David West Dominates as Hornets Throttle Spurs, 101-82David West scored a playoff career-high 30 points on 13-23 field goal shooting as the New Orleans Hornets beat the defending champion San Antonio Spurs 101-82. Chris Paul struggled with his shot for most of the game but he finished with 17 points on 7-16 shooting in addition to having 13 assists, four rebounds and four steals. Peja Stojakovic scored 22 points and a had a game-high +17 plus/minus rating. Tony Parker (23 points, five assists, five rebounds) and Manu Ginobili (19 points, seven assists, six rebounds) performed at their normal levels but Tim Duncan tied his playoff career-low with five points, shooting just 1-9 from the field and grabbing just three rebounds in 37 minutes. Duncan's performance reinforces a point that I made in a recent post, namely that an MVP-level player will rarely put up such numbers but that if he does it is virtually impossible for his team to win; on the other hand, the Spurs can--and have--won when Ginobili has that kind of stat line.
New Orleans jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first 3:13 of the game but Parker's reverse layup at the 6:04 mark tied the score at 10. In my preview article about this series I suggested that Ginobili may be the X factor, so it was interesting to hear that TNT's Kenny Smith shares that point of view; we agree that the Hornets do not have anyone who can guard Ginobili. He first entered the game when the score was 8-2 New Orleans and he provided an immediate lift with 11 first quarter points. The Spurs led 27-23 by the end of the first quarter. There was a 19 minute delay before the start of the second quarter due to a bizarre mishap: the Hornets' mascot jumped off of a trampoline and through a ring of fire to dunk a basketball but when the game operations crew could not extinguish the ring of fire some firefighters stepped in and doused the ring with their fire extinguishers (instead of the CO2 that is normally used in these situations); that left a slippery residue all over the court. The NBA game is highly competitive and entertaining, so the sideshows that take place during timeouts are not only unnecessary but--in some instances--actually pose a health hazard to the league's most valuable asset, its great athletes. Players were still slipping around after play resumed and the officials stopped the action briefly midway through the second quarter so that the court could be swept again; the regularly scheduled halftime show was canceled so that the entire halftime could be spent cleaning the court. A team like the Phoenix Suns would no doubt use a disruption like this as an excuse if they lost but that is not the way that the Spurs operate; when Bruce Bowen was asked about it at halftime he said that both teams are playing under the same conditions, concluding, "You can't have any excuses."
The Spurs pushed their lead to 48-37 at the 2:46 mark of the second quarter and they still led 49-43 when San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich made the questionable decision to intentionally foul Tyson Chandler. I explained in my recaps of the Spurs-Suns series that Popovich believes in the strategy of intentionally fouling poor free throw shooters and that he especially likes to use this technique if his team is ahead; I also noted that if the fouled player makes just half of his free throws then the numbers work against the fouling team because an NBA possession is typically worth about one point. Chandler made both free throws in this instance and then the Spurs, operating against an entrenched New Orleans defense, ended up with a contested three point shot that missed, resulting in a 49-45 halftime score. Those two free points may not seem to matter in light of the final score but if the Spurs had defended, gotten a stop, pushed the ball and scored then they might have led by eight or nine at halftime. Intentionally fouling is not a good strategy, unless it is done to prevent a poor free throw shooter from converting a dunk or easy layup. West and Stojakovic each had 13 points in the first half, while Paul and Duncan only had three points each; Bruce Bowen had all 17 of his points in the first half.
West scored 11 points in the third quarter as the Hornets took a 74-66 lead. Michael Finley opened the fourth quarter with a three pointer to make the score 74-69 but New Orleans steadily pulled away after that. The Spurs' quarter by quarter scoring went 27-22-17-16 while the Hornets scored at least 22 in each quarter.
