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Friday, June 01, 2012

Notes on the Eastern and Western Conference Finals

Both Conference Finals have gone according to form so far and it seems likely that San Antonio will face Miami in the NBA Finals. Here are some stats and notes about the 2012 edition of the NBA's "Final Four":
  1. During ESPN's telecast of Miami's 115-111 overtime victory against Boston in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals, Mike Breen mentioned that LeBron James has led his team in scoring, rebounding and assists outright 23 times in his playoff career, more than any other player in NBA history. The usually astute Jeff Van Gundy said that this stat provides an indication of how weak James' supporting cast was in Cleveland. Superficially that seems logical but consider who ranks second to James in this category: Larry Bird, who led the Celtics in scoring, rebounding and assists in 13 playoff games. Bird played alongside two other Hall of Fame big men (Robert Parish, Kevin McHale) and two Hall of Fame point guards (first Nate Archibald, then Dennis Johnson). Bird's supporting cast certainly was not weak and yet he often led the Celtics in scoring, rebounding and assists during playoff competition; a versatile, MVP level player shoulders a lot of responsibility to be consistently productive. Tim Duncan, who ranks third with 11 playoff games as his team's sole leader in points, rebounds and assists, also has had an excellent supporting cast throughout his career. James' often impressive playoff statistics are a tribute to his capabilities but they do not somehow prove that he had a weak supporting cast in Cleveland. However, James' demonstrated ability to impact a game in several ways means that there is no excuse for the two times in his postseason career when his numbers and effort level demonstrate that he quit: the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals versus Boston and the 2012 NBA Finals versus Dallas. James cannot be expected to always shoot well but he can be expected to consistently play with a high energy level.
  2. Rajon Rondo's 44 point, 10 assist, eight rebound performance for Boston in game two was a truly stunning all-around display: he played all 53 minutes, he hit jumpers (the one part of his game that is normally a weakness), he drove to the hoop, he guarded James on the final play of regulation and he did everything humanly possible to lead the Celtics to victory. In my Miami-Boston preview I predicted that Miami would win the series but said that Boston could prevail if "Rondo goes nuts and is the best player on the court for significant stretches of time." It is a good sign for the Celtics that Rondo proved that he is capable of being the best player on the court despite the presence of three-time MVP James but it is a bad sign for the Celtics that they lost despite Rondo's incredible effort. It would have been very interesting to see how James and the Heat would have reacted to losing home court advantage in the series but now the Celtics face the monumental task of beating the Heat four times in the next five games.
  3. The Oklahoma City Thunder's impressive 102-82 game three victory over the San Antonio Spurs ended perhaps the "quietest" (in terms of relative media coverage) long winning streak in NBA history, if not in the history of professional sports. The Spurs won 20 straight games, which is tied for the third longest streak in NBA history behind the 1971-72 Lakers (33) and the 2007-08 Rockets (22); the 1948-49 Washington Capitols and 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks also had 20 game winning streaks. The Spurs were incredibly dominant, winning 15 of those 20 games by 10 or more points. The Spurs' winning streak is the longest combined regular season/playoff winning streak in NBA history and the first 20-plus game winning streak in NBA history that spanned both the regular season and the playoffs, beginning with the last 10 regular season games and then extending through the Spurs' first 10 playoff games; the 2000-01 Lakers won their last eight regular season games and their first 11 playoff games. Did the Thunder merely prevent a sweep or did they take the first step toward extending this series to six or seven games?

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:11 PM

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Miami Versus Boston Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

#2 Miami (46-20) vs. #4 Boston (39-27)

Season series: Boston, 3-1

Boston can win if...the Celtics execute their half court offense efficiently, limit their turnovers and force LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to shoot contested jump shots instead of layups, dunks and free throws.

Miami will win because...the Heat's talented James/Wade duo (which resumes being a talented trio if Chris Bosh recovers from his abdominal injury and is able to return to action) will be too much for the aging and injured Celtics to handle.

Other things to consider: James and Wade both performed at a historically significant level of greatness in the second half of the series versus the Indiana Pacers as the Heat rallied from a 2-1 deficit to win three straight games. James' 40 point, 18 rebound, nine assist performance in game four has been matched in all three categories only one other time in NBA playoff history (Elgin Baylor rang up those exact same numbers in a 1961 playoff game). James averaged 30.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 6.2 apg versus the Pacers. Wade struggled early in the series but he scored 30, 28 and 41 points in the final three games; he averaged 26.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 3.3 apg overall during the series.

