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May 6, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Weekend Recap

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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(At BP headquarters--and BP headquarters--we've been having some technical difficulties over the past few days. What follows is the NBA playoff recaps that Kevin Pelton and Bradford Doolittle filed over the weekend. Our apologies for the delay in publishing them, but as always, their analysis is salient even days past the final buzzer.--JSS)

Saturday's Games

Hornets 101, Spurs 82

The San Antonio Spurs held Chris Paul to 17 points on 7-of-16 shooting, made 12 three-pointers and had two players outside their big three contribute double-digit scoring. That sounds an awful lot like a recipe for stealing Game One at New Orleans Arena. Instead, the Spurs lost by 19 points. While that overstates how one-sided the game was, the Hornets controlled the entire fourth quarter and put it on San Antonio down the stretch.

In looking to explain that discrepancy, start with the Hornets' unsung forward duo. David West scored a game-high 30 points on 13-of-23 shooting and was able to score in a variety of fashions, spreading the floor with his trademark pick-and-pop jumper and also scoring aggressively in the post. Peja Stojakovic caught fire in the third quarter, notching seven of his 22 points in a span of less than four minutes as the Hornets went on a 13-0 run to wrest the lead away from San Antonio for good.

What will draw more attention is Tim Duncan's trying night. Duncan tied his postseason career low, scoring just five points. He made only one field goal in 37 minutes, missing eight of his nine shot attempts. Duncan also grabbed but three rebounds as the Hornets enjoyed a 50-34 advantage on the glass. Duncan and frontcourt-mate Kurt Thomas (two points and two boards in 20 minutes) were so bad as to undermine a strong effort from the Spurs' perimeter players.

New Orleans made a concerted effort to slow down San Antonio's big three, sagging defensively and aggressively giving help when Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili got into the lane. That contributed to Duncan's poor shooting, but a night that bad can't entirely be explained by the defense. Parker and Ginobili had solid nights, combining for 42 points, but were not as dominant as they were in the series against Phoenix.

The Hornets did an excellent job of rotating in the paint behind their help, eliminating easy buckets and second-chance points for the Spurs' big men. The trade-off was having defenders chaotically rotating around the court and being frequently late in getting out to shooters. That gamble hurt New Orleans in the first half, when Bruce Bowen hit five three-pointers and scored 17 points, more than quadrupling his total from the entire first round. After halftime, those threes stopped falling and San Antonio was limited to 33 points in the second half.

Overall, the Spurs attempted 31 three-pointers, just the third time all season they've topped 30 tries from downtown. Factor in the game's slow pace (82 possessions for San Antonio) and it's clear they became extremely dependent on the three. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the Hornets will live with that, especially as the Spurs' legs get heavier late in games as the series wears on. It would help San Antonio immensely if Robert Horry got going as a floor-spacing big opposite Duncan, but Horry was unequal to the task in Game One. He missed his two shot attempts, both threes, and was a -8 in 12 minutes of action.

Defensively, the Spurs sought to make Paul a jump shooter by backing off of him defensively when the Hornets went to their trademark pick-and-roll. Most of the night, that strategy was highly effective. With four minutes left in the game, Paul had eight points on 3-of-12 shooting from the field. Byron Scott made a subtle adjustment down the stretch to free Paul, putting the screener at the top of the key or nearer the basket instead of beyond the three-point line, ensuring Paul would be closer to the basket at the point of attack. Another possible strategy would be setting the pick extremely high, allowing Paul to attack the defense on the run, where his quickness becomes more of a factor. The Spurs take advantage of Parker's speed in a similar fashion.

As expected, San Antonio cut down on the Hornets' opportunities from three-point range. New Orleans tried but 10 triples. The Spurs allow opponents to shoot a solid percentage from downtown, but limit their attempts. The trade-off for San Antonio is a vulnerability to mid-range jumpers. Stojakovic and West were both able to find plenty of space to successfully hoist 15-to-20-foot looks. The Hornets got a strong game from Tyson Chandler, who used his athleticism against the slower Spurs centers and pulled down 15 boards, six of them on the offensive glass. New Orleans also got a lift off the bench from Bonzi Wells, who had 10 points and four boards in 19 active minutes. The bench more than held its own while in the game, a promising sign for the Hornets.

--K.P.

Pistons 91, Magic 72

Dwight Howard seized a well-deserved spot in the national basketball consciousness with his awe-inspiring win in the dunk contest back in February. The indelible image that many of us retain, even those who don't care a whit about dunk contests, is Howard donning a Superman cape and flying through the air to hammer a carom through the rim.

