Manu is the Man as Spurs Eliminate HornetsManu Ginobili scored a game-high 26 points as the San Antonio Spurs beat the New Orleans Hornets 91-82 to earn a rare seventh game victory on the road. Though a nine point differential may not seem like much it is actually tied for the third biggest margin in a seventh game road win since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. Ginobili missed five of his first six field goal attempts and shot just 6-19 for the game but he scored 11 points in the final 3:09 of the first half as the Spurs turned a 37-36 deficit into a 51-42 halftime lead. The Spurs never trailed after that, withstanding a furious rally by the Hornets late in the game. Ginobili also had five rebounds and he tied for the team lead with five assists. Tim Duncan finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds. He shot just 5-17 from the field but he had a huge impact on the game at both ends of the court: offensively he drew double-teams that enabled his wide open teammates to shoot 12-28 (.429) from three point range and defensively he helped the Spurs win the rebounding battle (51-42) and he sealed off the paint from dribble penetration, resulting in the Hornets missing a lot of contested jumpers, including a 4-17 (.235) tally from three point range. Tony Parker contributed 17 points and five assists. David West had 20 points and nine rebounds but he did most of his damage in the first quarter (10 points on 5-8 shooting, four rebounds) and shot just 3-11 from the field in the final 36 minutes. Chris Paul filled up the boxscore (18 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds, five steals) but he never really controlled the flow of the game. Jannero Pargo came off the bench to score 18 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter as he singlehandedly tried to bring New Orleans back from a double digit deficit.
Before delving into what happened in this game, I have to mention a scorekeeping issue that really bothers me--and a problem that Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Rick Barry have talked about for years. Robertson, at one time the career leader in assists (he currently ranks fourth), has repeatedly said that assists are doled out much more generously by scorekeepers than they were when he played. Barry told me that the only statistic he trusts is free throw percentage because every other number can be manipulated in some way either by the player (for instance, missing a shot to pad one's offensive rebounding totals) or by the subjective judgment of the scorekeeper, who has the final word in deciding whether or not a tap is an offensive rebound, who should get credit for a steal--and what constitutes an assist. In my post about game one of this series, I pointed out that even though Paul was officially credited with seven assists on passes to David West (and 13 total assists) three of those assists were clearly scored incorrectly (Paul did not even pass to West on one of the plays in question!) and one of them was marginal at best. For game seven, I tracked every one of Paul's 14 official assists and it turns out that he actually should only have been credited with nine assists (see the notes at the end of this post for a breakdown of what happened on each of these plays).
Why does this matter? If you look at the boxscore and see that Paul had 14 assists then you might think that he had a great game. That is how David Berri and a lot of other stats gurus "analyze" basketball: by crunching unreliable numbers without ever watching a game. I love stats and numbers as much as anyone but, frankly, I am disgusted by this new wave of so-called "analysts" who think that a spreadsheet tells them all they need to know about basketball; they not only fail to realize the folly of this conception on a general level but they are oblivious to how subjective some of the "official" statistics are. Anyone who watched this game seven with understanding realizes that Paul played reasonably well, but not great. Paul got into the lane on a few occasions and made some passes that resulted in dunks but overall the Spurs did a good job of containing him--and that is one of the reasons that the Spurs won the deciding game in this series. Paul certainly did not dominate the flow of this game the way that Kobe Bryant does on a nightly basis or the way that LeBron James does even in defeat by forcing the opposing team to shadow him all over the court with multiple defenders.
Also, taking a broader view than just this game, Paul's assist totals are one of the major factors being cited by people who claim that Paul should have won the MVP and that he already ranks among the all-time great point guards. I think that Paul is the best point guard in the NBA today and that he was the third best player in the NBA this season behind Bryant and James but I also think that it is clear that assists are awarded much more liberally now than they should be or than they were in the past and that Paul is a big beneficiary of this largesse. I don't doubt that Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and other point guards also receive such help and I think that this kind of faulty scorekeeping is a major reason that Nash owns two MVP awards. If Nash had been credited with 8 or 9 apg instead of 11.5 apg and 10.5 apg in 2005 and 2006 respectively then the voters would have had a more difficult time justifying giving the award to a player who averaged less than 19 ppg each season and is a major liability defensively.
