Friday, May 27, 2011

Live From the UC: Heat Close Out Bulls in Game 5

Last night, one-third of the JPO team, plus a non-JPOer who is well acquainted with all three bloggers, had the chance to attend Game 5 of the Bulls-Heat conference finals series live on West Madison St. at the United Center.

By now, all hoop fans know what happened: the Bulls were up by 10 points late in the game, but just as the Mavericks did to the Thunder, Miami used a furious offensive assault (including a rare 4-point play by Dwyane Wade), and firm defensive stands at the other end, to erase the gap, take the lead, and win the game by 3. Miami is now the Eastern Conference champion and will face Dallas next week as the NBA Finals begin.

The live crowd at the United Center was completely deflated by the end. Tom Thibodeau's squad had maintained a lead throughout the game. Expecting their Bulls to close out the win and go down to Miami for Game 6, the arena fans were caught off-guard when James and Wade began drilling shots, and utterly stunned when the final buzzer sounded and the ritual post-series handshakes began. However, this suggests the fallacy of casual observation in a basketball game. If a team builds an early ten-point lead and then maintains that lead for, say, 30 more minutes, it is not correct to think that the leading team "dominated" the game heretofore, as many commentators would say. Actually, in my imagined example, the leading team dominated an early stretch in building that margin, but the subsequent 30 minutes (most of the game) were played evenly, and the trailing team likely has the potential to pull off a quick ten-point run at any moment. This is roughly what happened in last night's game, as Chicago took a lead 9 minutes into the first quarter and did not relinquish that lead until 1 minute remained in the game.

In any case, I want to highlight through video (taken on my very non-professional camera) some key moments from this game.

On this play, Derrick Rose jumps upon Dwyane Wade's up-fake, and Wade draws two foul shots. Wade is not known as a great perimeter shooter; with more experience, Rose would have the patience to not "bite" on that fake.

On this play, the Heat catch both of Chicago's big men, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, out of position. With much empty space between himself and the rim, Chris Bosh capitalizes for an easy drive and lay-in.

Despite his lazy defense on that above play, I believe Boozer has been criticized too much during these playoffs. On this below play, watch as the Alaskan uses his wide body to set two sturdy screens. The first knocks Mike Bibby to the ground, and the second momentarily detours LeBron James, giving Luol Deng enough space to launch a good jumper, which he unfortunately missed.

Additionally, when Boozer gets the ball, the Heat certainly respect his offense in the painted area. On this play, watch Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (covering for Boozer’s assigned guarder, Joel Anthony, who got somewhat lost on the play when he shaded over to double-team Rose) converge on Boozer the moment the latter receives the ball at the free-throw line. Boozer correctly passes out of the double-team. Thanks to Mike Bibby’s completely forgetting about Derrick Rose, Rose is eventually able to swish an open three-pointer on this play.

In this fourth-quarter play, Luol Deng sneaks free after Dwyane Wade tires of trying to guard the much taller small forward. I include this one to illustrate that Miami’s swarming defensive philosophy often leads to wide-open looks. Deng is not even visible as the play starts, as he camps out in the lower right corner. Deng is easily able to shake loose of Wade’s sentry, and Wade then decides his service would be better rendered by banging in the post with Taj Gibson for a rebound. Deng is suddenly wide-open. LeBron James, ostensibly guarding Derrick Rose by this late moment in the game, does not bother to impede Deng as he streaks toward the hoop, receives a nice bounce pass from Kurt Thomas, and draws a foul.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dallas Achieves The Near-Impossible

Last night Dallas came back from a 15-point deficit with 5 minutes left, riding some stupendous baskets by Dirk Nowitzki and a stern defensive effort to force overtime and eventually defeat the Thunder. Dallas now leads the series 3-1 and will likely advance to the NBA Finals.

A few points come to mind.
Who would have thought that Kevin Durant could be solidly defended by a 6'4" man old enough to be his father?
In the last 32 seasons, the Western Conference has been won by the following teams (assuming Dallas does close out the series):

  • L.A. Lakers (16 times)

  • San Antonio Spurs (4 times)

  • Houston Rockets (4 times)

  • Utah Jazz (2 times)

  • Dallas Mavericks (2 times)

  • Portland Trail Blazers (2 times)

  • Phoenix Suns (1 time)

  • Seattle Supersonics (1 time)

  • And in the last 12 seasons, only the Lakers, Spurs and Mavs have taken Western gold.

