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May 14, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Tuesday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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Pistons 91, Magic 86

There are certain little things in every sport that drive coaches batty. Fundamental things, things that bother coaches as much in junior high competition as they do at the professional level.

In baseball, itís pitchers who canít throw strikes, batters who swing at pitches over their head on advantage counts or speed guys who swing with an uppercut. In football, itís illegal motion penalties in the red zone, needless late hits or a running back who carries the ball like a loaf of bread. In basketball, those simple little fundamental things are protecting the basketball and making free throws. Failure in those areas will send any hoops coach into therapy. So you have to figure that, this morning, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy is being fitted for a straitjacket.

The Magic shot an effective field goal percentage of 54.7 compared to 38.0 for Detroit. Orlando outrebounded the rugged Pistons 46-38. Nevertheless, itís Van Gundyís squad that is going home after an incredible minus 18 showing in the turnover column. How incredible was it? The disparity was the biggest of the NBA season. Here are the five largest single-game turnover margins in the regular season:

                     OPP
DATE   TEA OPP   TO   TO  NET POSS
11/17  HOU PHX    9   25   16   99
11/20  GSW NYK   11   27   16   97
1/23   SAS LAL    7   22   15   91
12/21  DET MEM    8   22   14   88
1/4    CLE SAC    7   21   14   90

The Pistons beat the previous largest margin by two. Detroit's three turnovers matched the NBA season low, set by the Spurs on Nov. 21. The opponent? Yep, the Magic. Orlando was 26th in turnover margin during the season; Detroit was fourth. Orlando was middle of the pack (15th) in terms of taking care of the ball, but the Magic was 25th in forced turnovers. Coupled with an average deficit on the offensive glass of 1.6 rebounds per game, the turnover disparity led to Orlando getting five fewer field-goal attempts than its opponents per game. The Magic somewhat compensated for that by shooting more free throws than its opponents, but, on most nights, Orlando was forced to shoot a much higher percentage from the floor to win. The Magic is such a good-shooting team that the formula worked well enough for the most part, but no team can overcome an minus 18 turnover margin. In the playoffs, Orlando has the worst average turnover margin of all 16 postseason entrants.

When you think of minimizing turnovers and creating them on the other end, youíll usually consider a teamís point guard to be the most important factor in driving those elements. The top-five teams in turnover margin all have solid point play: Golden State (Baron Davis), Toronto (Jose Calderon/T.J. Ford), New Orleans (Chris Paul), Detroit (Chauncey Billups) and Philadelphia (Andre Miller). The Magic look to Jameer Nelson. Nelson gives away a half a turnover more than his counterparts on a per-48 minutes basis, and on his team he is exceeded by Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu as high-usage players who commit a lot of turnovers without creating many by the opposition.

The other area in which Orlando broke down on Tuesday was at the foul line. The Magic went 16-of-28, a critical shortcoming in a close game. Nine of the 12 misses were by Howard, who scored just 14 points in 44 minutes. Howard seemed to coast through this game at times, especially down the stretch. Maybe that observation is a function of his facial expressions--he always has an amiable look on his face and generally seems to enjoy playing the game. Shame on him. Thatís a joke, of course, but Howard could use a little more nasty in his game. In any event, he didnít really match the intensity of Rasheed Wallace when it was most needed.

Howard has rough edges to sand off in his game. The free-throw shooting is at the top of the list; he has to improve that or he will be confined to a career of hack-a-Howard strategies that will limit his ceiling. Heís also got to get better in terms of his back-to-the-basket moves. He can break out some Kevin McHale videos. He struggled all series to get shots in the slow-paced, halfcourt style of hoops that the Pistons dictated to the younger Magic. Howard was 4-of-8 from the floor on Tuesday. Eight field-goal attempts in 44 minutes in a game that important just isnít going to get it done.

This is a crucial offseason for Orlando GM Otis Smith. In Nelson, Howard, Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, the Magic clearly has a core it can win with. It has a star player in Howard that has an excellent attitude and who, at 22, has plenty of growth left in his game. Orlando has unrestricted free agents in Carlos Arroyo, Keyon Dooling, Maurice Evans and Pat Garrity, plus a restricted free agent in James Augustine. In addition, Adonal Foyle and Keith Bogans are sitting on player options. Smith needs a starting two-guard and he must improve the teamís depth. With Battie coming back from injury, Orlando could move Howard to power forward, Lewis to the three and Turkoglu to the two. However, that configuration sort of undermines what made the Magic so unique and special this season.

