Sunday, May 19, 2013

2013 Playoffs: Conference Finals

Eastern Conference

(1) Miami Heat vs. (3) Indiana Pacers

This is a series of matchups. The Pacers are known for a bruising frontcourt, and they rank fourth in the league in offensive rebounding. Heat, meanwhile, are 24th in defensive rebounding, although it's been better after they signed Chris Anderson. This is their biggest weakness and the Pacers are the team to exploit it. The Heat somehow had a good defensive rating (103.7) despite their rebounding, and in fact most teams around their defensive rebound rate are poor defensive teams with the exception of the Celtics. With all the love of smallball lately, there is a reason that for decades and decades, after a whirlwind of changes in race integration to the introduction of the three-point line to hyper-athletic dunking, what has remained constant is height (the average height of the NBA player has not changed in a half-century.) Size is a significant deterrent in defense, and even with the aid of a sophisticated defense, quick feet, and fast hands, big men generally grant you more rebounds. And rebounds will always be valuable. Yes, James is a good enough rebounder to masquerade as a power forward, but as a small forward his rebounding is more valuable -- hence, Cleveland second in the league in defensive rebounding in 2010, and notice the smallball Warriors dead last.

What the Heat do, however, is force turnovers (fifth in the league in opponent turnover rate) while the Pacers, luckily, are 26th. People will focus on the disadvantages the Heat face with the Pacers' size, understandably  but you can't forget these things run both ways. There's a reason the Heat were +7.0 in point differential, ranking near first in offensive ranking at 112.3 points per 100 possessions (+6.5 to league average) and ninth in defensive rating at 103.7 (-2.1).  Pacers, meanwhile, were +3.3 in point differential (SRS) while ranking first in defensive ranking by a hair at 99.8 (-6) but 19th in offense at 104.3 (-1.5). As for another matchup wrinkle, Pacers are second in giving up the least three pointers in the season, and first in three-point percentage defense by a fair margin. Miami shot the sixth most three's and had the second best accuracy. Thanks to a major defensive overhaul, the Pacers defend the line vigorously and flood the paint, sometimes daring players to shoot midrange jumpers instead (the Bulls do this too, as was seen in the playoffs when they let Brook Lopez take open shots.) Bosh, however, is an elite midrange shooter now, and him taking open jumpers is better than most of Indiana's offensive options.

What's important to consider here is that, yes, Pacers have an elite defense, but the Heat have an offense that's just as elite; and the Pacers have a significantly below average offense while the Heat's defense is comfortably above average. This is just an obvious way to say the Heat are the better team, but I think some will get too caught up in the matchups and lose sight of the big picture. Miami may have sacrificed some defense, but the offense is borderline historic, and Indiana is a bad offensive team.

What to watch for:
-Miami starts Haslem because they think it's still 2007 (but honestly it's because the frontcourt is so thin.) It'll be interesting to see who Bosh checks here since Haslem is too short for Hibbert but Bosh is too weak for West.
-Smallball for Miami typically means Battier is the nominal power forward. His defense on West will be very important. In three games against Miami, he was 22.7 points per game on 65.8 FG% versus a season average of 17.1 and 49.8 (his rebounding, interestingly, did not change.)
-Chris Anderson's approach to shotblocking is to fly at a shot attempt and swat it with authority; Hibbert doesn't look for shotblocks as they happen when he's defending the paint by sticking his arms straight up.
-During the regular season Cole was the ingredient to the only bad lineups Miami had. Of the only lineups with at least 100 minutes, seven in total, the only two near average or below average had Cole. Obviously, being a bench player is the problem, but it does go beyond that. If you go by regularized adjusted +/-, he's at -3.3, which was 401st out of 463 players where only eleven played more minutes and had a worse value.
-Wade's health is the key to a title run without big bumps. It's no coincidence the Heat went on a historic win streak when he was healthy.
-We can ignore the Bucks because they were a blip in the radar, but it's now been two playoff series in a row where LeBron hasn't played up to his ridiculous standards. He's had his moments, but they haven't been sustained. His numbers are down, as he's shooting less and his efficiency has regressed. Is he just not trying and saving his energy, or should we be concerned? Indiana will be the first real test because Miami knows they can't sleep on them.

Prediction: Miami in five.

Western Conference

(2) San Antonio Spurs versus (5) Memphis Grizzlies

After a couple series slaying giants, the Grizzlies are everyone's favorite right now, partly due to an uncompromising style. With all the love of Gasol's all around game, Randolph's below the rim play, Tony Allen's physical defense, and the two-way play of Mike Conley, there's a reason the Spurs won more games and had a superior point differential. The Grizzlies are the western conference version of the Pacers -- elite defense, in fact if you adjust for strength of schedule it's a better defense, but they have a below average offense. But after defeating the Clippers, who had a similar point differential and win total to the Spurs, and the Westbrook-less Thunder, still a strong team, should we once again overlook the Grizzlies?

Let's run through the numbers. Spurs have an adjusted point differential of +6.7 with the league's seventh-ranked offense at 108.3 (+2.5) and, surprisingly, the league's third best defense at 100.3 (-4.2.) Memphis, however, has a point differential of +4.3 with the league's 17th ranked offense at 104.9 (-0.9) but the league's second best defense at 100.3 (-5.5), although adjusted for strength of schedule it's the league's best by a whisker. I think people are sleeping on the Spurs -- their defense is barely different from Memphis', and this is with Duncan playing 30 minutes a night, and have not descended into smallball as they start two seven-footers with Tiago Splitter, a Brazilian big man who rolls well to the rim where he shoots near 70%. The hiccups the Spurs had against the Warriors were partly due to Curry's insane shooting, yes, but also due to various ailments like an ankle injury to Splitter, Diaw coming back from a donut-induced trauma, and a virus that infected Duncan.

With homecourt advantage, San Antonio has a pretty strong chance, since it's difficult to have a coaching advantage of Popovich and the size of the Grizzlies isn't a particular concern for the Spurs. Zach Randolph averaged 14 and 10 on 36% shooting versus the Spurs, and yes, Splitter played every game, started most of them, and Duncan even missed a game. They also have the stout and surprisingly good defender Diaw to throw at him. As fun as the Grizzlies are, they rely on inefficient midrange jumpers, while the Spurs have Parker's pick and roll, Duncan's post offense, and long-range bombing -- Danny Green is surprisingly 10th all-time in three-point percentage and Bonner is 14th. Yes, the Grizzlies' defense will blunt those weapons, but they cannot attack with the same ferocity back on offense. It'll be a great series, but I think the two most likely outcomes are Spurs in 5 and Spurs in 7 -- and I'll go with 7 games, in case the Spurs pick up another small injury, as they tend to do.

What to watch for:
-Duncan was arguably the best defensive player in the league, though Gasol deserves an edge for his minutes played. Duncan is a master at contesting without fouling, and actually put up a blocks per foul rate historically great and only bested by gigantic centers like Manute Bol.
-Gasol versus Duncan is a premier center matchup. It'll be a battle of fundamentals, a battle of subtle moves, nice passing, soft touches, and intelligent post defense.
-Parker versus Conley, by contrast, will also be top-flight, where Tony Allen will come in now and again to wreak havoc. Tony Allen, like with the Thunder series, has no point in playing without an elite wing, and would be better matched up to come off the bench.

Prediction: Spurs in seven.

Edit: Fixed error with Spurs' offensive ranking compared to the league average from +3.5 to +2.5.

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