Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fun With Lakers-Suns Shot Location Data

Digging into the shot-location data from Hoopdata, and the play-type data from My Synergy Sports for the Lakers-Suns series revealed several pieces of information that I found fascinating. Let's get right to it.

For a series that featured such high-powered offensive performances, arguably the decisive statistic was a defensive victory for the Lakers.

The Suns were the no. 1 team in the regular season in 3PT% at .412. Meanwhile, L.A. was the no. 1 team in defensive 3PT% at .328.

So, the Phoenix three-point line was a key battleground, and it's fair to say that the Lakers scored a huge win in holding the Suns to just a .329 percentage from behind the arc. To put it into perspective, only two teams (NJ, DET) shot worse than .329 on threes for the regular season.

To add insult to injury, the Lakers - who shot just .341 on threes for the season (rank: 24) - outshot the Suns from downtown for the series, connecting on a .369 mark which was bettered by only six teams for the season.
PHX O 8.9 21.6 .412 1
LAL D 6.3 19.3 .328 1

LAL O 6.5 19.0 .341 24
PHX D 6.8 19.3 .355 17

PHX O 8.2 24.8 .329
LAL O 8.7 23.5 .369
The headline story of L.A.'s series-clinching Game 6 victory was the jaw-dropping array of shots nailed by Kobe Bryant under duress on the perimeter.

One of the better features on Hoopdata is the ability to see field-goal shooting numbers from different distances on the floor. In Game 6, Bryant hit on 6-11 "long 2-pointers" (shots from 16-23 feet, inside the 3pt line) along with 3-8 three-pointers, continuing a series-long trend of excellent outside shooting by Kobe.

The Suns actually executed their game plan of forcing Kobe to shoot contested long 2's, but Bryant vastly outshot his normal numbers on long 2's in the series.

In the regular season, Kobe shot .415 on long 2's, and in the first two playoff series, he was down to just .353 from 16-23 feet. However, against Phoenix, Bryant was a remarkable .580 on long 2's, connecting on 29-50.

On top of that, Bryant also made 19-44 (.432) threes for the series, dwarfing his regular-season numbers not only in percentage (.329), but also in makes (3.2 per game, vs. 1.2 in the season).

Whether Kobe can keep his hot shooting going could be a key to The Finals. A linchpin of Boston's defensive strategy is to force Bryant into long 2's, and Kobe hit on just 14-39 (.358) of long 2's in the 2008 Finals.
v PHX 4.8 8.3 .580
v OK/UT 1.8 5.1 .353
09-10 2.5 6.0 .415

v PHX 3.2 7.3 .432
v OK/UT 1.5 4.0 .375
09-10 1.2 3.7 .329
In the modern NBA, it's commonly understood that the most efficient shots are those taken at the rim and behind the three-point line. The most effective defensive strategy, generally, is to try to force long two-point shots, which are the least efficient shots in basketball.

In the Western Conference Finals, it wasn't just Kobe who was knocking down the long 2's. Indeed, one of the reasons that the offensive-efficiency numbers were so high for both L.A. and Phoenix was that the shooting on long 2's was off the charts for both teams.

The league average on 16-23 footers for the season was a percentage of .396, yet in this series, the Lakers shot .530 on long 2's (.398 on season), and the Suns were even better, at .549 (.411 on season).

Remarkably, long 2's were more efficient shots for Phoenix in this series than 3-pointers. Consider the statistic "effective field-goal percentage" (eFG%), which counts each made three-pointer as 1.5 field-goals made, to take into account the extra point earned on the shot.

For the regular season, the Suns had an eFG% of .619 on threes and .411 on long 2's. In the conference finals, though, Phoenix had an eFG% of just .493 on threes and .549 on long 2's - truly remarkable that the Suns were blistering on long 2's, but ice-cold on threes.
NBA AVG 8.1 20.3 .396
LAL 7.2 18.0 .398
PHX 7.6 18.5 .411

LAL 10.2 19.2 .530
PHX 9.3 17.0 .549
Beyond Kobe, the guys who were probably most notable in terms of shooting long 2's were Derek Fisher and Steve Nash.

Fisher has been out of his mind on long 2's for the entire month of May, with a staggering .636 percentage against both Phoenix (14-22) and Utah (7-11), after connecting on .419 during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Nash was also deadly on long 2's, making 15-24 (.625) for the series, after posting a .464 percentage from 16-23 feet during the season. However, 6-22 (.273) shooting on threes for Nash - well below his season pct. of .426 - essentially negated his prowess on long 2's.

It will be interesting to see how L.A. attacks the Celtics defense, for the data over the course of the playoffs indicates that the Lakers are still much more successful when they shoot a lot of free throws and shots at the rim, despite the outside shooting heroics of Kobe and friends during the Suns series.

The Lakers have a gaudy record of 12-4 in this playoff season. For the sake of argument for this statistical evaluation, let's consider their four narrow wins (Game 2 v OKC, Game 6 v OKC, Game 3 v UTH, Game 5 v PHX) to be "losses", to better isolate when L.A.'s been at its best:
• When the Lakers shoot more "At Rim" shots than 3-pointers, they are 7-2 (1-6 vice versa)
• When L.A. shoots at least as many free throws as 3-pointers, they are 8-2 (0-6 vice versa)

In L.A.'s four double-digit wins of the postseason, their average shot attempts are as follows:
    - At Rim: 31.0
    - Free Throws: 30.8
    - Long 2's: 17.0
    - Threes: 16.0
So, even though the Lakers shot more threes (24) and long 2's (20) than "at rim" shots (17) in Game 6 vs. Phoenix, they are still at their best when they are attacking the basket and playing inside-out on offense.

Despite their outside-shooting prowess vs. the Suns, it would seem to be risky for L.A. to fall in love with the jump shot going forward, as that would likely be playing right into the hands of the Celtics.

As much as L.A.'s defense vs. the Phoenix three-point game was a huge factor in the conference finals, the matchup of Boston's interior defense vs. L.A.'s inside offense could be decisive in The Finals.

The Synergy Sports breakdown of the Lakers-Suns series reveals some interesting data on how L.A. attacked the Phoenix defense.

During the regular season, a total of 31.6% of L.A.'s offensive plays were "Spot-Ups" (17.5%) or "Isolations" (14.1%), while 19.2% were "Post-Ups".

In the Phoenix series, however, a total of 43.8% of Laker offensive plays were "Spot-Ups" (28.2%) or "Isolations" (15.6%), while just 10% were "Post-Ups".

The key individual player who factored into this change was, of course, Kobe.

During the regular season, 37% of Bryant's offensive plays were "Isolations" (28.5%) or "Spot-Ups" (8.5%), while 22.2% were "Post-Ups".

Against Phoenix, there was a jump all the way to 61.6% of Kobe's plays being "Spot-Ups" (37.2%) or "Isolations" (24.4%), while "Post-Ups" dropped all the way to 2.9%.

It's understandable that Kobe avoided the post vs. the Suns, considering he was guarded by bigger players like Jared Dudley and Grant Hill, not to mention that Phoenix played a lot of zone, which meant that Bryant encountered even bigger players down on the blocks.

As one might expect based on his outside shooting, Kobe had huge increases in points per play for both his "Spot-Ups" and his "Isolations".

It'll be interesting to see if Boston - with stronger defenders like Paul Pierce and Tony Allen - will be able to keep Kobe out of the post as well. It seems like a tall order to expect Kobe to continue to perform so efficiently in spot-up and isolation situations.
SPOT-UPS (09-10) 17.5 1.00
SPOT UPS (v PHX) 28.2 1.13

ISOS (09-10) 14.1 0.85
ISOS (v PHX) 15.6 1.01

POST-UPS (09-10) 19.2 0.93
POST UPS (v PHX) 10.0 1.06

SPOT-UPS (09-10) 8.5 1.06
SPOT UPS (v PHX) 24.4 1.38

ISOS (09-10) 28.5 0.95
ISOS (v PHX) 37.2 1.14

POST-UPS (09-10) 22.2 0.98
POST UPS (v PHX) 2.9 0.80

Friday, May 28, 2010

Early Draft Musings

The NBA Draft is fast approaching and we just wanted to make a few quick observations about the top end of the draft.

