Saturday, May 30, 2009

Initial Finals Thoughts

First off: congratulations to both the Magic and the Lakers. Both of these teams deserve to be exactly where they are, and together form an absolutely worthy pair of potential champions. Further, both teams have gone through an incredible amount to get to where they are now -- Boston, Cleveland, Houston, and Denver would be included in the top six teams in the NBA in every year that I can recall. On that note, Charles Barkley said something during the Cavs-Magic postgame that I think will be lost over the coming days -- that Cleveland's winning the most games during the regular season was a remarkable accomplishment. Take a look at that roster, 2 through 15, and then think about how much credit is due to Mike Brown, Lebron James, and the willingness of all of those role players to put everything into filling their roles perfectly.

Also, regarding the Magic: please ignore any talk that suggests that their being here is a fluke. Further, I would like to suggest the following statement for further discussion. It is currently an incomplete thought, but I think it is a starting point for something productive: Jameer Nelson is to the 2009 NBA playoffs as Andrew Bynum was to the 2008 playoffs.

Finally, before we begin an ongoing discussion of the Lakers-Magic matchup, we should take a moment to give credit to Mr. Courtney Lee. A rookie. Think about that, for a moment. All season, and throughout the playoffs, this young man has been exactly what Orlando has needed, and we just don't see that from a rookie.

Ok, so what is there to say about Lakers-Magic? We'll hopefully continue to talk about the matchups up until Game 1 on June 4th, and throughout what should be a fascinating series. In the meantime, here are some initial thoughts.

Rebounding: As is often the case with the Lakers, the rebounding battle should be an enlightening one. During the regular season, the Lakers were the 3rd best offensive rebounding team in the league, while the Magic were the 2nd best defensive rebounding team in the league. If the Magic are able to limit the Lakers' second-chance points, they have a chance of slowing down an incredibly impressive offense -- during the regular season the Magic were one of the best teams in the league at defending the two most efficient areas on the court -- the three point line and the area closest to the basket (the Magic's success in both of these areas is evidence backing up Dwight Howard's choice as Defensive Player of the Year: discuss). The Magic's ability to defend efficient shot attempts without compromising their team defensive positioning (they are able to defend most positions without having to collapse and leave open shooters, thanks to Dwight Howard's ownership of the paint) allows them to be in position to rebound to finish out defensive posessions. So, for instance, the Magic held the 76ers -- the second best offensive rebounding team in the league during the regular season, to retrieving just 21% of their own misses in the playoffs, far below average.

And individual matchups? A couple of quick thoughts: Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza are as well-suited to guarding the Magic's nightmare forward lineup of Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis as anyone in the league. Those guys will present mismatches no matter what, but against the Lakers, that effect should be minimized. At the other end, while I admire what Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus have accomplished this year, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Kobe Bryant is uniquely suited to destroying the Magic defense.

The real story will be Dwight Howard on offense. During the playoffs, he has shown growth at that end, to the point where you can no longer count on being able to force him into turnovers with unexpected doubles (he's been making better and better passes), or being able to effectively single-cover him (Kendrick Perkins was able to do this, but there aren't any Lakers with Perkins' ability as a post-defender).

We'll have some more complete thoughts up here in the coming days, but I wanted to start the discussion right away. If you have any thoughts, leave them below.

Predictions? I'll go Lakers, in 5 or 6.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Before you crown Cleveland

Let me tell you something. During the regular season, and so far in the playoffs, Cleveland has been a better team than Orlando. They've had a better record, a better efficiency differential, and any look at the stats currently available lead to only one reasonable conclusion -- that the Cavaliers are more likely to win the Eastern Conference than the Magic are. The Cavs are playing with a better starting hand.

Part of the reason I like to focus on matchups in playoff series is because I still believe they're important. But another reason is because there is actually a discussion to be had. I'm sorry, but claiming that the "better" (in terms of efficiency differential or won/loss record) team will win, and then if they don't, blaming it on luck? I'm not insisting it's wrong -- my day job as a statistician doesn't really allow me to go that far -- but I will say: that is boring.

So, let's talk about matchups. Among his many skills and talents, Lebron James has a remarkable ability to get into the low paint on offense, and finish once he's there. The stats at 82games bear it out, as does the Hotspot map:

Recall my own writings on offense and defense in the "low paint" from earlier posts. Lebron took nearly 40% of his shots from that area, and converted at a close to 70% rate. Cleveland's offense relies on that efficiency to generate points and create opportunities for the rest of the team. Any team hoping to slow them down needs a way to challenge him near the rim without collapsing and leaving wide open spot-up shooters. And it just so happens, the Magic have someone who can help with that.

Three games isn't enough to prove anything one way or the other, but what we've seen of Lebron vs. the Magic has been telling. The splits show that he has shot worse percentages (47% eFG%, vs. 53% for the season), but luckily I can dig even deeper. As it turns out, when Dwight Howard was on the court, Lebron took 63 shot attempts, but only 7 of those (11%) came in the low paint -- this is a far lower rate than what he was used to over the season (this speaks well not only for Dwight's help defense in the halfcourt, but the Magic's transition D also; it probably also has something to do with Lebron perhaps choosing to shoot 3's when he was hitting them). Lebron is actually a decently effective, if streaky, midrange shooter -- the thing is, at that range, he is human. You can beat a human in basketball. All told, Lebron hit 28 of his 63 shots when Dwight Howard was on the court, resulting in 61 points. 61 points on 63 shots comes out to an eFG% of 48%, which just isn't enough for Cleveland to win regularly. It's not just the points lost on his attempts (after all, if he shoots his season average, he scores 67 points on those shots -- 6 points over 3 games isn't a huge change), but the opportunites that don't open up for guys whose job it is to shoot wide open shots without having to put the ball on the floor.

