20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Nine Versus Ten Does Not Add Up to Fantastic Basketball

If you grew up in the 1980s, you remember the commercials that declared, "NBA Action--It's Fantastic!"

If you watched the ninth seed versus 10th seed matchups in the 2021 NBA Play-In Tournament then fantastic is not the first word that comes to mind. Here are the final scores:

Indiana 144, Charlotte 117

Memphis 100, San Antonio 96

The first game was a non-competitive blowout throughout, while the second game started as a blowout before turning into a competitive--if not artful--contest: the victorious Grizzlies shot .444 from the field overall and scored just 44 second half points, while the Spurs bricked their way to .351 field goal shooting.

The Pacers hit the Hornets with 40 first quarter points, and they could have scored 160 points in the game if that had been necessary or desirable. The Grizzlies dropped 38 first quarter points on the dull Spurs. The Spurs rallied to cut the lead to two in the second quarter--how nice of them to show up at all--but the Grizzlies led 56-49 at halftime. The Spurs briefly took the lead in the fourth quarter but overall they trailed for the vast majority of the game.

Casual, uninformed fans may think that the fourth quarter or even the final five minutes are the most important segments of an NBA game, but--as Doug Collins used to point out--the NBA is a first quarter league. The tone is often set in the first quarter, and that is also when the matchup advantages that will decide the game are often identified and probed. The Spurs dug themselves into a huge hole with their lackadaisical start, and it is not surprising that they lost.

It is interesting--if a bit off topic--that so many people talk about Tom Brady versus Bill Belichick (forgetting that Belichick led the Cleveland Browns to the playoffs, and led New England to a 11-5 record when Brady missed the 2008 season after suffering an ACL injury in the first quarter of the first game), but little is said about Tim Duncan or Kawhi Leonard versus Gregg Popovich; the Spurs have not won a playoff series since the last time they had a healthy Leonard (2017), and they have been a sub-.500 team each of the past two seasons. This is just another example of how media members decide what the preferred narrative is, and then stick with that narrative no matter what happens. Many media members do not like Belichick, and thus they will jump at any real or imagined opportunity to criticize him; many media members like Popovich, and thus he will not be criticized even if the Spurs post losing records for the next five years. I think that Popovich is an excellent coach, but that is not the point: the point is that the media picks favorites (and enemies) for subjective reasons, and then slants coverage accordingly. If it is reasonable to make a big deal about Tom Brady winning a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay while New England missed the playoffs, then it is reasonable to make a big deal about Kawhi Leonard winning an NBA title with Toronto while San Antonio has gone from contender to pretender.

Back to the Play-In Tournament. Boston versus Washington was close for a half before the Celtics pulled away for a 118-100 win in the seven-eight Eastern Conference matchup, while Golden State took a quick 15-4 lead versus the L.A. Lakers, and Mark Jackson observed that the Lakers spent most of the first half in "chill mode." Golden State was ahead 55-42 at halftime. Stephen Curry topped the Warriors with 15 first half points (including a three pointer to beat the halftime buzzer), while LeBron James (six points on 1-7 field goal shooting) and Anthony Davis (five points on 2-12 field goal shooting) combined to score 11 points on 3-19 field goal shooting in what ESPN's "Screamin' A" Smith had breathlessly hyped as the most anticipated game of the season. Really? Before the season, who was hoping to see the Lakers and the Warriors competing for the seventh and eighth playoff seeds? In the first half, the Lakers shot .311 from the field, while the Warriors shot .413.   

In the second half, the Lakers' two stars finally showed up, and the Warriors fed the Lakers' fast break with several careless turnovers. The score was tied at 100 when James received the ball well past the three point line with the shot clock about to expire and 58 seconds left in the contest. James fired away and drained what turned out to be the final points of the game, as the Lakers won 103-100. That three point shot will be the highlight play that is shown on a loop, but--as ESPN's Tim Legler correctly noted after the game--the Lakers won the game because of "flat out physical power in the paint." The Lakers used their size to overpower the Warriors at both ends of the court. James scored 16 second half points on 6-10 field goal shooting and he finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. Davis scored 20 second half points on 8-12 field goal shooting. The Lakers are so good, big, and talented that they can sleepwalk through half the game and still beat the Warriors. 