1) What are the Wolves Gonna Do?:
The TWolves were put in a tough spot when they were awarded the 4th pick. If everything goes to form with Wall-Turner-Favors going 1-2-3, DeMarcus Cousins will be the best player left on the board. He just might not be the best player for the TWolves.

It's not so much Cousins' mental makeup that should give GM David Kahn pause, but that Cousins would likely be overkill with Al Jefferson and Kevin Love already in place. Even if they don't take Cousins, Kahn really needs to make a decision on moving Jefferson or Love since they can't play together because they make for a lousy defensive backline. Which shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone when they drafted Love.

Don't forget they have the rights to 6-11 Nikola Pekovic and he might be on his way to the NBA for next season. Pekovic is probably the most dominant post scorer currently in Europe, but is not really any great shakes as a defender.

If they take Cousins, it would give Minny four quality post scorers. The problem is none of these guys is known to be much of a defender. Keeping Darko around is a smart move considering the defensive shortcoming of their other bigs.

The one positive for Kahn is the Wolves have a wealth of tradeable assets. The TWolves also have the 16th and 23rd pick in this year's draft. Kahn will also have to make a call between Rubio and Johnny Flynn since playing them together makes no sense. But Kahn has a few years before he has to make that decision.

Need to flip some these excess bigs and PGs for help on the wings where they are extremely thin. Some type of move to grab Evan Turner might be their best bet on draft day. Syracuse's Wesley Johnson might be the best fit if the TWolves keep the 4th-pick. Whatever the case, the Wolves have a lot of options and you hope Kahn makes the best of them.

2) Does Philly go with Turner or Favors at #2?
Evan Turner would seem to be the consensus second-best player in the draft, but PF Derrick Favors could be a better choice for the Sixers with the 2nd pick. Turner is not really what the Sixers need right now if they intend to stick with Andre Iguodala.

Turner's game overlaps with Iggy's skills and the last thing Philly needs is another perimeter player with an erratic jumpshot. Not sure playing Turner and Iggy together would work since you would have two shaky deep shooters on the wings.

Not sold on Jrue Holiday being that good of shooter either (Let's wait & see if Jrue can string multiple good shooting years together before we anoint him a quality shooter). The Sixers need a marksmen between Jrue & Iggy. If Philly does take Turner, they should be prepared that he won't co-exist well with Iggy.

Picking Derrick Favors probably makes the most sense since E. Brand's game is slowly deteriorating. Favors seems to be rising after measuring out well and possibly having a higher ceiling than Turner.

3) John Wall in, Arenas out: Wall to the Wiz looks like a lock, like it should be. But what does this mean for Arenas? Some feel a Arenas-Wall backcourt can work, some feel it's not a good idea. Count us in the bad idea camp. Think it's in the Wizards' best interest to continue the rebuilding project that started with the ouster of A. Jamison, C. Butler & B. Haywood.

Wall and Arenas fit together from a physical standpoint since Wall's length can allow the Wizards to cross-match when needed. Arenas can easily slide over to the 2-guard since that's his natural position. We just don't think it's an ideal fit.

Wall needs to be paired with a 2-guard that is there just to knock down open shots off of the extra attention Wall (and Blatche) draw. Don't need a 2-guard who likes to handle the ball and initiate offense like Gil next to Wall. We think Wall should be controlling the ball as much as possible. With Arenas around, it would place Wall off-the-ball more than he should.

We don't think Arenas is that bad of guy and the chances that he will negatively influence Wall are slim. But Gil's "quirkiness" is just annoying enough where it could give management pause to put him in a locker room with Wall. And it seems the Wizards are currently trying to dump Gil, which makes a ton of sense.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

On The Celtics' T's: Bad Rules More Than Bad Calls

Kendrick Perkins was ejected from Game 5 of the Celtics-Magic series after earning two technical fouls which most reasonable fans seemed to view as unwarranted. With Perkins in jeopardy of what could be a series-shifting suspension, most fans are directing their ire at the referees for making poor calls. I think the anger should be directed at the league instead, because I think that the Perkins technicals were rooted in bad rules by the league more than bad calls by the officials. Let's take a quick look:

Kendrick Perkins: First Technical
The first Perkins technical was part of a double technical with Marcin Gortat, handed out for minor extracurricular jostling between the two. The practice of handing out double technicals for every minor altercation is a relatively new one - probably dating back 15 years or so.

Prior to that, refs would just give the ol' "Hey, cut it out or I'll throw you both out of here!" talking-to. I'm someone who supported the 2007 Stoudemire-Diaw suspensions because I do think that that rule minimizes fighting in the league.

But in this case, I don't think that double technicals serve as a greater deterrent to fighting than yelling at the offending players to cut the nonsense, and I think that the penalty of a technical foul is way too harsh for the offense, in part because it puts players in jeopardy of an unwarranted ejection, like Perkins was subjected to last night.

I've hated the knee-jerk double technicals ever since they were introduced to the league, and I wish they'd be eradicated.

Now, on top of that, I'll point out that, after the replay, I thought the double T was also a bad call, though an understandable one. Initially, I thought that Perkins had intentionally thrown the minor elbow, which was certainly enough to draw a double T based on the standards of how they are called. But, after seeing the replay, I do believe that Perk's arm slipped off of Pierce's, so I do think it was a bad call.

Still, I think it is a bad rule interpretation instructed by the league far more than it was a bad call.

Kendrick Perkins: Second Technical
I was surprised that the television commentary about the second Perkins technical focused on what he might have said or how he walked away, and neglected what to me seemed like the clear trigger for the technical call: Kendrick's "air punch".

It is a point of emphasis to call technical fouls on "air punches" delivered by players as expressions of disapproval with referees' calls. This rules interpretation has been added by the league in the last couple years, and "air punches" are called as technicals pretty consistently, no matter what the player says, or even if he says nothing.

Grant Hill received a tech in Game 1 of the Lakers-Suns series, and said afterward, "I don't know why I got it. I'm sportsman of the year three times. I didn't say anything. I just turned away and kind of moved my hands and I got called for a technical."

Exactly, Grant. It was a dismissive wave, even if minor, and it earned the technical.

Here is the wording in the video rule book on "While players are allowed Heat of the Moment reactions to calls with which they disagree, a player is never permitted to air punch, wave off or direct any other similar gesture directly at an official."

It is pretty much in black and white. (Note that while the wording says that the air punch must be delivered "directly at an official", I think that that is intended to mean "directly at an official's call", at least based on how I've seen these called. There are many times when gestures are sent in the opposite direction of an officially physically, but they are still called T's; the video examples include these instances.)

So, by the rule book, Eddie Rush's second technical on Perkins was the correct call. In fact, when Rasheed Wallace delivered an air punch after fouling out, it was the incorrect call to not give him a technical, and I can only imagine that Joey Crawford (more on him in a minute) didn't see it.

The problem is that this is a bad rule - way too rigid - more than a bad call. Do I think that Eddie Rush forgot that Perkins already had a technical, and otherwise would have let this one slide? Yes, I do. But the problem is that he is trained and in the habit of calling double technicals for the slightest provocations, and calling technicals for the slightest air punches.

Rajon Rondo: Technical
My opinion is that this one was the worst call of all, by far. Of course, I'm not privy to everything that happened or was said, but it certainly seemed like Rondo was largely calm and mainly wanted to discuss the call, as happens all the time, but Joey Crawford had to step in and once again try to be a tough guy. In my mind, the Rondo technical seemed nearly as outrageous as Crawford's ejection of Tim Duncan which rightfully earned Joey a suspension from the 2007 Playoffs.

