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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Game Seven Sunday Featured a Rare Road Win and an Unprecedented Buzzer Beater

Game seven road wins are rare in the NBA playoffs, and a game seven buzzer beater to win a series is unprecedented, but on Sunday we were treated to both feats. First, the Portland Trail Blazers overcame a 17 point deficit to beat the Denver Nuggets in Denver, 100-96. Then, the Toronto Raptors defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 92-90 on a Kawhi Leonard fadeaway jumper from the right baseline as time expired.

Including Sunday, there have been 135 game sevens in NBA playoff history, and the road team has won just 28 of those contests, a .793 winning percentage for the home team. From 1982--when Philadelphia defeated Boston in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals--until 1995, the road team lost 21 straight game sevens; since 1995 (when both Houston and Indiana won game sevens on the road), there has never been a 13 year drought without a road win in game seven but the home team has won 48 of 63 game sevens, a .761 winning percentage for the home team.

As I wrote in my recap of last year's pair of Conference Finals game seven showdowns (A Tale of Two Game Sevens: The Difference Between Being a Superstar and Being an All-Star), "A player's career should not be defined by one game, one series or even one season but it is fair to say that over a period of time a superstar will display the ability to consistently elevate his play in crucial moments in order to lift his team to victory. This trait is not necessarily defined by statistics but rather by impact, which may be hard to quantify at times but is recognizable to those who watch the sport with an informed eye."

Portland's C.J. McCollum, who does not get as much publicity as his teammate Damian Lillard, was the best player on the court, finishing with 37 points on 17-29 field goal shooting, plus nine rebounds and a clutch chase down blocked shot on Jamal Murray late in the game with Portland clinging to an 87-83 lead.

Lillard's floor game was excellent (10 rebounds, eight assists, just one turnover in 45 minutes) but 13 points on 3-17 field goal shooting is not good enough for a player who--apparently on the basis of a handful of playoff games this year--is now supposedly competing for the title of best guard in the league. Lillard is fortunate that (1) his team won the game and (2) he is well-liked by media members. If Kobe Bryant or Russell Westbrook shot 3-17 from the field in a game seven, the internet would explode even if their teams won, and especially if their teams lost. Lillard deserves credit for contributing in other areas when his shots did not fall and for finding the right balance between not being afraid to shoot/not taking bad shots when he was having a tough time, but let's be honest that his performance in this game is not being treated the same way by the mainstream media that a similar performance by other players would be.

Enes Kanter (12 points, game-high tying 13 rebounds) not only helped Portland win the rebounding battle but he also made key, timely offensive contributions as a scorer and screener. It is interesting that the sorry New York Knicks could not figure out how to productively use Kanter but he has become a key contributor to a Western Conference Finals team; free agents who are considering going to New York should think carefully about that franchise's nearly 20 year pattern of failing to get the most out of executives, coaches and players: there is one constant theme/presence throughout all of that losing, and as long as that stays the same the results are not likely to change. As for Kanter, he has put to rest the foolish notion that his defense is so bad that he cannot be on the court for meaningful minutes on a playoff team; Kanter is not a great defender but scoring, rebounding and screen-setting are important, too.

Denver needed more than it got from its three best players. All-Star Nikola Jokic was good but not great: 29 points on 11-26 field goal shooting and 13 rebounds, but just two assists from the player who serves as the hub of the team's offense. The Nuggets needed for Jokic to score more efficiently--Portland does not have anyone who should be able to check him effectively--and to create more offense for his teammates. Jamal Murray, Denver's second-best player (and the youngest rotation player), had a very good series come to a nightmarish end as he could not make a shot when his team desperately needed offensive production; he finished with 17 points on 4-18 field goal shooting. Former All-Star Paul Millsap had an excellent series but the lingering memory will be his game seven disappearing act (10 points on 3-13 field goal shooting), which should not happen for a veteran player on his home court in an elimination game. When your three best players have good (but not great), subpar and awful performances respectively you are not going to win many playoff games, let alone a game seven.

The Nuggets missed 11 free throws and shot 2-19 from three point range. There is a reason that great coaches demand that their teams practice and focus on the so-called "little things"; those "little things" can be the difference between winning a championship and losing in the second round.

