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Friday, May 16, 2008

Seventh Heaven: Spurs Squash Hornets to Force Winner Take All Showdown

The bizarre theme of extreme mutual home court dominance continued in game six of the San Antonio-New Orleans series as the Spurs beat the Hornets 99-80 to force a game seven in New Orleans on Monday. A 3-3 series suggests that the teams are evenly matched and yet none of the games have been close; the home team has won every game this series by at least 11 points and five of the six games have been decided by 18 points or more. Tim Duncan scored 20 points and led the Spurs in rebounds (15), assists (six) and blocked shots (two). Manu Ginobili scored a game-high 25 points on 9-15 field goal shooting, Tony Parker added 15 points and four assists and Ime Udoka provided 13 points off of the bench, nailing all five of his field goal attempts. Chris Paul led New Orleans with 21 points and eight assists and he had six rebounds, as did every other New Orleans starter, which may be even more strange than the way that these teams have traded blowouts. Game five hero David West had just 10 points on 4-14 field goal shooting before a hard pick by Robert Horry reaggravated his back injury and forced him to leave the game.

The Spurs executed their offense almost flawlessly in the first quarter, outscoring the Hornets 36-24, shooting 15-21 from the field and committing just one turnover. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker combined to score 22 points on 10-14 field goal shooting. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, who is a real master at finding and exploiting matchup advantages, inserted Fabricio Oberto into the starting lineup in place of Kurt Thomas. Popovich later explained that he wanted to have a group on the court that has played together for a while and would be better able to react to certain situations (Thomas joined the team in midseason and was put in the starting lineup during the Phoenix series to help match up with Shaquille O'Neal). Duncan and Oberto worked some beautiful high/low plays, with Oberto receiving the ball at the top of the key and then hitting Duncan with crisp bounce passes that Duncan converted into layups; Oberto had four assists, all in the first quarter and all involving Duncan. Peja Stojakovic burned Bruce Bowen with nine first quarter points but he finished the game with just 13.

The Hornets played much better defense in the second quarter and cut the lead to 58-51 by halftime. A lot of attention is rightfully paid to the offensive skills of Paul and West but New Orleans is an excellent defensive team (the first quarter of this game notwithstanding). ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said that New Orleans' defense starts with Paul and center Tyson Chandler, noting that "Paul has got great lateral quickness and great instincts," while Chandler is a very good post defender, "the one guy who gave Yao Ming trouble one on one"--and Van Gundy should know, since he coached Houston last year. I've seen some nonsense statistics recently that purportedly show that Paul is not a good defensive player but the problem with these numbers is that they are very noisy and they involve comparing New Orleans' defense with Paul on the court to New Orleans' defense when he is not in the game--but if you don't account for what all of the other players are doing in their matchups then this method tells you nothing about Paul's ability as an individual defender. The All-Defensive Teams are voted on by the league's head coaches and this year they placed Paul on the Second Team as the seventh highest vote getter overall and the top ranked point guard by far. That is because the coaches actually watch games, watch video and prepare game plans for each team, so they know which players can be attacked defensively (hello, Steve Nash) and which players are good defenders. Anyone who thinks that Paul is not a good defensive player has no idea what he is talking about. Numbers can be massaged to tell you whatever you want to hear but let's look at Paul's defense the way that a coach or scout would:

1) Paul has excellent speed, quickness and lateral mobility.
2) Paul has tremendous hands, enabling him to get a lot of deflections and lead the league in steals.
3) Paul is feisty and stronger than he looks, so even though he is short he is not easy to post up.
4) The Hornets do not hide Paul defensively by having him guard lesser players (a la Steve Nash), nor do they have to provide him extra help (other than on screen/roll plays, of course).
5) Paul understands his team's defensive concepts and what he is supposed to be doing in various situations.

