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NBA Playoffs: Veterans, Confidence and Defense

   by Al McMordie - 05/24/2010

The enemy of youth is time, as time turns youth into old age. However, a by-product of age is experience, though it's not always an even tradeoff. Experience (adding Shaq and Antoine Walker) helped the veteran Miami Heat roll to a title in 2006 against the young Mavericks. The veteran Celtics won in 2008 and the young Orlando Magic looked lost in last year's NBA Finals to a more experienced Laker squad.
And now we're looking at a possible Finals rematch of 2008, as a pair of veteran teams are rolling through the Conference Finals, old rivals the Celtics and Lakers. Yes, they have more experience than the Suns and Magic, but they also have bigger and better players.
Boston is knocking the No. 2-seeded Magic around, dominating play, very much like they did against the top-seeded Cavaliers. But what has also stood out is the experience and confidence of the Celtics. At the end of Game 2, 33-year old Vince Carter, who has never been this deep in the playoffs, clanked a pair of free throws at the line in the final seconds, two freebies the team needed badly to pull within a point. And the shots were way off. That's a sign of pressure, something experienced teams usually deal better with.
After starting 8-0 SU and 7-1 ATS in the postseason, the stunned Magic are trying to avoid being swept out of the Eastern Conference finals, a shocking development to say the least. "Right now, we've got to find ourselves," Magic center Dwight Howard said. "The last three games we haven't played like Orlando Magic. Seemed like (in Game 3) our bodies were here, but our minds weren't. Our hearts weren't in it. It seemed like we weren't into it. I don't know what happened."
Part of it is the better team has all the answers, exposing the weaknesses of Orlando (poor free throw shooting, inability to guard Rajon Rondo, lack of offensive post moves by Howard).
And part of it is frustration. Some incidents occurred after Game 3 which sheds light on how frustrated and down the Orlando Magic are. A reporter wanted to talk to Jason Williams about the play where Rondo outhustled him down the floor, and stole the ball while diving for it, then rising off the floor for a layup over the helpless Williams.
"Can you guys please move out of my locker?" Williams said, his voice raised. "I asked you nicely. Now, you don't want me to get mean, I'm sure. Can you guys please back the [expletive] up?"
A writer asked Williams a question about the play involving Rondo and Williams responded, "Don't get smart, man."
"They kicked our ass from start to finish," Matt Barnes said. "They played harder and wanted it and did what a good team's supposed to do."
Signs of frustration were everywhere. Even Vince Carter, who almost always projects calm after wins and losses, sounded upset when a reporter asked him, "Did you see this coming?" "Are you kidding me?" Carter responded. "C'mon, man."
"I just didn't think we stayed with the fight very well," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I thought there were several hustle plays that all went their way. I thought they worked harder than we did. I thought they outcompeted us."
These are good reasons why many times you see a team down 3-0 pack it in. They are beaten mentally and know their season is over. Instead of focusing on the current game, their minds can spend too much time thinking about the previous three games: 'How did we blow Game 1?'... 'Man, if I had hit those two free throws, this series would be so much different.'
I have to believe something similar happened to young LeBron James (yes, he's still only 25) and the Cavaliers, as they didn't seem to focus on team basketball as the Celtics methodically took them apart in Games 3, 4 and 5.
A few years ago the young up-and-coming Bulls got smacked around by the Pistons, a veteran team that had been to the NBA Finals in 2004, 2005 and in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2006. This group won the NBA title in 2004, as well.
A veteran Utah Jazz team knocked the Spurs out of the playoffs three times in a five-year span between 1994-98,winning 11 of the 15 games in those series. Coach Gregg Popovich used the Jazz as his blueprint to build the Spurs into the championship contenders, seeking tough-minded players willing to embrace his defense-first philosophy. Both coaches, Popovich and Jerry Sloan, are outstanding and know how to teach defense and teamwork.
I recall a recent San Antonio playoff game where the team-oriented Spurs closed it out with defense, holding the opponent to 41% shooting. They did it with unselfish teamwork, as it wasn't Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili who took the most shots, it was Tony Parker and he delivered with 31. Duncan? He took 8 shots (making 6) for 15 points. Duncan, like many great players in NBA history, doesn't care about being the star of scoring the most points. He only cares about winning.
Teamwork and unselfish play starts with the coach, who has to be forceful enough to preach it, be a good enough teacher so that players absorb its importance, and be able to soothe over any egos that might be hurt (or ship those guys out of town). It also falls upon the players, particularly the stars, to be smart enough to understand the value of team play and think about wins, not stats.
In Game 2 against Orlando, Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 24 points, but took only 8 shots! In Game 3, the Celtics had incredibly balanced scoring, with Glen Davis off the bench leading the Green in scoring with 17. The by-product of teamwork is winning. Like those champion San Antonio teams, all the Celtics care about is feeding the ball to whoever had the hot hand and getting a "W."
"Being an older group, it's probably easier for me to get their focus in the playoffs," Doc Rivers said. "Our overall chemistry is phenomenal."
Defense, of course, is the other important attribute this time of the season. The Celtics' defense suffocated the Magic with their superior effort and physicality. The league's second-leading offense during the regular season scored only 48 points in the first three quarters. Out West, in the first two games, Phoenix was overwhelmed by the Lakers' shooting, unable to do anything defensively. It's clear the Lakers and Celtics have huge edges with confidence, experience and defense over their opponents. Still, Phoenix was able to do something that Orlando was not -- and that was to win Game 3. Of course, the key test for Phoenix will be Game 4, if it hopes to get back into the series. So, Tuesday shall be interesting for us all to watch. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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