Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Matchups Matter; Celtics Defy Elementary Logic

Consider the following facts:

1. The 2008 Atlanta Hawks played the 2008 Celtics to a near-draw, before falling in seven games.

2. The 2008 Celtics were superior to the 2010 Celtics, due to the ensuing two years of injury and aging for the team's Big Three. In the regular season, the former won 63 games and the latter won 50.

3. The 2008 Hawks were inferior to the 2010 Hawks, due to the ensuing two years of growth and development by the team's core young players: Williams, Smith, Horford, and Johnson. In the regular season, the former won 37 games and the latter won 53.

4. The 2010 Orlando Magic were vastly superior to the 2010 Atlanta Hawks, defeating the latter by an average of 23 points in a four-game sweep.

Thus, by inference, the 2010 Hawks should be better than the 2010 Celtics, and thus the 2010 Magic should be heaps better than the 2010 Celtics.

But the observed data shows that the Celtics have defeated Orlando twice on the latter's home floor, and now lead the series 3-1.

This oddity represents an example of the First Law of Playoff Basketball: Matchups matter. A fast team, Atlanta, can torment a relatively slow team, like the Celtics. The small, fast team may fall victim to a squad full of 7-foot redwood timber, such as Orlando, which can boast Gortat at center, Dwight Howard at PF, and Rashard Lewis at SF. Yet Orlando can succumb to Boston due to the latter's quick PG and stout defensive center.

In other words, superiority of teams is not transitive. A > B and B > C does not imply A > C. Over in the Western conference, the Lakers seem clearly superior to Phoenix, while the Suns broomed away San Antonio in four straight. Could the Lakers handle the Spurs so easily? The derring-do of Tony Parker and the offensive range of Tim Duncan and Antonio McDyess suggest otherwise.

This seems to upend our traditional interpretations of a single-elimination tournament, whether that be the NBA playoffs, the NCAA Division I men's basketball bracket, or Wimbledon. At any given stage of elimination, a still-extant team is ostensibly better than all losing teams in the sub-bracket whence it emerged. (In March Madness, a team that makes the Sweet 16 is (i) better than the team it beat in the first round, (ii) better than the team it beat in the second round, and (iii) by transitivity, better than the first-round-victim of the team it beat in the second round.) Following this logic to the end, the champion competitor is better than all losing teams in the tournament. But once transitivity fails, what are we left with? The champion just got lucky? The champion was just good at avoiding injuries, as we outlined here?

That winning requires, or is ordinarily correlated with, luck is somewhat disappointing; hallowed canards hold that the best teams will their way to a title. Recall Jordan's flu game or the Miami Heat refusing to lose against Dallas. Additionally, American society is premised on internecine competitions yielding one true great one. What is American Idol, if not a nod to the spelling bees that have challenged rural American children since the 19th century? Whereas spelling prowess and perhaps even singing ability can be measured and compared, team basketball success may be somewhat more ethereal.

I must credit my co-blogger H.O.S.S. for suggesting this idea.

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