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April 26, 2010

Playoff Prospectus: The Disappearing Denver Defense

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 7:31 pm

Editor’s note: Because of the server switch, we are still unable to post articles on Basketball Prospectus. Please bear with us on some of the effects, including the BBP stat pages being unavailable. Here is my Playoff Prospectus on three of Sunday’s four playoff games. Bradford wrote about the Chicago-Cleveland game, which he attended.
at Utah 117, Denver 106 (Utah leads series 3-1)
Pace: 95.0
Offensive Ratings: Utah 123.8, Denver 111.1

The disappearing Denver defense is shaping up as one of the biggest storylines of the NBA postseason. There were signs of trouble during the regular season, when the Nuggets finished 16th in the NBA in Defensive Rating and slipped down the stretch, but there was optimism that Kenyon Martin’s return would tighten things up. Instead, the Jazz has simply sliced and diced Denver in this series, getting almost anything it wants on offense.

That was certainly the case on Sunday, when Utah shot 61.0 percent from two-point range. Time and again, the Jazz was able to break down the defense with dribble penetration or simply because the Nuggets were unable to defend the frequent screens and cuts that have been a staple of Jerry Sloan’s offense for decades. Really, the damage could have been much worse. Utah shot 27.8 percent (5-of-18) from downtown, and had lots of makeable looks from out there as well. Denver’s only defensive answer has been hacking. The Nuggets committed 34 fouls on Sunday, putting the Jazz at the free throw line 42 times.

Denver’s streaky scorers got going in the fourth quarter, and that combined with a few timely stops allowed the Nuggets to sneak within seven points. Still, the game never felt anywhere near that close, and the biggest question is whether Denver can parlay that run into momentum that will allow it to extend the series back at home.

This series is starting to feel similar to the Nuggets’ first-round matchup with the Lakers two years ago, a bitter four-game sweep that saw Denver unable to keep up with a team that moved the ball well on offense. But where that Lakers squad came in rolling and ultimately reached the NBA Finals, this performance reflects more negatively on the Nuggets. Utah still has plenty of weapons, certainly, what with Deron Williams handing out 13 assists and Carlos Boozer going for 31 points on 13-of-19 shooting. Beyond them, though, the short-handed Jazz is also getting major production from Kyrylo Fesenko, undrafted rookie Wesley Matthews and C.J. Miles. That’s a testament to Sloan’s ability to get the most out of role players but also how poorly Denver is defending.

at Miami 101, Boston 92 (Boston leads series 3-1)
Pace: 89.7
Offensive Ratings: Miami 111.9, Boston 103.2

With the Heat’s season on life support, along came Dwyane Wade to rescue the team. After starting strong and opening up a lead as large as 18 points, Miami struggled in the third quarter, and the Celtics took a six-point lead to the final period looking for a sweep. Then Wade exploded, outscoring Boston 19-15 in the fourth quarter all by himself and putting up 17 in the midst of a 22-2 run that put the Heat in command. It was the kind of effort that few players in the world besides Wade could produce.

Still, the Celtics had their chances to win. After Doc Rivers went small, Boston’s shooters got hot from beyond the arc and drew within 96-92 after Ray Allen made the first of two free throws. Normally automatic at the line, Allen missed the next attempt and two more moments later. In between, Rajon Rondo was unable to connect on a makeable runner. Kevin Garnett added to the Celtics’ free-throw woes with two misses of his own, but because Miami scored just once in an eight-possession span, Boston wasn’t finished until Wade made a free throw to extend the lead to seven points with 34.6 seconds left.

The ultimate close call makes you wonder what might have happened had Rivers gone small earlier and gotten Tony Allen in the game as a fireman to try to cool Wade off. Ray Allen had the defensive assignment for most of the fourth quarter, and while Wade was unstoppable at times, Tony Allen would have had a better chance of challenging his shots. When Rivers did make a change, with the Celtics down eight and time running out he decided to play for offense by putting a better shooter on the floor in Michael Finley.

As scintillating as Wade was, he also got more help from his teammates than in the first three games of the series. Quentin Richardson was locked in from beyond the arc early and finished with 20 points, including four three-pointers. Michael Beasley came out focused on attacking and chipped in 15 points. The Heat’s reserves also continue to play well; all four of them had positive plus-minuses for the game, including a +22 from backup center Joel Anthony.