I say this because the same fundamentals were behind the Rondo T: Crawford was not in control of his anger and tried to show that he was bigger than the game. And, in this instance, the call was made in Game 5 of a playoff series, as opposed to the regular season. Frankly, I think Crawford should be suspended again, even with an officiating corps which has been so decimated by injuries to veterans like Steve Javie and Mark "Your Body Is A" Wunderlich that we've seen the likes of Marc Davis and Ed Malloy calling Conference Finals games, and poorly at that.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Importance of Guarding the 3pt. Line

Check out M. Haubs layin' down the knowledge on the NBA Today Podcast with Mike Yam

The 3pt. line has definitely revolutionized the game of basketball over the last 25 years or so. Nowadays, its seems every college or pro coach likes to have two to three deep threats on the floor at once to create spacing and pile up extra points per possession. But maybe just as important as making 3pts., is taking them away.

In each Conference Final, you have a top-notch 3pt. shooting team (Magic, Suns) pitted against a team that defends the 3pt. line well (Celts, Lakers). The 3pt. shot is such a vital part of the offensive attack for both the Magic and Suns. So, if the Celts and Lakers can defend the 3pt. line like they did in the regular season it could be the key to them meeting in the NBA Finals.

It's not just about keeping the opposition's 3pt.% low. Limiting the amount of attempts from deep might be just as important. You can live with teams shooting 40% or above if they are only getting up 12-13 attempts a game, especially if those teams are Orlando and Phoenix.

One of the main reasons why we thought the Spurs would take out the Suns was because of the Spurs' ability to contain the opposition's 3pt. shooting. Very surprised the Spurs let the Suns torch them from deep.

Generally, the Spurs just don't keep the opposition's 3pt. % low, they limit the number of 3pt. attempts. They have historically done this under Popovich, and did so this year--the Spurs limited their opponent to a league-low 14.6 3pt. attempts per game. The Spurs' success against the Suns in '05 & '07 was not so much about keeping the Suns' 3pt.% low, but about chasing them off the line.

But the Spurs' failed to contain the Suns' 3pt. shooting and this was a major factor in the Spurs getting swept. The Spurs got hit with the double whammy of the Suns getting up too many 3PA per game and also drilling the attempts at a ridiculous rate (46%). The Spurs allowed the Suns to get up 22.25 3PA per game, allowing at least 19 3PA in every game of the series.

Like the Spurs, The Celts (in the Coach Thibodeau era) have been equally adept at cutting down the damage the opposition does behind the arc. This season the Celts allowed the 5th-lowest amount of 3PA per game (16.8) and were tied for 4th in Def. 3pt. % (34.2%).

So far, the Celtics have done a quality job limiting the Magic's 3pt. shooting prowess. Orlando led the league in 3pt. attempts with 27.3 per game and shot them at a 37.5% clips (4th best). The Magic were held to a 5-for-22 3pt. shooting night in Game 1.

In Game 2, Boston did allow the Magic to shoot 39% from 3pt., but kept the Magic to only 18 3PA, nine below their season average. I'm sure those numbers were a bit too high for Coach Thib's liking. Can't imagine he was happy with a wide-open J. Williams 3pt. make because of an ill-advised double onto Howard in the 2nd half of Game 2.

Imagine the Celts will continue to stay attached to Magic shooters and chase them off the line when possible. And continue to guard Dwight one-on-one as much as possible. And send him to line as much as possible. Dwight had 30 on Tuesday but had to earn a lot of those points at FT line.

Wouldn't you rather the Magic getting the 1 point per possession Howard will likely produce from the line as opposed to letting the deadliest long-range shooting team in league trying to get 3 points per possession?

The Western Conf. Finals could very well hinge on which team wins the battle of the 3pt. line between the Suns' offense and Lakers' defense. In the regular season, the Lakers were the best at guarding the 3pt. line--their opponents shot 32.8%. While the Suns' 41% 3pt. shooting led the league.

The Suns only managed 5-for-22 (23%) from long range in Game 1. We find it difficult to believe the Suns can win any game in this series if they shoot under 35% from deep.

A primary line of attack vs. the Suns should be to cut down the extra point per possession the Suns get from the longball. Make the Suns use more possessions to build up their point total. This should force the Suns have to rely more on their defense and rebounding to win.

Shutting down the deep shooting of Boston and LA might not be as crucial for their respective opponent. Actually, the Suns might be better off encouraging more 3PA from the Lakers and getting the ball out of Kobe or Pau's hands. My partner (and Doug Collins) mentioned the use of more zone in Game 2 and think this is not a bad idea. Try to force the ball into Artest, Fisher and Odom's hands on the perimeter and give them space to shoot. If they hit, then that's something you live with.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Euroleague: Jan Vesely Impresses in Paris

Also: Euroleague Final Four Analysis: Barcelona Overwhelms Olympiacos

What a weekend for extraordinary basketball performances, highlighted by Rajon Rondo's 29-18-13 on Sunday and The Goran Dragic Explosion, with the young Slovenian's stunning 23-point fourth quarter on Friday night.

Add the drama of One-Eyed Stevie Nash getting up off the deck for a 10-point, 5-assist fourth quarter to exorcise the Spurs, and it turns out that classic performances by the two most famous players in the sport - LeBron's 38-8-7 on Friday and Kobe scoring 7 of his 35 in the last two minutes on Saturday - were mere afterthoughts by the end of this weekend of heroics.

Yet, save some room for Regal FC Barcelona, who won the Euroleague title in Paris on Sunday with an 86-68 thrashing of a powerhouse Olympiacos team (analysis of the final from Jay Aych here). Barca finished the season with an impressive 20-2 record in Euroleague play, and ran its record to 55-5 overall, when also considering games played in the Spanish ACB, Copa del Rey, and Supercopa.

The best game of the Euroleague Final Four was the semifinal matchup in which heavily favored Olympiacos held off an underdog Partizan Belgrade team full of heart by a score of 83-80 in overtime. Olympiacos needed a Lorenzo Charlesesque dunk by Josh Childress - a rebound of an airball - to tie the thriller at 67 with two seconds left in regulation.

From an NBA fan's perspective, the revelation of the weekend was Jan Vesely, Partizan's 20-year-old 6-11 Czech SF, whose versatile talents were fully on display on the high-pressure stage of the semifinal. Vesely ended up with 13 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks on 6-10 FG in 40 minutes played, and showed why he will deservedly be a high draft pick whenever he decides to come over to the NBA.

While he still needs to bulk up and become more assertive, Jan Vesely certainly has enough NBA-quality skills to warrant a high draft pick. Based on what I saw from Paris, I would have moved Vesely up to no. 5 on my mythical 2010 draft board had he stayed in the draft. (Vesely removed his name from consideration for this year a couple weeks ago.) DraftExpress currently has Vesely at no. 3 in its 2011 mock draft, and I have no arguments with that.

The semifinal was the second Vesely game I've watched. My chief complaint after the other game (in which Vesely had 10 points, 1 rebound in 25 minutes in a blowout loss to Barcelona in March) was that the young Czech was not assertive, as he spent a lot of time wandering aimlessly on the perimeter.

Not so on Friday, as Vesely made plays all over the court. While Vesely will have to bulk up a bit, he clearly has the physical tools to succeed in the league, as a long 6-11 SF who can really run and jump. I was probably more pleasantly surprised by Vesely's lateral quickness than anything else. Matched up against a quality NBA athlete in Josh Childress, Vesely was able to move his feet and impressively stay in front of J-Chills for most of the game.

On offense, the name of Vesely's game is clearly versatility. He was able to score from the low post, and even though he missed his two 3-point attempts on Friday, he can stroke it from distance, as he hit 40% of his threes on the Euroleague season and has smooth shooting form.

Vesely delivered his four assists from all over the court - one was on a fast break, where he deftly scooped a dish on the run; one was in traffic in the low post; one was an entry-pass lob from the wing.

The kid also rebounded well in traffic and made big plays in crunch time, scoring on a putback dunk to put Partizan ahead 62-59 in the 4th, and reaching out for a nice block of Linas Kleiza with a minute left in overtime.