When the Hornets led 96-82 with less than two minutes remaining Paul only had 12 points on 5-14 field goal shooting but he split a pair of free throws and had a layup and a dunk that padded his scoring and shooting numbers; the reality is that on this night West was clearly the best player on the court. West created most of his shots on his own, using an impressive array of moves, finishing in the paint with either hand and also showcasing his deadly midrange jumper. He is a very difficult cover; the Spurs tried to protect Duncan from foul trouble by assigning this task mainly to Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto but Kenny Smith rightly noted after the game that Duncan is an All-Defensive Team player who sooner or later in this series will have to take on that challenge.
I received quite a surprise when I looked at the official play by play sheet and discovered that Paul was credited with assists on seven of West's 13 field goals. Rick Barry once told me that the only statistic that he trusts is free throw percentage and Oscar Robertson has complained many times that the definition of an assist is much more liberal now than it was during his playing days. I went back to the tape to look at each of West's field goals. His first three scores came on driving moves for which no assist was credited. Then things get very interesting. West's fourth field goal came at the 1:02 mark of the first quarter. Paul passed to Bonzi Wells, who swung the ball from the right elbow to West on the left baseline. West caught the ball at 1:06, took two dribbles and lofted a tough floater over Duncan. An assist is supposed to be awarded only if the recipient immediately shoots, not after he takes multiple dribbles, so there is no way that an assist should have been awarded--and if an assist was awarded it should have been given to Wells, not Paul.
Robertson would have a fit if he saw West's fifth field goal: Paul passed the ball to West at the 1:51 mark in the second quarter. West made a jab step to the right, drove left, stopped and shot a tough fadeaway jumper over Oberto and Thomas. West made a fake, took a dribble and then shot a fadeaway, so there absolutely should not be an assist awarded for that shot. Sloppy scorekeeping like this makes it easier to understand how guys like Paul and Steve Nash are racking up such lofty assist numbers and why people are convinced that West and Amare Stoudemire could not tie their shoelaces if their point guards did not help them. West displayed excellent footwork and ballhandling but people will look at the play by play sheet and boxscore and say, "Look how Paul is making West better."
West's sixth field goal was a hook shot for which Jannero Pargo received an assist, which is pretty strange considering that West received the ball on the left wing at the 1:13 mark, faked a jumper, took one dribble to the left, dribbled between his legs, drove across the lane to the right and shot a hook over Oberto at the 1:08 mark. How exactly did Pargo "assist" West?
At the 7:43 mark of the third quarter West made his seventh field goal, a dunk after a nice feed from Paul, the third time that Paul was credited with an assist on a West shot but the first one that actually was a legitimate assist by Paul.
At the 3:51 mark of the third quarter, Paul passed to West, who was stationed on the left block. West faked a drop step move, took two dribbles and then delivered a left handed hook. Again, no assist is supposed to be awarded on such a play but Paul was credited with one.
Less than two minutes later, Paul passed to West on the right wing. West faked a jumper, took two dribbles into the lane and made a tough runner. Shockingly, the friendly New Orleans scorekeeper did not give Paul an assist on this play.
About a minute later, Morris Peterson passed to West on the left wing. West faked a jumper, took two dribbles and made a fadeaway jumper. Naturally, Peterson was (wrongly) credited with an assist.
At the 10:17 mark of the fourth quarter, Paul passed to West on the right wing and West immediately raised up and made a jumper. That was correctly scored as an assist for Paul.
At the 9:36 mark of the fourth quarter, Paul passed to West on the left wing and West executed a reverse pivot before firing a fadeaway jumper. Paul was awarded an assist; West made a move after receiving the pass but he did shoot almost immediately, so that assist is marginal but acceptable. West's 13th field goal was a dunk off of a nice Paul feed.
So, of Paul's seven assists on West's field goals, three were clearly wrong, three were clearly correct and one was marginal. I have no idea whether or not this ratio is typical or a one game aberration but there is no question that the play by play sheet and boxscore from this game tell a much different story than the naked eye does.
Paul is a very good point guard and he hardly needs to have anybody padding his statistics. What's more, this is not fair to West--who is generating a lot of his offense on his own--nor is it fair to the players whose assist records Paul is breaking.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:57 AM