Enemy at the Gates: An In-Depth Statistical Preview of the NBA Finals

Nick Anderson

Who do you think will sing the national anthem at Staples Center on Thursday night? If I had to guess, I'd say it'll be an au courant R&B star of whom I'll only barely have heard (because I'm a douchey crypto-hipster white guy who just listens to Pitchfork-approved indie bands that all basically sound the same). That's fine. I'm sure he or she will do an excellent job, and put to shame whatever boy-band retreads the Orlando people fish out of the cruise-ship circuit for games three through five. But if Laker management is looking to us for suggestions - and of course they are, as SS&R is now the recognized tastemaker for all of Lakerdom - I've got a great one for them: Nick Anderson.

I neither know nor care whether Nick Anderson can sing. He doesn't even need to know the words. I just want him there for Game One, in a highly visible capacity, as a mocking symbol of the Magic's flameout in their only previous appearance in the NBA Finals. Those of you old enough to remember that charmed era of American history known as 1995 know what I'm talking about.

Orlando reached the Finals that season after knocking out Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls (a humiliation from which MJ would never recover and after which he'd never do anything of note ever again). Favored and with home-court advantage against the Houston Rockets, the Magic led by three late in the fourth quarter of Game One, when Anderson chunked four consecutive free throws, leaving the door open for Kenny Smith to tie the game with a late three. Houston beat the demoralized Magic in overtime and went on to sweep the series. One year later, Shaquille O'Neal departed via free agency - I can't remember off the top of my head where he ended up - and Orlando's brief run as a title contender ended without an actual title to show for it.

Historians can only speculate how Orlando's franchise fate would have been different if only Anderson had hit one of those four free-throw attempts. I think we can all agree, however, that Anderson is the last true goat the NBA Finals have given us. So Dr. Jerry Buss: let's give Nick the singing career he never knew he wanted. Dangle $50K or so to get him out here and perform the national anthem before Game One, as a little pregame psy-ops offensive against the Magic. You could even replay his missed free throws on the Jumbotron, soundtracking the video with some Benny Hill music. And if the game is close in the fourth and Dwight Howard is shooting some crucial free throws, pay Nick an extra five grand just to stand under the basket and smile. This is Hollywood, after all: let's use stagecraft to our advantage.

It's entirely possible, I should note, that the singer for Game One has already been announced. I thought about researching the question, but then it occurred to me that if I learned the answer I'd have to rewrite the beginning of this column, so I chose not to bother. When it comes to researching how the Lakers and Magic stack up statistically, however, my lowly paid sweatshop employees have I've done all the necessary legwork and then some, and I'm dropping it all on you after the jump.

 

My colleagues have already lit your asses up with some top-quality previewage (see Sideout on the positional beat, rye with the X's and O's and Josh over at Ball Don't Lie), so I'll try to cover ground that they didn't. My goal here is to stare longingly at the advanced statistics involving the Lakers and Magic in the hope of finding things you might not already know about these two teams. Let's begin!

I.  The View From Above.

Here's how Orlando and L.A. compare in terms of high-level, regular season metrics. The numbers in parentheses indicate ranking among the league's 30 teams in the various categories. The acronym PPP stands for points per possession, and pace is expressed as average possessions per 48 minutes of play.

     Orlando       Los Angeles 
Overall Won-Loss   59-23 (4th) 65-17 (2nd)
Home Won-Loss 32-9 (t-8th) 36-5 (2nd)
Road Won-Loss 27-14 (t-2nd) 29-12 (1st)
Net Points +6.7 (4th) +7.7 (2nd)
Pace 94.6 (12th) 96.9 (6th)
PPP Scored 1.07 (8th) 1.10 (3rd)
PPP Allowed 0.99 (1st) 1.02 (5th)
Net PPP +0.086 (3rd) +0.084 (4th)

 

Because the Magic had to beat two higher-seeded teams, including the heavily favored Cavaliers, just to reach the Finals, you'd be forgiven for thinking of them as an out-of-nowhere insurgent in the midst of a wild, '99 Knicks-style underdog run. You'd be forgiven for it, but you'd be wrong. As the digits above tell us quite forcefully, Orlando has been a true superpower all season long. They had the best defense in the league and, in terms of net points scored and allowed per possession, were a smidge better overall than the Lakers.

Note also the Magic's record on the road. Throughout the playoffs, the Lakers have been vocally, and justifiably, proud of being the league's best when away from home, but Orlando isn't far behind. They've won twice in Boston and once in Cleveland in the postseason, and in the regular season posted road wins in Dallas, Portland, Utah, San Antonio, Denver, Boston and Staples. Home-court advantage in the Finals will be just that - an advantage - but a panacea it's not. Don't be surprised if home-court advantage changes hands more than once in the first four games.

II.  How They Got Here.

At this point of the playoffs, is there any predictive insight to be gained by thinking about which team has had the more impressive postseason run? That's a thesis-length research topic that'll have to wait for July and August, but my initial reaction is that if playoff performance to date is at all predictive, it's significantly less so than other data available to us. Just look anecdotally at the conference finals. Heading into them, Cleveland and Denver had looked considerably more impressive than their respective opponents, who'd both hit unexpected bumps in round two. But early-round flexing wasn't even enough to get the Cavs or Nugs to a conference finals Game Seven.

