Friday, June 27, 2008

Finals Final und Draft Shaft

I generally think of the time between the finals and the draft as a journalistic no-man's land. No one cares about post-finals stories unless their team won or the story involves a blowup on the losing team (which, unbelievably, didn't happen this year). No one cares about mock drafts in the NBA, because there's usually a very small pool of talent that can actually play. Personally, I think mock drafts are much less interesting than trying to figure out how well certain players will adjust to the league, but every web site that covers basketball keeps doing them, so maybe I'm all alone in that feeling.

In any event, I can wrap up my thoughts on the finals quickly. I thought the Celtics played great defense and I enjoyed watching Ray Allen get his groove back and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce win a championship. I'm happy the Lakers lost because I don't care for Kobe, and I'm still awestruck that the Jazz didn't stick it to them in the playoffs (many said this about the Spurs, but I didn't think the Spurs looked great this year).

The draft is a little more interesting than looking back at the finals. The newsmaker to me was the Knciks' drafting of Danilo Gallinari. To a Knicks fan like myself, following the team has become almost a masochistic endeavor, because each decision seems improbably less logical than the last. Even this spring, seemingly a step forward, was haphazard. "Let's hire Donnie Walsh without interviewing Jerry West, even though Jerry wants the job." "Let's hire Mark Jackson sight unseen. No wait! D'Antoni will fit in great with the New York population, let's hire him! And let's make him the highest-paid coach in NBA history!"

The really sad part of the story is that the Knicks, due to their crazed, cash-throwing hubris, aren't even lovable losers...they're like the fat, ugly, unbelievably rich girl who thinks she's better than everyone and refuses to talk to them because thusfar she's lived a life of luxury without consequences.

Last night, of course, the Knicks drafted the player from Italy whose father was roommates with Mike D'Antoni and who refused to work out for any team other than the Knicks or Nets. As his draft profile said: "He is a proven scorer who needs help to develop defensively." There doesn't seem to be a single person on the planet outside of the Knicks management who is optimistic abotu the pick and I can't think of many positive signs to note about Gallinari. For a team that has embittered its fans so often by making novel picks or thoughtless trades, it would have been sensible for the Knicks to just get a solid player.

Sadly, Gallinari brought fans straight back to the Knicks' last draft debacle, when they drafted young Frederick Weis, arguably the worst player in the entire world, in front of Ron Artest, the penultimate Knicks prospect (played at St. Johns, best defensive player of his generation, mean, nasty, and crazy...oh it was so perfect).

The story on Gallinari is that he's a euro who can shoot and handle the ball, something Donnie Walsh described as "an unusual package". Broadcasters were trying to throw all sorts of comparisons out last night as to who Gallinari plays like, and I think their statements ("he drives to the hoop like Ginobili") were somewhere between uneducated and insane. After watching the video of this guy play, he seems to me to be a less-polished, worse-shooting, higher-jumping version of Andres Nocioni. This sounds like a bit of a slap in the face but I actually respect Nocioni as a good forward (of course, he can play defense, which the scouts say Gallinari can't). So maybe Donnie Walsh knows what he's doing and we should all try to ignore that his last draft pick was Shawne Williams at 17.

Sadly, the Gallinari pick seems like another small step in the Knicks' fractured yet constant struggle for identity and development. It appears that because the Knicks refuse to think long-term, each step is in a different direction and there is almost never tangible forward progress.

To be fair to the Knicks, though, I don't know that any team who drafted last night made significant forward progress; the Bulls got a great point guard when they already have a good one. The Heat got an undersized power forward who needs the ball and I don't see how that could fit with Dwayne Wade. Memphis's trade/pick of OJ Mayo might have been the best fit, or perhaps Minnesota's pick of Kevin Love (who I think will be terrible, but who still fits on that team nicely). Even those picks have massive qualifiers like "OJ Mayo has the kind of ego that could destroy a young team," or "Kevin Love's best talent is throwing outlet passes". Everything else is a total crap-shoot: Westbrook to the Sonics, Augustin to the Bobcats, Lopez to the Nets, Alexander to the Bucks....who knows what to think about these moves, none of which seem like home runs.

Perhaps more meaningful than the often-mediocre draft picks were the big trades pulled off during the day and then later at the draft.

The Bucks moving Yi Jianlian and Boby Simmons for Richard Jefferson, kind of a strange draft-day deal in that it did not involve draft picks, seems like it could work out well for both teams. The Nets get a Chinese hero, never a bad thing to have in the New York market, as well as a decent shooter at small forward. (The price they pay is inheriting one of the worst contracts in the league.)

By acquiring Richard Jefferson, the Bucks get one of the better small forwards in the league, who is highly-paid but probably deserves it (and who had an under-the-radar career year last year). The Bucks now have Mo Williams at point, Michael Redd at SG, Jefferson at SF, Villenueva at PF, and Bogut at C, with Charlie Bell coming off the bench as their sixth man. Frankly, that's a team with offensive and defensive potential, and I think with the right coach they can put themselves in pretty strong position in the Eastern conference. Is Scott Skiles the man for the job? Who knows.

