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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Houston Survives Westbrook's Historic Triple Double to Take 2-0 Series Lead

Russell Westbrook authored the first 50 point triple double in NBA playoff history (51 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds) but the Houston Rockets came from behind to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 115-111 and claim a 2-0 series lead. Westbrook averaged a triple double this season despite playing just under 35 mpg--and the Thunder went 33-9 when he posted a triple double--but in game two Westbrook played 41 minutes and fatigue clearly had an effect down the stretch, notwithstanding Westbrook's admirable refusal to make any excuses: he shot 13-25 from the field in the first three quarters but just 4-18 in the final stanza. Westbrook's critics predictably focus on the number of shot attempts and the low fourth quarter shooting percentage but the most telling statistic is that the Thunder outscored the Rockets by 11 with Westbrook in the game but were outscored by 15 during the seven minutes that he sat.

Westbrook nearly had a triple double at halftime (22 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds) but the Thunder only led 68-62 and the writing was already on the wall: unless someone else stepped up at some point, Westbrook would inevitably wear down under the massive burden he is being expected to carry just to give his team a chance to win.

Was Westbrook's fourth quarter shot selection great? He took some questionable shots but most of the shots that he took are shots that he normally makes and shots that he made in the first three quarters. Eddie Johnson made a great point on Sirius XM NBA Radio today: when a caller suggested that the Thunder's problem was that Westbrook stopped passing in the fourth quarter, Johnson retorted that plenty of guys who are willing and able to shoot in the first three quarters simply do not want the ball in the fourth quarter of a close game. Westbrook knew that his team's best chance to win was for him to shoot the ball; if he were truly "chasing stats" as his critics suggest, then the easiest way to do that would have been to pass the ball every time in the fourth quarter: he already had a triple double with more than 30 points on an excellent shooting percentage, so shooting the ball when he was tired was more likely to hurt his stats than help them. Westbrook was asked about his stat line and he replied that it did not matter because his team lost.

The easy narrative is that James Harden is outplaying Westbrook but that narrative is false. In two games (admittedly a small sample size but that is the nature of comparing two players early in a playoff series), Westbrook has more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots than Harden. Westbrook's free throw percentage is slightly better than Harden's. The only individual categories that Harden is winning are field goal percentage and turnovers.

The true narrative is that Harden's teammates are dominating Westbrook's teammates. Five Rockets not named Harden are averaging at least 10 ppg and three of Harden's teammates are averaging at least 7.5 rpg; Harden is averaging 5.5 rpg, barely half of Westbrook's series-leading 10.5 rpg. Only one Thunder player not named Westbrook is averaging at least 10 ppg and only one Thunder player not named Westbrook is averaging at least 7.5 rpg--Andre Roberson is averaging 15.0 ppg and 8.0 rpg.

Harden's team is outplaying Westbrook's team but that does not mean that Harden is the better player or even that Harden is having a better series; when evaluating players I look at skill set and production, not necessarily the team result.

It is also worth noting that Houston's team success is only loosely correlated with Harden's minutes and productivity, which was also true during Houston's fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals. Harden was on the bench when the Rockets cut into the Thunder's double digit lead and that is why his plus/minus number for this game was just +2; when he and Westbrook were both on the court, the Thunder outplayed the Rockets. The difference is that Eric Gordon (22 points, +15) and Lou Williams (21 points, +18) annihilated the Thunder's bench players--every single Thunder reserve had a negative plus/minus number!

It is stupefying that after Westbrook accomplishes rare or even unprecedented feats the critics nitpick Westbrook's flaws instead of appreciating his greatness. Prior to last night, there had been just five 40 point triple doubles in NBA playoff history. The players on that list are Oscar Robertson (twice), Jerry West, Charles Barkley and LeBron James. Robertson, West and James are on any sensible list of the top 10-15 players in pro basketball history. Barkley is no worse than a top 30 player. West won the first ever NBA Finals MVP after his triple double, even though his team lost the game and the series.

LeBron James posted the most recent 40 point triple double in a playoff game, with 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in a 104-91 game five loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals. James shot 15-34 from the field, including 7-19 in the second half and his plus/minus number was -11. Thus, his shooting performance was similar to Westbrook's--including excellent first half shooting followed by poor second half shooting--and James' team was actually losing with him on the court, while Westbrook's team was winning while he was on the court but I do not recall James receiving much if any criticism after his triple double. James was carrying an injury-depleted team but he still had Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova (who started 54 games this year for a Milwaukee team that made the playoffs), which is a better supporting cast than Westbrook currently has.

