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Chaos breeds success for Heat

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Miami won Game 4 at Indiana on Sunday for a ton of reasons. Among them:

• LeBron James and Dwayne Wade played to the level of the two best players in the league, and beyond.

• Simultaneous foul trouble to power forward David West and center Roy Hibbert made the Pacers easier to guard on offense and far less intimidating on defense. Those foul issues also forced coach Frank Vogel to deal with several rotation-related dilemmas at once, including how long to sit his big men and whether/when he should use a small lineup with only one of the Tyler Hansbrough/Lou Amundson backup duo that has been shaky all season.

• Late in the game, the Heat leaned on a nicely designed pick-and-pop play involving Udonis Haslem as the screener and designated shooter. The play is simple at its core and at times can reduce James or Wade to spectator status, but coach Erik Spoelstra and his staff deserve credit for tweaking the set in two ways that made it more effective.

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  • Published On 1:55pm, May 21, 2012
  • Spurs schooling Clippers’ young big men

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    The Spurs-Clippers series has been a story of stability for one team and 180-degree change for another.

    San Antonio is doing to Los Angeles what it has done to the entire league since the halfway point of the regular season. The Spurs are 27-2 in their last 29 games (including 6-0 in the playoffs), with one loss coming when Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan all sat. Going into the playoffs, they had outscored their last 30 opponents by about 16 points per 100 possessions, nearly double the NBA’s best overall rate, behind a league-best offense and a surging defense playing at a top-five level.

    So, yeah: More of the same for them.

    The Clippers, meanwhile, have gone from a seven-game series against a team (Memphis) that attempted the third-fewest three-pointers in the league to an ongoing massacre against a Spurs team that nearly cracked 40 percent from deep in a poor-shooting lockout season and spaces the floor better than anyone. The Clippers showed real grit and improvement on defense in the first round against the Grizzlies. Their bench players, especially guard Eric Bledsoe and forwards Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans, made a huge difference defensively, and Blake Griffin flashed some pretty zippy rotations amid general up-and-down play.

    But the court against the Grizzlies was cramped. The Clippers could go under high screens for Mike Conley and Rudy Gay. They could play off Tony Allen or Quincy Pondexter on the wing, allowing for more help inside. And though Grizzlies big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are beasts, there isn’t a huge amount of space between them in the offense. Los Angeles players didn’t have all that much distance to cover, or that many complex decisions to make, against a so-so Grizzlies offense.

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  • Published On 1:39pm, May 18, 2012
  • The rise, again, of Kevin Garnett

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    Almost 36, Kevin Garnett is averaging a Player Efficiency Rating of 25.6 this postseason. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

    The 2007-08 Celtics were worthy champions, and the following year, they were juggernauts. Boston began the season 27-2 and stood as favorites to repeat until a late February game in Utah, when Kevin Garnett leapt for an alley-oop, came up short and landed favoring his right leg. He suffered a strange knee injury, one that combined sudden trauma with years of accumulated abuse.

    Garnett has never been the same since. Having a star suffer an injury like this is part of the risk a team takes in building around aging core players. Attached to that risk is the reality that the healthy core players get older and less dynamic as the injured one recovers. The Celtics in February 2009 stood as the league’s best defensive team and one of its seven or eight best offensive teams. They had a huge margin for error. They needed relatively little luck or favorable matchups in their pursuit of a second title.

    The margin for error shrunk dramatically on that February night and has kept shrinking since. The Celtics, like most teams, are going to need luck and some matchup breaks in order to win four playoff series in a row. Since that 2008-09 season, the question going into every Celtics game and playoff series has been: Can this team squeeze out enough offense, somehow, in order to allow its all-world defense to carry them across the finish line? Boston ranked fifth in points per possession in 2008-09. Their season-by-season rankings since: 15th, 18th, and this season, an ugly 25th.

