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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Playoffs Begin With Two Competitive Games Followed by Two Blowouts

A seven game series can have many twists and turns but history shows the importance of winning game one. Either the higher seeded team protects home court advantage with a game one victory en route to advancing or else the lower seeded team takes the initiative by immediately seizing home court advantage; even if a series ultimately goes the distance, the significance of taking a 1-0 lead should not be underestimated.

Here are some bullet points about the first four game ones of the 2013 NBA playoffs:

New York Knicks 85, Boston Celtics 78

1) Carmelo Anthony got off to a sizzling start--10 points on 4-4 field goal shooting--as his Knicks took a 12-6 lead but he shot just 2-11 from the field in the rest of the first half. It looked like Anthony's game was heading south--as it so often does at this time of year--and that he was going to shoot his team out of contention--as he so often does at this time of year--but Anthony finished very strongly: he stole the ball and drove coast to coast for a layup that put the Knicks up 81-76, he hit a deep two pointer to extend the lead to 83-76 and he made a slick feed to Kenyon Martin for a dunk that pushed the margin to 85-78. Anthony finished with a game-high 36 points on 13-29 field goal shooting; he also had six rebounds--second on the team to Martin's nine--and he swiped a game-high four steals.
2) The Celtics led 53-49 at halftime and 70-67 after the third quarter but the wheels fell off for them in a nightmarish, record-setting fourth quarter; the Celtics scored just eight points--a franchise record low for the fourth quarter of a playoff game--on 3-11 field goal shooting and they committed eight turnovers. Coach Doc Rivers has a very good defensive game plan and the Celtics executed it well--New York shot just .405 from the field--but without injured All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo it will be difficult for the Celtics to score enough points to win four games in a playoff series. All of the fools who suggested that the Celtics are better off without Rondo should be forced to watch that fourth quarter on a continuous loop until they admit that they know nothing about basketball--and if the Spurs-Lakers series goes the way that I expect it to go then that same line will apply, replacing Rondo's name with Kobe Bryant's. "Stat gurus," media members and fans often fail to understand the importance of having a perimeter player who creates shots for himself and for his teammates. A team may survive for a short period of time in the regular season without such a player but in the long run--particularly against strong competition--a team that has a limited ability to create open shots is going to struggle mightily.
3) Jason Kidd had eight points on 2-6 field goal shooting plus five rebounds, three assists and three steals. I am not sure what those numbers mean in "advanced basketball statistics" but I know that Kidd has had a transformative effect on a franchise that for many years has lacked direction and focus. It is no coincidence that Anthony and Sixth Man of the Year candidate J.R. Smith are finally displaying semblances of maturity and it is no coincidence that the Knicks now show some interest in defense and it is no coincidence that the Knicks are now a low turnover team. Does Kidd deserve credit for all of those changes? No--Coach Mike Woodson and center Tyson Chandler have had an important impact as well--but Kidd has a long history of improving teams, including Team USA and the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. Kidd's disruptive defense played a major role in Boston's fourth quarter meltdown and his willingness/ability to get the ball to Anthony in prime scoring position has made Anthony less apt to veer off into kamikaze, one on one solo operations while four teammates watch him pound holes into the court with his dribbling.
4) The Knicks have the horses and should win this series but it should be emphasized that the Celtics have a very good defensive game plan; they contained New York three point shooters not named Anthony (5-19, .263) and for the most part they made Anthony take tough, contested shots. If the Celtics can limit their turnovers and figure out how to score more than 90 points then they could make this series very interesting.

Denver Nuggets 97, Golden State Warriors 95

1) This was supposed to be an ABA-style 125-120 shootout but it took a high scoring fourth quarter (31-26 Golden State) just for the teams to get close to triple digits.
2) The Nuggets ranked first in the league with 58 points per game in the paint, the highest such average since 1996-97, and they outscored the Warriors in the paint 52-40--including Andre Miller's game-winning layup as time expired.
3) The 37 year old Miller said that he had never made a game-winning shot before at any level, let alone in the NBA playoffs. He finished with a game-high 28 points on 11-16 field goal shooting in just 27 minutes. Miller has an uncanny ability to score in the paint for someone who is not that tall (6-2) and does not have a great vertical leap; his game is all about craftiness, footwork, angles and changing pace: he still has some quickness but the way he gets his shot off is by changing speed and getting his defender off balance.
4) Stephen Curry had an inauspicious playoff debut--missing his first nine field goal attempts--before bouncing back to finish with 19 points on 7-20 field goal shooting plus nine assists and four rebounds.
5) During the telecast ESPN's Doris Burke called Andre Iguodala "the difference" and wondered what his plus/minus numbers were for this game; he only scored eight points on 2-4 field goal shooting but he contributed 10 rebounds, five assists and three steals while compiling a game-high +11 plus/minus number. Plus/minus statistics can be noisy--particularly in a small sample size--but in this case Burke is correct that Iguodala's all-around play had a significant impact on the result.

