As stakes rise, so does Rondo

Despite a 3-1 record against Miami during the regular season, it never really felt like the Boston Celtics had the Heat’s number. In each of the first three games (all Celtic wins) the margin of victory decreased, before Miami cruised to a 23-point win in the final meeting of the regular season on April 10th. Interestingly enough, the Celtics diminishing success coincided with a decrease in the team’s assist totals as well as the assist totals of Rajon Rondo.

When considering that the point guard accounted for 57% of the Celtics assists in these games – well above his season average of 39.6% – we can see that Boston’s ball movement tends to go as Rondo goes. Just consider the first two meetings of the season when Rondo was in the midst of a historic stretch to open the season. He handed out 33 assists as the Celtics won both contests by a total of 13 points. Furthermore, history seems to indicate that the fourth-year point guard is the key when it comes to beating teams like the Miami Heat, who match up so well defensively with the likes of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. While these players create matchup problems against most teams, the athleticism of Lebron James and Dwyane Wade leaves Miami well-equipped to cover Boston’s wings, leaving more of the onus on Rondo.

The 2010 playoffs are a perfect case study in this theory, as the Celtics faced the Heat and Cavaliers in back-to-back series and the increased reliance on Rondo was evident. During the 2010 regular season, Rondo’s usage rate was just 15%, somewhat low for someone considered an elite point guard, but descriptive of his distributive role in the Celtics offense. In these two series his usage jumped to 20%, and beyond that,

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HoopSpeak Network

Against Instant Replay

The following isn’t timely which underscores its message. Life would have been perfect had I written about instant replay immediately after Ginobili and Neal hit their Game 6 hoists. It’s been a whole two days since. If you have a point to make it’s best to make it on the backs of last night’s memories. A fever robbed me of the chance, now these words seem orphaned because their reason passed.

In this business as I know it, every story needs a “time peg,” an article’s connection to some zeitgeist in the world. The Internet’s gaping maw craves content connected to fresh events. I can’t go on about Heat-Sixers Game 1 when all anyone cares about is Heat-Celtics Game 1. That would seem stale and vaguely crazy. You’d expect to find 17 cats living in my apartment.

A “big three” of present, immediate past, and not-too-distant future dominate the attention of fans and writers. I’m fine with this, it makes sense for humans to obsess over what’s going on right now. Twitter has made it easier for us to share our in-the-moments, and I’m fine with that too. It’s thrilling to collectively engage, especially when sports are involved. Sports can reach into your living room and trick your vocal cords into involuntary yelps. A buzzer beater can throw you from a chair without your legs cooperating.

These moments–the joy and the pain–bring such brief clarity to a life often replete with neurotic doubting. But, instant replay seeks to bleach these moments of their color. Nagging questions can sap the significance. Watch that controversial .4 Derek Fisher shot on Youtube, and you’ll hear “They’ll have have to review it..” amid the hysteria. Is that the kind of call you want in basketball history’s time capsule?

(A buzzer beat–oh…did he

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Digging deep on Gary Neal’s game saving three

As Sebastian Pruiti expertly notes in his post on the Gary Neal three that sent the Spurs-Grizzlies game into overtime, Shane Battier missed his assignment. He should have switched on Neal, throwing a wrench into the Spurs’ whole operation. But he didn’t, and Neal caught with space to shoot or take a dribble and shoot.

I got to participate in a 5-on-5 for ESPN.com in which we were asked about who draws up the best end of game plays. I took Gregg Popovich, and I’m feeling pretty good about that today. It’s his use misdirection and unmatched attention to detail that prompted my choice. In the last play, I think we got to see a bit of what makes Pop so great.

Wasn’t it odd that Manu Ginobili, the Spurs’ resident clutch artist and drainer of off the dribble threes was inbounding the ball? There was no way he was getting it back in time to shoot a decent shot. But it also took Tony Allen, the Grizzlies’ most pesky and persistent defender out of the play. Clever.

Now, notice that the set was designed for Neal to catch the ball moving to right to left across the floor and towards the ball. This nuance has a sneaky little benefit. Because Neal is right handed, his catch and shoot motion is more natural moving this direction. Instead of having to rotate his entire body to bring his right shoulder square to the hoop as when he’s running left to right, Neal’s shooting shoulder is more stable as he pivots around his right foot to square to the hoop.

(Side note: It’s the same basic principle at work in a step back jumper. A right handed shooter is typically more comfortable driving to the left, planting on his right

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Rose, Westbrook, and context

“Freedom is moving easy in the harness”—Robert Frost

The quotation above comes from a Robert Frost lecture in which he explains the paradoxically liberating role of constraint poetry. Rigid form gives way to graceful style and nuance when an author’s language avoids rattling against the formal constraints. When imposed rules—these words must rhyme, this word must fit in a particular rhythm—feel natural, Frost suggests that writers can more cleverly, subtly and fully create meaning in their poems. It also helps us understand why we brand Derrick Rose inspiring, and Russell Westbrook occasionally frustrating.

