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Monday, May 06, 2013

Defense Rules as the Second Round Begins

Only one of the four teams featured in Sunday's second round doubleheader scored at least 100 points; defense rules in the playoffs--but that also means that a player who can efficiently create shots for himself and for his teammates is even more valuable in the postseason than he is in the regular season. Here are some bullet point observations about the first two conference semifinal games.

Oklahoma City 93, Memphis 91

1) Both teams are down one man offensively--Memphis by choice (the Rudy Gay trade) and Oklahoma City due to Russell Westbrook's season-ending injury. Memphis shot just .427 from the field and the Grizzlies' three perimeter starters combined to shoot 10-30 (.333). Memphis jumped out to a 7-0 lead and stayed on top for most of the game but the Grizzlies' inability to generate enough scoring enabled the Thunder to hang around until Kevin Durant took over in the fourth quarter; the Grizzlies led 73-64 heading into the final stanza but Durant poured in 12 points as the Thunder outscored the Grizzlies 29-18 to steal the game.
2) Durant finished with 35 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots--exactly the kind of Jerry West 1965 numbers that I said the Thunder would need from him in order to have a chance to win this series. The problem for the Thunder is that they barely won even though Durant had a performance for the ages.
3) People should stop talking about how much the Thunder supposedly miss James Harden. We have already seen over the course of an 82 game season that Kevin Martin is a more than adequate replacement for Harden; Martin ably filled the Harden sixth man role as the Thunder increased their winning percentage and claimed the top seed in the West after finishing second in 2011-12. Martin has been up and down so far in the playoffs--but so was Harden last year (and this year, for that matter).
4) The player who the Thunder miss is Westbrook; without him they went 2-2 in the first round versus the eighth seeded Houston Rockets and they barely held off the fifth seeded Grizzlies in game one at home. It should be obvious even to casual observers that the Thunder have many players who either cannot shoot and/or are reluctant to shoot. Maybe Westbrook's critics will now understand why Westbrook shot the ball so much; Westbrook's scoring not only covered up his teammates' offensive deficiencies but his dribble penetration and deft passing created scoring opportunities that those players are not getting now.
5) This is a game that Memphis should have won and, in what will probably be a close series, letting one game slip away could be decisive--but the Grizzlies fell behind the L.A. Clippers 2-0 in the first round before reeling off four straight wins and I still expect that in the long run Westbrook's absence will prove to be the decisive factor in this series, enabling the Grizzlies to make up for the Gay trade.

Indiana 102, New York 95

1) Whoever gave a first place vote to Carmelo Anthony in the MVP balloting--robbing LeBron James of his deserved opportunity to be the first unanimous MVP selection--should have his voting privileges permanently revoked. Not only is James clearly the best player in the league by far but Anthony does not even belong in the discussion for second place--and during this year's playoffs he is once again revealing all of the shortcomings in his mindset and in his game. Anthony is averaging 28.9 ppg in the postseason but he is shooting just .378 from the field. That is not an aberration; his career playoff field goal percentage is .413 and this is the fifth time in his 10 playoff appearances that he has shot worse than .380 from the field. Anthony pouts, he gives sporadic effort defensively, he passes the ball only when he has no other choice and he is averaging a playoff career-high 4.3 turnovers per game.
2) Anthony is the small forward (or, now, power forward) version of Gilbert Arenas, who I correctly pegged as overrated and incapable of leading a team to a championship long before he pulled his Yosemite Sam routine in the Wizards' locker room and became a national joke. A player's value cannot be determined just by looking only at his statistics; his numbers and his skill set have to be evaluated in the context of how he plays and the impact he has both on his teammates and on the opposing team's game plan. The Denver Nuggets shipped out Anthony, did not receive an All-Star in return and are--at the very least--no worse off without Anthony than they were with him. Similarly, the Wizards performed better without Arenas than they performed with Arenas.
3) ABC's Jeff Van Gundy made a very important point during the telecast; the Knicks had poor body language/demeanor and they complained about every foul call (including calls that were obviously correct) while "The Pacers are playing with tremendous poise." The Knicks lack maturity and focus; they showed some improvement in both areas early in the season when Jason Kidd had a more prominent role on the team but as the postseason pressure mounts the Knicks are returning to their old, bad habits. The Knicks had a very good regular season but they breathed life into the comatose Boston Celtics in the first round before finally advancing and they have their hands full now with the Pacers.
4) I still question the Knicks' front office strategy over the past few years and I echo Phil Jackson's sentiment that New York's roster is "clumsy." At one point the Knicks were supposedly building around Amare Stoudemire but now the new story is that they are allegedly better off without him playing; Anthony and Stoudemire do not seem to be complementary players, which means that the franchise's salary cap is out of whack unless/until the team can trade one of the All-Star forwards (most likely Stoudemire).
5) Van Gundy suggested that New York's best offensive set is to run screen/roll actions with Raymond Felton and Van Gundy said that the value of offensive diversity can be overrated; instead of repeatedly running isolation sets for Anthony, the Knicks should feed the Pacers a steady diet of screen/roll action until the Pacers prove that they can stop it--but that would require someone to forcibly pry the ball out of the hands of Anthony, who sometimes seems to think that he gets paid by the dribble and/or by the degree of difficulty of his shots.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:47 AM

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