Close Calls: top teams in the clutch

The Celtics just learned how long Kevin Garnett will be out, but it’s possible that even a slight drop in the level of play while he is unavailable could result in a two week skid. Thus far this season, the C’s have played 30 games, 13 of which have been decided by two possessions (six points) or less. That they’ve won 10 of these tight bouts is impressive, but one wonders how losing their best player in terms of plus-minus (Garnett is plus .300 pts/minute this season) will impact their ability to eek out tight games.

Garnett’s absence nearly derailed the Celtics’ season in 2009, so fans must be pleased he’ll only be sidelined for a couple weeks.

From a broader perspective, the fact that the Celtics have been playing so many tight games can be viewed in one of two ways. Positively, it shows that the Celtics execute expertly down the stretch. Being able to win close games is generally valued as an important quality for post-season success and an indicator that a team is cool in clutch spots. But the fact that 42% of their wins have come down to the final possessions is also a sign that their 24-6 record may not proclaim the dominance implied by the Celtics’ record.

After noticing this, I wondered if it was normal for such a dominant team to win so many games by so few points. I checked out all other teams on pace to win 50 games, and found that Boston is not alone, but also in strange company.

When we weight the age of teams by minutes played, Boston is the third oldest team. The oldest team is the Dallas Mavericks, who have played 15 games decided by six points or less and won 11 of

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Despite Strength, Ron Artest No Match For LeBron James

One can learn only so much from a midseason game, but if there’s one thing we know for sure after the Heat choked out the Lakers, it’s that Ron Artest is no match for LeBron James. That may not seem like an outlandish statement, but there were many predicting that Artest’s ability to body up on James could play a major role on Christmas. After all, Artest has a history of tormenting the nearly unguardable Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce in last year’s playoffs with physical, consistent defense on and off the ball.

But unlike just about everyone else Artest defends (Carmelo Anthony is also a notable exception), LeBron is bigger and stronger than him, so “bodying up” isn’t really an option. RonRon, who usually relies on his phenomenal total body strength, fast hands and advanced feather-ruffling techniques to limit great scorers, simply can’t contain someone with James’ combination of power, speed, and open court game.

When he tried to body LeBron off the ball, James released effortlessly. When he tried to crowd LeBron on the catch, James dribbled past Artest like he wasn’t even there. When he put LeBron in a headlock, which inexplicably resulted in LeBron receiving a technical, James remained thoroughly unperturbed. And unlike Carmelo, Durant and Pierce, LeBron becomes a primary ball handler in transition, a situation Artest is uniquely ill-equipped to defend.

In reality, the primary consideration when choosing a defender for LeBron should be footspeed, instead of strength. Tony Allen, despite giving up a couple inches and 50 pounds, is probably the prototypical LeBron stopper.

But Artest’s complete inability to affect LeBron’s offensive game would not, in itself, be so detrimental to the Lakers if he at least contributed something on the offensive end. However his relative lack of understanding when it comes

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Don’t Give Up On OJ Mayo

OJ Mayo is having a rough season. For the last month, he’s been coming off the bench in favor of the emergent Xavier Henry, and seems to have slipped from franchise staple to expendable asset in the eyes of fans and the franchise. While teammates Rudy Gay (24) and Mike Conley (23) have received expensive contracts, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that Mayo (23) will be offered an extension after he becomes a restricted free agent in 2012. If the Grizzlies do decide to spend on their own again soon, Chris Wallace will target Pau Gasol’s furry little brother first.  But while a decrease in playing time and importance within one’s franchise is not usually a positive, I’m holding out hope that Mayo is will continue to find increased relevance in his new role.

This jumper will look even prettier in another uniform

Maybe I’m blinded by the fact I’ve been hearing about OJ since he was hitting step-back jumpers eighth grade, but every time I see him play, I find myself digging his game. The vapors of that middle school legend might be confounding my critical evaluation, but damn if Mayo doesn’t play like a starter for a good stretch every time I watch him (like on Monday when he put 27 on the Spurs in his only start since being benched in November). Yet, I also understand why he may not mesh along side with the diminutive Mike Conley.

Indeed, Mayo’s skill set is a catalog of contradictions:

He’s got a high basketball IQ but makes poor decisions distributing the ball. He’s got clever scoring instincts, but can have difficulty creating his own shot. He’s strong and has good hands as a defender, but has only average wingspan and is undersized when defending shooting guards. He’s still quite young,

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We’re on the Heat Index

Talking about that big, fat X-Mas game: Heat-Lakers: the Christmas Litmus

–@SherwoodStrauss/Ethanstra@gmail.com

–@BeckleyMason/Beckleym@gmail.com

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Derrick Rose: Perfect Storm of Overrated?