After a couple years with a smaller presence of international players in the NBA Draft, 2011 could offer a bit of a renaissance. Recent performances by Vesely at the Euroleague Final Four and Enes Kanter at the Nike Hoop Summit suggest that these players could be top picks, and Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas is highly regarded as well. Don't be surprised to see all three players go in the top 10 in '11.

Here's an in-depth highlights package from the Olympiacos-Partizan game, including many of the Vesely plays described above (Vesely is #24 in white).

Final Euroleague -> NBA translated stats for Jan Vesely (explained here):
MIN,   PTS, REB, AST,  FG%  
24.8, 8.4, 4.9, 1.4, 55.0
NBA36, 9.1, 8.4, 2.6, 48.4

For Ricky Rubio, Final Four weekend had its ups and downs. Yes, he walks away with a Euroleague championship at age 19, but Ricky played just five minutes in the second half of the final because of his miscues with the ball. Rubio committed 5 turnovers in the game, and lost the ball on the dribble three times in his brief second-half appearances alone, as he struggled to handle the defensive pressure of quick Americans Patrick Beverley (6-1 Arkansas product who was a Heat second-rounder) and Josh Childress. Rubio had a deceptively good stat line in the final, with 9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in just 17 minutes, but the TOs told the true story of his game.

This came on the heels of a semifinal performance in which Rubio sealed the 64-54 win over CSKA Moscow with multiple heady plays down the stretch:
    • With the score 54-50, Ricky found Fran Vazquez with a gorgeous lob pass off the pick-and-roll for a dunk;
    • At 56-51, Rubio drove and drew the defense before calmly pitching out to Erazem Lorbek for a three;
    • At 59-51, Rubio came off a high pick-and-roll and drilled a three off the dribble to make it 62-51. Ballgame.
For the semi, Rubio had an impressive stat line of 10 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 3 TO on 3-6 FG, including 2-3 on 3PT-ers, in 32 minutes.

All in all, I walk away form the Final Four with the same general feelings about Ricky Rubio's strengths and weaknesses: exceptional court vision (there were a couple stunning passes) and ability to run the pick and roll, but non-existent as a scoring threat as a penetrator. There were several occasions in which Rubio created quality scoring opportunities for himself via penetration, but he either threw up a errant shot or fired a wild pass which often led to a turnover. The ability to develop a floater will be the make or break for whether Ricky Rubio becomes an NBA star. As always, remember: the kid is just 19.

Final Euroleague -> NBA translated stats for Ricky Rubio (explained here):
MIN,   PTS, REB, AST,  FG%  
20.9, 6.8, 2.9, 4.1, 37.0
NBA36, 8.8, 5.9, 9.3, 32.6

Rubio was particularly devastating when paired in the pick and roll with Fran Vazquez, which made it surprising that Barcelona ran the combination so infrequently. As good as Rubio is at making the decisions and completing passes from all angles, Vazquez seems that good at finishing the play - he has great hands and coordination for a 7-footer. Vazquez can also finish the shot both at the rim or on a jump shot.

Vazquez had 11 points and 6 rebounds on 5-6 FG in 22 minutes in the semi, and was a defensive force in the final, contributing 4 blocks in just 16 minutes, to go with 6 points (2-2 FG), 2 rebounds and 2 nifty assists. Frankly, I was surprised Vazquez didn't play more, because I thought he affected both games whenever he was on the floor. The guy has skill, length, mobility, hands: Fran Vazquez is an NBA center, period.

One last note on NBA prospects: Partizan's Bo McCalebb, a 25-year-old 6-0 PG out of New Orleans, was really impressive in the semifinal, garnering 21 points, 4 assists and 4 steals in 40 minutes. The guy played like he had jets in his shoes, as he was lightning-fast with the ball, finished one fast break by soaring past Childress for a dunk, and raced full-court for the bucket that put Partizan ahead 67-65 with just seconds remaining.

McCalebb made just 13-56 3's (23.2%) on the Euro season, which would be a cause for concern, but he reminded me a little bit of Will Bynum, an explosive little guy who was dynamite off the dribble at Maccabi Tel Aviv for a season before getting a chance to establish himself with the Pistons.

What a weekend of hoops around the globe.

Also: Euroleague Final Four Analysis: Barcelona Overwhelms Olympiacos

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Barcelona Overwhelms Olympiacos for 2010 Euroleague Title

Also: Euroleague Final Four Scouting: Jan Vesely Impresses in Paris

FC Barcelona beat Olympiacos, 86-68, to finish off one of the most dominant Euroleague campaigns of all-time. Barcelona ends the '09-'10 Euroleague season with a 20-2 record and with a killer average scoring margin of +14.6. No doubt this team is one of the top Euro teams ever.

Very impressed how Barcelona made a stacked Olympiacos team look very ordinary and very frustrated on Sunday. Outplayed the Greek squad on both ends of the floor. Then again, they've been doing this all season.

Barcelona controlled this game from the start thanks in large part to its defense. Their help always seemed to be in the right place. Olympiacos could never get a steady rhythm going on the offensive end all game. Barca held Oly to 68 pts and 48% on 2pt. attempts. Olympiacos came into this game averaging 86.7 ppg and shooting 60% on 2pt. attempts.

The entire Barcelona frontline--Fran Vazquez, Terrence Morris, Boniface NDong, Erazem Lorbek and Pete Mickeal--set the tone defensively. Vazquez was a force in the 1st half, impeding Oly's scoring at the rim. Fran was credited with four blocks, but it seemed like he had at least a few more.

Barca finished the game with a total of eight blocks. Even the normally lead-footed Lorbek pitched in with two blocks and did an admirable job when checking the smaller, more agile Kleiza. Thought Barca did a terrific job keeping Kleiza off balance all game with different defenders. Mickeal (3 steals) was a menace as a help defender, as was Morris. Mickeal also was solid guarding J. Childress.

Barca's patented ball-movement was on display, propelling the Spanish powerhouse to 51% shooting. Barcelona buried 12-of-28 from long range. Barca's 18 assists was a Euroleague final record.

Juan Navarro solidified his standing as a big-game performer, leading Barca with 21 pts, 5 rebs & 3 assts. La Bomba lived up to his moniker with four 3pt. makes and mixed in a few patented runners as well. Mickeal helped his team get off to a fast start by pouring in 10 of his 14 pts in the 1st quarter.

This game was a microcosm of Ricky Rubio's uneven Euro season: strong start, shaky finish. Ricky played a solid 1st half but was a liability in the 2nd half. Ricky was forced to the bench for most of the 2nd half because of his carelessness--four of his five TOs came in five minutes of 2nd half floor time.

Coach Giannakis tried to change the dynamic of the game for Olympiacos coming out of the halftime break by starting Patrick Beverly and Scoonie Penn in the backcourt. Though, this defensive lineup lacked shooting and Giannakis probably should have inserted Milos Teodosic in favor of Penn. The increased ball pressure was effective and actually threw Rubio off his game. Coach Xavi Pascual had to pull Rubio just two minutes into the 3rd.

Olympiacos' defensive effort early in the 3rd helped them cut Barca's 11-point halftime lead to five points midway thru the quarter. But Barca responded with two back-to-back three-point plays that quickly undercut Olympiacos' momentum.

After cutting the score to 52-47, Olympiacos' over-aggressiveness on defense led to a B. Ndong dunk plus foul. On Barca's next off. possession, Victor Sada nailed a broken-play 3pt. up against the shot clock to push the Barca lead back to 11. Olympiacos never got within double-digits again.

Theo Papaloukas was the only player who could consistently generate offense thru-out the game (12 pts & 3 assts). Theo could not be denied on his dribble-drives--6-for-6 on his 2pts. After a strong semifinal performance, Sofo Schortsianitis had a difficult time finishing off shots against the length of Barca. Never could establish him in the painted area like vs. Partizan.

