Monday, April 18, 2011

NBA Playoffs: Nights One and Two

Now that a full weekend of playoff basketball is in the books, and every series has seen at least one game played, let's look back at the first weekend of the NBA playoffs.  Each series has played Game One, and Game Two for half of the series is tonight--the other half play tomorrow.  Though the results of the first game in a best-of-seven series do not necessarily foreshadow the remaining three to seven games, key trends start to develop and key players begin to emerge as difference makers. So with that in mind, let's take a look back at the first weekend of games, and we'll identify a stat line of each game as well.
(Home teams in caps)

Eastern Conference

Indiana Pacers (8) vs, Chicago Bulls (1)
4/16: Game One--BULLS 104, Pacers 99 (1-0, Chicago)
The stat line of the game goes (surprise, surprise) to Derrick Rose.  As impressive as his overall line was (36 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks), Rose came up huge at the free throw line, going 19-21 for the game.  Rose hit all five of his free throws in the final 4:52 of the game.  His biggest of all came with 14 seconds remaining; Rose hit a pair to put the Bulls up five, make it a two-possession game, and essentially ice Game One for Chicago.  It must have been a scary game for Bulls fans, as they entered the fourth quarter down by eight, and they were down by ten with 3:38 remaining.  Chicago ended the game on 16-1 run that included seven points, two assists, a rebound, and three free throws from the "new Michael Jordan."

Philadelphia 76ers (7) @ Miami Heat (2)
4/16: Game One--HEAT 97, 76ers 89 (1-0, Miami)
LeBron & Co. were just too much
for the 76ers on Saturday night
The stat line of this game goes not to a player, but to the Miami Heat as a whole, for their free throw shooting.  The Heat shot 31-39 from the charity stripe on Saturday, which is a 79.5% clip.  As impressive as their percentage is, the fact that the Heat shot 39 total free throws gives them the stat of the game--and it's a trend the 76ers need to reverse if they want to have a shot in this series.  The Heat shot 76.0% from the line during the regular season, which puts them in the top half of the league; however, in games in which the Heat shot 30 or more free throws, they compiled a 23-7 record.  That .767 clip easily outpaces their .707 season winning percentage, meaning that the Heat are more dangerous when they get to the line frequently.  Not only did Miami get to the line with ease on Saturday night, but Philly also struggled to do so.  LeBron James took almost as many free throws (14) and the entire Sixers team (15), and Chris Bosh contributed 11 more.  That disparity from the free throw line allowed the Heat to overcome a 10-point Philadelphia advantage on points in the paint, and it means the Sixers are in trouble if they can't slow down LeBron & Co.

New York Knicks (6) @ Boston Celtics (3)
4/17: Game One--CELTICS 87, Knicks 85 (1-0, Boston)
Full disclosure: as a Knicks fan, this was one of the most painful endings I've experienced in a long time.  Not only the fact that the C's came back in the final minute--all while looking like the most battle-tested team--on the Knicks surprisngly-decent defense, but also that Toney Douglas was tripped trying to defend Ray Allen on the game-winning shot--but no call.  My bitterness aside, the stat line of the night goes to Amare Stoudemire.  In his first meaningful game action in almost two weeks, the Knicks' superstar turned a phenomenal performance.  He scored 28 points on 12-18 shooting (66.7%) from the floor, and he pulled down 11 boards; he even blocked two shots against the Celtics' big front line.  Stoudemire was at his best in the fourth quarter, too.  He scored 12 points and grabbed 4 rebounds in the final period, all while Carmelo Anthony was in the midst of a poor shooting night (5-18, 15 points).  Amare even turned up the intensity on the defensive end, limiting Kevin Garnett to 5-14 shooting in 34 minutes.  If the rest of the Knicks can turn up their defensive intensity, as well, maybe the 'Bockers will have a fighting chance in this series.

Atlanta Hawks (5) @ Orlando Magic (4)
4/16: Game One--Hawks 103, MAGIC 93 (1-0, Atlanta)
This game, to me, had the most surprising result of any during the first weekend--not because the Hawks won, but because the game was never really close.  Atlanta led by 14 entering the fourth quarter, and their lead was never less than eight in the final period.  However, the biggest surprise to the basketball world was probably the performance of Dwight Howard.  He had easily the best individual stat line of the first weekend, with 46 points on 69.6% shooting from the floor and 22 shots from the charity stripe.  Howard also got 19 rebounds and a block in 46 minutes for the Magic.  However, what I find interesting about this game is not just how dominant Howard was in the paint, but also how absent his supporting cast was all game.  Besides Howard and Jameer Nelson, the rest of the Magic combined for 20 points on 8-34 shooting and only four free throw attempts.  The Hawks, by contrast, had five players in double-figures, with the rest of the team taking only eight shots.  Both teams centralized production in the hands of a few players, but the Magic ended up centralizing production too far (in Superman and his sidekick), and they lost at home as a result.

