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May 17, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Winning Ugly

by Bradford Doolittle

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Boston 92, at Orlando 88 (Celtics lead 1-0)

BOS          Pace   ORtg  eFG%   OR% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  24   91.6  .395  .222  .368  .208  4.05
Second Quarter 22   88.2  .475  .300  .000  .232  5.66
Third Quarter  23  144.8  .650  .125  .350  .088  5.77
Fourth Quarter 21   86.2  .400  .100  .400  .192  4.20
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     46   90.0  .436  .263  .179  .219  4.85
SECOND HALF    44  116.8  .543  .111  .371  .137  4.99
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          89  103.1  .486  .189  .270  .179  4.92
SEASON         89  111.0  .522  .228  .248  .157  5.21
======================================================
ORL          Pace   ORtg  eFG%   OR% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  24   58.3  .200  .176  .300  .167  3.07
Second Quarter 22   83.6  .500  .444  .000  .371  4.13
Third Quarter  23  114.1  .528  .444  .389  .219  3.62
Fourth Quarter 21  143.7  .571  .364  .286  .048  3.88
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     46   70.2  .342  .269  .158  .263  3.60
SECOND HALF    44  128.3  .551  .333  .333  .137  3.76
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          89   98.6  .448  .326  .247  .202  3.68
SEASON         90  114.3  .536  .246  .246  .152  4.79
======================================================

It's on. The consensus was that Orlando was a heavy favorite going into its Eastern Conference Finals match against Boston. I ended up picking the Magic in my series preview, and would do the same if I were writing the piece today. However, as I wrote, I'm really not too confident that I have a feel for how this series is going to go. After Boston built up a big lead on Sunday, and Orlando stormed back in the fourth quarter only to fall just short, I'm just as confused as ever. So instead of trying to be NBA Nostradamus, I'm just going to sit back and dig what's shaping up to be a beast of a series.

It's actually kind of amazing that we remembered to tune in the game at all, what with all the time we've been spending writing and reading speculation about LeBron James. I've been just as guilty as anybody, though I haven't gone so far as to claim any insight into James' eventual decision. I have no idea, nor does anyone else and that may even include James himself. The Bulls have somehow emerged as the favorite over the last two weeks after having been dismissed as a landing spot for James for most of the season. The logic of James to Chicago makes a lot of sense to me, but as I've written, I'm biased. Not only do I root for the Bulls, but as a Chicago-based writer, my NBA gig would get a whole lot more interesting if James came to town. I've even starting making notes for a Jordan Rules-type book pitch. (Any anxious publishers out there can hit me back at one of the contact links below!) On Saturday night, I went on a radio show in St. Louis (the excellent At the Buzzer, hosted by my brother, Brian) and spent about nine minutes talking about LeBron and one minute breaking down both conference finals matchups. It's a fascinating drama and, as you can probably sense, I can't currently get enough of it. However, there are some awfully high-stakes games that will be played over the next month, so I'll try to keep my eye on the ball if you will.

Hmmm. The impetus for that last paragraph, which I'm leaving in because it's the internet, was that it's incredible how little credit Boston gets for the role it played in ending the Cavaliers' season. To my thinking, it was pretty significant. I mean, they went out and beat Cleveland, it's not like the Cavs were fumbling the ball away against the Washington Generals. I fully believe that Boston won that series. If that bit obviousness seems unnecessary, then you haven't paid attention to the rhetoric that has followed in the aftermath of the last two games of the series. If you have, then you know that the prevailing opinion is that the Cavaliers lost more than the Celtics won. I ain't buying it and hopefully Boston's performance in Game 1 on Sunday won over a few more converts to my side of the fence.

Sunday's game was very physical and a little ragged, as the officiating crew of Michael Smith, Ken Mauer and Danny Crawford were letting both teams get away with a great deal of contact, something which worked to Boston's advantage. There were 42 fouls called in the game and 52 free throws, totals which are right about average for an NBA playoff game this season. The game didn't have the feel of an average game--it seemed a lot more rugged. According the referee stats at nbastuffer.com, Crawford, and Mauer both fall on the side of letting teams play (Smith does not), but we're talking small samples and the differences in fouls called per game aren't overwhelming. Probably just one of those days. The crew was consistent, for both teams and from beginning to end but, as I say, I thought the tenor of the game favored Boston. Referee assignments aren't posted until game day, so we don't know who will work Game 2. (Scott Foster, Jason Phillips, Greg Willard will work tonight's Lakers-Suns game. As a group, they're about average in frequency of foul calls.)

One aspect of the game's physicality was the battle of the boards, which was won pretty handily by the Magic. Orlando grabbed 15 of 46 offensive rebound chances and held a 19-7 edge in second-chance points. That said, and I won't even attempt to quantify this, it felt like Boston's offensive boards were more "timely." Surprisingly, despite the +8 advantage in offensive boards and just a -2 disadvantage in turnovers and a 26-26 tie in free-throw attempts, Orlando had just three more field-goal attempts in the game. The announcers keep referring to Boston as a poor rebounding team but, in fact, they only rank low on the offensive end, which we know is often as much a matter of philosophy as it is performance. That's certainly the case with the Celtics, who are a decent defensive rebounding team, though not as good as they have been in past seasons. Nevertheless, this looks like an area where Orlando is going to have a sizable edge.

Boston built its lead to as many as 20 points, a mark which they hit a few times. Orlando closed to the gap to two in the final seconds after Jameer Nelson snuck in and put back Vince Carter's missed free throw. However, despite the urgency Orlando displayed down the stretch, the Celtics played with a lot of poise. Orlando had a ton of ground to make up, too much as it turned out, and the Celtics played smart in the last few minutes even though their jump shots quit falling. After Nelson's follow, with the crowd in a frenzy, Boston's Kevin Garnett calmly got the ball in bounds to Ray Allen—one of the best-ever foul shooters. Allen hit his free throws and that was all she wrote. There was no point during the Orlando comeback when I actually felt like they were going to be able to get over the top.

