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April 30, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Tuesday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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It felt like the end of an era in the Western Conference. Two years ago, Dallas and Phoenix met in the Western Conference Finals. They've beeen amongst the elite teams in the conference for years. After Tuesday's games, both are going to be watching the rest of the playoffs from home. This wasn't like last year, when the Mavericks were upset by a Warriors team that was a tough matchup for them. This was a case of two flawed teams who made major midseason deals falling short, and that could have a major impact on the West this summer and beyond.

Spurs 92, Suns 87

The Phoenix Suns have an unexpectedly long off-season in front of them, and they'll need every day of it. If the Suns don't get busy revamping the roster--and potentially even the coaching staff--then they'll be reliving the closing minutes of their Game One and Game Five losses in this series. There will be a lot to consider.

Steve Nash made two huge buckets in the final six minutes, first putting the Suns ahead and then re-tying the game with a three. However, in that stretch Nash also missed four shots (one of them a desperation three-pointer) and committed three turnovers. He finished the night 4-of-16 from the field with just three assists. It was a very un-MVP performance to cap a poor series for Nash, and there's only so much Bruce Bowen had to do with it; he played but 16 minutes in this game.

Nash had company. Boris Diaw played another outstanding game, but his turnover out of the post with 39 seconds left to play was a killer. Shaquille O'Neal can ponder his 11 missed free throws. Everyone can wonder what might have been had not the Spurs surprised Phoenix by putting the bigger Kurt Thomas on Diaw on the Suns' last meaningful possession of the game, forcing Phoenix to try to get the ball to Nash instead. Bruce Bowen got his hand in to knock the pass out of Nash's hands, the ball went over to San Antonio (correctly or not) and the Suns were history.

What will ultimately prove most frustrating for Phoenix is the knowledge that, had things gone a little differently, they easily could have won this series. San Antonio won Game Three in a blowout, but the Suns matched that in Game Four. The difference in the series proved to be the two close Spurs wins at the AT&T Center, and while the Suns cost themselves those games, San Antonio also got some breaks that changed the nature of the series. In the end, this series was unable to live up to the hype or the tremendous Game One, but it did produce a second memorable game, which is pretty remarkable of a five-game series in the best-of-seven format.

The Hack-a-Shaq strategy was ultimately much ado about nothing. I have O'Neal shooting 6-for-12 from the line on intentional fouls in Game Five. That made those possessions more productive for Phoenix than their regular offense was. (I have them at 87 points on 91 possessions for the game, a terrific defensive effort by the Spurs.) What was unusual about the Hack-a-Shaq was the way it seemed to invigorate the San Antonio offense throughout this series. In theory, offense is especially difficult after a free throw because the defense is well balanced, yet the Spurs scored enough that it did not matter whether O'Neal made the free throws or not.

Throughout this series, I've referred to San Antonio as a three-man offense with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. Last night, with Ginobili struggling (eight points on 2-of-11 shooting), it was a two-man show, but Parker and Duncan were so good the Spurs still scored enough to win. This was the series of Parker's life, and he capped it with 31 points and eight assists, getting to the free-throw line 16 times. So much for Boris Diaw shutting him down. Wisely, Gregg Popovich resisted making drastic changes and simply sought to attack Diaw quickly and take advantage of the fact that Diaw had to find Parker in the flow after missed baskets, with Parker getting good looks in the early offense.

What's next for Phoenix? Hopefully not drastic change, but the end of this game felt like the end of the line for the :07 Seconds or Less Suns, unless that already happened with the trade for O'Neal. I doubt Phoenix can help itself in the short term by replacing D'Antoni on the sidelines, but it may be impossible to retool given D'Antoni's fondness for veterans and preference for short rotations. The other possibility is to load up with the intention of making one last run. Improving the bench (I've seen more than enough of Gordan Giricek, and while Brian Skinner is a useful player, he's ultimately limited) would help the Suns, but would it be enough to compete at the highest level in the West next season? Possibly not.

Hornets 99, Mavericks 94

At season's end, I plan on copying college colleagues John Gasaway and Ken Pomeroy by compiling a list of my best and worst analysis of the year. Here's a sneak preview of what ranks as my top prediction. On Nov. 19, a mere 10 games into the season, I wrote about New Orleans and Orlando (as well as Boston) joining an elite group of teams to start the year 8-2 or better having finished the previous season below .500. It wasn't too early, I noted, to say both the Hornets and the Magic were for real:

"All seven comparable teams won at least 47 games, three won their division, five won their opening playoff series and two advanced all the way to their conference finals."