What about the NBA being a first quarter league? If you watched the whole Lakers-Warriors game, then you saw that the Warriors lacked the necessary size and skill to keep James and Davis out of the paint. James and Davis were not effective or efficient in the first quarter or first half, but that had more to do with them than the Warriors. Once James and Davis played up to their capabilities and exploited their obvious matchup advantages, the Warriors had no answers. Golden State's big early lead all but guaranteed that the Lakers would not win by a large margin, but if you watched the game with understanding you realized that the contest was there for the taking for the Lakers; the Lakers' stars played horribly in the first half and the Warriors still could barely put together a double digit halftime lead!

Meanwhile, Curry--who has become the people's choice for the MVP even though his team will miss the playoffs if they do not beat the Grizzlies on Friday night--could not even get a shot off in the final minute with his team down by three points. Curry is 6-3--not 6-8 like James, or 6-10 like Davis--and size matters in the NBA. If James wants to get off a shot in the last minute of a playoff (or Play-In) game, the only player who can stop him is James himself (if he decides to pass the ball). Remember all of the foolish talk a couple years ago about how much better Golden State's offense supposedly was with Kevin Durant out of the lineup? Do you think that Durant would have gotten off a shot in the final minute of this game? We already know the answer, because we have seen Durant dribble the ball up the court in the NBA Finals, and hit a pressure shot over James en route to outplaying James, winning a championship, and earning the Finals MVP. 

Curry is a great player. He had a game-high 37 points on 12-23 field goal shooting--but a great 6-3 player will never be more valuable than a great player who is taller, bigger, and stronger. It is baffling that anyone would think that Curry, as great as he is, is a more valuable basketball player than Nikola Jokic or Giannis Antetokounmpo this season, or that in previous seasons Curry was more valuable than players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant when those players were healthy enough to play most of the regular season games.

Jayson Tatutm's 50 point game versus the Wizards and James' triple double capped off by a game-winning shot are the signature moments of the 2021 Play-In Tournament thus far, but the NBA has not even decided if those statistics will be counted as regular season, playoff, or something else. I am ready for the Play-In Tournament to be over and for the playoffs to begin.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 2:02 AM



At Thursday, May 20, 2021 2:51:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

The regular season MVP is often times either automatically awarded to the best player on the team with the best record or given to a player who is simply a media/fan favorite and is only sometimes awarded to the actual best and most valuable player in the league. Going purely by team record and/or media favoritism is how Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and James Harden all won regular season MVPs over at least one other player who was better and more valuable over the course of the regular season. The shaky and vague criteria for regular season MVP voting can be attributed to this.

At Thursday, May 20, 2021 3:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dribbling the ball up the court with plenty of time especially if down no more than 2 points instead of 3(big difference as defense can just foul and give up no more than 2 points) vs having 2.1 seconds is a huge difference. Plus, I'd like to see what James is going to do against 2 players especially when one is Anthony Davis with 2.1 seconds. You're failing to miss the bigger picture and instead are going into your MVP agenda. James/Davis have much more to work with than Curry does on their respective teams. Curry was the player of the game and was without 2 starters on a team that's already lacking to begin with. Incredible effort just to make it as close as it was. I find it quite odd you're denigrating Curry after his superb play short-handed while you write nothing negative about Westbrook who you continuously praise and absolutely stunk in his play-in game.

And we're forgetting some really bad officiating late in the game. Kerr had to challenge to reverse one charge call that wasn't even close on replay. And the so-called moving screen on Green was bad too. That was a huge call.

Michael, you're right about the MVP voting sometimes. I'd go a step further and say 'a good story' more than favoritism though. Iverson was obviously a bad choice. Rose wasn't great, but who else in 2011? Nobody else stood out. CHI played great as a team. MIA greatly underachieved and James just wasn't that great that year. Rose wasn't better than Kobe, probably should've been Kobe but he wasn't gonna get it. Both of Nashes are huge jokes. Hard to give it to Kobe in 2007 from a team perspective, but he deserved it over Dirk obviously. Curry had small cases when he won his 2. Leonard wasn't that great yet. James was struggling some and KD was injured one of the years. Harden absolutely deserved the year he won, and easily could've won multiple. He's had some insane numbers and was leading 3-2 with KD's GS, the only time GS was even close to losing at full strength. There is something to be said for being the best player on the best team. Your team doesn't just magically get awesome, has to be a reason(s), it's just hard to identify those reason(s) exactly sometimes.

