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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Game Two of the NBA Finals: A Look Back, A Look Ahead

Events that happened years ago will have no direct impact on the outcome of game two of this year's NBA Finals but it is still interesting to put things in historical perspective, if for no other reason than to counter the all too prevalent assumption that the team that won the previous game will never lose and the team that lost the previous game will never win. Here is a look back at various game twos (most of them in the NBA Finals):

2007 NBA Finals: The Spurs jumped out to a 58-33 halftime lead over the Cavaliers, the third biggest halftime lead in Finals history. The Cavs rallied to cut the lead to eight in the fourth quarter but the Spurs prevailed, 103-92, to take a 2-0 lead en route to a 4-0 sweep.

Lesson that could apply to this year's Finals: Sometimes game one is a harbinger of things to come.

The Cavs could neither shoot effectively nor contain the Spurs in game one and things only got worse in game two: the Cavs could neither get their offense going (.407 field goal shooting) nor did they stop any of the Spurs' Big Three as Tony Parker (30 points on 13-20 shooting), Manu Ginobili (25 points on 5-11 shooting, including four three pointers) and Tim Duncan (23 points on 9-16 shooting) each played very well.

2006 NBA Finals: The Mavs held Shaquille O'Neal to a playoff career-low five points and led by as many as 27 points before eventually winning 99-85 over the Heat. Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas with 26 points and 16 rebounds, while Dwyane Wade was unable to take advantage of all the defensive attention showered on O'Neal, finishing with 23 points on 6-19 shooting.

Lesson that could apply to this year's Finals: Sometimes what happens in games one and two is NOT a harbinger of things to come.

In the first two games, the Mavs did a good job of containing O'Neal without letting Wade run wild. The Mavs led for most of game three but Gary Payton--who had shot 1-8 from the field in the series up to that point--made what turned out to be the game-winning shot. Wade tied his playoff career-high with 42 points. The Mavs never recovered from being so close to taking a commanding 3-0 lead: they lost the next three games of the series and have not even been to the Western Conference Finals since that time.

2005 NBA Finals: The Spurs led the Pistons 58-42 at halftime and rolled to a 97-76 win to take a 2-0 series lead. The Pistons outrebounded the Spurs 45-36 but shot just .402 from the field compared to .468 shooting by the Spurs; the Spurs also shot much better--and much more frequently--from the free throw line, making 18 more free throws than the Pistons.

Lesson that could apply to this year's Finals: Actually there are two lessons: (1) A rebounding disadvantage can be overcome by superiority in other areas; (2) Momentum rarely carries over from one game to the next in a playoff series, particularly when it shifts venues.

After the Spurs won two blowouts in San Antonio, the Pistons returned the favor with blowout wins in Detroit in games three and four and if Rasheed Wallace had not foolishly left Robert Horry open behind the three point line near the end of game five then the Pistons would have headed back to San Antonio with a 3-2 lead. Still, despite their two disastrous road losses to start the series the Pistons won game six in San Antonio and only lost 81-74 in game seven.

2004 NBA Finals: Kobe Bryant hit the tying three pointer with 2.1 seconds left in regulation and then dominated the overtime as the Lakers stole homecourt advantage, evening their series with the Pistons at 1-1.

Lesson that could apply to this year's Finals: This time there are three lessons: (1) It is possible to bounce back from a poor shooting performance in game one to even the series--and then lose the remaining games anyway; (2) it is possible to split the first two games on the road and then sweep the middle three games at home; (3) an injury to a key player can change the dynamic of a series.

Kobe Bryant scored 25 points on 10-27 shooting in game one versus the Pistons but bounced back to score a game-high 33 points on 14-27 shooting in game two, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. It may have seemed at the time that this performance turned the series around but the Pistons swept all three games in Detroit to win the title. Karl Malone played a major role in the Lakers' success in 2004--in his book The Last Season, Phil Jackson said that Malone was their most valuable player in the playoffs. Malone injured his knee in the Western Conference Finals, which rendered him ineffective in the NBA Finals and helped the Pistons to dominate the glass and focus their defensive efforts on Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. The Lakers played horribly in game three, losing 88-68. Jackson said afterwards, "At halftime, I told the team I don't think we can play any worse than we played in the first half as far as shooting the ball and executing in the open floor. But we tried hard in the second half to duplicate it." Jackson was so frustrated by his team's performance that in the third quarter he benched every starter but Bryant in what proved to be a futile attempt to jump start their energy.