Now, both New Orleans and Orlando have joined the majority of the predecessors in advancing in the postseason, playoff inexperience be damned.

Like the Nuggets before them, Dallas played to the final buzzer but ultimately fell short. Over the course of this series, I've been killing the Mavericks for their lack of depth, but last night seven players scored in double figures. Dallas' 94 points were more impressive than they seem because this was an extremely slow-paced game--80 possessions for the Mavericks, 79 for the Hornets.

That being the case, Dallas' defense was more dismal than it would appear from giving up 99 points. Nothing in New Orleans' stat line as a team stands out, but the Hornets were good in all four of Dean Oliver's Four Factors. Thanks to eight three-pointers, their effective field-goal percentage was a solid 53.8%. They made 15 free throws in a slow-paced game, grabbed more than a third of their own misses as offensive rebounds and turned the ball over just eight times.

This was led, as you might imagine, by Chris Paul, who recorded his first career triple-double with 24 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds. His most impressive number, however, is none of those but instead a zero in the turnovers column in 44 minutes of action. Add in 25 points from David West and 17 off the bench from Jannero Pargo on just nine shot attempts, and the Hornets had plenty of firepower despite a quiet night from Peja Stojakovic (2-for-12 from the field).

The Mavericks seem fated to change to an even greater extent than the Suns will, and while I think Avery Johnson is a good coach (even if he was never the great one he was made out to be by way of favorable contrast to Don Nelson during his early days at the helm in Dallas), Monday's players-only practice pretty much spelled the end. Here's hoping that when it comes to personnel moves, the Mavericks recognize that their best reserve in this series, and one of their most productive players overall, was third-year forward Brandon Bass. Playoff experience is valuable, and veterans are necessary on the bench, but as part of the mix, not as the entire thing. Some youth is badly needed in Dallas, especially on the wings.

Looking ahead, New Orleans/San Antonio should be a great series highlighted by two of the league's quickest point guards in Parker and Paul. Morris Peterson, something of a forgotten man against the Mavericks' small backcourt, suddenly comes to the forefront. He's the Hornets' best hope for matching up with Manu Ginobili and his ability to spread the floor will also be very important in this series. I'd feel better about picking New Orleans had the Spurs had to expend more energy in finishing off Phoenix. As it is, I like the Hornets but I also like the series to go seven games.

Rockets 95, Jazz 69

Even if they are unable to go on to complete a comeback and win this series, I hope we don't forget about the 2007-08 Houston Rockets any time soon. This Rockets squad is grittiness personified. It is a team without the word "quit" in its vocabulary. Last night, Houston turned in one of the best defensive performances almost no one saw (not with the game on NBA TV and opposite the sexier Spurs-Suns matchup).

The Utah Jazz, with the league's second-best offense over the course of the season and the hottest in the league going into the postseason, was held to 69 points--32 in the first half--on 87 possessions. Only once in the regular season did the Jazz fail to score 80 points. Utah's 79.8 Offensive Rating was far worse than the team's worst game in the regular season (87.0).

I've discussed at length the nature of this series as one in which both teams exert maximum energy. Well, the flip side of that is that if one team takes a little while off, things can get ugly. I think that happened to the Jazz during the decisive second quarter and Utah was never able to recover. Meanwhile, Houston is getting the flow on offense that eluded them in Rafer Alston's absence. Tracy McGrady had 29 points (though you would definitely like to see him getting to the free-throw line for more than two attempts) and Luis Scola had his best effort of the postseason with 18 points and 12 rebounds.

A troubling sign for the Jazz is that the Rockets bench, badly outplayed early in this series, has had the upper hand recently. Houston's main four reserves contributed 22 points and nine rebounds in Game Five. More importantly, when they were on the floor the Rockets blew the game open. Carl Landry was a +20 in his 23 minutes and all four primary reserves were at least +10.

I think it would be a mistake to panic about Utah's chances after this loss. Jerry Sloan is one of the best at rallying his team to one of its better performances after a lopsided loss, even during the postseason. The Jazz won't play this poorly on offense again, and Utah certainly isn't likely to repeat the 13-of-23 (56.5%) shooting from the free-throw line. The Jazz is still a solid bet to wrap this series up at home in Game Six. However, the Rockets are playing well enough, and are determined enough, that they've put themselves in position to take advantage of any slip-up.

