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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Real Team Nobody Wants to Face

It has been amusing during the past few weeks to hear various commentators suggest that "nobody wants to face" the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. Early last season, the Grizzlies were a team on the rise with Lionel Hollins at the helm and Rudy Gay providing scoring punch from the small forward position to spread the floor for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol but after trading Gay and ditching Hollins the Grizzlies are a much weaker squad; the Grizzlies suffered some injuries this season that some people used as a convenient excuse for Memphis' declining winning percentage and the Grizzlies received a temporary bump when Gasol returned to the lineup but as the regular season concludes they have hardly been setting the world on fire--posting a 6-4 record in their last 10 games--and they are in a three way tie with Dallas and Phoenix for seventh-ninth place in the Western Conference.

In recent seasons, teams that "nobody wanted to face" did not make much noise in the playoffs:
  1. In 2006 nobody wanted to face the Sacramento Kings, who lost 4-2 to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round; the Spurs had a 34 point win and a 22 point win during that series and only lost game three by one point.
  2.  In 2011 nobody wanted to face the Portland Trailblazers, who lost 4-2 to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
  3.  In 2012 nobody wanted to face the New York Knicks, who lost 4-1 to the Miami Heat in the first round. Miami blasted New York 100-67 in the first game and took a 3-0 lead before dropping game four 89-87.
The Grizzlies have a solid inside offensive attack anchored by Randolph and Gasol and they are a very good defensive team but they just cannot score enough points--particularly from the perimeter--to beat an elite team in a playoff series. Russell Westbrook's injury last season enabled the Grizzlies to sneak into the Western Conference Finals--where they were promptly obliterated by the Spurs--but this year the Grizzlies will most likely exit in the first round, assuming that they even qualify for the postseason.

In contrast, the real team that nobody wants to face--or at least that nobody with any sense would want to face--is the Spurs, who have an NBA-best 58-16 record, a .784 winning percentage that is the best in franchise history. Their leaders have championship pedigrees--Coach Gregg Popovich, two-time regular season MVP Tim Duncan, 2007 Finals MVP Tony Parker and 2008 Sixth Man of the Year Manu Ginobili--they made it to the NBA Finals last season and they are currently in the midst of a 18 game winning streak; only 12 other NBA squads have won at least 18 games in a row, including some of the greatest teams in pro basketball history (1967 76ers, 1972 Lakers, 1996 Bulls, 2000 Lakers).

The Grizzlies are flawed, mediocre and vulnerable; the Spurs are well-balanced, they have a tradition of excellence and they are accustomed to making long playoff runs. It should be obvious which team "nobody wants to face" and which team would not evoke much fear.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:33 PM

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Can the Pacers Dethrone the Heat?

The Indiana Pacers pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals and they have beaten the Heat in two of their three 2013-14 regular season encounters. The Pacers have openly stated their belief that if they secure homecourt advantage then they will dethrone the two-time defending NBA champion Heat. The reality, though, is that a great team will usually win at least one game on the road during a long playoff series, so homecourt advantage does not guarantee anything other than the comfort of playing game seven in front of a supportive crowd. If these two teams face each other in the postseason, the outcome of the series will be determined less by homecourt advantage and more by two factors: (1) the health of key players and (2) which team imposes its style on the other team.

Indiana's 84-83 home win over Miami on March 26 reinforced and/or revealed several things about these teams:

1) LeBron James is, first and foremost, a big-time scorer; he shredded the NBA's best defense for 38 points on 11-19 field goal shooting despite receiving very little offensive help from Dwyane Wade (15 points on 6-11 field goal shooting before leaving the game with a hamstring injury) and Chris Bosh (eight points on 3-11 field goal shooting). James is the best all-around player in the NBA but his primary skill set advantage, by far, is his ability to score; the Heat would not have won the last two NBA titles if James had not led the league in playoff scoring in 2012 (30.3 ppg) and if he had not ranked fourth in 2013 playoff scoring (25.9 ppg).

2) Greg Oden may be able to clog up the middle as a help defender (two blocked shots in just six minutes) but he does not have the necessary mobility and/or guile to slow down Roy Hibbert in a one on one matchup. The aging and undersized Udonis Haslem did a much better job against Hibbert than Oden did.

3) The Pacers' best chance to beat the Heat is to slow the game down, avoid open court turnovers and pound the ball into Hibbert and David West in the paint--but the Pacers do not have a top notch point guard who can control the tempo of the game and their top two scorers are wing players, so it is not easy or natural for Indiana to do what is necessary to beat Miami. The Pacers have the right personnel to challenge Miami--big men who can score in the paint and mobile, lengthy wing defenders who can challenge James and Wade--and they play the right way in stretches but they can be tempted into taking bad shots and/or committing careless turnovers. In contrast, the Heat can run their offense through either James or Wade and thus they are less apt to stray from what they do best.

4) Lance Stephenson is a versatile and valuable player but he is also a hothead who is prone to making bad decisions that could cost the Pacers; when he foolishly got ejected late in the fourth quarter it almost cost the Pacers the game and they can ill afford for him to exercise such poor judgment in the playoffs.

5) The Pacers are young, talented and hungry. They are clearly a viable threat to the Heat--but playoff series are often decided by the transcendent greatness of an elite player: James has demonstrated that he can fill that role and carry his team to championships, while Paul George--Indiana's best player--has not yet shown that he can take that step from All-Star to elite player.

Many pundits declared that Indiana's win all but clinched the East's top seed but the Heat have won two in a row while the Pacers have lost two in a row since their Wednesday encounter, so Indiana's "big" victory may very well turn out to be just a footnote--and that is why it is not wise to draw broad conclusions on the basis of one game. Winning that "big," nationally televised game does not mean much for the Pacers if they cannot take care of business in the "small" games, because all of the games count the same in the standings.

Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant cemented their legacies by leading their teams to "three-peat" title runs; Jordan won three championships in a row on two separate occasions, while Bryant captured a "three-peat" early in his career while playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal before leading the L.A. Lakers to three straight NBA Finals and back to back championships near the end of his career. So far, at the championship level James has only matched what Bryant did past his prime and James has not come close to equaling the overall body of work compiled by Jordan and Bryant. No team has made it to the Finals in four consecutive years since the 1984-87 Boston Celtics, so if James carries the Heat to a fourth Finals appearance in a row he will have accomplished something that even Jordan and Bryant failed to do--and if James authors another dominant postseason performance while leading the Heat to a third straight NBA title then it will be valid to compare James with the all-time greats not just on the basis of his individual talents/accomplishments but also on the basis of his ability to elevate a team to the championship level for an extended period of time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:04 AM

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