Heading home, Boston will want to counter Erik Spoelstra’s adjustments daring the Celtics to beat them from outside. Miami played zone at times when Tony Allen was on the floor with Rondo and had a lot of success overplaying passes in that defense. Down the stretch, the Heat put Wade on Rondo and let him roam defensively, along the lines of Kobe Bryant in the 2008 NBA Finals. Rondo is a more dangerous shooter now than he was then (he nailed a pair of three-pointers in the game), but the Celtics appeared to be caught off guard by the aggressive double-teaming Wade was able to do. With a practice to work on attacking the defense, Boston should be better equipped to beat it in Game Five. Barring another heroic effort from Wade–and maybe even in that case–the Celtics should close this series out at home.

at San Antonio 92, Dallas 89 (San Antonio leads series 3-1)
Pace: 86.1
Offensive Ratings: San Antonio 107.3, Dallas 102.9

This game just felt like the playoffs: Two long-time Texas rivals slugging it out in a physical game that got testy at times and executing at a high level. The only shame is there isn’t more on the line in this series.

It would be safe to say the Spurs’ formula for winning this game was somewhat different than the one they’ve employed recently. It was quiet night for the team’s big three, including an improbably futile one for Tim Duncan, who missed eight of his nine shot attempts and finished with four points. Manu Ginobili, sporting an enormous bandage but no mask to protect his surgically repaired schnozz, couldn’t find the touch from beyond the arc (1-of-7), though he contributed by getting to the free throw line and dishing out seven assists. Tony Parker was also off, finishing with 10 points and as many assists as turnovers (five apiece). Combined, the three players scored 31 points, down from their average of 66.0 points in the first three games of the series–68.3 percent of San Antonio’s scoring.

In their stead, George Hill picked up much of the slack. Sunday might not have been the best game of Hill’s two-year career, but it was surely the biggest. He scored 29 points on 17 possessions, knocking down five of the Spurs’ six three-pointers. Richard Jefferson was a contributor too, scoring 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting, and DeJuan Blair (seven points and seven rebounds in 12 minutes) gave the team a lift off the bench.

Still, there’s only so much other contributors could do to make up for the big three’s off night, so San Antonio posted a subpar 107.3 Offensive Rating. This game, then, was won primarily at the defensive end of the floor. The key stretch started after Shawn Marion (who had his best effort of the series) made a layup to push the Dallas lead to an even 10 with 7:47 left in the third quarter. The Mavericks, cruising to that point on the strength of a dominant second period, would not make a field goal again in the third. Only Dirk Nowitzki’s pair of free throws after a Jefferson flagrant foul allowed Dallas to scratch again as the Spurs put together a 19-2 run that turned the game around.

Still–and this is feeling oddly familiar at this point–the Mavericks had their chances down the stretch. San Antonio’s offense wasn’t capable of allowing the team to run away, and Jason Kidd’s inspired fourth-quarter play drew Dallas back into the game. A Nowitzki make in the paint with 1:28 left could have made it a different outcome, and the Mavericks missed twice in the final 30 seconds down four points.

Since both games at the AT&T Center were close, this series hasn’t been nearly as lopsided as the Spurs’ 3-1 advantage makes it look. Dallas doesn’t need to make major changes at this point, though finding ways to get Nowitzki better looks (he attempted just 10 shots, doing most of his damage from the free throw line) can always help. The Mavericks have their backs against the wall, but their situation doesn’t seem nearly as desperate as Denver’s. A Game Five win could make things look very different.