The newsman says that the Raptors and the Pacers agreed to trade Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto for TJ Ford and Radoslav Nesterovic, but that the trade can't go through until July 9 because TJ Ford is a "base-year compensation" player. I don't know what that means.

I think this is also a good trade for everyone. The Pacers get rid of a monstrous contract and get two good ones (both Nesterovic and Ford earn about $8 million but both expire in 2009). (Wondering who signed Radoslav Nesterovic to a six year, $45 million contract? Bet you wouldn't have guessed the San Antonio Spurs.) They also get a point guard who can compliment Crazy Jamaal Tinsley. As a Knicks fan, it's nice to see somebody unafraid of rebuilding, and based on Jermaine O'Neal's recent injury struggles and his generally bad attitude, this seems like the perfect time to let him go. (Oh yeah, that reminds me, they're rebuilding a team that was completely screwed up by the guy the Knicks just hired...)

The Raptors will be an interesting team with O'Neal and Bosh up front. O'Neal is a very good shot-blocker and both players have good offensive games and will provide rebounding and toughness. When you think about it, it's almost a perfect compliment to the many euro-shooters on the Raptors, because they'll be able to set up outside and let the two big guys work on the boards to get the break running or to get offensive rebounds. The more I think about this, the more potential I think it has to work. The only downside is that Jermaine O'Neal will be making close to $20 Million for the next two seasons.

Despite the possible trade gains for the aforementioned teams, I think there was some nice drafting that could pay dividends in the long term. In my eyes the teams who made the best moves last night were the Minnesota Timberwolves and the New Jersey Nets, and I am not referring to the OJ Mayo/Kevin love pick or the "better" Lopez twin.

After everyone went to bed, the T-Wolves used the 34th pick to get a great backup and probably a solid starting point guard who can shoot, defend, and who has good size when they drafted Mario Chalmers, the guy who beat the number one pick in the draft last year in a head-to-head matchup.

The Nets got Chris Douglas Roberts with the 40th pick in the draft, a great move and a good excuse to get Vince Carter the hell out of dodge. I think Douglas Roberts will be a good player in this league and if the Knicks hadn't traded away their 33rd pick to Portland (who landed Joey Dorsey, a guy who might have fit in nicely with the Bockers), I would have loved to see them get Douglas Roberts or Chalmers. I would go so far as to say that Chris Douglas Roberts was the best shooting guard in the draft.

Chalmers and Roberts are the kind of players that can make any team better and I hope they both get to see some quality playing time.

As always, e-mail me at

Friday, June 13, 2008

3-1 and done

Last night was one of the great games in NBA history. For the Lakers and their fans it was a true heartbreaker, a game where they got the lead too early and had to bear the weight of hope and fear as it was whittled down. For the Celtics, and especially Ray Allen, it was vindication for everything they've worked for and a statement that despite their lack of playoff experience and their early troubles, they were not going to give up without a fight. I was particularly happy for Jesus, who probably played one of the best and definitely the most significant game of his life last night. He was outstanding on both ends of the floor, he drove and shot with amazing skill, he scrapped and fought even when the Celtics were down 21, and he never sat for one second. In the end, every one of his 19 points and 9 rebounds seemed like they were more significant than those of anyone else.

This year's Celtics bring to mind another great team, the 1994-1995 NBA Champion Houston Rockets. Those Rockets had an even more difficult time in the playoffs than the Celtics; they were down 2-1 in a best-of-five series to the Utah Jazz in the first round and down 3-1 to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. They were scrutinized during their entire playoff journey, and when they reached the Finals, they had to face an Orlando Magic team featuring Penny and Shaq in their prime that had just beaten the Michael Jordan.

The Rockets steamrolled the Magic in four games. They were led by hungry and humble Hakeem Olajuwan, an aging but excellent small forward in Clyde Drexler and a scrappy team of adequate scorers like Vernon Maxwell and Mario Elie. The offense was conducted by the tandem of quick Kenny Smith and a young Sam Cassell.

One particularly notable moment in the Rockets 1995 playoff run came during the series they played against the San Antonio Spurs, who had won 59 games that year. During the pregame events, David Robinson was presented with the Most Valuable Player award, a clear statement by observers and prognosticators that he and his Spurs were superior to Olajuwon's Rockets. Hakeem dominated Robinson, outscoring him 42-22 and showing that being MVP is about more than the ability to dominate the regular season. (Robinson had averaged 27.6 points per game that season.)

Obviously, the resemblances to the Celtics are significant, and that's fine and dandy, but if there's anyone who should take an interest in the old Rockets team, it's Kobe Bryant. Kobe is currently on the hook for an epic collapse, and it is clear to everyone watching the game, from me to Curt Schilling to a beer-drunk redneck in Easton, Pennsylvania that he is not doing anything to make his team play better than the sum of its parts.

