Tag: Dallas-San Antonio

NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: The incredible, invisible Antonio McDyess

1 Comment

What’s so remarkable about the playoffs is how quickly things can change for any one team. The Suns, who at one point struggled to keep pace with the injury-riddled Blazers, now look like a dominant playoff team.

The nature of playoff match-ups change everything. Players, strategies, and specific styles can expose weaknesses in opponents or show their strengths, and for Phoenix, San Antonio was apparently — despite popular, pre-series belief — a more favorable match-up. “Our teams just match up better against the Spurs than Portland,” Steve Nash said. “We
were able to use our depth and defense, and everyone took turns stepping

Of course the same is also true for specific players, who can be essential contributors in one series and marginalized in the next. Such is the case with Antonio McDyess. Dice put up almost identical numbers from one series to the next in this year’s playoffs, as he averaged 6.7 points per game (54.1% FG) and 7.0 rebounds per game against Dallas, and 7.0 points per game (52.0% from the field) and 6.5 rebounds per game against Phoenix.

Yet this is a case where his overall stat line falls short of telling the whole story. In the Spurs’ first round series against the Mavs, McDyess was invaluable as a defender against Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk still dropped 26.7 points a night in the series, but when you gauge Antonio’s defensive effectiveness against that of Matt Bonner or even Tim Duncan? It wasn’t even close. McDyess also offered a semblance of offensive balance for a Spurs team that thrives on supplementary scoring. He spaced the floor, knocked down his shots, played defense, and hit the boards.

In the first round, that was more than enough. Nowitzki had a terrific series, but McDyess was able to body him up and prevent him from really catching fire. Dirk’s teammates couldn’t fill the void, and it was Dice’s defense that helped to provide the Spurs with the cushion they needed to pull out four close wins.

Fast forward to the second round, where rather than Dirk Nowitzki, McDyess is asked to match-up with either the more mobile Amar’e Stoudemire, the far quicker Grant Hill, or the scrappy hustle junkie, Jared Dudley. None of those players really fits McDyess’ defensive strengths, and while the stat sheet doesn’t show any drop-off in Antonio’s box score production from one series to the next, there’s no question that the Suns were a tough match-up for him.

It wasn’t even about the Suns’ transition game, the impact of which has, in truth, been a tad overblown. It was the other benefits of going small that gave the Suns the advantage over a player like McDyess, and whether intentionally or unintentionally, Phoenix neutralized a guy that had made a legitimate impact in the first round. It’s differences like that one that caused the mighty Spurs defense we saw in the series prior to crumble at the Suns’ feet. The Tim Duncans and Steve Nashes of the world will typically be able to impose their will on a particular series regardless of opponent, but for role players like McDyess, the specific match-ups are far more significant.

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

Leave a comment

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.  

NBA Playoffs: San Antonio will not be deterred, finished of Dallas in six


Nowitzki_floor.jpgWith the Dallas Mavericks down, the Denver Nuggets on the brink, the Phoenix Suns decidedly mortal, and the Utah Jazz dinged up, the San Antonio Spurs would like to respectfully enter their name for consideration as the non-LA team to beat in the West. They looked every bit of it in their resilient game (and series) against the Mavs, and though the Spurs surrendered a 22-point lead and let Dallas back into the game, San Antonio is clearly a team ready to roll through the playoffs.

Dallas deserves tremendous credit for clawing back into the final game of the series despite shooting blanks in the first quarter, and their trademarked ability to make a game out of what should have been a lopsided contest turned in a bit of an instant classic. It didn’t come down to game-winners or overtime, but the Mavs turned things around in the second half and made this a hell of a basketball game. The series may not have gone to seven games, but it unfolded as advertised: both teams were highly competitive, evenly matched, and played each other spectacularly. San Antonio just executed a bit better, fought a little harder, and protected their home court with a bit more tenacity.

As much as Game 6 featured the usual suspects — Dirk Nowitzki finished with 33 points on 13-of-21 shooting, Manu Ginobili had 26, and Tim Duncan had a solid 17 and 10 — the most prominent storyline featured each team’s up-and-coming guard: the Spurs’ George Hill and the Mavs’ Rodrigue Beaubois.

Hill was pegged as a potential difference-maker in the series, especially with Tony Parker a bit less reliable than usual. Hill started the series off slowly, scoring just seven points on 22.2% shooting in the first two games combined, but quickly became a vital source of scoring for the Spurs in Game 3 and beyond. He finished off his terrific series with 21 points and six rebounds in Game 6.

“Down the stretch we had our chances and you have to tip your hat to George Hill, he was the x-factor in the entire series,” Nowitzki said. “You live with Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan making plays, but George used his freedom and made amazing plays. You have to give him credit, he is going to be a good player in this league.”

