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April 24, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Wednesday'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.

Lakers 122, Nuggets 107

Just when we thought Chris Paul had set the standard for brilliance in the first round of these playoffs, along comes Kobe Bryant to surpass him. Bryant's 49 points in Wednesday's win over Denver speak for themselves, but it wasn't so much the points as the demoralizing way he scored them, culminating in a three-point play to silence J.R. Smith's trash talk and bring Bryant within a point of reaching the 50 plateau for the second time in his postseason career.

Two nights ago, Paul was responsible for 27 total field goals--10 of his own along with 17 assists. Bryant did him one better, making 18 shots and handing out 10 assists, all while turning the ball over just two times. Relatively quiet in the middle two quarters, Bryant was simply unstoppable in the first (20 points) and fourth (19).

Yet as great as Bryant was on this evening, to focus solely on him is to miss why the Lakers are the odds-on favorites in the Western Conference. Bryant has been capable of these kinds of performances for years, but now the rest of the Lakers are capable of matching his high level of play.

I know that doesn't qualify as extraordinary insight, but even while Bryant was going off, the Lakers demonstrated their ability to play as a team. They had 33 assists on 46 baskets, a 71.7% assisted rate that was better than any team posted over the course of the regular season (the Lakers, assisting on 61.7% of their baskets all year long, ranked fifth). Take away Bryant, who made eight unassisted field goals, and the rest of the team had 23 assists on 28 buckets. That is ball movement at its finest. Aside from a stretch early in the third quarter when they grew stagnant against the Nuggets' zone defense, the Lakers made the extra pass all night long and the result was easy looks. Bryant led the way here, too, with his 10 assists.

Before the series started, I noted that this was a nightmare matchup for the Nuggets because they are vulnerable to good ball movement. Denver's opponent assist rate was third-highest in the league. With Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin capable of blocking shots, the Nuggets will offer the first layer of resistance on defense, but their rotations beyond that (helping the helper, in NBA parlance) are painfully lacking. The Lakers have exploited that through the first two games of this series, and that seems unlikely to change any time soon.

For the most part, Denver put forward a solid effort. Marcus Camby, invisible in Game One, had 17 rebounds and four blocks and was an active presence. Starting Linas Kleiza took away the mismatches that plagued the team in Game One with Anthony Carter defending bigger players, and the Nuggets got balanced offensive contributions. Really, the only time Denver beat itself was a disastrous stretch early in the second quarter when the team tried to turn every possession into a quick jumper.

The audio from timeouts is rarely revealing, but the clip TNT played during that second quarter of George Karl exhorting his team to get the ball inside and work the shot clock was telling. This is Game Two of the playoffs; the time for that kind of basic reminder is long gone. For better or worse, the Nuggets have chosen their path, and while that style has been successful to this point, it's no match for the disciplined Lakers.

What can Karl do? I think he might have overcompensated for the problems caused by Carter's height, playing him just nine minutes. The undersized Carter/Allen Iverson backcourt can work against backup Lakers guards Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic and would free Kleiza to take some minutes up front away from Eduardo Najera, who was invisible offensive and overmatched defensively last night. The Lakers' bench badly abused its Denver counterparts despite a nice scoring night from J.R. Smith. The Nuggets were -16 with Smith in the game and -19 in Najera's 22 minutes of play.

--K.P.

Pistons 105, 76ers 88

Before the Jazz played the Rockets Monday in Game Two of that opening round series, TNT analyst Charles Barkley (I think he might have played, too) talked about how he was eager to see how "greedy" the Jazz were. His point was that many times, teams that win the first game in a series on the road relax for the next game, satisfied with regaining the homecourt advantage.

He might have made the same comments about the Sixers, who pulled off the only real upset of the playoffs to date by knocking off the Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Game One. Would Philly come out greedy?

They needed to, because you could be sure that Detroit would come out much more intense. And they were--Detroit raced out to an early 9-2 lead and pretty much cruised from there. The Pistons won this one with offense. The defense, which allowed the Sixers 108 points per 100 possessions in Game One, improved that figure to 105. But the offense jumped from 106 to 123.

All five Detroit starters posted game scores over 20 and four of them were over 30. So this was the kind of balanced attack that we've come to expect from the veteran Pistons. Richard Hamilton and Antonio McDyess, who both struggled in the first game, caught up with the other starters this time around. Pistons coach Flip Saunders (was he reading these recaps?) heeded my advice and played Rodney Stuckey for 28 minutes and gave good floor time to Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson, as well. Stuckey had 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting and four assists in the game.

The Sixers just didn't come out ready to play, though they did edge back into the game briefly midway through the first half. In the early going, the Pistons were beating the younger and more athletic Sixers down the court, which is inexcusable. On one sequence that set the tone for the game, Andre Iguodala stood mesmerized by a missed shot when blocking out Tayshaun Prince might have been a more prudent decision. Prince went around him, scored on a putback and drew a foul from a reaching Iguodala.

Iguodala had a terrible game for Philadelphia, shooting 1-for-9 from the floor and scoring four points in 31 minutes, posting a game score of -1. I've written twice now that he has a tough time shooting over Prince. To me, Cheeks should demand that Iggy take the ball to the hoop against the rangy Prince. He's stronger. Prince is an excellent defender against the drive and the Pistons, of course, play excellent help defense. But Iguodala has excellent passing skills and driving to the basket might at least help to break down Detroit defense and create some open looks for his teammates.