Until Derrick Rose elevated himself in the public’s mind this season, most saw the Derrick Rose-Russell Westbrook debate as about neck and neck, with Westbrook’s offensive rebounding and defense perhaps awarding him the edge. I was of that impression, especially at the close of the 2010 season, when Westbrook’s shooting mechanics seemed to be further along than of Rose’s.

Zoom ahead to this post-season, and Westbrook is scoring more efficiently, with a higher true shooting percentage, more rebounds, more assists and until Rose’s hot shooting in Game 5, a higher PER—all in fewer minutes than Rose. But even as Westbrook has produced more effectively, the gap that grew during the regular season between Rose and Westbrook remains. The reason is context, or their respective constraints–Westbrook plays with the best pure scoring wing in basketball and Derrick plays with the Rosettes.

Westbrook has the freedom to be a scorer and a distributor. As John Hollinger points out, this has lead to equal doses of “Good Russ” and “Bad Russ”: “Westbrook scored 30 points, but needed 30 shots to get them – 15 of which were the jump shots that he struggles to convert. Meanwhile, Durant was methodically ripping the Nuggets for 31 on just 18 shots,

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Inside the play: “Back action” in the Hornets’ pick and rolls

Running plenty of high ball screens with one of the best pick and roll players in the world certainly isn’t exactly innovative, but Monty Williams’ offensive scheme isn’t given its due credit. In fact, if the Hornets perimeter players not named “Paul” could make some shots, the Lakers could be in big trouble. Because of Paul’s excellent court vision, the Hornets place a lot of emphasis on “back action” or filling behind the play in their ball screen sets. Against L.A. so far this series, they have done this in a variety of ways.

The first example of this is on a set used to free Carl Landry for a jumper near the elbow. Here, Emeka Okafor comes up to set the screen and then dives to the basket. By placing shooters in each corner, the help on the roller must come from Landry’s defender, X4 (usually Pau Gasol). Since Lakers bigs sag off to protect the paint and their guards trail, Paul is presented with a clean window to quickly hit Landry with the pass for a wide open jumper:

Another way New Orleans attacks from behind the play is by stashing Trevor Ariza in the strong side corner and letting Landry and Marco Belinelli start off on the weak side. As Paul comes off the Okafor screen, Landry cuts under the basket and ducks in on the strong side block, forcing his defender to ignore the roller and defend his post up near the basket. The responsibility on the roller now goes to X2 (usually Kobe Bryant or Ron Artest). He must pinch into the lane to jam Okafor rolling to the rim. To create a longer close out angle, Belinelli lifts higher up on the wing but still looks to stay in vision with Paul.

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Lakers must use muscle to slow down Paul

To absorb the chatter on Twitter and around the internet (of which I was a part), Chris Paul is a key specially fitted for locking up Laker ankles and opening shots for himself and teammates. The gushing praise is well deserved. His play in this series, and the two Hornets wins in particular, has been magnificent. His stat lines will serve as historical precedent, his ankle-severing crossovers will pop up in Youtube mixtapes until the end of days.

Chris Paul has embodied diminutive David, cutting down the Phil-istines (Couldn’t help it! Not sorry!), but Goliath should already know how to squash this one-man army. The Lakers experimented with a formula in Game 2 that will be a reliable antidote to CP’s crisp crossovers and unparalleled court control: beat him up, wear him down, make him push himself to the edge both mentally and physically before the fourth quarter.

Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest can’t guard Paul off the dribble, but neither can any other Laker. What the bigger wings can do though, is lean on him, and make even the tiniest action, like jogging up court or receiving a top-to-top ball reversal, a struggle. In Game 2, Paul was able to create plenty of space against Bryant, Artest and Steve Blake once he caught the ball, but often just getting to the ball was an issue. Facing a defender in denial position up to thirty-five feet from the hoop, Paul would occasionally relent, and let his team go four on four. Clearly keeping Paul from touching the ball is key, but this tactic pays dividends down the road, as well.

Picture a quick but light boxer matched against a lumbering brute. It’s not in the bully’s interest to load up and throw big punches in the early rounds.

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To beat Griz, Spurs must be patient

The notion of a 61 win team having to adjust to what a 46 win team is doing screams “Panic Move”, but it is precisely what Gregg Popovich and company need to do as they head into Game 4 tonight down 2-1 to the Mempis Grizzlies. While the emphasis for San Antonio this season has been on quicker shots in transition, the Spurs should slow the pace to a crawl in order to combat an aggressive Grizzlies defense much more effectively.

The Spurs over-reliance on shots in the first 14 seconds of the shot clock is causing a startling drop in their offensive production over the past two games. During Game 3 in particular, San Antonio chose to take the first shot available either in transition or the first action they ran in the half-court. The result was that the Spurs began to look eerily similar to the Milwaukee Bucks on offense rather than the team that finished the regular season ranked second in offensive efficiency.

All season long, Memphis’ defensive success has come much more from their aggression and attitude than technical perfection. They fly at shooters, get into passing lanes, and physically defend the basketball. By having the patience to run multiple actions in a possession and stressing crisp ball reversal at every opportunity, the Spurs will present much more of a challenge to a frenetic, scrambling Grizzlies defense. A great example of this is a possession the Spurs had with 10:21 left in the third quarter of Game 3.

