring list when he
retired (behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain) and he still ranks sixth on that list 26 years after playing his last game. Erving is
also the sixth leading playoff scorer in pro basketball history--and when he retired he ranked second on that list behind only Abdul-Jabbar.
When Erving's numbers and accomplishments are placed in proper context it is obvious that contemporary commentators often vastly underrate his place in basketball history; he is not the first retired legend to face that fate but in his case these errors are correctable because the statistics exist and the footage exists: his impact can be quantified and demonstrated. For instance, as a rookie Erving averaged 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg during the 1972 playoffs
while shooting .518 from the field and .835 from the free throw line. Those numbers include a 53 point game--tying the ABA's single game playoff scoring record--plus a 39 point, 27 rebound game and an
unprecedented triple double of 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists; I have yet to find another 26-20-15 stat line in pro basketball history. College basketball coaches John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski are celebrated for reaching the Final Four 12 times in 29 seasons and 11 times in 38 seasons respectively; Erving led his team to pro basketball's "Final Four" (the Division Finals/Conference Finals) 10 times in his 16 year career.
Erving's impact extended beyond his statistics and accomplishments. M.L. Carr, who played against Erving in the ABA and the NBA, recalled, "He was carrying the weight of the league on his shoulder. He realized he was an ambassador for the league. He was the ultimate ambassador for the league."
Erving was one of the first athletes who had what was referred to in the 1970s as "crossover" appeal; as Dr. Todd Boyd noted, "Major corporations decided that they wanted this guy to endorse their products. The idea that a black guy would be the face of a national brand--that was really radical."
Erving's importance as a crossover figure is undeniable, as is the influence that he had on multiple generations of young black people, but I never looked at Julius Erving as a black man.
I just looked him as my hero--and, despite his admitted flaws, in my heart he will always be my hero.
Labels: Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, New York Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Scoop Jackson, Virginia Squires
posted by David Friedman @ 6:04 AM
Sizzling Second Half Run Propels Heat to Game Two Win
The San Antonio Spurs led the Miami Heat 62-61 with 3:50 remaining in the third quarter of game two of the NBA Finals and were in prime position to take a commanding 2-0 series lead but then the Heat went on a 33-5 run to save their season; the Heat's 103-84 win puts the pressure on the Spurs to win three straight games at home in the NBA's outdated 2-3-2 Finals format. Mario Chalmers led the Heat with a game-high 19 points; he is not a traditional point guard--Chalmers had just two assists--but he is a fearless scorer, equally able to attack the hoop off of the dribble and to drain long jumpers. LeBron James finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocked shots while shooting 7-17 from the field. Chris Bosh contributed 12 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals. Although Bosh's numbers are not eye-popping, he made a subtle but important adjustment by eschewing the three point shot in favor of stationing himself within 18 feet of the basket on offense; this enabled him to improve his shooting percentage, grab more rebounds and have more of an impact on the game. Dwyane Wade added 10 points and six assists, with all of the points and four of the assists coming in the first half. Danny Green led the Spurs with 17 points on 6-6 field goal shooting, including 5-5 from three point range. San Antonio's Big Three came up very small: Tony Parker had 13 points, five assists and five turnovers while shooting 5-14 from the field, Tim Duncan had nine points and 11 rebounds while shooting 3-13 from the field and Manu Ginobili had five points on 2-6 shooting in 18 unproductive minutes.
James has won four of the previous five NBA regular season MVPs,
so there is an understandable tendency to view every Miami Heat game
through the prism of James' performance--but the real story of game two is just how badly Parker, Duncan and Ginobili played. Duncan is a certain first ballot Hall of Famer and Parker and Ginobili will both likely earn Hall of Fame induction as well, so they should be held to a high standard; Parker and Ginobili were both very careless with the ball, which is inexplicable since the Spurs know that live ball turnovers are death against the Heat because such miscues ignite Miami's potent transition game. If Parker and Ginobili make safe passes and patiently run the Spurs' half court offense then San Antonio can be very effective against the undersized Heat. Duncan played a more poised and intelligent game than Parker and Ginobili did but he has to shoot much better from the field.
Some commentators place great emphasis on one or two statistics from a particular game but it is important to understand the difference between a trend and something that is simply an aberration that has no real significance due to a small sample size. Here are two examples of aberrations: (1) the Spurs tied an NBA Finals record by committing just four turnovers in game one; (2) the Spurs shot 7-10 from three point range in the first half of game two. The Spurs soon regressed to the mean in both categories; they committed 16 turnovers in game two and they shot 3-10 from three point range in the second half of game two. The Spurs cannot reasonably expect to have another four turnover game or to regularly shoot 7-10 from three point range during a half but in order to beat the Heat they should strive to commit fewer than 12 turnovers per game and to shoot around .400 from beyond the arc.