Brooklyn Nets 106, Chicago Bulls 89

1) TNT's Kenny Smith often refuses to analyze halftime highlights from blowouts and it is tempting to similarly dismiss this game in light of Chicago's lethargic effort.
2) The Bulls held their opponents to fewer than 100 points in 60 out of 82 regular season games but the Nets scored 89 points in the first three quarters alone before dialing things back a bit in the final stanza. It is not shocking that the Nets won a playoff game at home but it is shocking that the Bulls did not even compete.
3) Like the Celtics, the Bulls struggle to score at times because they are missing their All-Star point guard--in this case, 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose, who missed the entire regular season and will likely miss the playoffs as well. I thought that the Bulls would perform much better defensively against the Nets and that they would find a way to manufacture 90-95 points. The Bulls won three of four regular season meetings versus the Nets but regular season head to head numbers can sometimes be deceptive because of scheduling quirks, injuries and other contextual factors. I expected the Bulls to be more intense and better coached than the Nets but, obviously, right now my prediction does not look very good; we will soon find out if the first game was just an aberration or if the Nets really are the vastly superior team.
4) The Nets floundered during November but since the All-Star break Deron Williams (22 points, seven assists, three steals) and Brook Lopez (21 points, five rebounds, three blocked shots) have formed a powerful point guard/center duo.
5) If the Bulls can return to defensive form and capture game two then they will still be in good shape; as Chris Paul sagely noted when asked what he has learned about the NBA playoffs, the team that loses a blowout does not start out the next game down by that number of points.

L.A. Clippers 112, Memphis Grizzlies 91

1) The Kenny Smith rule could be applied to this game as well but at least Memphis was competitive for the first three quarters before falling apart in the final 12 minutes.
2) A definite pattern emerged on day one of the NBA playoffs: teams that lacked dynamic shot creators struggled to score enough points. The Celtics miss injured point guard Rajon Rondo, the Bulls miss injured point guard Derrick Rose--and the Grizzlies miss Rudy Gay, who they traded in the middle of the season. Without Gay, the Grizzlies lack a top notch perimeter threat and thus opposing teams can pack their defense in the paint; many squads may not have the necessary personnel to execute that game plan against the big, physical Grizzlies but in order to win a championship Memphis is going to have to defeat teams that do have such personnel.
3) The Grizzlies' normally first-rate defense gave up more than 100 points just 11 times during the regular season--and only gave up more than 110 points once--but the Clippers poured in 112 points on .554 field goal shooting. If the Grizzlies can tighten up their defense then they should be able to survive this series without Gay but--whether it is in this series or in a subsequent series--the Grizzlies will rue giving up their leading scorer for Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Austin Daye; that trio scored eight points on 4-10 field goal shooting in 48 combined minutes versus the Clippers.
4) Chris Paul had a very efficient performance, scoring a game-high 23 points on 7-11 field goal shooting while dishing out seven assists (tying Marc Gasol for game-high honors in that department) and committing just one turnover.
5) The most surprising statistic from this game is that the Clippers outrebounded the Grizzlies 47-23; Gay would not have been a huge factor in that department and this is a category that the Grizzlies not only should control but that they must control to have any chance to win. Five Clippers grabbed between five and eight rebounds while only one Grizzly had more than five rebounds (Davis, six); the Clippers just collectively played with more energy and reacted to the ball more quickly, as opposed to taking advantage of one dominant big man controlling the paint. Marc Gasol (two rebounds in 41 minutes) and Zach Randolph (four rebounds in 25 foul-plagued minutes) both have to do a lot better in this category.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:34 AM

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At Sunday, April 21, 2013 9:51:00 AM, Anonymous aw said...

Before the playoff games started, I picked the Nets will defeat the Bulls. Because of their injuries. However I do expect Chicago to put up a beyter fight as the series progresses. For Thibadeau being able to lead this Bulls team to 45 wins I tjink it was? With the injuries they had this year is impressive.

As for Memphis, you can say they will miss RudyGay. But in my opinion I dont really think they're any better or any worse without him. Even woth him I didn't see them as a MAJOR threat to really win the west.

 
At Monday, April 22, 2013 7:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Aw:

The Grizzlies are worse without Gay in the sense that it is now more difficult for them to create offense in a half court set against a playoff caliber opponent. They could get by without Gay in the regular season but they will miss him in the postseason.

 

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