NBA Four Quarters (05/19/17)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz

A whole lot of hoopla got made about a certain individual's feet and this individual's intent or non-intent as it related to Kawhi Leonard's ankle injury in the Western Conference Finals. With the incident itself garnering so much attention, its ramifications went under-scrutinized. The performance of the Spurs and the Warriors markedly changed after Leonard left in the third quarter of game one. In the table below I breakdown some relevant markers for each team before and after the injury (excluding the fourth quarter of game two which was entirely garbage time). A quick refresher on the terminology as we will likely use these as we progress further into the playoffs: Pts – points, Pos – possessions, SP – scoring possessions, simply a possession in which the team scored at least one point, PPP – points per possession, SP% - scoring possession percentage (also known as floor %), which is scoring possessions divided by possessions, and P/SP – points per scoring possession.

Clearly the absence of Kawhi Leonard hurt the Spurs substantially on both ends of the floor. Their massive decline offensively only narrowly edges their precipitous drop-off defensively. The change in points per possession on both ends after the injury nearly quadruples the gap between the best and worst marks in the regular season. More interestingly, the SP% and P/SP highlight the dramatic shift in the scoring behavior for both teams. San Antonio not only scored less frequently (about 10% fewer possessions) but also scored fewer points when they did manage to score on a given possession (they failed to make a three-pointer after Kawhi left in game one). The opposite was true for Golden State. For reference, last season's historically-great Warriors team posted a SP% just shy of 51% and scored 2.26 points per scoring possession en route to 73 wins. It is possible that the Warriors struggles before Kawhi was injured were related to rust, having not played in several days leading into game one. If and when Kawhi returns, we will see just how big his impact is because the Warriors are certainly not rusty any more.

As always, thanks to Dean Oliver and his book, Basketball on Paper, for properly introducing these evaluation tools.

3 Quick Thoughts About Cleveland-Boston

- It is pick your poison when you play LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. There are only so many ways you can defend what the Cavs do offensively and they can be broken into two camps: force LeBron to shoot or force LeBron to pass. Boston tried the former in game one, switching insistently the entire game no matter the matchup, or mismatch rather. The switching strategy accomplished its goal, LeBron spent large parts of the game dribbling the air out of the ball in isolation against a switched defender. However, LeBron also spent most of the night at the rim or the free throw line, pulverizing every Celtic defender. Coach Brad Stevens said after the game the Celtics would consider trapping James in the future but that opens a whole other can of worms. As we noted last week, the Cavs are one of, if not the best three-point shooting team in the league. Perhaps the Celtics will invent a new defensive strategy overnight in this series. A more fruitful strategy might be planning on how to mobilize the number one overall pick to nullify this LeBron-sized disadvantage.

-This is what I like to call a “grizzly” series (which I definitely did not make-up in the process of writing this article). Much like the grizzly bear hunts the most vulnerable prey (baby moose for example), these teams seek out the most advantageous mismatch and ruthlessly exploit it. Part of the success Cleveland had versus Boston's switching related to this tactic. LeBron James is a master at finding and destroying the weakest defender on the court. Kelly Olynyk, Gerald Green, etc. found out there is nowhere to hide versus the King. But the Celtics can give almost as good as they get, mercilessly involving Kyle Korver in ball screens with Isaiah Thomas the instant he steps on the court until he exits the game, for example. The focus on the “baby moose” defenders, if you will, is an interesting subplot to monitor.

-The offensive glass has always been friendly to Celtics' opponents. As is commonplace in the playoffs, Tristan Thompson grabbed six offensive rebounds and drew a number of loose ball fouls on top of that. The Celtics' defensive rebounding woes are at the point where Marcus Smart, a guard, is putting up the best fight against Thompson. On the flip side, secretly Boston grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, four of which came from rookie Jaylen Brown who also pitched in 10 points off the bench. Brown makes up a potentially potent athletic and skilled bench for Boston that along with more of Terry Rozier could pose serious problems for Cleveland when LeBron exits the game. Unfortunately, those minutes keep shrinking and shrinking as the playoffs wear on.