Game three could be interesting. Oklahoma City is clearly a deeply flawed team that is inferior to Houston but home court matters in the playoffs and Houston has weaknesses that can be exploited; if the Thunder defend their turf in this game and in game four then in game five there would be a lot of pressure on the Rockets. It will probably take 35-10-8 or something like that in each game from Westbrook just for the Thunder to have a chance but Westbrook is up for that challenge; the real question is whether or not his supporting cast can at least tread water long enough to permit him to rest for 10-15 minutes so that he can be fresh down the stretch. Westbrook plays so big and with so much energy that it is easy to forget that Westbrook he is 6-3, 190, not 6-6, 225 like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant; no matter how athletic Westbrook is, his body simply cannot take the pounding or workload that Jordan or Bryant could.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:55 PM


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

First Impressions of the First Round of the Playoffs

Here are some quick takes on each of the NBA's first round playoff series:

Cleveland 2, Indiana 0

1) The Pacers are who I thought they were: not particularly good on defense, only good on offense sporadically and a mismatched collection of talent that looks better on paper than it performs on the court.
2) I am not sure that I want to go into battle with Paul George; he is the Pacers' best player and should be the leader but he spends a lot of time publicly talking about his perceptions of what everyone else on the team is doing wrong. Why does he have to "take the last shot"? Michael Jordan did not always take the last shot. Kobe Bryant did not always take the last shot. If George thinks that he is so great that only he can take the last shot, then beat the double team, create the last shot--and make it. Jordan and Bryant did that on more than a few occasions. George's body language at the end of game one would be a serious problem for me if I were one of his teammates--and particularly if I were C.J. Miles, who took a quality shot and just happened to miss it.
3) It is not clear what this series tells us about the Cavaliers, because the Cavaliers know that they can beat this team without exerting full effort--and the Cavaliers are quite content to do just that. Do the Cavaliers have another gear? Most certainly they do. Will they shift into that gear when they face tougher competition? I have no idea. LeBron James has quit in big playoff series and he has authored historic performances in playoff series.

Chicago 2, Boston 0

1) Boston is one of the weakest number one seeds ever but I did not expect them to lose two home games to the inconsistent Chicago Bulls.
2) The Bulls have a lot of talent and they also have some championship pedigree with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo but there is no way that this team should be up 2-0 versus the Celtics.
3) Rondo can be a difficult player to coach but he has also repeatedly proven that he can produce at a high level during the playoffs. I would take him on my team any day, with the realization that he has to be dealt with and communicated with in a particular way.

Toronto 1, Milwaukee 1

1) The Bucks are a talented enigma, at least for me. I struggle to figure out how they will perform over the course of a season or a playoff series.
2) The Raptors are a very well constructed team and, even if it takes seven games, I expect them to win this series.

Washington 1, Atlanta 0

1) John Wall is a spectacular all-around player. If the Wizards can advance one or two rounds, he may start to get the recognition he deserves.
2) Scott Brooks is an underrated coach. He almost annually led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals and, after a rough start to this season, he may very well have the Wizards on a path to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Golden State 1, Portland 0

1) The Blazers are not scared. They look the Warriors dead in the eye and compete. Unfortunately for the Blazers, they just do not have enough talent to win this series.
2) If Kevin Durant misses games or is seriously limited by injury then the door is open for the Blazers to win a game or two--but not the series.

San Antonio 2, Memphis 0

1) Was Memphis Coach Fizdale taking a not so veiled shot at his franchise's "stat gurus" at the end of his rant after game two? His derisive, concluding comment about data did not have anything to do with his complaints about the officiating.
2) Coach Fizdale has a right to be upset with the front office, as the Grizzlies have once again fielded a team that does not have enough shooting prowess or scoring punch to be a serious playoff threat.

Houston 1, Oklahoma City 0

1) The game one blowout confirmed a simple truth: if Russell Westbrook does not play like a basketball superhero then his Oklahoma City Thunder have no chance.
2) Westbrook did not play like a basketball superhero: he shot poorly and he turned the ball over too much. All that being said and acknowledged, even if he had posted 30-10-10 with a good shooting percentage and a reasonable number of turnovers, the Thunder still would have been blown out.
3) Some have suggested that Enes Kanter should be benched. I would give him more minutes and when he is in the game I would post him up every time, forcing a smaller Rocket to guard him. This series is like the 2006 Suns-Lakers series; at that time, the Lakers' Phil Jackson used an "Inside Man" strategy to push the much more talented and deeper Suns to seven games. The Thunder must punish the Rockets in the paint.
4) My gut feeling is that Westbrook has a monster game two leading to a Thunder win but the Rockets take the series in seven.

L.A. Clippers 1, Utah 1

1) The Jazz are missing their best defensive player and the Clippers had to scramble to avoid a 2-0 deficit. I have never understood the sentiment that Chris Paul is a great leader or that he should be mentioned in the same breath with Isiah Thomas just because they are similarly sized. If Paul were a great leader then he would have actually led this very talented team past the second round at some point.
2) The Clippers will probably find a way to win this series but this team just does not have a championship mindset.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:47 PM