    And so Boston enters every seven-game slog trying to manufacture just enough points so that the equation tips its way. Boston knows its defense is going to be there each night, built on the back of Garnett, one of the half-dozen best defenders in NBA history, and via the brilliant basketball minds of coaches in Boston, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere. Every series, we see the Celtics look at names of the big men on the opposing rosters and ask themselves: “Do the matchups allow for Kevin to give us eight or 10 or 12 points in the post every night?” Because with a defense like this, that’s all it takes — an extra half-dozen points wrung from some advantage in height, bulk, speed or ferocity Garnett happens to have against a particular opponent. Read More…

  • Published On 3:22pm, May 17, 2012
  • Thunder rise in clutch while Lakers wilt

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    It will be tempting to reduce the Lakers’ crushing Game 2 loss in Oklahoma City on Wednesday to one superstar failing in the clutch while another succeeded. And while that is what happened in a very basic sense, that is also not what happened at all. It is true that Kobe Bryant, a practitioner of hero ball and crunch-time ball hog extraordinaire, went 0-of-4 in the last five minutes of the game, missed two shots in the last 60 seconds, coughed up a horrendous game-changing turnover to Kevin Durant and inexplicably waited more than six seconds for Thabo Sefolosha to intentionally foul as the game ticked away. And it’s true that Durant snagged that steal-and-dunk and nailed a high degree-of-difficulty floater to win the game — his second such game-winner of the playoffs already.

    But as is always the case in basketball, the story is more complicated in ways that matter for our interpretation of the game and hint at the development of this Thunder team into a more dangerous animal. Let’s start with Kobe, since everything “clutch” must start with Kobe or LeBron James.

    On the surface, Bryant’s last two misses were classic Kobe ill-advised shots — low-percentage prayers taken in isolation against defenses geared up to stop them. But look again at Bryant’s miss with one minute to go:

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  • Published On 11:59am, May 17, 2012
  • LeBron James tentative in crunch time, but Heat’s offensive woes run deeper

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    The criticism of MVP LeBron James for his play down the stretch of Miami’s 78-75 Game 2 loss to Indiana on Tuesday will be much louder than the barbs aimed at Dwyane Wade, who shot 1-of-5 in the last 3:30 of the fourth quarter and missed one of his two free-throw attempts.

    It is slightly inaccurate, though, to suggest that James shied away from the ball for the entirety of crunch time. He took a three-pointer with 3:35 to go and attempted a driving layup — snuffed out brilliantly by the Pacers’ Paul George — with less than 90 seconds remaining. He crashed the offensive glass hard on three of those Wade misses. A player who wishes to hide does not chase offensive rebounds, especially when grabbing them often leads to free throws.

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  • Published On 12:07pm, May 16, 2012
  • Biggest question for Spurs in Round 2

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    Spurs coach Gregg Popovich probably won’t make Tim Duncan defend Blake Griffin full-time. (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)

    We’ve already got a bang-up preview of the Spurs-Clippers series that begins tonight, and I’ve already given my quick-hitting prediction: Spurs in five. That prediction is based on the idea that the Clippers’ defense, merely average in the regular season, won’t be able to limit the Spurs’ league-best offense enough to win four times in seven tries. The Spurs lit up the Clippers in three regular-season games, scoring nearly 113 points per 100 possessions — about 4.5 points better than San Antonio’s overall mark — and shooting 44 percent from three-point range on nearly 25 attempts per game.

    The Clippers struggled to defend the three all season, and their big men are shaky against the pick-and-roll — a deadly combination of flaws against a San Antonio team that, unlike the Grizzlies, does not offer a poor shooter or two off of which the Clippers can help.

    That said, the Spurs’ status as big favorites here come with a few caveats:

    • The Clippers scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions against the Spurs, a mark that would have nearly led the league, and they would have taken two of three meetings with San Antonio if not for a semi-miraculous Gary Neal game-tying three-pointer. The Spurs, surprisingly, ranked as one of the league’s worst teams at defending the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports. They ranked dead last in points allowed per possession on pick-and-rolls in which the ball-handler finished the play, and the Clippers have a pretty decent point guard–provided Chris Paul’s groin allows him to be something close to the usual Chris Paul. For the season, about 15.9 percent of San Antonio possessions ended via a pick-and-roll ball-handler finishing the play, the largest figure for any playoff team, per Synergy.