Olajuwon, in my opinion the greatest center of all-time, was also one of the great leaders of all-time. He was humble both on and off the court, he was accepting and open-minded, and he displayed honesty and candor without worrying that it would undermine his authority. When combined with his incredible talent, these qualities that made his teammates admire him, follow him, and play better and more cohesively under the capable command of Rudy Tomjonavich.

When Hakeem's team was down 3-1 to the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, he spoke to his teammates about the position they were in and the pressure that was on them. He explained that any fear or nervousness they had was misguided, because down 3-1, no one expected them to win, so they had no reason worry about losing. They (along with everyone else) had already written themselves off, and although that was certainly not positive, they could play without the pressure of expectation (something Kobe knows a thing or two about).

Hakeem explained how the Rockets' near-failure also presented a great opportunity, because if they played hard, they could do something historic. Each athlete recognized this opportunity and instead of coming into Game 5 depressed and embarrassed, the team came out focused, hopeful, and relaxed. Hakeem knew he was the best player in the series and he knew his team could win, and his team knew this, too. Bolstered by Hakeem's confidence in himself and in his team and his sheer domination on the Court, the Rockets won their next three games and stunned a Suns team that seemed destined for greatness.

Anyone who has watched the Finals would assume that there is no way Kobe can perform similar magic, but his team is in the same position those old Rockets were. It is probable that they have the ability to beat the Boston Celtics if everyone can get on the same page, and Kobe is capable of a much stronger performance than he has given so far.

Can the Lakers make a historic comeback? I say no. But if Kobe ever hopes to be remembered as an all-time great, and if these Lakers want to be known as true peers of their forebearers in LA, they should see that they have been given a chance that very few athletes ever have: beat the odds, beat the favorites, and you will be remembered next to the most dominant of champions in the annals of history.

As always, e-mail me at

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Random Video Moments!

I'm pretty excited for the first truly series-changing game of the finals tonight, as I'm sure most fans are. I think the Celtics will pull it out if they play as physically in the post as they did in Game 3.

As for this video, it's a highlight reel of dunks by Isma'il Muhammad. Why? Why the fuck not.

As always, e-mail me at

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Here is the best I could do all day to find some highlights. You'll have to sit through some droning and you don't get to see things as they happened, but it's better than nothing.


This is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening....

The allegations of Tim Donaghy, summarized in an ESPN article that came out this morning (here), are fairly extreme, and describe a conspiracy that goes all the way to the commissioner. Most significant is Donaghy's assertion that the league was behind controversial refereeing in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Kings and the Lakers (the Lakers went on to win the Finals that year). If what Donaghy states is true, basketball would sustain a black mark rivaling any in the history of sports. David Stern's reputation would dive into Nixonian territory and, frankly, basketball could find itself in the hands of a different governing body.

Let's remember, though, that Tim Donaghy is a convicted felon and a Grade A scumbag. He's the kind of gambling-addicted suburban slob that once tried to run his mailman off the road when the mail truck hit his recycling bin. He's the idiot who took loans from the mafia. He has shown a clear lack of morals and honesty and his own selfish sense of self-preservation led to his downfall. He may be just a rat trying to swim his way to shore, only this time he's trying to welch his way out of dealing with the FBI instead of the mob.

It's impossible at this time to tell which side is telling the truth, but it seems worth it to at least discuss what's going on here. I vividly remember the 2002 playoffs (and many series of those years) for their incredibly inconsistent refereeing. That Kings/Lakers game in particular stands out as one that I will never forget because I felt it was actually turned by poor officiating. From that day on, if you asked me for an example of a game should have gone the other way, I would have said Kings/Lakers, 2002, Game 6.

I realize my memories, like those of most people, are susceptible to change over the years, so I decided to check out some video highlights from the game. Interestingly, there are none anywhere on the internet. Considering this was one of the most important (and discussed) games of all time, I found that surprising, especially in the wake of this morning's news, but maybe it's just a coincidence.

Actually, I had a hard time even finding the play-by-play. Once I got a hold of it, I realized that it wasn't going to be much help--it's hard to bring back memories of what actually happened (calling phantom fouls, for instance) with numbers on a chart. But here's what I can tell you:

The game was tied at 75-75 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. It went back and forth until 3:06, when the Kings took the lead at 92-90 and the Lakers called timeout. Up until that point, if you're reading the play-by-play and can't remember anything and are only able to analyze the numbers, nothing seems awry.

After they were down 92-90 at 3:06, the Lakers scored sixteen points. Fourteen of those points came from eight trips to the free throw line (in 2:55). In the same period of time, the Kings went to the line three times, made six foul shots, and scored two baskets, losing 106-102. The Lakers' only conventional score came at 0:52 (by Shaq).

That Shaq basket made it 101-98, Lakers. In the next forty-three seconds, the Lakers went to the line three more times, went 5-6, and put the game away.