Those final three games represent the best that we have seen from James and Wade as a duo since they joined forces in 2010 but even though they deserve credit for executing under pressure it must be noted that the Pacers helped the Heat by committing what are called "unforced errors" in tennis jargon: the Pacers did not exploit their mismatch advantages in the paint on offense and their unforgivably sloppy ball handling not only wasted several potential scoring opportunities but also fueled Miami's deadly transition game. The main keys to beating the Heat are scoring inside in the half court set--thus slowing the game down and potentially getting the Heat into foul trouble--and minimizing the opportunities that James and Wade have to score easy points (layups, dunks, free throws). According to the data compiled at NBA.com/Stats, 51 of James' 139 field goal attempts versus the Pacers were from less than five feet away from the hoop. Not surprisingly, James converted 37 of those attempts (.725). James shot just 4-16 (.250) on his attempts from five to nine feet but that low percentage can probably be attributed to a small sample size. The significant statistics from a larger sample size show that he shot 16-33 (.485) from eight to 16 feet and 10-26 (.385) from 16-24 feet. James attempted 51 free throws versus the Pacers. Wade attempted 34 of his 123 shots versus the Pacers from closer than five feet and he made 24 of those shots (.706). Like James, Wade fared poorly on his small number of attempts from five to nine feet (7-16, .438). Wade shot 20-46 (.435) on his attempts from eight to 16 feet versus the Pacers and 9-28 (.321) from 16-24 feet. Wade attempted 53 free throws versus the Pacers. Obviously, keeping James and Wade out of the paint and off of the free throw line is easier said than done but the only way to beat the Heat is to focus consistently on proper shot selection and careful ball handling and then play disciplined half court defense. The team that beats Miami will stick to this game plan and will have athletes who are skilled enough to execute this game plan.

This may be the swan song for Boston's Big Three plus Rondo quartet (after Boston's 85-75 game seven victory over Philadelphia, Coach Doug Collins called them the "Championship Four"); Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo led Boston to the 2008 NBA Championship and the 2010 NBA Finals but the Celtics seem to be running on fumes now. Boston struggled to finish off a game but limited Philadelphia team that likely would have been first round fodder versus Chicago if Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah had not suffered injuries. The Celtics are a well coached, veteran squad that certainly will try very hard to execute the anti-Heat game plan mentioned above but the Celtics may not have enough young and/or healthy bodies to do so. Boston's 3-1 head to head regular season dominance against Miami is a bit misleading; not only is it difficult to compare regular season games from a truncated, post-lockout season to playoff games but both teams rested their key players in their final head to head meeting of the season (a 78-66 Boston win).

If Kevin Garnett not only performs at an All-Defensive First Team level but also averages 20 ppg while shooting above .500 from the field, if Ray Allen rediscovers his lost three point stroke, if Paul Pierce plays LeBron James to a draw (or reasonably close to it) in their head to head matchup and if Rajon Rondo dominates Miami's point guards then the Celtics can win this series. Rondo carried the Celtics down the stretch versus Philadelphia in game seven, finishing with 18 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds and three steals--just the second game seven triple double in the storied history of the Celtics franchise (Larry Bird had 39 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists versus New York in 1984). Rondo now has nine career playoff triple doubles, tying him with Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the NBA's all-time list (Magic Johnson leads the way with 30, followed by Jason Kidd's 11 and Bird's 10).

The best chance for a Boston upset would be a combination of all of these factors:

1) Proper execution of the anti-Heat game plan.
2) Rondo goes nuts and is the best player on the court for significant stretches of time.
3) James quits.

The Celtics are disciplined enough mentally to stick with the right game plan but I question whether they are physically capable of getting the job done. We have seen the 6-1 Rondo go crazy in playoff games and he can even guard James on occasion; it is remarkable to see Rondo literally go nose to belly button with James but not back down for one second. Rondo outperformed James in key stretches of the 2008 Boston-Cleveland playoff series, so I would not be shocked if that happened again but I am not sure that it will happen for a long enough period of time to completely tilt the series in Boston's favor.

Whether or not James will quit is the ultimate X factor with this series; it would have been interesting to see how James would have reacted if the Pacers had played correctly in game four by pounding the ball inside offensively and keeping James and Wade out of the paint at the other end of the court: if Indiana had taken a 3-1 series lead then James and company might have folded up shop. If James plays hard versus the Celtics then the Heat should win.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM

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