NBA Four Quarters: Second Round (05/05/17)
On paper, this is the best series of the second round. Forget this is the first time a Gregg Popovich coached Spurs team has met the Rockets in a playoff series. Forget that the Spurs and Rockets finished second and third, respectively, in the league in wins. This is the series of the midrange jumper. In the regular season, San Antonio shot just under 30% of its shots from midrange, while Houston shot just a hair over 8% of its shots from there. Led by midrange stalwarts Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs shot a top ten clip of 41.8% from midrange. Meanwhile, Houston was the best in the league at defending the midrange, holding opponents to 37.0% shooting. The midrange can tell us a lot about the see-saw nature of this series. In game one, Houston shot only 5.7% of its shots in that range while holding the Spurs to 27.3% shooting on 22 midrange shots – Houston won by 27 points. In game two, San Antonio boosted their midrange field goal percentage all the way up to 46.2% while forcing the Rockets to take 8.4% of their shots from the midrange – San Antonio won by 25. The battle for control of this series is happening in the midrange.
-14. -13. -22. In the mid-2000s you might have guessed those numbers were Tiger Woods' running strokes under par entering Sunday. In May 2017, those numbers are the first quarter deficits for the Celtics in each of the first three games, respectively. Two questions immediately come to mind: 'how are the Celtics getting down so big?' and ‘how are the Celtics up 2-1 in the series?' The answer to the first question is two-pronged. Washington is shooting the lights out and Boston is turning the ball over way too much. The Wiz are shooting 70% (!) on threes, knocking in almost five each first quarter. Washington was the best first quarter three-point shooting team in the regular season at 42.7%, well below the figure in this series. As for the turnovers, while the Wizards did force four turnovers per first quarter, the Celtics averaged only 3.4 turnovers in the first in the regular season, a far cry from the six they are averaging this series. Neither of these trends figure to continue, expect closer first quarters going forward.
The answer to the second question is one of extenuating circumstances. Entering game one, Washington had yet to lose a game in which they led by more than 15 points. They led by 17 points on Sunday afternoon and then Markieff Morris left the game with a nasty looking ankle injury, leaving behind an irreplaceable hole in the Wizards lineup, which the Celtics exploited for an unprecedented victory. In an emotional game two, Isaiah Thomas poured in 53 points and simply would not let Boston lose. The basketball gods made sure Bradley Beal didn't knock down the open buzzer-beater to end regulation, preventing Washington from derailing Thomas' incredible performance on the night his late sister would have turned 23 years old. A question still lingering in the background of this series: will/can one of these teams win on the other's home floor?
An argument could be made that Utah and Golden State strive for the same style of play: egalitarian ball movement and tough/versatile defense. Both teams accomplished the latter this season, finishing with the second and third most efficient defenses in the regular season. With respect to the former, the difference is that Golden State has far superior talent, allowing them not only to play more efficiently but also faster on offense. According to InPredictable.com, the Warriors use the least amount of clock per possession while the Jazz use the second most. The major separator? Transition. The Warriors are the league's most prolific fastbreaking team. In game one, the Warriors put up 29 fastbreak points. As a counter, in game two, the Jazz deployed a strategy they tried in the regular season – taking fouls in the backcourt to stop transition in its tracks. It worked to a certain degree, Utah held Golden State to just 19 fastbreak points the second time around. Fouling of this kind has the added benefit of forcing the Warriors to face a set defense. Even with the sixth best offense in the half-court this season, Golden State managed just 1.08 points per possession, a manageable number if you consider the Jazz had the second-best half-court defense. Tilting the flow of the game to the half-court is the only chance Utah has to comeback in this series.
There's not much to say about this series. Cleveland is clowning Toronto. At no point in time have the Cavaliers been even remotely in danger of losing. Raptor fans need some glimmer of hope that this series is not headed for another Cleveland sweep. First of all, in the current stretch of consecutive playoff appearances under Coach Dwayne Casey, the Raptors have been terrible on the road, amassing a 5-14 record with a -11.37-point differential. Playoff losses on the road for the Raptors are to be expected. Since this series smells a lot like last year's Eastern Conference Finals, Raptor fans can also take solace in knowing that they lost the first two games in this series by 17 less combined points than they lost the first two games last season. That's the best I could come up with Raptor fans, be happy that I withheld all the disturbing trends pointing towards Toronto's demise.