If that helps you, great, but I hope some video of the actual refereeing or the whole quarter comes out sometime soon. If it does, I'll post it here. Numbers never tell the whole story and I wouldn't be surprised if many close games end in a flurry of free-throws by the winning team because the losing team is forced to foul (though by my reading, this was not the case in the Lakers/Kings game).
Whether or not Donaghy is telling the truth about this game or his other allegations is hard to judge, because he's created a "chicken or the egg" situation. Is he finally able to provide evidence that games many have always thought were rigged actually were, or is he using those assumptions to take advantage of fans who demand an explanation and save himself? Donaghy's letter (only five pages, written by his lawyer) discussed almost exclusively highly-publicized refereeing controversies of the past few years, and each of Donaghy's allegations are based on things he "heard" from referees or officials involved with the game. Though the supposed transgressions are explained in detail, there is no explanation why Tim Donaghy, a man who did not officiate any of the games in question, would have access to such dangerous information. Although Donaghy was the back-up official for one of the games he described, it may be that he is merely using that fact to gain a foothold to show he has primary knowledge.

The unfortunate truth that it is so hard to determine whether there are teeth to Donaghy's allegations underscore a larger problem for the NBA: this is an era of inadequate officiating. If fans were satisfied with the quality and fairness of officials, it would be a lot easier to deny Donaghy. Of course, fans of all sports are always complaining that the referees are biased, but in my opinion, for the last decade the NBA has retained the least professional, least consistent officials in major American sports. This is significant regardless of their intent.

One thing I thought was interesting about Donaghy's letter (not in the ESPN article) was his statement about the lack of objectivity of the NBA's "observer" program (something he would have actually had direct experience with). This program is set up to monitor referees, and a designated (and I assume anonymous) observer goes to a game, takes notes, reviews the game tape, and writes a report on how fair he thinks it was called. According to Donaghy "the observer rating system was frequently manipulated. Although the observers were supposed to remain anonymous, all the referees knew who they were. Referees friendly with NBA observers monitoring their game would likely receive a good report."

The only example of impropriety Donaghy could give was an observer asking a referee to buy his book, which doesn't sound like a big deal. However, a breakdown in oversight is hard to identify and there is often no evidence because it's more about cordiality and lack of professionalism than formal deal-making or guns, drugs, and money. Arthur Anderson's failure to objectively audit Enron because the executives were buddy-buddy and too trusting of each other is a good example of this. I wonder if the observer program is a problem that Donaghy was aware of that he tried to exaggerate into something criminal to support himself. Obviously, that throws doubt on whether anything he says is true, but it follows the pattern of his trying to take a problem and make it look like impropriety, and if the observer program is that - a problem - then it underscores the bigger point about poor refereeing.

At this point, I believe David Stern, and do not think there is a conspiracy by the league to help some teams and hurt others. The ten years of embarrassment by the New York Knicks and the fifteen years of hell for the Celtics before 2008 are the basis for my beliefs, along with what I believed were preferential calls for the small-market, unexciting San Antonio Spurs since roughly 1999. (And how about that other team from Los Angeles?)

The thing is, when the quality of officiating stinks, it leads fans to conspiracy theories, and everything that is accomplished by any team is thrown into question. That the Donaghy situation even developed is evidence of the NBA's failure to exercise oversight over its referees.

In the end, let's hope that the NBA does the right thing to heal itself from this scandal. Fix the referees, fix the league.

As always, e-mail me at

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Better Know the Lakers

Kobe. Pau. Bynum. Fisher.

These are the Lakers we know. Some of us love them. Some of us do not. As a matter of fact, some of us feel that Derek Fisher is a smaller, more annoying version of Bruce Bowen without the defensive skills but with all of the "flop to injure the other player" mind-set who has been the beneficiary of more calls in the last decade than any single player other than perhaps Shaquille O'Neal and who is wholly undeserving of being known as an even adequate point guard.

Note: Yes, I feel bad that Shaq gets hacked a lot without intervention, and I'm totally with him when he complains about how much it hurts when other players rap him across his forearms, which are generally considered his most sensitive body part, but that doesn't change the fact that for about twelve years, his go-to move has been "spin, elbow defender to face, drive". Here are some of his greatest hits in reverse chronological order:


But let's forget about Shaq's dirty elbows and try to concentrate on the 2008 Lakers, because they are, after all, more than just Kobe, Pau, Bynum and Derek Fisher. Interestingly, they're one of the least-black teams in the NBA, the complete opposite of both their old dynasty and the current Celtics team they oppose. They have a lot of specialists, weirdos, Euros, and long-hairs, and frankly, they're pretty interesting. So let's get to it.

The Roster, Ordered Alphabetically, Erratically Rated by Jimmy V

Trevor Ariza. Trevor is one of the only South American players in the NBA. Trevor was born in Venezuela, generally a baseball country, and one can only imagine how much difficulty he would have had with his strike zone. Trevor went to high school in LA where he averaged an impressive 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 9 assists per game and played every position. He is asthmatic and during his freshman year at UCLA one of his lungs actually collapsed. He is a very, very good dunker:

Dunk rating: 8. Hustle rating: 7. Shooting: 5. Lung rating: 1.

