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May 6, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Monday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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Pistons 100, Magic 93

The NBA just can't seem to get through a playoff season without a controversy stemming from a rule that seems pretty indefensible to the layperson.

In case you weren't playing close attention to Monday's Game Two between Detroit and Orlando, here's a recap. There was a clock malfunction that allowed a three-pointer from the Pistons' Chauncey Billups to count when it shouldn't have. The Pistons had the ball with a few seconds left in the third quarter and as they were working the ball around, the game clock froze at 4.8 seconds. Billups eventually swished a 30-footer.

The officials, led by Steve Javie, gathered to sort out the mess. NBA rules won't allow officials to consult television replays to resolve clock malfunctions. TNT was able to run the replay with a superimposed clock, which indicated that Billups' shot came too late. The officials weren't privy to that video. Instead, they apparently had to estimate--i.e., guess--the elapsed time. It doesn't make much sense and it's another issue for the NBA rules committee to sort out...too late for the team that was victimized.

Enough of that. The controversy was unfortunate because it really was a terrific game. Detroit spent the first half pinching the Magic's perimeter shooters, as it was able to do in the first game. At the half, Orlando was 3-of-10 on threes and because of turnover problems had attempted only 29 shots from the field. Also similar to Game One, Detroit was doing an effective job on Dwight Howard by throwing everyone but Bob Lanier at Orlando's wunderkind center. After two periods, Howard had a modest 10 points and five boards and had attempted just four shots.

Something changed at the half. Orlando came out in the third quarter and displayed the qualities that got them into the conference semis in the first place. The Magic formula was back in force: Dwight Howard working the middle; everyone else firing away from three-point land. Orlando went 7-of-11 on threes in that period, turning a 10-point halftime deficit into a one-point shortfall. That was the difference when Billups' disputed shot put Detroit up 78-74 after three quarters.

Orlando led by two points a couple of times during the fourth quarter. Still and all, the game came down to executing on the key possessions down the stretch. Detroit was able to do that. Orlando wasn't, missing 10 of its last 12 shots.

Howard was sensational during the second half for Orlando. He finished with 22 points, 18 boards and two blocks, including 12 points, 13 rebounds and both blocks after the half. He grabbed eight offensive boards in the contest. Can Stan Van Gundy ask for any more than Howard gave him on Monday?

The other bright spots for Orlando included the defensive job Maurice Evans and Keith Bogans did on Rip Hamilton, who scored 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting. Evans scored 13 points in a 5-of-7 performance, giving Orlando an unexpected win at the two-guard spot, the Magic's weakest position. Also, Jameer Nelson was huge for Orlando, scoring 22 points and leading the second-half charge. He was once again out-muscled by Billups, however, and fouled out with 1:23 left and Orlando down by just four points. Billups' game-high 28 points came on 8-for-19 shooting and came largely from a 10-of-10 showing from the foul line.

Nelson's departure set the stage for a gaffe from Keyon Dooling. With Detroit up by four and inbounding the ball with 11 seconds left, Dooling was called for a foul on Rip Hamilton before the ball was thrown inbounds. That gave Detroit a free throw and the ball out of bounds. Detroit was in solid postion to win the game anyway, but the mistake echoed Dooling's faux paus the end of Game 2 of Orlando's first-round series with Toronto. In that one, Orlando had the ball out of bounds with a few seconds left and a one-point lead. Dooling, trying to free himself to receive the inbounds pass, pushed off and was whistled for an offensive foul. That gave Toronto a chance for the win, which it squandered when Chris Bosh missed an 18-footer at the buzzer.

Detroit forced 19 Orlando turnovers on Monday while committing just eight miscues of its own. The Magic were on the minus side of the turnover margin ledger throughout the season but it simply can't absorb that kind of deficit and stay competitive with the Pistons. Because of the turnover glut, Detroit finished with a 15-4 edge in fast-break points. That's a category the Magic has to win.

In the end, Orlando served notice that it could be competitive with the Pistons in this series. Wednesday's Game 3 in Orlando is obviously a must-win situation for the Magic. For that to happen, they'll need four quarters like their third quarter from Monday. And they'll have to take care of the ball.

--B.D.

Hornets 102, Spurs 84

Games 1 and 2 of the Hornets-Spurs series have been parties, and nobody throws a party like New Orleans. Like any good party, the Hornets have started fashionably late. For the second straight game, they trailed at halftime before exploding in the third quarter to take control of the game. The final margin in Game 2 (18 points) was just shy of the Hornets' 19-point Game 1 win, but make no mistake--this was the more dominant victory, New Orleans leading by double-figures virtually the entire fourth quarter.

