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Monday, April 22, 2013

Home Teams Remain Dominant During Second Day of NBA Playoffs

Game one winners in NBA playoff series usually advance to the next round, a statistic that does not bode well for the underdogs in the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs: all eight home teams won their first games this weekend and several of the contests were not close. Charles Barkley is already worried that this round of the playoffs is not going to be very entertaining and Bill Simmons wondered if there will not be a single series that lasts seven games. There are several mismatches but I think that there is a chance that some of these series could still be competitive and that at least one might go the distance (Clippers-Grizzlies, which went the full seven games last year).

Here are some bullet points about the second quadrupleheader of the 2013 NBA playoffs:

Indiana Pacers 107, Atlanta Hawks 90

1) Both teams survived the regular season--and will try to survive the postseason--without the services of key injured players: the Pacers are missing All-Star Danny Granger, while the Hawks are missing Lou Williams and Zaza Pachulia.
2)  Josh Smith, a 27 year old veteran of nine NBA seasons, is a very good player but he is not an elite performer who deserves the max level contract that he is seeking. Smith had 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists; he frequently settled for long jump shots and even though his numbers were solid he did not have a significant impact on the game at either end of the court: he does not draw double teams on offense and he does not control the action defensively. At best he could be the third option on a championship caliber team, a la Lamar Odom with the Lakers a few years ago.
3) The Pacers were much more aggressive than the Hawks, as evidenced by a huge advantage in both rebounds (48-32) and free throws attempted (34-14).
4) Paul George shot just 3-13 from the field but still posted a triple double with 23 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds. He had game-high totals in all three categories and he shot 17-18 from the free throw line, attempting more free throws than Atlanta's entire team.
5) Atlanta's starting frontcourt of Al Horford, Josh Smith and Kyle Korver grabbed just 16 rebounds combined and missed all three of their free throw attempts.
6) The Hawks consistently make the playoffs but they often do not seem particularly enthusiastic to be there; they are a very low energy team that seems to give up at the first sign of adversity.

San Antonio Spurs 91, L.A. Lakers 79

1) Does any sensible person still think that the Lakers are somehow better off without Kobe Bryant? The Lakers shot  30-73 (.411) from the field and committed 18 turnovers. Without Bryant scoring 25-30 points and regularly attracting double teams, the Lakers' offense stagnated; Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol dominated the defensive glass--grabbing 15 defensive rebounds apiece--but they only had one offensive rebound. What the "stat gurus," many media members and many fans do not understand is that even when Bryant shoots poorly he still distorts the opposing defense, creating driving/cutting lanes and making it easier for his team's bigs to get open shots and offensive rebounds. It is no coincidence that Gasol's offensive rebounding improved after he became Bryant's teammate; players do not generally become better offensive rebounders after being in the league for several years but Gasol took full advantage of all of the defensive attention that Bryant attracted.
2) The Lakers led 2-0 after Steve Nash hit a jumper but the Spurs quickly went on a 13-4 run and never trailed again. Howard and Gasol put up good-looking box score numbers (20 points, 15 rebounds and 16 points, 16 rebounds, six assists respectively) but they did not dominate at either end of the court; they settled for too many jumpers early in the game, they committed 10 turnovers and they did not make the Spurs pay for aggressively double-teaming them in the post (on those occasions when they actually went into the post instead of drifting outside). Howard shot 1-4 from the field and scored just two points as the Spurs took a 28-16 first quarter lead.
3) ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said that the Lakers' only matchup advantage was Pau Gasol being guarded by Matt Bonner and that therefore Gasol should go into the low post (which is also what Kobe Bryant tweeted during the game and what Magic Johnson said during the halftime show). The aspect of Bryant's impact that no statistics can directly measure is that when he is on the court with Gasol he pushes and prods Gasol to be more aggressive; Gasol may not like this and he may whine about it at times but Bryant's exhortations helped Gasol to perform at a higher level and enabled Gasol to be the second best player on two championship teams after failing to win a single playoff game in six seasons in Memphis.
4) The Spurs led 45-35 with 34.1 seconds remaining in the first half when Coach Gregg Popovich instructed his team to intentionally foul Dwight Howard. The Lakers were struggling to score against the Spurs' defense and fouling at that time gave the Lakers a chance to potentially get two possessions to the Spurs' one, so Van Gundy questioned why the Spurs did not just play defense. Van Gundy said that if Howard made even one free throw then the Lakers would be getting more points per possession than they had been averaging thus far. Howard made both free throws and then the Spurs missed a long, contested three pointer against the Lakers' half court defense (the Lakers have very poor transition defense, which is yet another reason not to slow the game down by fouling). Several years ago, I interviewed Hank Egan--who was an assistant coach under Popovich for eight years, including San Antonio's 1999 championship season--and he told me that Popovich uses the intentional fouling strategy as a psychological weapon with the full knowledge that this approach could backfire if the fouled player can make just half of his free throws. It is interesting that a coach who has won four NBA championships knowingly and deliberately eschews pure numbers in favor of psychology.
5) The Lakers played solid defense for most of the game and if they had exerted that much energy defensively for the entire season it would not have been necessary to literally run Bryant into the ground just to capture the seventh seed.
6) The Spurs only led 60-52 at the 2:02 mark of the third quarter when Howard went to the bench after committing his fourth foul. The Spurs then extended the margin to 70-57 and the Lakers did not mount a serious threat the rest of the way. Two things have been consistently true for the Lakers throughout this tumultuous season: they struggle mightily to generate offense without Bryant on the court and their defense--which has usually been mediocre at best--is atrocious when Howard is not on the court.
7) Manu Ginobili had a major impact, scoring 18 points in just 19 minutes. This game once again demonstrated the importance of having perimeter players who can create shots for themselves and for their teammates. The Spurs have two great creators--Ginobili and Tony Parker--while the Lakers currently do not have any (Steve Nash is still hobbled by his injuries and he is also a tremendous defensive liability, while Ginobili showed no obvious effects from his injuries and he is not a defensive liability).