Wonderful theater, to be sure, but brazen acts often come with unintended consequences. For Howard, the problem now is that every time he takes the court, people expect to see Superman. They expect 25 points, 20 rebounds and five blocks. They expect a half-dozen dunks that leave the basket supports rattling. They expect him to hoist a team on his iron shoulders and carry them past the bad guys. Heck, his teammates have come to expect such grandiosity. The thing is, when you come up against a villain like the Detroit Pistons, who have been serving up big 'ol chunks of Kryptonite for pretty much the entire 21st century, teams have to find more than one hero.

I hope you'll forgive that bit of purple prose. I could probably have summed it up a little more succinctly: If Orlando doesn't get more out of Howard than it did on Saturday, Detroit will sweep the series and none of the games will be close.

The Pistons' have now played smothering defense for 14 straight quarters. Detroit started off with Jason Maxiell fronting Howard while the other Piston defenders pinched Orlando's perimeter players. The Magic had two matchup advantages. First, Jameer Nelson has a quickness edge on Chauncey Billups. Also, Rasheed Wallace was left in the awkward position of chasing Rashard Lewis around the three-point circle. If the former case, Nelson's quickness was mostly mitigated by Billups' superior size and strength. Nelson beat him off the dribble a few times but there was usually defensive help to cut him off.

Meanwhile, Wallace closed out on Lewis every time he caught the ball on the perimeter, forcing him to put the ball on the floor. That's not Lewis' strength, but he did lead Orlando's offense in the early going, getting to the rim a couple of times and hitting some midrange jumpers. Detroit's defense of Lewis remained constant, even when Wallace switched off to guard Howard.

With Tayshaun Prince rendering Hedo Turkoglu a virtual non-entity (much of Turkoglu's production came when the game was out of hand), Orlando was starved for points. The Pistons rotated Antonio McDyess in to check Howard. Later on, Theo Ratliff took his turn. All were effective. When Howard rolled out high to set a pick, the Pistons were quick to react by fighting through his half-hearted screens. Howard drew a pair of offensive fouls in this manner. After Detroit established that it was not going to allow open looks on three-pointers, the Magic tried some dribble penetration. All that really accomplished was to screw up their offensive spacing. That allowed the posse of post defenders on Howard to play in back of him. When Orlando did get him the ball, he was usually forced into some of the soft kind of post moves at which Howard is not yet a master.

Orlando did a solid job defending the Pistons on the other end. Detroit wasn't able to take much advantage of Lewis defending in the post. Instead, the Pistons relied on Billups overpowering Nelson off the dribble and Rip Hamilton wearing out the motley crew of two-guards who tried to chase him off the down-low screens. The Pistons didn't have a great shooting game (.446 eFG%), but they dictated the tempo. The 83 possessions were nine fewer than Orlando's season average. The Magic pushed the ball when they could but were not able to sustain anything. That'll happen when you aren't hitting your shots--Orlando shot a .419 eFG% and went 2-for-15 from beyond the arc.

Orlando managed to hang in and even took a 46-45 lead three minutes into the second half. Detroit responded with an eight-point run to take control of the game. Orlando scored just seven points over the next seven minutes as Detroit went into what appeared to be an amoeba-like 1-2-2 trapping zone. The Pistons eventually led by as many as 24 points and cruised in with the opening-game win.

Detroit committed just six turnovers in the game and was plus-7 in that category. Orlando was in the bottom five in the league in terms of turnover margin and that promises to be a consistent theme in this series. The Pistons also held advantages in two other key areas that you'd expect. They outrebounded Orlando 47-40 and their aggregate bench game score was 49 to Orlando's 21.

When you total it all up, Superman finished with 12 points and eight rebounds. Lewis, Orlando's most effective offensive player for most of the night, scored 18 points but needed 20 shots to get them. That underscored Orlando's stunning offensive inefficiency. The Magic's offensive efficiency came in at 83.5 points per 100 possessions; Detroit was at 128.9. The Pistons displayed their trademark offensive balance, with all five starters posting 20-plus game scores and McDyess getting a 19 off of the bench.

There is no mystery about what has to happen for Orlando to become competitive in this series. Howard has to dominate the middle. Yes, normally the key for the Magic is converting their high-volume of three-point shots. Detroit has changed the locks, though, and that key won't work. The Pistons proved that they can control Orlando's perimeter game. It's not like Orlando was missing open looks--it wasn't getting any.