Opposite Hill was the Mavs’ dynamic rookie, Rodrigue Beaubois. Rick Carlisle turned to Beaubois in the second quarter when things looked darkest for the Mavs, and in his desperation Carlisle unearthed Dallas’ buried treasure. Beaubois’ ability to penetrate and score around the Spurs’ defenders provided more than a spark, he was nearly a savior. All of a sudden the Mavs were within 13 at halftime despite only scoring eight points in the first quarter, and Rodrigue’s play was a huge part of that.

His strong performance continued through the third quarter, as Beaubois’ quickness clearly caused problems for the Spurs’ perimeter defenders. Rodrigue’s only roadblock — as has been the case throughout this series — was his own coach, as Rick Carlisle inexplicably left Beaubois on the bench for the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter. San Antonio smelled blood in the water as the Mavs failed to score on a few consecutive possessions, and what had been a neck-and-neck game was suddenly a decent lead for the Spurs.

“I was kind of happy because it took away another scorer that was playing well,” George Hill said of Rick Carlisle’s decision to sit Beaubois. “That’s how it goes. People are going to go with people they’re very comfortable with. I think Beaubois did a really great job of giving them a spark,” Hill said. “I think that at the end of the day we made plays that we really needed to close it out.”

Carlisle’s rotations throughout the series could certainly qualify as curious, and some of his decisions have been more successful than others. In Game 3, Carlisle opted to sit Caron Butler for the entire second half and Shawn Marion for most of it, in favor of running a three-guard lineup including Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and J.J. Barea. It worked…for a spell. But when the three guards tired out from extended burn in the second half and the zone defense broke down, the Spurs were able to pull out a victory. In Game 5, Carlisle gave Erick Dampier, who had started in every game in the series to that point, a DNP-CD. Brendan Haywood started and shined in his place, and the Mavs looked ready to compete until the very end.

Then in Game 6, Carlisle abandoned his “roll with what works” mantra to grant a fourth quarter stint to Jason Terry, who has a history of fourth quarter heroics but had struggled in this particular game (JET finished 1-for-7 and just two points). Although the Mavs still managed to keep the game relatively competitive, there’s no question they could have used Beaubois’ ability to drive in order to put added pressure on the Spurs’ defense. Dirk Nowitzki was able to keep Dallas afloat, but even a superstar like Dirk has his limits.

In this case, Dirk could only score 33 points, while every other Maverick not named Beaubois or Caron Butler (who was fantastic in his career-high follow-up, and finished with 25 points on 50% shooting) struggled to score. Nowitzki, Butler, and Beaubois scored 74 of the Mavs’ 87 points, which is unacceptable given the considerable talent on the Mavs’ roster.

This isn’t to deny any credit to the Spurs, who took the game by the throat whenever they were given the opportunity. Ginobili and Hill hit some huge shots to prevent the Mavs from riding their momentum to a win, and Tony Parker (10 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) was no slouch. The Spurs just played like the better team in this series, probably because they were. Seven seed or not, a healthy San Antonio team is a force to be reckoned with, and though Dallas fought hard and provided a worthy foil, this was no upset.     

NBA Playoffs: Close wins are good enough for the Spurs, who are finding new and exciting ways to best the Mavs


When they entered the playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs were not considered a championship contender. Their late season success was chalked up as something of an aberration, and though many picked them to ‘upset’ the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, that’s not exactly the same as declaring the Spurs fit to battle the Lakers, Cavs, and Magic for NBA supremacy.

That time is not yet upon us, but based on how impressively they’ve handled their first round matchup with the Mavs, it could be quite soon.

San Antonio came back from a 15-point first half deficit to take a 3-1 series lead and push Dallas one step closer to the season’s edge. It was hardly easy, and the reason the Spurs may soon be considered contenders for the conference title is not because their wins over the Mavs have been particularly demonstrative. Rather, San Antonio’s three straight wins were in very competitive games, and the Spurs’ ability to close out their opponents remains a crowning achievement.

Dallas had been successful all season in besting their opponents in close games, but that success hasn’t translated well to the playoffs. Instead of Dirk Nowitzki hitting game-winners or Shawn Marion getting crucial stops, it’s been Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili hitting daggers and Antonio McDyess playing clutch defense. A few shots here and there or a few bounces of the ball and this series is quite different, but for the most part the Spurs are making their own luck.

It’s not as if San Antonio is relying simply on their opponents’ failings to determine the outcomes of these games; the Spurs’ defense has reached new heights over the last three contests, and their ability to play Nowitzki aggressively without giving up open shots to the Mavs’ shooters has been crucial.

“They ran at me from the get-go,” Dirk Nowitzki said, “on the block and on the dribble they came after me. When I was isolated on the free throw line, they came at me as well. After the game I had two days ago they weren’t just going to watch me shoot. They were aggressive tonight and got the ball out of my hands.”

That said, the Spurs don’t win Game 4 without a phenomenal night from George Hill, who was able to make up for the offensive shortcomings of San Antonio’s Big Three. Tim Duncan (1-for-9 shooting), Manu Ginobili (4-for-16), and Tony Parker (4-for-9) combined for just 31 points. Hill had 29 (11-of-16 shooting) on his own, and his jumper was almost eerily smooth.

