Why The ’14 Spurs Are Better Than Last Year’s

Boris Diaw (33) has played a huge role in his team's bench production as of late. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Boris Diaw (33) has played a huge role in his team’s bench production as of late. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

During the 2013 NBA finals, a hamstring injury proved a hindrance to Spurs guard Tony Parker, precipitating sizable drops in PPG, FG%, and FT% from his season averages in those categories; the display of the injury’s impact remains if comparing NBA Finals averages to postseason averages as well. Yet when a foot injury sent Parker to the bench for the entire second half last night in Oklahoma City, the Spurs came out undeterred, sending backup PG Cory Joseph in Parker’s stead. Though not contributing much offensively, Joseph started the third quarter and thus partook in his team’s effort of assuming control of the game: the quarter featured the Spurs outscoring the Thunder 37-20, with Joseph having a plus/minus of +7 by the end of the game.

Thus, playing to potentially clinch a series victory in a hostile environment, the Spurs showed their ability to overcome the absence of a key team leader in Parker, finding other options to help spearhead a comeback and ultimately close out the WCF.

Heading into this season’s Finals, Australian-born Patty Mills can also serve as a viable replacement if Parker continues to suffer from his ailment entering the the last round. The point guard received an increase in minutes this season, and as a result, posted an improvement in offensive numbers from last year. While struggling in the playoffs so far, Mills can impact a basketball game with his effective shooting, and is crucial to the success of San Antonio’s second-unit, one of the best in the league.

So not only has yet another potent scorer developed in the Spurs organization, but it just so happens that the player is a point guard, the position at which the Spurs may now be deficient. This further minimizes the effect from any foreseeable absence or decline in play from Parker, and once again proves that an injury to Tony Parker does not pose an insurmountable obstacle.

Furthermore, the characteristic of bench production, briefly mentioned in the discussion about one of its prominent members (Patty Mills) above, sets the 2014 edition of the Spurs apart from the 2013 one. In the regular season this year, San Antonio’s bench averaged an NBA-best 45.1 points a game–the next closest playoff team to that number was Brooklyn, with 38.5. That number, and thereby emphasis on bench players’ importance, was much higher than in the 2013-13 season, in which the non-starters ranked high in the league (fifth) but only averaged 37.9 per game.

More importantly, San Antonio has maintained that bench effectiveness moving into postseason, topping all playoff teams with 41.4 PPG off the bench. In contrast, the Spurs’ bench experienced a significant dropoff in production last postseason, averaging only 29.1 PPG which ranked it sixth among playoff teams.

Performing on a more consistent and effective basis, this aspect of the Spurs team can only play to their advantage and prove a more pivotal factor than in last year’s Finals. Therefore, this suggests San Antonio will enter their second consecutive bout against the Miami Heat on this stage as a more stabilized, refined, and overall better team.

Advertisements

2014 Western Conference Finals: The Impact of Ibaka

Ibaka (9) has tilted this series in the Thunder's favor. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Ibaka (9) has tilted this series in the Thunder’s favor. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

In a  matter of less than a week, the Oklahoma City Thunder have risen from the ashes of playoff irrelevancy.

Exposed by two crushing defeats–with an average losing margin of 26–to the San Antonio Spurs in the first two contests of the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder appeared doomed for an exit. Yet after shifting to the raucous confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena, the series dramatically leveled out 2-2–and not necessarily for the efforts of two of the top four NBA postseason scorers, stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Instead, it was the Congolese rim-patroller Serge Ibaka, once deemed out for the rest of the season due to a calf injury, that returned and impacted the series in a way that now has the Thunder in the driver’s seat for a second Finals berth in three years.

Defensively, Ibaka’s insertion back into the lineup has wreaked havoc on San Antonio’s plan of attack. On the other end of the court, his presence as a contending offensive force has benefited his own team. And though his influence on the series has been most perceptible in the paint, it has actually spread out to and affected the perimeter space of the floor as well.

The core of the Spurs’ offensive prowess–comprising Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Manu Ginobili–averaged 81.5 points in Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio, and collectively shot .533 from the field. But following Ibaka’s arrival, that scoring output plunged to an average of 53.5 in Games 3 and 4, and the five posted a .393 FG%. That should come as no surprise, as Ibaka is one of the best defensive players in the league. In addition, he also contributed to an increase in OKC block totals: a mere 6 in the first two games to 18 in the last pair.

Ibaka situates himself primarily in the paint, and accordingly, points in the paint (PITP) from the opposition more precisely illustrate his defensive impact. The table below shows the PITP totals from the aforementioned “big 5” of sorts for San Antonio.

