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May 6, 2008
Back and Forth
Conference Semifinals, Part 2

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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(At BP headquarters--and BP headquarters--we've been having some technical difficulties over the past few days. Kevin and Bradford's take on the Celtics/Cavs and Jazz/Lakers series came in over the weekend. Our apologies for the delay in getting it published.--JSS)

Bradford Doolittle: Finally. Geesh. You know, the Hawks' showing in the first round was exciting. It was great to see Atlanta get behind its NBA team in the same way in did back in the '80s, when the Omni was one of the toughest venues to visit. Lost--at least for me--in the clamor over a possible Hawks upset was the fact that these playoffs would have lost a lot of luster had the Celtics gone down. The Atlanta story would have been great but it would have been a first-round story. I want to see the Celtics/Cavs, the Celtics/Pistons and, ultimately, the Celtics/Jazz matchups. OK, maybe most would prefer the Celtics/Lakers, but you get the point.

That craziness behind us, we now have LeBron James and company paying a visit to whatever arena that is that replaced The Garden. My first question to you, KP, is what will Boston do to control James that Washington was unable to do?

Kevin Pelton: Well, let's start with not calling him overrated. The Celtics are surely smart enough not to provide James any extra motivation, not that it should be necessary at this point of the postseason. The more important difference will be in team defense. On ABC's broadcast of Game Seven, Mike Breen related that Doc Rivers was asked who his team's best defensive option was against Joe Johnson. Rivers' response: the team. The help defense and rotations James will see in this series will be vastly superior to what the Wizards threw out against him in round one. Boston's defenders will be coming over to stop James, not with knocking him down ostensibly their primary objective.

The other nice thing for the Celtics is that both of their top wing defenders (Paul Pierce and James Posey) have the size to match up with James, at least to the extent that anyone can match up with a 6'8", 250-pound freak of nature. Pierce and Posey are much bigger and longer than, say, Bruce Bowen, and that definitely plays to Boston's advantage in this series.

To me, the big question worth debating is to what extent the Atlanta scare revealed the Celtics' weaknesses as opposed to Boston lacking focus on the road and the Hawks getting hot at home. Your take?

BD: The answer to that question is really the key to the rest of the postseason, at least in the East. I touched upon it a little in my recap of Game Seven. The Hawks were about seven points per game better at home during the regular season. The Celtics were about five points worse defensively on the road, while remaining steady on offense. So part of what we saw in the Atlanta series could be attributed to already-embedded home/road traits that somehow went amuck. There was--on average--a 30-point swing in point differential between Boston and Atlanta in that series. I'm not prepared to call that meaningful evidence of a fatal Celtics flaw in their defense on the road. Still, if I'm Doc Rivers, I'll feel a lot better after that first postseason win away from home. Oh, and let's not forget that the Celtics could lose every road game they play in the playoffs and still win the championship. I don't guess it'll play out that way, though.

One of the manifestations of the excellent Boston team defense you allude to is that three-point specialists don't get the open looks they are accustomed to when playing the Celtics. The Cavaliers have Delonte West, Daniel Gibson, Wally Szczerbiak and maybe even Damon Jones and Sasha Pavlovic that fit that bill. Who will emerge as the secondary scorer that I suspect Cleveland will desperately need against Boston?

KP: Hmm, 16-0 at home, 0-12 on the road. That's just crazy enough that it might happen this year.

One of the surprises of the Hawks/Celtics series was the success Atlanta had getting to the basket in one-on-one matchups, at least at Philips Arena. Certainly, the Cavaliers should make a point of attacking Ray Allen as much as possible. Playing alongside James, West and Gibson have become shooting specialists, but West in particular has the ability to get to the paint and make plays for himself and others. Is it crazy to believe he could be in for a big series against his former team? I think not.

At the other end of the court, do you see the Celtics doing anything differently against the Cleveland D?

BD: Other than going at Szczerbiak at every opportunity, I'm not sure the Celtics really need to do anything drastically differently. Cleveland is a very solid defensive team and is the best rebounding team in the league. They don't force a ton of turnovers, though, so the Celtics have to execute their offense, which means taking care of the ball and making the extra pass. Elementary stuff. It's what they've been doing all year. Where the Cavs are weakest on the defensive end is in the backcourt, so Ray Allen is going to be key. He needs to hit more of his open looks than he did against the Hawks. Well, now that I look, he was 18-for-45 from three-point range in the first round, which is 40 percent. It sure seemed worse than that.

I'm ready to throw out my pick. But first, I want head off some of the angry e-mails I'll probably get for the log5 predictions that I'll post after our exchange. Log5 has the Cavs with a two percent chance of winning the series. Calm down...don't throw that at me. I didn't invent the process. The inputs I'm using are Pythagorean winning percentages that are based on schedule-adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies. As great as the Celtics' raw point differential was, they actually underperformed their expected Pythagorean record. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers were outscored this season, despite their record. So log5 sees Cleveland with about a one-in-five chance to beat Boston in any one game on a neutral floor. When you consider that they'd need to convert four one-in-five chances to take the series, that's how you end up with the Celtics as such an overwhelming favorite. There is one mitigating factor that I was reminded of by a reader during the first round. If I remember my facts correctly, Cleveland was outscored by 92 points during the few games that James missed when he hurt his finger. If you remove those blowouts, Cleveland's Pythagorean record is 47 wins. Subbing in that value, the Cavs' chance to beat Boston goes up to a whopping five percent.

I wouldn't take those odds to Vegas, though. This series is a whole lot closer than that. Nevertheless, I'm picking against King James for the second straight round. I'll go with Boston in six.