Stan Van Gundy needs Howard to play MVP-caliber basketball on the interior to open up the game for everyone else. Look for Orlando to go to Howard early and often in Game Two. Just as important, however, will be for Howard to regain his dominance on the defensive glass so that Orlando can get its running game going. There is no other way.

--B.D.

Sunday's Games

Celtics 99, Hawks 65

The tale of two series has come to an end. Finally.

Granted, the nod to Dickens is an overwrought cliché, but when confronted with the task of explaining one of the more stupefying first-round matchups in recent memory, one feels the need to fall back on the old masters. Let's start with some raw numbers.

In Boston:

              BOS   ATL
Avg pts.    102.3  77.0
Reb%         .531  .469
A/FG%        .589  .510
Avg. TO marg.  +6    -6
Avg. FTA     21.0  28.3
Pace         85.2  85.2
eFG%         .517  .385

In Atlanta:

              BOS   ATL
Avg pts.     95.0 100.7
Reb%         .473  .527
A/FG%        .714  .683
Avg. TO marg.  +4    -4
Avg. FTA     22.7  35.7 
Pace         84.2  84.2
eFG%         .485  .512

Some of these figures are surprising. The Celtics shot the ball marginally better at home and actually did a better job of sharing the ball in Atlanta. They also were constant in terms of turnover margin. All in all, the Celtics' offensive performance was consistent between the two cities.

Something has to account for that 30-point flip in point differential, though, and it's obviously the Hawks' performance that was wildly divergent. Atlanta rebounded better, attacked the basket more, shared the ball more freely and shot the rock at a much higher percentage at Philips Arena. Teams with extreme home-road splits are not unusual in the NBA, though most of them don't do well in the playoffs. During the season, the Hawks were 25-16 with an average point different of +2.2. On the road, they were 12-29 with a -5.7 differential. Extreme? Maybe not, but telling nonetheless. Further, Atlanta was consistent in terms of giving up points home and away. The offense was the wild card--just like this series.

The big question for the Celtics: How much of the disparity was due to Atlanta's offense and how much was due to Boston's defense? The Celtics allowed nearly five more points per game on the road during the regular season while the offense was constant. Even if you add the seven additional points per game Atlanta scored at home to the Celtics' five extra road points on average, that only explains half of the 23-point disparity in the Hawks' home-and-away scoring average. (You wouldn't figure it that way, of course.) With no obvious explanation at hand, I'm willing to label the whole matter an amazing fluke.

As for Game Seven, it became apparent very quickly that Boston was not going the way of the '94 Sonics as a No. 1 seed that would lose to a No. 8 seed. Boston was aggressive where Atlanta was passive. Josh Smith played as if he had wandered into the forest and inhaled some pixie dust. Kendrick Perkins at times looked like he was channeling Bill Russell. While Paul Pierce lowered his head and barreled for the hoop, Marvin Williams settled for midrange jumpers. Mike Bibby couldn't have been more irrelevant had he been named Fred Thompson.

Joe Johnson did his best early on to keep Atlanta close. Just as Boston first began to pull away, Johnson was 3-of-6 from the field. His teammates were a combined 3-for-17. Johnson went just 2-of-11 after that. Boston's biggest lead was 38 and, for a while, it looked like they might double up the hapless Hawks. It was almost like the Celtics were trying to make up for the three Atlanta games all at once. The Hawks, for their part, looked embarrassed to be playing. If they weren't, they surely were afterwards. Atlanta posted an eFG% of .329 in its most important game of the season.

On the game score chart, Johnson led Atlanta with a 19. No one else cracked double digits. Reserve Salim Stoudamire was closest, with a nine, compiled during the extended garbage time. As you'd expect, the Celtics had excellent game scores across the board, led by Kevin Garnett's 41. Boston had four players over 20 and seven in double figures. For the series, Garnett's average game score of 31 was tops. Rajon Rondo (28) came next. Atlanta was led by Smith's 21 and Johnson's 20, totals which both fell below their season averages. If I had to pick an MVP of the series, I'd be tempted to go with Rondo.

The Hawks enter the summer with a bright future ahead of them. With a young roster on the upswing at every position and some cap dollars to spend, the franchise is in better shape than it has been in 15 years. Josh Smith and Josh Childress can both become restricted free agents and will need to be taken care of. Mike Bibby still will earn one of the 20 highest salaries in the NBA even though he'll likely be the Hawks' second-best point guard after Acie Law. Atlanta needs to add shooting but, as best as I can tell, the Hawks don't have a single pick in the upcoming draft.

