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May 4, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Up to His Elbow

by Bradford Doolittle

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Boston 104, at Cleveland 86 (Series tied 1-1)
Pace: 92.9
Offensive Ratings: Celtics 111.9, Cavaliers 92.5

Love was in the air before game two of the Cleveland-Boston series. Hometown hero LeBron James accepted his second straight MVP award from commish David Stern during the pregame ablutions, putting the already-raucous crowd into a state of ecstasy. The next scene in the script called for the Cavs to go out and whip them some Celtic ass and, in the doing, seize a 2-0 advantage in their Eastern Conference semifinal series. Just another ruby-covered stepping stone along the journey to the long-anticipated coronation of King James. Instead, the killjoy Celtics rolled to a series-tying win that proves once again that one's road to a first title is fraught with boobie-traps and pitfalls. This is the kind of thing Joseph Campbell used to write about.

The game seemed looped on a repeating flow, but with each repetition, the loop stretched and Cleveland's resolve frayed. The Celtics would push out to a lead. The Cavaliers would respond with a run. Eventually, the leads grew larger, and the runs came up short. Boston grabbed control of the game with a huge third quarter, posting a 138.6 Offensive Rating while limiting Cleveland to 53.6. The Cavs' 22 possessions that period yielded five two-point field goals, two free throw and five turnovers. With the game slipping away during the penultimate period, James managed four points and zero assists despite playing all 12 minutes.

Prior to game two, Boston coach Doc Rivers came right and flatly said that Rasheed Wallace needed to step up his game. Apparently, it was the right button to push. Wallace scored 17 points in 18:11 off the bench, hitting 3-of-4 three pointers and using just eight possessions. He had 13 points in the first half, using five possessions, as his efficiency was boosted by a 3-of-3 showing beyond the arc. It wasn't all perimeter for Wallace, either. He went to work on J.J. Hickson in the post in the fourth quarter, helping spark a late Boston run that clipped what appeared to be a possible Cleveland rally. Down the stretch, Rivers had to pull Wallace because Cleveland started attacking him with the pick-and-roll, but Wallace had already made a major impact on the game by that point.

Boston put on an exhibition of ball movement and motion away from the ball on the offensive end. As we mentioned in our series preview, the Cleveland defense is more vulnerable when you attack them with lots of movement and swing the ball. Boston flourished on shots off of screens (1.73 points on 11 plays), in transition and on cuts to the hoop. Rajon Rondo was instrumental in the attack, penetrating over and over and kicking out to the right shooter or the right cutter. Rondo handed out 19 assists, which tied his career high and set a playoff record for a Cleveland opponent. Another point we made before the series was that a reasonably high turnover count wouldn't necessarily be a bad sign for Boston. It's not that turnovers in themselves are good. They're obviously not. It's what they indicate, at least in the Celtics' case. When they run a lot of isolations, or have guys raise up in spot-up situations, it plays into the hands of Cleveland, which defends those types of shots very well. However, if the Celtics are moving the ball, it's to their advantage, even if a few bad passes result. Boston had 19 turnovers on Monday, giving the ball up on 20.4 percent of its possessions. However, the Celtics still put up a solid Offensive Rating for the reasons already outlined.

That said, 19 turnovers may have been nudging the upper limit for Boston. Cleveland was at its best in transition, scoring 1.25 points on 20 opportunities. When the Cavaliers made their fourth-quarter run, trimming a 24-point deficit to 10, it was turnovers and runouts that propelled them. One other split for Cleveland was interesting. Before the series, we noted how the Cavs were much better in pick-and-roll spots when the ballhandler, usually James, was able to get the shot. However, on Monday, Cleveland scored just six points on 12 such plays, while getting 11 points on nine plays in which the screener ended up with the shot. That suggests that the Celtics were aggressively forcing the ball out of James' hands, which they were. Even in base sets, the Celtics were loading up on the strong side, presenting James with a wall to penetrate. James wasn't comfortable with his outside shot, so the strategy limited his chances.

James did get 15 free throws in the game, but with his elbow aching, he made just 10. He shot poorly from the outside and with the Celtics able to shrink the floor against him, while still recovering to contest the Cavs' spot-up shooters, the Cleveland offense looked very ordinary. The Cavaliers did go on its second half run when Mike Brown went with a small lineup, something we may see more of in subsequent games.

James' elbow has become the story of the series. With the home advantage currently with the Celtics, James is going to have to produce more than 15 shots and four assists. But can he? How bad is the injury? It looked grim on Monday. However, he supposedly hurt the elbow a few weeks ago, and that didn't stop him from putting up huge numbers in the first round, pulling up and hitting a half-court shot without exaggerating his normal jump-shot release against Chicago, or putting up big numbers in game one against Boston. Is James' elbow just the latest chapter in Cleveland's incessantly-thwarted quest for a major championship? If you're were betting, you'd have to put your money on James bouncing back in a big way. But if you're a Cavs fan, the hours until Friday's game three will seem very long indeed.

