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May 15, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
Not Done Yet

by Kevin Pelton

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Orlando 83, Boston 75 (Series tied 3-3)
Pace: 87.5
Offensive Ratings: Orlando 96.5, Boston 84.3

You can talk all you want about "choking" and executing and things of that nature, but over time performance in close games--especially between evenly-matched teams--will even out. So it is that after two poor end-game situations, including the abomination that was the final five-and-a-half minutes of Game Five in Boston, the Orlando Magic dominated the stretch this time around. While the Boston Celtics might not have surrendered the same kind of lead, they were equally inept on offense, failing to score for the final 3:45 of the game and coming up empty on their last seven possessions. Close games are a fickle mistress.

No one thing doomed the Celtics, but rather a combination of mistakes that were nowhere near fatal on their own sealed their fate: Ray Allen being unable to knock down an open three-point look, Paul Pierce missing two free throws. The most costly mistakes came from Rajon Rondo, who forced a three-point look that got partially deflected by Rafer Alston and came nowhere near the basket, then threw the ball away on the subsequent possession.

On the other end, Orlando got the scores it needed. Dwight Howard created his own looks on the offensive glass, twice getting to the free-throw line. After missing both shots the first time, he split two the next to give the Magic the lead. In direct contrast to his frantic play in Game Five, Alston came up with a great, controlled drive that resulted in knocking down a floater in the paint. Then Hedo Turkoglu--who had been 2-for-12 from the field and missed all four of his three-point tries--threw in a long triple, and that was that.

One of the big stories of this game, in the wake of his comments after Game Five, will be Howard's touches. In this case, everybody won. The Magic looked for Howard more offensively, and he did a better job of establishing positioning, and especially going and getting the ball with 10 offensive boards. As a result, Howard got 16 shot attempts (making nine) and 12 free throws (making five, the lone downside to his game). Still, Orlando won while scoring less than a point per possession, so it would be a mistake to focus too much on the offensive end of the floor.

Boston could not get anything going in the second half, scoring 29 points. The Celtics were awful in three of the Four Factors, with turnovers being their biggest downfall--22 of them, leading to 28 Magic points. Orlando was also able to limit Boston to 13 free-throw attempts. While the Celtics made their two-point attempts at a respectable clip, they shot a dismal 3-for-16 from three-point range. Add that all up and you get 75 points in 89 possessions.

Whatever is ailing Allen, Boston could use a quick fix. This time around, Allen was unable to make the big shot after struggling all night. He missed a three with 2:32 to play in a one-point game. With the game largely out of hand, he missed again with 40 seconds left, then missed a wide-open look inside the final 10 seconds to finish 0-for-7 downtown. This isn't about defense. This is about Allen simply being unable to find the mark.

Where Allen has been successful in this series has been as part of unconventional 3-2 pick-and-rolls with Pierce initiating. The Magic has limited those opportunities by involving Rondo's defender in the play and daring Rondo to beat them from mid-range. Rondo was 3-for-9 on jumpers, and even though two of the makes happened to be three-pointers, that's too many attempts from the perimeter. That's one coaching adjustment for which the much-maligned Stan Van Gundy is not getting enough credit. The other is that, while I'd like to see more of Courtney Lee, making him the designated Eddie House-stopper has essentially taken House out of this series, robbing the Celtics of a source of offense to make up for Allen's frigid shooting.

Doc Rivers and his coaching staff have two days to figure out a way to get the offense back on track in Sunday's deciding Game Seven. Given the trajectory of this series, or lack thereof, I have no idea what to expect from that game.

Houston 95, L.A. Lakers 80
Pace: 83.3
Offensive Ratings: Houston 115.5, L.A. Lakers 94.9

Don't make this about the Los Angeles Lakers. Did they come out unexpectedly flat for the second time in as many road games since Yao Ming was lost to the Houston Rockets? Absolutely, but by the midpoint of the third quarter the Lakers had walked their way back to a two-point deficit, thanks oo a 16-2 run to start the second half. Kobe Bryant had just drawn the fourth foul on Chuck Hayes, and the Lakers had all the momentum. Focus and intensity were not factors the rest of the way. The Rockets played the Lakers straight up, and for that specific 18-minute stretch, they were the better team--and it wasn't even close.