The Sixers also might want to consider putting Samuel Dalembert on McDyess. Dalembert looks absolutely lost defending the pick and roll, and when he's assigned to Rasheed Wallace, Wallace could have open looks on three-point shots from the top of the arc all night--a spot on the floor from which Wallace excels. McDyess has a terrific face-up baseline jumper but, even so, Dalembert would not have to stray so far from the basket when defending him. As it is, the Sixers' best shot blocker is rarely in a position to shut down the defensive interior. The downside is that Thaddeus Young would have to chase Wallace, a tough chore, but at least the kid's got energy.

Philadelphia has the advantage over Detroit in terms of speed and athleticism. but Mo Cheeks' usage of players diminishes that advantage. Lou Williams played 23 minutes in Game Two. It should be more like 38. Thaddeus Young played 35 minutes but the Sixers need to run more plays for him, setting him up for baseline drives in an effort to get Wallace into foul trouble. Cheeks has to recognize that Willie Green is not helping him.

This is a big series for Philadelphia, whose young talent I think is a little underrated across the league. The Sixers are a team that has some cap flexibility coming this summer, and this series could serve as a valuable measuring stick in helping Ed Stefanski sort out what he has and what he needs going forward. The longer this series can go, the more dangerous the Sixers will be next season.

Hang onto your hats for Game Three. It means everything. If Philly can pull it out, we have a series. If not, look for the Pistons to win in five.

Celtics 96, Hawks 77

Mike Bibby doesn't turn 30 for another three weeks. No, really. I looked it up. Bibby was born on May 13, 1978.

I point this out because Boston's Rajon Rondo makes Bibby look like he was born during the Eisenhower Administration. The Celtics are dominating their opening-round series against the Hawks across the board, but there is no more troubling development for Atlanta than Bibby's failings against Rondo.

On Wednesday, Rondo posted an NBAPET game score of 31 to Bibby's 2. For the second straight game, the Celtics had four players post 20+ game scores and pounded the Hawks, taking a much-expected 2-0 series lead. Al Horford's 30 in Game One is the only 20+ performance so far for Atlanta. As for our point guards, it's an average GS of 39 for Rondo to Bibby's -6.

For reference, here's the aggregate game score data for the regular season:

NBAPET game score groups

50 and above:    73   0.3%
30-49          2186  10.0%
20-29          4088  18.7%
10-19          6684  30.6%
9 and below    8788  40.3%
TOTAL         21819 100.0%

Rondo averaged a game score of 18 during the regular season; Bibby's number was 16. So you would not figure the disparity at this position would be so acute. This is definitely not what Atlanta GM Billy Knight had in mind when he traded Tyronn Lue, Sheldon Williams and Anthony Johnson to the Kings for Bibby. Johnson and Lue could have played doormat just as well and the Hawks wouldn't be on the hook for Bibby's top-20 contract for next season. Bibby's defense has always been marginal, at best, but he's shooting 4-for-17 in the series and has just two more assists than I do. While Atlanta was in desperate need to upgrade the point guard position, Bibby had posted a 13.5 PER for Sacramento and upgraded it to just 14.9 for the Hawks--below the league average.

Bibby's presence prohibits the Hawks from throwing money at a free-agent point guard this summer and diminishes what was one of the best salary cap situations in the league. Sure, his contract will be one of those coveted expiring deals next season, but this year's free agent class is going to be the strongest in years. The way Bibby has been playing this season, any team trading for him will be doing so strictly to create cap space after next season. The Hawks, whose young core is developing fast, are in a position where adding productive talent right now could push them towards the 50-win mark. Instead, they'll have an unproductive, lame-duck point guard delaying their ascension to contention by another year. Worst of all, it's unlikely that the acquisition of Bibby had much to do with Atlanta making the playoffs in the first place. They would have done so anyway.

The Celtics' defense has stifled Atlanta. The Hawks were the third-most inside-oriented offense in the league during the season. They've continued that trend against Boston, getting to the foul line 68 times in the two games. But you've got to be able shoot the outside shot against a team as solid in the defensive middle as Boston. Atlanta is 3-for-19 from beyond the arc in the series. Ray Allen, whose defensive game emerged from hibernation this season, has helped to limit Joe Johnson to 11-for-32 shooting. So that's a combined 15-for-49 from the field for Atlanta's starting backcourt. As a team, the Hawks had just 10 assists in Game Two.

You could go on and on about the team numbers. The Celtics had 15 steals and forced 21 Atlanta turnovers. Boston outrebounded Atlanta 45-35 and grabbed 13 off the offensive glass. But you probably get the picture.

The Celtics are halfway to an almost inevitable sweep. They're winning by an average of 21 points per game so Doc Rivers has been able to keep his starters rested and his bench sharp. Paul Piece has a balky back, but should have some extra time to rest up after the first round. This series is playing out exactly according to script.

(Another game score note: Pau Gasol posted a 71 in the Lakers' Game One win over Denver. That was the highest total of the season, besting a 68 from LeBron James.)

--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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