Thursday, April 28, 2011

What Was Battier Thinking?, and Other Random NBA Playoffs Musings

What a couple weeks of NBA playoff basketball. With the Brandon Roy game and Wednesday's dramatic Game 5's and more, it's already been draining, and it's not even May yet. Great stuff. Here are a few random musings on a wild night of playoff basketball, and more:

1. Surprising Lack of Awareness from Shane Battier
A couple weeks ago Shane Battier experienced one of the greatest days of his life as he made a game-winning three-pointer in Game 1, and his wife also gave birth to a baby girl. Last night in Game 5, Battier - one of the smartest and most attentive-to-detail players I've ever seen - made a pair of out-of-character plays in which his lack of awareness kept the door open for the Spurs' miracle comeback.

On Gary Neal's game-tying three, Battier inexplicably stuck with Tim Duncan inside the arc, even though only a three could keep San Antonio alive, and even though he had a clear angle to contest and bother Neal. Battier should have been prioritizing the three-point line, and Neal, at all costs. (Battier is famously a numbers guy, but I wonder if the memory of Duncan's game-tying three against the Suns in Game 1 in 2008 made Battier overcompensate how much he stuck to Duncan, even though Timmy is just 3-19 on threes since his miracle.) The master, Sebastian Pruiti, broke down the video expertly on

On the previous Memphis possession, Battier was inbounding the ball in the frontcourt with the Grizz holding a 95-94 lead with 2.2 seconds left. O.J. Mayo ran all the way into the backcourt, but his defender, George Hill, stopped at halfcourt and turned back. If Battier had thrown back to Mayo successfully, I don't think San Antonio would have had time to foul him before time expired, and certainly would have had less than 1.7 seconds for its final play. It wasn't a cut-and-dried bad decision. There's certainly some risk associated in throwing into the backcourt, and Battier only looked at Mayo briefly, as a decoy. Still, the reward of passing to Mayo seemed to far outweigh the risk, and playing the odds like that is supposed to be a core strength of Battier's mental game. He is usually so sharp on these types of subtle plays that it was surprising to see the lapses.

Speaking of Battier, I was very surprised that Lionel Hollins - who has outcoached Gregg Popovich in the series with superior game-planning - stuck with Battier exclusively in the overtime period, at the expense of Sam Young, who was fantastic all night long, with 18 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and a block on 7-12 shooting, and also played disruptive defense in 32 minutes. Young played only the last eight seconds of OT, when the outcome had been decided.

Memphis is still in tremendous shape, going home for Game 6 after looking so good in Game 5 on the road. But they could be preparing for Game 1 vs. Oklahoma City right now.

2. Shutting Down San Antonio's Core Offense
I continue to be amazed at how well the Grizzlies defense is taking away what San Antonio prefers to do on offense, given that the numbers suggest these were team weaknesses during the season.

According to the detailed play-by-play breakdowns from Synergy Sports Technology, here are the three most-common play-types in the San Antonio offense in the regular season, with a look at what percentage of total offense each play type accounted for, how many points per possession (PPP) they scored on each play type, and where they ranked in PPP:
                 SPURS O    |   GRIZZ D
Spot Up 24.2% 1.08 3 | 1.01 22
Pick/Roll 21.3% 0.94 2 | 0.90 17
Transition 11.9% 1.19 8 | 1.17 20

Here is how San Antonio has fared in these categories against Memphis:
           PCT%     PPP
Spot Up 21.5% 0.82
Pick/Roll 26.5% 0.89
Transition 13.2% 0.83

The "Spot Up" numbers reflect how well the Grizzlies have shut down San Antonio's corner-three game. Zach Lowe expertly analyzed how that's happening last week.

I continue to marvel at how Memphis is denying San Antonio's transition game, as the steep drop in PPP illustrates. Early in the season, I wrote about San Antonio's transition game, emphasizing how Tony Parker's superlative finishing ability allowed him to convert fast breaks even when the numbers were against him, in 1-on-3 opportunities, for example. As the increase in percentage of offense shows, Memphis is not shutting down the Spurs' transition opportunities, they're just doing an incredible job of denying conversions. Against Parker in particular, my eyes have simply seen superior individual defensive plays in creating blocks or deflections or poke aways, by multiple players like Sam Young, Tony Allen, and Mike Conley.

It's just really amazing to me that the Grizzlies D is faring so well in areas where they struggled during the season. I know the numbers aren't iron-clad here, especially since the Memphis defense improved over the course of the season, but I'm still surprised.

3. Is Sam Presti the Real MVP?
With each passing game, the Oklahoma City Thunder look more and more like a legitimate threat to win the 2010-11 NBA championship. This isn't supposed to be happening. Their two best players are both 22 years old, and their likely next-best two players (James Harden and Serge Ibaka) are both 21. This isn't supposed to be happening.

In fact, if Oklahoma City manages to end up as the NBA champions, I'd argue that it would possibly rank as the best team-building job ever done by a general manager. Yes, Presti was fortunate to land Kevin Durant in the lottery, but beyond that, it's been a series of impeccable, brilliant decisions and moves which has rebuilt and positioned his franchise for championship contention far, far faster than expected. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Red Auerbach's work in acquiring both Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn way back in 1956 to jumpstart the Celtics dynasty, and also how he managed to put/steal together the Big 3 in 1980. (Note: I'm not the biggest Jerry West fan.)