Game 1

Game 2 1 and 2 avg. Game 3 Game 4

3 and 4 avg.

Parker

10

16 13 6 10

8

Duncan

20

8 14 12 4

8

Ginobili

8

2 5 2 0

1

Leonard

10

4 7 6 2

4

Green

2

0 1 0 0

0

For all five of San Antonio’s most important players and leaders, PITP averages fell going from their home set of games to the away set. Of course, for the players that habitually net a good chunk of their points near the basket, a dropoff in this category becomes far more meaningful. Thus, the stark decline in around-the-rim production from Tim Duncan–a consensus unmatched post-presence during his 17-year NBA career–and from Tony Parker–whose drives to the basket often dictate a game’s outcome–further exhibits the magnitude of Ibaka’s impact on the paint.

Ibaka also managed to indirectly diminish San Antonio’s perimeter shooting, evident by the progression of Spurs shooting guard Danny Green’s series performance (as one example). Ibaka’s ability to effectively patrol the low block on D eliminated the need for help defense in that area from the likes of Durant, Westbrook, and other guards. Consequently, it freed his non-post teammates to remain on the perimeter and channel more of their defensive efforts to restraining San Antonio shooting. So in the case of Green, while he scored 16 points (on 6-7 shooting) in Game 1 and 21 points (7-11) in Game 2, the guard reached just 8 points (3-12) in Game 3 and sunk to 3 (1-4) in Game 4.

At a more game-total level, the table  below (team PITP totals) displays how the battle in the paint swung emphatically to OKC’s advantage with Ibaka back in the lineup.

Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4
SAS 66 54 40 36
OKC 32 42 46 44

Moreover, Games 3 and 4 show not only a fall in San Antonio’s PITP totals, but also a sizable increase in that of Oklahoma City–meaning Ibaka, esteemed mainly for his defensive superiority, extended his range of impact to the offensive end to some degree, establishing himself on the glass.

Ibaka's return has led to better numbers from teammates like Durant (35). (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

Ibaka’s return has led to better numbers from teammates like Durant (35). (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

While Ibaka himself did not perform spectacularly on offense, his return might have improved conditions for the dynamic duo he plays alongside: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Developing from a raw offensive talent over the past few years, Ibaka is no player to take lightly on offense now, having efficiently integrated himself within an already electric Thunder attack. His presence on this side of the court frees Durant and Westbrook up and opens key space for them, perhaps explaining their improvement in play with Ibaka back on the floor in Games 3 and 4. Durant experienced an increase in points per game moving from the first set of games to the next set (21.5 to 28), as did Westbrook (20 to 33). And while the field-goal percentage of Durant only rose slightly from 0.457 to .463 in the same comparison of games, that of Westbrook surged from 0.356 to .456. And though this speculative effect resulting from Ibaka’s return is not easily measurable, there’s no questioning that his impact has pervaded the basketball court.

Furthermore, factoring in on both ends of the court, Ibaka’s presence radically altered the rebounding totals as the series progressed. Without him in Games 1 and 2, the Thunder were out-rebounded 40-37 and 53-38 by the Spurs, respectively. That’s a jump from a 43.3 regular season average to 46.5 in the first two games for San Antonio, and a dip from 44.7 during the season to 37.5 for Oklahoma City. Of course, this dominance on the boards changed upon Ibaka’s return, as OKC controlled the glass with a rebounding margin of 52-36 in Game 3, and 42-41 in Game 4.

Of course, it’s also important to note that the disparate quality of play between the first two games and the latter two from OKC and SAS result in some part from location: both squads, and particularly the Thunder, thrive at their home arenas. Nevertheless, the return of a premier NBA player to a team incomplete without him is just as, if not more, influential.

Though Ibaka has averaged a modest 12 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks in his two games, the significance of his presence in the lineup is best quantifiable by his impact on nearly every other facet of the matchup: the effect on individual Spurs players, on his fellow teammates, and on game totals. Ibaka’s influence may loom largest with respect to the last of those reasons, as at the moment he seems destined to serve as the deciding factor in the most important statistic in a series: wins.

 

Why The Pacers’ Off-Court Actions Will Lead To Their Fall

Stepheson (right) will fell the brunt of LeBron's reaction to his comments.

Stepheson (right) will fell the brunt of LeBron’s reaction to his comments.

For all of Indiana’s efforts on the court to best solidify their chances of overcoming the two-time champion Miami Heat, it is the Pacers’ actions off the floor that have already triggered one collapse this year, and will soon spark another.