Much has been made about how difficult and/or intimidating
it is to interview San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich. I love Popovich's
press conferences and in-game interviews because he does not let
reporters off of the hook for asking stupid and/or lazy questions. After game one, someone asked Popovich how the Spurs managed to commit just four turnovers and he candidly replied that he has no idea because he does not have a "no turnover drill." In other words, "Why are you asking me to come up with an explanation for something that is obviously an aberration?" In another Finals press conference, Popovich noted that one year his team finished close to the bottom of the league in three point field goal percentage defense and then the next year they finished near the top of the league in that category despite not doing anything differently; he said that he never figured that one out but that he thinks that many people are too narrowly focused on statistics instead of just watching the game as a whole. "Advanced basketball statistics" supposedly bring basketball analysis to a higher, more objective level but in the wrong hands these numbers just dumb things down; instead of watching games with understanding, media members randomly pluck out a bunch of statistics and look for patterns that do not exist and/or are not meaningful because the sample size is too small. It is true that to win this series the Spurs must keep their turnover total as low as possible but it is not logical to draw definitive conclusions based on one game during which the Spurs only committed four turnovers.
The first time that I interviewed Popovich
I did not feel intimidated at all; I asked him intelligent questions and I received thoughtful responses. He gives short and/or repetitive answers to some
reporters because those reporters asked him stupid and/or obvious
questions. After game two, someone asked Popovich what he saw during
Miami's 33-5 run and Popovich said, "They did a great job." Many reporters do not even ask fully formed questions; they simply say something like, "Talk about what happened in the third quarter." Some coaches respond to such lazy "questions" by sticking to whatever message they want to deliver but Popovich draws attention to unprepared questioners by issuing direct, curt replies. If you ask Popovich to "talk about" something then he is going to say, "They played well." He is not going to do the reporter's work for him. I have yet
to see/hear Popovich give a disrespectful answer to a well formed
question, so anyone who tells "horror stories" about interviewing
Popovich is essentially admitting his/her own incompetence. One quasi-exception is
the celebrated "happy" question that TNT's David Aldridge asked;
Aldridge is an excellent, well-informed NBA reporter who made a poor
word choice earlier this season at the spur of the moment (pun intended) when he asked if
Popovich were "happy" about how the game was going and Popovich replied
that no one is "happy" in the middle of a tough contest. Aldridge knew
that he had phrased his question poorly and the two of them joked about
it later. The rest of the reporters who are so intimidated by Popovich
need to stop complaining and do their jobs better.
In addition to taking numbers out of context, media members also like to take spectacular highlight plays out of context and then elevate the importance of those plays. James' block of Tiago Splitter's fourth quarter dunk attempt has already been replayed countless times--but the Heat were up 86-67 and the outcome of the game had already been decided, so this was not a game-changing play. It was a very athletic play and it was nice to see James go for the block without fearing being dunked on but that sequence had very little meaning in the larger context of the game and the series.
While the story of this game should be about how poorly/passively the Spurs' Big Three performed, most of the focus will shine on James; James' performance/box score numbers once again provide a Rorschach
about how one evaluates basketball players: did James play passively and
get bailed out by his teammates until he came to life during the big
33-5 run or did James deftly take what the defense gave him while
resisting the temptation to force the action? When James quit in the 2011 NBA Finals versus Dallas
and in the 2010 playoffs versus Boston
no rational observer could dispute what happened: James played lethargically, he gave up the ball early in possessions without making any effort to get the ball back and he looked/acted disinterested. What James did in the first half of game two is harder to quantify/explain. The Spurs have set up their half court defense to make it difficult for James to drive to the hoop--but every team does this against James and he still can get to the hoop when he puts his mind to it. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said during the first half that James was
"remarkably uninvolved" offensively. After the Heat took over the game
in the second half, Van Gundy resisted the urge to engage in revisionist
history (i.e., to act like James had deliberately eased himself into the game) and he reminded viewers, "Until that spurt, he was not
himself." This is not just a matter of ignorant fans and/or ignorant media members wrongly blasting James; Van Gundy--a former NBA coach who has no obvious agenda and who has a deep understanding of the NBA game--was puzzled by and critical of James' first half performance. James scored two first quarter points on 1-4 field goal shooting, two second quarter points on 1-3 field goal shooting and four third quarter points on 1-6 field goal shooting before scoring nine points on 4-4 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. James had 11 points and three assists during Miami's decisive 33-5 run. The idea that the Heat are better off without James being a big-time scorer is absurd; this game was up for grabs until James asserted himself offensively.