In last week's chat session, two readers asked very similar questions about whether the Rockets/Lakers series was a reason to rethink the notion of "talent," given the obvious gap in that category between the two teams that isn't reflected on the court. I think that's right and it's wrong. It's wrong because in a pure sense, the Lakers do have more talent, and the things Houston does so well aren't really captured by that word. What I do agree is that talent in the NBA is too often used as a code word for offensive and athletic ability, ignoring other aspects. Chuck Hayes' unnatural knack for walling off the post? That's a talent. So too is Shane Battier being able to stick with Bryant for 35 minutes a night and still contribute threes and hustle plays at the other end. Even when the gap in hustle and energy was reduced in the second half, those abilities still showed up in spades.

What the Rockets are able to do, thanks to the combination of those talents, their intensity and terrific coaching, is ensure that opposing teams get absolutely nothing easy. Even when Bryant (or Brandon Roy in the last round) scores, it comes with a cost of energy and other empty possessions. So far in this series, the Lakers have shown precious little ability to put in the work necessary to succeed against that kind of defense. When things are going right, like they were in Game Five, the Lakers look terrific. In Games Four and Six, they've looked absolutely awful.

Bryant scored 32 points, but he needed 27 shot attempts and 10 attempts from the free-throw line to get them, meaning he was scoring about a point per shooting possession. You can definitely live with that. Kudos to Ron Artest, who did a good job against Bryant--even drawing a bit of a phantom technical foul--when they matched up for brief stretches. The Lakers needed a second scorer, and none was forthcoming on this evening. Hayes completely shut Gasol down, and the double-teams Houston brought when Carl Landry stepped in with Hayes in foul trouble kept Gasol quiet then as well.

The only Lakers player to score in double figures efficiently was Jordan Farmar, who came off the bench for 13 points in 21 minutes, knocking down three triples. Derek Fisher was in for the Lakers' third-quarter run and had a respectable plus-minus (-3), but there's really no argument right now that he should be playing over Farmar. Trevor Ariza was 2-for-6, Luke Walton 0-for-5, and it's not like these guys were missing great shot attempts. When they were open, it's because that what the Rockets defense dictated, and they got the results they wanted.

Houston was awfully good on offense as well. What we saw in the first quarter, when the Rockets put up 27 points, was as fine a display of ball movement as you'll get. The Lakers are going to commit help defenders, and the way to beat them is to continue sharing the ball and forcing the defense into a scramble situation. That requires unselfishness, patience, good decision-making and having the floor spaced, and Houston accomplished all four. The main beneficiary was Luis Scola, who scored 14 of his 24 points in the first period, dominating a disturbingly disinterested Gasol as well as Andrew Bynum.

Scola might not even have been the best Rockets big on offense, an honor that could go to Landry. Scola never got back in the game after Hayes replaced him with 8:48 to play because Landry was scoring so effectively. He made all six of his shot attempts to score 15 points, adding nine rebounds in 27 minutes highlighted by an emphatic flush in traffic during the fourth quarter.

The play of Scola and Landry helped Houston score efficiently without having to make an unreasonable number of three-pointers (seven in 18 attempts, a 38.9 percent clip). The hottest Rocket from beyond the arc was Aaron Brooks, who put up 26 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Houston has had success moving the pick-and-roll with Brooks a step further away from the basket, giving him a head start toward the basket to take advantage of his speed.

The pick-and-roll is hardly a new problem for the Lakers, but it's got to be their primary concern on defense between now and Game Seven. Hayes has frequently been the screen man, and the Lakers are probably best off almost entirely ignoring him while committing both defenders to Brooks and having the post defender aggressively come up to cut off Brooks' drive and get the ball out of his hands--though that can create the kind of ball movement that was such a problem last night.

The Houston offense's biggest enemy is over-dribbling, a self-inflicted wound of which Artest is frequently guilty. He hit some big shots, but 14 points on 17 shot attempts still isn't cutting it.

By having to return home to play a deciding Game Seven, the Lakers have already put themselves in a bad position. At best, they'll enter the Western Conference Finals beaten up after a hard-fought series. If they don't come ready to work and execute, the Rockets have proven more than capable of stealing this series.

--

Celtice or Magic? Lakers or Rockets? Kevin Pelton chats about the upcoming Game Sevens, as well as other NBA topics, this Friday at 1 p.m. over at BaseballProspectus.com.

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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Rest or Rust (05/16)

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