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April 23, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Tuesday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton will be covering the NBA playoffs every day for Basketball Prospectus, with Doolittle tracking the East and Pelton the West.

Tuesday night saw all three home teams win to take 2-0 leads in their series. However, those wins came in very different manners, ones that reveal a lot about how the series should play out.

Spurs 102, Suns 96

I really figured the Suns would win this game. I've never crunched the numbers on this in the NBA, but all other things equal (and they're usually not) the loser of Game One should have an advantage going into Game Two because it is easier for the losing team to make adjustments than it is for the winning team to do so. Add in the fact that Shaquille O'Neal and Amaré Stoudemire were unlikely to repeat Saturday's foul trouble, and an even series heading to Phoenix seemed like the most likely outcome. The Spurs had other ideas.

While the Suns were able to rally late and actually throw a scare into San Antonio, let there be no misunderstanding produced by the final score: The Spurs dominated this game, outscoring Phoenix 27-11 in the third quarter and building a lead as large as 17 with a little less than eight minutes to play.

For a stretch late in the third and early in the fourth, San Antonio could do no wrong on offense, putting up 28 points in an eight-minute span. The Hack-a-Shaq strategy, employed by Gregg Popovich in the final two minutes of the third quarter, failed to the extent that O'Neal made five of his six free-throw attempts in that span. However, the Spurs' offense was so good it did not matter. They scored on five of their last six third-quarter possessions and six out of eight to start the final period.

Despite all that, San Antonio won this game with defense, holding the Suns to 100.2 points per 100 possessions. Phoenix's 11-point third quarter featured about as good a display of defense as will ever be seen in a 12-minute span. Once the Spurs took away Amaré Stoudemire (who scored 25 points by halftime and none in the third quarter), the Suns were impotent on offense, going scoreless over the first six-plus minutes of the second half.

If there's one thing that San Antonio has always done well defensively, it's taking away the three-point line. Phoenix took just 16 three-point attempts in a Game One that featured 10 extra minutes of basketball; they took 13 last night. That's tough for a team that attempted more than 21 threes a night in the regular season (while making them at a better clip than they have in this series). The Suns player best suited to exploiting the Spurs' self-admitted weakness on defense, the midrange jumper, is Grant Hill. Unfortunately, while Hill was able to play despite his groin injury, the problem rendered him entirely ineffective. He did not score and attempted just one shot in 20 minutes of action.

Usually, it would be Leandro Barbosa who stepped up in place of an injured Hill, but Barbosa was even worse. He missed all seven of his shots, and the Suns were outscored by 18 points during the 24 minutes he was on the court. That left Mike D'Antoni to turn to Gordan Giricek, and while Giricek played decently, this stage is too big for him at this point of his career.

Starting in Game Three, Phoenix has to find a consistent way to generate offense besides the Steve Nash/Stoudemire pick-and-roll, which the Spurs largely stopped in the second half until the late Suns surge. Continued production from Shaquille O'Neal in the paint is part of that, but Phoenix must do a better job of moving the ball to create open looks. The Suns had just 16 assists on 37 Game Two buckets, which is out of character for them. Increasing that figure won't be an easy task against San Antonio's ironclad rotations and excellent transition defense, but we've seen it before from Phoenix.

On defense, I think the Suns will be fine. Even despite an otherworldly performance from Parker, showing off his full array of floaters and driving layups en route to 32 points, the Spurs had an average night on offense. Michael Finley hit some big shots in the third quarter, but none of San Antonio's role players scored in double figures. It will be hard to repeat that and win.

Down 2-0 but heading back to Phoenix, it's far too early for the Suns to panic. They were still within a Tim Duncan three of emerging from the AT&T Center with a split, and outplayed San Antonio for all but the lopsided third quarter of Game Two. As Charles Barkley pointed out on "Inside the NBA" after the game, it's not a series until a team wins on the road. That's not true in every series (see Dallas/New Orleans, for instance), but in one featuring this caliber of play and one this competitive, it is worth remembering.

Hornets 127, Mavericks 103

Some games defy extended analysis. When one team shoots 60.8% from the field, hits 10 threes at a 55.6% clip and turns the ball over just seven times, a game falls into that category. The Hornets did everything they wanted Wednesday, and they have now outscored Dallas 191-143 (+48) over the last six quarters.

It takes no advanced statistics to realize the brilliance of Chris Paul, for whom these playoffs--if not this entire season--are serving as a coming-out party. Paul had his hand in 27 field goals, scoring 10 himself and assisting on 17 more. Paul had nearly as many assists as the Mavericks had as a team (21). Dallas has found no answer whatsoever to Paul, and none seems to be forthcoming.

Of course, Paul was hardly alone. Peja Stojakovic, seemingly set on erasing his poor reputation as a playoff performer while with Sacramento, was lethal from downtown for a second straight game. Stojakovic hit 5-of-8 threes en route to 22 points. While Paul was living in the paint and Stojakovic beyond the arc, David West was taking care of the area in between and scored 27 points of his own on 11-of-17 shooting.

The Mavericks can be encouraged by the play of their bench. Jason Terry bounced back from a poor Game One to score 16 points and hit four threes, while Brandon Bass abused his former team to the tune of 19 points and eight rebounds on 5-for-5 shooting. Yet Dirk Nowitzki was the only Dallas starter to score more than 10 points, and Josh Howard (10 points on 3-for-10 shooting) continued his disappearing act.