Jordan Farmar. He has very large ears. He wears his hair in the "Long Island Guido" fashion. Like Ariza, he is from LA, where he averaged 27 a game in high school. His favorite music artist is Usher. He is half black and half The Jew.

Douchebag rating: 8.2. Hair rating: 2. Sneaker size: 7.5. Chances that he hangs out with Kobe and actually enjoys it: Actually, quite good.


Coby Karl: For first 22 years of his life, he played second fiddle to his dad as the second-best Karl in the history of basketball. Now, he adds the distinction of being the second-best "Kho-bee" on his team. Remarkably, Karl only averaged eight points and two rebounds per game in his junior year of high school but managed to shore up his game enough to go to Boise State and make the NBA as an undrafted free agent. He made his NBA debut on the same day he made his NBDL debut because he played only 37 seconds in the NBA game and was sent down quickly enough (to the Los Angeles D-Fenders) to play in a night game.

Dunk rating: Shaquille (I've seen him dunk. He dunks like Shaq. It's weird. It makes the rest of the Lakers just about shit their pants.). Whiteness factor: 93. Overall: Possibly the worst player in the NBA.

Chris Mihm. In case you forgot, he was drafted with the seventh pick in the first round of the draft by the Chicago Bulls (and traded to the Cavs). The All-Star "Traded for Chris Mihm" team is unusually good: Gary Payton, Rajon Rondo, Jamal Crawford, Larry Hughes, Toni Kukoc, and Chris Webber have all found themselves on the other side of deals including Mihm. (Webber was traded to the Bullets in 1994 for, among other things, a pick that in 2000 that became Mihm.) He is a tall, stiff, somewhat athletic white guy. His favorite cereal is undisclosed.

Dunk rating: Was once dunked on by Chris Wilcox twice in one game, the second time so seriously that he was badly injured. Pass rating: Can pass. Height rating: 9.

Ira Newble. One of the better defensive players in the NBA in the past few years, he somehow has aged to 33 in a flash. He once refused to play in a Cavs game, which is, frankly, amazing. He may have had the worst college career of anyone in the NBA, averaging 3.2 points per game in his senior year at Miami University. He got most of the Cleveland Cavaliers to sign a letter condemning the Chinese government's investment in the genocidal regime in Darfur. The two players who refused to sign were LeBron James and Damon Jones for what one can assume were "economic reasons". I'm not sure whether I think it's nice that he's trying to help people or a little lame that he only did it once he saw Hotel Rwanda. Your call.

Dunk rating: 3. Defense: 7.5. Humanitarian efforts: 4. (Most NBA players would be a 1, so that's fair given that he hasn't actually spent much money or devoted much time, in my opinion.)

Vladimir Radmanovic. Shoots high-arcing shots. Flops. Sucks at defense. Am I telling you anything you don't already know? No. But did you know he's in the midst of a six-year, $42 million dollar contract? Did you realize he resembles Joe Namath? Did you know he embarassed his country in the 2002 FIBA World Championships? He was not playing well and when his coach, an obviously fiery man named Svetislav Pesic, saw him sitting at the end of the bench "eating a banana", he kicked him off the team. The team rallied in the second half, and then beat Argentina (featuring Manu Ginobili among others) in the final to win the gold medal.

Rating in American basketball: 3.5. Rating in Serbian basketball: 2.5. Ability to hit meaningless three-pointers: 9.

Ronny Turiaf. From Wikipedia: "Turiaf is most notably known for his aggressive play and his dance routines at the sidelines used to support and invigorate his teammates."

Aggressive play rating: 2. Dance rating: 1. Invigoration rating: 0.

Sasha Vujacic. Goes by "Sasha". Is from Bosnia, which makes him Vladimir Radmanovic's mortal enemy. His nickname, supposedly, is "The Machine", which was also Vladimir Radmanovic's nickname when he played sixth man for the Sonics. No word on who is involved with who's wife. He is actually 6'7", which he does not appear to be on television. Phil Jackson once called him an "11:00 a.m. player", as in "he's good in practice but sucks in games". Sasha cheers for the Kings and hates the Lakers because of fellow Former Yugoslavians Vlade Divac and Predrag Stojakovic.

Annoying rating: Very. Hair rating: 2. Potential to engage in a fight to the death with Vladimir Radmanovic: 10.

Luke Walton: Bill Walton's son. I bet you had no idea.

As always, e-mail me at

Monday, June 09, 2008


Throughout this (and many) year's NBA playoffs, refereeing has been a problem. Last night's game was called with almost no objectivity or precision which has resulted in unwarranted questioning of the fairness of the Celtics' victory. It's time to have a conversation about how the NBA can effectively shore up their officiating corps so that the game is more watchable and more fair.