At Thursday, May 20, 2021 11:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


NBA MVP voting generally made sense until at least the mid-1980s, when it was odd that Magic Johnson had to win three championships and two Finals MVPs before he finally won a regular season MVP (for a season after which he captured his fourth title and third Finals MVP). The previous 1980s MVPs were all great players, but Bird winning three in a row before Magic won any seemed a little strange, though Bird did play at an MVP level in those seasons. Magic eventually won three regular season MVPs, so he caught up with Bird. The MVP voting started to go off the rails in 1993 when Charles Barkley won the MVP over Michael Jordan. Barkley was an all-time great player who had an outstanding season, but he was not better or more valuable than Jordan. My suspicion is that there were still some voters who were Bird and/or Magic guys, and they did not want Jordan's MVP total to surpass the three each won by Bird and Magic. Then, Jordan retired, but after he came back the Bulls won 72 games in his first full season and the voters had no choice but to give Jordan his fourth MVP. They found an excuse to give the award to Karl Malone in 1997, and then Jordan won his fifth and final MVP in 1998. Jordan should have won at least seven MVPs, which would have broken Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record.

The NBA does not have "shaky and vague" MVP criteria. There are no criteria other than instructing the voters to only consider the current season. The NBA does this deliberately, because the league believes that keeping the vote subjective drives conversation, controversy, and interest.

At Thursday, May 20, 2021 11:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Your comment about Westbrook made no sense, and did not age very well after Westbrook led the Wizards into the playoffs tonight. Are you aware that more than half of the Wizards' roster was affected by COVID-19, resulting in a two week hiatus during the season? Did you know that the Wizards lost two projected starters (first round pick Deni Avdija and Thomas Bryant) to season-ending injuries? Despite all of that adversity, Westbrook carried a thin roster to the playoffs. Are you so sure that Curry could have led this team to the playoffs under those circumstances? We'll see if he can lead the Warriors to victory against the Grizzlies tomorrow night.

Do you really think that Curry is more difficult to defend in a late game situation than James, Durant, or Leonard? If you trap a 6-3 player, he can't shoot over the trap, and he has difficulty seeing the floor to make an accurate pass. Send two players at James, Durant, or Leonard in that situation and find out what happens.

Curry is a great player. I love his game, and I predicted more NBA success for him (but not THIS much success) than most people, but I don't understand why he is a top three MVP candidate and the "player of the game" (according to you). Curry has a decent amount of talent around him this season--certainly much more talent than Kobe had in 2006 and 2007 when he led the Lakers to the playoffs but could not sniff the MVP award. If Curry having the Warriors on the fringe of playoff contention is MVP-worthy, then Kobe should have two more MVPs and Westbrook should be top five in this season's MVP voting.

I did not "denigrate" Curry. I pointed out a fact--he is 6-3--and I explained the implications of that fact when the reality is that the dominant players who lead teams to titles are typically at least 6-6. Curry won his first title with a great supporting cast and with Iguodala earning Finals MVP, and then he won two more titles while watching Kevin Durant outduel LeBron James. How would you rank Curry in those Finals? Was he the third best player on the court? He certainly was not better than that, and at times during those series he was the fourth or even fifth best performer. Yet he may soon be a three-time MVP in a world in which Shaq and Kobe combined to win nine titles but just two regular season MVPs (I assume that Jokic will win the MVP over Curry and Embiid, but it is amazing that Curry is even a finalist--and Embiid should not be a finalist, either, after missing so many games).

I am not sure what the officiating has to do with the skill set analysis that I did in my article.

Harden deserved no MVPs. At no time has he been one of the five best players in the NBA, let alone the best. He is an All-Star caliber player who flops, is a poor leader, and who annually chokes in the playoffs. If he wins a title it will be as Durant's caddy, with Irving also counted on to hit clutch shots. I never doubted that Harden could be the third best player on a championship team, but it took him a long time to understand that is his proper role.

At Friday, May 21, 2021 12:37:00 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

Yeah, Jordan should have won at least seven and I think Olajuwon should have won in 1995. I'm not really sure who deserved to win in 1999 but I'm not fully convinced it was Karl Malone and Shaq and Kobe should have won four each (2000, 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008 respectively). Anyone who actually believes that Steve Nash and Curry deserved just as many MVPs as Shaq and Kobe combined is the NBA fan equivalent of a flat-eather. I can't stand LeBron James and I think he's wildly overrated in terms of how many people firmly believe that he is no lower than equal or greater than Jordan in his all-time ranking but he's also underrated in that a legitimate argument can be made that he should have received nine MVPs (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018).


Post a Comment

<< Home