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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Milwaukee Versus Toronto Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

# 1 Milwaukee (60-22) vs. #2 Toronto (58-24)

Season series: Milwaukee, 3-1

Toronto can win if…Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the series. This series will in no small part be decided by the battle between Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, regardless of how often they actually face each other one on one; the superstar who not only plays better but also brings out the best in his teammates will be the superstar whose team represents the Eastern Conference in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Leonard is averaging 31.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg and 3.6 apg during the 2019 playoffs, with shooting splits of .539/.408/.868. Pascal Siakam is a very good second option (20.8 ppg during the 2019 playoffs), while Kyle Lowry has settled into being the third option (12.4 ppg during the 2019 playoffs). "Playoff Lowry" is a meme of sorts--and not meant as a compliment--but, despite his poor playoff shooting (maintaining a career-long pattern), Lowry's supporters have a point that he makes valuable contributions in other areas. I am not quite convinced that these contributions completely outweigh his poor shooting--playoff averages of 5.0 rpg and 7.0 apg do not balance out shooting splits of .412/.281/.767--but I agree with those who suggest that Lowry provides value that goes beyond what one sees by superficially examining the box score numbers.

Serge Ibaka has made important contributions at key moments during the playoffs but overall his production has dropped significantly (15.0 ppg, team-high 8.1 rpg during the regular season but just 9.0 ppg and 5.8 rpg during the playoffs) and Toronto will not beat Milwaukee with a subpar performance from Ibaka.

Milwaukee will win because…the Bucks are elite both on offense and on defense, and they are led by the best player in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo--who should win the regular season MVP based on his two-way excellence (27.7 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.5 bpg, 1.3 spg, .578 FG%) for the team that posted the league's best record--is having an outstanding playoff run thus far, averaging 27.4 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.6 bpg, 1.1 spg, .522 FG%. Much is made of his lack of a consistent outside shot but he shot .412 from three point range during Milwaukee's 4-1 rout of the Boston Celtics and--more importantly, despite the incessant modern focus on shooting--even when he is not making his outside shot it is very difficult to guard him without committing a second defender to help, which then opens up opportunities for Milwaukee's three point snipers.

Khris Middleton has accepted being the second option, George Hill is a savvy veteran with a lot of playoff experience and the other rotation players have done their jobs for the most part, though Milwaukee needs more from Brook Lopez than he provided versus Boston (5.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, abysmal shooting splits of .286/.222/.500 that look like three awful typos smashed next to each other).

Other things to consider: The Raptors had a better winning percentage during the regular season when Kawhi Leonard was out of the lineup doing his odious "load management" than they did when he played, but the Raptors need for him to be on the court and to play at a high level in this series. Bill Parcells used to exhort his players during the playoffs, "This is why you lift those (bleeping) weights"; I guess that in today's more delicate era, the exhortation is, "This is why you were a healthy scratch during so many regular season games."

Although the margin may not prove to be huge any of the following categories in this matchup, I believe that Milwaukee has the best player, best coach and most depth. If necessary, Milwaukee also has game seven at home.

What many observers fail to understand--or forget in the heat of the moment--is that in a seven game series each game is an entity unto itself, but overall truths will prevail in the end. In other words, in a seven game series the inferior team may win a blowout game and/or may keep things even after four games but--barring serious injuries or suspensions--the best team will ultimately prevail (which is just one reason that the NBA playoffs are a superior competitive endeavor compared to the NCAA Tournament).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 PM

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Golden State Versus Portland Preview

Western Conference Finals

# 1 Golden State (57-25) vs. #3 Portland (53-29)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Portland can win if…the Trail Blazers supplement their dynamic backcourt play with timely defensive stops and if they get consistent production from someone other than Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Enes Kanter (that someone does not necessarily have to be the same person in each game, as Portland has impressive depth). Lillard is averaging 28.4 ppg, 6.0 apg and 4.8 rpg during the 2019 playoffs. McCollum has been just as effective overall, averaging 25.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 3.4 apg. Kanter, a late season addition as a backup who was thrust into the starting role after Jusuf Nurkic got hurt, is averaging 12.9 ppg and 10.6 rpg in the playoffs. After those three, it is contribution by committee but the committee is deep and versatile (players four through eight in the rotation each are averaging at least 18.0 mpg during the playoffs). Players nine and ten (Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard) provide spot minutes but both have stepped up at crucial times. Depth was a question for Portland entering the playoffs but that question has been answered--at least in the first two rounds.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors are too talented and too focused. The finish line is near and the goal--four championships in a five year span, a feat only accomplished by Bill Russell's Boston Celtics (who won eight titles in a row)--is in sight. Prior to losing Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins to injury, I would have added that the Warriors are "too deep," but that safety net is out the window. Golden State is no longer a prohibitive favorite but rather a battle-tested champion with home court advantage (at least for this round).