In order for a team to be good defensively it is imperative to have a good defensive point guard; look at the difference for the Lakers this year now that they have savvy veteran Derek Fisher starting at point guard instead of the immature and uncoachable Smush Parker, a player who has some of the requisite physical skills to be a good defender but not the right mental approach.

Defense is usually something that is fairly constant at home or on the road, so it is strange that two defensive-minded teams like San Antonio and New Orleans are both playing so much differently away from home. New Orleans started the third quarter by throwing away the inbounds pass to Parker, who scored a layup. Although West and Paul each scored baskets to cut the San Antonio lead to 60-55 things rapidly went downhill for the Hornets. In a 1:23 span, Paul was whistled for two fouls and West was called for three fouls plus a technical foul after he barked at one of the referees. Conspiracy theorists will certainly focus on this sequence but that makes about as much sense as the wacky numbers that say that Paul is not a good defender, because if you actually watched the game--and are not a Hornets homer--you realize that not only were each of those foul calls correct but they were blatantly obvious: Paul twice used his off arm as a club while he was dribbling the basketball; West tried to run over Ginobili as Ginobili set a screen, he hacked Duncan across the arm while Duncan was in his shooting motion and then he committed an offensive foul by extending his off arm while driving to the hoop. If there was a conspiracy then it was a conspiracy of stupidity by the Hornets to repeatedly commit obvious fouls in a game that they only trailed by five points.

Even though Paul and West each had four fouls, New Orleans Coach Byron Scott left both of them in the game, a decision that Van Gundy applauded; Van Gundy has always advocated avoiding the quick hook in such situations, particularly when there is a danger that the team could fall too far behind while trying to protect its players from fouling out. Scott's gamble paid off as both players finished out the quarter without picking up another foul. New Orleans stayed close for most of the quarter but the Spurs blitzed them with a 7-0 run in the last 2:26 to take a 78-63 lead into the fourth quarter. The Spurs made a couple adjustments that paid off: on defense they shifted Bowen off of Stojakovic and back on to Paul; the thinking in previous games had been to concede that Paul will score a certain amount of points but to shut down Stojakovic and the Hornets' other primary scorers. The problem is that if you give any great player a steady diet of the same defense he will adapt, so the Spurs switched things up in the second half and they also started trapping Paul on screen/roll plays but they did so aggressively and not with the weak traps like the Dallas ones that Paul torched in the first round of the playoffs. Van Gundy pointed out a subtle offensive adjustment that may have even just happened on the fly: on a Duncan post up, Udoka moved down toward the baseline so that the rotating defender would have to travel a greater distance to contest his shot. Duncan passed out of a double team to Udoka, whose three pointer kicked off the 7-0 closing run.

The Spurs blew the game open in the fourth quarter with three quick three pointers, two by Ginobili and one by Udoka. After that explosion, the outcome of the game was never again in serious doubt. Van Gundy made the important observation that the three point shooting barrage by the Spurs in this game stemmed directly from Duncan getting good post position and drawing double teams; without his work on the block, none of those shots would have been open. Van Gundy suggested that in game seven the Hornets should have Chandler cover Duncan one on one and stop using the double teams that open up Ginobili and the other three point shooters.

Van Gundy's comment about how Duncan's post ups set the table for his three point shooters is of course similar to the point that I make about the Lakers and how their three point shooting is heavily dependent on Kobe Bryant, whose dribble penetration has the same effect on opposing defenses as Duncan's post ups. Bryant and Duncan are MVP-level players because of how they distort opposing defenses (and because of their own prowess defensively: each of them made the All-Defensive First Team again this season). Other players may have "better" numbers according to various statistical systems but there is a big difference between a player who hits open shots that were created by others and a player whose skills create those open shots. Even though Van Gundy said during this game that he has a "man crush" on Ginobili, during a more sober-minded moment earlier this season he correctly said that Ginobili could not have led the Houston Rockets on the kind of winning streak that Tracy McGrady did and Van Gundy also noted that Ginobili's "career year" this season would be considered a "down year" for McGrady. That is not to say that Ginobili is not an excellent player but the foundation for the Spurs' success at both ends of the court is Tim Duncan, while the other players--including All-Star level performers like Ginobili and Parker--feed off the openings that he creates on offense and are aided defensively by the way that he protects the paint.