The play starts out of a controlled secondary break with Tony Parker hitting trailing big man Antonio McDyess, who then immediately hits Richard Jefferson V-cutting on the right wing: Parker and McDyess then immediately look to double away for Manu Ginobilli to freed up at the top

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Mama there goes that meme: Is Rose hurting the Bulls’ offense?

Beckley: After a week of playoff basketball, one of the leading stories is how much the top-seeded Bulls have struggled to beat the Indiana Pacers, a team that scuttled into the playoffs 8 games under .500. The other is that in escaping upset, the Bulls have leaned on Derrick Rose, intrepid buster of ankles, to a potentially unhealthy degree. Should that cause worry? After all, Rose lead the league in percentage of team points created during the regular season, and was second in Usage. One might argue that three tight wins in which their defense and Derrick Rose dominated the most important moments is essentially what the Bulls do. Then again, Chicago  spanked the Indiana by 19, 13, and 21 during the regular season. Is this over-parsing a 3-0 series lead, or is there cause for alarm?

Ethan: THE REAL STORY IS HOW DROZE IS WILLING HIS TEAM TO VICTORY! Beckley, stop playing with stats, watch the game!

In all, or at least some, seriousness: Rose has applied an individually productive strategy to these 2011 playoffs. A long time ago, we wondered if he wasn’t getting fouled enough. Now he’s averaging 16.3 free throw attempts. Derrick’s passing less, driving more, all to a high 27.6 PER. But, he does this as teammates grow colder than being naked on the moon. Perhaps he’s suffocating the offense and perhaps he’s providing CPR until it gasps unassisted. So I ask, Beckley: Is Derrick Rose holding Chicago’s scoring back or compensating for that which holds them back? Beckley: I wouldn’t say Derrick Rose is holding anything back, in any sense of the phrase. He is hurling himself into the paint and being greeted by a chorus of whistles, which will keep his play relatively efficient even when he seems, at times, to be

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Working/Not Working: Chicago-Indiana (3), Miami-Philadelphia (3), Dallas-Portland (3)

Working/Not Working is a new daily HoopSpeak feature that will keep you updated on the major trends throughout the playoffs. Come back tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day!

CHICAGO BULLS vs. INDIANA PACERS

BULLS Working: Kyle Korver. The sweet-shooting Korver came up with huge shots down the stretch of the first two games of the series, and he managed to top himself on Thursday. Korver recorded 10 points and an assist in the fourth quarter, and had a key back-tap on an offensive rebound to boot. It’s scary to think of where the Bulls would be in this series without Korver’s timely contributions. (JK)

Not Working: Carlos Boozer. Dear Lord, he looks awful. Ideally, he should be the guy the offense runs through when the Pacers make it a priority to take the ball out of Derrick Rose’s hands. That has not happened. He has done nothing. There is a reason why nobody cared very much about Boozer’s free agency, and this is that reason.  At least Tyler Hansborough hasn’t been lighting him up in the last two games. (JK)

PACERS Working: Defense on Derrick Rose. After Rose got to the rim against the Pacers at will in game 1, the Pacers have made him work for his points in games 2 and 3, and managed to really frustrate him on Wednesday. The Pacers haven’t been able to capitalize, but if another Bulls playoff opponent manages to trap Rose this well, the Bulls will be in big trouble. (JK)

Not Working: Offense. The Pacers aren’t a good offensive team, and the Bulls are the best defensive basketball. Things aren’t working out for them. When Danny Granger firing contested two-point jump shots is your most reliable offensive weapon, you have some issues. Either Darren Collison or Roy

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Atlanta’s new pick and roll defense

The Magic can exhale after grinding out a hard-fought win versus a feisty Hawks team in Game 2. Despite tying up the series, Dwight Howard and company still head to Atlanta with some serious concerns. Aided by Jason Collins continuing ability to turn Orlando’s resident Superman into a turnover machine of Joel Prybilla-esque proportions, the Magic have experienced some startling drops in their offensive efficiency. But Collins’ defense isn’t the only reason Orlando has seen a nine point drop in both their scoring average and three point percentage from the regular season. The Magic’s vaunted pick and roll game has been stifled quite a bit by a creative Hawks defense.

One of the Magic’s favorite pick and roll alignments is a spread set with Turkoglu (or Nelson) coming off a high screen from Howard in the middle of the floor, the two guard in the corner (Richardson or Redick), Nelson (or Turkoglu if ball handling roles are switched) on the weak side wing, with floor spacing big man Ryan Anderson in the weak side corner.

The most common way teams would defend this is to have their big man sag back and protect the paint, giving ground to the ball handler as his defender trails over the top of the screen. They would then look to jam the rolling big man with the low weak side defender (X4) who would step in while the other weak side defender (X1) would play halfway between the corner and the wing. The strong side defender (X2) would stick tight to his man and not allow for an easy drive and kick for a corner three.

The Hawks, however, have befuddled Orlando on this action by straying from conventional wisdom and bringing help from the strong side. On the ball handler’s

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