Image by Anthony Bain

A week ago, Beckley and I parsed the notion of Derrick Rose. Certain readers were angry at the personalities within our schizoid dialogue, particularly the Derrick-hating takes. Some mistook a conversation for an argument. To those, I say, “Here’s your argument.” Not only do I think Rose overrated, I think him the potential Perfect Storm of Overrated. It’s written with no hate in my heart, I love watching D-Rose just as much as you do–which is in part why he’s the P.S.O. With Noah out, I expect the “Rose for MVP” chant to mute as the Bulls slide to a 5th seed. But the chant will reverberate across the future, for reasons listed below:

Big Market: Market size is measurable, influential. The “Second City” might actually be third, but the bronze medal is enormous. If Chicago was a female kangaroo, it could easily fit the Oklahoma City metro area inside Chi-town’s marsupial pouch. Chicago could even jump high, higher than Joakim Noah’s arc. But that wouldn’t be safe–like making bad puns a stone’s throw from comment sections. Great Aesthetics: This is impossible to measure, fun to describe. I call Derrick “close-range Kobe,” as my girlfriend wonders what I’m screaming in my sleep. Bryant boasts an ability to make thrilling, difficult, long-range jumpers. When Kobe drains double-teamed fadeaways, fans gasp. Then, they exhale the air that inflates Bryant’s legend past the point of fact. It’s because every impossible shot delivers an adrenaline jolt, a Pavlovian fist-pump–and most importantly, a memory. Our brains cling to that moment over one hundred effective Pau hook shots. We recall what surprises, credit the shocking-jock.

As Henry Abbott points out, Rose specializes in the thrilling, shifty, contact-avoiding layup. It’s memorable for all the reasons Kobe’s long-distance bombs are. By the

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The Boston Celtics’ Secret To Efficient Crunch Time Scoring

Last night fellow HoopSpeaker Ethan Sherwood Strauss and I were G-chatting during the final moments of the Celtics-Knicks game. With thirteen seconds left, the Knicks had given the ball back to the Celtics, and we were both certain  the Celtics would get a great look and probably score. In fact, Ethan, who is a Knicks fan, was so nervous, he wondered if New York would be better off fouling immediately, going down one or two points, then getting the ball with about 10 seconds to run a final play. His reasoning:

Ethan: call me nuts, but shouldn’t the knicks just foul

i trust their ability to make a shot better than their ability to defend

annnnnd

me: so true

Ethan: bam.

As predicted, Paul Pierce got a favorable match up, went to his happy place on the right side, free throw line extended, and put in a routine 16 footer.  A simple ball screen between Pierce and Garnett switched one of the Knicks’ worst defenders, Amar’e Stoudamire, onto the Celtics’ best one-on-one player in his favorite place on the court. It was merciless, it was clean, and it was routine. That’s how the Celtics are able to get great looks down the stretch– they run the plays and take the shots that they take for the first three and a half quarters.

And why not? So far this year, the Celtics have the most efficient offense in the league shooting 50.9% from the floor with an Effective Field Goal percentage of 54.27% and a True Shooting percentage  of 57.9%. All these metrics lead the league.

Paul Pierce, probably about to get "fouled"

This incredibly efficient offense kicks into another gear in the final minutes of tight games, which is important because the Celtics have already played thirteen games

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Can Advanced Statistics Can Make The NBA A Better League?

Ever since Wilt Chamberlain’s dominant career yielded only two championships, certain NBA players have been criticized and even demonized by the perception that they care only for their own statistics instead of making their teammates better and winning. Some hoops historians have argued that these players focused on individual accomplishments like points, assists or rebounds, instead of doing “the little things” that help teams win, whatever those are. This narrative is supported by today’s advanced statistic gurus who point out how other metrics like TS% and PER better represent a player’s impact. The consensus seems to be that great production in traditional statistics doesn’t necessarily yield success, but what if a player was solely motivated by advanced statistics?

Permit me a personal anecdote:

Last weekend, in a cold, unevenly lit gym full of unevenly skilled hoopers, a confluence of terrible opposition and random luck allowed me to score 18 points on only 5 FG attempts (I padded the stats with some late freethrows). But what was really odd was that I found myself consciously factoring advanced statistical measurements into my play.

(Important note: my four made shots came between committing a number of basketball atrocities: throwing passes over teammates’ heads, dribbling off of knees (mine and my opponents), and allowing some unconscionable blow-bys to a 5-11 230lb Bobby Moynihan impersonator. Suffice to say, it was not a perfect game by any standard.)

Like any neverwas, knocking down my first couple three pointers usually turns on the “shoot like you’ve got NBA Jam On Fire power” switch in my delusional brain. But instead of jacking up my next five touches like I was J.R. Smith on amphetamines, I only attempted one shot, a breakaway layup, the rest of the half.

