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May 8, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Wednesday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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Lakers 120, Utah 110

When future generations ask to see an example of an NBA offense at its finest, we will show them tape of the Los Angeles Lakers in last night's game. The Lakers shot 57.4% from the field, got to the free-throw line 43 times and made seven three-pointers in 11 attempts, with four players scoring at least 19 points. The end result was 120 points in 95 possessions in a postseason game against an above-average defensive team.

In the early going, both teams were executing to near perfection. They combined to score on 10 straight possessions after committing early turnovers, but the Lakers were able to keep it up while slowing the Utah Jazz down. The result was a scoreless stretch of nearly five minutes for the Jazz and a 13-0 Lakers run that gave the home team a comfortable lead through the middle of the fourth quarter.

As in Game 1, Utah rallied in the fourth quarter. With Kobe Bryant starting the quarter on the bench, the Lakers went through their one prolonged dry spell, coming up empty on five straight possessions as the Jazz got within five. The Lakers responded quickly to quell the uprising, scoring on six of their next seven possessions to push the lead back to 10 with 2:40 left.

The Jazz must find some answers for the Lakers offense, starting with the newly-crowned MVP. Bryant had another efficient offensive game, scoring 33 points on 18 shots and 12 free-throw attempts. (He did turn the ball over five times.) Utah was able to keep Bryant off the free-throw line, but did no better in forcing him to become a jumpshooter. ESPN.com's shot chart shows only four of Bryant's attempts coming from outside 15 feet.

No matter whom the Jazz threw at him--five defenders in all--Bryant was too quick to contain on the perimeter. Andrei Kirilenko looked as frustrated as I've ever seen him late in the fourth quarter, fouling Bryant on three consecutive possessions. Jerry Sloan got creative, briefly using the bigger Matt Harpring to offer a more physical presence against Bryant, with some positive results. Bryant missed his only shot attempt in the span, but did get to the free-throw line.

Utah could survive if Bryant was the only Lakers player doing major damage, but he's had plenty of help. Pau Gasol took advantage of some great Bryant feeds in putting up 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting, but Gasol deserves plenty of credit for the way he's dealt with the Jazz frontcourt in this series. The Spaniard has a reputation for shrinking from physical play, and opponents come no more physical than Utah in the playoffs. Yet Gasol has outplayed the Jazz's frontcourt in this series and was a defensive presence in the paint, blocking five shots. Meanwhile, Lamar Odom had a strong night with little fanfare, posting 19 points and a game-high 16 boards.

From the perimeter, Derek Fisher was lights out. He made four of the Lakers' seven three-pointers and scored 22 points on 10 shot attempts and four free-throw tries. Off the bench, Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic continued to give the Lakers productive minutes, scoring 12 points and getting to the line six times.

As strong as the Lakers' offense has been in the first two games of the series, the Jazz has managed to keep pace except for one quarter each game--the second quarter in Game 2, the first quarter last night. The potential is there for Utah to win by outscoring the Lakers; after all, Utah was the slightly better offensive team in the regular season (ranking second in the NBA in Offensive Rating; the Lakers were third). A good start would be for Deron Williams to build upon his fine second half last night. While Williams padded his numbers with a series of threes after the game was all but over, he was able to get to the rim in the third quarter. Few players this side of Chris Paul are better when able to build up a head of steam off the dribble, especially after splitting the double-team.

Carlos Boozer still isn't himself, missing seven of 10 shot attempts in Game 2. Boozer isn't hitting from the perimeter and has lost confidence in his shot. TNT analyst Doug Collins pointed out where this hurt Boozer when he drove into traffic and had his shot blocked instead of pulling up from midrange. The Jazz was lucky in this game that Paul Millsap was extremely active (17 points and 10 boards in 29 minutes off the bench), helping make up for Boozer's lost production. Still, Utah has to get Boozer going at some point. (In a nod to Gregg Easterbrook, I might make that auto text for the rest of this series.)

