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May 8, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
The Magic Dragic

by Bradford Doolittle

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Cleveland 124, at Boston 95 (Cavaliers lead 2-1)
Pace: 85.3
Offensive Ratings: Cavaliers 145.4, Celtics 111.4

LeBron James didn't waste much time in making a statement in Friday's game three. Halfway through the first quarter, James had already hit three jump shots, a layup and two free throws. Elbow injury? What elbow injury? He of course was just warming up, but already James had demonstrated that his struggles in the previous game, a surprisingly easy Boston win on the Cavaliers' home floor, were a product of a simple off-night. James has those, too, you know. Sometimes, he doesn't hit his outside shot. It doesn't happen as often as it once did in his career, but it does happen. If Boston fans were banking on a less-than 100 percent James boosting their chances for a second-round upset, forget it. Ain't going to happen.

The Cavaliers had the Celtics on their heels from the start. James, who often defers to his teammates early in games, was aggressive right from the start. The Cavs attacked the rim repeatedly, going 12-of-18 from the field and 12-of-13 from the line in the first quarter. Cleveland outrebounded Boston 15-5 in the period, grabbing 12-of-15 defensive rebounds and 3-of-5 on the offensive glass. James and Antawn Jamison combined for 30 points and 10 boards in the first frame, as the Cavs built a 21-point lead at one point. At the other end, Cavs coach Mike Brown put Anthony Parker on Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. Parker chased Rondo all over the floor, while the other Cavalier defenders stuck close to their assignments. The result was a stagnant Celtic offense that relied way too much on Rondo. The ball movement, screening and cutting that had made Boston so efficient in game two were all missing. The Cavaliers made the adjustments and took all of those things away.

Boston was never able to make game of it. The Celtics' offense improved after the first quarter, but the defense was helpless against James and company. The Cavs put up a 145.4 Offensive Rating for the game and were at 125.9 or more in all four quarters. Cleveland flourished on all play types, but its performance on the pick-and-roll really stood out. The Cavs averaged 1.4 points on 20 screens with the handler taking the shot. The Celtics were going under when Jamison screened for James, and LeBron simply raised and knocked down shots. However, Jamison, JJ Hickson and Shaquille O'Neal were all factors after screening, as Cleveland also scored 1.14 points on 14 pick-and-roll sets when the screener took the shot. All told, the Cavs scored an average of 1.3 points on their 34 pick-and-rolls.

It was a complete defensive breakdown for the Celtics, but their offense wasn't great, either, as its efficiency was boosted by extended garbage time. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined to shoot 6-of-24 from the floor, scoring 18 points on 30 possessions. Rondo had 18 points and 8 assists, but used up 20 possessions. Rasheed Wallace, such a huge factor in game two, had two points in 14:40. Even Kevin Garnett, who had 19 points on 13 possessions, struggled on the defensive end and, especially, on the boards. Also, center Kendrick Perkins (5 points, 2 rebounds) was badly outplayed by O'Neal (12 points, 9 rebounds). Perkins, who was dealing with a gimpy knee, didn't move very well and lacked lift. The Celtics missed his rebounding and shot-blocking desperately and it's a real concern going forward.

The difference in the rebounding columns really underscored the gap in energy between the teams on Friday. Through three quarters, the Cavs had 10 offensive rebounds; the Celtics had eight caroms off the defensive glass. Boston grabbed eight offensive boards in the meaningless final quarter, but it was a complete domination by the Cavs on the boards. Besides the shortcomings of Perkins that have already been outlines, Jamison had five offensive boards while counterpart Garnett had just four defensive boards. The Celtics are not a good rebounding team, a team-wide decline this year that is indicative of their aging core. However, Boston has got to seal off the defensive glass to stay competitive in this series.

