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May 9, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Going Up 3-0

by Kevin Pelton

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Orlando 105, at Atlanta 75 (Orlando leads series 3-0)
Pace: 82.7
Offensive Ratings: Orlando 128.7, Atlanta 89.4

After blowing out the Atlanta Hawks for the second time in three games, the Orlando Magic now finds itself a win away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals unbeaten. Given the way Atlanta competed in what was essentially a must-win game--as ESPN has been happy to remind us the last two nights, NBA teams are 0-88 in best-of-seven history when falling behind in the series 3-0--the chances of Orlando making it back-to-back sweeps look awfully good.

In sum, it's hard to tell what has been the defining story of this series--how poorly the Hawks have played outside of the first half of Game Two or how well the Magic is playing. In this case, given the lopsided nature of the games, I think it is possible that both are accurate descriptions.

Atlanta has yet to find any answer for Orlando's offense, especially the Magic's pick-and-roll with Dwight Howard. Orlando just has too many options. Game Three was the reverse of Game Two, with the Hawks taking Howard away early and then getting beaten by him in the second half. Howard scored 16 of his 21 points after halftime, continuing to shoot an extraordinarily high percentage from the field (6-of-8) though his free-throw stroke deserted him (9-of-18 at the line).

Atlanta also tried to take away the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll and held the Magic's starting backcourt (Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson) to 21 points. That was no problem for Orlando, which took advantage of the extra help the Hawks were bringing to create open shots for its forwards on the wings. Rashard Lewis was the biggest beneficiary, knocking down four triples and scoring 22 points on 14 shooting possessions. Mickael Pietrus added three threes off the bench, and Matt Barnes scored 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting. Atlanta actually did a decent job of defending the three-point line overall, but the Magic once again was hot inside the arc, shooting 61.9 percent on two-pointers.

In the first three games of this series, Orlando's Offensive Ratings have gone 126.9, 135.4 and 128.7. It's almost impossible to overcome giving up points at that rate. The Hawks were able to do so for part of Game Two, but in the other two games of this series their offense has been almost as ineffective as their offense.

The most obvious culprit is Joe Johnson, and any sympathy he might have engendered for an ill-timed slump was lost when he criticized Atlanta fans for booing the team in general and him in particular in Game Three. Johnson is almost certain to be paid like a superstar player this summer. I'm dubious he's ever played at that level, but we can all agree he hasn't during the postseason. Johnson had another disastrous game, shooting 3-of-15 from the field. Basically, the Magic has been content to let Johnson shoot from the perimeter, especially inefficient long twos. Johnson made just one of 10 attempts beyond 15 feet. Give credit to Stan Van Gundy for a good scheme and to Matt Barnes for executing it.

Johnson is not alone, however. Al Horford has been invisible save for one great quarter in Game Two. Josh Smith has been inefficient. Marvin Williams has been invisible. Mike Bibby has been borderline unplayable. Really, Jamal Crawford has been the Hawks' only consistent offensive threat.

The bigger story from Atlanta's perspective in Game Three was a surprising lack of evident urgency. Reading body language through the television is difficult at best, but the Hawks looked like a defeated team prepared for the off-season. That seemed to be the read of a disappointed Philips Arena crowd. Here's hoping Atlanta is able to salvage something from this series with a respectable effort in an elimination game on Monday.

L.A. Lakers 111, at Utah 110 (L.A. Lakers lead series 3-0)
Pace: 85.4
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 129.4, Utah 129.3

There is no other way to describe Game Three between the L.A. Lakers and the Utah Jazz than bizarre. Pretty much everything we knew (or at least we thought we knew) about the Lakers entering this series was turned upside down in their one-point win. Meanwhile, two balanced or defensive-minded teams combined to get few stops--until they went more than three minutes without a field goal during the second half of the fourth quarter.

From time to time during these Playoff Prospectus recaps, I have to explain how the possession formula makes Offensive Ratings imprecise for a single game. Here, though, it seems entirely appropriate that on a per-possession basis, this was apparently effectively a tie, the Lakers scoring one more point on one extra possession.

Frankly, I'm not so sure the Jazz wasn't the better team. The Lakers, whose shooting has been a weakness all season long and was especially problematic in the first round of the playoffs against Oklahoma City, won by attempting precisely a third of their shots from three-point range and making them at a 44.8 percent clip--13 in all. Utah dared Ron Artest to shoot the three after Phil Jackson practically begged Artest to choose discretion, and the 16.7 percent three-point shooter this postseason knocked down four of them in seven attempts. Derek Fisher added three triples and finished with 20 points on 14 shooting possessions.

All that hot shooting helped the Lakers post their best Offensive Rating of the playoffs to date on a night where they were relatively unable to exploit their advantage in the post. Pau Gasol was quiet in the first half before finishing with 14 points and 17 rebounds (seven of them offensive). Andrew Bynum was very ineffective, going scoreless and attempting just one field goal in 20 minutes of action. He did not play after the 4:24 mark of the third quarter.

In fairness, the Jazz had its own relatively unlikely source of offense--reserve Kyle Korver. Granting that Korver set a league record for three-point accuracy in the regular season, he did it with quality and not quantity, reaching the 20-point mark just twice. In Game Three, Korver was on fire, knocking down nine of his 10 shot attempts and 5-of-5 from downtown for 23 points. Like the Lakers, the Jazz's offense was surprisingly perimeter-based, with Korver and Deron Williams (28 points and nine assists) leading the way.

Both of those attacks went cold after Lamar Odom split two free throws to bring the Lakers within two at the 5:20 mark of the game. Each team had four scoreless possessions before they got going again. Utah's problem was that its subsequent scores were primarily of the two-point variety, while the Lakers got three three-pointers, two of them from Kobe Bryant and Fisher in the final minute. The latter make, with 28 seconds remaining, gave the Lakers their first lead in more than seven minutes. The Jazz came up empty on its next possession, but still had a chance to win after the teams traded two free throws and the Lakers turned the ball over on an inbound pass with plenty of contact.

Jerry Sloan called Williams' number and saw his point guard dribble into a lightly contested jumper with a foot on the three-point line. It was a makeable attempt, as was Wesley Matthews' tip attempt at the buzzer, but Utah couldn't get the score it needed to make this a series.

Heading into Game Four, it's tough to say what to expect as the Jazz tries to avoid the sweep. This game was so out of the ordinary that the series has essentially lost its flow. Utah will surely be hoping for a bigger impact from Andrei Kirilenko. Kirilenko was good in the 17 minutes he played, but the Jazz was outscored by seven points in that span. Kirilenko sat out down the stretch because Korver's hot streak demanded he stay in the game and Sloan did not yet trust him to match up with Bryant.

Maybe Kirilenko deserves a shot, because Matthews, as hard as he is working, just can't stop the Lakers' star. It was another efficient performance for Bryant, who scored his 35 points on 24 field-goal attempts and eight tries from the free throw line. Bryant also handed out seven assists against just two turnovers.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

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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