Fratello Fundamentals

When a game is on the line you have to make high percentage plays. Dwyane Wade prides himself on making the right decisions when it matters most. He’s come through for the Heat in the clutch countless times. “I pride myself in certain moments of games,” Wade lamented after he was unable to close Monday’s disappointing one-point loss to the Cavs.

But even the greats make mistakes. Hit with a double team in the final seconds of the game, Wade went with a behind-the-back pass to forward Udonis Haslem. LeBron got a hand on the ball, made out with the steal, drew the foul and hit two free throws to take the game 92-91

When faced with the double team Wade had a few options: he could split the defense, pass out, or circle back towards half-court to set up again.

Trying to dribble through a double team comprised of LeBron and Jawad would have been too risky given the Heat’s one-point lead with under ten seconds remaining in the game. Passing to newly freed-up Haslem was a sound strategy that would have allowed the Heat’s offense to exploit a four-to-three advantage in the paint.

But the behind-the-back pass is difficult to execute because you’re not squared-up to your target. Instead your body is turned sideways with your shoulder towards the target and you must rely on your peripheral vision. Though it’s certainly in Wade’s arsenal, perhaps he should have been more patient with his pass selection.

Better to retreat from the double team if necessary rather than force a bad pass. And if you pick up your dribble and get trapped your teammates should come to your rescue – as D-Wade will no doubt come through for Miami the next chance he gets.

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Mike Looks Back: Not all our Stars will make it to Dallas

When I was a coach I always took the All-Star reserves vote very seriously. I felt the Game was a great honor for players. So it was important for me to take the time to carefully consider the leading candidates and get as close as possible to picking those most deserving of the opportunity – which only rolls around once for some guys.

Every season when it came time to vote I would hold a meeting with my staff. We’d review player statistics and we’d look at team records. I’ve always felt that winning counts and that guys with winning records should get extra credit for contributing to their teams’ successes. But of course there are exceptions – sometimes a guy on a losing  team has an extraordinary year and deserves to get the All-Star nod.

Tonight the 2010 All-Star reserves will be revealed. In a league teeming with talent, coaches had to make some tough decisions to fill out the seven remaining spots on each team. I think they had four clear-cut choices for both the East and the West. For the East, guards Joe Johnson and Rajon Rondo and forwards Chris Bosh and Gerald Wallace make the cut hands down. For the West you have to go with guards Brandon Roy, Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups along with forward Dirk Nowitzki.

But now look how difficult it becomes for coaches to round out their selections – a process further complicated by having to achieve the right position balance. In the East you’ve got guys like Perkins, Lee, Lopez, Granger, Shaq, Smith and Rose. And In the West Durant, Randolph, Brooks and Ellis are having standout seasons in addition to the usual suspects Williams, Gasol, Kidd and Parker. With only three openings on each team, inevitably some worthy stars are going to get left off the roster. In any case, we can look forward to watching many of our league’s finest put on a great show in Dallas next month.

Mike’s Take: To Play or Not to Play

It’s hard to win games without a healthy team. But as the rugged NBA season wears on, the physical demands of the game take their toll on even the toughest of players. A lot of guys around the league are playing hurt and last week more than a half-dozen teams lost players including the Blazers, Nuggets, Heat, Hornets, Suns, Cavs, Knicks and Clippers.

One of the most important and challenging jobs we have as coaches is handling injured players properly. And come game time one of the most crucial decisions we have to make – with our indispensable trainers and physicians – is whether an injured team member should play or sit.

In some cases a hurt player wants to push through the pain and may even hide the extent of an injury to stay on the floor. We all love “gamers” who will do anything to win. But sometimes it becomes necessary to save a player from himself and take him off the court to prevent his injury from becoming more serious.

It’s not always easy because the competitiveness that makes that player great for you on the court can also make it uncomfortable in the locker room. But as a coach you have to be able to stand up for what you believe is right for the player and the team over the long haul – even at the expense of a loss.

On the other side, if a player appears tentative after returning from injury the coach must push him along and help restore his confidence. To play at the top of his game he must believe he can cut, run or jump without fear of re-injuring himself.

This season it seems like more star players have suffered injuries than usual. That can be tough on a team. It’s easy to get demoralized. As a coach you need to rally the team and not let them use injuries as an excuse. Together you must find ways to win and heal.

Around the League

East vs. West

The road to the NBA Championship runs through the Lakers. They are the champs. But Cleveland has laid the groundwork in the regular season, beating L.A. twice.

The Cavs have evolved as a team this season. LeBron is playing at an even higher level than last year and his teammates are following his lead. The addition of Shaq is working — he fits in with the team and has become, in his words, that “high level role player.”

Last week’s rematch against the Lakers, despite Mo Williams and Jamario Moon being out, was a good way for the Cavs to measure their progress. I know Kobe is fighting through injuries and it looks like Artest is playing hurt as well.

But the Cavs outplayed the Lakers and were able to break down the tough Laker D and on the other side to get some big stops. Looking back at the season series, the Cavs played better team ball and were having more fun on the court. It’s only the regular season, but it could be a sign of things to come for LeBron and company.

The Lakers on the other hand have to be concerned with two things: getting their hunger back and getting healthy. After the Cavs game Kobe alluded to the team not being as hungry as last year — maybe getting their rings quelled the fire in their bellies? I think that’ll change after the All-Star break.

