NBA Four Quarters (11/11/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz
Each week I try to bring you my humble opinions about the game of basketball, guided by the streams of insight or intrigue that capture my curiosity, leading to a seemingly random flow from topic to topic. With the NBA season humming along and college basketball tipping off this weekend, it is time to settle in for the long, wonderful season ahead with some semblance of order in these words. Therefore, each week I will bring you four topics - drawn primarily from the NBA season - with some recurring segments putting a thread line through week to week. I'm calling it Four Quarters (this is the name and we're not gonna change it).

Doug Collins says the 1st quarter is the most important

If you watch the NBA on ESPN, you are familiar with Doug Collins the studio analyst/color commentator. Collins is fond of saying that the first quarter is the most critical to the outcome of a game. Nearly three weeks into the NBA season, it sure looks like Collins has a solid point here. Through Thursday November 10, a total of 120 games have been played. Of the 120 first quarters played, 107 have concluded with one team ahead – there have been 13 ties after one quarter. The teams that has won the first quarter have a record of 75-32, good for a 70% winning percentage or the equivalent of a 57-win regular season team. The most successful teams with a first quarter lead thus far are Chicago, Cleveland, and Golden State – each 5-0 in such games.

Perhaps the best case for the Collins' first quarter theory is the Boston Celtics. Each of Boston's seven games has been decided by the first quarter. Boston has held first quarter leads as high as 11 points and deficits as large as 26. With the exception of the opener against Brooklyn, the final score has been within the margin of the first quarter, meaning one team digs a hole in the first 12 minutes and spends the final 36 trying to climb out of it. As we will see in a moment, that first quarter hole is hardly insurmountable, even if stacked double digits high.

Off the Bench

Whenever the Lakers are on national TV, which is often, the broadcast inevitably makes a point of their league-leading bench scoring. The Lakers benefit from 48.8 points per game from their bench, over three points higher than the next closest team: Brooklyn. However, they also average the second highest amount of bench minutes per game. Head Coach Luke Walton utilizes a strategy common throughout the league, including his alma matter Golden State – some starters don't finish the game and often play a single stint each half. As such, many of the points per game figures from benches throughout the league are inflated due to high utilization. However, there are two under the radar bench units crushing this season that I want to highlight here – those being in Atlanta and Charlotte.

The Hawks' bench has scored the 7th most points on only the 16th most minutes per game. Make no mistake, the Hawks have leaned on their bench en route to a hot 6-2 start. Atlanta's starting lineup has struggled to get in synch, posting -10.4 net points per 100 possessions. Their two most heavily used primarily bench units have completely annihilated teams, albeit admittedly in short minutes, in completely different manners. With Paul Millsap and four bench players on the floor, Atlanta is +36.4 per 100 possessions. Forcing turnovers and getting to the foul line at rates remarkably above the starters, this Hawks unit is creating great shots to the tune of a 70% effective field goal percentage. The other notable bench unit, with Dwight Howard as the only starter on the floor, is a whopping +50.7 per 100 possessions, holding teams to an absurd 50.7 points per 100 possessions. Controlling the glass and the free throw line is the means to success for this lineup, which has yet to allow an offensive rebound. These performances will not hold over the season, but their bench is showing fight that I certainly did not expect.

The other overlooked bench unit is in Charlotte. They are 6-1, tied with Cleveland atop the Eastern Conference, and the bench is a big reason why. The starting lineup is playing exceptionally well, but the most prominently used bench lineup in Charlotte, with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as the only holdover from the starting lineup, is performing nearly identically to the starters. Each unit is beating opponents by over 1.2 points each possession, executing the Charlotte brand of possession dominance by controlling the defensive glass and taking care of the ball. The Celtics may be the darlings of the East in terms of depth, but Atlanta and Charlotte have each shown early on that there are other bench units that can play in that conference.

Collapsing with Wolves

There were a lot of bold predictions being thrown out about the Minnesota Timberwolves this preseason, but I don't think anyone could have predicted what has happened so far this season. Somehow, the Wolves have managed to be the one of the best first quarter teams and the vey worst third quarter team simultaneously, which is curious because the same starters are playing the majority of each of these quarters, at least in theory. Take a look at the contrast in performance between their first and third quarters in the table below.

It is almost like a completely different team comes out to play in the second half. In some ways it is, which may be getting at the root of the problem. One of the major challenges for any new coach is managing playing time and rotations. There has been no consistency in the starters' minutes from game to game or between the first and third quarters. Most notably, Coach Tom Thibodeau has shown a quick hook with Gorgui Dieng in the second half, pulling him as early as two minutes into the third quarter after playing nearly the entire first quarter in the same game. Certainly the injury to Ricky Rubio has complicated matters considerably, but the Wolves desperately need to find a rhythm if they are to correct their woes early on and make a push for the playoffs.

Late Game Heroics

I will leave you with a collection of key moments in the clutch from the young season including a buzzer beater, dagger threes, and one incredible sideline out of bounds play. Enjoy!