In Game 1, the Spurs bottled up Chris Paul before the MVP candidate erupted in the closing minutes to help the Hornets seal their victory. In Game 2, Paul maintained that late-game brilliance for a full 40 minutes. The result was the kind of performance rarely seen against the Spurs--30 points on 11-of-20 shooting, 12 assists and one turnover in 41 minutes. Even the numbers, as outstanding as they were, cannot do justice to how completely Paul controlled the second half of the game or the way he embarrassed the San Antonio defense with a variety of moves en route to the basket.

Paul's performance helped counter an off night by David West. The Spurs took away the post-up looks West got in Game 1 and made him strictly a jump-shooter. That's not necessarily a bad thing for someone as accurate from midrange from West, but he was unable to find the touch on this night, missing nine of 11 shots. West was clearly frustrated at times, but he contributed in other ways, doing an excellent job on the glass and handing out five assists.

In addition to Paul, the Hornets got plenty of production from the perimeter. They hit 10 three-pointers, including four in the third quarter. Peja Stojakovic continued his outstanding postseason, knocking down five of those threes and scoring 25 points. Stojakovic has also been impressive in this series shooting off the dribble when the Spurs have closed out on him, including one impressive play when he drew a foul from behind on Manu Ginobili and nearly hit the shot for a three-point play opportunity. Meanwhile, Morris Peterson got loose for seven points in the third quarter and was a perfect 5-of-5 from the field. He even dusted off his post game to score over Tony Parker at one point.

On the other end of the floor, Tim Duncan rebounded from his off night in Game 1. Other than a strong effort off the bench from Brent Barry (much of it done in garbage time), that's about all that went right for the Spurs, who scored 84 points in as many possessions. Byron Scott spoke before the series about the need to contain one of San Antonio's big three, but that goal was too low in Game 2. The Hornets made both Parker and Ginobili, who combined for 24 points in as many shot attempts with eight turnovers, non-factors. And while Duncan made many of the shots he missed in Game 1, New Orleans' double-teams ensured he could not dominate the game.

Scott's well-crafted gameplan has put the pressure on the Spurs to hit from three-point range, and since halftime of Game 1, they have been unequal to that task. Last night, San Antonio was 8-of-27 from three-point range. Before Barry hit a pair of triples in the final two minutes, the Spurs were shooting 24.0% from downtown. Starters Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley offered little offense in Game 2, combining for eight points on 3-of-14 shooting. Time and again in this series (and the postseason in general, though it was masked in the first round by the play of the big three), the Spurs' role players have failed them, and it's not as if Gregg Popovich has a lot of other options at his disposal.

So far, the most successful offensive strategies for San Antonio have been getting hot from downtown in the first half of Game 1 and getting Tyson Chandler in foul trouble in Game 2. With Chandler on the floor, the Hornets were +35 last night; the Spurs outscored them by 17 in Chandler's 20-plus minutes on the bench. Not only does New Orleans lose its best help defender and rebounder when Chandler sits, the offense also takes a big hit because the Spurs don't have to respect Melvin Ely as much as Chandler (and, specifically, the threat of the alley-oop lob) in the screen-and-roll game, allowing them to hedge harder against Paul and keep him from turning the corner and getting to the basket.

The series has merely gone to form so far, with the Hornets holding serve at home, but the way the losses have played out has to be worrisome for San Antonio. There's an air of desperation about the Spurs we haven't seen since they lost to the Mavericks in the semifinals two years ago (with the possible exception of Game 4 in the semis a year ago, between the Suns securing a Game 4 victory to tie the series and Boris Diaw and Amaré Stoudemire earning suspensions for Game 5).

As Charles Barkley pointed out on Inside the NBA after the game, the notion of San Antonio going to a zone to try to get the game under control is virtually unthinkable. Meanwhile, Popovich has yet to settle on a rotation, sorting through a number of players in hopes of finding the right combination. That shouldn't happen at this point of the postseason. Write off the Spurs at your own peril; even in that series against Dallas, they willed their way to overtime of a Game 7 before surrendering their own crown. Still, these last two games have mortally wounded the notion that the Spurs will win this series because they're the Spurs. These Hornets are legit, and to beat them, Popovich and company are going to have to find some answers and soon.

--K.P.

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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