During NBA TV's pregame show, Shaquille O'Neal mentioned that when he was James' teammate in Cleveland during the 2009-10 season he told James that James sometimes holds the ball too long and thus lets the defense get set; at that time, O'Neal urged James to be aggressive and attack quickly. O'Neal is right; that is how he played when he was dominant and that is how other dominant players who won multiple championships played, from Julius Erving in the ABA
to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan: during their primes, those players made the defense react to them. This is not about statistics but about mindset and impact; a great player should have the mindset to dictate the terms of play and he should perform in a way that controls the game. James usually does this but he has displayed a strange tendency to be passive during his NBA Finals career; James' regular season career scoring average is 27.6 ppg and his playoff career scoring average is 28.1 ppg but he only averaged 22.0 ppg in the 2007 Finals and 17.8 ppg in the 2011 Finals before scoring 28.6 ppg in the 2012 Finals. Not surprisingly, James' teams lost both times when his scoring declined significantly but he led the Heat to the 2012 championship and won the Finals MVP
when he maintained his normal scoring average. James has now played in 17 Finals games; his teams are 7-10 in those games and he has scored 30 or more points just twice while scoring fewer than 20 points six times. James has yet to consistently make his mark as a scorer in championship play. If that trend continues, the Heat will not win this series and it will be difficult to rank James at the top level of pro basketball's pantheon, no matter what else he accomplishes in the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs: James is not Magic Johnson nor has he ever led a team to the Finals by playing like Magic Johnson; James has led teams to the Finals as a big-time scorer, he won his only championship as a big-time scorer and if he is going to win more championships he will do so as a big-time scorer.
The Heat survived James' passive first half because the Spurs' Big Three all performed badly but if the Spurs rediscover their game in San Antonio then the Heat will need for James to be at least a 25 ppg scorer in order to extend the series to six or seven games.
Labels: Chris Bosh, Danny Green, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Manu Ginobili, Mario Chalmers, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker
posted by David Friedman @ 4:50 AM
Twyman-Stokes Award Honors the Enduring Importance of Friendship and Character
Maurice Stokes passed away before I was born and I never had the opportunity to interview Jack Twyman (who passed away on May 30, 2012), so I do not have firsthand knowledge about either of them--but I know that both men are historically significant not just for their achievements on the court but also because of the way that their interconnected lives embody a tremendous triumph of the human spirit. Twyman, who was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, was one of the NBA's greatest scorers in the 1950s and 1960s, averaging 19.2 ppg in his 11 year career and pouring in a career-high 31.2 ppg (second in the league to a rookie named Wilt Chamberlain) in 1959-60. Stokes, who was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004, was one of the most overlooked and underrated players of all-time
but the significance of his life story extends far beyond his considerable abilities as a basketball player: he made the All-Star team in each of the first three seasons of his NBA career as Twyman's teammate with the Rochester Royals (the franchise now known as the Sacramento Kings) but in the final game of his third season he suffered a head injury that soon led to permanent paralysis. Stokes, who was on course to become one of the greatest players in NBA history, was struck down before he even reached his prime; he faced massive medical bills and the daunting prospect of life as a physically disabled person but Twyman--then a newly married 23 year old with young children--stepped in, became Stokes' legal guardian and not only raised the money to provide for Stokes' medical care but also regularly visited Stokes and often had Stokes over for dinner. The part of the story that should not matter--but does matter considering our country's history of racism/racial discrimination--is that Twyman was white and Stokes was black. Twyman and Stokes remained close friends until Stokes passed away in 1970, 12 years after suffering that life-changing injury.
The NBA has just created the annual Twyman-Stokes Award to recognize the NBA's teammate of the year, as voted on by NBA players from a pool of finalists selected by NBA legends. NBA Commissioner David Stern says, "The Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award recognizes friendship and selflessness among teammates and celebrates the legacy of Jack and Maurice." This is a great initiative by the NBA to not only honor and preserve the memory of the wonderful Twyman-Stokes friendship but also to commend players who demonstrate strong character. Chauncey Billups is the inaugural winner of the award, finishing ahead of Shane Battier and Jason Kidd. Twyman's son Jay spoke at the award ceremony:
Dad truly felt that he was the one who benefited most from the relationship. He would visit Maurice nearly every day over that period. Also, Maurice would come to our house most Sundays for dinner, which was not a small undertaking for transporting a 6'8" 250‑pound man in and out of the hospital. Dad felt and we all feel that we gained so much from helping to care for Maurice. And here is Maurice Stokes, he was at the top of the NBA, a world‑class athlete one day, paralyzed and bed‑ridden the next, reduced to communicating through blinking his eyes. None of us can ever remember Maurice ever being down, and he always approached each day upbeat ready to fight for his recovery. I remember a poster growing up that Maurice prominently had hung above his bed. It read "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world." And that was his attitude. He was never down. And I think Maurice truly did feel blessed with all the support he received from so many, especially from our father.
Neither Twyman nor Stokes won an NBA championship but they are two of the greatest champions in NBA history and it is very appropriate that the NBA has named this prestigious award for them.
