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May 10, 2008
Four-Point Play
Thursday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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Celtics 89, Cavaliers 73

Game One of the Boston-Cleveland series raised a lot of questions for both teams. Game Two provided some answers for the Celtics. Meanwhile LeBron James and company are still searching.

Boston came out of the locker room on fire after halftime on Thursday. Their defense continued to stifle James, and the offense got going as well. Ray Allen finally found some rhythm after three consecutive scoreless halves, exploiting the obvious advantage he has over Wally Szczerbiak at the offensive end. Allen scored all 16 of his points after the break. Meanwhile, Paul Pierce rebounded from a dismal first game with 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting. If the Celtics were reeling a bit after the combined four-point showing of Pierce and Allen in Game One, the second half might have restored order in Boston.

The Cavaliers, however, have to seriously concerned about the back-to-back poor shooting games by James. How much of it James and how much of it is the Celticsí defense? Iíd say itís a little bit of the former and a whole lot of the latter. No one expected James to go 2-of-18 again. He didnít, but 6-of-24 isnít a whole lot better. Until he hit a 17-footer midway in the fourth quarter, James had not made a field goal outside of the lane in the series.

In the first quarter, Clevelandís ball movement was better than in the previous game. Zydrunas Ilgauskas went 5-of-5 on jumpers in the early going and Cleveland built a nice lead. Kendrick Perkins was again struggling to play Big Z--Doc Rivers ended up limiting Perk to 21 minutes, instead going with undersized and overachieving Leon Powe in the middle. Powe played exceptional position defense on Ilgauskas and made it more difficult to him to step out for the midrange shot.

It was the Boston bench, led by Powe and Posey, that turned the tide against Cleveland during the second quarter. Posey was again dynamite defending James and knocked down the open shots when he got them. Powe did yeomanís work in the paint on the offensive end, scoring 11 points. Four of Poweís seven rebounds were off of the offensive glass. In fact, Boston outrebounded Cleveland 45-39, a margin which was probably aided by Ben Wallaceís departure from the action in the first quarter after he bizarrely experienced sudden vertigo.

In this series, rebounding is huge, especially with all of the missed shots. Iíve pointed out several times that the Cavs were the best rebounding team in the league during the regular season. However, the Celtics were the fourth-best and have successfully negated one of Clevelandís team strengths. With the Cavs unable to control the glass and force something resembling a transition game, James was again left to slug it out in the halfcourt against the leagueís best defensive team. Cleveland shot a 37.0 eFG%, its second-straight game under 40 percent.

That said, letís not overlook look the fact that the Cavs limited Boston to a 42.4 eFG%. Whereas Cleveland was 26-of-73 from the floor, Boston was just 29-of-72. Cleveland went 2-of-13 from behind the arc; Boston countered with 3-of-14. As good as the Celticsí defense was, the Cavs went toe-to-toe with them and were almost as effective on their own defensive end.

The point is, this game was won by Bostonís floor game and overall aggressiveness. Allen found his rhythm by going hard to the hole after halftime, leading to a 7-of-8 performance from the charity stripe. Rajon Rondo, who was 0-of-6 from the field, went 7-of-7 from the line. Overall, Boston outscored Cleveland 28-19 from on free throws. Further, the Celtics forced three more turnovers than the Cavs did, on the strength of an 11-4 advantage in steals. The small advantages the Celtics built in these other categories added up to an easy win. (The only category Boston didnít win was blocks--Cleveland won that one 7-2. Who was the Cavsí enforcer? Delonte West blocked four shots. Bet you didnít guess that one.)

Now the series moves back to Cleveland for Saturdayís Game Three, which promises to be one of the more interesting games so far in the playoffs. Obviously the Cavs have to win or the series is as good as over. Beyond that, the Celtics will be assailed by an avalanche of questions as to whether they can apply the same defensive energy on the road as they have brought to all six home games during the playoffs.

Game Three will be Bostonís first chance to address the myriad concerns raised by the struggles in the Atlanta series. They will face a motivated and focused LeBron James with an energized crowd rooting him on. James is poised for a breakout game...or at least thatís I would assume if I were Doc Rivers. Heís got to keep the focus on overall team defense and rebounding.