The Celtics/Cavaliers matchup in the second round will be high drama. The Celtics will score well by the log5 method since they had one of the strongest point differentials in years. Meanwhile the Cavaliers were actually outscored this season. You still get the feeling it's going to be a nail-biter, especially considering Boston's road struggles in the first round. What a series--the game's most dynamic offensive force against the NBA's best defense.

--B.D.

Lakers 109, Jazz 98

The schedule-makers did the Utah Jazz no favors by having them open the Western Conference semifinals Sunday, a mere 39 hours after the deciding Game Six of the Houston/Utah series. I actually think that's a feature of the postseason schedule, not a bug, because teams should gain an upper hand going into the next series if they are able to close out quickly. That's the price the Jazz paid for not putting the Rockets away.

Anyway, I suspected Game One could turn into a Lakers rout in front of an approving Staples Center crowd, and it looked that way when the hosts took a 19-point lead early in the third quarter. It's to Utah's credit that the Jazz not only hung in, but had a legitimate chance to steal the game in the closing minutes, getting within five as late as the 2:39 mark of the fourth quarter.

Fatigue aside, the Lakers' defense had an outstanding game, limiting one of the league's most potent offenses to 98 points in 93 possessions. It occurred to me while watching the game that it is strange (though not at all surprising) that the talk about L.A.'s improvement has centered on Kobe Bryant trusting his teammates and their development, which is all about offense. The bigger difference for the Lakers has been going from a dismal defensive team (21th in the league in Defensive Rating a year ago) to a solid one (seventh this year). When the Lakers defend well--and their focus does tend to lapse at that end of the floor, particularly with Pau Gasol in the middle instead of Andrew Bynum--they are very difficult to beat.

In Game One, the Lakers defended so well that they were overcome being utterly destroyed on the defensive glass by the Jazz, who came up with 25 offensive rebounds in 58 opportunities, an impressive 43.1% offensive rebounding rate. The Lakers allowed Utah few uncontested looks and did a terrific job of forcing the Jazz to stay on the perimeter instead of playing inside-out. The result was 37.9% shooting from the field and 4-of-19 from downtown, both atypical for the Jazz. With the game on the line, the Lakers forced nine straight Utah misses from the field, surrendering just three free throws in a four-minute span.

Play defense like that and Kobe Bryant will take care of almost all the rest. Bryant scored 38 points in Game One, doing the majority of his work from the free-throw line. Bryant hit 21 free throws in 23 attempts, only one fewer make than the Jazz had as a team. Bryant did not get to the line nearly so frequently against Utah in the regular season, visiting the charity stripe 27 times in four matchups, but it would not be surprising to see him keep drawing fouls given the Jazz fouls more often than any other NBA team. I tend to be from the school of thought that the best way to defend Bryant is to keep him off the line and make him beat you with the jump shot as much as possible. It will be interesting to see if Utah gives Bryant a little more room on the perimeter going forward to defend against the drive.

Ronnie Brewer matched up with Bryant most of Game One, with Andrei Kirilenko and Kyle Korver also taking turns defending him. The nice thing about having Brewer as the primary cover for Bryant is it allows Kirilenko to use his ability as a help defender against Bryant. He had five blocks on Sunday, though none of them were against Bryant.

The Lakers got solid contributions from their reserves, led by 15 points on 4-of-6 shooting from Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic. The bench opened up the lead in the second quarter and Vujacic was +8 while Luke Walton was +9. So far this postseason, the Jazz's fortunes have been closely tied to the battle of the benches. In fact, Utah's reserves actually held a 26-22 scoring edge, but the Lakers' bench was better all-around. Kyle Korver scored 11 points, largely because he was able to get to the free-throw line on three non-shooting fouls. The Jazz got Korver some good looks off of screens, but he was unable to find the mark, missing five of his seven shots.

Utah continues to wait for a big postseason game from Carlos Boozer. At least Boozer was solid in the second half after committing an unthinkable six first-half turnovers. (Utah had 10 turnovers in the first half, three after halftime.) As for Deron Williams, who finished a rebound and an assist shy of a triple-double but still had a rough day, shooting 6-of-18 from the field and 1-of-6 from three-point range, I'm not inclined to worry. Williams had an off-day and should bounce back in Game Two. I think that game may present Utah its best chance to steal a game in Los Angeles in this series. After playing the Lakers close despite a major disadvantage in terms of fatigue and preparation, the Jazz has to feel good going into Wednesday's game.

--K.P.

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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