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Playoff Prospectus (04/20)

April 20, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
A Classic Beginning

by Kevin Pelton

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"Dear ESPN: We understand the winner of Game One is likely to win the series. We don't necessarily need to see the graphic in every Game One."

Actually, I think they managed to use two different graphics; I saw both the percentage of Game 1 winners who go on to win all seven-game series as well as the number specifically in the first round. Anyway...

San Antonio 117, Phoenix 115 (2OT)

Wow. If the rest of the series is anything like Game 1--and we've no reason to doubt that it will be--then we are in for an incredible treat. Besides the unexpected Tim Duncan three-pointer that forced the decisive second OT, there was plenty to break down:

  • Ginobili Steps Up

    When Tony Parker fouled out with 2:04 left in the second overtime, I figured the Spurs were in big trouble, but it ended up being a non-issue because of Manu Ginobili's performance. Ginobili, heretofore quiet, scored on the next two possessions and then had the game-winner.

  • Evaluating the San Antonio Offense

    Through halftime, the Spurs had done nothing to dispel worries that their offense would be MIA in the postseason. That changed quickly in the second half. San Antonio ended up scoring at a rate of 110.7 points per 100 possessions (the Spurs were at 109.3 during the regular season). That was almost all about Duncan's 40 points on 16-of-24 shooting, though Parker (26 points on 11-of-20) was key as well. Besides the big three rounded out by Ginobili, Michael Finley was the only other San Antonio player in double figures, and you'd like to see the Suns do more to force the Spurs' role players to beat them.

  • Phoenix in the Halfcourt

    As potent as the Suns are, they occasionally have a tendency to bog down on offense down the stretch. There was some evidence of that in Game One, including a costly 24-second violation late in regulation, but Steve Nash and Amaré Stoudemire were so effective in bailing the team out time and again. Nash had 14 of his 25 points in the two extra sessions, while Stoudemire was brilliant finishing at the rim and his fouling out was very costly to Phoenix. Still, you'd like to see D'Antoni get more guys involved. The only three scores in the last 16 minutes of the game that didn't come from Nash and Stoudemire were a Leandro Barbosa layup off a steal, a Shaquille O'Neal follow dunk and one score out of the offense, a Boris Diaw layup.

  • Hack-a-Shaq

    I've never been a huge fan of the strategy, but it certainly worked in this game. Jeff Van Gundy argued that Hack-a-Shaq was better employed with a lead, but I've always found it most effective at changing up the momentum of the game. More important here was Mike D'Antoni opting to bench Shaquille O'Neal until the two-minute mark (when it becomes impossible to Hack-a-Shaq because the Suns get one free throw plus possession). San Antonio was +3 in that span.

As we look forward to Game Two, foul trouble should be less of an issue. The crew of Bennett Salvatore, Tony Brothers and Mike Callahan called 57 fouls, many of them offensive. Phoenix was hurt much more by the fouls than the Spurs were, at least until Parker fouled out, so the Suns have to feel good about their chances of evening the series.

New Orleans 104, Dallas 92

That must have been one incredible halftime speech by Byron Scott, huh? Trailing 52-40 at the half, the Hornets outscored Dallas 64-40 in the second half to win going away. Despite 31 points from Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks shot a dismal 33.3% from the field. Dallas' wing players were the culprits. Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse and Jason Terry scored 34 points but needed 32 shots (and 13 free-throw attempts) to get them. The Mavericks need much better production from these players.

As for the Hornets, lack of playoff experience seemed to hurt them for a half. Chris Paul was brilliant in his postseason debut, scoring 35 points on 15-of-23 shooting, handing out 10 assists and committing just one turnover in 41 minutes of action (oh, did I mention his four steals?). Paul kept New Orleans in the game in the first half and then took it over after halftime, getting plenty of help from David West and four big threes by Peja Stojakovic.

If I'm Avery Johnson, I don't think Devean George and Juwan Howard see the court in Game Two. I know it was just 17 minutes, but their veteran presence seemed to be outweighed by George's 1-for-7 shooting.

Utah 93, Houston 82

At the risk of overreacting, the Rockets are in some trouble. Game Two is almost a must win; given the Jazz have lost only once at the Delta Center since Jan. 1, it's hard to believe Houston will win twice on the road, so the Rockets can't afford another home loss.

To state the obvious, Houston misses Rafer Alston tremendously. In his absence, Bobby Jackson and Aaron Brooks combined to shoot 4-of-22 from the field, score 12 points, hand out four assists and commit three turnovers. That's not going to win a lot of playoff games, especially since on the other side Deron Williams was putting up 20 points and 10 assists (albeit with five turnovers). Alston can't possibly get back soon enough, but he's not expected to play until Game Three at the earliest, which means trouble for the Rockets.

I made Alston an honorable mention pick for my All-Defensive Team, but his absence doesn't explain why the Rockets struggled so much defensively. Utah torched the Houston D to the tune of 117.6 points per 100 possessions. From the Jazz's perspective, this is basically the blueprint game. Utah held Tracy McGrady in check, got strong production from the bench (a combined 28 points on 11-of-18 shooting and nine boards) and quieted all the talk about being unable to win on the road.

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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Playoff Prospectus (04/20)

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