This game provided a great example of why the analytics-driven focus on high volume three point shooting at the expense of a versatile offensive attack is misguided. Or, to put it another way, the Houston Rockets' gimmicky style does not work: shooting a massive number of three pointers regardless of time, score and accuracy--combined with hunting three point shooting fouls as opposed to just trying to score within the rules--is a recipe for consistent playoff failure.

There is no question that high percentage three point shooting is a valuable offensive weapon but "stat gurus" act like they are the first and only ones who suddenly figured out that three pointers are worth more than two pointers. Analytics do not account for the human reality of the added pressure of making long range shots in an elimination game, let alone a game seven. Denver shot 2-19 from three point range (.105), while Portland shot 4-26 from three point range (.154); it is not a great fan experience to watch 39 missed three point shots, nor is it a great strategic decision to keep firing away when those shots are not falling. C.J. McCollum's willingness and ability to score from other areas of the court, as much as anything else, decided this game, and challenges the notion that players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant would not thrive in today's game; Jordan and Bryant would exploit the rules that favor offensive players, and in the playoffs they would feast from the midrange while other players missed three pointers and while defenders could not touch them without being whistled for fouls. C.J. McCollum is a nice player but if he can get 37 points under these rules/circumstances in a game seven then Jordan and Bryant would be good for 45-50 points if their teams needed that.

Portland's game seven road win is a rare and laudable feat but Leonard's shot is unique; it is amazing yet true that no player prior to Leonard had ever decided a seventh game with a walk off, game-winning shot. The shot grabbed the headlines and took over the highlights but please consider these two stat lines:

Player A: 47 points, 15-34 field goal shooting (including 5-18 from three point range), 11 rebounds, nine assists, 42 minutes played, +12 plus/minus number.

Player B: 41 points, 16-39 field goal shooting (including 2-9 from three point range), eight rebounds, three assists, 43 minutes played, -2 plus/minus number.

Without knowing anything else about those two players, what are your first thoughts about those stat lines? Do you think that both of those players are selfish, low efficiency gunners? Do you think that Player A somewhat mitigated his .441 field goal percentage by contributing heavily on the boards and as a passer, impact that is reflected in that plus/minus number? Which player do you think is more valuable and had more impact on winning?

Player A is Russell Westbrook, who produced that stat line in Oklahoma City's 105-99 game five loss to Houston in 2017. Player B is Kawhi Leonard, who produced that stat line in Toronto's game seven win on Sunday. Jeff Van Gundy often says that you do not evaluate the quality of a shot based on whether or not the shot was made. Similarly, one should not evaluate the quality of two players based on whether or not one shot was made. Westbrook played his heart out in the game listed above but he did not have nearly enough help and his team lost. Leonard played his heart out on Sunday, he had just enough help to keep the game close until the end and then he made a tremendous individual play to win the game. If Leonard misses that shot and Toronto loses in overtime is Leonard suddenly a selfish gunner? If Westbrook's Thunder win that game is he suddenly a much better player? No on both counts. The fair way to evaluate a player is based on skill set, mentality and how much the player impacts his team's opportunity to win. Unlike most writers, I did not have to scrap my game seven recap's analysis of Leonard's play based on the fateful bounces of Leonard's last shot; I knew that Leonard played the right way and did everything he could do to propel his team to victory, just like I knew that Westbrook did in the game cited above.

Throughout TNT's telecast of the Toronto-Philadelphia game, Greg Anthony emphasized that game sevens are not about field goal percentage or efficiency but about being aggressive. That does not mean that it is OK for a player to shoot an awful percentage, but what it means is that a great player has the responsibility to keep shooting his shots--make or miss--because that is what his team needs and expects him to do. James Harden does not understand this at all. LeBron James intermittently understands this, which is why he has produced some epic playoff performances mixed in with playoff games during which he quit. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant understood this all day, every day and that is a major reason that Jordan won six rings, Bryant won five rings, James has three rings and Harden has no rings.