OK, back to the game: in my preview article about this series I wrote, "Manu Ginobili may be the X factor in this series. Assuming that Parker will not score as much as he did last round, Ginobili may become the focal point of the Spurs' offensive attack for significant stretches of time." Sure enough, after averaging 29.6 ppg in the first round versus Nash's Suns, Parker averaged 19.4 ppg versus Paul's Hornets. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich used Ginobili as his sixth man for most of this season and for the first seven games of the playoffs but after the Spurs dropped the first two games to New Orleans he not only inserted Ginobili into the starting lineup but he increased his minutes: Ginobili played 32 and 27 minutes in games one and two but in the Spurs' game three victory he scored 31 points in 39 minutes. He played 32 minutes in the Spurs' game four win and would surely have played more minutes if the score had been closer in the fourth quarter. Ginobili played 42 minutes in game seven.
Ginobili is not an MVP-level player like Bryant or James nor is he even the best player on the Spurs; without Duncan, it would be much easier for teams to defend Ginobili (and Parker) and the Spurs' defense would not be nearly as good--having Duncan lurking in the paint is like having your big brother nearby when you are in a schoolyard fight: you never have to worry about things getting out of hand because he will have your back and it is that sense of security that is the basis for how Ginobili, Parker and Bruce Bowen are able to guard their men. Ginobili is exactly what I called him in my preview: an X factor, a matchup problem for which the Hornets (and many other teams) have no good answer.
The teams traded baskets in the early going before the Hornets hit a couple hoops in a row to take a 14-11 lead. The Spurs closed the first quarter with a 12-6 run. Duncan scored eight points in the first quarter and the Spurs took advantage of the double team coverage against him to make three three pointers. Duncan only received an assist for one of the three pointers but a player who commands a double team forces the opponent to have to scramble defensively and that results in open shots; this is one of the reasons that guys like Bryant, James and Duncan are perennial MVP candidates: their very presence impacts the game, even in situations in which there are no statistics to quantify their impact.
The Spurs pushed their lead to 36-25 in the second quarter but the Hornets calmly answered with a 12-0 run to take their last lead of the game. This is when Ginobili made his presence felt by drilling three three pointers and a runner in the lane as the Spurs surged to a 51-42 halftime advantage. Ginobili scored one of the three pointers in transition but Duncan had a role in the other two, earning an assist on one of them and drawing the defense into the paint on the other (the defense was further collapsed on that possession by a penetrating drive by Parker).
San Antonio played horribly in the third quarters of each of the previous games in New Orleans but the Spurs cured that problem in game seven, outscoring the Hornets 20-14 while holding them to 5-17 field goal shooting. The Spurs led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter and carried a 71-56 advantage into the final 12 minutes. Then, the Hornets made seven straight field goals to open the fourth quarter, cutting the lead to 78-70. Pargo did most of the damage, hitting runners, three pointers and making his free throws after drawing fouls. Meanwhile, the Spurs went cold, shooting just 3-17 from the field in the first 11:10 of the quarter. By that point, a Pargo three pointer had made the score 83-80 San Antonio and all the Hornets needed was one stop and one score. Instead, the Spurs ran a screen/roll play with Duncan and Parker that resulted in Parker making a jumper to put the Spurs up by five. After that, Ginobili sealed the deal by making six straight free throws and West scored the Hornets' final points of the season on an uncontested dunk.
