NBA Finals a matter of perspective

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One of the toughest things to find when analyzing sports, or any other sequence of human behavior, is the difference between causation and correlation. Everyone who spends a year in the United States Marine Corps is a disciplined solider; everyone who spends a year in the Ford Modeling Agency is an attractive model. However, the two entities are hardly the same. 
We all know what’s happened in this series — The Laker offense has looked broken at times, and has devolved into Kobe vs. Boston all too often. The Celtics, from 1-12, have played on a completely different level than they showed they were capable of in the regular season. The fun part is figuring out why these things are happening: is it the fault of the Lakers or the fault of the Celtics? The answer likely depends on your perspective, but here’s PBT’s attempt to take a crack at figuring out why things have shook out the way they have over the first five games of this series:

Question: The classic Lakers chicken-or-egg question: Did Kobe Bryant take 15 more field goal attempts on Sunday because the Lakers had no other offensive activity, or did the Lakers have no other offensive activity because Kobe took 15 more field goals than anybody else?
PBT’s answer: On Sunday, the Lakers’ lack of offense was definitely what forced Kobe into takeover mode. In the first half, when Kobe took 12 FGAs and accumulated all four of his assists, the Lakers managed to score 39 points. In the second half, when Kobe took 15 shots and made all seven of his free throws, the Lakers scored 47 points. 
Going beyond that, it’s extremely difficult to run an efficient, balanced offense when your team is behind and failing to get stops. The team begins to panic, the role players don’t want to make plays, everyone plays tight, and the offense grinds to a halt. Playing on the road compounds these problems. When a team is getting lit up, they invariably go to their “panic offense” — give the ball to their best player, give him an ISO or a screen, and hope he bails them out. 
The Lakers’ panic offense is giving the ball to Kobe Bryant and letting him shoot jumpers, and it isn’t a bad one. After the Lakers scored 39 points in the first 24 minutes of play, Kobe scored 19 points in the next seven minutes of play. That should have gotten the Lakers back to even, but their defense gave up 22 points over the course of that seven minutes. With the Lakers getting pushed around on offense and allowing a layup line on defense, their only chance was to have Kobe shoot them back into the game. History is the propaganda of the victors, and Kobe has been a beneficiary of this in the past, but Bryant was not the reason the Lakers lost game five.
Question: Is the Laker offense broken, or is Boston’s defense just that good?
Answer: Boston’s defense is just that good. They swarm and recover like no other team is able to. They play physical without losing their heads. They don’t let anybody get to where they want to go, and dictate the pace of the game even when the other team has the ball. They made Cleveland’s offense look broken. They shut down Orlando’s three-point attack and handcuffed Dwight Howard at times. They didn’t let any Heat player other than Dwayne Wade have any kind of success. (Okay, maybe that wasn’t all that hard.) Despite all the injuries they had in the regular season, they finished 5th in defensive efficiency.
In 2008, the last time Garnett was healthy for the playoffs, the Celtics dominated every offense in their path on their way to banner #17. That season, their defensive efficiency was the best in the league. They have the best defensive center in basketball this side of Dwight Howard. They have the best defensive point guard in basketball. Their power forward was the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. Their defensive coordinator is perhaps the best defensive mind of the last 20 years. At some point, it is not a coincidence that so many teams forget how to play offense when they play the Celtics.
Question: Were the Celtics dogging it in the regular season, were they sacrificing regular-season success to better prepare themselves for the postseason, or were they just injured?
Answer: A little bit of all of them, it turns out. The Celtics certainly rested their starters and didn’t stress that much over regular-season games, but you’re not going to tell me losing to the Nets at home was part of their plan. 
Even so, the confidence the Celtics developed over the regular season seems to be helping them now. It seemed like hubris at the time, but as the playoffs have gone it, it’s clear that the Celtics have more players willing to step up at any given time than any other team. They don’t have one guy who they know to go to in crunch-time; sometimes it’s Pierce from the right elbow, sometimes it’s Ray Allen off a screen, sometimes it’s Rajon Rondo in transition, sometimes it’s KG in the post. Sometimes it’s Nate Robinson and Big Baby who save the day. The Celtics don’t care. 
While every other team would go to their “panic offense” and let their best player bail them out in the regular season, the Celtics were blowing leads and getting their role players ready to take over. The Cavs won 61 games by keeping games close and letting LeBron take the game over in the final five minutes; when the Celtics got out to leads against them and packed the paint against LeBron, they shrunk. The Magic didn’t know how to operate without Dwight Howard drawing multiple defenders. The Lakers have done better, but their non-Kobe personnel has still looked panicked at times. The Celtics, meanwhile, have the confidence to throw insane full-court inbounds plays and make reverse layups with a Finals game on the line. Show me one other group of three players in these playoffs that could have pulled that off. So far, that confidence has been the difference.
The way the Celtics played all year was certainly unorthodox. But up until now, it’s certainly looked like a winning strategy. If they play 48 more minutes of strong basketball, it will go down in the history books as a championship strategy. 

Bucks’ Jabari Parker “frustrated,” wants more playing time

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In the first two games against Boston, Jabari Parker is 1-of-7 shooting, has grabbed 15 percent of the available rebounds while on the court (low for a big expected to board), has more turnovers than assists, has been exploited on defense by Boston, and is -29. All in just 25 minutes.

