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.  

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry touches live ball (video)

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This hasn’t been a great year for NBA coaches staying out of the way.

First, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – mistakenly believing a timeout had been called – went onto the court during play. He tried to run off, but he wasn’t quick enough to avoid a technical foul.

Then, last night, Rockets forward P.J. Tucker threw an off-target pass past James Harden. The ball rolled all the way to the backcourt and was headed out of bounds… when Pelicans coach Gentry stepped onto the court to scoop it up.

AT&T SportsNet Southwest:

Gentry was just trying to save time. But, of course, that was a technical foul.

After 1-of-11 shooting, Kristaps Porzingis not mad he was benched to end game

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With 9:04 left in the game Monday night in Boston, Kristaps Porzingis picked up his fifth personal foul. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle subbed him out.

Porzingis never saw the floor again.

After a 1-of-11 shooting night when Porzingis had more fouls (five) than points (four), Carlisle went with what was working better against the Celtics and gave his team a chance to win. After the game, Porzingis was asked about being benched for crunch time and he was not blaming his coach. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“Of course I want to be out there, but can’t blame him,” Porzingis said. “I wasn’t having a great game. I’m all-in for whatever’s best for the team. If the coach thinks he’d rather have me out and have someone else in that’s having a better game, let’s do it if we can win a basketball game. That’s the most important thing, but going forward, I want to make sure I’m out there.”

Porzingis has struggled to find his form to start the season — something that shouldn’t be a surprise for a guy who went 19 months without playing competitive basketball following his torn ACL. He’s averaging 18.3 points per game but is shooting just 40.1 percent overall (but 37.5 percent from three).

The issue has been consistency — he’s had nights like the 32 against Portland, but in games where Luka Doncic is dominating the ball, Porzingis has faded away rather than asserted himself into the contest. When he’s had smaller players switched onto him, he has not been an overpowering force, but rather has settled for jumpers over them (and he can shoot a jumper over almost anyone). He’s being a bit passive.

It’s far too early to have serious concerns about Porzingis — again, he just missed 19 months of competitive basketball. And development. Of course this was going to take time. However, if things don’t improve as the season moves along then Mavericks fans should start to worry a little. The Mavericks have gone all-in on the Doncic/Porzingis combo and need it to work.

 

Stephen Curry says he will play this season, hopes to play “in early spring”

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry “definitely” plans to return this season from his broken left hand and is hoping to be back on the court at “some point in early spring.”

When exactly the two-time NBA MVP will be able to play again remains uncertain, but he expects to be back out there.

Curry addressed the media Monday night for the first time since getting injured Oct. 30 and said he needs a second surgery on his non-shooting hand, probably in early December, to remove pins that were inserted during the first procedure Nov. 1 that involved his hand and index finger.

“(Managing the) swelling is something that’s going to be of the utmost priority early in the rehab process,” Curry said, “to get me a chance to come back and get my range of motion back pretty quickly.”

The Warriors initially said Curry would be re-evaluated three months after the surgery, which would be early February.

Curry referred to himself and injured teammate Klay Thompson as “caged animals right now, wanting to be unleashed.”

Thompson, the other part of Golden State’s Splash Brothers combo, is recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The team hopes he can return in the second half of the season.

Curry said he experienced some minor nerve irritation shortly after he underwent his first hand surgery, a common byproduct of the procedure. That’s one thing doctors will continue to monitor throughout his rehab process, and it will impact when he can return.

For now, Curry is working out his lower body and doing whatever training is permitted by the team’s medical staff, saying he’s using this three-month period without basketball as a “mini offseason” to fine-tune his body.

The Warriors’ longest-tenured player had praise for his teammates, who took the court Monday night against Utah with a 2-8 record that was tied with the New York Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans for the worst in the NBA.

Curry described rookie Eric Paschall‘s energy as contagious and said the play of new guard D'Angelo Russell has been “unreal.” Asked what the benefits would be for he and Thompson to return to the court this season if it was only for the final few weeks, Curry had an answer.