Game four is Sunday and we'll find out then if we have a series. Either Cleveland takes a 3-1 lead back home, or the Celtics draw even and ensure an eventual return trip to The Garden. It'll all be on the line and Boston coach Doc Rivers is going to have to figure out a way to coax a more energetic performance out of his squad. It's simply amazing how the tone of games in NBA playoff series can flip-flop from one game to the next. There were plenty of reasons to worry about the Cavaliers after game two. Now, it looks like LeBron and company have resumed their journey down the path to glory. What will the story be after game four?

CLE          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  24  150.2  .667  .600  .667  .209  5.80
Second Quarter 20  147.1  .619  .571  .143  .101  6.13
Third Quarter  19  159.9  .700  .500  .150  .103  5.48
Fourth Quarter 22  125.9  .500  .111  .867  .135  4.48
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     44  148.8  .641  .583  .385  .160  5.96
SECOND HALF    42  141.7  .614  .267  .457  .120  4.95
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          85  145.4  .628  .407  .419  .141  5.47
======================================================
BOS          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  24   70.9  .273  .200  .227  .125  4.41
Second Quarter 20  131.9  .625  .250  .050  .051  4.42
Third Quarter  19  139.2  .719  .143  .250  .103  4.95
Fourth Quarter 22  112.4  .292  .444  .458  .045  5.55
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     44   98.4  .440  .217  .143  .092  4.41
SECOND HALF    42  124.9  .463  .450  .375  .072  5.27
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          85  111.4  .451  .292  .256  .082  4.83
======================================================

Phoenix 110, at San Antonio 96 (Suns lead 3-0)
Pace: 89.2
Offensive Ratings: Suns 123.3, Spurs 107.6

Whoa. I'm still stunned. The Suns got hot in the third quarter of game three in San Antonio on Friday, closing within a point by the end of the period. The Suns had trailed by as many as 18 in the first half and clearly had the momentum, but I figured the fourth quarter was going to be a battle royale. Suns coach Alvin Gentry had inserted his bench as per usual and as is also his custom, he would let those reserves go as long as he could, stealing valuable rest time for his front-liners for the stretch run. As it turned out, those first-unit players turned into cheerleaders thanks to an unbelievable final-quarter performance by little-known Goran Dragic--that guy who gives Steve Nash a break now and again. Dragic has been a key component of Gentry's bench all season, but now it's safe to say that he's gained a place in the consciousness of mainstream NBA followers. It's not like San Antonio fans are going to forget him any time soon.

Dragic scored 23 points in the final 12 minutes on 12 possessions, leading the Suns to a 39-24 final quarter and a commanding 3-0 lead over the Spurs in their Western Conference semifinal series. Phoenix put up an eye-popping 196.3 Offensive Rating in the fourth quarter--the highest I've seen, though my eyeballs have been on relatively few per-quarter efficiency stats. Nonetheless, on the road, against a veteran San Antonio team scrapping to avoid a 3-0 hole, four Phoenix reserves and Grant Hill scored nearly two points per possession in the most important quarter of the series. Amazing. Gentry played a lineup of Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, Jared Dudley and Hill for nearly the entire fourth quarter, with the only exception being Nash coming on for Barbosa for the final 3:17. Amar'e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson--who was having a huge game--did not play in the last quarter.

The second-half stats are amazing. Phoenix put up a 153.1 Offensive Rating and a .738 eFG%. Dragic scored all 26 of his points after halftime. The Spurs were seemingly burned every time down the court by switching on the pick-and-roll, with the ballhandler taking a pull-up shot if the big coming over sagged, or attacking the lane when he closed out. Dragic and Barbosa scored Phoenix's first 11 points in the fourth quarter, all of them in the paint. Then Dragic got hot from the outside, and the Spurs didn't have an answer. The Spurs' inability to find a consistent strategy against the Suns' pick-and-roll attack has been one of the biggest factors in the series.

