NBA Playoffs: Howard, Magic hold off Charlotte's comeback attempt

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I had the Bobcats pegged as a potential first-round spoiler because of the way they play defense and how good they are on their home floor, but the Magic represent some fairly significant matchup problems for them on both offense and defense.
When the Bobcats have the ball, they don’t have any way to consistently score on the league’s best defensive player. They don’t have anyone fast or powerful enough with his dribble-drives to beat Howard to the hoop or challenge him and get free throws. They don’t have a post threat consistent enough to initiate the offense from the block and limit Howard’s ability to roam. They don’t have enough outside shooting to put points on the board without having to go the paint at all. Other than that, though, they’re fine. 
What the Bobcats do have is as good a defense as exists in the league. Unfortunately for them, the Magic are so unorthodox offensively that they defend themselves as much as their opponent does. That can get the Magic into trouble at times, but against a team as offensively challenged as the Bobcats, it shouldn’t kill them. Here are my notes from Sunday night’s contest between the Bobcats and the Magic, in chronological order:
-Early in the game, Theo Ratliff tries to take it strong at Howard and gets rejected for his efforts. On the ensuing semi-transition possession, Jameer Nelson pulls up for a three and nails it. As Kevin McHale noted, that’s Magic basketball.
-Jameer Nelson is a dynamo early. When he decides to drive, he’s going all the way to the cup and making the Charlotte bigs pay for staying at home on Howard. When the Bobcats give Nelson space, he’s pulling up and hitting everything he looks at. Nelson was absolutely unstoppable in the first half. He scored 24 points, only missed two shots from the field, and hit a pull-up 35 footer as time expired in the half. A jaw-dropping performance.
-Brown goes to Diaw in the post twice early, and it works both times. Posting up Lewis is generally a good idea if you have the personnel to do so, because it prevents Howard from coming over to get the block. Diaw’s two hooks accounted for the Bobcats’ only points in the paint up to that time.
-The Magic get their third basket in the paint by feeding Ratliff in the post against Howard. Still no layups, dunks or free throws from a drive to the basket or cut up to this point for the Bobcats.
-The Bobcats are getting their points by using screens and lateral passing to free up their bigs for mid-range jumpers, and are doing a pretty good job of it. The Magic are getting the ball, making 0-2 passes, and going for the drive or the first good look they can find from the perimeter. The Bobcats’ offense may look more under control, but layups and threes will almost invariably be better than mid-range jumpers over the course of a game.
-The Bobcats finally complete their first successful drive to the basket when Stephen Jackson gets a layup with 44 seconds to play in the quarter. Before they were able to do that, Dwight Howard had recorded five blocks. It’s hard to overstate the degree to which Howard dominated the paint when he was in the game. 
-With Howard resting in the second quarter, the Bobcats quickly cut the lead to four. Then the Magic summon Mickael Pietrus, who hits three straight threes in the span of a minute and a half. In between two of the threes he made, Pietrus bricked a pair of free throws. I have given up trying to figure out Mickael Pietrus. Nelson and Redick drain threes of their own, and it’s back up to a 14-point Magic lead. When the Magic get hot, watch out. 
-With 1:50 left to play in the half, Larry Hughes tries to drive on Howard. In the most predictable outcome ever, Howard swats his shot away, giving him eight blocks. That put him one away from his playoff career high and two away from an NBA playoff record. (Remember, no recorded blocks when Russell and Chamberlain played.)
-Thanks in part to two ticky-tack fouls, Howard picks up his fourth infraction with eight minutes to play in the third quarter. At this point, the Magic were up 19. When he re-enters the game in the fourth, the Magic are up by 10 points. The Magic go completely cold with Howard on the bench; without him in the lane, Charlotte is free to rotate against the drive and contest shots on the perimeter instead of sagging back into the lane. Orlando can’t get anything going, and is settling for deep jumper after deep jumper. 
-Howard picks up his fifth foul just over a minute into the quarter. The Magic hold the fort this time, and don’t lose a point off their lead in the five minutes Howard sits. The Bobcats begin to creep back into the game by hitting threes and getting to the line, and cut the lead to five with 1:39 remaining. 
-That was when Pietrus came to the rescue again. Pietrus caught a pass in the corner and got his man in the air with an up-fake. Pietrus jumped to try and draw the foul, but didn’t get the contact. While falling over his defender, Pietrus threw up the three…and it went in. There were some free throws after that, but that was the shot that effectively ended Charlotte’s comeback hopes. 
General Notes:
-Howard was on the floor for 28 minutes of Sunday’s game. He was on the bench for the other 20 minutes of it. When Howard was off the floor, the Bobcats played the Magic dead even. When he played, the Magic were +9 over the Bobcats. Howard completely dominated the game while scoring five points. One of the most amazing defensive performances I’ve ever -seen.
-One more illustration that Orlando is tough to guard: they put up 98 points against one of the best defensive teams in the league with Howard and Carter combining to go 6-23 from the field. Scary.
-Rashard Lewis made just about everything he looked at, whether it was a catch-and-shoot three or a pull-up from midrange. Huge games for Lewis, Redick, Pietrus, and of course Nelson. 
-Stephen Jackson was one of the only Bobcats who wasn’t afraid to take it at Howard. This is strange, as he hyper-extended his knee in the first half. Jackson says he will play in game 2, but will reportedly undergo an MRI on his injured knee. 
-Great game for Gerald Wallace, who had a line 25/17 and had just about every aspect of his game going. If Charlotte got some shooters to give Wallace space to operate, he could be scary. 
That’s about the story for game one. Like they generally do when they’re on their game, the Magic survived their cold stretches and absolutely rained sulfur when their shots were falling. If they can keep Howard on the court, the Magic could have a relatively easy time putting Larry Brown’s squad away. 

Wolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns questionable vs. Knicks after car accident

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns was questionable for Friday night’s game in New York against the Knicks after a car accident in the Minneapolis area.

The Star Tribune reports Towns was headed to the airport Thursday when he was involved in the accident. Coach Ryan Saunders told the newspaper Towns caught a commercial flight after the accident and missed a team shootaround.

Saunders said he had no information on specific injuries for Towns. Guard Tyus Jones told the Star Tribune he saw Towns before the shootaround and Towns was doing “all right.”

“Rest” was listed as the reason for him being questionable on the official injury report

It wasn’t immediately clear where the accident occurred. Minneapolis police said they didn’t handle any incident involving Towns. A Timberwolves spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a phone message from The Associated Press.

 

Kings’ Dave Joerger and Buddy Hield apparently argued after Hield’s late 3-pointer (video)

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Important caveats: I don’t know what Kings coach Dave Joerger and Sacramento guard Buddy Hield said to each other late in their loss to the Warriors last night. It looks like they were arguing, but body language can easily be misread. And even if they were arguing, I don’t know about what.

Let’s read into the situation, anyway.

With the Kings down six and 20 seconds left, Hield pulled up for a deep 3-pointer and made it. Afterward, Joerger and Hield had an exchange:

Could Joerger have been upset about the shot? Sacramento was down six with 20 seconds left. There wasn’t time to work for a better look. The Kings needed points, ideally three, quickly. As soon as Hield felt he confident, he should have shot, as he did.

That set up Sacramento’s final possession, down two with 6.5 seconds left. Hield squared up for another deep 3-pointer, hesitated then worked inside for an off-balance miss:

Hield said he should have let it fly. Did Joerger get in his head?

That’s what Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard said happened:

That’s the easy narrative.

Is that the accurate narrative? I don’t know.

But it’s definitely the easy one.

NBA emphasizes its investigation never concluded Tim Donaghy didn’t fix games

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Did Tim Donaghy fix games while working as NBA referee?

That question still draws interest, even many years after he admitted to supplying gamblers with inside information in exchange for money. Donaghy has denied fixing games.

A new investigation into Donaghy was published by ESPN earlier this week. I recommend reading Scott Eden’s piece in full.

Then, it’s worth reading the NBA’s response.

NBA:

The Tim Donaghy matter concluded over a decade ago with a full investigation by the federal government, Donaghy’s termination from the NBA, and his conviction for criminal acts.  At the same time, at the request of the NBA, former prosecutor Larry Pedowitz conducted an independent investigation of Donaghy’s misconduct and issued publicly a 133-page report.  This report was based on an extensive review of game data and video as well as approximately 200 interviews, thousands of pages of documents, and consultation with various gambling and data experts.

The ESPN Article attempts to revive this old story.  Unfortunately, it is replete with errors, beginning with its statement that the Pedowitz Report “concluded that Donaghy, in fact, did not fix games.”  The Pedowitz Report made no such conclusion.  Rather, the investigation found no basis to disagree with the finding of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that “[t]here is no evidence that Donaghy ever intentionally made a particular ruling during a game in order to increase the likelihood that his gambling pick would be correct.”  ESPN ignores this important distinction.

The new material that ESPN has assembled to support its own conclusion that Donaghy manipulated games is not strong and adds little to the existing record.

Quoted Individuals

The ESPN Article includes several quotes from named and unnamed individuals.  But these statements conflict with other evidence in the record and in many cases are based on speculation.  For example:

• ESPN quotes Phil Scala, a retired FBI agent who was part of the government’s investigation, as saying Donaghy’s claim that he did not manipulate games “never really flew with us.” But in 2009, Scala wrote a foreword to a book authored by Donaghy in which Scala characterized Donaghy’s cooperation as “unconditionally truthful” and stated that Donaghy “confess[ed] his sins, [took] full responsibility for his actions, pa[id] his debt to society, and [found] the humility to completely display his past vices.”