The organization has made itself into a championship contender, and proved its worth as one, through the game of play: the players’ cohesion and developing efficiency has vaulted the team into the upper echelons of the NBA. Its fame has not resulted from off-the-court popularization or basketball marketability, but from how complete and polished the squad is–namely the starting five–and how formidable they stand in the face of the megastars from South Beach. Thus, comments from Roy Hibbert and Paul George earlier in the season that first derailed the team, and now those of Lance Stephenson that will surely have the same effect, will make the season’s inevitable outcome both ironic and mind-boggling for Indiana.

Harken back to the shower of praise–in which two Pacer members partook–following the 61-point spectacular performance by LeBron James on May 3rd. Shortly after James’s achievement, Hibbert chimed in with applause on Twitter, which it’s worth mentioning has become a reliable outlet for an NBA player’s expression, tweeting “damn @KingJames 61 is tough. Congrats.” In the days following this seemingly simple gesture of praise, and presumably tied in some way to James’s recent surge, teammate Paul George expressed his desire to work with and learn from LeBron James. He essentially viewed the Heat superstar as a potential mentor, of course in spite of the fact that James and his team constitute the sole obstacle to George and his Pacers’ aspirations.

At face value, these instances do not appear egregious or damning, but rather gestures of respect and sportsmanship towards the opposition. But is it any coincidence that after the tweet and the comments to Basketball Insiders, the Pacers finished April on a 6-10 slide and ended the year 10-13, barely securing their number-one Eastern Conference spot and overtly showing their struggles along the way? It’s nice that players can act respectfully towards their contemporaries, but at the same time, there’s a time and place for these friendly activities. For the Indiana Pacers, James and the Miami Heat serve as the adversaries and hindrances to their goals, thereby forming the image of LeBron particularly as the enemy–not in any malicious way, but in purely competitive spirit. In no way is it permissible to reveal a hint of deference by congratulating the enemy on his successes, as Hibbert did, or to suggest to cooperate and mingle with him, as George desires to do.

Thus, through the actions of two prominent Indiana starters off court, the lack of a competitive mindset within the team’s core was uncovered, one that both NBA champions of the past and present possess. This damages the team’s prospects in the long run, but the more immediate effect, as mentioned before, manifested itself in a horrid stretch to conclude the regular season.

Now fast forward to yesterday, when another key figure on the Pacers roster, shooting guard Lance Stephenson, made comments about LeBron outside the court of play. Perhaps still remembered for flashing a choke sign at King James while in a backup role, this time Stephenson told the Associated Press that he feels he has gotten under LeBron’s skin and considers getting trash-talked by the Heat star a sign of weakness. Although this sort of statement connotes a very different attitude towards the opposition, the instance plays into the bigger picture of exposing Indiana’s focus on something other than itself and its abilities. It seems out of character for the Pacers to direct their attention to the their rivaling squad, rather than concentrating on themselves, their performance, and what they can do as a team: an approach that has led them to their status as one of the NBA’s best. Simply put, it’s matter of distractions and the Pacers investing themselves in something other than what they do on the court.

Moreover, at this juncture in the NBA year, when players battle through fatigue and seek sources of inspiration as they inch closer and closer to the illustrious NBA Finals, why would Stephenson dare to poke the proverbial bear? It’s not as if publicly clarifying on-court happenings and then making assumptions off them will irritate the attacked player in a manner that will hinder his ability. Instead, if anything, it will provide James and his team with “bulletin board” material, and incite the Heat–especially LeBron of course–with an extra push and motivation in their quest for a three-peat.

And that’s additional to the aforementioned effect Stephenson’s words will have on his team in terms of diverting focus. In what will eerily parallel the aftermath of Hibbert and George’s comments off the court, Stephenson’s actions off the floor yesterday will help bring about Indiana’s imminent downfall, one that is notably self-inflicted and outside the basketball court.

*Written without knowledge of the outcome of ECF Game 4 on Monday, April 26th. 

3 Reasons Why Game 6 Is Chris Paul’s Biggest In His Career

1. After a lackluster Game 5 with .375 FG% and 5 turnovers–worsened by a catastrophic and out of character performance in the last 13 seconds that included two TOs and a foul–Paul now has the perfect opportunity to atone. His status as the Clippers team leader, and one that especially feels emboldened in late-game situations, further magnifies his horrendous play as the game winded down and his team left shocked by a thunderous comeback. Thus, the mistake-laden finish to Game 6 is seemingly reparable if Paul now efficiently assumes the leading role for LA and guides his team to live another day.