More importantly, though, Rivers has to get his squad to execute better at the offensive end than it has during the first two games. The second half of Game Two indicated they are coming together in that regard. Still, we saw the same type of performances by the Celtics in Boston during the Hawks series--and saw a whole different act on the road. If Boston wants to quell any growing confidence problem on the road, Game Three will be almost as important to them as it will be to the Cavaliers.

--B.D.

Spurs 110, Hornets 99

Facing near-certain elimination with a loss in Game 3, the San Antonio Spurs responded with an impressive offensive performance that moved them within 2-1 in their series with the New Orleans Hornets. A San Antonio formula that seemed fatally flawed in two games in New Orleans worked to perfection last night. The big three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker combined for 78 points and 20 assists. Wing players Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley hit the open threes accorded by the Big Three's presence, making a combined 7-of-14 from downtown as the Spurs hit 11 three-pointers at a 44.0% clip as a team. Big men Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas rebounded (a combined 19 boards, six offensive, from the center position) and played defense.

So why was there something unsatisfying about the Spurs' victory? Perhaps it's that so much went right for San Antonio, yet the Hornets were still within two at the nine-minute mark before an 11-0 Spurs run salted the game away. Throughout the second half, the game felt one-sided in San Antonio's favor, yet the reality of the score did not match the perception until late in the game, and the final was still just an 11-point margin.

Did the Hornets take the Spurs' best shot? It seems that way. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Gregg Popovich pulled out all the stops, going with a seven-man rotation that made Ginobili Parker's backup at the point. The big three and Bowen all played around 40 minutes despite Ginobili battling a bum ankle. Even the Spurs, who log limited regular-season minutes, are going to have a hard time keeping that up, and the threes are bound to stop falling when legs get heavy.

While the Hornets would never think this way, the goal is to get one out of two on this trip to San Antonio and go home 3-1. New Orleans is still in excellent position to do just that.

With all that said, it's worth stepping back and enjoying what was a vintage effort from the Spurs. Tim Duncan is rarely included in the discussion of best-passing big men, but he put on a clinic attacking New Orleans' double-teams last night. Officially, Duncan had three assists, but that severely understates the impact of his passing, as Duncan contributed multiple hockey assists--starting a series of passes that ended with a three-pointer or some other open look. The Spurs improved their execution on offense while the Hornets were a step slow on their rotations, and that in part explains the improved San Antonio shooting from long distance. Good floor spacing also helped the Spurs rebound 30.2% of their own misses, up from an even 20.0% in the two games in New Orleans. The Hornets had to do work extremely hard to keep San Antonio off the glass in the first two games of the series, and were unable to keep it up last night.

In addition to altering his rotation, Popovich made some key strategic adjustments. On offense, he went much more heavily to a two-man game featuring Ginobili and Duncan, one that the Hornets struggled to contain. That helped keep the ball in the hands of the big three more frequently.

At the other end of the floor, Popovich switched Bowen off of Chris Paul and put him on Peja Stojakovic, leaving Parker to defend Paul. While the MVP runner-up had another brilliant individual effort, using a variety of finishes in the paint to score 35 points and hand out nine assists with just one turnover, only David West (23) and Tyson Chandler (12) joined him in double figures.

I didn't like the idea of putting Bowen on Stojakovic because the Serbian sharpshooter doesn't create a ton of his own shots, instead relying on kickouts for three-point attempts, the kind that don't require a defender of Bowen's caliber to contain. However, I underestimated the extent to which Bowen would make Stojakovic work away from the ball to get free. Stojakovic missed five of his seven shot attempts and scored a quiet eight points. I would have liked to see the Hornets run some pick-and-pops with Stojakovic, forcing the Spurs to choose between allowing him a relatively uncontested look from the perimeter or switching, which would leave Stojakovic with a huge height advantage against Parker.

With Stojakovic blanketed by Bowen and Morris Peterson having an off night, the Hornets made just two three-pointers in 11 attempts. The 11-2 advantage in threes held by the Spurs was impossible to overcome.

Defensively, the Hornets might benefit from switching up their defenses on Duncan to give him a bit more variety. Ultimately, he will pick apart any defense if given enough time. Mixing things up doesn't allow him that kind of comfort zone.

For the most part, the Hornets would be wise to stay the course heading into Game Four and bet that the Spurs are unable to put together another effort like this. The odds seem to be against a repeat.

--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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Around the Rim (05/10)

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