Josh Childress finished with 15 pts, 6 rebs & 3 stls, but felt Barca made his 2pt. attempts tough and he did most of scoring behind the arc (3-for-5). Linas Kleiza put in 13 pts but had to work for his points like Childress and coughed up four TOs.

Milos Teodosic started the game strong, scoring seven of his 10 pts in the 1st quarter but had little impact the 2nd half. Thought Giannakis should have tried harder to spring Teodosic open for jumpers in the 2nd half.

Both teams' seasons are not yet complete. Barcelona heads back to España to compete in the highly competitive ACB playoffs with the likes of Real Madrid, Caja Laboral & Unicaja in its path. Olympiacos is likely headed for a matchup with Panathinaikos in the Greek league final in a few weeks.

Also: Euroleague Final Four Scouting: Jan Vesely Impresses in Paris

Thursday, May 06, 2010

2010 Euroleague Final Four: Players to Watch

Also: Euroleague Final Four: Team-by-Team Analysis

For a vast number of American sports fans, the first weekend of the NCAA tournament is considered to be the best basketball weekend of the year, but for my money, I prefer the annual basketball overload weekend in early May, when the NBA Playoffs intersect with the Euroleague Final Four, an event which combines the emotion and drama of the NCAA format with a vastly higher quality of play.

I don't know that the 2010 Euroleague Final Four can match the drama of the 2009 edition, when Panathinaikos, Olympiacos, CSKA Moscow and FC Barcelona played three pulsating games, with Panathinaikos beating CSKA 73-71 in the final.

But three of those four teams are back in the 2010 Final Four, which will take place in Paris this Friday and Sunday, with this schedule, airing on both NBA TV and in the U.S.:
    FC Barcelona vs. CSKA Moscow, Noon ET
    Olympiacos vs. Partizan Belgrade, 3 p.m. ET

    Final, 3 p.m. ET
FC Barcelona and Olympiacos are big favorites to advance, and would make for a titanic matchup in the Final, as both teams are loaded, and are two of the most talented European club teams I've ever seen.

I'm picking Olympiacos over FC Barcelona in the Final, in part because of my concerns about the Barca minute distribution, which I've written about previously.

Jay Aych broke down the teams in his Final Four preview, posted earlier today. Now, I'll offer a look at players of interest to watch from an NBA perspective.

Below, I offer a list of 11 players, which includes their Euroleague stats for the season, as well as their translated NBA per-36 minutes stats, based on this formula created by John Hollinger:

• Scoring rate decreases 25%
• Rebound rate increases by 18% (more missed shots in NBA play)
• Assist rate increases by 31% (Euro scorers = tightwads with assists)
• Shooting percentage drops by 12%
• PER drops by 30%

Certainly, with fairly small sample sizes, these translations are not meant to be definitive, but they generally work pretty well. Take a look at three NBA players who were in the Euroleague last season.

• Ersan Ilyasova - '08-09 translated PER: 14.5, '09-10 NBA PER: 15.8
• Omri Casspi - '08-09 translated PER: 12.1, '09-10 NBA PER: 13.0
• David Andersen - '08-09 translated PER: 12.9, '09-10 NBA PER: 12.1

One more note on the translated stats - age matters. The younger the player, the more likely his translated PER is likely to be higher in the league. OK, here we go:

1. Ricky Rubio, FC Barcelona - age 19
Rights held - Minnesota
MIN,   PTS, REB, AST,  FG%,  PER  
20.6, 6.5, 2.8, 4.0, 35.1, 17.1
NBA36, 8.6, 5.8, 9.2, 30.9, 12.0
The most intriguing player to watch from an NBA perspective is certainly Ricky Rubio, as the Spanish wunderkind carries the expectations of a high draft pick, yet it's still difficult to project exactly how his game will translate to the NBA.

When I checked in on Rubio in January, his translated assist numbers were off the charts at 12.7 per 36 min. Ricky's stats tailed off in the second half of the Euroleague season, as his translated assists dropped to 9.2 - still impressive, but not otherworldly, and look at that translated FG% - 30.9% - egads!

I still think Rubio has world-class court vision, but man oh man he needs to improve his finishing ability to thrive in the modern NBA game. In any event, he should certainly make for an entertaining watch in Paris, if nothing else.

The most underrated stat with Rubio is age. At age 19 in the Euroleague, the translated PERs for both Brandon Jennings (8.1) and Nicolas Batum (8.9) vastly undervalued how they'd perform in the NBA. Ricky is still ahead of schedule at just 19.

2. Jan Vesely, Partizan Belgrade - 20
Draft-eligible - removed name from 2010 Draft
MIN,   PTS, REB, AST,  FG%,  PER  
23.8, 8.0, 4.6, 1.3, 53.4, 14.8
NBA36, 9.1, 8.2, 2.6, 47.0, 10.4
Vesely's draft stock was rising to the point where he looked like a top 10 pick in the 2010 Draft, which made it surprising that he recently pulled his name out of consideration for this year.

Based on my very limited viewing of Vesely's game to date, I think it's a good decision. He's impressive as a 6-11 SF with bounce in his step and three-point range, but he seems like he could use a little more seasoning. Vesely is rail-thin, and could stand to become more assertive.

Certainly, the Euro Final Four offers a nice big stage for Vesely to display his talents - and for NBA scouts and fans to get a look at him in a high-stakes situation.

3. Josh Childress, Olympiacos - 26
Restricted free agent - Atlanta
MIN,    PTS, REB, AST,  FG%,  PER  
31.9, 15.1, 4.7, 1.9, 54.1, 18.4
NBA36, 12.7, 6.3, 2.8, 47.6, 12.9
After a bit of a struggle to adapt his game to Europe last season (Chills averaged just 8.8 pts on 47% FG (14.4 PER) in Euroleague play in '08-09), it all clicked in for Josh Childress in 2009-10, as he was clearly one of the best players on the continent.

Childress has been a defensive force since he stepped on Greek soil, but he was able to lift his offensive game this season, scoring 15.1 ppg on 54.1 FG%. Now he gets a chance to clean up some unfinished business, as Olympiacos lost an 84-82 heartbreaker to archrival Panathinaikos in the 2009 semifinals.

4. Linas Kleiza, Olympiacos - 25
Restricted free agent - Denver
MIN,    PTS, REB, AST,  FG%,  PER  
30.0, 17.3, 6.4, 1.4, 48.2, 21.6
NBA36, 15.6, 9.1, 2.2, 42.4, 15.1
Kleiza was an absolute beast in Euroleague play this season, winning the Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy. Kleiza offers the best of both worlds in Euroleague play, with NBA athleticism and experience, plus a Lithuanian's grasp of the European game. Along with Childress, Kleiza could be an underrated NBA acquisition in the crazy summer of 2010.

5. Fran Vazquez, FC Barcelona - 27
Rights held - Orlando
MIN,    PTS, REB, AST,  FG%,  PER  
17.5, 7.4, 3.4, 0.8, 66.3, 19.0
NBA36, 11.4, 8.3, 2.1, 58.3, 13.3
FC Barcelona's Erazem Lorbek has earned All-Euroleague honors with his variety of low-post moves, but he's a classic high-skill, low-athleticism Euro big.

It's teammate Fran Vazquez who is more of an NBA-caliber player. At 6-11, Vazquez has very long arms and very good mobility, which allowed him to block 1.1 shots in just 17.5 minutes per game in Euroleague play. With good hands and finishing ability, plus surprising shooting range, Vazquez is also a factor in both the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop games.

Unfortunately for Stateside fans, the 2005 lottery pick still shows no signs of making the jump from Europe to the NBA. I strongly believe he could be an effective NBA big man if he ever came over.

6. Yiannis Bouroussis, Olympiacos - 26
Free agent
MIN,    PTS,  REB, AST,  FG%,  PER  
16.1, 8.7, 4.7, 0.8, 51.7, 25.8
NBA36, 14.6, 12.4, 2.4, 45.5, 18.1
Last summer, the rumor mill suggested that Yiannis Bouroussis might sign with the San Antonio Spurs, before the rugged big man decided to stay at home in Greece. Currently, Bouroussis stands as the no. 1-rated overseas free agent on the DraftExpress board.