Regarding gameplay, it's easy to diagnose the problem - the refs are blowing their whistles too much. They seem to err on the side of making a call despite the damage the constant whistle-blowing does to the pace of the game and the competitive balance. From opening tip to closing buzzer in last night's game, if any referee saw something that might be interpreted as a touch foul, they called it. It didn't even matter if it was off the ball and away from the play. It didn't matter if the referee didn't have a good sight line or if the call was based on an interpretation of a reaction. Amazingly, the only time the referees seemed willing to swallow their whistles was when there was genuine contact during difficult but dangerous offensive foul-or-blocking-foul "50/50" calls.

I recently watched the Stanley Cup and was pleasantly surprised by the uninterrupted pace that was the direct result of restraint by the referees. Of course, there were bad calls, but they mattered less because more was decided when the puck was on the ice. The reduction in the play stoppages made the game much more engrossing and exciting and I found myself concentrating on what was playing out in front of me much more than I have during this year's Finals. In light of the fact that I know almost nothing about hockey and barely follow it and have been a basketball fan since childhood, this is distressing. I can't imagine I'm the only one who feels this way.

The best thing about the reduction in calls during the hockey game was the shift in focus from the referees to the players. When I watch a basketball game, I am conscious of the effect of the referees perhaps every other trip down the floor. In the Stanley Cup, they were ancillary, keeping the game clean but otherwise putting the onus on the players. If the NBA was played this way, the game would be much-improved.

As a result of the way the refs called the game last night, I've read this morning numerous complaints about Boston-biased officiating. There were certainly some questionable calls that went the Celtics' way. Foremost among these were the two off-the-ball fouls the called on Kobe as he tried to get through screens. However, I don't believe that the free-throw disparity (which was 38-10 for the Celtics) showed that the officials were biased against the Lakers.

The Lakers lack of free throw attempts was caused by their reluctance to attack the hoop and their limited commitment to maintaining a presence in the post. Frankly, I can't think of Kobe driving to the hoop once, except for the quasi-fadeaway bank shots he executed on a couple of possessions. Most of the contact between the teams was during rebounding or off of the ball, and I don't think anyone would allege that Boston was beating up Kobe, Derek Fisher, or Gasol, who were responsible for most of the offensive execution. The only hard foul last night that I remember was on Rondo when he went up for a probable dunk attempt.

The fact of the matter is that the actual fouls called last night were pretty even - 28 against the Lakers, 21 against the Celtics. The Lakers couldn't stop penetration by Leon Powe (who shot thirteen free throws), and aside from him, none of the Celtics starters shot more than seven free throws. (Kobe also shot seven).

In fact, the only Laker who consistently tried to get the rim was Pau Gasol, and he was rarely successful at getting good position when the Lakers were looking for him, which was also rare. When he did get close, he generally beat his defender badly, and that is why he was 8-12. Oftentimes when there was contact, he initiated it as he drove to the hoop, especially with his off-hand. The bottom line is that Pau's lack of production had as much to do with lack of position as it did with clearing out the post for isolating Kobe or moving to the top of the key to execute the triangle offense and his game was not affected in any meaningful way by Celtics fouling.

Of the other Lakers, Lamar Odom was content to settle for jumpers, and the role players (Fisher, Radmonovic, Vujacic, Farmer, and Walton), who are jump-shooters anyway, were not attempting to get to the hoop or draw contact at all. I don't know what play Lakers fans can really complain about, unless they believe that the Celtics shouldn't have gotten as many attempts as they did.

On that front, it seems to me that it was pretty fair. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen combined for five free throws. Rondo shot six (which he definitely deserved). Paul Pierce shot seven and was robbed of a four-point play for an alleged travel that I thought was more of a message to him to stop trying to make the refs call the "Barry Foul". (For the record, the correct call was a no-call, because Pierce jumped into the defender and the defender jumped into him. The shot should have counted. As a matter of fact, in the vast majority of questionable situations [especially the early Kobe foul calls] I am convinced that the correct call would have been the no call.)

I just don't see a lot of evidence that the Celtics were unfair beneficiaries of the shoddy officiating. The Lakers should have attacked the hoop and they failed to. Pau Gasol only took twelve shots even though he was doing damage. Kobe shot mostly fallaways and pullups. It's true that Lamar Odom was mugged on a rebound at the end of the first half and Gasol may have deserved a whistle or too, but you could say the same about a number of Celtics possessions.

The real issue is not whether the Celtics or the Lakers were favored, though. Last night's game was not fun to watch because the only time the referees relaxed was when it was a blowout. (This was also when the game got exciting and there started to be a meaningful give-and-take between the teams.)