Kevin Durant is clearly the Warriors' best player, and he has been the league's best playoff player the past two years. Losing him would be a crippling, fatal blow to any other team but the Warriors are different; Durant transformed a one-time champion into a three-time champion and one of the greatest dynasties in pro basketball history but this team is still a championship contender without Durant--they just are not the sure thing that they were before Durant's slender right calf gave out.

Stephen Curry is capable of some marvelous things but he is a 6-3 guard who can be physically worn down and will be relentlessly targeted on defense. His playoff resume suggests that he will have some big quarters, halves and games but he may also disappear for significant times. Golden State's luxury is that, even without Durant, they can withstand Curry's droughts because Klay Thompson can heat up and their defense is consistently good (at least during the playoffs). A mythology is developing around Curry similar to the one that developed around Steve Nash; the media loves soft-spoken guards who are relatively normal-sized (in the 6-3 range) and the media loves to build them into giants.

Golden State's success is not like Curry leading Davidson to the NCAA Tournament, though you might not realize that based on some of what is written and said about Curry; Klay Thompson would be a great, two-way All-Star on any team, Draymond Green is a playmaking wizard who also rebounds and defends, Andre Iguodala is a former Finals MVP and All-Star who has the luxury of being a role player on this talented squad and Shaun Livingston was considered the number one point guard in the nation when he jumped straight from high school to the NBA. Injuries curtailed Livingston's ability to perhaps become an All-Star but he is a talented and savvy player.

Curry is a great player who has accomplished a lot but let's not pretend that it requires heroic contributions from him for Golden State to survive. The Warriors are well-built and well-coached.

Other things to consider: For several months, TNT analysts Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley have both been calling the Trail Blazers a "clear and present danger" to the Warriors. Initially, I was not convinced that even at full strength this team was set for a deep playoff run, and after some injuries hit I wrongly assumed that Portland would once again lose in the first round; then, I thought that Denver, with a home game seven in their back pocket if necessary, would ultimately prevail.

I have only been wrong about three playoff series so far this year and two of them involved Portland, so I apparently am still trying to figure this team out, at least in comparison to other teams. I will say that I am getting progressively less confident about picking against Portland but my reasoning here is that Golden State won a championship without Durant and should be able to win at least one playoff series without him. I would not be shocked at this point if Portland wins--particularly if Durant does not play at all, or is badly limited when he plays--but I still have to believe that Golden State, with a home game seven in their back pocket if necessary, is the smart pick (yes, that sounds suspiciously like the same ultimately incorrect logic that I used to justify my Denver pick but, with all due respect, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala inspire more confidence than Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap and Gary Harris).

Durant almost certainly will not play in the first two games of the series and he may not be available at all. It is clearly essential for Portland to at least get a split in the first two road games. I don't like Portland's chances to win a road game seven in this series, so the Trail Blazers need to wrap this up in six games: protect home court three times, steal at least one game on the road, and Portland can return to the NBA Finals. I do not expect that to happen, but the formula is clear and the opportunity is more promising now than it was when a healthy Durant was putting up Jordanesque scoring numbers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM

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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

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Rockets Face Many Offseason Questions After Fizzling Versus Durant-less Warriors

Game six of the Western Conference semifinals at home versus the Kevin Durant-less Golden State Warriors presented a great opportunity for a Houston Rockets team that has loudly and repeatedly declared how prepared they are to dethrone the Warriors; indeed, there were no more excuses left for the Rockets to, at the very least, push the series to seven games.

Instead, the Rockets fizzled in what TNT's Charles Barkley called "one of the worst choke jobs I've ever seen."

ESPN's commentators had some interesting observations before Houston failed. Paul Pierce correctly called this a "legacy game" for James Harden--not because one game should be given elevated importance, but rather because Harden has already failed many times in the playoffs and this game may represent his last, best chance to lead his team to the NBA Finals. If Harden cannot win a home game against the Warriors sans Durant--and, it should not be forgotten, without starting center DeMarcus Cousins as well--then why should one believe that Harden will ever lead his team to the NBA Finals? On a different but related issue, Chauncey Billups said that he cannot stand watching Houston's isolation ball style of play and he asked his fellow ESPN panelists to wake him up at halftime. Billups is right that not only is this style horrible to watch but it also is not likely to ever produce a championship.

The Rockets are often lauded--and, laud themselves--as a team that chases each and every analytical advantage, and then pushes the envelope to exploit these advantages. One of the Rockets' "insights" is that the most valuable play in basketball is a foul on a three point shot. Yes, such fouls are "efficient" mathematically; it is not difficult to calculate that an .800 free throw shooter will produce 2.4 points per three free throw attempts. That equation, however, does not factor in the negative value of hunting such fouls, including but not limited to (1) distorting the overall functioning of the offense via excessive isolation play, (2) giving up a numbers advantage on defense if a foul is not called, the shot is missed and the shooter is lying on the floor (or whining to a referee) as opposed to getting back on defense and (3) potentially missing out on makeable shots while focusing more on deceiving referees by flopping as opposed to concentrating on shooting.