Western Conference

Memphis Grizzles (8) @ San Antonio Spurs (1)
4/17: Game One--Grizzlies 101, SPURS 98 (1-0, Memphis)
Randolph was just too big
for the Spurs to handle on Sunday
In a weekend that saw three upsets, the Grizzlies defeating the top-seeded Spurs was by far the biggest one.  Only once has an eighth seeded team upset a number one seed in an entire series, and that series was only best-of-five.  Obviously Memphis has a long way to go to topple the Spurs entirely, but they took a big step by beating them in San Antonio for the franchise's first ever postseason win.  Though the Grizz barely eked out a three-point victory, how they did so is eminently clear from looking at the boxscore.  The key to yesterday's game was the performance of each team's front line, with Memphis dominating San Antonio all night long.  The Spurs' Antonio McDyess and future hall-of-famer Tim Duncan had an underwhelming night, combining for only 18 points, 14 rebounds, and 2 blocks.  They took only four free throws the entire night, making just one.  Memphis, on the other hand, got a combined 49 points (on 76% shooting), 23 rebounds, and 4 blocks from Zach Randolph (see above) and Marc Gasol.  The Grizzlies' pair of big-men took 18 shots from the charity stripe, keeping McDyess in foul trouble all game.  Memphis even rewarded Randolph for his big performance, signing him to a four-year contract extension after the game.  Though it was only one game, maybe the Grizzlies are finally learning what works and are going to stick with it.

New Orleans Hornets (7) @ Los Angeles Lakers (2)
4/17: Game One--Hornets 109, LAKERS 100 (1-0, New Orleans)
Like in so many other Hornets wins, the stat line of the game has to go to Chris Paul.  By our estimation, Paul is the best point guard in the NBA, and he played like it in Game One in Los Angeles.  He poured in 33 points on 11-18 shooting, as well as 14 assists, 7 rebounds, and 4 steals.  Paul only turned the ball over twice in the entire game, giving him 7 assists/turnover on the day.  He ended up with assists on more than a third of all Hornets field goals, and he shot 9-12 from the free throw line.  An honorable mention for stat line of the game goes to Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who had a team-worst -15 +/- in only 26 minutes of play.  Though the rest of his numbers were solid (13 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks), Bynum's presence on the floor was clearly a drain on his Lakers teammates as they were dealt a Game One upset.

Portland Trailblazers (6) @ Dallas Mavericks (3)
4/16: Game One--MAVERICKS 89, Trailblazers 81 (1-0, Dallas)
Just like in the Bulls-Pacers game, this one between the Mavs and the Blazers came down to free throws.  Though (had Portland been able to pull it out) this would not have been as big an upset as Chicago losing would have been, the huge free throw totals on the winning side generated more controversy.  In his postgame press conference, Trailblazers coach Nate McMillan complained about the officiating in the fourth quarter of Saturday's loss in Dallas.  he argued that something was fishy when the Mavericks shot 19 free throws in the fourth quarter while his Blazers shot only two.  Dirk Nowitzki was sent to the line 13 times in the final period, compared to Portland's 13 free throws all game.  I'm not saying that McMillan has a legitimate gripe with the officials, but he does bring up a cool statistical anomaly.  During the first three quarters, the Blazers actually shot one more free throw than the Mavericks did (11 to 10).  But in the fourth quarter, Dallas exploded to almost triple their total for the game, helping them to a close win in the first game of what should be a close series.

Denver Nuggets (5) @ Oklahoma City Thunder (4)
4/17: Game One--THUNDER 107, Nuggets 103 (1-0, Oklahoma City)
In scratching out a close win over the Nuggets in Game One, Oklahoma City needed every point it could get from the dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  The two of them were absolutely prolific for the Thunder, which is why they get the stat line of the game for Game One.  The pair combined for 67.3% of the Thunder's scoring for the game, and they did so by shooting 55.6% from the floor.  They also hit six of 10 attempts from behind the arc and a tidy 80% of their free throws.  Though Westbrook and Durant had the ball in their hands most of the night for the Thunder, the duo was incredibly efficient as well.  They came up particularly big in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 of the Thunder's last 15 points as they held off a run from the scrappy Nuggets.  Durant had the biggest night of all for the Thunder, with 41 points and 9 rebounds on only 22 shots.  In the preview of this series, I predicted that Durant's scoring dominance against the Nuggets would be the difference in such a close matchup--and so far that has held true.

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