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April 26, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Friday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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Spurs 115, Suns 99

I used to have a theory about Tony Parker in the playoffs. It held that Parker would do progressively worse over the course of a series because teams would grow more comfortable backing off of him and daring him to shoot as the series went on. Over the course of a game or two, it may have been difficult to break the ingrained habit of contesting shots on the perimeter, but it would get easier as a series went on.

The defining argument for this theory was the Lakers/Spurs semifinals in 2004. In the first two games of that series, Parker had 50 points on 21-of-42 shooting as San Antonio got out to a 2-0 lead. Over the next four games, all won by the Lakers, Parker averaged just 12.5 points on 31.0% shooting (22-of-71).

Thanks both to the NBA's rules re-interpretation limiting contact on the perimeter and his improved jumper, Parker has long since killed off that theory. On Friday, he danced on the grave, putting together the most impressive performance of his career as San Antonio took a 3-0 lead in its series with Phoenix, moving within a win of ending the Suns' season prematurely.

Parker scored 41 points, a career high for both playoff and regular-season games, but more impressive was how he got his points. The shot chart tells the story. Just three of Parker's 17 field goals (in 26 attempts) came in the paint. Parker racked up most of his points on a series of lethal midrange jumpers.

"They were backing off on the pick-and-rolls," Parker said after the game, "so I just took the shot, and it felt good tonight."

Led by Parker, the Spurs' offense was again a three-man wrecking crew. Parker, Tim Duncan (23) and Manu Ginobili (20) combined for 84 of San Antonio's 115 points. In the series, they've contributed 69.8% of the Spurs' scoring. I've still yet to be convinced that that kind of imbalanced offense can carry San Antonio in the long run, but it has been more than enough in this series against a Phoenix team that hasn't seemed to have any answers for the Spurs since halftime of Game Two. The Suns seem shellshocked; it's hard to understand how what was expected to be the most competitive of the first-round series has gone so wrong so fast.

After the game, Phoenix attributed the loss to the Spurs playing as well as they can possibly play. While that's probably fair, it's also not the whole story. Something isn't right with the Suns, and I hope Mike D'Antoni doesn't simply count on San Antonio coming back to Earth in Game 4.

Obviously, Phoenix has yet to find the answer defensively for the Spurs' big three. A healthy Grant Hill might go a long way toward changing that, but only a medical miracle can create such an animal. It sounds crazy, it sounds rash, but if I were D'Antoni, I might consider turning to an unexpected player, rookie guard D.J. Strawberry. Strawberry hasn't played in this series. In fact, aside from the season finale, he hasn't played more than seven minutes in a game since March 11. However, Strawberry acquitted himself well on the defensive end during his rookie season and might be the Suns' best hope to contain Parker when he and Ginobili are in the backcourt together. (Raja Bell could surely do the job as well, but moving Bell off of Ginobili would be trading one problem for another.)

It would be easier for D'Antoni to make such a drastic change had Leandro Barbosa not been his team's best and perhaps only perimeter scoring threat in Game Three, putting up 20 points as a starter. He had eight in a span of a minute and a half early in the fourth quarter when Phoenix offered some false hope of a rally.

Playing Strawberry would also give the Suns more youthful athleticism. During the postseason, TrueHoop's Henry Abbott has been hyping the notion of "young legs" and their value. That thought can be taken too far, but for a Phoenix team that desperately needs something to turn this series around, maybe some extra energy could make the difference.

Mavericks 97, Hornets 87

It seems hard to believe, with rumors swirling about Avery Johnson's job security, that it was just three years ago that Johnson was seen as the antidote to Don Nelson's Allas (no D) Mavericks, bringing a more balanced perspective that could help the Mavericks win in the playoffs. These Mavericks aren't likely to be confused with this year's Celtics on defense any time soon, but they did finish a respectable ninth in the NBA in Defensive Rating, so you had to believe the New Orleans Hornets wouldn't be able to continue scoring on them at will in this series.

Lo and behold, the Mavericks won Game Three with a resurgent effort on the defensive end of the floor, holding the potent Hornets to 87 points on 85 possessions. The defensive hero was an unlikely one--guard Jason Terry, who moved into the starting lineup and was given the task of defending MVP candidate Chris Paul. Terry helped force Paul into 14 misses on his 18 shot attempts (the same number of misses Paul had in 39 shots in two games at New Orleans Arena) and limited him to 16 points.

The big D in Big D went beyond Paul. The Mavericks also quieted New Orleans' other All-Star, David West, who scored 14 points but needed 20 shots to get them, making just six. Combined, the five Hornets starters shot 17-for-57 (29.8%) from the field.