• ESPN quotes an anonymous “professional gambler” as claiming Donaghy told him “he liked to call an illegal defense call, right away, in the first minute.” But this claim is not accurate.  In the 274 regular season and playoff games that Donaghy officiated during the 2003-04 to 2006-07 seasons, he called illegal defense three times during the first minute of a game.

• ESPN asserts that Donaghy had “come clean” to Tommy Martino. But the actual quotes attributed to Martino do not appear to support that conclusion – they only suggest that Donaghy told Martino he could influence games, not that he had in fact done so.

Statistical Analysis

The ESPN Article relies on a statistical analysis of Donaghy’s officiating and betting line movements.  We asked ESPN to provide us with the data and assumptions underlying this analysis, but they refused.  Based on the limited information contained in the Article, we attempted to replicate ESPN’s findings – but were unable to do so.  Indeed, our analysis found no meaningful pattern of Donaghy making more calls in favor of the team that had the “heavier betting.”

Further, the original analyses conducted by the Pedowitz team were significantly more comprehensive than what ESPN appears to have done.  For example, ESPN’s work appears to include only foul calls, and not significant non-calls or violations.  It further treats all calls the same, without considering the nature or circumstances of the call – such as “take fouls” or high-impact shooting fouls.  And ESPN questionably excludes from its analysis 10 games that it deemed to be “blowouts” and roughly 50 calls that it could not attribute to a particular referee – omissions that could meaningfully alter its conclusions.

Finally, it is important to remember that a statistical analysis can only suggest a probability of an event’s occurrence – it does not itself constitute direct evidence that an event occurred.  By contrast, the Pedowitz team and the NBA supplemented statistical analysis with an assessment of the accuracy of each of Donaghy’s actual calls and non-calls in relevant games.  These analyses also did not support ESPN’s conclusions.

Anecdotal Evidence from Games

The ESPN Article cites several games officiated by Donaghy that included calls or call patterns that ESPN deemed suspicious.  However, these examples have limited value separate from a more careful video analysis, and they frequently omit material information.  For example:

• Dallas @ Seattle, 12/20/2006: ESPN cites a foul called by Donaghy against Seattle with 23 seconds remaining in the game that purportedly gave Dallas an opportunity to cover an 8-point spread.  But it omits that this was an intentional “take foul” by Seattle.  The Article also cites a streak of fouls called by Donaghy against Seattle in the same game, purportedly to favor Dallas.  But it omits that after this streak, and during the last four minutes of the game, Donaghy called two fouls against Dallas.

• Boston @ Philadelphia, 12/13/2006: ESPN cites two consecutive fouls called by Donaghy against the Sixers’ Andre Iguodala in the third quarter when the game’s score margin was near the point spread.  But it omits that between those fouls, Donaghy called a foul against the Celtics’ Paul Pierce.

• Washington @ Indiana, 3/14/2007: ESPN cites four consecutive fouls called by Donaghy against the Pacers in the fourth quarter when the game’s margin was near the point spread.  But it omits that immediately prior to this streak, Donaghy called four consecutive fouls against the Wizards.

* * *

We recognize there is strong interest in the subject of expanded sports betting and the measures sports organizations should undertake to protect integrity.  However, the ESPN Article does not add anything material to the record of what happened over a decade ago.  There is no dispute that Tim Donaghy engaged in criminal conduct as an NBA referee, costing him his job, his reputation, and for a time, his freedom.  The Pedowitz investigation focused on understanding what Donaghy did and how he did it so we would be best equipped to protect the integrity of our games going forward.

In that regard, the Pedowitz Report prompted changes to the NBA’s officiating and integrity programs.  A summary of the initiatives the NBA has adopted since 2008 is available here.  This summary provides added context that describes the NBA’s response to the Donaghy situation and our continued efforts to ensure that the NBA’s integrity programs meet the highest standards.

The Donaghy matter also underscores the need for sports leagues to have greater access to betting data from sports books to monitor gambling on their games.  We will continue our ongoing efforts to obtain this information to further expand our integrity efforts and best protect our sport in an age of legalized sports gambling.

The NBA is right: the Pedowitz Report did not conclude that Donaghy didn’t fix games. The report merely found insufficient evidence to disagree with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which found no evidence Donaghy fixed games. A lack of evidence to contradict a lack of evidence is not nearly as conclusive as “Donaghy didn’t fix games.”

But is the NBA really now casting doubt on the notion Donaghy didn’t fix games?

That seems backward. The league should seemingly want to protect its integrity, not call attention to lack of clarity around what Donaghy did and didn’t do.