In game seven, Leonard relentlessly attacked. He was not trying to win the post-game press conference with "efficient" numbers; he was trying to win the game and the series. Anthony also pointed out that Philadelphia's best player, Joel Embiid, did not go to the post enough. Embiid postups not only create high percentage shots for him but also for his teammates. Embiid finished with 21 points on 18 field goal attempts, 11 rebounds and a +10 plus/minus number. A "stat guru" would tell you that Embiid was more "efficient" than Leonard (who needed 41 field goal attempts to score 39 points) and that he had more impact on winning based on the plus/minus numbers--but anyone who watched the game with understanding realizes that Leonard played at an MVP level while Embiid did not. Leonard's Westbrook-like stat line is just the numerical expression of a great performance, and I would take that mentality/effort any day over an "efficient" stat line that camouflages losing plays by someone with a loser's mentality (such as James Harden's "efficient" 35 points on 25 field goal attempts in Houston's series-ending game six loss to Golden State).

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:29 AM

3 comments

3 Comments:

At Tuesday, May 14, 2019 2:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always thought that OKC was making a huge mistake by not playing Kanter in the 2017 series against the Rockets but I figured they must know something that I don't. OKC was so offensively challenged outside of Westbrook that it just seemed unreasonable for them to play him as little as they did even if he was a defensive liability.

 
At Friday, May 17, 2019 12:09:00 AM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

David,

Thank you for pointing out something that is flying under the radar. Lillard has been pretty sub-par for a "best guard in the league" candidate. It's debatable if he's even been the best guard on his own team since the OKC series. Lillard was the classic example of an all-star level player having a superstar performance against a poorly coached team. He is now regressing to the mean. Everyone has their peaks and valleys.

I do not want this to come across as slander because I really like Damian. However, things really got out of hand with the hot takes. Coming into the playoffs I had him ranked as #5 in terms of guards behind Curry, Westbrook, Harden, and Irving. I have seen nothing to convince me that he deserves to be higher (the Bucks would have dismantled the Blazers too with the way Lillard has been playing).

 
At Friday, May 17, 2019 11:30:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Kyle-

Lillard has not been scoring the way he did against OKC but his floor game and defense have both remained at a career-best level. He's objectively had a better playoffs than Westbrook or Irving, both statistically and in terms of advancement. Both Denver and GSW have been selling out to contain him, which has severely impacted his shooting and jacked up his turnovers, but in doing so they've opened up things for the rest of his teammates; nobody was talking about Rodney Hood/Evan Turner/Seth Curry in the first round because they couldn't do jack against an honest defense (OKC tried to guard Lillard straight up, first with RWB, then George and Shroder; Lillard cooked them, but the role players couldn't get going against a set defense). They've each since had pretty significant moments against Denver and/or GSW. Lillard's not shooting efficiently (though he's getting to the line enough to partially cover for that) and he's turning the ball over too much, but he's contributing as a facilitator and defender, and he's been mostly smart about not trying to force his offense when it isn't working (shooting four fewer shots per game than he did against OKC) and taking advantage when it is.

That said, he's certainly getting his butt kicked by Steph Curry so far. Westbrook, Harden, and Irving have all seen that movie themselves over the years, so it's hard to ding any one of them for it. Show me the guard who's figured out how to stop Steph Curry and I'll show you a time-traveling Walt Frazier.

Incidentally, I continue to believe that there's only one "best guard in the league" candidate and that it isn't particularly close.

Of the five guards you mentioned, this playoffs has done little to nothing influence my opinions of Curry and Harden, had a slight negative impact on my opinion of RWB, had a positive effect on my opinion of Lillard (mostly by dint of playing defense like he means it for the first time in his career), and had pretty significantly negative impact on my opinion of Kyrie Irving, who didn't meaningfully contribute on either end of the court and seemed disengaged throughout his team's series against Milwaukee.

Much has been made on this site of Lebron quitting in various playoff series over the year. Well, this was Irving's first competitive playoff series without Lebron, and he either quit himself or just turned into a pumpkin. As much as we criticize RWB for his recent playoff performances, Irving put up basically Westbrook shooting numbers (36/22) without the rebounding, passing, or foul-drawing that helps balance them out for RWB. He also didn't contribute on defense; Milwaukee's PGs shot over 50% for the series, and it's not exactly like Bledsoe/Hill are world-beaters on offense.

 

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