But more importantly, it remains to be seen if lingering back troubles will restrict Kobe’s mobility and explosiveness and how much his shooting will be affected by the prosthetic he’s wearing on his finger. Kobe is as fierce a competitor as any we have in the league and in spite of these hindrances, came away from Sunday’s one-point loss to the Raptors just one assist shy of a triple-double with 27 points, a career-high 16 rebounds and nine assists. On Monday avid basketball fan President Obama hosted the 2009 NBA champs at the White House and gave a nod to Kobe for his MVP performance in the Finals.

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From Cubs to Grizzlies

After the failed Iverson experiment, the Grizzlies have come together and are playing winning basketball. With the right chemistry they’ve done a complete 180 from their 1-8 nosedive in November. At 23-19 they are fighting for a playoff spot.

A big reason for the turnaround is Zach Randolph. He’s having a monster year. He’s always been a big numbers guy but this year he’s leading the young team and is deserving of an All-Star spot. The Griz are also getting big years out of OJ Mayo, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay. Gay knocked down a huge jumper with the clock running down to seal a hard fought victory over the Thunder last week.

And that’s what’s impresses me about the Griz — they keep notching big wins. In December they were 9-4 with wins over the Cavs, Mavericks, Nuggets and Heat. During January, Memphis has already beaten the Suns (twice), Spurs, Jazz and Trail Blazers. They are a serious team and if they can keep their young nucleus together they’ll be knocking down the old guard’s door sooner than later.

The Bruise Crew

What do Brandon Roy, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Mo Williams, Delonte West, Leandro Barbosa, Raymond Felton, Eric Gordon, Jerryd Bayless, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Gordon all have in common? All missed games last week or played through tough injuries.

It feels like the injured list is more crowded this year than usual. And it’s seems precariously full of star players.  I know a lot of guys are looking forward to the All-Star break to heal up and get ready to make their run in the second half. Not least among them must be Nate McMillan.

I can’t remember a team suffering more injuries than the Blazers have this year and my hat goes off to Nate and his staff for holding the team together and winning. To manage to keep his team in playoff position in the very competitive Western Conference, with all the lost man games and an ever changing line-up, is incredible. Well done coach.

Hope for Haiti

Looking back on last week it’s hard not to think about what’s happening in Haiti. The reports of the destruction are astounding. But they are outdone by the fortitude and resilience of the Haitian people.  The Hope for Haiti telethon did a wonderful job of raising money and awareness. And in the NBA players are continuing to rally support for the Hatians on and off the courts.

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After Monday’s game Samuel Dalembert made a trip to his native Haiti to witness first-hand what is happening. On Wednesday he returned with a gut wrenching report just minutes before the 76ers game in which he scored 10 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. Sam has donated $130,000 to UNICEF personally and is working on raising more for the relief efforts.

Around the league Dwayne Wade and Alonzo Mourning raised over $800,000. And several players pledged to donate $1,000 for every point they scored during games in a bid to raise a minimum of $500,000 for the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. Rebuilding Haiti is going to require a long-term commitment from all of us. If you’d like to donate call 1-877-99-HAITI in US/Canada, or go to www.hopeforhaitinow.org or www.yele.org.

On the Road with Mike

I’ve been traveling the NBA road for a long time now as a coach or an analyst. And though I sometimes miss the comforts of home, I still relish being close to the game. I also appreciate having had the opportunity to experience so many terrific restaurants in different cities over the years. As you might have guessed, I’m somewhat partial to those of the Italian variety. I’ve spent a lot of time in Cleveland where there are at least a dozen great ones in the old-time Italian neighborhood Murray Hill.

Recently I had the chance to visit Valerio’s Itallian Village Ristorante. It’s the kind of wonderful, cozy place that makes you forget you’re dining out. Whenever I try a new Italian restaurant one of the dishes I always look for on the menu is Eggplant Parmigiana. When I first discovered Valerio’s over a decade ago I didn’t see it on the menu. But I had a hunch the chef would have a recipe up his sleeve. And fortunately I had an inside connection – my friend happened to know chef-owner Valerio Iorio and made the introduction. Turns out the charismatic Valerio is known to be a warm, welcoming host who loves to come out of the kitchen and talk to all the guests to make sure they’re having a good time.

That night Valerio prepared his mother’s famous Melanzane all’ Occhio for me, which still ranks among my top three eggplant dishes to this day. The ingredients are simple, but the eggplant is tender and incredibly flavorful. And since Mama Iorio’s recipe does not use breadcrumbs it’s a bit lighter than your typical Eggplant Parmigiana  – so you’ll have plenty of room to try one of Valerio’s authentic, Florentine pastas. He also serves outstanding seafood; when it’s available I usually accompany my eggplant with an order of the fresh Branzino. And of course no Italian dinner is complete without red wine – Valerio offers an excellent selection of reasonably priced bottles.

Melanzane all’ Occhio is still not on the menu, but Valerio was generous enough to share his mother’s recipe in case you want to give it a shot at home. But it might just be easier head over to Valerio’s and see if you can convince him to make you the real deal.

Melanzane all ‘Occhio

Beat eggs and grated Parmesan cheese into a paste, adding salt and pepper to taste. Peel the skin off of the eggplant and slice it cross-wise into two-inch thick discs.  Then cut the discs in half like a pita, but do not cut all the way through. You want the eggplant to remain attached on one end. Spread the paste inside – a little or a lot depending on how rich you want to go – and then close the eggplant like a sandwich. Coat the outside of the eggplant with flower and pan-fry both sides in extra virgin olive oil until golden brown. Finally, cook the eggplant in a pot of hot tomato sauce for another five minutes so that it absorbs the flavor of the sauce. Buon Appetito.

For more information about Valerio’s Ristorante visit the website here.

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