Maybe the NBA is just trying to cast general doubt onto Eden’s reporting. Some of the above distinctions seem like nitpicking, at least without more context. For example, how many illegal defenses did Donaghy call in the first five minutes of games? The gambler might have been embellishing by saying “first minute.”

Still, the league raises one question that seems particularly relevant: Why did former FBI agent Phil Scala vouch for Donaghy’s honesty then express doubt over Donaghy’s claim he didn’t fix games?

Ultimately, I wish we had better data. Pedowitz reviewed only 17 games, but examined all calls. ESPN reviewed 40 games, but apparently examined only fouls.

However, statistical analysis can’t prove Donaghy’s motives. It can only indicate trends. So, even better data won’t prove whether or not Donaghy fixed games.

But here’s what I can’t get over, no matter how ESPN or the NBA frames these details: Donaghy broke the law to sell gamblers information while working as a referee. Will anyone ever believe he drew the line before fixing games?

Monte Morris plays it safe – to Nuggets’ delight

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DETROIT – Monte Morris entered the NBA inauspiciously.

Despite looking like a borderline first-round pick after his junior year, Morris returned to Iowa State for his senior season. He pulled his quad during the pre-draft process in 2017, missing most of his scheduled workouts. He fell to the No. 51 pick. The Nuggets offered just a two-year, two-way contract.

“I was excited,” said Morris, a Flint, Mich., native. “Where I come from, if you get a chance to get to this level, everybody back home looks at you as the hero. So, I was just happy for my opportunity.”

Morris has seized it.

With Isaiah Thomas sidelined most of the season, Morris has emerged as a quality contributor in Denver. Morris deserves strong consideration for spots on Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player ballots. And this could be just the start.

The knock on Morris has long been his ceiling. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound point guard is neither big nor overly athletic. In four years at Iowa State, he developed a reputation for protecting the ball and taking what defenses gave him. Usually, future NBA point guards bend the game more at that level. They use their burst and/or shooting to dictate terms to the defense. Morris left many scouts believing he’d be a career backup in the NBA – at best.

Morris has improved his outside shooting, making 43.1% of his 3-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game this season. But he’s mostly playing the same style he always has, avoiding bad shots and turnovers. It has just translated far better than expected.

Morris’ 6.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to be the best in NBA history. Here are the highest assist-to-turnover ratios since 1977-78, as far back as Basketball-Reference data goes (assists and turnovers per game in parentheses):

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Morris has gone 127 minutes since his last turnover.

“As a coach, that’s what you want in a point guard,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s a throwback.”

Morris is averaging 10.8 points per game, and he competes defensively. Few reserves have produced like him this season.

Montrezl Harrell and Domantas Sabonis are pulling away from the field in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But the ballot runs three deep, and Morris ranks third among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players in win shares:

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Not bad for someone who spent most of last season in the NBA’s minor league.

Morris played well there, and he has only continued to improve since. He impressed so much in summer league, Denver signed him to a standard contract a year before his two-way deal would have ended. That way, the Nuggets could use Morris more than the 45-day limit for two-way players within the season.

“He embodied who we want to be,” Malone said. “He embodied our culture. Self-motivated. And every time you gave Monte Morris a challenge, he met it head on.”

Judging Morris’ improvement can be tricky. He played just 25 minutes in three NBA games last season. I suspect he could have handled a bigger role, even as a rookie. But there’s a certain amount of guesswork there. (Not so for my Most Improved Player favorite, Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox, who was demonstrably bad last season then has become a near-star this season).

Undeniably, Morris’ impact this season is far greater than ever before.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Everything is trending the right direction for Morris. He’s showing the fruits of his work ethic, and he’s just 23. Maybe we can finally view him as someone with upside. But even if this is his ceiling, it’s high enough. Morris is already a productive NBA rotation player.

Perhaps best of all for the Nuggets, Morris is on just a minimum contract.

Here are this season’s win-share leaders among minimum-contract players:*

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*Excluding players who were bought out or just waived in-season then signed elsewhere for the minimum. Excluding players on rookie-scale contracts who had their salaries increased to the minimum by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Of the 15 minimum-salary players on that leaderboard, only two have contracts that won’t allow them to enter free agency and pursue raises this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie signed a three-year, $34,360,473 extension in December, which he deemed even better than hitting the open market. Morris has two (!) additional minimum-salary seasons on his deal.

By getting him onto a two-year, two-way deal initially, Denver gained immense leverage in negotiations last summer. Morris could have played out his two-way deal and become a restricted free agent next summer. Instead, he took the safe approach with a three-year contract that guaranteed two seasons at the NBA minimum and included a third unguaranteed minimum season.

It’s incredible value for the Nuggets… and delays Morris getting a payday commensurate with his production. But he’s maintaining the same steady approach he shows on the court.

“It’s cool,” Morris said. “I’ve just got to keep being Monte, keep being on-time, keep being a good person, and everything will take care of itself.”