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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Observations About the First Three Games of the NBA Finals

After game four tonight, the rest of the NBA Finals will either be a best out of three series with the Celtics enjoying home court advantage or a victory lap for the Celtics before they raise championship banner number 17 to the rafters. I still don't understand why so many people thought that it was useful or informative to combine the statistics from game one of this series with the statistics from two regular season games that were played more than six months ago but I do think that it is worthwhile to take a look at the aggregate statistics from the first three games of this series.

The Celtics have scored 287 points (95.7 ppg) while shooting .427 from the field, .451 from three point range and .737 from the free throw line. They have scored 29 fast break points and 90 points in the paint. They are averaging 42.7 rpg. The Lakers have scored 277 points (92.3 ppg) while shooting .450 from the field, .388 from three point range and .722 from the free throw line. They have scored 24 fast break points and 90 points in the paint. They are averaging 37.7 rpg.

In my series preview, I wrote that the Lakers would win because "they have the best player in the game in Kobe Bryant and anything that the Celtics try to do to contain him will either fail and/or open up easy scoring opportunities for Pau Gasol in the paint and the Lakers' various perimeter shooters." I explained that in order for the Celtics to win they must "hold the Lakers' field goal percentage below .450, shoot at least .450 from the field and maintain a decisive advantage (greater than 10-plus ppg) in points in the paint."

I also added these comments:

I expect Boston to outrebound the Lakers but in order to win the series the Celtics must convert that advantage into a lot of points in the paint--by scoring on putbacks and/or creating fast break layups in transition after defensive rebounds.

The Lakers are not known as a great defensive team but their point differential (6.4 ppg) and field goal percentage differential (.045) in the playoffs are better than Boston's (4.3 ppg and .026 respectively). Athletic teams/players can cause problems for the Celtics, as we saw in the first round with Atlanta and even in the Detroit series with the contributions made by Rodney Stuckey and Lindsey Hunter. The Lakers are a long and fast team that is very formidable in the transition game. The problem with the Suns and the Warriors is not that those teams are high powered offensively but rather that they are terrible defensively; the Lakers play at a fast tempo and score a lot of points but they don't give up a lot of easy shots defensively.

Bryant is averaging 30.0 ppg on .464 field goal shooting, bettering his regular season averages in both categories. His screen/roll play with Gasol has been effective (Gasol is shooting .531 from the field, with a large number of his made field goals coming as a result of this action) and the Lakers should employ this as often as possible when they are in a half court set and don't have a better mismatch (such as Bryant posting up Rajon Rondo) to exploit. Gasol is the Lakers' second best player and he must score more than the 13.7 ppg that he is averaging; his scoring has dipped not because of a lack of opportunities but because he has not been aggressive enough: when he catches the ball in the post against one on one coverage he must make a strong attempt to score and when Bryant feeds him on the move after a screen/roll play he must make sure that he either scores or draws a foul. Also, when Gasol passes out of double teams he must do so crisply and not throw soft passes that are easy to intercept.

Sasha Vujacic (6-11 three point shooting), Vladimir Radmanovic (5-13) and Jordan Farmar (4-6) have been the primary perimeter beneficiaries of the extra defensive attention that Bryant is drawing. It is critically important for the Lakers that they continue to make three pointers to punish the Celtics when they trap Bryant. The Lakers' overall field goal percentage is right at the minimum number that I prescribed but their poor game one shooting (.416) is the main reason that they are down 2-1 instead of being up 2-1. Assuming that Bryant, Gasol and the perimeter shooters continue to produce at roughly the same levels that they have so far, the Lakers need to improve in two areas: (1) they need to score more fast break points and (2) they need for Lamar Odom (9.3 ppg on .419 field goal shooting) to be more productive.

The Lakers are a high powered offensive team that wants to play at a fast pace but after three games they have the same number of fast break points that the Celtics do. The Lakers must convert more of their defensive stops into transition points so that they are not continually operating against Boston's half court defense. Odom has taken several defensive rebounds coast to coast only to miss shots, commit fouls and turn the ball over; the Lakers would be much better served if he passed the ball ahead to Bryant or Derek Fisher, filled a lane and either received a return pass for a layup or crashed the boards after someone else shoots. Every transition situation is a chance for Bryant to get in the paint and score or get fouled and the Lakers cannot afford to have Odom continue to squander those precious opportunities.