    Following Sacramento, New Orleans, Denver, Memphis, Minnesota, Golden State, and the Clippers cannot be much fun. Heck, there has only been one year during the past 30, 2004, in which Minnesota advanced past the first round. The same goes for the Clippers (2006) and the Grizzlies (2011)). Without a superstar, there is no glory, and only a handful of all-timers exist at any given moment.
    As spectacular as Dallas played down the stretch last night, they were still less than perfect. The Mavs nearly won last night's game in regulation; a missed free throw by Shawn Marion and a botched fast-break layup by Jason Terry in the final minute could have augmented the 17-2 run. Credit Thabo Sefolosha for excellent defense on a barreling Terry.
    As I wrote a few days ago, the Thunder cannot win this series by single-covering Dirk Nowitzki. The Thunder have a surfeit of big men including Nazr Mohammed and Cole Aldrich, last year's first-round draft pick. Put those guys in the game and tell them to foul Dirk like crazy! Particularly when Brendan Haywood plays, Oklahoma likely realizes positive value from leaving Haywood to double-team Nowitzki.
    In every late fourth-quarter situation in the NBA, every trailing team hopes to complete a comeback like this. It usually doesn't happen, but the salience of crazy recoveries (Reggie Miller's 8 points in 9 seconds, Tracy McGrady's 13 points in 35 seconds, Miami over Dallas in Game 3 in 2006, Derrick Rose over the Pacers in Game 1 this year) allows all similarly-positioned teams to wonder whether they might be so fortunate. Blame Dirk Nowitzki's heroics last night for all the future fourth quarters that last 45 minutes in a mess of fouls and feckless timeouts.

    Joakim Noah's Foul Mouth

    In Game 3 of the Bulls-Heat series on Sunday night, Joakim Noah, ticked at a fan who was insulting his mother, called the fan a "faggot". Noah is now repentant, saying that uttering anti-gay slurs is "not who I am." Apparently double European parentage makes one congenitally disinclined to homophobia or other biases, at least compared to laddish American men. But it is easy to judge what Noah "is" from his reflexive behavior a couple nights ago. Without thinking too hard, he resorted to "faggot" as a reflexive smack. That makes him a jock: one who has learned to prove himself better with the force of his body. This culture would tend to denigrate anything that deviates from the typical model of the acquisitive, dominant male. It's not surprising, really, as Noah has spent most of his post-pubescent life around American sports, not around the European Human Rights Commission. The "thoughtful jock" like Grant Hill or Jared Dudley who tells us to curb our worst impulses is a rare cat.

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011

    Dallas Is Not Fast, Still Furious

    Dallas defeated Oklahoma City by 9 points on Tuesday night, showing that this series will pit speed against savvy. Dallas fields seven guys over 30 in their nine-man rotation; nearly all of Oklahoma's rotation players are 26 or younger. Note, now, that it is generally true that teams advancing far into the playoffs feature veterans. A stud prospect like Kyrie Irving or Derrick Williams is unlikely to lead a playoff contender until his fifth or sixth year, at least; ideally, he will continue to lead teams well into his 30s. Players who star in the playoffs in just their third season, such as Dwyane Wade in '06 or Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook this year, are the exception. If Oklahoma City can defeat the Mavs, I will be surprised.

    Observe the video below. Dallas has no answers defensively when the young Thunder players turn on the jets. Witness, for example, Russell Westbrook's mad dash at 0:52 of this video or Durant's one-man fast break to close the first quarter (1:02 of the video).

    But Dallas gets its points with expert ball movement rather than raw quicks. Watch the play starting at 1:05 of the video. How does 6'2" shooting guard Jason Terry do so well? First, he often plays against second-string guards, who are either too weak or too inexperienced to adequately check him. (Second, when he plays with Jason Kidd, Kidd matches up against the opponent's taller guard, freeing Terry to excel at both ends.) In this play, Eric Maynor completely forgets about Terry, leaving Terry wide-open for about five seconds before JET receives the ball and launches an easy three-pointer.

    At 1:16, watch little J.J. Barea (really) successfully setting a screen against Dirk Nowitzki's defender Nick Collison, freeing Nowitzki to easily receive an inbounds pass and hit a layup. Collison has about 12 inches and 100 pounds on Barea, but he still couldn't get past the smaller guard. Additionally, backup center Nazr Mohammed appears to be wearing army boots, as he is standing directly under the basket yet does nothing to impede Nowitzki's easy bucket.

    Kevin Durant shot 18 of 19 from the free-throw line and Dirk Nowitzki shot, improbably, 24 of 24. As described here, the Thunder chose not to double-team Nowitzki, allowing him to repeatedly bust free for big points. OKC will likely lose the series if they continue this approach.