Orlando struggled with Boston. Boston is a hell of a team, though, even though they were greatly diminished by injuries. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen can shoot mid-range shots off the dribble more efficiently than anyone on Cleveland's roster. These things matter.

The Lebron-Dwight matchup at the rim isn't the only story of this series. But I don't want to pretend it's completely unimportant. It will be important for Cleveland's offense for their bigs to move effectively without the ball and find open spots either at the basket or on the perimeter, while Dwight Howard is focused on helping on Lebron. If Ilgauskas (and Joe Smith) is hitting consistently from outside, or Varejao is finding open lanes to the rim, then the Cavs should be pretty efficient offensively. But those things are not guaranteed. The big takeaway for me: you give yourself a chance when Lebron produces like a human (still a star, but not an otherworldly one).

So let's give Orlando more of a chance than all of these people. Not because they're all wrong, but because I hope that the playoffs are about more than 7 flips of a weighted coin, weighted for the team with the better efficiency differential over the course of the season. There is something unsettling about the unanimity in favor of the Cavs. Like everyone is overlooking just how brilliant the Magic D is, or how dangerous the mismatches caused by Turkoglu and Lewis can be when the Magic are on offense. Forget all of the drivel about killer instincts and having a closer and this and that. The Magic have gotten this far against far tougher competition than Cleveland. Now is when they show us who they are, whether they have the instinct, whether they can get it done. We can't assume failure before they've even begun. Bollocks to conventional wisdom, Vitamin Water, ESPN, and even my beloved stats people. I'm picking the Magic in 6.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Monday, May 4, 2009

Quick Follow Up

In the previous post (please read), I meant to write something about Rajon Rondo and walking the dog, in regards to the Magic-Celtics Game 1. As it turns out, though, Henry Abbot beat me to it, and wrote it much better than I would have:

Rafer Alston made, honestly, one of the most fascinating and exciting plays of the year with about 3:23 left in the game. After a Dwight Howard free throw, the Magic were up a dozen. Perhaps the game would soon be out of reach. 

With a stopped clock, Rondo had the opportunity to save some precious seconds. The clock wouldn't start until he touched the ball. So he didn't, letting it bounce up the court.

This is sometimes called walking the dog.

Alston gave Rondo room ... to a point. But as Dwight Howard ran by, Alston hid behind him a bit and then ... POUNCED FOR THE KILL. Just launched his body fully horizontal, like a jaguar, diving cleanly between Rondo and that ball. 

If Rondo walked the dog, and Alston was a dog assassin.

Just so ballsy and strategic. It was a risky play by Alston, and bizarre and creative. But justified, as it worked.

But then he was lying on the floor, more or less on the ball, while Mr. Big Active Hands Rajon Rondo began to work him over. Alston's teammates didn't know what was up, and didn't rush to make themselves targets for an Alston pass. Within a couple of seconds, Rondo not only had the ball back, but he then fired a strike to Brian Scalabrine, who was wide open for a game-changing 3.

The one thing that the Magic got out of it, however, was that they had at least made Rondo think twice about where he walks his dog. Right?


In the game's closing seconds, Rondo showed all of his indomitability, by making history for quite probably the longest dog walk ever in NBA play. He escorted the ball, untouched, three-quarters of the length of the court, before plucking it up at the 3-point line and firing. A hero for doing that. And a flawed one, for missing as badly as he did.

Real Talk

(Title stolen from a friend of the site)

Real Talk
Yao Ming is a baller

I think Ron Artest is great, but come on -- Yao Ming needs some better PR. Fuck what you heard, he's the best center we have in the game right now. And he was healthy all season. And he's killing it in the playoffs.

Which reminds me: is this year the redemption of the foreign player? The regular season storyline was about the U.S. Olympic Team players playing out of their minds.  But with the last couple of years, we've seen the storylines surrounding Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol in the playoffs reflect a general attitude towards international players that has been a little concerning (see this, for instance). But now in the playoffs, between the way Yao Ming has been playing, and the way Dirk Nowitzki has been playing (also fantastic), it seems like maybe we might have a bit of a redemption year. Not to mention the play of Luis Scola, which has been superb. 

And: Orlando has matchup advantages all over the floor against Boston. The fact that Boston came back tonight -- that's either a big concern, or a giant fluke. I'm not sure yet. During that fourth quarter run, Orlando seemed so caught up in trying to exploit mismatches that they started going into pure iso-play, which I don't see working against a defense like Boston's. Orlando won the game, though, so let's hope they learned their lesson. You heard it here first: Orlando WILL give Cleveland some trouble if they meet in the playoffs. Cleveland can win the series, but the way it's written about it's like it's a done deal. Don't sleep on the Magic. 

Back to the Rockets: Did I mention Yao Ming led my "points saved in the low paint" stat? He's good, people. And he was healthy this year. That is important. We are lucky.