For some reason, Bouroussis averages just 16 minutes per game in the Euroleague, even though he has been highly productive on a per-minute basis for the past two seasons. Translated stats suggest he'd hit the boards hard in the league - Bouroussis is at 12.4 rebounds per NBA 36 this season, after 14.4 per NBA 36 last season.

7. Viktor Khryapa, CSKA Moscow - 27
Free agent
MIN,    PTS, REB, AST,  FG%,  PER  
31.2, 10.1, 6.4, 4.2, 54.3, 19.1
NBA36, 8.8, 8.7, 6.3, 47.8, 13.4
After four middling seasons in the NBA, I thought that Viktor Khryapa was headed back to Europe for good, but recent reports suggest that Khryapa is interested in coming back to the NBA, and considering that Mikhail Prokhorov signed him at CSKA Moscow, the Nets seem like a reasonable potential landing spot.

Call me crazy, but I still think Khryapa can be a contributing rotation player in the league, in a system which knows how to take advantage of his versatile talents. As a 6-9 SF/PF, Khryapa can affect a game in multiple ways without scoring, similar to fellow Russian Andrei Kirilenko. He's a deft passer and won the Best Defender Trophy in the Euroleague this season.

In the 2007 EuroBasket, a tournament littered with NBA players, Khryapa made our First Team. On a team with god-awful wings like the Nets, I think Khryapa could be an underrated upgrade - a small piece to help that franchise back to respectability.

8. Milos Teodosic, Olympiacos - 23
Free agent
MIN,    PTS, REB, AST,  FG%,  PER  
29.9, 13.4, 2.5, 5.2, 50.3, 22.0
NBA36, 12.1, 3.5, 8.3, 44.3, 15.4
After going undrafted in 2009, Milos Teodosic had a superb showing at the 2009 EuroBasket, averaging 14 points and 5 assists on strong shooting numbers to lead a young Serbian squad to a surprise silver medal.

Teodosic has continued his strong play in the 2009-10 season, revitalizing his status as an NBA prospect, though he seems likely to stay in Greece. Teodosic has excellent size as a 6-5 PG, though his athleticism is still questionable.

I particularly enjoy that Milos' head shot on makes him look like Justin Bieber:

9. Sasha Kaun, CSKA Moscow - 24
Rights held - Cleveland
MIN,    PTS, REB, AST,  FG%,  PER  
21.4, 9.4, 4.5, 0.5, 72.7, 23.2
NBA36, 11.8, 9.0, 1.0, 64.0, 16.2
During his time at Kansas, Sasha Kaun was never a player who particularly impressed me as an NBA prospect, but his game has developed nicely while playing in Europe, and Brian Windhorst reported in March that Kaun is "very much on the Cavs' radar" after a "breakthrough season."

I hope he makes it just so I can say this on a more regular basis:
"Sasha Kaun. Sasha Kaun. Sasha Kaun, let me rock you. Let me rock you, Sasha Kaun."

10. Sofoklis Schortsanitis, Olympiacos - 24
Rights held - LA Clippers
MIN,    PTS, REB, AST,  FG%,  PER  
12.4, 7.0, 2.4, 0.6, 65.7, 19.4
NBA36, 15.2, 8.3, 2.2, 57.8, 13.6
I'm keeping Big Sofo on the list even though he still struggles to keep himself on the court due to conditioning and foul trouble. As seen in the Greece upset of Team USA in 2006, Sofo certainly has an NBA-quality body if he can ever find a way to get it into reasonable shape, and he's still only 24.

Schortsanitis only gets 12 minutes per game, but he's highly productive on a per-minute basis, especially in field-goal shooting.

11. Bo McCalebb, Partizan - 25
Free agent
MIN,    PTS, REB, AST,  FG%,  PER  
29.3, 13.1, 3.0, 3.4, 46.9, 18.0
NBA36, 12.1, 4.4, 5.5, 41.3, 12.6
Bo McCalebb makes the list mainly as a response to guys like Jacob Pullen, who draw tons of acclaim during the NCAA Tournament even though they are marginal NBA prospects, at best. For every Pullen, there are multiple players like McCalebb (a University of New Orleans product), who improve their games as pros, and are much better than the Tourney flavor of the moment, but play far off the radar of American basketball fans.

When I asked DraftExpress President Jonathan Givony who was more likely to be in the NBA in three years: Pullen or McCalebb, he said, "If Pullen becomes 1/10th the player McCalebb is I'd be shocked."

Enjoy the basketball weekend, folks.

Also: Euroleague Final Four: Team-by-Team Analysis

2010 Euroleague Final Four: Preview

Also: Euroleague Final Four: Players to Watch

The 2010 Euroleague Final Four looks much the same as the 2009 version with three of last year's semifinalists back for more. Not surprising European powerhouses CSKA Moscow, FC Barcelona and Olympiacos are back at the Final Four. Defending champ Panathinaikos failing to make it to Paris and the boys from Belgrade, Partizan, sliding in to take their place is the surprising part.

Panathinaikos could never get all their key guys healthy at the same time and failed to even make it out of the Top 16 round. While not much was expected out of Partizan at the start of season, they just kept sneaking out win after win. Will see if Partizan can pull off two more upsets this weekend, which would cap an improbable season.

On Friday, the first semifinal tips off at 12pm est with CKSA vs. Barcelona. Partizan vs. Olympiacos follows at 3pm est. Both games can be viewed live or on replay at ESPN3. The final is scheduled for 3pm est on Sunday (May 9th) which can also be viewed at ESPN3.

Semifinal #1: CSKA vs. Barcelona (Fri., 12 pm EST)
These two teams met in the semis last year, where CSKA pulled out a 82-78 win. Much like last year, you have a contrast in styles between the two teams--Barca likes to push the pace while CSKA wants a more controlled atmosphere on both ends of the floor. Both teams spread the floor very well and are tough on the defensive end. Should be a great game between two closely matched teams.

CSKA MOSCOW: 8th-straight Final Four appearance for the Russian superpower. Terrific shooting team once again this year--55% on 2pts., 41% on 3pts.. Fairly methodical unit on the offensive end with disciplined spacing. Remain a stout defensive unit even without the guidance of Ettore Messina.

Have been led by reliable Euro vets R. Siskauskas, T. Langdon & V. Khryapa. 6-6 SF Ramunas Siskauskas has had one of the finest all-around seasons in Euroleague, averaging 13 ppg on 56%, 4 rpg, 3 apg & 1.3 spg. The Lithuanian wing handles playmaking duties, rebounds, shoots from deep, and provides stout defense.

Trajan Langdon remains CSKA's primary offensive option, leading the team with 14 ppg. Main objective of the CSKA offense is to spring Langdon free off screens. Langdon sometimes will move into high p/r coming off down screens. Langdon (47% on 3pts.) and Siskausas (55.7% on 3pts.) have been deadly from the perimeter this year.

Major difference between this year's Final 4 squad and last year's team: back-to-basket scoring. Last year, CSKA could turn to E. Lorbek and Matjaz Smodis, two of the craftiest post-scorers in Europe. Lorbek will be on the other side on Friday, while Smodis is trying to work his way back after missing most of the season. Not sure how much of an impact Smodis will have, just recently returning from injury. Smodis has only played the last three games in Russian league play after basically not playing a competitive game since last year's semi.

If it wasn't for Siskauskas, the MVP of this team would be combo forward Vik Khryapa. Vik has been an all-around menace this season and possibly the finest defender in Europe not named Diamantidis. Once again, Vik fills out the stat sheet like a poor man's AK47--10 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2 spg, 1 bpg. Vik has even been consistent with his shooting (43% on 3pts.). Vik's only negative has been his 3 TOs per game.