--K.P.

Pistons 98, 76ers 81

Look at it this way, Sixer fans. If this were 1978, you'd already be preparing to play the Magic. Back then, you needed to win just two games to get out of the first round. In 2008, that only gets you halfway there. Because the series are longer, it's that much more unlikely that a Cinderella can knock off a heavy favorite. It's the NBA playoffs. The strong survive.

Things were looking pretty rosy at halftime of Game Four. Not only was Philadelphia up 2-1 in the series, they were at home and had grabbed a 10-point lead over Detroit. Since that point, it's been all Pistons. They outscored Philly by 39 points over the next five quarters and after cruising to an easy win in Tuesday's Game Five are one win away from finally shooing away the pesky Sixers.

Just as they came out of the half on fire in Game Four, the Pistons were unstoppable on offense in Game Five. Detroit made five of its first six shots, but some early turnovers and some nice work by the Sixers on the offensive glass kept the score close. Philadelphia began turning the ball over and Detroit remained hot from the field, aggressively taking the Sixer defenders off the dribble and getting into the lane. After the middle of the Philly defense softened, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace went to work on the outside. When the smoke cleared, the Pistons had gone on a 16-2 run to seize an early 14-point advantage. Detroit did not trail by fewer than 12 points the rest of the game.

At the end of the first quarter, the Pistons were 15-of-19 from the field. Their big four of Billups, Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince had taken all 19 shots and scored all 35 of Detroit's points in the opening frame. Billups had 14 points and five assists while dogging Andre Miller into 1-for-8 shooting.

That was really all she wrote. Flip Saunders tightened his rotation this time out, using only Antonio McDyess (who again came off the bench in favor of Jason Maxiell), Arron Afflalo and Rodney Stuckey until late in the game when the score was out of reach. The respective offensive efficiencies in the game were 115 for the Pistons and 95 for Philadelphia. That was the second-best of the series on offense for Detroit and it's best showing on defense. The 85 possessions in the game indicated that the tempo again favored the Pistons.

Andre Iguodala was better in this game, taking Tayshaun Prince on the dribble when he could and being more selective with his outside shot. He had 21 points on 13 field-goal attempts, but went a long stretch in the middle of the game without taking a shot. Miller ended up 5-of-17 from the floor. The Sixers did their best to stay aggressive on the offensive end and not fall back on too many jumpers. They did manage to double Detroit's attempts from the foul line, 24-12. The Pistons played terrific interior defense, blocking 12 shots in the contest, six of the blocks by Wallace.

The Sixer bench bested Detroit's, as if it really mattered, mostly due to a 16-point showing by Lou Williams in 24 minutes. I realize that Williams is undersized and isn't a good matchup to man-up with either Billups or Hamilton, but Willie Green is just not a productive two-guard and doesn't play good enough defense, nor shoot a consistent enough three-ball, to be a good role player. If Green starts off cold in Game Six, I would love to see Mo Cheeks just go with Williams. Perhaps he can use his quickness to get Hamilton or Billups, whoever guards him, into foul trouble. It's worth a shot. In any event, when the Sixers go shopping on the free-agent market this summer, a two-guard should be Ed Stefanski's top priority.

I was also troubled by the seemingly willy-nilly manner in which Cheeks doles out court time at power forward. It's almost like he wants to go offense/defense as much as possible, though there really isn't that much of a defensive difference in the players he inserts. (There is a significant difference in rebounding ability, however.) Reggie Evans has had a nice series, but he's really a 10-15 minute player. Thaddeus Young, who admittedly didn't have a very good game on Tuesday, could help the Sixers push the tempo by beating his man down the floor. Williams plays into this, as well. Alas, my point is undermined by the fact that Philly was -21 with Young on the floor and +10 with Evans during Game Five.

So now we return to Philadelphia with the Sixers in the unenviable position of needing to stem the tide of a veteran team that has woken from its early-series slumber. I'd expect the Pistons to come out swinging again and the Sixers really haven't shown that they can stay with a Detroit team that is playing focused basketball. So I look for the Pistons to close it out in Game Six. But this has been a series of surprises, one in which the young 76ers have gained some invaluable postseason experience, and, just maybe, Mo Cheeks' bunch has one more surprise left in them.

--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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