“Just to understand the chemistry with the young guys,” he said. “We can play around with rotations and just get a vibe of what the following season, when we’re all healthy, looks like.”

Three Things to Know: Red-hot James Harden off to Jordan/Wilt level start to season

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Red-hot James Harden off to Jordan/Wilt level start to the season. Remember this quaint concern before the season tipped off: There’s only one basketball, how exactly are Russell Westbrook and James Harden going to share it and share the court?

It’s Harden’s basketball, Harden’s team, and when it matters Westbrook is going to stay out of the way. That’s how.

Harden — whose 36.1 points per game last season was the highest per-game average in the league since Michael Jordan in 1987 (37.1) — is off to a hotter start and scoring more this season.

We saw that on Monday night: Harden had a personal 13-0 run in the fourth quarter and dropped 19 in the final frame to help the Rockets put away the Pelicans, 122-116. Harden finished with 39 points, his fourth-straight 35+ point game — and not so coincidentally the Rockets are on a four-game win streak.

If you want to talk old-school per-game averages, Harden is averaging 37.3 through 10 games, the most in the last 50 years — Jordan averaged 36.9 in 1987 and 1989.

By the way, when Westbrook and Harden share the court the Rockets are +2.8 points per 100 possessions, and the team plays pretty good (league average range) defense when they are paired.

Nothing has changed for Harden. The man with the beard, motivated by losing the MVP race to Giannis Antetokounmpo last season, has not been slowed in the least by the arrival of another ball-dominant guard.

The Rockets are 7-3 to start the season, and while we can debate where they belong in the rankings of contenders in the West, we know that if you leave them off the list you’re doing it wrong. This is a good team, a dangerous one.

And good luck slowing Harden down.

2) The Day the injuries piled up: Gordon Hayward, Khris Middleton, De’Aaron Fox all out weeks. This was a depressing way to start the week, injuries to three star players that will keep them out weeks.

We knew Sunday night that Celtics’ star Gordon Hayward, off to a fast start this season, had fractured his hand. Monday we learned that he had surgery to repair the fourth metacarpal bone in his left hand (the bone that connects the wrist to the ring finger), and he will be out six weeks. That’s relatively good news, Stephen Curry is out three months with the fracture in his non-shooting hand, but Hayward will be missed. He was averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and dishing out 4.1 assists per game. More than just that, he’s been a critical playmaker for the Celtics.

Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton left Sunday’s game in the third quarter with a thigh bruise but after the game said it was not that serious. Actually, it was serious. He’s going to be out 3-4 weeks with the injury. Middleton was playing at his All-Star level of a year ago averaging 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three but also finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

Sacramento’s rising star De’Aaron Fox rolled his ankle near the end of the Kings’ practice on Monday and he will be out 3-4 weeks with what has been described as a grade 3 sprain. Fox was putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game this season as the focal point of the Kings’ offense.

To add to all this, the Clippers’ young sharpshooter Landry Shamet had to leave the game against the Raptors on Monday night and an MRI on Tuesday will tell us how long he will be out.

3) San Antonio Spurs retire the jersey of Tony Parker, putting all of their big three in the rafters. Tony Parker was the No. 28 pick the 2001 NBA Draft. At the time there was a push from members of the Boston Celtics front office to take him at No. 21, but 84-year-old team president Red Auerbach didn’t trust that European point guards could thrive in the NBA. The Celtics took Joe Forte.

Parker fell to the Spurs seven picks later, and the rest is history. Parker went on to help the Spurs to four titles, he was named Finals MVP with one of those, plus was a six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA player. Parker used his quickness and high IQ to break down defenses as well as anyone who played the game — the 6’2” Parker led the league in points in the paint one season.

Parker was part of the core that turned the Spurs into a dynasty. He deserved to have his number hung in the rafters with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili (and they were all there for the occasion).

Parker handled the night with the class we have come to expect from the French star.

Merci, Toni.