ESPN Insider - Another round of semifinal questions (Hollinger)
Another round of semifinal questions
By John Hollinger
What a night. We got to see a tense, nail-biting defensive clash followed by a tense, nail-biting offensive clash. And in the end, the team down 3-1 wasn't the one we expected.
So with the defending champions on the ropes and the Eastern Conference champs looking suddenly vulnerable, it's time for another edition of four questions -- where I go around the league addressing one big question from each playoff series. Let's start at the top and work our way down:
What's up with San Antonio's defense?
The Gregg Popovich-era Spurs are perhaps the greatest defensive team of all time. San Antonio was No. 1 in the NBA in defensive efficiency for the fifth time in the past six years, and for the ninth year in a row the Spurs were in the top three in field-goal percentage defense.
So it's a little shocking to see them getting carved up on a nightly basis in the playoffs. One may recall that prior to the Dallas series, Sacramento had similar success attacking the Spurs at the offensive end, and the Kings were just the 11th-best offense in the league this year. In six games against the defending champs, the Kings averaged 106.7 points per 100 possessions, or nearly 10 more than San Antonio gave up during the regular season.
Things have gone from bad to worse against the Mavs. San Antonio is giving up a whopping 113.5 points per 100 possessions to Dallas thus far, making it virtually impossible for its offense to keep up. For comparison's sake, Phoenix led the NBA in Offensive Efficiency during the regular season with an average of 109.1. So the Mavs, offensively, have been playing like Phoenix on steroids.
Overall, the Spurs' playoff defensive efficiency mark ranks 12th -- the worst of any remaining team -- and a jaw-dropping 12.2 points worse than the Spurs fared in the regular season.
Breaking things down points to an obvious culprit: the Spurs are fouling like crazy. San Antonio's other defensive numbers -- shooting percentage, turnovers, rebounding and 3-pointers -- are worse than their regular-season averages, but not glaringly so. One might expect that against the superior competition in the postseason.
Then there are the free throws. San Antonio permitted only .298 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt in the regular season, the fourth-best rate in the regular season. That number has ballooned to .432 since the playoffs started -- the worst of any playoff team. While the postseason in general has been one big free-throw parade, no team has been affected nearly as much as San Antonio.
Of course, some of the credit for this has to go to the Mavs. By swapping out Adrian Griffin for Devin Harris, Avery Johnson has made it virtually impossible for San Antonio to use the lineup it normally employs. Centers Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed combined to play nearly 3,000 minutes in the regular season, but have been reduced to bystanders because there's nobody for them to guard.
Robert Horry was the latest victim, consigned to the second unit after Dirk Nowitzki repeatedly burned him at the start of Game 3, leading to the shocking sight of the Spurs breaking a crunch-time huddle and Big Shot Rob staying on the sidelines. (While we're at it, can we officially discard the soft label on Dirk now? Shaggy played 46 minutes on a sprained ankle, scored 28 points while missing only five shots, demanded the ball on the final two possessions of regulation, and calmly hit the game-tying free throws to send the game to overtime. What a wuss.)
Free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt (Regular season point guard leaders)
Player Team FTA/FGA
Devin Harris Mavericks 0.58
Steve Francis Magic/Knicks 0.54
Chauncey Billups Pistons 0.51
Andre Miller Nuggets 0.49
Chris Paul Hornets 0.49
With a much smaller Michael Finley now thrust into the role of San Antonio's second "big" man, the lanes to the basket suddenly look a lot more open. And Dallas, probably the best one-on-one team in basketball, has taken advantage. With Griffin out of the lineup, every key Mav except Jason Terry bettered the league average of 0.33 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt on the season -- most notably Harris, whose average of 0.58 was the best in the league among point guards.
So when the Spurs go back to the drawing board today to figure out how to salvage their season, they'll need to start at the defensive end. And in particular, they'll need to focus on how to end Dallas' free-throw dominance. Yes, some of it has to do with the way the games have been officiated, but mostly it's been because Dallas' penetrators repeatedly beat the Spurs off the dribble, and there's no longer enough size in the middle to deter them once they blow by. For San Antonio to defend its title, one of those two facts must change.