Euro vet JR Holden can still score some (10.4 ppg), though his shooting is erratic. Zoran Planinic will handle a chunk of the ball-handling duties and works well with Sasha Kahn in screen/roll action. Anton Ponkrashov is not a danger to hit jumpers, but gives CSKA another big PG with sharp passing skills.

Fairly athletic frontline that provides solid defensive support. Sasha Kaun has been quality all season, 9.4 ppg on 73% & 4.5 rpg in 21 mins. Pops Mensah-Bonsu is good for a some boards, blocks and dunks. Kaun is effective rolling to the basket. Reserve forward Andrey Vorontsevich could see limited burn and is a young athlete to watch with possible NBA potential.

For what it's worth, CSKA has lost its last two games in Russian Super League play. CSKA is 2-2 in Russia since the Euro quarters. Very intriguing matchups in this game. Langdon vs. Navarro--two of the best 2-guards in Europe, both run off a ton of screens. Siskauskas vs. Mickeal--one of the top offensive playmakers against a talented defender. Planinic vs. Rubio--will see if Planinic takes Ricky down in the post.

Barcelona has been the most dominant team in Euroleague play rolling thru to a 18-2 record with an absurd +14.7 point differential. Knocked off a very good Real Madrid in 3-1 in the quarters to get to Paris.

Another team that really spreads the minutes (maybe too much) and touches around. Like to play uptempo which definitely accentuates Rubio's talents. Spread the floor well and will keep the middle floor open often.

Barca has looked superb on both ends of the floor--great at every facet of the game. This team has a lot of raw talent who have subjugated their egos and accepted roles to form a scary, cohesive unit.

Juan Navarro has had another All-Euroleague season, leading Barca in scoring with 14 ppg. Primary option for Barca who's run off screens all over the floor, especially baseline screens so he can curl into his patented floaters. Will be put in ball screens as well.

Ricky Rubio's season has been a little bit of a mixed bag. Rubio shined in the first 10 games of Euroleague play, but his play has slipped a bit in the last 10 games. Ricky has not really shot the ball well all year, but then he really does not really look for his shot all that much. Hopefully, we'll see Rubio get more than his usual 20 mins. per game this weekend.

Vet combo guard Jaka Lakovic has played well in limited minutes, often picking up the slack when Rubio is off his game. Lakovic is very effective pulling up off of screens and tends to be streaky. Terrence Morris has quietly had an extremely efficient season, averaging 7.3 ppg on 60% shooting in 20 mpg. Morris provides Barcelona with a four-spreader (our term for stretch-four) who also adds some boards and blocks.

Barcelona relies on Erazem Lorbek as its frontcourt focal point. His 8.8 ppg and 4.3 rpg may look rather pedestrian, but understand, this cat can ball. He can put defenders in the blender with an endless array of post moves (watch out for the spins) and draw bigs to perimeter where he can shoot with range, pass or even drive the ball. The only thing holding him back from NBA riches is a lack of athleticism.

Fran Vazquez has been highly productive (7.3 ppg on 66%, 3.4 rpg, 1 bpg) in only 17 mins. of floor time per game. Fran does damage rolling off high screens and can occasionally hit a high-post jumper. Fran's combo of long arms & mobility make him an effective rebounder & a terrific defensive presence (6th-best shotblocker in Euroleague). 7-footer Boniface Ndong also causes problems with his length and mobility, but his bad hands limit his game.

SF Pete Mickeal's athleticism makes him a great rebounder and defender at the 3-spot. Pete has even added a reliable jumper to his repertoire this season--45% from 3pt. Will see if Mickeal's defensive prowess can throw Siskauskas off his game.

My partner mentioned this in an earlier post, but it would seem wise for Coach Xavi Pascual to tighten up his rotation, especially in the backcourt. Role players G. Basile, V. Sada and R. Grimau combine to average 43 mpg. Basile is not the player he once was, and he's taking minutes away from Lakovic. Also, Rubio is only getting 20 mpg. Need to redistribute a chunk of those 43 minutes to Navarro, Rubio and Lakovic for the semis.

Semifinal #2: Olympiacos vs. Partizan (Fri., 3pm EST)
Olympiacos' season ended in the semis last year, but this year they're a heavy fave over Partizan. Partizan is the clear underdog in the Final Four field. Partizan has played way above their station all season. Partizan just does not have the depth of the other Final 4 teams. These two teams split in first round play, Partizan winning at home by six and Olympiacos cruising to a 81-60 win at home. Though, Maric was absent with a mid-season injury for the 21-point loss in Greece.

OLYMPIACOS (Greece): Repeat trip to the Final 4 after being edged by rival PAO 84-82 in last year's semis. 16-4 in Euroleague play and beat Asseco Prokom (Poland) 3-1 in the quarterfinals to get to this stage.

Sickly efficient from the floor in Euroleague play so far--60% from 2pt. range, 38% from 3pt. Multitude of options at the disposal of Coach Giannakis. They can come at the opponent with so much firepower and lose nothing when they go to the bench.

Linas Kleiza and Josh Childress have been the most potent forward combination besides Khryapa/Siskauskas in the Euroleague. Kleiza has had himself an MVP-caliber season leading the Euroleague in scoring (17.3 ppg) and 3rd in rebounding (6.4). Childress has pitched in 15 ppg (6th-best in Euro), 4.7 rpg and sharp defensive pressure. Though, Childress' shooting has cooled down after a hot start.

After a breakout performance at Eurobasket, PG Milos Teodosic has not slowed down, and established himself as one of the top guards in the Euroleague. In Oly's 20 Euro games, Milos has averaged 13.3 ppg, 5.2 apg (2nd in Euro) and 1.7 spg. The quick-triggered Milos has buried 41 of his 95 3pt. attempts this season, Very adept running the pick/roll finding teammates or pulling up.

When Teodosic needs a breather, Olympiacos has the luxury of handing the ball to Theo Papaloukas. Theo continues to be one of the top playmakers in Europe, averaging 5 apg (3rd-best in Euro). Theo has also been knocking down his outside looks (39%), usually not a strength.

Kind of nutty that Giannis Bourousis, one of the top NBA prospects in Europe, only averages 16 mins. a game and puts up 8.7 ppg & 4.7 rpg in those limited minutes. The 7-footer can score with hooks or by facing up, not to mention his rebounding talent. Sofo Schortsanitis gives Oly another highly efficient beast on the blocks. Sofo got himself in shape last summer, which has paid off with him averaging 7 ppg on 66% in only 12 mins per. Not understanding his own girth does get him in foul trouble, but he also draws fouls aplenty.

Nikola Vujcic is a crafty center who is an effective passer at the high post and can score some off of rolls and hook shots. Combo guard Yotam Halperin brings sharpshooting, while reserve PG Scoonie Penn just brings sheer Scoonie-ness. SF P. Vasilopoulos is an adequate shooter who's on the floor to provide physical defense.

Just can't see this team being upended by Partizan. Olympiacos is a team that can lose focus in the reg. season and be upset by lesser foes. But have to imagine this roster will be tuned in for 40 mins. with a possible Euroleague title just two wins away.

PARTIZAN BELGRADE: Was suppose to be a rebuilding year in Belgrade with the loss of M. Tepic and N. Velickovic. But Coach Vujosevic has done the finest job in Europe getting Partizan to this point.

Have been led by 6-11 Aleks Maric, who's having a breakout year averaging 14.4 ppg on 62% & 8.6 rpg. Maric is not shy about using his thick frame to draw fouls posting up before he receives the ball (draws 7 fouls per).

Former Miss State standout Lawrence Roberts joins Maric upfront to help pound the glass--Maric is the #1 rebounder in Euroleague, Roberts (7.4 rpg) is # 2. The rest of Roberts' game has been shaky this year--shooting 32% and coughing up possessions (3 TOpg).

The massive 7-6 Slavko Vranes can be an interior presence in limited minutes simply because of his size. Slavko can't move well, but is a defensive deterrent in the vein of Yao Ming--2nd in the Euroleague in blocks (1.5) in only 18 mins. per.