Labels: Chauncey Billups, Jack Twyman, Maurice Stokes
posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM
Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part III: Consistency, Frustration and then a Glorious Championship Run
"I've always tried to tell myself that the work itself is the thing, that win, lose or draw, the work is really what counts. As hard as it was to make myself believe that sometimes, it was the only thing I had to cling to every year--that every game, every night, I did the best I could."--Julius Erving
Julius Erving and the New York Nets did not have much of a chance to celebrate after winning their second ABA championship in three years; during the summer of 1976, the ailing ABA reached an agreement with the NBA to form--as a Sports Illustrated cover
called it--"one big league" featuring "Dave" (Cowens) and "The Doctor." Four ABA teams--the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs--joined the NBA at a cost of $3.2 million each; Kentucky owner John Y. Brown received a $3 million settlement for folding his franchise, while the Silna brothers--owners of the St. Louis franchise--negotiated what was later called "the greatest sports deal of all-time"
: instead of getting a lump sum payment in 1976, they arranged for each of the surviving ABA teams to pay them a share of NBA television revenue in perpetuity.
In addition to the $3.2 million payment to the NBA, the Nets also had to compensate the New York Knicks $4.8 million over the next 10 years as indemnification for operating in the Knicks' territory. While Nets' owner Roy Boe scrambled to put together enough cash to keep his franchise afloat, Erving declared that the Nets had promised to redo his contract if the leagues merged; Erving's sublime talents and his box office value were a major reason for the merger, so Erving understandably wanted to be properly compensated but Boe denied that he had ever made that agreement with Erving and, in any case, Boe did not have the necessary funds to pay Erving more money. Erving missed training camp and the preseason as a result of the contract dispute. Boe tried to trade Erving to the Knicks in exchange for cash plus cancellation of the indemnification payment but the Knicks refused that offer. Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams seized the opportunity to acquire the game's best player and right before the 1976-77 season began the New York Nets sold Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers in a $6 million deal, a staggering sum for that era, with roughly half of that amount paid to the Nets and the other half to Erving over the course of a six year contract.
Pat Williams' 20-20-20 Vision
Erving joined a Philadelphia team that already had two All-Stars: forward George McGinnis (who shared 1974-75 ABA MVP honors with Erving before jumping to the NBA) and guard Doug Collins. Erving explained the situation to this writer: "The first day that I reported to Philadelphia, Pat Williams said, ‘We are going to be a really good team, but we really need to have three guys scoring 20 points. We don't need anybody scoring 30 points on our team.' He said, 'You, Doug Collins and McGinnis can be 20 point scorers for us and that will make us a better team.' That was a specific conversation. Hey, I had no problem scoring (only) 20 points. I’m trying to collect the 'Ws.' I had already been on title teams in the ABA and we thought that this would bring us to the championship."
The 76ers started out 0-2 before winning four straight games to take over first place in the Atlantic Division, a position that they maintained the rest of the way (save for a couple days when they slipped a half game behind Boston) en route to a 50-32 record and the franchise's first division title since 1968. The 76ers were maligned as a run and gun, one on one offensive team that did not play defense but they ranked first in the league in blocked shots, third in the league in defensive field goal percentage and fourth in the league in defensive rebounds. Erving made a strong contribution at that end of the court, ranking second on the team in defensive rebounds (6.1 drpg), steals (1.9 spg) and blocked shots (1.4 bpg).
Erving instantly turned the 76ers into the biggest gate attraction in the NBA. The 76ers improved to 1-2 with a 110-101 win over the New Orleans Jazz in front of an NBA-record crowd of more than 27,000 in the Louisiana Superdome. The next night, Erving scored 27 points (tying McGinnis for game-high honors) in a 116-94 win at Houston, playing before a crowd of 15,676--the best attendance ever for an NBA game in Texas. Only 5832 fans showed up for the Nets' NBA home debut without Erving but a few days later 18,116 fans packed the Spectrum to watch Erving's 76ers improve to 3-2 after pounding his former team 104-80.
Erving finished fifth in the MVP balloting; he led the 76ers in scoring (21.6 ppg, 15th in the NBA) and the team came close to achieving the 20-20-20 balance that Williams wanted: McGinnis averaged 21.4 ppg (16th in the NBA) and Collins averaged 18.3 ppg despite missing 24 games due to injuries. Erving averaged 8.5 rpg (second on the team), and 3.7 apg (fourth) in addition to his aforementioned defensive contributions; he was still an excellent all-around performer but his per game statistics declined across the board because he played fewer minutes than he had played in his first five seasons. Erving's rebounding average was 2.2 rpg lower than his lowest ABA rebounding average but it turned out to be the highest rebounding average of his NBA career. This is not unusual; as the following chart shows, most of the top 10 rebounders in pro basketball history (based on rpg average) posted their best rebounding average early in their careers:
Rank Player Career RPG average/Best RPG average (season)
1) Wilt Chamberlain 22.89/27.2 (second season)
2) Bill Russell 22.45/24.7 (eighth season)
3) Bob Pettit 16.22/20.3 (seventh season)
4) Jerry Lucas 15.61/21.1 (third season)
5) Nate Thurmond 15.00/22.0 (fifth season)
6) Mel Daniels 14.91/18.0 (fourth season)
7) Wes Unseld 13.99/18.2 (first season)
8) Walt Bellamy 13.65/19.0 (first season)
9) Dave Cowens 13.63/16.2 (third season)
10) Elgin Baylor 13.55/19.8 (third season)
50) Larry Bird 10.00/11.0 (fourth season)
111) Julius Erving 8.47/15.7 (first season)
176) Magic Johnson 7.24/9.6 (third season)
222) Michael Jordan 6.22/8.0 (fifth season)
Rebounding is a skill set that does not tend to improve with age/experience, at least at the professional level. It is important to note that even Erving's reduced NBA rebounding averages still annually ranked among the best at the small forward position.
