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May 26, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Not So Fast

by Bradford Doolittle

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Orlando 96, at Boston 92, OT (Celtics lead 3-1)

Since I watched Game 4 of the Celtics-Magic series last night*, Iíve been trying to put my finger on what it reminded me of and, just now, it clicked and now I feel like I can write about the game. This memory may be gnawing unconsciously at Boston fans as well. Iím thinking of the fall of 2004, Oct. 17, to be exact. The series ďLostĒ had premiered a few weeks before; Oct. 17 fell between the fourth and fifth episodes and people all across America were trying to figure out just what in the hell was going down on that strange little island. In Boston, the Red Sox were playing out the string against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series after having been humiliated by a 19-8 score in Game 3. New York led three games to zip and teams just donít come back from that. The Yankees were three outs away from advancing to the World Series but, as we all remember, the Red Sox eked out a run to force extra innings, won the game in the 12th and, given that little sliver of light, rallied to make professional sports history.

(* -- Not a typo. Watched the game last night as part of my own personal NBA doubleheader. Personal obligations kept me from watching before that point and I went to almost maniacal lengths to avoid finding out the final score. However, it was mission accomplished. I have become an expert at avoiding sports scores in the information age. Iím thinking of doing a seminar on the topic, so drop me a line if you want to attend.)

Fast forward to Monday night. After Orlando was thumped 94-71 in Game 3, the Magic looked dead in the water. Unlike the aforementioned Red Sox, Orlando had to win on the road to extend its season. Also, more so than baseball, basketball is a game of momentum in which teams can go far with a little wind in their sails. The Magic, to put it bluntly, had no wind and its sails were limp. Orlando put forth its best effort of the series in Game 4, yet still trailed by a point entering the final frame. Yet the Magic snuck into an extra period after the Celtics failed to get a shot off on the final possession of regulation. Then Jameer Nelson threw in a couple of threes, one off the glass, Boston went cold and Ė voila!ó weíre going back to Orlando. Now, I donít want to get too heavy-handed with this comparison, but there is a good reason I make it: This is an outstanding Magic team. No squad has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit in the NBA playoffs but if a team is ever going to do it, itíd be a team of Orlandoís quality. And if youíre looking for that extra bit of verisimilitude, ďLostĒ wrapped up its run 24 hours before Game 4 and people all across the country were still trying to figure out just what the hell was going on in that strange little fictional universe. If Iím a jaded fan of Boston sports, Iím just a little bit nervous.

Overall, three of the four games of the series have been close enough that with a little more luck and execution, Orlando could find itself on the right side of a 3-1 advantage. That it isnít means that the chances of the Magic actually surviving and earning a repeat trip to the Finals remain very small, but they arenít zero. If you root for the Magic, thatís all you have to hang your hat on right now. That and an improved, sustained effort in Game 4. Orlando was better on offense, but in reality won the game with its best defensive effort of the series. The Magicís Offensive Rating of 104.3 was its best of the series, marginally better than Game 2, but thatís still a full 10 points below Orlandoís regular-season mark. However, Orlando held Boston to a 100.0 mark, itís best defensively showing of the series by a good margin and 11 points fewer than what the Celtics did prior to the playoffs. Itís the kind of defensive effort Orlando will have to maintain to keep this series alive.

The Magicís most important players stepped to the fore on Monday, a crucial aspect of avoiding the early transition to offseason mode. Dwight Howard had 32 points and 16 rebounds, using 30 possessions. He also keyed the tremendous defensive effort Orlando displayed down the stretch in the fourth quarter and all through the overtime period. Meanwhile, Jameer Nelson made his greatest impact of the series, with 23 points and nine assists on 25 possessions. He was much more aggressive off the dribble throughout the game than he had been, and also created early offense by pushing the ball down the floor off of Rajon Rondo penetrations. Once Rondo drove the lane or the baseline, Orlando was going the other way whether the play resulted in a basket or not. Howard ran the floor more consistently on Monday and it helped him find some space in which to work.