BOS          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  23  112.7  .767  .000  .200  .303  5.55
Second Quarter 24  106.1  .481  .231  .038  .122  6.41
Third Quarter  22  138.6  .676  .167  .471  .179  6.89
Fourth Quarter 23   91.3  .450  .333  .150  .217  5.24
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     48  109.3  .585  .167  .098  .210  5.98
SECOND HALF    45  114.6  .554  .267  .297  .198  6.07
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          93  111.9  .571  .212  .192  .204  6.02
======================================================
CLE          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  23   95.3  .417  .286  .083  .130  5.90
Second Quarter 24  106.1  .536  .000  .786  .163  4.55
Third Quarter  22   53.6  .313  .091  .125  .224  3.58
Fourth Quarter 23  113.0  .469  .111  .688  .130  4.14
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FIRST HALF     48  100.9  .461  .182  .342  .147  5.22
SECOND HALF    45   83.8  .391  .154  .406  .176  3.83
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FINAL          93   92.5  .429  .143  .371  .161  4.54
======================================================

at Phoenix 111, Spurs 102 (Suns lead 1-0)
Pace: 95.7
Offensive Ratings: Suns 115.4, Spurs 106.0

The Spurs have been together for so long, that they can't swing a dead cat around the Western Conference without hitting a long-time nemesis. Such is the case in the second-round matchup with the Suns, whose inability to get past the Spurs in the postseason led to the ill-fated Shaquille O'Neal experiment of the last couple of seasons. This time however, the Suns are back where they started, with Seven Seconds or Less Lite, and just enough defense sprinkled in to keep coach Alvin Genry happy.

Phoenix controlled the tempo in game one, with a 93-possession contest that worked to its advantage. The Suns raced to an early lead, fought off a number of San Antonio runs, then held on down the stretch. Steve Nash scored 33 points to lead Phoenix and was the maestro of a third-quarter run that turned a tie game into a 10-point lead. Nash made young George Hill look a little helpless at times.

This was a matchup of the teams' respective big threes. For San Antonio, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobil combined for 73 points, while Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson teamed up for 83. All six of those players topped the 20-point mark. No other player in the game reached double figures. In a way, that's only moderately unusual. San Antonio and Phoenix both feature attacks that are based on the pick-and-roll, with the same characters running the same players and executing ad nauseam.

The Spurs were switching on the pick-and-roll in an attempt to keep from being dominated by Stoudemire. In 21 pick-and-rolls, the screener ended up with the shot just three times. This turned Nash into more of a scorer than a passer, but he of course is one of the game's most-efficient scorers. With both teams flourishing in transition, Nash did find time to dole out 10 assists.

San Antonio seemed to be at its best on offense with a small lineup that featured Duncan at center, and four guards on the floor at the same time. It helped the Spurs get back into the game in the fourth, after Phoenix opened up a 14-point advantage. Ultimately, the Spurs weren't able to get enough stops in that alignment.

This was just the opening salvo of a series that promises to feature a lot of adjustments on both sides. The benches weren't a huge factor in the game, unless you really consider Parker to be a bench player. Phoenix relied on its bench often this season, so it'll be interesting to see how San Antonio reacts in a second quarter in which the Phoenix bench starts rolling up the points. Interesting first game of what looks to be a very competitive series.

up next

SAS          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  25   86.9  .381  .083  .286  .079  4.53
Second Quarter 23  109.0  .500  .200  .667  .218  3.59
Third Quarter  24  118.3  .591  .273  .091  .169  5.82
Fourth Quarter 24  111.3  .460  .231  .160  .041  5.05
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FIRST HALF     48   97.4  .431  .136  .444  .145  4.06
SECOND HALF    48  114.7  .521  .250  .128  .104  5.44
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          96  106.0  .482  .196  .265  .125  4.75
======================================================
PHX          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  25  122.5  .636  .222  .136  .198  4.01
Second Quarter 23  113.3  .524  .300  .190  .131  3.98
Third Quarter  24  118.3  .636  .125  .000  .169  6.58
Fourth Quarter 24  107.1  .393  .111 1.071  .165  3.29
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     48  118.1  .581  .263  .163  .166  3.99
SECOND HALF    48  112.6  .542  .100  .417  .167  4.94
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          96  115.4  .563  .194  .278  .166  4.47
======================================================

Data from My Synergy Sports was used to compile this report..

Follow Bradford on Twitter at @bbdoolittle.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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Exit Strategy (05/04)
<< Previous Column
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