Observation Deck (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 13, 2007 12:34PM; Updated: Tuesday March 13, 2007 2:56PM
Want to know why Houston is the best defensive team in the NBA? The Rockets never seem to allow teams a transition advantage. All season long, Jeff Van Gundy has employed Shane Battier as a one-man fast-break deterrent, much in the same way Jackson used to send Rick Fox into the backcourt on defense once a Lakers shot went up on the offensive end.
Because Battier has never been a strong rebounder (just 4.2 in 37 minutes per game this year, and that's not a result of this preventative practice taking away potential offensive rebounds), Van Gundy can afford to have him release early as an offensive possession dies down, turning what usually end up as 3-on-2 advantages for the other team into 3-on-3 stalemates. And "stalemate" probably isn't the best term -- the Rockets lead the NBA in overall defensive efficiency, so they usually come out on top in these sorts of things.
Now, this sort of technique hasn't really helped against the league's most efficient fast-break team -- your Phoenix Suns -- as the Rockets were blown out by the Suns on Monday night and have lost all three meetings with Phoenix this season. But things have been close: Monday was a three-possession game until the 10-minute mark in the fourth quarter, and the Rockets have more than held their own in the other two losses.
It cracks me up to see perimeter defenders continue to hang onto Cleveland's Sasha Pavlovic like he's the second coming of Steve Kerr. Cleveland has won five straight since moving Larry Hughes to point guard and Sasha to shooting guard, and though Pavlovic (a streaky outside shooter, at best) can't hit a thing from the field (30.5 percent over the run), he's still helping this team offensively.
Defenders refuse to leave him open on the perimeter, and I've noticed plays in each of Cleveland's five wins where the Cavs scored crucial buckets because of spacing Pavlovic created. Meanwhile, Hughes (17.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, six assists over the streak) has thrived, and Pavlovic continues to be treated like Downtown Fred Brown by defenders who have never heard of Downtown Fred Brown, but should really know by now that it's not a bad idea to stop Hughes and LeBron James from driving and let Pavlovic try to win the game by himself.
I know it seems as if every other one of these columns turns into a Brian Hill ripfest, but we've been watching this same pattern doom teams for years. His early Orlando squads, led by Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway, didn't just lose to better teams in the playoffs -- they lost to better teams that had half of Orlando's playbook memorized by halftime of the first game. This is why Hall of Fame-level coaches like Larry Brown (with Indiana, 1994), Rudy Tomjanovich (Houston, 1995) and Jackson (Chicago, 1996) made mincemeat of those Magic teams with playoff sweeps.
Revisionist history wants to lay the blame at the feet of the feuding superstars or Shaq's foibles at the free throw line. Though these issues didn't exactly help things, they don't lead to four-game sweeps, either. It appears as if the same stylistic issues are dooming this year's Magic: Hill had his team playing next-to-perfect basketball coming out of training camp, taking advantage of an league that usually takes six weeks to get its act together. But the team hasn't been able to think on its collective feet, offer up a new quirk or 10, and Orlando has fallen out of the playoff bracket as a result.
The Magic aren't really playing much worse than what we sawin November (although Jameer Nelson stunk it up pretty badly in February); it's just that the rest of the league has grown wise to the team's ways. And it's hard not to foster a dour outlook for a team in the playoff hunt that allows the Bobcats to score 119 points against it with just 17 games left to play.
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