Why? Because Henry Abbott’s contrarian posts on whether “being

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Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 10: Thorns in Rose’s Crown

IMAGE BY ANTHONY BAIN

“Mama there goes that Meme!” is a weekly HoopSpeak feature in which Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, like curious extraterrestrials, probe, abuse, and ultimately learn from a popular media meme.

Beckley: Have you noticed there’s a former Number 1 overall pick who was drafted into his hometown central division team with a ball-dominant game, unreal speed in the open court, and a knack for miraculous finishes over and around his opponents who’s climbing the ranks of most divisive player in the NBA? No, not LeBron, time to move on, Cleveland is boring.

Derrick Rose can’t top The King or Mamba yet (he’ll need an absurd nickname to do that), but judging by our recent Daily Dime chat, trolling for Derrick Rose haters and defendants is like shooting fish in a barrel made of fish. Yet Rose doesn’t have any of the personality complications that underscore the Kobe and LeBron punditry– he didn’t even have a speaking role in his own commercial. Perhaps it’s the molten hot point guard debate that gives the Rose question so much gravity. The same way “I believe Kobe is a really good basketball player” must really mean “LeBron isn’t fit to carry Kobe’s gym bag,” any praise for or criticism of Rose seems to imply judgment on Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook (fine, Steph Curry too). It seems that Rose has become an unlikely lightning rod of NBA opinion-makers. Where do you stand on this? Remember, Ethan, you can ONLY love or hate him. Anything else speaks of rationality, which is boring, and will result in no one reading this post.

Ethan: I appreciate your charity in parenthetically including Curry. Though he just trails Derrick Rose in PER, wouldn’t ya know? For all

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Everybody Must Get Zoned

Zone defense isn’t man-to-man, and it isn’t manly. It’s what boys play in college and high school, what your JV team ran because the other team couldn’t shoot. No elite NBA defense could ever employ a zone with any consistency and success. Well, until one does.

The Dallas Mavericks are surrendering the league’s fourth lowest Opponent FG% (43.3%) while endeavoring to have the best zone defense in the league. It’s likely they already possess the best zone defense in NBA history. The world of NBA coaching is a thrift store for gently used ideas and people (EG- Doug Collins has a job?), so it was a brave decision for coach Rick Carlisle to devote so much time and energy to a culturally disdained and previously unsuccessful tactic. (Trivia knowledge: Zone “D” was legalized only ten years ago and was first outlawed in 1947).

But why are zones, for lack of a better word, lame? There is always an underlying tension in basketball between the team and the individual, between movement and isolation. For years the NBA has been successful in marketing its players as individual offensive virtuosos, and there’s a reason the Hip Hop culture infused basketball uber-magazine is called SLAM instead of BOUNCE PASS. Many American NBA players learn this culture along with the game, and it seems that playing zone is anathema to the in-your-face, mano y mano warrior image. Yet good defense is always communal act, and the best NBA defenses, like that of the Lakers or Celtics, go into a zone look whenever possible to disrupt strong-side pick and rolls or isolations.

Don't stare, it's just two dudes who like playing zone

But beyond the cultural belief that zone is the Vanilla Ice of defensive philosophies, there are plenty of practical reasons why zone

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Speaking Through LeBron

(Back at the HoopSpeak lab, Ethan Sherwood Strauss is coming up with new, creative ways to defend LeBron)

When asked about a Favre analogy, LeBron James said:

Brett (had) great years here in Green Bay, and any time a great competitor like that leaves, no one wants to see that, but they’ve done a great job of regrouping with Aaron Rodgers and I believe that Cleveland will do the same

How magnanimous. And he was ripped for it. For some, it’s hard to speak rationally to the 24 hour news cycle. Those tagged with scarlet letters make any comment and the bouncing, hooting, screeching children of media yell, “OOOO! You’re in TRUB-BULLLLL!!!” in a Puritanical ritual of self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s how the PR Troll process works. Pundits pretend to spot a foot-in-mouth, so they can be seen as the savvy foot extractors.

But this maligned quote highlights an underplayed truth: In words, LeBron James has been quite kind to those who despise him. For all the talk of how James is the Anti-Sportsman of the year, a devil, a pariah, a cautionary tale, few have mentioned, “He hasn’t spoken ill of anyone.” God knows I would have. Were I LeBron, my reputation-imploding response would have been:

Brett Favre? Maybe. I wouldn’t know. I’m too tired to read every column by a midlife crisis with a laptop. Perhaps that speaks to my lack of effort? Media before me, please chasten LeBron James well. That is what you do, right? You take to the airwaves and Internet, in a grand collective effort to school marm me proper. And thank GOD for that, really. Because while clawing my way out of poverty, I always prayed for the day when comfortable, pot-bellied slobs could regale me with advice on how to be

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