Miami Heat 110, Milwaukee Bucks 87

1) The Heat opened the game with a 7-0 run and eventually took a 13 point lead before the Bucks ended the first quarter with a 16-5 run to cut Miami's lead to 26-24. The Bucks are heavily reliant on their pint-sized starting guards to generate offense; Brandon Jennings (listed at 6-1, 169 pounds) scored 26 points on 8-20 field goal shooting and Monta Ellis (listed at 6-3, 175 pounds) scored 22 points on 10-19 field goal shooting but no other Buck scored more than six points or attempted more than seven field goals. While it is important to have perimeter players who can create their own shots it is also important to have some kind of paint presence and it is not ideal if a team's starting guards attempt 39 shots while dishing out just five assists--and neither Jennings nor Ellis are attracting double teams like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant do: Jennings and Ellis are just running around jacking up shots.
2) Prior to the series, Jennings predicted that the Bucks would win in six games. Some commentators have criticized his statement, while others have said that Jennings had no other choice but to be confident when responding to media questions. What should Jennings have said? How about nothing? He needs to understand that he is not Muhammad Ali or Joe Namath. Jennings should just play ball and see if his team can win one playoff game. There is nothing wrong with being quietly confident; be about it, don't talk about it.
3) LeBron James had a remarkably efficient game, scoring 27 points on 9-11 field goal shooting while grabbing 10 rebounds and passing for eight assists; he posted game-high totals in all three major statistical categories.