As was pointed out several times by announcers Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, Orlando ran a ton of pick-and-roll sets in the game, many of them of the staggered-screen variety which meant Rondo had to fight through multiple defenders in order to stay with Nelson. Rondo, who reportedly played with a balky back, couldnít stay with Nelson and this will be an area of adjustment for Boston coach Doc Rivers and defensive guru Tom Thibodeau going forward. The design helped Nelson to become more of a playmaker and everything Orlando did fed off the inside-outside dynamic between he and Howard. Orlando ran 21 pick-and-rolls in which the handler took the shot, averaging a point on those possessions. In four pick-and-rolls in which the roll man got the scoring chance, the Magic averaged 1.75 points.

Really, however, Orlando was only moderately more efficient on offense and much of the improvement came during a big first quarter in which Orlando averaged 1.45 points per possession and posted a .711 eFG%. After that, the Magic were well under a point per possessions, except for overtime. During that quick start, Nelsonís heightened aggressiveness was apparent, but Orlando was also getting some good looks off of weakside cuts, which was an adjustment. Ordinarily, the Magic like to swing the ball to the weakside for open looks at three-pointers, but Boston has removed that option for the entire series, so Matt Barnes in particular began cutting to the basket to excellent effect. Itís not what Orlando normally does, but it was the best way to combat the defense that Rivers/Thibodeau had thrown at the Magic during the first three games. To not have made these adjustments would have been the very definition of insanity for Stan Van Gundy and his staff.

After that first quarter, the Celtics tightened the screws defensively. Orlandoís shooting percentage tumbled and in the second half, turnovers became a problem, as the Magic coughed the ball up on nearly a third of its possessions after halftime. However, the Magic were able to put just enough points on the board, in no small part because of an improved showing on the offensive glass, a bit of evidence which had Howardís considerable fingerprints all over it. Orlando had just three offensive boards in Game 3, but chased down 32 percent of its misses after halftime on Monday. It was an indicator of just how unwilling the Magic were to allow its season to go up in smoke. Boston actually finished with a better offensive rebound percentage for the game (30.3 percent to 27.0) but Ė again, thanks to Howard Ė Orlando converted a much higher percentage of those extra opportunities. The Magic enjoyed a 17-5 edge in second-chance points in the contest. The other aspect of the game that kept down Orlandoís offensive efficiency and allowed the Celtics to hang around was free-throw shooting Ė the Magic was 20-of-33 from the charity stripe in the contest.

On the negative side for the Magic offense: Vince Carter. Carter had three points on 1-of-9 shooting, attempted only one free throw and used 12 possessions in over 34 minutes of play. Also, and you canít chalk this up to Carter alone but heís a part of it, Orlando scored just two transition points in the game despite Nelsonís efforts at getting the offense in motion as early as possible. The benches werenít a huge factor in Game 4, but J.J. Redick was huge for the Magic, scoring 12 points, including three three-pointers during a stretch in the second-half in which the Celtics could have put the clampdown on Orlando once and for all. The Magic was +14 with Redick on the floor in the game; with Carter it was +1. Just saying.

On the other end of the floor, Boston put up series-worst numbers in all the most essential offensive categories. Rondo had nine points and eight assists in 15 possessions, a level of inefficiency which is tough for the Celtics to overcome given their current make-up. Paul Pierce ate up a big chunk of the offense and was outstanding in the first half especially. He finished with 32 points but used up 34 possessions to get there and did not execute well down the stretch, too often looking to do things himself. Kevin Garnett got off to a great start and was 4-of-4 at one point, but shot 1-of-8 thereafter and was part of Bostonís lackluster 14-of-32 showing in the paint. (Orlando outscored Boston 36-28 in the painted area.) Bostonís offensive leader in Game 4 was Ray Allen, who needed just 16 possessions to put up 22 points. He was deadly in transition, as the Celtics scored 1.57 points on seven transition opportunities. They also scored 1.29 points on seven shots off screens Ö thatís Allen, whose edge over Carter kept Boston in the game.