He was hardly alone, though. Even though the stars didn’t come out in San Antonio, Richard Jefferson (15 points), DeJuan Blair (seven points, seven rebounds), and Antonio McDyess (10 points, eight rebounds), had hugely productive nights, with the impact of the latter two in particular hardly captured by their final stat lines. If not for Blair creating possessions on the offensive glass or McDyess’ physical, effective defense on Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs could very well be rallying behind a 2-2 mark and the series headed back to Dallas. Instead, an inscription above each American Airlines Center entryway reading “Abandon hope, all ye who entere here,” will greet Mavs fans in Game 5.

Dallas not only had a chance to win Game 3, but to see their 15-point lead evaporate in Game 5 is flat-out painful. The Spurs honestly are not that much better than the Mavs, but its impossible to refute San Antonio’s ability to execute. This game was incredibly physical, particularly in the second half, and though the Mavericks were rattled by the physical play and their sputtering offense, the Spurs were not. As a result, San Antonio outscored Dallas 29-11 in the third quarter, and the Mavs surrendered a prime opportunity to seize the series’ momentum.

“Because this team has been there so many times and in this position, when it gets so close and tight like that I don’t think we panic,” Antonio McDyess said. “I think this is a team that always stays on one pace and never gets panicky. We always pull it out when we do that.” 

For Dallas, that third quarter should hurt, and it will. San Antonio just has an edge right now in terms of their energy and execution, and while the probability of the Mavs winning three straight games isn’t impossible given the makeup of their three straight losses, it’s an uphill climb that the no. 2 seed never hoped to face.

NBA Playoffs: Mavs and Spurs deliver as promised, but Dallas draws first blood

1 Comment

Butler_Dunk.jpgDallas and San Antonio both played well but not perfectly. That said, the most important word in that sentence is both, as every terrific performance was countered and every sloppy play met with another by the opposition. It was a game of brilliant, beautiful, and flawed (but balanced in its flaws) basketball, and we shouldn’t want it any other way.

The Mavs and Spurs played a tight game throughout, until the Mavs’ late-game execution allowed them to pull away to a safe, decisive margin. Dallas overcame some decent shooting from San Antonio thanks to taking slightly better care of the ball, parading to the free throw line (in part due to favorable officiating), and limiting the Spurs’ effectiveness in the pick-and-roll in the second half.

Front and center was Dirk Nowitzki, whose shooting was otherworldly. Nowitzki finished with 36 points on just 14 shots, but the most impressive part of Dirk’s evening was his 85.7% shooting from the field. Nowitzki simply refused to miss, as he supplemented his usual array of turnarounds and fadeaways with a few lucky bank shots and a series of makes after contact. There are nights where Dirk is dialed in, and then there are nights like this. If anyone ever questions just how special an offensive talent that Nowitzki is, I would simply pull up this game on the non-existent video monitor, cue a highlight reel of improbable shot after improbable shot, and rest my case.

Dirk was hardly alone, though, as Gregg Popovich made perfectly clear. ” There aren’t many nights where Dirk is not special. He was special tonight, but he had a lot of help,” Pop said. “A lot of other guys played really well; Butler killed us and both big guys were really good on the boads defensively. Jason [Kidd] was a gnat. He was a focused, driven individual, as usual. They had a lot of people well. They played sharper than we did.”

Pop is right: Butler’s 22 points, Kidd’s 11 assists, and Dampier’s 12 rebounds were all essential components of the Dallas’ victory. In a game so close, the importance of every contribution is magnified, and the Mavericks not wearing #41 were still incredibly valuable elements of a winning cause.

Naturally though, the Spurs wouldn’t have been competitive if not for superior performances from Tim Duncan (27 points, eight rebounds, six turnovers) and Manu Ginobili (26 points, six assists, four rebounds, five turnovers), the two stars whose success is absolutely fundamental to what San Antonio looks to accomplish. Their turnovers — some forced and some unforced — were a huge detriment to the tandem’s efficiency. That combined with the Mavs’ tightened defense on the screen-and-roll and Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood’s defense on Duncan in the post was just enough to surrender the momentum that Dallas needed to secure a victory.

Game one felt like a lifetime. Dirk was brilliant, Duncan persevered, Kidd’s was masterful in the half-court, Tony Parker (18 points, four assists) was moderately effective coming off the bench, Jason Terry had a mostly empty night (five points, three assists), George Hill departed early (just 18 minutes), Rick Carlisle altered his rotation (no minutes for Eduardo Najera, just 18 minutes for Brendan Haywood), and Gregg Popovich engaged in what can only be called shenanigans (three straight possessions of Hack-a-Damp in the third quarter). These two teams are just getting started, and if game one was any indication of what the rest of the series will be like, we’re in for a treat.