2. The Los Angeles Clippers have suffered a lifeless playoff history, failing to ever advance past the second round of the playoffs, where the team currently resides and once again lies on the brink of a dismal exit. As a figure that has revitalized the organization, Paul can truly put his stamp on the Clips by taking them to new heights, namely those in the postseason. The process starts with none other than overcoming the 3-2 series deficit at hand, making the imminent Game 6 matchup a must-win, as well as designating the game as the most significant for CP3 in a Clips uniform–at the very least.

3. Throughout his 9-year NBA career, Paul has acquired the reputation as a superb regular season player. This characterization elicits an equivocal tone: while Paul has gradually developed into the best point guard in the league, he nonetheless has not achieved any defining success in the postseason–qualifying for the playoffs in six of his nine seasons, but only advancing as far as the 2nd round. The realization and following criticism of Paul’s lack of playoff credentials has begun to pick up steam as of late. If he and his fellow Clippers bow out to the Thunder in this 2nd round series, Paul’s rank as among basketball’s best will be harshly thrown under question, perhaps akin to the experience LeBron James had to live through. Therefore, two more LA wins are not only imperative for the team’s collective aspirations, but even more so for Paul as he now potentially faces a career-altering moment (this comes ironically of course, as Paul would be the last player to view his successes as paramount to his team’s).

Thunder/Clippers Series: The Intangible Aspect

Having split their regular season series 2-2, stocked with conference stars and playmakers, and each recovering from grueling seven-game series, the Thunder and Clippers commenced their 2nd round clash earlier this week with neither squad appearing as a clear-cut frontrunner. To amplify the unpredictable nature of this matchup, both teams experienced and found themselves caught within significant off-the-court situations which, thus far, have proved to generate positive effects during their respective playoff runs. So as if the series had not been fraught with uncertainty enough, the added presence of an intangible factor–usually a decisive edge for the one team that possesses it, but only now functioning for both teams–even further leaves the fate of this series as a tossup.

The Clippers staged a unified protest in response to their owner's racism-laced audio recording.

The Clippers staged a unified protest in response to their owner’s racism-laced audio recording.

For the Clippers’ situation, which involved much more controversy and outrage, it was the Donald Sterling fiasco that unfolded two days before the start of the team’s fourth game in their 1st-round battle against Golden State. Though suffering a harsh 21-point blowout, the severity of which most likely a result of their minds being preoccupied with the off-the-court instability, the Clips reacted to this precarious circumstance by deciding to bond together as a team; if their owner was not in their corner, then their ensuing plan of action would be to support and stick up for each other in a closer way than ever before. The Clippers, as well as the NBA front office, quickly resolved this dilemma, but most importantly, the seed of unity had been planted in the LA locker room. Following the Sterling controversy, the Clips–with emotions at hand and an intangible force in full effect–surged to triumph in two of the next three games against the Warriors, and advanced to the second round. If this powerful response to any off-court drama–the foundation of which derived from the team’s solidarity–did not sway onlookers enough to believe in an intangible unifying factor, then a stunning 122-105 opening-series rout of the Thunder surely did the trick.

Even prior to this thumping before its zealous home crowd, the Oklahoma City found itself in a state of uneasiness. Concluding the regular season schedule with a 5-4 April record certainly did not dispel the doubt surrounding the Thunder, as to whether they were primed for the looming postseason action, or whether stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook could play cohesively in order to succeed in the brutal Western Conference playoff layout. A 1st round date with the Memphis Grizzlies, in which OKC stood on the brink of elimination twice and had to scratch out a seven-game series victory, raised even more concern. Only two days after knocking off Memphis, the exhausted Thunder team–as mentioned before–suffered one of its worst home defeats ever to Los Angeles, and moreover, did so in an utterly discouraging and unresistant fashion.

Yet for a team that appeared disjointed and dejected, the remedy to its woes came from the most unlikeliest of sources: Kevin Durant receiving the 2013-14 MVP award. It’s important to keep in mind that in any sports, and for any type of award–especially one deeming a player the best in his sport–and even more so during or near the postseason, the effect of the award has the popular notion of producing a negative impact; in short, it often jinxes the player and his team, perhaps by diverting necessary attention away from the task ahead. So despite Kevin Durant deservedly receiving this title that he heavily sought after, it would not necessarily appear to be of any good, particularly a day after getting blown out at home.