Orlandoís big four are locked up, which is good, but they, along with Tony Battie, will eat up a combined a combined $50 million of cap space. If Bogans and Foyle exercise their options and you add in other commitments to J.J. Redick, Marcin Gortat and some money Orlando still is responsible for to Brian Cook, Smith is already over the cap and the Magic arenít a likely candidate to tread into luxury tax territory. Smith is going to have to be creative to fill a number of holes in the roster. However, Danny Ainge provided every GM with a blueprint on how to fashion a complementary roster without much cap room with which to work. It can be done.

The Pistons are a long ways from worrying about cap space and roster holes. Detroit is in a great position, having closed out the conference semifinals in five games without rushing Billups back into action. If the Cleveland/Boston series goes the distance, a fairly likely scenario, the Pistons wonít play for another week.

NOTE: The classical music demographic of Prospectus readership was up in arms over my incorrect attribution of ďCarmina BuranaĒ to Mozart in yesterdayís Cleveland/Boston recap. Yes, Iím one of those dabblers that thinks every piece of classical music I like was written by Mozart and ďO FortunaĒ sure sounds like something he would have written. Alas, he did not, unless his ghost was whispering music into the ear of Carl Orff 145 years after Mozart succumbed to Salieriís poison. (Yes, I know it was just a movie.) My apologies to Orff fans everywhere. I promise to stick to Neil Young references from here on out.

--B.D.

Hornets 101, Spurs 79

In a strange turn of events, Charles Barkley has emerged as the voice of reason on TNT's "Inside the NBA". While colleagues Ernie Johnson and Kenny Smith were ready to anoint the San Antonio Spurs as favorites after two wins at the AT&T Center, Barkley remained resolute in his stance that the next game in a playoff series has nothing to do with the last one. Just as the series changed dramatically between Games Two and Three, it did again with a venue shift back to the New Orleans Arena. The Hornets won going away to take a 3-2 lead in the series and give the Spurs no margin for error heading into Game Six.

It wasn't quite that easy for the Hornets. San Antonio led by as many as seven points in the second quarter, hitting six three-pointers in the first 20 minutes of the game. As in Game One, the shots stopped falling and the game turned after halftime. New Orleans started the third quarter with a 20-4 run. Thereafter, the teams mostly traded baskets before the Hornets scored 13 straight points late in the fourth quarter to turn a close game into a laugher.

This may sound crazy, but I don't feel like there was a ton of difference between the way the Hornets played in their lopsided Game Four loss and last night's win. The nature of this series appears to be that small changes end up making a big difference--especially in concert with the visiting teams being unable to stop the home teams when they get rolling and get the crowd into it.

The Hornets didn't need to get Peja Stojakovic going to resuscitate their offense. Stojakovic had nine points in 45 minutes of action, but New Orleans put up 101 points in just 80 possessions. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have David West be absolutely unconscious. West scored half of the Hornets' 44 first-half points and finished with 38 on 25 shots and 28 shooting possessions, good for a 67.8% True Shooting Percentage for the game.

Chris Paul was a passer in the first half, handing out eight assists. After halftime, Paul became a scorer, putting up 16 points while still setting up his teammates to finish the night with 22 points and 14 assists.

Defensively, the Hornets adjusted their double teams on Tim Duncan and completely shut him down. Duncan scored 10 points, double his Game One output, but needed 18 shots to reach double figures. Duncan was all over the glass, pulling down 23 rebounds, but got to the free-throw line only once all night.

The funny thing is, for all the talk of the Spurs' shooting and the double teams that left players open, San Antonio shot the ball little worse than they did in Game Four. While almost all the threes came early, the Spurs shot a strong 39.1% from downtown. However, New Orleans cut down on the scores in the paint resulting from scrambling to rotate on D. The Spurs shot worse from inside the arc (37.1%) than on threes. Tony Parker scored 18 points, but he was unable to control the game from the point in the same way he did in the two games in San Antonio, and the Hornets forced Manu Ginobili (5-of-15) into an inefficient shooting night as well.

As we look ahead to Game Six, the big concern for New Orleans is the health of West and center Tyson Chandler. West had his lower back iced on the sidelines in the closing minutes, while Chandler left early in the fourth quarter after bruising his left foot. One of Byron Scott's most successful adjustments last night was shortening his rotation and relying on his starting five, so the Hornets need both players healthy and able to log heavy minutes.

It's tempting and not necessarily off-base to suggest the home-court advantage will continue to dominate this series. Scott must be prepared to be ready to change up his team's defense on Duncan; any time New Orleans stays with one scheme for too long, the Spurs find a way to exploit it. Meanwhile, Gregg Popovich and company should find some tweaks on defense. They can also count on West not nearly being as hot as he was last night. The result might be another rapid swing in a series that has been full of them so far.

--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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