    That probably says at least a little bit about how the Spurs prioritize defending various shot types over others, but it also suggests Paul could feast on open mid-range shots and driving lanes.

    • The Clippers’ defense improved as the season went on and played well against the Grizzlies in the first round. That is partly due to a few bench players (Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Eric Bledsoe) combining for more minutes, but Blake Griffin’s rotations were also a bit zippier during some of the higher-leverage moments of the Memphis series.

    • The Clippers’ other huge defensive weakness — a tendency to foul everything in sight — is not something the Spurs are especially good at exploiting. San Antonio ranked a bit below average in earning free throws, though we might see Evans knock Tony Parker beyond mid-court with a hip-check on a pick-and-roll at some point in this series. Read More…

  • Published On 3:17pm, May 15, 2012
  • Biggest misconception about Boston; more on wild Sixers-Celtics Game 2

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    Paul Pierce has produced very little, the Celtics rare get to the line and they often turn over the ball. (AP)

    All sorts of crazy things happened in the last five minutes or so of Philadelphia’s huge Game 2 win in Boston on Monday, and I’ll get to them in a second. But first let me say this: I am astonished on a daily basis by how many fans, both in Boston and elsewhere, think the Celtics are a good offensive team, and are thus surprised they have struggled to score against the Hawks and the Sixers. The misunderstanding seems to come from the fact that a) Boston has very famous players on its team; and b) the Celtics rank fifth overall in field-goal percentage and eighth in three-point percentage.

    So let me put this as clearly as I can: The Celtics are a bad offensive team. They were so-so last season and in 2009-10, and have been in continuing decline on offense for three seasons now. It’s wonderful that they shoot with great accuracy, especially from three-point range, but accurate shooting does not alone make a team good at scoring points. Field-goal percentage is no way to judge offense. It does not account for how many shots a team generates, how often it gets to the foul line and what sorts of shots it attempts. And in news that broke three years ago, this is where Boston fails.

    The Celtics get to the foul line at a below-average rate, meaning they don’t generate many of the game’s easiest points. Only six teams attempted fewer three-pointers than Boston, rendering the Celtics’ very nice accuracy from that range not-so-meaningful. No team in NBA history has ever rebounded fewer of its own misses, which is a fancy way of saying Boston — mostly by choice — gets almost no second-chance points via offensive rebounds.

    And for the fifth straight season, the Celtics have been among the league’s worst teams at turning over the ball. The result: Boston ranked 25th in points per possession, in a virtual tie with the Wizards. Toss in some serious health issues, and no one should be surprised Boston is playing low-scoring slugfests against a Philly defense that was neck-and-neck all season with Boston and Chicago atop the points-allowed-per-possession rankings. Read More…

  • Published On 12:20pm, May 15, 2012
  • OKC exploits Andrew Bynum’s weakness

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    A few key differences separate Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, who is fancied during happy times as the Magic center’s potential equal. But one general disparity is this: No opponent game-plans around exploiting a Howard weakness on defense like it does with Bynum.

    For the second straight postseason, a Lakers opponent armed with an elite mid-range shooter — the Thunder this season, the Hornets last season — designed much of its offense around the idea that it could produce relatively easy mid-range shots by attacking Bynum on various pick plays. The Thunder were confident that Bynum would hang back rather than step out to challenge Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and that both players — especially Durant — could get clean looks from 15 feet.

    The mid-range shot is the worst shot in basketball, a low-percentage attempt that produces few free throws or offensive rebounds. Most teams that shoot a lot of them are bad offensive teams. But it’s a shot every team must have in its arsenal, especially against an opponent like the Lakers, who have two elite wing defenders and two 7-footers capable of blocking everything at the rim.