It leads to this question I've been pondering: if you were starting a franchise, and you could have either any one player in the league, or Sam Presti, which would you take?

I would generally always take a player, and would probably still do so in this case, but I really have to think about it. It's a testament to the fact that Presti is, in my opinion, easily the best general manager in the league currently, and is already getting close to establishing himself as an all-time great.

4. Nene v Ibaka
Serge Ibaka's ninth block last night was an illustration of why I think NBA basketball is the best sport in the world. Thunder 98, Nuggets 97, 40 seconds left. Nene, a world-class athlete standing nearly seven-feet tall, goes up for a dunk. Serge Ibaka, another world-class athlete standing nearly seven-feet tall, meets and denies him, with the game in the balance. It's a breathtaking, exhilarating meeting of two superior athletes going mano-a-mano - a reminder that these playoffs feature the best athletes on the planet. It was one of my favorite plays of the entire postseason. Even though I knew Serge was good, and how much he's improved, he's still been the revelation of the playoffs for me: at 21, "Iblocka" looks like a no-brainer All-Star in the making. The Thunder are set.

Very early in the season, I wrote about how shoddy OKC's interior defense looked. Seems like a post from an entirely different era now. Perk and Serge seem like a perfectly complemented tandem to lock up the interior for years to come. (I also think there's potential in a buddy-cop spinoff titled "Perk 'n' Serge".)

5. I Love Watching Chris Paul Play Basketball
Switching to Lakers-Hornets, I just wanted to be on record with the above statement in case tonight is the end of the road for New Orleans. I think that Chris Paul had become the most underrated player in basketball by the end of the season, and a seriously underrated factor why was that the Hornets appeared on national television just twice all season - in February against the Clippers, and on the last night of the season vs. Dallas. Now we've all been reminded that, at his best, Paul is still the best point guard in basketball.

Make no mistake, Paul has been a better player in the playoffs (league-leading 32.9 PER) than in the regular season (23.8 PER). As much as I love the guy, I only had him on my All-NBA Third Team, partially because the competition was so tough at guard, and partially because Paul struggled in February when he appeared to be banged up, but also because there were too many games in which he wasn't assertive enough. Paul had the lowest usage rate of his career (21.1) during the season. He's up to 25.5 in the postseason, and I think it's a key factor why he's been so unbelievably good.

As a side note, here are the top six PERs of the playoffs so far:
1. Chris Paul, 32.9
2. LeBron James, 30.0
3. Kevin Durant, 29.7
4. Dwyane Wade, 27.8
5. Dwight Howard, 27.1
6. Derrick Rose, 25.7
The superstars have stepped up across the board, and it's been part of the reason these playoffs have been so great, so far.

6. Fisher & Blake Pick It Up On O
While the Lakers have been getting torched by Chris Paul, at least point guards Derek Fisher and Steve Blake have picked up their offensive play substantially. Fisher's PER has jumped from 8.9 in the season to 14.0 in the playoffs, while Blake has jumped from 7.5 to 15.1.

If it's spring, it must be time for Derek Fisher to find his playoffs Fountain of Youth once again. After shooting 39% FG and 40% 3PT on the season, he's up to 50%/63% so far, and has provided several key buckets. Twice in his career, he's been over 50% on threes in long playoff runs (2001/52%, 2003/62%), and his outside shooting was aberrantly good in last year's playoffs, too.

Blake, meanwhile, leads the entire league in playoff true shooting percentage (.857) and assist rate (57.1) in his admittedly small sample of 63 minutes of action.

On the flip side, Emeka Okafor's showing of 13 defensive rebounds in 157 minutes in the series (by contrast, Paul has 29 defensive boards in 207 minutes) is just killing the Hornets, who are getting pounded on the boards.

7. Just Say No to FIBA Goaltending Rules
In a recent interview with Dan LeBatard, David Stern said:
    "I'm going to urge the owners — and it's not very radical but we were talking about it for awhile — to adopt the international rule on basket interference. That is to say, once the ball hits the rim it's in play. Because I think that it's too hard to call. I think that we don't want to stop the game every time to see if it's the right call, but the camera that looks down on the basket can tell the story if the refs have gotten it right."
Count me as one who offers a strong dissent. I find there's some suspense in seeing a shot bounce in tantalizing fashion on the rim - will it drop, or will it fall away? With FIBA rules, it'll be too easy for NBA players to knock balls off the rim. I will accept the occasional human error inherent in this call, in favor of the greater drama of the current rule.

8. Just Say Yes to Crystal Thunderstix
I attended a game in New Orleans not too long ago, and with tonight possibly being the last home game of the season, I wanted to throw this in.... How pervasive is the influence of Crystal Hot Sauce in Louisiana? They even make Thunderstix out of them! While I'm usually decidedly against Thunderstix, I'm decidedly in favor of these:

Can't wait for more Playoffs. Just rooting for Game 7s everywhere.


At 11:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Definition of IMPECCABLE

1: not capable of sinning or liable to sin

2: free from fault or blame : flawless

Presti's drafts have been overall good but not impeccable. Green was a huge mistake; White, Mullens and Aldrich (and Pleiss) have so far added nothing. Selling the rights to Landry was not good and selling the rights to Kaun might not look good in th end. Harden has ok but maybe not better than Curry. Westbrook looks good now but what about 3 years from now? It might look even better or it could look worse in more ways than one.

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