Dallas' defense was good this season, if not great. Their Defensive Rating was virtually identical to those of New Orleans and the L.A. Lakers, and it was better after adding Jason Kidd to the lineup. There was nothing in the track record to suggest a collapse like this was coming, and I'm inclined to believe it says more about what the Hornets have done right than what the Mavericks have done wrong. That said, Dallas has shown nothing since halftime of Game One of this series to suggest anything is going to change when the setting shifts to the American Airlines Center.

--K.P.

Magic 104, Raptors 103

Maybe Raptors coach Sam Mitchell should find a way to convince his charges that tipoff is actually about 15 minutes earlier than it actually is.

For the second straight game, the Raptors' slow start left them in an uphill battle. Once again, Toronto outplayed the Magic over the course of the final three quarters. This time, the Raptors ended up in an enviable position, with the ball in the hands of their best player, Chris Bosh, who had a good look at the basket on a last-second shot that would have allowed Toronto to steal a split in the two games at Orlando. His 18-footer over the arms of Dwight Howard came up short, though, and the teams now head north with the Magic up 2-0.

Early on, the Magic looked like it was going to run away with it, just as it did in building a 20-point lead in the first quarter of Game One. Toronto's transition defense was execrable in the early going. Orlando's first four made field goals were dunks and the Magic opened up a 26-8 lead. It was if instead of adopting Washington's mantra of "no layups" the Raptors were chanting "mo' layups."

The Raptors staged a serious comeback during the second quarter behind Bosh, who scored 16 of his 29 points in the period. Just as important was the play of Toronto's bench, an area in which they have a major advantage over the thin Magic. According the game scores generated by NBAPET, Toronto's bench outperformed Orlando's to the tune of 80 to -4. Looking at it another way, Carlos Delfino, Jason Kapono, Jose Calderon and Jamario Moon combined for a +/- of plus 40. Orlando's reserve contingent, led by Keyon Dooling, Keith Bogans and Carlos Arroyo, were at minus 39.

Moon played 22 minutes this time around, and while he was not a contributor on offense, he helped the Raptors to do a much better job of defending the perimeter. The Magic shot just 9-for-31 from behind the arc and posted an eFG% of .478, down from a mark of .617 in Game One. T.J. Ford was caught out of position a few times, leading to Jameer Nelson's 18 points on just 10 field goal attempts, but Jose Calderon did a much better job. Anthony Parker did excellent work on Hedo Turkoglu, as well.

Toronto as a whole looked a lot crisper with Calderon running the show. Coming into the series, we noted how the Raptors played better during the regular season with Calderon on the floor rather than Ford, who is nevertheless a better all-around player. But you could see the evidence in Game Two of why Calderon simply is a better fit for the high pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, Suns-style attack the Raptors employ. Ford is a dribbler, a ball dominator who and gets his assists by breaking down the opponent off the dribble and dishing when he can't get to the basket for his own shot. Calderon also plays off of screens but does a much better job of getting the ball moving and finding open perimeter shooters without necessarily getting into the lane. He's Steve Nash to Ford's Stephon Marbury.

All technicalities aside, the Magic won this game because of the sheer power and dominance of Dwight Howard in the middle. Toronto doesn't have anybody that can match up with Howard physically; then again, neither does any other team in the NBA. Howard had 29 points and 20 rebounds and is now averaging 27 points and 21 rebounds in the two games. Both teams came into the series in the bottom half of the NBA in rebounding, but because of Howard, Orlando is plus 15 in this department for the series and grabbed 16 offensive rebounds in Game Two. This led to an 89-81 advantage in field-goal attempts that offset Toronto's better shooting percentages.

Still, this one came down to the final buzzer. The Magic had the ball side out with :09 seconds left. Now, the University of Missouri generally puts out a pretty intelligent brand of citizen. I'm not suggesting that Keyon Dooling isn't intelligent, but the elbow to the face he threw at Jose Calderon, resulting in an offensive foul, set up what could have been the winning play for Toronto. I didn't really see a clear replay of the incident and after the game, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy was still talking the play over with the officials. So it might have been a brilliant acting job by Calderon. In any event, that mistake nearly turned the tide of the entire series.

Toronto opted for a high pick-and-pop with Calderon and Bosh. Calderon looked like he could have taken the shot if he had held the ball a little longer and, frankly, he was stroking the ball much better than Bosh at that point in the game. But, as I say, you can't complain in the NBA when your elite player has the ball in his hands with a chance to win the game at the end. It just didn't work out this time for Toronto.

Looking ahead, Toronto has to be favored to win the next two games at home. The Raptors have been notably enigmatic this season, finishing with a 41-41 mark that was grossly beneath the quality of their underlying statistics. If they can recover from the disappointment of their missed opportunity in Game Two, they can still make this a series. Sam Mitchell has to recognize what worked for him in Game Two: A small-ball lineup and Jose Calderon at the point.

Orlando won't make any adjustments. They're really aren't any to make. Van Gundy's bench options are limited and this continues to be a highly successful four-man team. The Magic look great when they are hitting their outside shots. When they don't, Howard has to shoulder a tremendous load. The formula can get them out of the first round, but if they survive the Raptors, the lack of depth is going to sink them.

--B.D.

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

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