NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: If your heart says Phoenix and your head says San Antonio, the numbers agree with your heart

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Spurs.pngIn the strictest sense, the San Antonio Spurs’ first round victory over the Dallas Mavericks should be considered a monumental achievement. A 2-7 upset should be praised in the highest regard. A pauper bested a prince! David toppled Goliath! The spunky underdogs with hearts of gold took down the evil billionaire!

Only it wasn’t. The Spurs’ win was a nice dose of revenge for the Mavs’ smackdown of a hobbled San Antonio team in last year’s playoffs, but this series may not have even been an upset. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more evenly matched series between a 2-seed and 7-seed, and each game reflected the balance between the two. The Spurs rightfully won the series in six, as their drastically improved health and the incredible parity among Western Conference playoff teams made the playoff seeding more than a bit misleading.

The intriguing underlying narrative of the match-up was win-loss record vs. statistical resume, as the Mavs boasted the superior record (hence the no. 2 seed) and the division-winner label, but the Spurs looked to be the more impressive team by slightly more complicated measures. For one, San Antonio’s point differential (considered by some to be the best predictor of playoff success) was far better (+5.1) than Dallas’ (+2.7), and was more in line with the West’s elite than borderline playoff teams.

Some have touted the Spurs’ series win as a victory for more advanced statistical measures; herein lies proof that win-loss record is not the best indicator of team superiority, and that other measures, even those as intuitive as point differential, could paint a better picture for comparative purposes. Better teams don’t just win more often, but their wins are of a fundamentally more valuable nature.

The irony here should not be lost on anyone. The Spurs, champions of the old guard, are, in this case, a poster team for the statistical revolution. Their victory over the Mavs can be explained away by the injuries or a Dallas collapse, but the data shows that the Spurs were the better team all along, even if they didn’t really hit their stride until late in the season.

It’s not just point differential, either. One of the more important tools of new wave statistics is the per-possession adjustment, a mathematical tinkering that renders pace irrelevant. It’s not about how many points a team scores in a game or even in x minutes, but how productive they are with a given possession. That’s why metrics like offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) and defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) have become critical to the way that the smartest guys in the room are thinking about basketball. This game isn’t about total output, but rather how productive a team can be on a micro level. Every possession counts, and a team’s efficiency on a per-possession basis (either offensively or defensively) is ultimately what determines wins and losses.

Again, with the numbers in mind, the Spurs rightfully beat the Mavs. San Antonio’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency; +5.23 points per 100 possessions for SA) was superior to Dallas’ (+3.96). All is well in the world of the spreadsheet.

Until the second round, which is where things really get interesting. The Spurs hold a slight edge over the Suns in point differential (+5.1 to +4.9), but when you break things down into per possessions measurements rather than per game? Phoenix (+5.81) has been the more efficient team this season, even if they only edge San Antonio (+5.23) by a slight margin.

Maybe the roughly half a point difference between the two teams isn’t enough to decide conclusively which team should take the series, but if we go strictly by efficiency differential in this case, the Suns are the favorite. They also hold home court advantage, which tends to make a difference in these seven-game affairs. If we’re not looking at the momentum each team has coming out of their first round series or the specific match-ups, the Spurs are the statistical underdog, if only barely.

In fact, if we look at the differential for each of Dean Oliver’s four factors (shooting as measured by effective field goal percentage, rebounding as measured by rebounding rate, free throw shooting frequency as measured by free throw rate, and turnovers as measured by turnover rate), the Suns own the advantage in all factors aside from rebounding.

Just like that, the Spurs have gone from de facto favorites to technical underdogs. Why is it, then, that this series feels like San Antonio’s to lose? Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili played with a lot of confidence in the first round, and though plenty of the Spurs’ wins against the Mavs were close, they looked like a team in control. The Suns, on the other hand, wavered a bit during their matchup with the Blazers, despite their white-hot ending to the regular season. The Suns may hold the home court, but the Spurs seem to have every other intangible advantage.

This series should be interesting for a number of reasons, but keep the Suns’ statistical superiority at the back of your mind. Regardless of how both teams look right now, the more detailed numbers show that Phoenix is the slightly better team, even if raw point differential doesn’t.  

Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis lead way, Bulls blow out Kyrie-less Celtics 108-85

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CHICAGO (AP) — Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis are starting to draw attention for their play together instead of their fight with each other.

Mirotic scored 24 points, Portis added a career-high 23 and the Chicago Bulls blew out Boston 108-85 on Monday night with Celtics star Kyrie Irving sidelined because of a bruised left quadriceps.

Owners of the NBA’s worst record, the Bulls (6-20) built an 18-point lead in the second quarter against the Eastern Conference leaders. And when Boston cut it to 12 in the fourth, the Bulls simply pulled away for their third straight win.

Leading the way were two players who made headlines for all the wrong reasons before the season started.

Their fight at practice left Mirotic with facial fractures, causing him to miss the first 23 games. Portis served an eight-game suspension.

But the two have played well together the past two games.

“We need to give the credit to (coach Fred Hoiberg),” Mirotic said. “Fred is the one who is making us play. He’s the guy who is calling the plays for us and putting us in the right spots to play.”

As for the fight?

“Man, that situation’s over,” Portis said. “Everybody’s talking about that. But that doesn’t matter anymore. We’re just trying to win games.”

Mirotic made his first start of the season with leading scorer Lauri Markkanen sidelined because of back spasms and shot 9 of 14 with eight rebounds. Through three games, the 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 16.3 points.

Portis shot 10 of 15 and nailed all three 3-pointers.

Al Horford scored 15 for Boston (23-6). Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier added 13 points apiece in the Celtics’ most lopsided loss of the season.

“Sometimes you get your butt kicked. It was simple as that,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Chicago dictated the whole game. They played harder than we did. They played with more presence than we did. They played more competitive than we did. They played with more authority than we did. You’re not going to win many games when you play like that.”

 

Russell Westbrook threw it down all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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A rough night for the Thunder will not stop the Russell Westbrook highlights.

The Thunder had another poor game and fell to a Hornets. Westbrook tried to push the team back, but the Thunder defense that has kept them in games all season was not good enough against Charlotte, and the OKC offense was once again up and down.

Westbrook had 30 points on 22 shots on the night, and none of them were as impressive as this transition throwdown on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Jahlil Okafor excited about fresh start with Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jahlil Okafor finally got the fresh start he wanted.

Okafor was the consensus No. 1 high school player in his class, won a national championship at Duke, and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in his rookie campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then things changed drastically.

Okafor struggled with injuries and a logjam at his position in his second season.

“When I first got drafted there, we already had Nerlens (Noel) there, Joel (Embiid) was there, so we’re trying to have three starting centers on the same team,” Okafor said Monday at his introductory news conference with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets.

“It just never really was the right fit.”

The 76ers traded Okafor along with seldom-used guard Nik Stauskas and two draft picks to the Nets on Thursday. Philadelphia got forward Trevor Booker from Brooklyn.

Okafor also had off-court problems during his time in Philadelphia. He got a speeding ticket for driving 108 miles per hour and was suspended by the 76ers for two games after in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub with a heckler.

“Speeding obviously is illegal,” Okafor said. “I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. I guess you just learn how the page can turn on you and how everything can flip. I can’t really say I learned anything, because you know going in that’s not right. You just learn from your mistakes, but (it was) a tough thing that I went through, I got past, and I’m looking to better times now.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, joins D'Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the same draft class, on the Nets.

“We’re just very excited to get on the court together,” Okafor said. “You never would’ve thought the number two and number three picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said, everything happens for a reason and I’m really excited.”

Russell also had problems on and off the court with the team that drafted him. He was criticized for recording a video of former Lakers teammate Nick Young that aired sordid details about Young’s private life. The Lakers gave up on Russell and drafted Lonzo Ball as his replacement.

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove,” Okafor said. “I know he’s working his (butt) off as well. Right now he’s rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove. We’re definitely similar in that regard.”

Okafor understands he has areas to improve, mainly defense and rebounding.

“I’m not a perfect player,” Okafor said. “I’m 21. There are things that I need to work on, that I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

He’s excited about fulfilling his potential with a new team.

“I feel really motivated right now, but I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said. “This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me to experience, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”

 

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.