1993 Eastern Conference Finals: The Knicks stunned the two-time defending NBA champion Bulls with a 96-91 victory to take a 2-0 series lead in a game most remembered for John Starks' "poster dunk" over Horace Grant and Michael Jordan. While Starks' dunk was electrifying, his defense against Jordan was even more significant: in game one Jordan scored 27 points but shot just 10-27 from the field and in game two he scored 36 points on 12-32 field goal shooting.

Lesson that could apply to this year's Finals: Again there are two lessons: (1) Don't count out a Phil Jackson-coached team even if it falls behind 2-0 to a great defensive team; (2) It is very hard for even the best defensive team in the league to hold down the game's best player throughout a seven game series.

The 1992-93 New York Knicks were one of the best, most physical defensive teams in NBA history. They won an Eastern Conference-best 60 games that season (the Bulls won 57) and went to Chicago for game three with a 2-0 lead. If you are too young to have watched this series or simply forgot what happened next you probably assume that Jordan dropped 50 on the Knicks in game three. Not exactly; Jordan scored 22 points on 3-18 field goal shooting (he shot 16-17 from the free throw line) but Scottie Pippen scored 29 points on 10-12 field goal shooting as the Bulls won 103-83. This was not game seven and Pippen did not hit a much replayed game-winning shot so this game is never mentioned when people talk about clutch play or about key moments during the Bulls' dynasty--but no NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, so if Pippen had not stepped up when Jordan had a terrible shooting night then the Bulls would almost certainly have not won the championship that year. Jordan had a vintage performance in a 105-95 game four win (54 points on 18-30 field goal shooting), while Jordan (29 points on 11-24 shooting) and Pippen (28 points on 12-23 shooting) shared the offensive load in a 97-94 game five road win that is most remembered for Pippen repeatedly stuffing Charles Smith's late attempts to make a layup. Jordan scored 25 points on 8-24 shooting in Chicago's 96-88 series clinching game six win, while Pippen had 24 points on 9-18 shooting. Pau Gasol is not a Top 50 player and cannot be expected to perform like one but for the Lakers to win the title he needs to perform at a high level to support Bryant, just like Pippen did for Jordan; that could come in the form of rebounding, passing or high percentage shooting but Gasol has to make his presence felt in some way.

1991 NBA Finals: The Bulls routed the Lakers 107-86 as Jordan scored 33 points on 15-18 field goal shooting. Jackson made a key defensive switch, putting Pippen on Magic Johnson to disrupt the Lakers' offense.

Lesson that could apply to this year's Finals: Even if a team loses game one they can still win the series decisively.

The Bulls lost game one on a last second three pointer by Sam Perkins but that did not shake their confidence because they knew that they had the better team (and the best player in the NBA). After their game two win at home they swept all three games in L.A. to win their first championship.

What these examples show is that during the course of a seven game series there can be many twists and turns. Even a player as great as Michael Jordan can have bad shooting games against an excellent defensive team and when that happens it is certainly helpful to have a Top 50 player available to pick up the slack. We also see that an injury to a key player can affect the outcome of a series and that even though Pat Riley's dictum of "No rebounds, no rings" is usually very true it is possible for a very efficient team to win games--even in the NBA Finals, the highest level of basketball competition--despite being outrebounded. It will be very interesting to see if this year's NBA Finals follows one of these templates or if a completely different storyline emerges.

Shifting our focus from the past to tonight's game, here are six factors to watch--three for each team:

Three keys for a Lakers victory in game two:

1) Shoot at least .450 from the field.

2) Do not get outrebounded by more than 10; the Lakers can win despite being outrebounded by a small margin if they are efficient offensively and play sound defense.

3) Continue to play good halfcourt defense and limit the Celtics to less than .450 shooting from the field (the Celtics shot .421 from the field in game one, which is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of that game).

Three keys for a Celtics victory in game two:

1) Paul Pierce's health. Injuries can be a huge X factor in any series and if Pierce is not 100% then this will take away a major part of Boston's offense. That would enable the Lakers to get by with having Vladimir Radmanovic guarding him for extended stretches, freeing up Bryant to put out any offensive brush fires started by Ray Allen, Sam Cassell or anyone else.

2) Outscore the Lakers by more than 10 in the paint; the Celtics only won the points in the paint battle 24-20 in game one but prevailed anyway because they held down the Lakers' field goal percentage. If the Lakers bounce back to shoot a better percentage then the Celtics will also have to play better offensively, particularly in the paint.

3) Keep the pace of the game down by limiting turnovers and controlling the glass. The Lakers had just two fast break points in game one. If the Lakers can get out and run then the Celtics will not be able to keep Bryant out of the paint.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:00 AM

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