KP: I think the one legitimate aspect of the Boston/Atlanta series was that the Celtics have some end-game issues. Garnett simply isn't the kind of player that is going to create offense regularly in that situation. Game Six was something of a fluke in that Pierce fouled out, allowing the Hawks to focus all their attention on a slumping Allen (who missed so many shots in the fourth quarter of that game it's understandable to think he shot worse than 40% from downtown in the series). If there's a close game, my money is on randomness first and the Cavaliers second.

Winning a couple of close games can really swing a playoff series--see Phoenix/San Antonio as well as Boston/Atlanta--but in this case I think it's only enough to make it a competitive series as opposed to all Celtics. I'll take Boston in six as well.

BD: The last semifinal matchup is the Jazz/Lakers. I guess we're cheating a bit as the Lakers already have a one-game leg up in that one. Frankly, though, I don't think Game One of that series provided any conclusive indications about which way this series will go. The Jazz are the team that I watch more than any other. In fact, I may have watched all of Utah's games this year. The three things about Utah that can drive you crazy were all on display on Sunday. First, they foul too much. Yes, the Jazz is a very physical club, but Carlos Boozer in particular picks up more silly fouls by pushing off on rebounds that he has no chance to retrieve than any player I can think of. Second, they sometimes play like the ball has been doused in WD-40. For all of Utah's offensive precision, it was only middle of the pack in terms of taking care of the ball. Finally, Utah has a tendency towards defensive lapses, especially on the road. All of these things happened on Sunday.

A big key for me in this matchup is that Utah has to go at Pau Gasol in the post, whether it's Boozer, Mehmet Okur or Paul Millsap. Make him flop and whine--two things he does very well. Utah cannot settle for jumpers in this one.

KP: Yeah, I think that was the one aspect of the Jazz's effort that disappointed me in Game 1. I expected that Utah would struggle with the short turnaround, but post play should be affected less than perimeter jumpers, so get the ball inside. To their credit, the Lakers did a good job of making Utah work for post position, but I think pounding the paint will be Jerry Sloan's emphasis going into Game 2.

We saw Ronnie Brewer defend Kobe Bryant most of the time in Game 1, and Bryant ended up living at the free-throw line. You mentioned the Jazz's tendency to hack on D. Can Bryant be kept off the line in this series? How would you defend him?

BD: Brewer is the best candidate to guard Bryant the majority of the time. He just needs to lay off of him a little bit more and make him take jumpers. Keep those free points down. The Lakers have surrounded Bryant with so many good shooters that when you let him get into the lane, he almost hurts you more by giving up the ball to an open three-point shooter. To me, the focus has to be on stopping the other four guys on the floor and playing the passing lanes to stem LA's ball movement. Not an easy task.

Deron Williams didn't have a great first game but he'll bounce back. In fact, I see him as the key to the series for Utah. If he plays at the top of his game, he can pick apart the L.A. defense. If you're Phil Jackson, what do you do to control Williams?

KP: On paper, the Lakers match up well with Williams. Certainly, Derek Fisher knows Williams' game after playing alongside him last year in Utah, and Fisher is a tough guy to post up because of his strength. In the regular season, Williams scored very well against the Lakers (23.3 ppg, 63.7% TS%), but that might have been by design. Williams had just 6.5 assists per game, and I know the Rockets felt their best strategy was making Williams a scorer and not a distributor.

Personally, I'm not so sure I agree with that. When the Jazz's starting lineup is on the floor, there's an opportunity to help on the pick-and-roll off of Brewer and Andrei Kirilenko, neither of whom scares opponents with their perimeter shooting. I think it's possible to contain Williams, Boozer and Okur--though Kyle Korver's presence makes that more difficult.

You mentioned Gasol quickly, but I think he's an interesting figure in this series. Historically, he doesn't respond well to the physical kind of game the Jazz favors. It didn't seem to bother him in Game One, but do you see that becoming a factor at some point in this series?

BD: Absolutely. The guy has an expression of indignation permanently embedded on his face. He doesn't even look like he enjoys playing. It doesn't look like intensity--it's more like he's been inconvenienced by bad service in an upscale restaurant. My interpretation of Gasol's facial expressions aside, I can easily see a few bumps from Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap getting Gasol off of his game. I'd expect the effect to be cumulative. In general, I see Utah as being more apt to slow L.A.'s offense than L.A. will be able to stop the Jazz. For that reason, I'm going with the Jazz in seven. Big shock--I picked the Jazz for the finals. But if I remember correctly, you picked Kobe's crew. Have you changed your tune?

KP: Maybe Pau is just bitter about Americans' refusal to accept the siesta?

I haven't changed my mind on this series. If anything, Utah having some trouble closing Houston out and the Lakers quickly dispatching of Denver in the first round has me slightly more convinced that the Lakers will win this series. Utah's toughness aside, the numbers show the Lakers as slightly better on defense over the course of the season, while the offenses are basically a wash. Add in the difficulty in defending Bryant and I think the Lakers win in six with a rare EnergySolutions Arena victory. Should be a fun one to watch.

Log5 Outlook

Boston vs. Cleveland

Boston wins series: 98% (overall)
-in 4: 40%
-in 5: 39%
-in 6: 13%
-in 7: 6%

Cleveland wins series: 2% (overall)
-in 4: 0%
-in 5: 0%
-in 6: 1%
-in 7: 1%

L.A. Lakers vs. Utah

LA wins series: 54% (overall)
-in 4: 6%
-in 5: 16%
-in 6: 14%
-in 7: 18%

Utah wins series: 46% (overall)
-in 4: 6%
-in 5: 10%
-in 6: 18%
-in 7: 13%

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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