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May 18, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Friday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle

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Cavaliers 74, Celtics 69

Mike Brown and Doc Rivers have set NBA basketball back about eight years, taking us back to the micro-managing control freaks who dominated the game at the beginning of the current decade.

While Friday’s game between the Cavs and Celtics was intense and competitive, both coaches again proved helpless in combating the mutually excellent halfcourt defenses of their respective opponents. Push the tempo, try to get some easy looks? Forget about it. Game Six was the third straight game in which each team had 80 possessions. Cleveland’s offensive efficiency was 93.0; Boston’s 86.7.

The second game on Friday between the Lakers and Jazz also featured some excellent defensive play. In that game, however, the combatants managed to drive the ball to the hoop when the halfcourt game was breaking down. They pushed the ball down the floor to get easier looks when possible. The 93 possessions per team wasn’t exactly the ’83 Nuggets, but you’d rather watch that Jazz/Lakers games 10 more times before you’d want to see even one more minute of the putrid effort put out by Boston and Cleveland on Friday.

The Celtics managed to get good looks early thanks to some nifty ball movement, but struggled to finish off possessions. Boston had a couple of chances early in the second quarter to put some distance between themselves and the struggling Cavs, but failed to do so. Suddenly the Cavs’ halfcourt defense tightened. Brown’s defenders began playing the passing lanes more successfully and Boston started turning the ball over. Zydrunas Ilgauskas hit a couple of jump shots and Cleveland closed the half with a 17-2 run.

Seven quick points from LeBron James pushed Cleveland’s lead out to 16 points early in the second half. Boston responded with a 17-4 burst of its own, all but one of those points coming from its big three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Rivers went to bench in the latter part of the third quarter and the offense again stalled. Cleveland scored 10 in row and led by 13 early in the fourth. Boston closed within four points a couple of times but Cleveland staved the Celtics off thanks to turnovers and a dominant performance on the boards.

With Ray Allen again persona non grata, Game Six basically boiled down to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce versus LeBron James. The crisp ball movement that Cleveland rode to home wins in Game Three and Game Four was non-existent. The Cavs assisted on just 10 of their 24 made field goals--six of those dimes by James. The entire offense was "LeBron drives and shoots, passes off or gets fouled." By my estimate, he used 30 of the Cavs' 80 possessions (37.5 percent), with many of the remaining possessions resulting in assists from James or missed shots off of a James feed. James committed eight of the team’s 14 turnovers, had 15 of the team’s 25 free-throw attempts and even managed to lead the team with 12 rebounds. His game score of 37 was the game high.

Meanwhile, Garnett and Pierce combined to take 36 of the Celtics’ 68 shots and use 41 of the 80 possessions. In Garnett’s case, that was fine--K.G. went 11-of-21 from the floor and scored 25 points. Pierce, on the other hand, continues to flail away against James. On Friday, Pierce was 5-of-15 from the field and committed six turnovers. Rivers not only has not recognized Pierce’s inability to play efficiently against James’ defense, he seems increasingly intent to have Pierce dominate the ball.

Rajon Rondo, who ran the offense beautifully in Game Five, was completely ignored on the offensive end on Friday. Again, it was a case of Rivers not learning the lessons from the action in the series. Running the offense through Pierce stagnates the Boston attack--he's the NBA’s version of “The Human Rain Delay.” With Rondo not involved, that left the Celtics to play four on five. With Cleveland cutting off the passing lanes, Boston eventually stopped looking to swing the ball. The Celtics managed to find some offense by driving and kicking out to Garnett or Eddie House. This is a strategy that works better with Rondo at the point and Pierce on the wing--not vice versa.

Allen played 42 minutes despite the fact that he was again unable to shake the defense of subpar defenders like Wally Szczerbiak and Sasha Pavlovic. Allen managed just eight field-goal attempts and missed all three of his looks from behind the arc, all of which were decent shots. Rivers finally gave some meaningful court time to House, who responded well. However, Rivers left Sam Cassell to rot on the bench. True, Cassell has been struggling--I think he’s missed 13 shots in a row. Still, don’t you have to try Cassell for Allen at some point? He can provide a different look, and in a game in which offense was at a premium, a hot-shooting Cassell could have put Boston over the top. If he’s not hitting, get him out of there because Sam I Am no longer has much value beyond hitting those midrange jumpers. Rivers needed to find out if Cassell had the hot hand, but instead allowed Allen to flail away for over 40 minutes.

Cleveland survived thanks to its 16 offensive rebounds. Five of those came from Zydrunas Ilgauskas. His counterpart, Boston’s Kendrick Perkins, managed just two defensive boards in the contest and committed five fouls, most of them in trying to cut off James in the paint. Perkins again did a good job of limiting the looks from Ilgauskas from midrange but he’s got to get back into the lane to help Boston finish off those defensive possessions. Three total rebounds in 27 minutes from your starting center is tough to overcome.