What's wrong with Ben Wallace?
This is why it's always best to put away a team when you have a chance. Detroit had the Cavs on the ropes in Game 3, but let them squirm off the hook. Now what looked like an easy cruise to the conference finals suddenly looks a lot more interesting. The Pistons find themselves in a best-of-three series, and Guaran-Sheed looks questionable for Game 5 thanks to a gimpy ankle.
While most of the Game 4 focus was on that Wallace, my eye was on the other one. Ben Wallace had his usual exceptional regular season, adding another Defensive Player of the Year trophy to his mantle, but Big Ben hasn't been chiming in as often in the postseason.
Sure, we're not expecting Wallace to become the focal point of the offense, but this is getting ridiculous. He's only averaging 3.3 points a night, and his averages of 33.3 percent from the field and 32.0 percent from the line are one reason the Pistons have had so much trouble scoring the past two games. Monday night he scored one point in 43 minutes, putting incredible pressure on Detroit's other players to make up for it. With 'Sheed limping and Chauncey Billups once again blanketed by Eric Snow, Detroit mustered a lame 73 points and missed a golden opportunity to take command.
Biggest playoff decliners in PER (Min. 150 minutes)
Player Team Season Playoffs Change
Carmelo Anthony Nuggets 22.08 11.06 -10.98
Zydrunas Ilgauskas Cavaliers 21.89 12.27 -9.62
Kobe Bryant Lakers 28.11 20.17 -7.94
Smush Parker Lakers 13.36 6.31 -7.05
Ben Wallace Pistons 17.52 10.81 -6.71
Overall, Wallace's postseason PER of 10.81 is a far cry from his regular-season mark of 17.52. A very far cry. As the chart shows, only four other players have seen their PER drop by as much in the playoffs. It's to Wallace's credit that one of them is his opposite number, Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. But Ilgauskas didn't enter this season with "win championship" as the No. 1 item on his to-do list, and even if Detroit survives the Cavs, Wallace isn't going to be able to check that item off unless his play improves significantly.
Unfortunately for Detroit, Wallace's struggles aren't the only a dilemma for the next month. Big Ben is a free agent after the season and the Pistons are expected to step up with a near-maximum contract. Wallace is 31 years old, however, and if these playoffs are part of a larger decline for Big Ben, then the Pistons are going to deeply regret giving him a $60 million to $70 million deal. While his performance over the past four seasons has been monotonously stable, one wonders if Wallace's playoff slump will make Joe Dumars a bit more hesitant to sign the check.
Where do the Nets go from here?
A quick answer would be "to the golf course," once the Heat finish disposing of them this evening. But the bigger picture is that New Jersey has two major weaknesses that prevent it from challenging the East's elite, despite owning a quartet of key players that can hang with any in basketball in Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson, Jason Kidd and Nenad Krstic.
Item No. 1, of course, is the bench. When Lawrence Frank turns to his second unit and asks for offense, all he gets back are empty stares. While role players like Jacque Vaughn and Lamond Murray have their uses, seeing them play so many minutes underscores how disappointing Rod Thorn's free agent hauls have been the past few years. It wasn't his fault that Shareef Abdur-Rahim didn't pass the physical, but beyond that it's been a steady diet of players like Rodney Rogers, Scott Padgett and Jeff McInnis, and those aren't guys who can put you over the top.
The second key item is more frontcourt help. Sorry, but if the loss of Clifford Robinson is a crisis from which you can't recover, then you probably didn't deserve to be taken seriously as a contender in the first place. New Jersey thought it had the answer this past offseason in Marc Jackson, but he was so unloved that the Nets discarded him for the pittance of Bostjan Nachbar. One answer could be in Europe: New Jersey owns the rights to promising 7-footer Mile Ilic, but there's no guarantee that he makes the trip across the pond this year.