Oklahoma City Thunder 120, Houston Rockets 91

1) The Thunder executed my anti-James Harden defensive game plan to perfection: "Harden does not post up often, nor does he do much from the midrange area, so the correct defensive philosophy against him is to run him off of the three point line and then meet him in the paint with either shot blockers and/or players who are willing to take charges. Last year, Harden's productivity and efficiency progressively dropped off in each round of the playoffs and that pattern is likely to repeat itself in this series, with Harden failing to match his regular season numbers; Harden may erupt for one big game but overall he is likely to shoot a low percentage and commit a high number of turnovers against the Thunder if they execute the defensive game plan described above." Although Harden only officially had two turnovers it was interesting to watch the Thunder defenders consistently run him off of the three point line and then meet him in the paint while standing straight up (or even leaning backward) in order to try to draw charges and/or block his shots. Harden scored 20 points on 6-19 field goal shooting and 7-7 free throw shooting. He shot just 1-6 from three point range as the Thunder rarely gave him clean looks form behind the arc and he only had two assists. Harden is a very good player and this is just one playoff game but I just do not believe that he is an elite player regardless of how many points he averaged during the regular season. His offensive game is too simplistic: he shoots open threes or he crashes into bodies in the paint while hoping to get a favorable whistle. Look at the difference between how Russell Westbrook drives and how Harden drives: Westbrook tries to score first but is strong enough to still draw contact but Harden contorts his body, seemingly more interested in drawing a foul than in making the shot. This looks great when Harden gets the call but often it leads to a missed shot or a turnover. He shot just 2-15 from the field in a half court set; Harden has no midrange or postup game, so any good defensive team can contain him during a playoff series if he is the primary option. Even if the Rockets surround Harden with a better supporting cast it still would not be difficult for a good defensive team to contain Harden in a playoff series; Harden is best suited to being the third option on a championship caliber team, as opposed to being the first option on a team that barely made the playoffs.
2) Harden's Oklahoma City replacement, Kevin Martin, scored 16 points on 5-15 field goal shooting in 26 minutes. That is a subpar game by Martin's standards but he still led the Thunder's bench with a +9 plus/minus number.
3) After a slow start, the Rockets pulled to within 50-45 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half--but then a flurry of turnovers and bad shots fueled a 10-2 Thunder run. Harden scored 17 first half points but he shot just 5-13 from the field and his team trailed 60-47. The Thunder outscored the Rockets 29-19 in the third quarter and could have won by 40-plus points if they had been so inclined.
4) The Rockets have no answers for the Thunder at either end of the court. This will be a sweep unless the Thunder become sloppy due to gross overconfidence and/or the Rockets get incredibly hot from three point range in one game.
5) The Rockets paid max money to Harden but he would be no better than the third best player on any of the three teams that are most likely to win the championship this season (Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio). Houston's 34-32 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season projects to a 42-40 mark in an 82 game season; the Rockets went 45-37 this season and will need to add at least one great player--if not two--in order to realistically compete with the elite teams, so I just do not understand all of the enthusiasm in some quarters regarding Houston's future: the Rockets missed the playoffs for three straight years in order to put together a squad that is likely going to be swept in the first round.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:39 AM

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3 Comments:

At Monday, April 22, 2013 11:27:00 AM, Anonymous aw said...

About what Jennings said to the media, I see know problem with it. No need for him to just not say anything. He was asked a question and he gave his answer. We all kbow that Miami will win the series against Miluakee unless a major injury or injuries happen to them, but Jennings is not supposed to say, "Miami will beat us." He has a right to be confident in his team winning. His play just will have to back it up.

As for the Atlanta Hawks, I think they somewhat overachieved this season. With losses of Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford I thought they would struggle more.
And you're right that Josh Smith is not worth a max contract. This time around I think Atlanya will not give him a max contract like they did Joe Johnson back in 2010. Johnson got a five year 100 million dolar deal from Atlanta, then they traded him two years later.

As for a series going to a game seven, if I had to pick one it is the Bulls/Nets series. I know Chicago is undermanned but I believe they will make this a series.

 
At Monday, April 22, 2013 2:29:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Ho-hum, LBJ dominates in another playoff game over a hapless opponent - this time its the upstart Bucks.

The OKC Thunder exposed the Rockets in their relentless destruction. They look rejuvenated after a few weeks of uninspired play.

The Lakers blew their best chance to steal a game from San Antonio. Perhaps Nash will get healthier from here on, but he had two epidurals just to play. The Spurs haven't rediscovered their earlier peak form, but Ginobili wreaking havoc is a welcome sight, and a sign that they're on their way.

The Hawks are just lucky they play in the Eastern conference, since they keep making the playoffs every season.

Here's hoping for more drama in the first round than what we've seen so far, likely from the Grizzlies-Clippers deathmatch.

 
At Monday, April 22, 2013 4:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Aw:

There is a saying that every barking dog does not have to be answered. Just because some media member "barks" a question, Jennings does not have to respond with a foolhardy prediction. He could have just said something like, "We are not intimidated by the Heat. I have a lot of confidence in my teammates and my coaching staff."

I agree that Brooklyn-Chicago could still go seven games even though the first game was not competitive.

 

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