In fact, I found myself shaking my head at Orlando's rally. If they had been able to win, it would have been a fluke. There was little about the effort that resembled Orlando Magic basketball. At some point in the second half, the Magic abandoned its base offense altogether and also its preferred tempo--two things which can happen when a team falls behind by 20 points. Everything was coming off of isolations, with J.J. Redick, Nelson and Carter going one-on-one. Orlando assisted on just 10 of its 32 made field goals in the game and its mark of 3.68 touches per minute was way below its season average. It worked because those three guys began to throw in shots and you can't blame the players for taking that road because nothing the Magic tried in the first half worked worth a damn. Still, if the Orlando offense is going to morph into a series of Carter one-on-one showdowns, the Magic aren't going to win this series.

The Celtics held the Magic to under a point per possession for the game after Orlando averaged 1.2 during the first two rounds. The split between the halves was significant (.7/1.3), but the poor mark was what resulted from Orlando's original game plan. The solid mark came from scrambling the game, something which really can't be replicated unless you're the Golden State Warriors.

The key to Boston's defensive effort was its ability to defend Dwight Howard in the post with single coverage. Kendrick Perkins was the prime defender against Howard, but Rasheed Wallace and even Glenn Davis got in their licks as well. Howard had a terrible offensive game, putting up 13 points on 23 possessions. Time and again, Howard would catch the ball in good scoring position; he just flat out didn't have the back-to-the-basket moves to deal with the excellent post defenders on the Celtics. As I wrote in the preview, Boston is the league's best team at defending the post.

Part of Howard's problem was symptomatic of Orlando's overall malady when it came to protecting the ball. Again, harkening back to the preview, I noted how Boston forces Orlando into a higher rate of turnovers than its season norm. The Celtics, who typically come up short in the area of turnover margin, were +2 on Sunday, in line with the head-to-head match-ups between the teams in the regular season. Howard had seven turnovers himself. He, Carter and Nelson all were lax when it came to exposing the ball to the quick hands of Boston's defenders. The Celtics were hacking and slapping at the ball at every opportunity and with the game being called loosely, it really disrupted the rhythm of Orlando's offense.

Another consequence of Howard's lack of production was that it allowed Boston's perimeter defenders to stick close to the Magic's three-point arsenal. Orlando was 5-of-22 from behind the arc in the game, and didn't hit a three-pointer until Nelson went deep at 9:58 of the third period. The Magic was 22-of-42 in the paint, as Carter, Nelson and Marcin Gortat were able to get looks at the rim. Orlando was also 5-of-13 on long twos, which is exactly average to what it did in the regular season.

Kevin Garnett took Rashard Lewis completely out of the game. Lewis got few looks early (three FGAs in the first three quarters) and when he finally got some space in the final quarter, he managed to go just 2-of-7 and 0-of-3 on three-pointers. He was 0-of-6 from long range overall. Lewis returned the favor by harassing Garnett's jump-shooting game on the other end (Garnett was 4-of-11 in the game), but the Magic can't absorb many more near-goose eggs from Lewis.

On the other end, the Celtics did a great job of getting out in transition. They outscored the Magic 20-6 on fastbreak points and averaged 1.13 points in 16 transition opportunities. Their big men ran the floor with aplomb, which made Howard's job that much harder. Boston also was very efficient on isolation plays, with a 1.25 points-per-play mark on 12 possessions. Paul Pierce, who scored 15 of his 22 points on five shots in the second half, was the primary culprit in that area, mostly working against Matt Barnes, who wasn't moving well due to back spasms.

As it was against Cleveland, Tony Allen's athleticism off the bench was a big factor in helping the Celtics push the tempo and also to disrupt Carter on the other end. Both Allens, especially Ray, were effective at taking the ball to the hoop. Boston was only outscored 44-38 in the paint, a margin which is surprisingly small given Howard's presence. The Celtics were undeterred by Howard's five blocks and consistently attacked the paint for most of the game. It's a persistence that will pay dividends in this series. So to will Wallace, who was instrumental with his perimeter game against Howard as well as his timeworn ability to get under Howard's skin.

On the downside, Garnett didn't play well on offense, using 14 shots to get his eight points. His shot selection was poor. As mentioned in the preview, the Celtics need for Garnett to be a lane presence at the offensive end in this series. Given what available for the other Celtics on offense, if Garnett starts settling for 20-footers, it's going to be hard for Boston to be really efficient against Orlando in the halfcourt. Garnett needs to get his rear-end on the blocks and go to work on Lewis. (This criticism of K.G. may in fact be a criticism of head coach Doc Rivers.) Also, Boston would like to get more out of Rajon Rondo, who had eight points, eight assists and three turnovers, using 13 possessions in the game. He, more than any other Celtic, had problems with Howard’s presence in the lane.

Game 2 is Tuesday in Orlando. The first thing I'm going to be watching for is how, or if, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy tweaks his team's offensive approach from Sunday's series lid-lifter. Even though Boston will surely stick with its single-coverage of Howard, we've seen--not just on Sunday--that the Celtics can handle Howard down low when his back is to the basket. Van Gundy may want to get Howard moving with more high screens early, something which he did more frequently in the fourth quarter on Sunday. Whatever adjustment Van Gundy makes, it's got to create more space for his perimeter shooters. Orlando basketball is inside-out, but Van Gundy may have to flip that approach on its ear against the stout defense of the Celtics.

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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