Lottery propect Jan Vesely's combo of length and athleticism make him a difficult cover at the SF spot. Vesely does not get a ton of plays called for him, but he can finish well and has improved his shooting this year. PG Bo McCalebb (ex-U of New Orleans) is not much of shooter but is very effective breaking down the defense in Partizan's double-high post sets (Bo's 13 ppg are 2nd on team).

The veteran wing Dusan Kecman provides perimeter markmanship and will be run off screens. Guards Alex Rasic and Petar Bozic will look to spot up as well but both have been erratic this season.

Partizan is very strong on the boards thanks to Maric, Roberts, Vesely & Vranes. Good size on the backline helps on the defensive end. But this team is likely to be the weakest shooting team in Paris. Turnovers are another negative for Partizan--almost 17 per game. Have to believe that their surprising run in Euroleague play will finally be derailed by Olympiacos.

Also: Euroleague Final Four: Players to Watch

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Spurs Should Prevail Over The Suns (Again)

Springtime is upon us, so that naturally means the Spurs (7th-seed) must face the Suns (3rd-seed) in the Western Conf. Playoffs.

The Spurs own the Suns in the playoffs and we don't expect that trend to stop this postseason. We feel San Antonio should be considered the favorite even though they're the lower seed. Even with a healthy Robin Lopez available, we would give the Spurs the slight edge.

This year's version of the Suns is very similar to D'Antoni-era teams that pre-dated Shaq. The high-octane offense has returned with the 3pt. shot featured prominently. They don't hoist up quite as many threes as they did under D'Antoni, but still rely heavily on the deep ball.

Different from D'Antoni, Coach Gentry has used a deeper rotation with great results--the Suns are deeper than the Spurs this time around. This is Phoenix's one distinct advantage in this series.

The Suns' bench (Dragic, Dudley, Amundson, Frye, Barbosa) has given Gentry productive minutes all season, and has the ability to tip the series in Phoenix's favor.

The '09-10 Spurs' defense isn't quite as stout as in past years, but still fairly good. And they just have a history of getting the Suns off their game as well as any team.

Spurs are generally successful vs. the Suns because they do two things as well as any team in NBA that just happen to put a major crimp in the Suns' style of play:

1) The Spurs get back in transition as well as any team.

2) The Spurs defend the 3pt. line as well as any team.

The Spurs just don't keep the opposition's 3pt. % low, they limit the number of 3pt. attempts. They have historically done this under Popovich, and continue to do so this year--the Spurs limited their opponent to a league-low 14.6 3pt. attempts per game. Opponents hit 3pts. at a 34.3% clip vs. Spurs (6th-best).

The 19 3PA per game they allowed to the Mavs was more than usual, but they can live with that since the Mavs shot 32.8% from deep in the first round (Mavs shot 37% behind the arc during the season, 5th-best).

The Spurs like to encourage shots in the 10-to-22 ft. range; this has been their M.O. under Coach Pop. They are willing to sacrifice some wide open looks on mid-range jumpers, just as long as 3pt. attempts are kept to a minimum. Make it a goal to hold the Suns to 13-15 3pt. attempts per game.

Often, when a team tries to overplay the 3pt. line, they eventually give up easy looks at the rim. In the past vs. the Suns, the Spurs were so well-schooled defensively, they never got burned bad. The Spurs' baseline rotations were textbook to challenge the dives/rolls of Amare & Marion. The Spurs were able to flood the Suns 3pt. shooters but still hustle to help Duncan at the basket. We'll see if they can pull off similar results this time. If they can't get these backline rotations up to former levels, they likely can't beat Phoenix.

It's not like the Suns are inept in the mid-range--they're actually quite good. According to, the Suns are the second-best shooting team in the 10-15 ft. range (44%) and are the third-best in the 16-23 ft. range (41%).

Spurs aren't overly concerned with the Suns' mid-range prowess. The Spurs are more concerned with cutting down the extra point per possession the Suns get from the longball. Cut down their point total, make the Suns have to rely more on their defense and rebounding to win.

Grant Hill is the one player who might be more comfortable pulling up in the mid-range rather than catch-n-shooting from behind the arc. Spurs might even considering laying off Hill if he has deep looks. Grant's the one Sun who the Spurs might live with attempting more threes than mid-rangers.

Phoenix put up 25.5 3pt. attempts per vs. the Blazers, hitting them at a 39% clip. Phoenix averaged 21.6 3PA during the season, draining a league-leading 41% of those 3PA. Expect those shot attempt numbers to drop against the Spurs. Something has to give when these two teams play, and usually, it breaks in San Antonio's favor.

Jason Richardson smoked the Blazers with 23.5 ppg on 53% shooting, doing most of his damage behind the arc--22-for-43 from distance. Not only do I expect his 51% 3pt. shooting to cool off vs. the Spurs, there is little chance J-Rich jacks up seven 3pt. attempts per against the Spurs like he did vs. Portland.

When Channing Frye is on the floor with Amare, think it would be better if Duncan checked Amare. Keep Duncan in a 15 ft. radius of the basket. Allow Amare's looks in the high post.

It's not just the Spurs' defense in transition and on the arc that frustrates the Suns. The Spurs have contained the Suns' top-ranked offenses as well as any team over the last half-decade. Not sure another team consistently does a better job of guarding Nash's ball screens. Imagine Pop will shuffle the likes of Parker, George Hill, Jefferson & Bogans on Nash to try throw off his rhythm.

In the past, the Spurs' offensive strategy vs. the Suns was to expose their poor interior defense. Either constantly calling Duncan's number on the block or having Parker & Manu relentlessly attack the rim. Expect the Spurs to milk Duncan on the block much more than they did vs. Mavs.

The Spurs are clearly the better defensive team, not to mention should have the advantage on the glass. Though, the Spurs struggled on the boards vs. Dallas--outrebounded by 2 rpg.

The Suns surprisingly outrebounded the Blazers by +3.5 per game and hit the offensive glass well (29% Off. Reb Pct.). Spurs were once again a top-notch defensive rebounding unit this year(4th-best), so highly doubt Suns will do as much damage on the off. glass as they did vs. Blazers.

The Suns could not protect their defensive glass in the reg. season (only G-State was worse). Though, the Suns might not be exposed as much as one would expect since the Spurs are adamant about getting back on defense vs. the Suns.

Actually, the poor defensive rebounding really drives down the Suns' overall effectiveness on the defensive end. During the reg. season, Phoenix held their opponents to a respectable 45% from the floor (same as Spurs). A huge key in this series could be if the Suns can protect their defensive glass like they did in the first round or do they revert back to reg. season levels.

Phoenix has been playing better defense the last few months, but with Robin Lopez likely questionable for the series, there is no doubt the Suns' defense is rather suspect.

The Suns did hold the Blazers to only 43% shooting for the series. Thought the Suns doubled & scrambled effectively and were impressive in stretches, especially Hill.

But it's difficult to gauge the true quality of the Suns' defensive chops considering they were playing a limited Blazers team. When Andre Miller is forced to be a key scoring option, your offense is bound to struggle vs. any defense.

The Blazers came close to forcing a seventh game with LaMarcus Aldridge as their primary frontcourt option and Andre Miller as their primary perimeter option. The Spurs have Duncan as their primary frontcourt option and Manu on the perimeter. Kind of an upgrade.

The one thing that gives us pause about picking the Spurs has to be Manu's nose. How much will this injury curtail his game? Don't think it will hamper his activity but a mask might hinder his sightlines.

Have more faith in the Spurs imposing their defensive objectives on the Suns' offense than the Suns' defense doing the same to the Spurs. Though, if Lopez goes, this gap narrows between the defenses.

Spurs are very capable of taking a game on the road, two games if needed. Just dispatched a Mavs team that probably matches up better with them than Suns. Basically, the Spurs remain a bad matchup for the Suns. We're picking SPURS IN 6.