The Lakers are getting outrebounded by 5 rpg. It would obviously be preferable to minimize that deficit but that number is acceptable provided that the Lakers shoot .450 or better and continue to hold down Boston's field goal percentage.

For some reason, many analysts are overlooking how poorly the Celtics are shooting. As I noted in my series preview, the Lakers are a better defensive team than some people may think; their half court defense in this series has been very good except for Leon Powe's 15 minutes--literally--of fame. On the other hand, the Celtics have thrived in the transition game, matching the Lakers in fast break points and getting a lot of three pointers in open court situations, taking advantage of Laker misses and turnovers. Ray Allen is averaging 20.3 ppg on .514 field goal shooting and .526 three point shooting; he has done a lot of his damage in transition or in situations when Vujacic was guarding him while Bryant was playing small forward and checking Paul Pierce, who is averaging 18.7 ppg on .450 field goal shooting and .583 three point shooting. Since Pierce came back in game one after his knee injury he has been moving a bit gingerly and relying very heavily on his jump shot and shooting three pointers in transition. The Lakers must run him off of the three point line and force him to operate on the move; that would not necessarily be the normal strategy against Pierce, who usually likes to drive and seek out contact, but it would be a good idea now because his mobility appears to be limited.

If the Lakers win this series I don't want to hear any sob stories about Kevin Garnett not winning a championship ring. He is paired with two future Hall of Famers on the best team in the league, a squad that enjoys home court advantage in the Finals--and he is shooting just .355 from the field, missing jumper after jumper when his team needs for him to get in the post and establish a presence in the paint. Garnett is rebounding very well and playing excellent defense but a former MVP who is so highly regarded--and who some people thought should win this year's MVP over Bryant--cannot expect to win his first title entirely on the shoulders of Allen and Pierce's offense. Garnett has to bring something to the table at that end of the court.

Rajon Rondo is leading both teams in assists (9.0 apg) but he is both a poor shooter (.409 field goal percentage in the series) and a reluctant one (just 22 attempts). Lakers Coach Phil Jackson made the most important adjustment in the series so far when he switched Bryant on to Rondo at the start of game three; that enabled Bryant to roam around defensively, disrupting the Celtics' offense, and it also created a great crossmatch that Bryant exploited at the other end of the court. When Eddie House or Sam Cassell are in the game for Rondo the Celtics can space the floor better on offense but they are not as good defensively and they miss Rondo's ability to dribble penetrate.

It is funny to listen to how some people overanalyze a game by underanalyzing it. For instance, they will say something like, "The Lakers barely won game three even though Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett shot poorly. If those two players just shoot a little better in game four then the Celtics will win." The problem with this kind of thinking is that it makes no sense to assume that Pierce and Garnett will shoot better but everything else will remain exactly the same. Each game has its own distinct tone and tempo. Leon Powe had 21 points in game two and when the series is over he probably will not have scored that many points in all of the other games combined. One of the few givens in this series is that Bryant is going to have the ball in his hands a lot and that no matter how the Celtics defend him he will be able to create open shots for himself or one of his teammates; the production and effectiveness of the other players is going to vary from game to game. If Pierce is not completely healthy and the Lakers cut down on his stand still jumpers in transition then he is not going to shoot well in game four; if Garnett continues to rely too much on his jumper then he will not be as effective offensively as he could be.

The key matchup in this series is the battle between Bryant and the Celtics' defense; if they single cover him then he goes into attack mode, like he did at the end of game three, and when they trap him he finds the open man. Jeff Van Gundy has mentioned more than once that the Celtics have struggled to defend the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play. It is important for the Lakers to continue to take advantage of that action because it not only creates opportunities for Bryant against a scrambling, rotating defense but it also opens up Gasol on the move as well as the Lakers' three point shooters. Gasol looked very tentative in game three when he received the ball in the post, which is yet another reason that it is better to have him screen for Bryant and then roll to the hoop; what a lot of people fail to understand is that the purpose of a screen is not always to free up the man with the ball but sometimes to simply force the defense to react in a way that opens up the screener or a player on the weak side. We all know that Bryant can get his shots and his points at any time but this is a way to get other players involved in the offensive attack.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:24 AM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Thursday, June 12, 2008 12:52:00 PM, Blogger Sony said...