It’s hard to know what to expect in Sunday’s Game Seven. The game is at Boston. The Celtics are the better team. I expect them to win but, then again, when you the play game at a snail’s pace and the action is reduced to a glorified one-on-one battle between Pierce and James, it’s tough to pick against LeBron. The Celtics have seriously underachieved in these playoffs and I attribute much of that to Rivers’ player usage and offensive schemes. Can they skirt by one more time? We’ll see.

Lakers 108, Jazz 105

Utah’s Jerry Sloan is a Hall of Fame coach, but it seems like his lot in coaching life is going to be missed playoff opportunities and a whole lot of bad timing.

The Jazz have been good at exactly the wrong times. The 1996-97 Jazz posted the fifth-best efficiency margin of the 840 teams since the ABA-NBA merger. Four other Utah teams from that time ranked in the top 50. Alas, those were the days of Michael Jordan, so John Stockton and Karl Malone went ringless. This year’s Jazz finished 40th in post-merger efficiency margin but it was just third-best in the league this season. The 66-win Celtics had the third-best mark of the last 31 seasons and sitting at No. 32 was Utah’s second-round opponent, the Lakers.

Utah missed a prime opportunity to steal a road game in Game Five when a hobbled Kobe Bryant attempted just 10 shots from the field, but the Jazz couldn’t capitalize. Utah played from behind for the entire Game Six on Friday, trailing by double digits from the middle of the first period until the final three minutes of the game. A flurry of three-point shots from Mehmet Okur, Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko raised the possibility of a miracle comeback. In fact, Utah had two good looks at a game-tying three-pointer in the final seconds but Okur and Williams both missed. Wasted opportunity. Season over.

The defensive lapses that characterized Utah’s inconsistent season on the road really bit Sloan’s charges against L.A. The only real hole on the Jazz’s roster is the lack of an interior defender who can protect the basket. Utah is one of the league’s worst shot-blocking teams; most of its blocks come from Kirilenko and Paul Millsap helping off of their man. This seemed like a minor quibble with Kevin O’Conner’s talented roster but against L.A., that flaw was really exposed. The Lakers had far too many easy looks and Pau Gasol was able to dominate the middle with his length and reach against the rugged Jazz. Gasol had 17 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in the clincher. L.A. shot an eFG% of 55.0 on Friday, including a 7-of-11 performance from behind the three-point line.

Carlos Boozer will spend the summer looking for his jump shot. Boozer’s struggles actually go back to late March, well before the playoffs began. Boozer’s midrange jumper is crucial to the Jazz attack because he’s almost always defended by the other team’s center. With Okur floating around the three-point line, Boozer’s advantage is to draw bigger players out of the lane because of his deadly shot from 12-14 feet. When they move out on him, he can get by with his speed and strength, finishing with either hand around the rim. His ability to hit that jumper is what makes the pick-and-roll with Deron Williams so deadly. If the defender jumps out on Boozer, he rolls to the basket. If he sags behind the screen, Boozer can knock down the shot. By Game Six, this bread-and-butter scheme was absent because Boozer had apparently given up on his jumper altogether. His average game score in the playoffs was 22, six under his regular season average. Okur was at 25 in the postseason, three above the regular schedule while Williams matched his average at 27. Boozer’s role in Utah’s demise was substantial and it was probably no coincidence that the Jazz made its spirited late rally after Boozer fouled out.

The Lakers are still weak defensively in the middle, relying on length to block shots and combat a lack of bulk. That worked well on Friday, as L.A. held Utah to a 42.8 eFG%. That was enough to offset Utah’s 52-35 domination of the glass, which included 20 offensive rebounds. Utah had 97 field-goal attempts to the Lakers’ 70. Yet the Lakers’ efficiency was enough to carry the day--and the series.

The gap in field-goal attempts wasn't even the biggest of the series. The Jazz were +33 against L.A. in Game Four. What does it mean? This season, at least, an excessively large advantage in shot attempts means you lose. Apparently it's quality, not quantity. Here are the biggest FGA gaps for this season, including the playoffs:

DATE    TEA    OPP    NETFGA    RESULT
11/17    HOU    PHX    +38         L
11/20    IND    LAL    +31         L
05/07    UTA    LAL    +33         L
02/07    GSW    CHI    +29         L
03/22    HOU    PHX    +29         L
01/04    PHI    LAL    +28         L
04/08    MIN    CHA    +28         L
05/16    UTA    LAL    +27         L

Both teams are on the young side and this conference semifinal may have been the opening salvo in a postseason rivalry that will renew itself annually over the next four or five years. The Jazz need to improve defensively, especially in the middle. The Lakers need to get Kobe healthy and ready for the survivor of the Hornets-Spurs. L.A. isn’t concerned with any future rivalry with Utah. Kobe and company are moving on.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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