Ultimately, the Jazz bench ended up outplaying the Lakers' reserves, but in the first half an offensively-impotent Utah second unit struggled. In the second half, Sloan wisely kept Deron Williams in with his defensive-minded reserves, giving him a blow when other starters had returned to the game. Jarron Collins had his moments, grabbing five boards and drawing a charge in 11 minutes, but at this point of the postseason Sloan should be tightening his rotation and Boozer, Millsap and Mehmet Okur should be able to fill all 96 minutes up front.

--K.P.

Magic 111, Pistons 86

Two storylines dominated the aftermath of Game Three of the Orlando-Detroit series. One of them could extend far beyond Wednesday nightís game.

The Magic climbed back into the series by shooting lights out and by keeping the Pistons from making their shots. Pretty freaking simple right? Of course thereís more to it than that.

That brings us to storyline No. 1--Rashard Lewis. Lewis had his best game of the playoffs and thatís saying something. Heís been solid for most of the postseason. On Wednesday, he was able to fully exploit his advantages in quickness and agility against whatever four-man the Pistons ran at him. With Orlando doing a much better job of getting up and down the floor (the 88 possessions were the most of the series), Lewis was able to get to the hoop, draw fouls and get layups. Like all of the Magicís perimeter players, Lewis was also able to convert the open looks generated by the dribble penetration of Jameer Nelson and by beating his man down the floor in transition.

Orlandoís Dwight Howard was more of a force defensively this game, blocking six shots and effectively cutting off the middle from Detroitís big men. Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Jason Maxiell combined to go 4-of-19 from the field. The Pistons were able to hang in for three quarters behind the midrange efforts of Tayshaun Prince (who continues to be Detroitís MVP during the playoffs) and Rip Hamilton. But those players faltered in the fourth quarter as Orlando turned a four-point lead at the end of three periods into a 25-point runaway.

That brings us to storyline No. 2--Chauncey Billups. Orlando was probably going to have a better shooting night anyway, but when Billups when down with a strained hamstring 3:49 into the game, the Pistonsí defense fell apart. Nelson was much more aggressive against Rodney Stuckey and repeatably beat him off the dribble, scoring in the lane. Six of Nelsonís seven made field goals were of the two-point variety. He also did a great job of kicking out to the open shooters. Nelson had four assists but if the NBA kept secondary assists, he would have had a few of those as well.

Billupsí absence was felt even more acutely at the offensive end. While Stuckey put up 19 points off the bench, it took him 13 shots to get there. The Pistonsí ball movement lapsed without Billups running the show as Detroit assisted on only 12 of its 31 field goals. Prince and Hamilton did what they could, combining to go 18-for-34 from the floor, but the rest of the team was 13-for-43 and the Pistons finished with an eFG% of .416. Orlando, especially Howard, did a fine job on the defensive boards, which fueled the Orlando break and kept the pace quick, much to the liking of Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. When itís all working, it looks easy.

Letís face it, though. This series wasnít likely to be a sweep anyway. Log5 saw the Pistons with an 11 percent chance to sweep the series and the most likely scenario was the 24 percent chance that Detroit would win in five. If Orlando doesnít hold serve at home in Game Four, thatís still the scenario most likely to play out.

Of course, Pistons coach Flip Saunders canít find in solace in those numbers because if Billups is out or hindered the next game and beyond, the dynamic of the series is dramatically altered. Orlando might not continue to shoot as well as it did on Wednesday (.609 eFG%, 11-of-24 on threes), but Billupsí ability to muscle Nelson is essential to Detroitís imperative of pinching the Magicís outside shooters. Simply put, the Magic will continue to get cleaner looks at the basket if Billups is unable to play.

If this was last yearís Detroit team, you might go as far as to say that Orlando would become the favorite in this matchup if Billups canít go. Last season, Detroit was 4-8 without Billups in the lineup. The Pistons were +6.9 points with Billups on the floor but were -1.0 when he wasnít.

Joe Dumars may see dividends from the improved depth that was so important to this version of the Pistons during the regular season. Billups missed four games this season and the Pistons won three of them. Detoit was +9.9 when Billups was on the floor and +2.9 when he wasnít. Billups gives the Pistons a far greater margin of error, but Detroit can win without him. If Van Gundyís squad is feeling giddy over the prospect of facing a shorthanded Detroit lineup, they would do well to remember that.

--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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