The statistics cited in your second paragraph indicate that the series is pretty close in the aggregate, which is my impression before and during the series. To me the X factor is simply the refs. How these two teams, playing so evenly, can have a 40 free-throw swing in 2 games (Celtics +28 to -12) is beyond comprehension. Did they really play that different?

The free throw differential is not supported by how they play, and you have to conclude its how different ref crews see the same game. No doubt the physically overmatched Lakers are hacking on D and their poor penetrations create charges, but the Celtics slide all over when “setting” screens and assault any Laker jogging through the lane with forearms and hip checks. As Curt Shilling said, you can call a foul on the Celtics on every play.

Basically, the Celtics will win when the refs ignore moving screens and physically punishing defense, but the Lakers win when those are called.

Now refs are closely monitored by the league (and gamblers) and their tendencies charted. So can you really argue against the fact that the NBA head office, which assigns refs, which delivers memos on points of emphasis, which knows their tendencies can easily dictate the winners? Not that its evidence that they do manipulate, but its evidence that it’d be easy to do and easy to establish deniability. Unless the league isolates assignment and delivering memos from Stern’s office, its clear they can manipulate games simply by selecting refs.

 
At Thursday, June 12, 2008 3:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think game 2 was an anomaly with regards to the foul disparity between the 2 teams. Now I'm not spouting off conspiracy theories. Or disputing the fact that the Lakers did foul. I just think that that sort of referring is not normal and allowed the Celtics to post up the number they did.

Game 2 still has left me with a bad feeling.

 
At Thursday, June 12, 2008 5:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Sony:

Many of the fouls that were called on the Lakers in game two were obviously correct calls when Leon Powe outworked the Lakers' bench in the paint. Neither Powe nor any other Celtic did that in game three, either because the Lakers played better defense or the Celtics were not as aggressive. So that is why the Celtics shot fewer free throws in game three than in game two. I don't find that aspect of the difference hard to understand or accept.

The issue that I find more difficult to explain is the difference in the number of free throws that Kobe Bryant shot. I don't care what anybody says, Bryant drove to the hoop in game three essentially the same way that he drove to the hoop in game two; in game two he seemed to get fouled a few times with nothing being called but in game three when he was fouled the fouls were called. The crossmatch situation with Rondo helped Bryant draw some more fouls and Bryant drew an obvious foul on Allen when the Lakers got him the ball in transition but even taking those fouls out of the equation Bryant still had more free throw attempts in game three than in game two. I don't have a good explanation why that happened, which reinforces what I said in my post about Tim Donaghy: the NBA should take the mystery out of this by putting "Making the Call with Ronnie Nunn" (or a similar show) back on the air and use that as a forum to explain things. I thought that Nunn did a fantastic job of explaining exactly how referees do their jobs and he was not afraid to admit when they got a call wrong; he'd explain what happened and what the league was doing to ensure that fewer calls would be missed in the future.

 
At Thursday, June 12, 2008 6:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

As I said in my response to Sony and as I've indicated in my posts since game two, I don't think that the Lakers were whistled for phantom fouls or anything like that. What I questioned is some of the fouls that were not called when Bryant drove to the hoop. I suspect that if Ronnie Nunn or someone else talked to those refs and broke down those plays for the viewing public the answer would be that on those plays the refs were either out of position or simply had a bad angle. The refs don't have access to instant replay or 15 camera angles during the play. If Pierce pulls back Kobe's right arm while Kobe shoots a left handed layup, one ref may be watching for three second violations, one may be watching the restricted area for block/charge calls and the other may be looking to see if someone fouls Kobe's shooting hand. Maybe something like that scenario took place and they just missed the call. I'd like to see the NBA talk about such things and explain what each referee's responsibility is (based on his court location).

Nunn once said that refs miss traveling calls sometimes because they are trained to watch the defender because most fouls and violations are initiated by him. You can agree or disagree with that approach but I thought that it was interesting to hear from the supervisor of referees how these guys are trained.

 

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