Were it not for the unconscious shooting of streaky reserve guard Jannero Pargo, who scored a season-high 30 points on 12-of-20 shooting including four threes, New Orleans might have struggled to break 80 points in a slow-paced game.

Terry also played a key role at the other end of the court, saving some energy for offense. He gave the Mavericks the perimeter punch the team had been missing in the first two games, scoring 22 points on 8-of-18 shooting. Terry became the first Dallas player besides Dirk Nowitzki to reach the 20-point mark in this series.

The Mavericks didn't particularly shoot the ball well themselves either, hitting 42.7% from the field, but bolstered their offense with 38 free-throw attempts. Nowitzki and Josh Howard shot 10 free throws apiece; the Hornets had just 13 free-throw attempts as a team.

While it may not work over the course of a long series, Johnson's decision to limit the minutes of his ineffective bench paid off in this game. With Terry starting in place of the ineffective Jerry Stackhouse, only big man Brandon Bass played more than 12 minutes amongst the Mavericks reserves.

Heading into Game Four, it doesn't sound like Byron Scott is inclined to make big changes.

"It was just a matter of our guys making shots," he said after the game. "That's the bottom line--we had so many open shots and so many good looks tonight and we just missed them. That was the bottom line."

Scott will count on better shooting and a greater sense of urgency amongst his players making the difference, and that's probably a wise course. I don't think the Mavericks have figured Paul out, and it seems unlikely both he and West will shoot the ball so poorly again. The result should be the most competitive game of this series so far.

--K.P.

76ers 95, Pistons 75

Do you believe yet, Pistons?

You see, someone forgot to pass along the message that Philadelphia is supposed to roll over for you. The Sixers actually think they can win this series. If you don't recognize that after Friday's game, you're going to find yourself in a big hole after Game Four. You might be calling Mark Cuban for advice on coping with a stunning first-round upsetů

OK, I won't continue in the tired "open letter" vein. The Pistons/76ers story is exciting stuff. It's unclear whether we're watching an epic upset, the passing of the Pistons as an elite team, an emergent young team coming of age or none of the above. We simply don't know. That's what is so much fun.

When you consider that Game Three was Detroit's chance to re-establish a dominant position in the series, the numbers from the contest are staggering. The Pistons turned the ball over 23 times on 89 possessions and converted just 27 of those possessions into made field goals. Their offensive efficiency was 84 points per 100 possessions and they posted a .432 eFG%. Detroit was eighth in the league in offensive efficiency during the regular season and trailed only Toronto in turnover percentage.

Forcing turnovers is an underrated aspect of Philadelphia's defense, which was the eighth-most efficient unit in the league during the season. The Sixers force turnovers on 16.8% of their possessions, tied with Utah for second behind Boston's league-leading total (17.2%). Philly's total was driven by a league-leading steal percentage (9.7%).

In my Game Three recap for this series, I suggested that Mo Cheeks consider putting Samuel Dalembert on Antonio McDyess because his inability to defend the pick-and-pop against Rasheed Wallace was hurting the defense and consistently drawing him too far from the basket. It's a good thing that I'm not coaching the Sixers.

Dalembert had a monster game, with 22 points, 16 rebounds, two blocks and a team-high +27 in the plus/minus column. He once again drew Wallace on the defensive end and held 'Sheed to two points on 1-of-6 shooting in 34 minutes. Half of those attempts were from beyond the arc--Wallace was a non-factor on the blocks. Add it all up and Dalembert posted a game score of 58. As I mentioned, game scores over 50 occurred just 0.3% of the time during the regular season.

The Sixers managed to leverage their advantages in Friday's game, namely youth and athleticism. Philly had a +9 advantage on the boards, snatched 15 steals and pushed the tempo at every opportunity. The 89 possessions are still below the league average, but the Pistons play at the slowest pace in the league and the possession total was up from 82 in Game One and 84 in Game Two. Tayshaun Prince continued to hound Andre Iguodala but instead of forcing fadeaway jumpers, Iggy attacked the basket more often (still not often enough) and created for his teammates, dishing out six assists.

The Sixer bench dominated Detroit's once again, posting an aggregate game score of 50 to Detroit's 26. This came on the heels of a 66-21 advantage in Game Two. (Detroit had a slight edge in the first game.) Louis Williams was a big factor and Rodney Carney got more floor time. Both of them have an athletic edge over their Piston counterparts.

Philadelphia can expect to get Detroit's best in Game Four. In fact, you can count on it. The Sixers are playing tremendous basketball, especially on the defensive end. But the Pistons are one of those veteran playoff teams that you have to drive a stake through to kill. Can Philly absorb Detroit's best shot?

--B.D.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
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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