Durant's MVP award and acceptance speech served as a unifying factor for his team. (Photo by Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports)

Durant’s MVP award and acceptance speech served as a unifying factor for his team. (Photo by Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports)

But it was the acceptance speech Durant delivered, with fellow teammates sitting beside him, that really mattered. Durant, in a display of courage of strength considering the situation, described his life leading up to his NBA prominence and MVP award, focusing on those that influenced him most in the past as well as in the present. Durant touched on how he had to overcome adversity throughout his life, especially in his youth, and identified everyone from his mother, Wanda Pratt, to OKC newcomer Caron Butler as sources of motivation in his life. Durant conveyed that this esteemed trophy was more of a product of working with those close to him than anything, and that without the help of and cohesiveness with others around him, this type of success–and perhaps any for that matter–would be unattainable. At the very least, his teammates sympathized greatly with his journey, and at the most, they even shared a similar one. So while inspiring and heartwarming for outsiders, the weight of Durant’s words had an even greater impact on his team: they made his teammates reconsider what they were fighting for during their current playoff run, and whom they were fighting with. Otherwise, what else could explain their reaction the following day, when an emotional and forceful performance–and above all else exhibiting a newfound sense of unity that so interestingly parallels that of the Clippers and their situation a short while ago–paved the way for a dominant 112-101 Game 2 win?

Once again, the peculiarity of this intangible factor that fosters unity does not originate in the fact that a playoff squad carries it, but in the coincidence that the two teams affected by it now go head to head. And with the characterization of intangibility in sports–something that is not definite and cannot be measured–one hardly predict what could arise as a result from both teams possessing the trait. If anything, it makes the Thunder and Clippers more formidable and empowered than at any previous point in the season, which could only indicate that this series will not settle itself easily, but rather in the most taxing and grandiose of NBA ways: a full set of seven games.

The Frustration the Sports World Brings

Entering this Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat, in the eyes of the public/sports world, were the clear favorites in their matchup against the Indiana Pacers. (And when I mention the “sports world”, or the “NBA world”, I refer to the general media, such as regional analysts or influential/qualified sports personalities from ESPN). However powerful the menacing Heat appeared in the games leading up, this general consensus blatantly ignored a straightforward fact from the regular season: the Pacers won the overall season series 2-1.

Yet after Indiana nearly (and should have) won Game 1 and actually took Game 2, the popular opinion recklessly shifted to the other side of the spectrum, in an essentially knee-jerk reaction: all of a sudden, using the most recent sample size of two games, the Pacers were perceived as formidable foes to the Miami Heat, and had a strong chance to even emerge victorious from this series.

Of course, after the Heat left no doubt in their Game 3 blowout win, the public consensus quickly shifted once again. The majority believed that the Pacers had no chance in making this playoff series competitive again, much less win Game 4, just days after recognizing Indiana as a worthy opponent.

So heading into Game 4 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and what somehow felt like the Pacers stood on the brink of elimination, the NBA world had practically written off Indiana. Clearly, this perspective was completely disproved as the Pacers won on their home court, evening the series at 2 games apiece.

In my opinion, I find it unbelievable and utterly idiotic how quickly the general public opinion–the perspective of the sports world–can change, in such an irrational manner, from game to game in this playoff series. It’s one of the few times when the reactions and attitudes of the general public (as well as the sports world’s most prominent members) is simply frustrating: how quickly it can reverse its judgment, how negligent it can be, and how it can be carelessly caught in the moment. It’s just agitating how fickle the sports world can be on such major topics, to the point where making all these claims and judgments on who controls this Heat-Pacers series is completely futile.

Perhaps it would be better to try to avoid being so blinded by a single playoff game (being caught in the moment)–such as an exhilarating and overly-influential basketball Game 3–and to not adopt such bold positions as a result of 3 hours of basketball (i.e. brushing off the Pacers after they Game 3 defeat). If anything, and greatly supported by the fact that this series is tied at 2-2, the sports world should have recognized from the onset that this Eastern Conference finals mathcup would be hard-fought and the two teams in it would be inseparable, therefore potentially stretching a full seven games.

High-Fives Aren’t for the Playoffs

At the end of the 3rd quarter of Indiana’s Game 2 victory over Miami, LeBron James went over to fellow superstar Paul George and paid his respects through a simple high-five. Although many consider such an action dignifying and even a bit humble, it has no place in playoff basketball.

During the height of the sport in the 1980s, one would never dream to see bitter competitors–and newly-established Eastern Conference rivals–exchange pleasantries within the span of a game. And that just pertains to regular season action. Such an action as ‘high-fiving’ an opposing player would be even more reprehensible in the postseason, as the increase in passion and intensity would only give way to more animosity between the two teams.

Now I’m not saying today’s basketball should aim to replicate that of the 1980s. Just keep in mind that that era was in fact regarded as the greatest in the sport, when basketball’s popularity–and most importantly quality of play on the court–skyrocketed through the roof. It would seem natural to abide by the style and mindset of 1980s basketball, if to properly follow the model of success the era brought.