    The Thunder are one of the few teams with the personnel to exploit this mid-range weakness in an efficient way. They have one deadly shooter (Durant), another star fast becoming deadly from that range (Westbrook) and a center — Bynum’s opposite number — who can serve as the final screener on lots of different play types. This stuff destroyed the Lakers their 119-90 loss in Game 1 on Monday. It resulted in some communication breakdowns and a few mid-stream strategy changes in the second half — the kind of defensive chaos that hurt the Lakers against Chris Paul and the Hornets last season and ultimately undid them amid a hail of wide-open shots against Dallas in the second round.

    The attack began right away, and, notably, it did not begin with a pick-and-roll:

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  • Published On 11:36am, May 15, 2012
  • How loss of Chris Bosh affects Heat

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    The nice thing about having three All-Star players is that you can get by against most teams without one of them, especially when your best All-Star is the most versatile player in the league. The Heat should overcome the Pacers in the second round without Chris Bosh, who is out indefinitely after straining an abdominal muscle in the second quarter of Miami’s 95-86 victory in Game 1 on Sunday. And if the power forward’s absence extends beyond that, the Bosh-less Heat would still be favored in the Eastern Conference finals against a Sixers team that is 1-11 against Miami over the last two seasons and a ferocious Celtics club dealing with its own health issues. The gap is smaller, though, and the chances for an upset against any of those three teams increase. The Heat may still reach the NBA Finals without Bosh in the worst-case scenario, but beating a team like the Spurs or Thunder would require Miami to be at full strength.

    Now, LeBron James will play huge minutes at power forward in “smaller” lineups that have done quite well this season, with and without Bosh. Counting only lineups that logged at least 10 minutes together in the regular season, the Heat used James at power forward for 376 minutes and outscored opponents by about 14.5 points per 100 possessions — a number that would have led the league by a long shot, according to Basketball Value. The two such units that recorded the most minutes did not feature Bosh, as the Heat often used James as power forward when one or both of the other stars rested.

    David West was unable to punish James in the post in Game 1, both because Miami makes it a chore just to enter the ball, and because LeBron is just as big and strong as the Pacers’ power forward. Miami’s move to sign Shane Battier and retain Mike Miller has it stocked with defenders capable of guarding small forward Danny Granger, sparing each of the LeBron/Battier/Miller trio the full-game burden. The Pacers were unwilling to go small/fast along with Miami on Sunday, forcing West into an awkward matchup on defense with Battier. That pulls West from the paint, opening driving lanes, and over the course of the series it will provide Battier some good looks as West scrambles around in an unfamiliar, perimeter-oriented assignment.

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  • Published On 11:30am, May 14, 2012
  • Court Vision: Latest news in the NBA

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    Carlos Boozer did not sound smart after he tanked in Game 6 against the Sixers. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago dissects another Carlos Boozer postseason disappointment and reports Boozer said this following Chicago’s loss Thursday in Philadelphia:

    “I thought I played well, especially with the kind of season it was,” Boozer said, when asked to assess his second season in Chicago. “We had the best record again in basketball, won our division again, had the top seed again, that’s all that matters, yo.”

    This quote is so off the wall, so ridiculous, that it’s almost hard to imagine any player actually saying it in this context. What is Boozer thinking? If this were baseball, we could imagine Boozer making a statistics-based argument about the random nature of the short series format, but this isn’t baseball, and the outcomes in the NBA are far less random. Perhaps Boozer is merely reflecting the ideology of his team and his coach, Tom Thibodeau, who clearly values regular-season games more highly than, say, Gregg Popovich. (Ironically, Popovich’s devaluing of the regular-season might be the main reason he edged out Thibodeau for Coach of the Year, an award meant to honor regular-season performance).

    In any case, Friedell has been with this Chicago team all season, and his take on Boozer’s future in Chicago is well worth your time.

    • More evidence the Knicks appear to have settled on Mike Woodson as their next coach: The New York Post reports James Dolan, New York’s owner, has asked Woodson to change agents, since Woodson’s current agency also represented Larry Brown during Brown’s ugly contract dispute a half-decade ago with the Knicks.

    • Kevin Arnovitz of with a wonderful of Clippers’ personnel chief Neil Olshey, a.k.a. the man that got Chris Paul. Read More…

  • Published On 3:43pm, May 11, 2012