Sunday, April 19, 2009

Weekend Thoughts (Playoffs!)

Sorry for the weird frequency around here. In and out of town, and a generally odd weekend.

Speaking of which, some comments on the playoffs so far, including some stuff I wanted to include in the previews before they got cut short:

- I was pretty convinced that Atlanta would win the Hawks-Heat series, and that it wouldn't be as close as people were predicting. But an almost-30 point blowout? That is not representative of what this series will look like (is it?). For one, as we've stated here before, the Hawks are a different team on the road from what they are at home, particularly defensively. One result that's not a mirage, though, is Josh Smith's playing well. I alluded to this earlier, but he looked better and better, more and more assertive, near the end of the season. Here's an example -- his propensity to end up with dunks or layups over time, since his return from injury in December (click to enlarge):

- The Lakers defend well -- the really do. But they defend strategically, also. While teams like Cleveland and Boston have visibly strong defenses, denying everything without question, the Lakers seem to encourage their opponents to send the ball into certain spots. Anyways, one way to be able to beat their defense is to be able to knock down three-pointers. Unfortunately for Utah, the Jazz are the second least three-point-shooting team in the league, shooting 3's on just 16% of their shots (only Oklahoma City shot fewer 3's during the regular season, at 14%). Without Okur, their offense is going to clog up really easily against L.A.. If Okur comes back, though, he'll help pull the Laker shotblockers out of the paint, and create some space down low for all of those cuts.

- Speaking of the Lakers -- one quiet concern for them is how Kobe Bryant is holding up at this point in the season. Numerous little tweaks and bumps, the trip to the Finals last year, the Summer Olympics, and a fantastic full regular season . . .. Is he wearing down at all? How can we tell? I looked at his dunk-to-layup ratio from month to month (the dunk-to-layup ratio was first published, as far as I know, in this wonderful book):

Other than a little bump immediately after the All-Star break (late February, early March), Kobe's dunk-to-layup ratio has been in decline all season. Is he wearing down? Or just saving himself for the post-season? I guess we'll find out soon (he looked fantastic in the first game against the Jazz).

- From the All-Star break through the end of the season, J.R. Smith shot 58% eFG%, continuing to score 18 points per game in just 29 minutes. He had some ridiculous games near the end of the year, but he's been hot for a while. His hot streaks still seem to envelop him, though -- like, he and the crowd all get so caught up in trying to figure out just what he can do, and it ends, invariably, in a three-point attempt from 5 feet behind the line with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. You take the good with the bad.

- Speaking of the Nuggets: they are much more talented than the Hornets, and probably should win their series with them. But I wonder if the series might come down to Chris Anderson and J.R. Smith -- New Orleans has so little depth, that that handful of minutes off the Nuggets' bench might be the difference.

- The only result that I really never saw coming was Philadelphia squeaking by Orlando in Game 1. That said, I still think Orlando has a good chance of making it all the way to the finals.

- Kelly Dwyer wrote, much more eloquently than I have, about the sort of rim-protection that I've been going on about here lately. However, according to the "points saved" number I came up with (looking at Totals, and not rate-statistics like per-minute or per-shot attempt), the top low-paint protectors were, in order: Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Kurt Thomas, Kevin Garnett. While Yao Ming is an outstanding player, his numbers are probably inflated since he has so much perimeter help from Shane Battier and Ron Artest, so I'm cool with the vote for Dwight Howard for Defensive Player of the Year. However, doesn't Kurt Thomas seem out of place on that list? I dug into the numbers, and as it turns out Kurt Thomas has had quite a defensive year by a number of measures. And, though the sample sizes are small, the Spurs performed better on defense when they held the rest of the lineup constant and replaced Tim Duncan with Kurt Thomas.

- I am slowly becoming a huge Houston fan. They looked great against Portland in game 1. I fully expect them to make it to the second round, and a series between them and the Lakers would be far, far more interesting and competitive than, I think, most pundits would predict.

- Speaking of the Portland-Houston series, a couple of things to watch: (1) The battle of the boards. Portland was the best offensive rebounding team in the league during the regular season, and Houston was 4th in the league in defensive rebounding. Something has to give. In Game 1, Portland was able to do a good job grabbing their own misses, with Joel Pryzbilla and Greg Oden combining for 6 offensive rebounds in under 39 combined minutes. Houston won anyways, though, partly because they were able to hold Portland to an uncharacteristic 1-11 from the three-point line. That brings us to (2) Houston allowed the third fewest three-point attempts as a percentage of shot attempts of any defense during the regular season, while Portland often worked inside-out to get open 3's for Steve Blake, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, and Travis Outlaw.

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