Thorn has assets to play with -- two first-round picks and the rights to Ilic -- but he's in a tight spot in terms of the luxury tax, so this offseason will demand all of his creativity. He's shown in the past he's up to the task -- witness the trades that brought in Kidd, Carter, Jefferson and Jason Collins, and the drafting of Krstic with a late first-round pick. But New Jersey won't become a serious contender unless Thorn's secondary maneuvers -- the Padgetts and McInnises of the world -- start working out as well as his broad strokes.
Why are the Clippers scoring so easily?
Through four games, the one consistent theme in the Clippers-Suns series has been Phoenix's inability to stop L.A.'s offense. The Clippers are averaging 117.3 points per 100 possessions, a mind-blowing number that even Phoenix's vaunted offense is hard-pressed to match.
Based on the regular season, this is something of a shock. The Clippers ranked just 17th in the league in offensive efficiency, making the playoffs mostly on the strength of their eighth-rated defense. Phoenix, meanwhile, was a middle-of-the-pack defensive team, ranking 16th in defensive efficiency.
Sure, the Suns' defense was much worse after Kurt Thomas left the lineup, but in the first round they weren't exactly easy pickings. The Lakers' first-round offensive efficiency mark was just 103.74 against Phoenix, and in the regular season that L.A. team (eighth in OE) rated much better than the Suns' current opponents.
Similarly, the Clips gave no indication this was coming in Round 1. The Clips put up only 100.4 points per 100 possessions against Denver in the first round, even though the Nuggets were stuffing suitcases and calling for tee times during commercial breaks. Nonetheless, in Round 2 the Clippers have turned into an offensive dynamo. They're shooting 51.1 percent from the field, dominating the offensive glass, and rarely turning the ball over.
The Clippers' dominance on the offensive glass has been the main talking point, and certainly it's been a factor -- most notably in L.A.'s Game 2 rout. But for the series as a whole, L.A. has rebounded 31.5 percent of their misses -- a big total, but not one that should lead to such enormous numbers. Suns opponents grabbed 28.0 percent on the season, so we're talking about a fairly small difference -- only about two offensive boards a game, which we'd expect to lead to two extra points for L.A.
But the Clips aren't just two points better than their norm -- they're close to 15. Two other factors account for major chunks of the difference. First, turnovers. The Clips threw it away 17 times a game in the Nuggets series, but despite a much faster pace they're down to 13 per night against Phoenix. Both the Clippers' offense and the Suns' defense were around the league average for turnover rates, so we'd expect that to revert to normal fairly quickly.
Even so, that misses the lion's share of the difference. The biggest factor is the most obvious one -- the Clippers aren't missing any shots. Whether it's Elton Brand facing up from 15, Corey Maggette slashing from the wing, or Sam Cassell pulling up off the dribble, L.A.'s mundane method has been to drill one two-point basket after another and slowly beat the Suns into submission.
What can the Suns do about it? Certainly, they can't stop all three of those players, and that doesn't even account for secondary weapons like Cuttino Mobley and Vladimir Radmanovic. But Phoenix's problem right now isn't stopping all three of the Clippers' key scorers; it's that they aren't even stopping one of them. Brand is getting his nightly 30 and 10 even though Phoenix's double teams are leaving huge openings for the other Clippers, Cassell is taking it right at Steve Nash and shooting over him, and Maggette has plenty of room for his drives against a defense that's under siege.
Strategically, Phoenix can swarm Brand even harder and make the others beat them, or let Brand get his and focus on Cassell by putting Shawn Marion on him, or play zone to neutralize the two Dukies and try to make L.A. win on jumpers and second shots. Any of those developments would be an improvement, because thus far the Suns have done none of the above. If it doesn't change, the upstart Clips may steal the series from them.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. His book "Pro Basketball Forecast: 2005-06" is available at Amazon.com and Potomac Books. To e-mail him, click here.