G4: Miami 101, Boston 92 (Celtics 3-1)
BOS  18  25  34  15 -  92
MIA  31  18  22  30 - 101
BOS          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  25   70.6  .533  .000  .133  .353  3.76
Second Quarter 22  113.7  .471  .222  .529  .136  4.01
Third Quarter  22  152.3  .775  .000  .150  .090  5.97
Fourth Quarter 20   75.3  .382  .143  .118  .100  4.61
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     47   90.6  .500  .111  .344  .253  3.88
SECOND HALF    42  116.0  .595  .100  .135  .051  5.38
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          90  102.6  .551  .105  .232  .178  4.59
======================================================
MIA          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  25  121.7  .630  .000  .087  .118  5.82
Second Quarter 22   81.9  .438  .300  .250  .273  3.88
Third Quarter  22   98.5  .526  .182  .105  .179  3.75
Fourth Quarter 20  150.7  .639  .444  .389  .151  3.87
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     47  103.2  .551  .150  .154  .190  4.85
SECOND HALF    42  123.1  .581  .250  .243  .087  3.75
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          90  112.6  .566  .225  .197  .178  4.33
======================================================
G4: Cleveland 121, at Chicago 98 (Cavaliers 3-1)
CLE  24  38  37  22 - 121
CHI  21  31  24  22 -  98
CLE          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  25   97.5  .525  .000  .150  .081  5.21
Second Quarter 27  141.4  .609  .300  .435  .074  5.13
Third Quarter  23  161.7  .750  .333  .556  .131  5.00
Fourth Quarter 23   97.4  .556  .000  .111  .177  4.92
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     51  120.4  .570  .136  .302  .078  5.17
SECOND HALF    45  129.7  .653  .133  .333  .075  4.94
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          97  124.8  .608  .135  .316  .113  5.06
======================================================
CHI          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  25   85.3  .320  .308  .200  .122  4.24
Second Quarter 27  115.3  .550  .300  .450  .223  4.85
Third Quarter  23  104.9  .320  .500  .320  .087  4.52
Fourth Quarter 23   97.4  .429  .143  .190  .133  4.32
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     51  101.0  .422  .304  .311  .175  4.55
SECOND HALF    45  101.1  .370  .435  .261  .057  4.41
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          97  101.1  .396  .321  .286  .144  4.48
======================================================
G4: San Antonio 92, Dallas 89 (Spurs 3-1)
DAL  17  31  11  30 - 89
SAS  20  17  29  26 - 92
DAL          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  21   79.3  .375  .286  .100  .187  3.76
Second Quarter 21  149.2  .632  .444  .368  .096  4.93
Third Quarter  21   52.0  .265  .250  .118  .378  2.72
Fourth Quarter 23  131.6  .548  .100  .333  .044  6.26
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     42  113.7  .500  .348  .231  .142  4.34
SECOND HALF    44   93.3  .421  .182  .237  .112  4.49
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          86  103.3  .461  .267  .234  .174  4.42
======================================================
SAS          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  21   93.3  .429  .231  .095  .187  4.68
Second Quarter 21   81.8  .425  .000  .000  .048  4.35
Third Quarter  21  137.2  .656  .300  .500  .095  4.97
Fourth Quarter 23  114.1  .500  .333  .444  .219  4.60
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     42   87.7  .427  .125  .049  .118  4.51
SECOND HALF    44  125.2  .574  .280  .471  .086  4.78
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          86  106.8  .493  .217  .240  .139  4.65
======================================================
G4: Utah 117, Denver 106 (Jazz 3-1)
DEN  25  20  23  38 - 106
UTA  31  23  32  31 - 117
DEN          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  22  112.5  .457  .462  .174  .180  4.57
Second Quarter 25   78.9  .304  .438  .261  .237  4.05
Third Quarter  24   97.6  .438  .375  .563  .254  3.27
Fourth Quarter 24  159.4  .705  .250  .318  .084  5.52
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     48   94.6  .380  .448  .217  .210  4.31
SECOND HALF    47  128.6  .592  .313  .421  .094  4.39
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          95  111.6  .476  .400  .310  .190  4.35
======================================================
UTA          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  22  139.5  .650  .143  .250  .045  5.20
Second Quarter 25   90.8  .571  .222  .500  .395  4.76
Third Quarter  24  135.7  .463  .533  .259  .042  7.47
Fourth Quarter 24  130.0  .625  .125  .688  .126  5.05
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     48  113.5  .618  .188  .353  .231  4.98
SECOND HALF    47  132.8  .523  .450  .419  .048  6.26
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          95  123.2  .565  .308  .390  .158  5.62
======================================================

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