Parker is also frustrated he isn’t getting more minutes and more of a chance to prove himself. From Stephen Watson of WISN News 12 in Milwaukee:

While there are questions about how Joe Prunty has handled the Bucks and their rotations in this series, more Jabari Parker is nobody’s answer. Except Parker’s. And Celtics’ fans. Parker can be as frustrated as he wants, he hasn’t played his way into more minutes.

Parker returned to the Bucks in January after rehab on his second ACL surgery and averaged 12.6 points per game. He showed some value, with an ability to score efficiently inside and shooting 38 percent from three, averaging 12.6 points per game. But he remains a below-the-rim player who struggles to defend, and in the playoffs that gets a guy a seat.

It’s going to be an interesting summer. Parker is a restricted free agent this summer and the Bucks do not see him as a core part of their future next to Giannis Antetokounmpo anymore, they are not going to come in with a big offer to keep him. However, his play (especially in the postseason) and injury history, combined with a tight free agent market, means he may not have many suitors at all. Is it possible a rebuilding team willing to take a chance — Phoenix, Atlanta, etc. — would come in with an offer higher than the Bucks would match? Yes, it’s possible. But it won’t be for a lot of years, just one or two as teams want to see if he can get right and become the player he once projected to be.

Sixers’ Joel Embiid upgraded to “probable,” will start in Game 3 Thursday

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Everything you saw in the first two games of this Miami/Philadelphia playoff series you can throw out in the trash.

Joel Embiid is back and is now “probable” for Game 3, the Sixers announced, upgrading his status from “doubtful” earlier in the day. Embiid had been out with a concussion and orbital bone fracture.

Embiid will go through warmups — trying out both a mask and goggles — then will make a formal decision. However, he is expected to go. He certainly wants to play. And he is expected to start. How many minutes he can go remains to be seen.

This changes the Sixers and the series. Yes, Philly has likely Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons and high quality role players such as J.J. Redick and Robert Covington, however, is Embiid that makes it all work. Put simply, when Embiid is on the court the Sixers are 15.2 points per 100 possessions better — their defense is elite and their offense is outstanding.

The Sixers will be better with their best player back in the fold, but don’t think this makes the series a cakewalk for Philly. It changes everything about matchups, but things are not all positives. When Embiid is on the court, the up-tempo, ball-movement style that the Sixers built around Simmons slows down and stops at points. The Sixers have played Hassan Whiteside and his rim protection off the court with floor spacing shooting bigs, now he has a place to be in the matchups. There are things the Heat can do now that may work for them.

It just may not matter — Philadelphia just got a lot better.

PBT Podcast: NBA first round playoff series breakdowns

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LeBron James‘ Cavaliers looks to be in a battle royal in the first round — and they could lose to Victor Oladipo‘s Pacers.

Miami’s defense and versatility is challenging the Sixers and shaking the faith of all those that just jumped on the bandwagon.

Utah stole a game in Oklahoma City showing great grit and resolve, not to mention a lot of Donovan Mitchell.

Anthony Davis has done everything but walk on water for the Pelicans.

The first round of the NBA playoffs has been filled with fascinating storylines — and we are just two games into each series. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all eight first-round series in this podcast, starting in the East and the tight races there, then move into the West. There’s even some “who wants to pay Jabari Parker this summer?” talk thrown in.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

James Dolan says Knicks must build around ‘great’ Kristaps Porzingis, offers fair rebuke of meddling charges

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Phil Jackson received a standing ovation in his first game at Madison Square Garden as Knicks president. Don’t forget how excited New York was for Jackson, who coached the Bulls and Lakers to 11 championships and played for the Knicks’ last title team. He was welcomed as a potential savior.

The common refrain: Jackson would have a chance to succeed if Knicks owner James Dolan didn’t meddle.

Immediately, Dolan said he would cede control to Jackson “willingly and gratefully.” Dolan later pledged to honor Jackson’s full five-year contract.

But fans turned on Jackson as he did an awful job and the Knicks struggled. Dolan opted into the final two years of Jackson’s contract, anyway, as he said he would all along. Fans got angrier. When Jackson publicly flaunted Kristaps Porzingis trade talks, outrage reached a fever pitch. Finally, Dolan stepped in to fire Jackson.

Dolan, via Larry Brooks of the New York Post:

“A great player in hockey is the difference, but a great player in basketball is the team.

“And I think we have a great player in Porzingis. We just have to build around him.”

“Everybody who wants to talk about the Knicks wants to ask me about Phil Jackson,” Dolan said, smiling and shaking his head. “The entire market wanted to me to hire him and when I did, the entire market said it was a great move. The only thing was, everyone said that I shouldn’t interfere with him.

“Three years later, everyone wanted to know when I was going to do something about Phil. The same people who told me not to interfere wanted me to interfere. But that’s OK. I just think that Phil underestimated the job.”

Dolan makes a salient point about how people perceive his involvement. The problem isn’t that Dolan meddles. It’s that he makes poor decisions.

Hiring Jackson – an out-of-touch former coach with no front-office experience – was a poor decision. I’m not enthused about Steve Mills as Jackson’s replacement, either, though we’ll see how that plays out.

Building around Porzingis is a better decision. He’s an extremely talented 22-year-old.

But it’s hardly a foolproof plan. Porzingis is recovering from a torn ACL. Dolan said Porzingis could return in December – or miss next season entirely.

Either way, the Knicks must surround Porzingis with better teammates. Dolan will and should be a part of that process. Whether he’ll positively affect it is another matter.