The NBA Finals should be as exciting as any championship game, and until the referees show greater restraint, the Finals will be the ugly sister of the major American sports. I love basketball and I can barely enjoy watching the games. I am not one of these bleeding heart "oh if only it was like the good old days" fans and I'm not trying to show how much I know by constantly complaining about the incompetency of teams/coaches/refs/administrators. I have two eyes and I like basketball and I know that if the NBA doesn't get its refereeing sorted out people are not going to continue to enjoy watching big basketball games, even if this year's rivalry produces a misleading ratings jump. If anything, the jump in ratings is an indictment of our current era, because it shows that people would rather connect to the past then take an interest in the future.

I don't know why the league or the referees are doing things the way they are and why last night was so bad. Whether the officials were making an unnecessary attempt to "take control" or "establish guidelines" by making "statement calls" or whether they are just incompetent doesn't matter. The athletes in the NBA are tough and do not need touch foul-calls unless the foul affects a shot. Fat, middle-aged men and women all over America are able to comprehend this system in pick-up basketball.

The NBA's referees need to let the players play and have the courage to step in only when they feel that an offensive player is impeded or a foul is in bad faith or the result of being out of control. I can only imagine how much more enjoyable it would be to watch uninterrupted basketball (though I'm sure ABC would lose a lot of money in advertising revenue). No rule change could help the game as much as this.

As always, e-mail me at

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Don't Ever Give Up: The Finals Preview

This Finals is about two men - Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant.

For Pierce, every game will be a home game (his hometown being Inglewood), and he will be arguably the only player in the contest that will lead his team to victory if he plays well and doom them if he does not. He will be playing against the team he loved as a child and he will be playing to change the way history will remember him. One might say Kevin Garnett is playing under similar circumstances, but Garnett has had many chances for success in his career. This is either Pierce's second or third chance, depending on how you consider the old Jim O'Brien teams, and that makes it much more special.

For Kobe, this game will represent vindication. I don't think it (or anything) will satisfy him, but he doubtless believes winning the Finals by himself will fulfill some sort of legacy or need. If he didn't think that, I can't see why he wanted to be traded out of L.A. Any casual observer watching Kobe can see that he has spent a good deal of his career trying to satisfy his audience, to be something he thinks he should be, and to be loved by everyone. His canned laughter, his attempts at a rap career, and his so-called "style" have all been little steps in this direction, and this Finals will be a big one. I expect Kobe to play like a man possessed.

Don't forget, Kobe's dad was an NBA basketball player. Perhaps he wasn't a great one, but there have always been examples of athletes, artists, intellectuals, and even politicians with famous fathers who display a profound and urgent desire to eclipse their fathers and whose success (and often downfall) is powered more than anything else by a fear of nonacceptance. I'm not sure this explains Kobe's oft-awkward personality, though - as Freud allegedly noted, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

My personal feeling is that Kobe Bryant has already failed in his role as a leader, and that a Lakers victory would be, if anything, a victory for Phil Jackson. The interesting thing about the series is that although it feels like the first game with any historical potential since the end of the Shaq/Lakers dynasty, it will probably be remembered as a one-time event rather than the drawn-out rivalry it evokes.

If one sets aside the geographic and historical implications, the matchup between the Lakers and the Celtics, in theory, is a good one. The Lakers are one of the top offensive teams in the league, and the Celtics are one of the best defensive teams. The best sporting events are generally contests where irresistible force meets an immovable object, but frankly, the playoffs have shown that the Celtics are not exactly "immovable". If they lose this series, that will be their undoing.

The Lakers, despite their consistent success in the playoffs (against some very good defensive teams and also the Nuggets), are a very good but not great offensive squad. They have a two-dimensional point guard in Derek Fisher, a shooting guard who has an extremely inconsistent on-court demeanor in Kobe, a small forward who is frankly not good in Vujacic, a power forward who can't shoot and has taken advantage of matchups against "whoever's not guarding Pau Gasol" (Fabricio Oberto, for instance), and a center who is truthfully more of a power forward and who has never averaged ten rebounds per game in his career.

The Celtics match up well with this team. Rondo is the kind of defender who should be able to euthanize Derek Fisher, but I'm fearful that Boston will try to drop him down on Pau Gasol when the ball is in the post. If this happens, Derek Fisher is all but guaranteed to hit three to five backbreaking three pointers a game, and this may decide the series. (All too often in the Shaq/Kobe years, games were decided by guys like Fisher, Horry, Fox, George, and Lue because they hit those open shots when teams were forced to double down.)

The matchup between Ray Allen and Kobe presents an intriguing dilemma - is it worth leaving Ray Allen in the lineup when he's been the most inconsistent player in the playoffs, especially on defense? Or is it better to give up offense at the shooting guard position and put a big guy like Posey or a small guy like House in and let them try to pressure Kobe defensively?

This dilemma illustrates why it is such a problem that Rondo can't shoot. If Rondo could even occasionally hit three-pointers, taking Ray Allen out might not be a huge problem in terms of running the offense, but when it's Rondo and James Posey out there, you can't really rely on either player to hit a three when the ball's kicked out of a double team or a driving player. That brings the whole offense closer to the hoop, lets the Lakers double-team or crowd the key, and causes problems for Pierce and Garnett. (I know James Posey and Eddie House are not bad at shooting threes. But they're not threatening the way a proper shooting guard should be.)