The 1976-77 season shattered any old guard NBA pretense about the ABA being inferior; ex-ABA players accounted for four of the NBA's top 10 scorers, two of the top four rebounders and 10 of the 24 All-Stars. Erving won the All-Star Game MVP, one of the few individual honors that he did not capture during his ABA career. Indiana Pacer Don Buse led the league in assists and steals. Five of the starters in the NBA Finals began their careers in the ABA: Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Caldwell Jones, Maurice Lucas and Dave Twardzik. David Thompson made the All-NBA First Team, while Erving, McGinnis and George Gervin made the All-NBA Second Team. The Nuggets and Spurs kept their rosters intact and immediately became perennial playoff
teams; the Nets understandably had to rebuild after Erving's departure, while the Pacers similarly had to rebuild after the core players from their three
championship teams aged, retired or finished their careers on other
The 76ers earned a first round bye and then faced their old rival the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Celtics were the defending NBA champions but the 76ers enjoyed home court advantage because the Celtics only went 44-38 in the regular season. Erving scored a game-high 36 points in the series opener, including a dunk with eight seconds left in regulation to tie the score at 111--but after being fouled on that play he missed both free throws in a two to make one penalty situation. Jo Jo White missed a jumper and the game seemed to be headed to overtime after Erving blocked Sidney Wicks' shot but the ball bounced to White, who hit the game-winning jumper from the left baseline as time expired. White scored 21 points in the Celtics' 113-111 victory. "I feel empty," Erving said after the game. "We came here to win and we don't have anything. We are 0-1." However, Erving also noted that even if he had completed the potential three point play, "We would have lost by one instead of two." Erving's former Virginia teammate Charlie Scott led Boston with 22 points.
In a battle pitting a veteran future Hall of Fame forward against a Hall of Fame forward in his prime, 37 year old John Havlicek poured in a game-high 31 points on 11-25 field goal shooting but the 27 year old Erving had 30 points on 14-24 field goal shooting as the 76ers evened the series with a 113-101 victory. Havlicek also had nine rebounds and six assists, while Erving countered with six rebounds and four assists.
Erving scored a game-high 27 points as Philadelphia reclaimed home court advantage with a 109-100 game three win in Boston. Collins added 25 points and Lloyd Free--he had not yet legally changed his first name to World--scored 22 points on 9-13 field goal shooting in just 18 minutes. The Celtics had not lost at home in the playoffs since 1975, a 13 game streak. Havlicek led the Celtics with 25 points.
Dave Cowens had 37 points and 21 rebounds for the Celtics--including 23 first half points on 10-10 field goal shooting--in Boston's 124-119 game four win. Collins led the Sixers with 36 points, McGinnis added 27 and Erving had 23. White contributed 26 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. Havlicek only scored 12 points but he dished off for 15 assists.
The 76ers achieved Pat Williams' 20-20-20 balance in game five at home--but the third member of the 20 point trio was Steve Mix, not McGinnis: Collins (23 points), Erving (22) and Mix (20) led the way as Philadelphia took control of the series with a 110-91 win. Scott topped Boston with 20 points.
The proud Celtics forced a seventh game as both White and Havlicek played all 48 minutes to carry Boston to a 113-108 game six win. White scored a playoff career-high 40 points and Havlicek added 25 points. Collins led the Sixers with 32 points, McGinnis scored 22 points and Erving had an off game with just 14 points on 7-20 field goal shooting.
The first six games of the series were high scoring and free wheeling but game seven was a grind it out slugfest. Free missed his first six field goal attempts before scoring a game-high 27 points on 10-27 field goal shooting as his 76ers outlasted the Celtics 83-77. McGinnis scored 22 points before fouling out. Erving contributed 14
points on 6-19 field goal shooting and he also had eight rebounds. Erving said, "Our bench and depth was the key to the win. We had more
depth than they did. I never thought the starters would neutralize each
other as much as they did." Collins was the only other 76er who scored in double figures (10 points on 3-11 field goal shooting). White led the Celtics with 17 points on 7-24 field goal shooting but he did not score in the second half. Cowens pulled down a game-high 27 rebounds and blocked three shots but he only scored 11 points on 5-16 field goal shooting. This was just Boston's second loss in 13 seventh games.
