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April 26, 2012
Playoff Sleepers
West

by Bradford Doolittle

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Just like the Bulls in the East, the top-seeded Spurs not only finished with the West's best record, they also paced the conference in point differential. Historically speaking, point differential is where it's at when it comes to forecasting the NBA playoff bracket. Yet, like the Bulls, there is a perception that the Spurs overachieved to land that No. 1 slot, and their 21-3 (so far) sprint to the finish will prove to be the high point of their campaign.

The Thunder was the overwhelming choice to win the West before the season. Despite a tepid 16-9 stretch heading into the postseason, Oklahoma City may remain the consensus pick to face Miami in the Finals, giving us our first championship tilt with non-plural nicknames better suited to a weather forecast than a basketball series. Such a matchup isn't inevitable, however, and given the Spurs' seed, point differential and playoff track record, they have to be looked at as the favorites in the West right now. So let's look at three players who could prove to be a thorn in the side to San Antonio, perhaps leaving us with that Heat-Thunder storm after all.

PF: Nick Collison, Oklahoma City Thunder
Whereas we've looked upon a Chicago-Miami matchup in the East finals as inevitable ever since last season's East finals, no really looks at a potential Thunder-Spurs West final as unavoidable. It could happen and, given their seeds and point differentials, a San Antonio-Oklahoma City matchup is the most likely outcome for the West bracket. But there is a long way to go to get from here to there.

If it happens, we can look back and see that the Spurs beat the Thunder in two of their three regular-season meetings, and won the two most recent contests. The aggregate results from those games yield counterintuitive conclusions. Whereas San Antonio is viewed as a deep squad with a Hall-of-Fame, but aging, big three, the Thunder is looked upon as a team with a power-packed big three and a fall-off after the star-studded starting lineup hits the bench. In the regular season, it was the Thunder bench that fared best against San Antonio.

It's not surprise that Collison rates as a good bet to see a lot of minutes against the Spurs. He's long been a plus-minus superstar, whose on-court impact is far greater than his meager box score statistics would suggest. The questions are, however, how much do you play Collison, and with whom do you play him?

That Collison helps the Thunder against San Antonio is without question. With Collison on the bench, the Spurs outscored OKC by 21.5 points per 100 possessions. With him on the floor, the Thunder has the edge to the tune of 31.2 points per 100 possessions. And we're not just talking about second units versus second units. Collison played 27 minutes per game against San Antonio, an average of six more than he did overall. So Scott Brooks recognizes his value.

As for the best lineup to use Collison in, the numbers suggest that he's best deployed alongside the Thunder's big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. That's certainly no surprise. However, rather than choosing between playing Collison next to Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins for the last spot, the best lineups have included an extra perimeter player, presumably Derek Fisher now that he's around. That makes sense against the Spurs, whose most effective groupings feature Matt Bonner's ability to spread the floor from the center position. You can use Durant on Bonner, while relying on Collison to check Tim Duncan.

Gilbert Arenas, Memphis Grizzlies
After last season, you could say that the entire Grizzlies roster is a Spurs-killer. Assuming Memphis survives a fascinating first-round matchup against the Clippers (and we believe they will), the Grizzlies pose a legitimate threat to the Spurs in the second round. Nevertheless, during the regular season, San Antonio went 4 for 4 against Memphis, winning by an average of 9.5 points per contest.

Arenas only played in one of those games, the 107-97 San Antonio win on April 12. Memphis will need Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to be at their best; pounding the Spurs in the lane was what propelled the Grizzlies to last spring's first round upset. However, even while the Spurs have re-invented themselves as an offensive juggernaut, they've remained one of the league's top defensive teams against opposing frontcourt players. At the same time, they've been one of the league's poorest defensive teams against guards.

That's where Arenas comes in as the X-factor. He's exceeded all expectations since signing with Memphis, putting up a .550 true shooting percentage on a usage rate 10 percent below his career average. In other words, he's re-made himself into a catch-and-shoot player off the ball. The Grizzlies have been better with him on the floor, which suggests his adapted well to his new role.

But you have to look at which kind of plays the Spurs have struggled against that have led to that poor overall showing against guards. According the MySynergySports.com, San Antonio is last in the league guard players coming off screens and 29th against ballhandlers on the pick-and-roll. If you can deploy some obstacles for the Spurs' perimeter defenders, then attack when you get a mismatch in space, you can score the ball on the Spurs.

Now that Arenas has re-established the perimeter part of his game, it's time to turn back the clock and see how much, if any, explosiveness he has left. Arenas was once one of the best attackers of the rim in the game. He's nowhere near that anymore, but those underlying instincts remain. If the Spurs come at him with hard-closeouts, Arenas has to be willing to put the ball on the floor and to sacrifice his body to get to the line, and Memphis coach Lionel Hollins has to put him in a position to do that. If it happens, the Spurs defense will scramble and adjust, and the Grizzlies can go right back to attacking the post.

Paul Millsap, Utah Jazz
Utah polished off a strong second half of the season with a win over Phoenix on Tuesday to fill the West's last playoff opening. It's already been a successful year for the Jazz, which is really just in the second phase or so of a rebuilding process. It's reminiscent of the 2003-04 Jazz, which finished 42-40 and just missed a playoff birth in the first season after John Stockton retired. Now comes the hard part: a matchup up with a red-hot Spurs team that knocked them off in three of four meetings during the regular season.

That said, the Jazz have found some success using Millsap at small forward, and that configuration worked well in limited minutes against San Antonio. Millsap has been Utah's most effective rotation player during the four meetings with San Antonio, and a lot of the success can be attributed to the big lineup. It's only based on 15 minutes, but groupings that have included a frontcourt of Millsap, Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors have outscored San Antonio by 62 points per 48 minutes. That wouldn't hold up for a full game, obviously, but given that Utah is playing with found money, it would behoove Tyrone Corbin to see just how far that configuration can take him.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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