All this said, Boston was in position to win the game, leading entering the final quarter and in possession of the ball with the game tied at the end of regulation. Bostonís rally in the third quarter, I thought, was actually fueled by Garnettís technical foul, picked up after he was raked across the face by Howard. His rage incited the crowd, which was at a fever pitch for several minutes as the Celtics took the lead. Not coincidentally, that rally was aided by the absence of Howard, who picked up his fourth foul. Bostonís offense went dead at the beginning of the fourth quarter and Orlando gradually pushed its lead back to seven, only to see it disappear in less than a minute.

That set the stage for the final sequence of regulation. Nelson missed a 21-foot jumper, which Garnett rebounded with about 17 seconds left. Rivers elected not to call a timeout. I donít have an issue with that decision, at least initially. However, it became pretty apparent that Boston was a little scrambled as Pierce held the ball for the last shot. Rondo should have been the one orchestrating the action anyway, but I thought Rivers erred by not calling a timeout. Drawing up plays out of breaks is one of his fortes, or so weíre often told, and the fact that Boston didnít even get a shot on that last possession could loom large if Orlando wins again on Wednesday. As it was, Pierce had the ball knocked away and the buzzer sounded with players from both sides in a scrum going after the loose ball.

In the overtime, neither team scored for more than two minutes, before Nelson banked in a three. He followed that up with another three, this one more pure, on the following possession, which gave Orlando as many points as Boston would eventually score. The Boston offense featured too much of Pierce going one-on-one and too many lackluster dumps to Garnett in the post. The Celtics offense is much less effective when it is stationary and there was no ball movement in the overtime period. Simply put, the Celtics couldnít get a decent look in those last five minutes, taking six of their 10 shots from three-point range. And, thus, we have a Game 5 after all.

There are two ways to look at Mondayís result. Either this was a springboard for a return to the Magicís success of the earlier rounds, or this was the best Orlando could do and even then it was just barely enough. Which is the right point of view? I have to lean towards the latter. We saw even during Game 4, when Orlando was playing well, that when the Celtics execute their systems at both ends of the floor, the Magic struggle. I thought the Celtics got away from their strengths on offense towards the end of the game and that, as much as anything Orlando did, played a part in the series lasting another game. However, with the home crowd behind the Magic on Wednesday, there could be one of those momentum-type games in which all those missed threes suddenly start falling. You never know. The Magic may yet find a little wind in its sails.

ORL           Poss  oRTG  eFG% oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  21  145.2  .711  .111  .211  .094  5.13
Second Quarter 21   93.3  .344  .143  .563  .093  4.40
Third Quarter  20   82.0  .441  .333  .059  .308  4.44
Fourth Quarter 20   95.2  .433  .273  .400  .250  4.35
Overtime       10  102.5  .714  .400  .000  .410  1.13
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     43  119.2  .543  .130  .371  .093  4.76
SECOND HALF    49   91.4  .487  .320  .179  .305  4.95
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 4         92  104.3  .514  .229  .270  .206  4.86
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 3         84   84.9  .431  .077  .231  .203  3.26
GAME 2         88  104.1  .444  .256  .408  .158  4.67
GAME 1         89   98.6  .448  .326  .247  .202  3.68
SERIES         88   98.2  .460  .227  .289  .193  4.12
SEASON         90  114.3  .536  .246  .246  .152  4.79
======================================================
BOS           Poss  oRTG  eFG% oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  21  121.8  .654  .000  .692  .187  3.68
Second Quarter 21   97.9  .444  .200  .278  .140  5.83
Third Quarter  20  107.7  .447  .273  .211  .103  3.58
Fourth Quarter 20   90.1  .406  .444  .313  .300  4.16
Overtime       10   61.5  .300  .143  .000  .103  1.90
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     43  109.8  .532  .133  .452  .164  4.76
SECOND HALF    49   91.4  .400  .320  .200  .183  4.81
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 4         92  100.0  .454  .238  .303  .174  4.79
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 3         84  112.4  .507  .175  .274  .108  5.03
GAME 2         88  107.5  .493  .257  .297  .170  4.81
GAME 1         89  103.1  .486  .189  .270  .179  4.92
SERIES         88  105.6  .485  .214  .286  .158  4.89
REG. SEASON    89  111.0  .522  .228  .248  .157  5.21
======================================================
NOTE: second-half stats include overtime

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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