Erving and Collins each scored 166 points (23.7 ppg) versus Boston. In his first NBA playoff series, Erving averaged 6.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.9 spg and 1.3 bpg while shooting .464 from the field and .800 from the free throw line. This was the first time in 10 career playoff series that Erving averaged less than 26.0 ppg but he decisively won his matchup with Havlicek, outscoring his rival in five of the seven games (Havlicek averaged 19.9 ppg). McGinnis averaged 15.6 ppg and shot just .380 from the field.
Philadelphia faced the 49-33 Central Division champion Houston Rockets in the Eastern Conference Finals. The 76ers led 100-81 with 28 seconds remaining in the third quarter of game one but the Rockets cut the margin to 120-113 late in the fourth quarter before Erving hit a jumper and two free throws to seal Philadelphia's 128-117 win. Erving led the 76ers with 24 points, Collins added 23 points and McGinnis finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Erving said, "I thought we were capable of getting good shots any time we wanted. If we rebound and go to the boards like we did, we can run.
If we do, we'll continue to win."
Moses Malone poured in a game-high 32 points but he only scored 10 points in the second half as McGinnis--not known as a staunch defender--used his brawn to knock young Malone off of his favorite spot in the post. Houston Coach Tom Nissalke declared that Erving and McGinnis comprised "the best two players on one team in the league."
In game two, the 76ers' three star attack flourished again; this time McGinnis led the way with 21 points while Collins scored 20 points and Erving added 18 points as Philadelphia won 106-97. Malone only had seven points but Calvin Murphy (32 points) and Rudy Tomjanovich (22 points) picked up the slack.
When the series shifted to Houston, Malone returned to his dominating form with 30 points and 25 rebounds as the Rockets cruised to a 118-94 game three victory. This was the second of Malone's five 30-20 playoff games as a Rocket. Nissalke called Malone "the best rebounder in the game today" and Nissalke predicted, "In three years he will be one of the best players in the game"; Malone fulfilled that prophecy in 1978-79 when he won the first of his three MVPs. Nissalke changed his starting lineup for game three, replacing Goo Kennedy with the seven footer Kevin Kunnert. Kunnert responded with 12 points and 14 rebounds as the bigger Rockets won the rebounding battle 59-34 and slowed the 76ers' fast break to a crawl.
Erving led the 76ers with 28 points and he also had six assists but McGinnis only had 15 points on 6-18 field goal shooting and Collins scored nine points on 4-12 field goal shooting. "They killed us on the boards, they shot a lot better than we did, they had more control of the game than we did and they won the game," Erving said. "It might have been that we were lackadaisical or it might have been good defense. We were too liberal with the ball. We pushed it up fast, went for the jumper and missed it. The first two games we made it."
Free left the game in the second quarter with a bruised rib cage, an injury that would limit him for the rest of the postseason.
The 76ers' running game was back in high gear in game four and they raced to a 107-95 win to take a 3-1 series lead. Collins scored 36 points--including 10 straight points during the decisive fourth quarter run--and Erving added 29 points. Kunnert had another strong game (21 points, 17 rebounds) but an ineffective Malone only scored five points. Rudy Tomjanovich led the Rockets with 24 points.
The Rockets overcame Erving's 37 point explosion to avoid elimination, sending the series back to Houston after a 118-115 game five win. The 76ers squandered an 84-69 third quarter lead. John Lucas and Tomjanovich each scored 21 points.
Houston led for most of game six until Darryl Dawkins and Mike Dunleavy hit consecutive baskets to put Philadelphia on top 91-87 near the end of the third quarter. Dawkins, who jumped to the NBA straight out of high school in 1975, scored 13 of his 20 points in the third quarter. The 76ers pushed the lead to 104-97 with 5:27 remaining in the fourth quarter but then they went scoreless for three minutes, allowing the Rockets to make one final rally. Erving broke that drought with a basket and two free throws to make the score 108-105 and then Houston countered with hoops by John Lucas and Mike Newlin. Henry Bibby made what turned out to be the game-winning shot with :37 remaining. Lucas' driving layup with five seconds left was disallowed by Jake O'Donnell, who ruled that Lucas had charged into Collins. Erving scored a game-high 34 points, snared nine rebounds and dished off for six assists in the 112-109 win.Collins added 27 points. Free did not play due to his rib injury and a
partially collapsed lung. Lucas led the Rockets with 24 points.
"They didn't come out with any of that cheetah stuff," said Nissalke, referring to the 76ers' fast break attack. "They were coming down and setting up and shouting, 'Where's Doc?' It's unbelievable that a team that has lived and died by the fast break would run set plays like that, but he's the best forward who has ever played the game."