       -- PNRH --    -- PNRR --   -- PNR --   -- SPOT --   -- ISOs --
       Poss   Pts    Poss   Pts    Poss  Pts  Poss   Pts   Poss   Pts
Game 1   18   1.11      3  1.00     21  1.09    13  1.08     18  0.78
Game 2   16   0.63      8  1.00     24  0.75    24  1.13     17  0.71
Game 3   14   1.21      0  0.00     14  1.21    24  1.38     24  1.58
---------------------------------------------------------------------
Series   48   0.98     11  1.00     59  0.98    61  1.01     59  1.08
KEY: PNRH: pick-and-roll, handler shoots; PNRR: pick-and-roll, roll man
Shoots; PNR: overall pick-and-roll; SPOT: spot-up shots; ISO: isolations

Since we've just started working with the data from Synergy, I'm not sure what spot-up shots might have come off of ball-movement resulting from the pick-and-roll, nor do I know which isolation plays might have looked like pick-and-rolls when watching live. (Don't have time to break down all that video!) However, it's safe to say that the improvement the Spurs showed in game two against the pick-and-roll was lost in game three. It also makes you wonder if they overcompensated by going to so many switches when the Suns' overall efficiency on these plays seemed to be impacted by the Spurs' more-frequent blitzes in game two. In any event, the Suns had the Spurs on their heels, got hot from the field, then had San Antonio at its mercy during almost the entire second half.

As mentioned, the Suns overcame an 18-point first-half deficit. San Antonio missed seven straight free throws in the second quarter at one point and shot 11-of-23 from the line in the first three quarters. If the Spurs had converted from the line, they might have been able to bury the Suns in the first half. As it was, the misses from the line gave the Suns a lifeline, and then Phoenix was able to get the ball moving a little better, Stoudemire made his only offensive contribution in the game and the Suns bumped up the tempo. Missing out on the free points kept the Suns in striking range. Still, the Spurs led by six at the break and held a 16-9 edge in bench points despite the fact that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich opted to insert Tony Parker into his starting lineup. That seemed to pay dividends early as San Antonio got off to a fast start, but with George Hill, now coming off the bench, unable to get going, the Spurs had no answer when Phoenix's second unit got rolling in the second half.

In the third quarter, Phoenix continued to close the gap thanks to the hot shooting of Nash and Richardson, who combined for 17 points. Richardson scored 21 points in the game despite sitting out the final quarter. As ESPN's Dan Shulman mentioned during the broadcast, the Suns are 30-4 (now 31-4, I assume) when Richardson tops 20 points. Indeed, in watching the Spurs try to figure out a way to stop the Suns' base offense, when Richardson got going, I made the note that when Richardson is hitting, it's just one too many weapons for Phoenix opponents to stop.

The Suns' bench has turned into the story of the series. As mentioned, the Spurs actually enjoyed a 16-9 edge in bench points in the first half. In the second half, that tally was 39-12 in favor of the Suns. The first game was all about the respective big threes on these rosters. The next two games have been about everybody else. The end result is that a Phoenix team that did not project as a playoff squad before the season is now a lock to return to the conference finals for the first time since 2006.

PHX          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  22   86.1  .452  .231  .000  .181  3.55
Second Quarter 24  104.1  .583  .000  .222  .125  5.27
Third Quarter  23  116.2  .605  .000  .211  .172  3.68
Fourth Quarter 20  196.3  .857  .429  .143  .050  4.16
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     46   95.5  .513  .125  .103  .152  4.41
SECOND HALF    43  153.1  .738  .214  .175  .116  3.90
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          89  123.3  .627  .158  .139  .135  4.16
======================================================
SAS          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  22  126.9  .605  .250  .263  .136  5.92
Second Quarter 24   91.6  .452  .000  .143  .042  3.88
Third Quarter  23   94.7  .452  .286  .143  .172  7.91
Fourth Quarter 20  120.8  .500  .556  .263  .201  4.24
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FIRST HALF     46  108.5  .525  .105  .200  .087  4.90
SECOND HALF    43  106.7  .475  .450  .200  .186  6.12
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          89  107.6  .500  .262  .200  .135  5.49
======================================================

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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