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May 13, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
Game Fives

by Kevin Pelton

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Boston 92, Orlando 88 (Boston leads series 3-2)
Pace: 82.3
Offensive Ratings: Boston 113.8, Orlando 105.0

Throughout this postseason, the site AdvancedNFLStats.com has defied its name by running live win probabilities for NBA playoff games. By its calculations, the Orlando Magic's chances of winning Game Five last night in Boston peaked at 94 percent. When Hedo Turkoglu scored to make it 85-75 Magic with 5:39 to play, the Celtics' chances of a comeback stood at a dismal 10 percent. After losing the lead and the game, Orlando will be replaying those fateful final five minutes all offseason long if unable to complete its own comeback from a 3-2 deficit in this series.

I don't think I watched Game Seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, probably the most famous NBA choke job in recent memory, but while watching last night I knew what that experience must have felt like. Everything seemed to go wrong so quickly for the Magic, and simply as someone who picked Orlando to win this series and likes what the team stands for, I felt a sinking feeling long before Ray Allen's three-pointer with 1:20 to play gave the Celtics their first lead since 8-6.

The bad Magic--the team that relies on three-pointers too early in the shot clock and fails to convert on the drive--picked the worst possible time to rear its ugly head. Orlando went scoreless on seven straight possessions after Turkoglu's make, a drought interrupted only by Doc Rivers intentionally fouling with the Celtics up three and eight seconds left on the clock. At the other end, Boston continued its scorching offense started by the unlikely tandem of Stephon Marbury and Glen Davis. While the Magic was coming up empty, the Celtics scored on five out of six possessions to take the lead.

The seventh possession, the last real one of the game for either side, was fateful in its own way. Twice, Orlando forced difficult stops. I liked the defensive strategy of using Rafer Alston to trap Paul Pierce, daring Rajon Rondo to beat the defense. Rondo and Allen forced terrible shots, the first of which probably never hit the rim. The Magic was unable to box out, though, so two straight offensive rebounds forced Orlando to foul. From that point, Rivers took control of the game with his strategy to foul. Eight seconds is a lot of time left to to start doing that, but with Boston making its free throws, it meant the Magic never got up a tying three. Stan Van Gundy ultimately decided to have Dwight Howard intentionally miss his second attempt with less than six seconds to play, and when Orlando was unable to corral the rebound, that was that.

Here's the thing about close finishes. While they don't necessarily tell us much about the ability of the respective teams, they have lingering ramifications. In the wake of two straight such losses, the Magic seems to be questioning itself--and Van Gundy. "I don't think you are going to win a lot of games when your post player only gets 10 shots," said Howard. I'm not sure what to make of that. Howard did not get a shot attempt down the stretch, when his teammates faltered. However, he hasn't exactly dominated Kendrick Perkins in this series, and had nearly as many turnovers (four) as field goals (five) in this game.

Van Gundy spread the looks amongst Rafer Alston, Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, but none of them converted. It wasn't just outside shots, either--Alston and Turkoglu took rushed shots on the drive. At some point, your key players simply have to make plays. I continue to be mystified by the Magic's inability to knock down three-pointers. Orlando shot 6-for-24 (25 percent) from three-point range last night.

For the Celtics, the formula for victory was an unlikely one. Boston had 59 points through three quarters and saw its starting backcourt of Allen and Rondo suffer through rough shooting nights, going 6-for-23 from the field. The comeback had an unlikely source. It was with their bench in the game that the Celtics got going. Marbury scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, combining with Davis to resuscitate the Boston offense. The two teams traded baskets for most of the first six minutes of the fourth before the Celtics' starters returned to the game and were able to add defense while maintaining the hot shooting. That allowed Boston to truly defy the odds.

L.A. Lakers 118, Houston 78 (L.A. Lakers lead series 3-2)
Pace: 94.5
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 124.4, Houston 82.9

I hope you didn't think the Houston Rockets were better off without Yao Ming. Yes, by refocusing their offense the Rockets have the ability to emphasize aspects of it that the L.A. Lakers have a tough time defending. And yes, Chuck Hayes has had an excellent series. However, what Yao's absence does is remove Houston's margin for error. That was demonstrated in dramatic fashion in last night's Game 5, as the Lakers handed the Rockets the most lopsided playoff loss in franchise history.

Certainly, this was a much more motivated and focused Lakers squad that took the floor. Don't discount the value of strategic changes. Lamar Odom's back injury allowed Phil Jackson to go back to Andrew Bynum as his starting center, a move that seemed to help both players. The Lakers did a much better job of fighting through ball screens on defense and cutting off Aaron Brooks at the point of attack, taking away Houston's primary means of generating offense. Early foul trouble for Chuck Hayes forced Houston deep into its bench and took the team's most effective post defender out of the game. Add to that Kobe Bryant having his best outing since Game Two and the Lakers simply making shots while the Rockets could not keep up their hot outside shooting, and you have the recipe for a blowout.

Some of that can be disregarded. Let's focus on what matters going forward. First, we found a limit to Houston's depth, and he is named Brian Cook. The Rockets were outscored by 28 points in Cook's 19 minutes of action, as he missed all seven of his shot attempts and committed three turnovers. (Cook did have seven rebounds in 19 minutes.) Rick Adelman can't plan for Hayes to be unavailable due to foul trouble, but as part of the regular rotation he ought to find a way to use Ron Artest as his backup power forward to supplement the three-big rotation of Hayes, Carl Landry and Luis Scola. Cook doesn't belong on the floor. That would have the side benefit of freeing up playing time for the backup wings, Brent Barry and Von Wafer, who were effective in Game Five.

For the Lakers, the critical development was Bynum playing his best game of the postseason. He had 14 points, six rebounds and just two fouls in 20 minutes of action, moving well and using his size to overwhelm the undersized Houston post players. A healthy, effective Bynum gives the Lakers a totally different dimension, especially in this matchup.

The one Laker who didn't play especially well was Derek Fisher, who missed five of his six shots in 18 minutes, failing to hand out an assist. Jordan Farmar continues to look like the better option at the point, coming off the bench for 12 points and six assists. I don't believe Phil Jackson should shake up his starting lineup any further, but the trigger needs to be quick to get Farmar in and Fisher out.

Back to the Rockets side, it would be a bad sign if they attempt 29 three-pointers again in Game Six. Though their 17.2-percent shooting was somewhat flukish, I'm not sure who besides Shane Battier (1-for-4) should be looking for the three. Artest (1-for-7) is a low-percentage outside shooter, and Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry (both 0-for-3) are best in the paint, not spotting up. Obviously that had something to do with the Lakers defense and their ability to cut down on drives by ignoring Hayes on defense, but I suspect there are better looks out there for the Rockets.

Most everyone freaked out too much about the Lakers' terrible outing in Game Four of this series, so it will be interesting to watch the reaction to this win. The Lakers are nowhere near as good as they looked yesterday or as bad as they looked on Sunday. Game Six figures to be a good test. Will the Lakers come out focused on ending this series, or will they let Houston hang around and have a chance to force a deciding seventh game? We'll see.

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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