Erving averaged 28.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 6.0 apg, 2.0 spg and 1.2 bpg versus Houston in the Eastern Conference Finals while shooting .570 from the field and .800 from the free throw line. Erving's rebounding was below the standard he set during his ABA career but in all other statistical categories his performance mirrored his outstanding all-around production in his three previous "Final Four" (Division Finals/Conference Finals) appearances. Collins averaged 23.5 ppg and shot .604 from the field. McGinnis averaged 13.7 ppg and shot just .353 from the field. Malone averaged 17.2 rpg in the Eastern Conference Finals, the best rebounding performance in a series in franchise history at that time (Malone later surpassed that mark twice).
Philadelphia faced the Portland Trailblazers in the NBA Finals. Portland center Bill Walton finished second to the L.A. Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the MVP voting, earned a spot on the All-NBA Second Team and beat out Abdul-Jabbar for All-Defensive First Team honors. Walton led the NBA in rebounding (14.4 rpg) and blocked shots (3.2 bpg). Portland finished second in the Pacific Division with a 49-33 record but defeated the 53-29 Pacific Division champion Lakers 4-0 in the Western Conference Finals.
Philadelphia Coach Gene Shue closed the team's practices to the public and the media prior to game one. Asked if Shue did this out of secrecy, a 76er official quipped that Shue did it because of "embarrassment" (the 76ers were not known for their diligent practice habits, something that irritated the hard-working Erving)--but once game one of the NBA Finals began it became clear what the 76ers had been hiding: the 76ers nullified the aggressive trapping of Portland's guards by having center Caldwell Jones bring the ball up the court. After Philadelphia's 107-101 win, Shue explained, "The strength of the Portland team is in the pressure their guards apply, so we attacked them at their weakest link."
"It was a good tactic," Portland Coach Jack Ramsay admitted. "It worked very effectively. We tried several things against it, but none worked very well." Ramsay also said that to win the series Portland had to hold the Erving-McGinnis-Collins trio to around 60 total points.
"This is what I call net cutting time," Erving said. "The playoffs--I love them. This is the best time of year, what we work for all winter. Not everybody gets the chance to be here and as long as I'm here I'm going to do something. I'm going to make my presence felt."
Erving scored a game-high 33 points, shooting 14-24 from the field and making all five of his free throws. He also had five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Collins had a similar stat line: 30 points, 12-23 field goal shooting, 6-6 free throw shooting, six rebounds, six assists, two steals. McGinnis scored just eight points on 3-12 field goal shooting in 22 foul-plagued minutes and his game one struggles foreshadowed what would become one of the major stories of the series. Walton's performance also provided some foreshadowing: he produced 28 points, a game-high 20 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. Portland committed 34 turnovers, an astounding total for any game, let alone game one of the NBA Finals. Philadelphia also enjoyed the advantage from the free throw line, shooting 27-32 compared to Portland's 15-18.
Collins scored a game-high 27 points as the 76ers took a 2-0 lead with a 107-89 win. Erving added 20 points, four rebounds, four assists and five steals. Bibby scored all 15 of his points in the first half as the 76ers built a 61-43 lead and he finished with a game-high 11 assists. "People put us down all the time," Bibby said. "They say we're a bunch of one on one players, we can't play team ball, we don't execute our plays well, we can't do the job on defense. They keep saying it--but we keep winning."
Erving added, "A lot of people think that we're a bunch of renegades. They think that a good, well-drilled team can run us apart. We are trying to prove them wrong. Portland is very singular in its offensive strategy. There is one basic play they like to run 75 percent of the time--they set up Walton in the pivot and then try to free their cutters for layups. We know this, we've drilled against it and we've been able to stop it."
Walton led Portland with 17 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. Portland turned the ball over 29 times.
In the fourth quarter, Dawkins threw Portland small forward Bobby Gross to the court as they battled for a loose ball. Dawkins took a swing at Gross but missed him and instead connected with Collins, who needed stitches above his right eye after the game. As the officials tried to restore order--not just among the players but also among dozens of fans who came on to the court--Portland power forward/enforcer Maurice Lucas came up behind Dawkins and hit Dawkins in the head. Dawkins and Lucas squared off to fight but emerged unscathed after several wild punches failed to connect. Both players were ejected; NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien fined Dawkins and Lucas $2500 each but did not suspend either player. That skirmish may have initially seemed like just an afterthought--tensions erupting in a blowout game as one team takes a seemingly commanding 2-0 series lead--but in retrospect the entire tide of the series turned. The Blazers pulled together and rallied, while the 76ers--an emotionally fragile group under the best of circumstances--fell apart the rest of the way, a development that would have seemed improbable after their two impressive victories. Dawkins ripped a urinal off of the wall in the locker room and later expressed disappointment that none of his teammates had warned him about Lucas' sneak attack.