I think it makes sense to leave Ray Allen in for his offensive potential and hope to god that getting him minutes helps him iron out his problems. To compensate for his defensive shortcomings, I would advocate switching Allen's defensive assignment to Derek Fisher and telling him to only concentrate on stopping Fisher from getting open shots. Ray may be a little slow laterally, but he can do that effectively in a big game.

This puts Rondo in a tough position, because he can't guard Kobe, but neither can Posey, Allen, or House. Rondo at least has a chance of keeping Bryant from penetrating effectively, and honestly, with his long arms, I don't know if its as bad a mismatch as it seems in theory.

Although this defense is vulnerable to pick and rolls, Kobe's perimeter game, and the crippling of Rondo's self-esteem, the Celtics need to have a perimeter guy in if they're going to have Rondo running things out there. Ray Allen is one of the best in the league's history and to limit his opportunity in the Finals could be a terrible mistake for the Celtics. He might be the smartest and best prepared player on either team. He has a history of success against Kobe and of success in the playoffs. Also, he had the second-best dunk-on of the 2000 Olympics (fast forward to 1:20):

The biggest advantage Boston has (and the reason I believe they will win or lose with Paul Pierce) is at small forward. The only player who can possibly guard Pierce is Kobe, and that will leave a player like Sasha Vujacic or Vlad Radmanovic on Ray Allen. Either way, this is a win-win situation, because if LeBron James can't stop Paul Pierce, neither can Kobe. But for Pierce to be unstoppable, he must be aggressive, get to the hoop, get to the line, and hit those terribly hard-looking shots he seems to toss up so easily. If he scores an efficient 25 per game, the rest of the Celtics could more than make up for as much as 35 per game from Kobe.

I'm assuming for the purpose of this article that Lamar Odom will be matched up with Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol will be matched with Kendrick Perkins. I flip-flopped back and forth a few times in my assessment of who would guard who, and to be honest, it doesn't really make sense either way. My rationale for the choice I made is that Perk and Pau play in the post more than Garnett and Gasol do. But who knows what Phil Jackson or Doc Rivers will do.

Lamar Odom is going to have his hands very full whoever guards him. This will be the first series he doesn't have to go up against another Western team's terrible excuse for a center. Garnett should shut him down entirely, and that's a big problem, because Odom has been very important for the Lakers in the Spurs and Utah series. The question is whether he was so helpful because he raised his quality of play or because he took advantage of the lack of skills of his defender. I can't believe it is the former, even though I like Odom, and I think he is due for a serious slump.

Garnett, on the other hand, will be guarded by one of the weaker defenders on the Lakers. In Boston's first meeting, he outscored Odom 21 to 4, and the second time, outscored him 22 to 14. However, both Lakers/Celtics contests during the regular season were before the Pau Gasol trade, so it's impossible to know how this will effect the matchup.

It is Pau that will be the biggest unknown in the series, and other than Pierce, his success may be more important than anyone else's (only because Kobe's is a given). I don't know how well Kendrick Perkins will guard him. The only game Boston played against Gasol (when he was on the Grizzlies) saw him score 12 points on 3-13 shooting (in 40 minutes). I didn't watch that game and frankly know nothing about it. I am familiar enough with Gasol and Perkins to be sure that Perkins will have his hands full, even though he's been playing well. Gasol has all the tools necessary to get Perkins uncomfortable and into foul trouble, and I'm sure he'll do that.

However, the Celtics play great interior defense, and Kevin Garnett will provide help from the weak side along with whoever else is near the key. Pau is the player who can really screw up the team defense of the Celtics if he requires a lot of help to guard, but I'm not convinced he will be able to do it in what should be a very physical finals.

The Celtics have a great advantage in the depth of their bench, but this will only really matter if they decide to get out and run, which I don't expect. Doc Rivers has not done a good job being consistent with his lineups and although the quality of the players on Boston's bench is better, I do not think their play will effect the series in any meaningful way (at least any more than the Lakers bench).

The bottom line, for me, comes down to defense. I can see Boston shutting down every player on the Lakers other than Kobe, whereas the Lakers will have the ability only to slow down Ray Allen. Two heads are better than one, even Kobe's. Celtics in six.

As always, e-mail me at

PS: I leave you with the sage words of Ray Allen circa 2004, immediately after Shaq left the Lakers, on Kobe Bryant:

"He's going to be very selfish and he feels like he needs to show this league and the people in this country that he is better without Shaq. He can win championships without Shaq. So offensively, he's going to jump out and say, 'I can average 30 points. I can still carry the load on this team...If Kobe doesn't see he needs two and a half good players to be a legitimate playoff contender or win a championship in about a year or two he'll be calling out to Jerry Buss that 'We need some help in here,' or 'Trade me' and we'll all be saying, 'I told you so,' when he says that."