During the 2019 playoffs, Harden's minutes per game went up to 38.5 from 36.8 in the regular season but his numbers declined in most of the significant statistical categories: fewer points (36.1 ppg in the regular season/31.6 ppg in the playoffs), lower FG% (.442/.413), lower 3FG% (.368/.350), lower FT% (.879/.837), fewer assists (7.5 apg/6.6 apg). Most tellingly, his field goal attempts per game remained steady (24.5/24.0) but his free throw attempts per game plummeted from 11.0 to 8.9; that is just one piece of evidence suggesting that hunting three point shooting fouls is not a smart strategy and will not consistently work in the playoffs. In the playoffs, both the referees and the opposing teams are less likely to succumb to Harden's incessant flopping and flailing. Harden's "style" is fake, deceptive and antithetical to authentic basketball; just look at a video of his legitimate shooting motion in the three point contest and in game action when he is not being contested, and then compare that to the gyrations he does when his shot is being contested.

Harden can produce a breakout game or two during a playoff series but he has a long record as a playoff choker and he is best suited to being a number two option on a title contender, a role that his ego will likely never permit him to accept. This is not just about numbers, but about impact. Harden's game six numbers were not terrible but, as Jeff Van Gundy said, individual statistics mean nothing in a loss. Jalen Rose made an excellent observation of just one problem with Harden's game that does not show up in the box score but does show up in the won/loss column: when Harden does not have the ball in his hands, he walks up the court and he looks disinterested. Harden is focused on glorifying himself and inflating his statistics; if he were focused on winning, he would have stayed with Oklahoma City and then he could have been the third option on what probably would have become the NBA's next dynasty, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way as prime scorer/all-around player respectively. Instead, Harden wanted to prove to the world that he could be the best player on a championship team--but, he has actually proven quite the opposite.

If Harden is who Daryl Morey insists he is--a "foundational player"--then he has to propel his team to victory at home against a shorthanded opponent. Plus/minus numbers are "noisy," and most people do not understand their limitation or how to properly use them but it is interesting that in the must-win game six at home Harden had a -10 in a game that the Rockets lost by five points. Take out the meaningless three pointer that he hit with 24 seconds left--if you don't think it was meaningless, look up the analytics for win expectancy for a team trailing by eight points at that stage of the game, which was the scenario when Harden padded his stats before heading into the offseason--and his plus/minus was -13 (irrelevant "noise" like that is just one example of why plus/minus is only meaningful to compare lineups in large five on five sample sizes, or when accompanied by detailed, objective observations of what happened and why it happened). During the portion of the game when the outcome was decided, Houston was losing by double digits at home with Harden on the court--and this is the pattern in Harden's playoff career, not the exception.

This series, with the Warriors being down two starters, represented Houston's best chance to advance to the NBA Finals; last year, the Rockets enjoyed a 3-2 edge over the Warriors and had homecourt advantage but they used Chris Paul's injury as an excuse for their seven game loss, conveniently ignoring that even without Paul they built halftime leads in game six and game seven before choking. This year, the injury shoe was on the other foot, and the Rockets still failed to get the job done.

Remember that Houston is obligated to pay more than $85 million to Paul over the next two seasons.  Morey has maneuvered himself into a financial corner and is essentially committed to ride or die with the notion that the Harden-Paul duo can lead the Rockets to a title--a notion that has little realistic basis. Morey has done a decent job of surrounding Harden and Paul with complementary players but no matter how much lipstick you put on this pig, it is still a pig; Morey will likely change the supporting cast again but supporting players cannot fill the giant gaps created by the weaknesses in Harden's game and Paul's game.

Before wrapping up this summary of Houston's predictable playoff failure, it is worth circling back to the beginning of this series. After game one, there was much talk about officiating and "landing area" and other nonsense that had little to no effect on the result, so it is worth noting that (1) James Harden's game is built around traveling, offensive fouls and trying to trick the officials and that (2) Houston often grabs, pushes and holds on defense, relying on officials to let the contact go because the Rockets are using undersized lineups. Also, for all of the allegations that the Warriors benefited from certain calls/non-calls, the biggest benefit that happened in this series favored the Rockets: Chris Paul was not suspended for game three after bumping a referee near the end of game two.

Paul has a long history of confronting referees during games and belittling them in his postgame comments but he is considered a big star and so the NBA league office is reluctant to discipline him the way just about any other player would have been disciplined. Sirius XM Radio’s Lionel Hollins, a former NBA All-Star and a former NBA head coach, advocates that the NBA league office empower referees to eject players who are blatantly disrespectful and he mentioned on air that when he was on the Competition Committee he implored the league to apply its rules and standards equally to all players. Hollins believes that the double standard that protects stars from being ejected and/or suspended has resulted in an overall worsening of player conduct toward referees.
 
The bottom line in the one-sided Golden State-Houston rivalry is that the Warriors (1) are more  focused, (2) they are mentally and physically tougher, and (3) they have a defensive mindset that enables them to get key stops down the stretch. James Harden is Houston’s best player, and he does not embody any of those traits, which is why his team does not exhibit those traits when those traits are most needed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:26 PM

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