The Spurs are built around Duncan's impact as a low post scoring threat, a rebounder, a defender and even as a screener. Duncan's 16 points in this game are not like a regular player scoring 16 points because Duncan drew double team coverage for most of the game, opening up scoring opportunities for his teammates; regardless of how some people may interpret what the boxscore says, not all identical point totals are in fact created equal. Parker is an All-Star level point guard with a scorer's mentality but he has mastered the delicate balance of knowing when to shoot (and which shots to take) and when to pass. Ginobili is an All-Star level shooting guard whose grit, guile, clutch play and ability to score in a variety of ways make him a perfect complement to Duncan and Parker. Coach Popovich is one of the best coaches in the NBA and he may be the best at manipulating individual matchups to his team's advantage.
This young New Orleans team did a great job of pushing the defending champions to the brink of elimination. Paul has emerged this season as the best point guard in the NBA and West looks like he will be an All-Star for years to come. The ingredient in New Orleans' success that many people overlook is that the Hornets are a very good defensive team.
A Breakdown of Chris Paul's 14 Game Seven Assists
1: Stojakovic jumper, 9:22 1st q--Correct; Stojakovic caught the pass and went straight into his shooting motion.
2: Chandler dunk, 7:01 1st q--Correct; Chandler caught the pass and dunked it.
3: West jumper, 6:21 1st q--Incorrect; West caught the ball with his back to the basket at the 6:26 mark. Paul moved from the left wing to the top of the key as West turned and faced up Fabricio Oberto. West then dribbled, did a spin move and shot a tough fadeaway jumper. There is no conceivable way that this can correctly be scored as an assist. An assist is only supposed to be awarded if the pass significantly contributed to the score and if the player who received the pass made an immediate reaction to shoot. West executed multiple moves and fakes before he scored.
4: West jumper, 4:33 1st q--Incorrect; this one is so bad it is ridiculous: West received the ball from Paul at the right free throw line extended at the 4:40 mark. West pump faked Oberto off of his feet, took four dribbles, made a spin move into the paint, came to a jump stop, did an up and under move and then shot a jump hook. Seven seconds, four dribbles and multiple fakes happened between Paul's pass and West's shot! If Paul deserves an assist, then I think that West's point guard at Xavier should get one, too--he had about as much to do with West making this shot as Paul did.
5: Chandler dunk, 7:09 2nd q--Correct; Chandler caught the pass and dunked it.
6: Stojakovic three pointer, 5:22 2nd q--Correct; Stojakovic caught the pass and went straight into his shooting motion.
7: Peterson three pointer, 4:43 2nd q--Correct; Peterson caught the pass and went straight into his shooting motion.
8: Stojakovic jumper, 3:31 2nd q--Incorrect; Stojakovic caught the pass, pump faked, used an escape dribble and then shot. If the shooter does more than half of the work the passer is not supposed to receive credit and this basket would never have been scored without the fake and the dribble move.
9: Peterson driving layup, :24 2nd q--Incorrect; Peterson received the ball at the three point line at the :27 mark. If he had shot it at that point then Paul would deserve an assist, but Peterson took two dribbles, drove past Tony Parker, eluded Tim Duncan and made a layup. That is a one on one (or one on two) move, not an assisted field goal.
10: West dunk, :07 3rd q--Correct; West caught the pass and dunked it.
11: Chandler dunk, 10:15 4th q--Correct; Chandler caught the pass and dunked it.
12: Pargo driving layup, 8:34 4th q--Incorrect; Pargo caught the pass at the three point line at the 8:38 mark, faked a shot, drove past Tony Parker and shot a tough runner. If assists are going to be awarded on this play and on play number nine above then every single time someone passes the ball and the recipient eventually scores an assist should be awarded. Obviously, that is not within the letter or the spirit of what an assist is supposed to be, namely a pass that creates a scoring opportunity that otherwise would not have existed. If Pargo had caught the ball and shot, then Paul would deserve an assist but once Pargo created a shot then the pass lost any claim of being worthy of being designated as an assist.
13: Chandler dunk, 7:59 4th q--Correct; Chandler caught the pass and dunked it.
14: Pargo three pointer, 1:35 4th q--Correct; Paul back tapped an offensive rebound to Pargo, who caught the pass and shot it. Paul was rightly credited with both an offensive rebound and an assist on this play.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:47 AM