    Friday, May 6, 2011

    Lefties Living Large

    With U.S. President Barack Obama basking in his administration's killing of Usama bin Laden and a favorable jobs report for April 2011, left-handers are on top of the world right now. In the NBA playoffs, most of the top teams feature at least one left-hander who successfully discombobulates opponents by dwelling in a confusing mirror-land. My significant other is also an inveterate southpaw, so I am partial to the reverse racket. Here is a review of the top lefties of the NBA playoffs:

    Chris Bosh: Bosh has thus far played adequate defense on Philly's Elton Brand and Boston's Kevin Garnett, limiting each guy to about 15 points per game. For his part, Bosh has averaged nearly 18 points and 10 rebounds in the playoffs, consistently giving Miami the big presence they need to keep defenses from double- or triple-teaming his mates James and Wade. Miami is 6-1 in the playoffs thus far and is the clear favorite to win the East, given injuries to the Celtics' and Bulls' best players. If the Heat defeat Boston, the velociraptor lookalike will need to raise the fury of his offensive game as the Heat move on to face stalwart defenders like Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Andrew Bynum, Kendrick Perkins, or Tyson Chandler.

    Zach Randolph: Randolph has been a monster in the playoffs thus far, averaging 22 points and over 7 FT attempts (making the latter at an 87% pace), giving his team ridiculous offensive efficiency. Randolph has carved up Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Serge Ibaka, and any other defender who cares to challenge the big Hoosier. At the end of Game 6 of the Spurs series, San Antonio pulled ahead 80-79 with about five minutes left. The young Memphis team could have crumbled, but Randolph then scored 13 points down the stretch, throwing in a variety of awkward-yet-graceful parries at the basket to lead his team to a comfortable 8-point win, closing the series.

    Lamar Odom: Odom has not played to his potential in these playoffs. Defending Carl Landry of the outmatched Hornets, Odom allowed the backup power forward to rumble for 16 points per night. On offense, Odom has produced only about 11 points and 7 rebounds, and only 4 total three-pointers in six games. With Ron Artest sentenced to one game out of action, Odom will enter the starting lineup tonight and will take direct responsibility for stopping Shawn Marion and/or Dirk Nowitzki.

    James Harden: Harden's beard and mohawk are intimidating, but he has been a bit inconsistent in the playoffs, putting up point totals of 5, 18, 10, 7, 12, 5, and 21. His most recent output, Game 2 against Memphis, was his best, including 5 assists, 3 steals, and 11 free-throw attempts (with a perfect completion rate). However, Harden needs to stroke outside shots more consistently (he averages only one three-pointer per game) to discourage Memphis defenders from converging all their might on Durant and Westbrook. Oklahoma City's other rotation players — Perkins, Sefolosha, Ibaka, Mohammed, and Collison — are not known as major offensive threats. Only Eric Maynor's surprising long-distance result in Game 2 kept the Grizzly defense at bay, and Maynor may not repeat that.

    Josh Smith: Smith is, as ever, inconsistent; he is surely the most talented player to never make the All-Star Game (edging Odom, discussed above, and Monta Ellis and LaMarcus Aldridge for that designation). Here is Charley Rosen's evaluation of Smith following the Bulls-Hawks second game a couple nights ago: "Smith had only himself to blame for his abysmal 4-of-14, four-turnover performance. That’s because he forced a total of eight shots/passes/drives, with most of his turnovers being of the unforced variety." In the first-round series with Orlando, Smith did a good job of limiting Brandon Bass to only 7 PPG and 4 RPG, well below Bass's regular-season averages. But on offense Smith has been just dead weight, averaging 39% from the field, 56% from the free-throw line, and 17% from three-point range (on his 2.4 attempts per game). Smith could average 5 or 6 assists per game with his height, vision, and agility, but he peaked at 4.2 in 2009-10, and dropped to just over 3 assists this season, and just under 2.6 assists these playoffs.

    Derek Fisher: Fisher has spent these playoffs allowing Chris Paul and J.J. Barea to repeatedly abuse him. Should the Lakers somehow advance to face Memphis or (particularly) Oklahoma City, Fisher's defensive weakness will become still more patent. At 6'1", Fisher was never the hulkiest of defenders against opposing PGs, and now he is nearly 37 years old. Fisher is not giving his team in credits nearly what he takes away in debits, averaging only 8.5 points and 4 assists in this postseason. But he still shoots a pretty jumper.

    Mike Conley, Jr.: In his first NBA playoffs, Zach Randolph's teammate has done well against good-to-excellent point guards like Ty Lawson, Ray Felton, and Russell Westbrook. Conley has raised his scoring average slightly, from 13.7 in the regular season to 15.6 in the playoffs. Additionally, Conley has done a good job (6.5 assists against Denver and Oklahoma City) delivering the ball to his big menaces Marc Gasol and Randolph, who know how to score it. Conley reached the NCAA tournament final four years ago in his only college season, so he is not unaccustomed to serious pressure.