West's reinjury happened between the second and third San Antonio three pointers of the fourth quarter when the Spurs were already up 84-63. West was retreating from the wing to guard the paint on defense when he ran into an Horry back pick; Horry's forearms nailed West right in the lower back and West, who has battled a back injury since game five, crumpled to the court immediately and had to be helped to the locker room. Horry was whistled for an offensive foul. I don't know that this was a dirty play but when it is a 21 point game and you nail a guy who has a back injury right in his back it is not exactly a clean--or, more to the point, necessary--play, either. That said, the old mantra for boxers is "protect yourself at all times," so West should have had his head on a swivel for such picks, especially considering his condition. The fact that West jumped into the air right before the contact also changed where Horry's forearms landed, so it is possible that Horry was not intentionally aiming for West's lower back (normally, one would set a back pick by putting one's forearms at chest level, which would lead to contact in the middle of the back when both players are roughly the same height, and this was the posture that Horry was in right before West elevated and the contact happened).

West's health status for game seven could turn out to be the biggest story in this series but since the game will not be played until Monday night one would assume that several days of around the clock medical care will enable him to perform effectively. Assuming that is the case, what outcome should we expect? The Spurs have played reasonably well for stretches in New Orleans but then they inexplicably fell apart in the third quarters of those games. I don't think that there will be such a third quarter collapse in game seven, so look for a game that is close the whole way. Duncan will be productive, either statistically or by drawing multiple defenders and thus opening up shots for his teammates. Paul will also be productive. As I said before the series, Ginobili may be the X factor; if he plays actively, creates havoc at both ends of the court and shoots a decent percentage then the Spurs will probably win. The key defensively for the Spurs is not to allow Paul to have 30-plus points and 12-plus assists; they can live with one or the other but not both. Game sevens are usually death for the road team but the Spurs are the defending champions so they have to be given a puncher's chance even though objectively the Hornets should be considered favorites at this point. I picked San Antonio at the start of the series and I still think that they will find a way to beat a New Orleans team that is definitely playing better in the playoffs than I expected. Maybe this will turn out to be another blowout for the home team like the other games in this series and like many of the game sevens in recent seasons but I think that this will be a one or two possession game going into the final couple minutes. A Ginobili three pointer made or missed could be the difference.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM


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At Saturday, May 17, 2008 12:50:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the whole Horry thing is getting blown out of proportion. Hits much harder than that have been going on in the playoffs. LeBron has taken a beating this post season, yet Sam Cassell thinks that it's pretty tame compared to the fouls during the 90's.

Should the Celtics bump LeBron James less if he tweaks his back? Should running teams slow down their running game because Shaq/Curry might get a heart attack? Should rebounders not box out Mourning after his kidney transplant? Defenders should just let Joe Johnson waltz into the lane after he broke his face? Would Utah play less agressively if Kobe gets hurt? This is not a friendly game, this is not a pickup game, this is the playoffs! I'm half David West's size and I could take that Horry pick! If West wasn't in the condition to take a playoff hit, he should have been resting, especially in a 21 point blowout. Back injury or not, close game or not, Horry would have done the same thing. If Horry did the same thing to Chandler, would there be an issue? NO! Is it Horry's problem that West was playing hurt? NO!

The only thing wrong about the play, at least in this day and age, was the fans chanting "Horry." Back in the 80's Pistons fans cheered whenever Jordan was knocked on the floor. Was it wrong? YES. Is it still wrong now? YES. It's nothing new.


At Saturday, May 17, 2008 1:10:00 AM, Blogger Mberenis said...

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