Enjoying the comforts of home after suffering two brutal road losses, the Blazers ambushed the 76ers in the first quarter of game three, taking a 32-12 lead. The 76ers battled back to only trail by four in the fourth quarter but Walton's consecutive hoops ignited a 26-10 run to put the game away. Portland won 129-107, their 16th straight victory at Memorial Coliseum and their 44th in 49 games (regular season and playoffs). The Blazers slashed their turnover total to 16 and Walton dominated at both ends of the court: 20 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists, four blocked shots, two steals. Lucas scored a game-high 29 points and he swiped 12 rebounds. Erving paced the 76ers with 28 points and five assists while also grabbing 11 rebounds but he received little help from anyone other than Collins (21 points on 9-13 field goal shooting). McGinnis scored 14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, though he did contribute a team-high 12 rebounds.
If the 76ers thought that a 22 point blowout loss would be the low point of the series then they were sadly mistaken. The Blazers made nine of their first 10 field goal attempts in game four, sprinted to a 19-4 lead and never let the 76ers get closer than 11 points the rest of the way, cruising to a 130-98 win. During garbage time, the Portland reserves pushed the margin to 41 (126-85). Speedy guard Lionel Hollins scored a game-high 25 points for the Blazers, while Lucas (24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists) and Walton (12 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, four blocked shots) controlled the paint. Erving, who led Philadelphia with 24 points, did not like his team's mindset: "We got to challenge the other team. Be aggressive. Get some big axes and chop arms and
legs." No other 76er scored more than 15 points and McGinnis was almost invisible (five points, six rebounds, 2-8 field goal shooting).
Game five started out very much like game four; the Blazers took a 16-9 lead as the 76ers missed 11 of their first 14 field goal attempts. The Blazers led by 22 points in the fourth quarter but this time the 76ers rallied, cutting the margin to 101-96 after Joe Bryant's long jumper with 3:26 remaining. Lucas countered with a jumper and then Hollins' layup extended the lead to nine. The Blazers won 110-104 to move within one victory of the young franchise's first NBA title. Gross led Portland with 25 points, Lucas added 20 points and 13 rebounds and Walton dominated inside (14 points, 24 rebounds, two blocked shots). Erving poured in a game-high 37 points, grabbed nine rebounds and passed for a team-high seven assists but only three other 76ers scored in double figures--and none of them shot better than .400 from the field.
The 76ers led 22-18 in the first quarter of game six before the Blazers went on a 39-20 run. Portland led 67-55 at halftime. The 76ers stayed in contact throughout the second half and then pulled to within two points after McGinnis' jumper with :18 left in the fourth quarter. McGinnis then tied up Gross for a jump ball and won the tap. The 76ers missed three potentially tying shots in the waning seconds--by Erving, Free and McGinnis--as Portland held on for a 109-107 win. Walton posted one of the most awesome stat lines in Finals history--20 points, 23 rebounds, eight blocked shots, seven assists--and he was selected as the Finals MVP. Gross led Portland with 24 points, while Hollins chipped in 20 points. Lucas had a very solid game (15 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals).
Erving authored the first and only 40 point game of his NBA playoff career (he scored at least 40 points in seven of his 48 ABA playoff games). In addition to his 40 points on 17-29 field goal shooting, Erving had a game-high eight assists plus six rebounds and two steals. McGinnis broke out of his long playoff slump with 28 points and 16 rebounds but Caldwell Jones was the only other 76er who scored in double figures (10 points on 5-8 field goal shooting).
Erving averaged 30.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 5.0 apg in the NBA Finals. He shot .543 from the field and .857 from the free throw line. His 2.7 spg is still a record for a six game NBA Finals. Collins scored prolifically (19.7 ppg) and efficiently (.505 field goal shooting), while McGinnis was neither prolific (13.0 ppg) nor efficient (.388 field goal shooting).
According to information collected by Harvey Pollack and published in the 76ers' 1978 media guide, Erving led the team in playoff dunks (34, with a single-game high of five) and three point plays (converting 15 of 20 opportunities). Erving scored at least 20 points in 16 of Philadelphia's 19 playoff games--including each of the final 10--and he also posted six of his 11 highest scoring NBA playoff games. The 1977 postseason turned out to be Erving's most prolific NBA playoff campaign in scoring (27.3 ppg, third in the league), field goal percentage (.523) and steals (2.2 spg, fourth in the league).
Shortly after the 1977 NBA Finals ended, the New York Times
' Sam Goldaper wrote, "The recently concluded National Basketball Association season will be best remembered for two significant events--the emergence of Bill Walton as one of the game's dominant centers and the proof that Julius Erving could play the game of basketball as well as anyone who had ever played before him."
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Labels: Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones, Boston Celtics, Doug Collins, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, L.A. Lakers, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Maurice Cheeks, Moses Malone, Philadelphia 76ers
posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 AM