    Manu Ginobili: This 6'6" guard is the only man on my list not still playing in May. Ginobili is a great player, but he was limited in the Memphis series by an elbow injury that he suffered when, oddly, his coach had him playing in the season's final game, which was meaningless to San Antonio's relative standings. Ginobili hit a very lucky shot to help force overtime at the end of Game 5 and averaged 20 points per game in the series, but he was unable to stop marginal offensive talents like Tony Allen and Sam Young from carving up the Spurs in the paint, and now his year is done.

    Other left-handers like Tayshaun Prince, David Lee, Michael Redd, and Mike Beasley all play for 2011 lottery teams. Prince, who has seen plenty of prior playoff success, might make his way to a winning team as a free agent this summer.

    Sunday, May 1, 2011

    First Round of the Playoffs

    With the first round over, here are some quick observations:

  • Lakers v. Hornets

  • New Orleans had great success with the pick-and-roll against Los Angeles; on several occasions in Game 4, I saw Andrew Bynum forced to defend Chris Paul one-on-one after switches. The big man gamely saw in a defensive crouch to defend Paul, but the latter torched Bynum for swished jumpers time after time.

  • Mavs v. Blazers

  • LaMarcus Aldridge has become very, very good in the low post. Nicolas Batum is a nice two-way player. Greg Oden, if healthy, can form an outstanding defensive line with Aldridge. Gerald Wallace is a great sixth man. All Portland misses is an All-NBA caliber guard. Unfortunately, Brandon Roy's knees are not what they were in 2009. Committed to Roy through 2015, Portland has little hope of crafting a championship contender.

  • Spurs v. Grizzlies

  • I was surprised that San Antonio repeatedly had no answer for Memphis's slow, arboreal attack. Unfortunately, Antonio McDyess is too old, Matt Bonner too slow, and DeJuan Blair too short to deal with Randolph or Gasol. On the other end, one would think that Parker and Ginobili could repeatedly hit outside jumpers against the inexperienced defense of Sam Young, Mike Conley Jr., and O.J. Mayo. Unfortunately, Memphis's perimeter players (including the excellent Tony Allen) are relatively tall, and Parker is not; also, Ginobili was slowed by an elbow injury.

  • Thunder v. Nuggets

  • Denver had a full company of troops to do good combat with Oklahoma City, but they were outplayed late in their losses. Excepting the blowout Game 2, here are the fourth-quarter scores and the final scores. Game 1: Tie in 4th quarter, OKC wins by 4. Game 3: OKC by 5 in 4th quarter, by 3 overall. Game 5: OKC by 7 in 4th quarter, by 3 overall. The Thunder have Kevin Durant to get results in crunch time; Denver's best scorer is Danilo Gallinari.

  • Celtics v. Knicks

  • The Celtics may have swept New York, but we should not infer too much from this outcome. Boston could barely defeat NY in two games at home, enjoying some lucky bounces and mental miscues by the Knicks in the fourth quarter. When the series moved to Manhattan, had little trouble dealing with a team missing Chauncey Billups and a healthy Amare Stoudemire.

  • Magic v. Hawks

  • Similar to Dallas's problem, Orlando fields a 5'11" point guard as its second-best player and alleged team leader. Its shooting guard going forward, J.J. Redick, is 6'4". How on earth can these guys hope to defend Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, or Ray Allen? They certainly couldn't do it against Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, who averaged 18 and 20 points, respectively, in six games of their first-round series. Worse, Orlando's contractual commitments to Hedo Turkoglu (through 2013) and Gilbert Arenas (through 2014) preclude the team from making any good trades or adding good free agents. Dwight Howard would be crazy to re-sign here.

  • Bulls v. Pacers

  • The Pacers surprisingly kept the first three games close and won the fourth, thanks to superstar play by Danny Granger and necessary buckets from their big players, Hansbrough and Hibbert. Chicago had a difficult time pulling away from Indiana in the first four games, in part because Carlos Boozer only scored 12 PPG in those contests. Without Boozer throwing in a regular 20 points per, the Bulls generally lack scoring punch. Their first priority for improving the roster must be finding a two-way SG who can throw the ball through the rim and stop the opposing counterpart.

  • Heat v. 76ers

  • Like the Pacers, Philadelphia played Miami tight in four of the five games: three of Philly's losses came by 8 points or fewer. With young players like Holiday, Young, Turner, Williams, and Iguodala, the Sixers are one of the few teams in the league that can play at Miami'a fast pace; Iguodala in particular helps the 76ers run up and down while staying with Miami's stallions defensively. Only an ultra-quick or ultra-strong team can probably defeat Miami in four games out of seven. The Boston Celtics, unfortunately, reduced their strength significantly when they traded Kendrick Perkins.