So by all means, let's unpack the numbers from Magic's and Lakers' first three rounds together, but let's do so in a spirit of skeptical curiosity. That's how Sherlock Holmes would do it! First, Orlando:

Poss/G TO% FTA/FGA FT% EFG% TS% Off Reb% Def Reb% PPP
Opponents   90 15 0.31 76 49 53 25 76 1.04
Orlando 90 14 0.36 73 52 56 24 75 1.09

 

When the Magic have won, they've done so by hitting threes, getting to the free-throw line and owning the defensive glass. When they've lost, it's because their threes have stopped falling and/or LeBron James decides to hit a ridiculous buzzer-beating turnaround. Win or lose, they don't do much offensive rebounding. In only six of their 19 playoff games have they collected 30% or more of their misses, and three of those occasions were in the first round against Philly. The Lakers have hit that mark in exactly half of their 18 postseason contests.

Here, for the sake of comparison, are the Lakers' aggregate numbers through the conference finals:

Poss/G TO% FTA/FGA FT% EFG% TS% Off Reb% Def Reb% PPP
Opponents 93 16 0.36 76 47 52 30 71 1.04
Los Angeles   93 15 0.36 74 51 56 29 70 1.11

 

Statistically, L.A. and Orlando have performed very similarly so far. The Lakers, and the Western Conference generally, have been playing at a faster pace, and the Lakers have been sending opponents to the line more often than has Orlando, but they're also forcing more misses from the field and rebounding more of their own.

The Lakers have played far fewer close playoff games than have the Magic. If you define a "close game" to mean one in which, on a net PPP basis, the teams are within 0.05 of each other, then Orlando has played three times as many to this point. Using that dividing line, here's how the teams' playoff records look:

      Orlando         Los Angeles  
Close Games    4-5 1-2
Not-Close Games    8-2 11-4

 

In other words, the Magic have had fewer big wins but also fewer bad losses. Their fans didn't have to endure any gruesome, Houston-style embarrassments; losing by any margin to a pretty terrible 76er team, however, must have been plenty irksome in its own right.

III.  When Orlando Has the Ball.

There's a lot of positional weirdness going on in the Magic's offense. Hedo Turkoglu is nominally a small forward but plays the point for stretches. Rashard Lewis, for reasons I can't possibly begin to guess at, is listed as a power forward even though best I can tell he functions as a second shooting guard. And then there's Rafer Alston, who for many years I couldn't tell apart from Smush Parker a former Laker point guard who shall remain nameless for the sake of our readers' sanity. It's all kind of a mess, to be honest.

But oh, is it ever an effective mess. The Orlando offense can be thought of as a slower version of Mike D'Antoni's system. There's plenty of pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop action, all designed to get the ball either to the rim for a Howard dunk or to an open three-point shooter. Thankfully the Lakers are awesome at defending the pick-and-roll and will have no problems hahahaha just kidding - the Lakers are awful at it and we should probably be a little terrified.

Here's a comparison of the Magic O and the Laker D, in terms of regular season, tempo-adjusted numbers. The column captioned "3 Pt Bias" shows the percentage of total field-goal attempts either taken (in the case of the Magic O) or allowed (in the case of the Laker D) that were three-point attempts. The column captioned "3Pt %" shows the percentage of those three-point attempts that were made. As usual, league rank is in parentheses.


TO% FTA/FGA FT% EFG% TS% 3Pt Bias 3Pt % Reb Rate PPP
Orlando O 15 (15th) 0.35 (3rd) 72 (30th) 52 (3rd) 56 (5th) 33% (1st) 38 (7th) 24% (28th) 1.07 (8th)
Los Angeles D   17 (6th) 0.28 (9th) -- 49 (8th) 53 (6th) 25% (27th) 34 (3rd) 73% (18th) 1.02 (5th)

 

The Magic take threes more than any team in the league, and now they face a defense that's designed to trap penetrators and force the ball back out. What percentage of Orlando's FGAs in this series will be from distance? Forty percent? More than forty percent? The longballs will rain in great numbers, no question. Sometimes they'll go in and the Magic will look unbeatable; sometimes they won't and we'll wonder how they ever got past Boston. That's life with a high-variance offense on the floor.

The other thing the Magic do really well when they have the ball is draw fouls, which is a pretty impressive attribute for a team that shoots so many threes. And which brings me to a pet peeve I have about Andrew Bynum

When Bynum's on the floor and an inside player gets loose for a layup or dunk, he always commits the hard foul. Announcers typically praise the tactic by saying, "So-and-so heading in for the easy basket, and Bynum forced to foul," maybe throwing in a "that's playoff basketball!" for irritating measure. But you know what? He's not forced to foul. He could choose to surrender the layup instead. I know that doesn't comport with whatever hypertrophied ethos of masculinity Jeff Van Gundy has in his head, but what if we could trade two layups for, say, 10 more minutes of Bynum playing time? When even a bad free-throw shooter like Dwight Howard is likely to make two or three of the four free-throw attempts you're handing him? That's a tradeoff I'd be willing to make, especially in this series, when we'll need Andrew's interior heft to keep Howard from destroying the basket stanchions.

Anyhow, there are a couple things the Magic offense doesn't do well. First, they'll commit their share of turnovers. Alston takes pretty good care of the rock, but almost all of their other regulars will cough it up, which plays directly into the strength of a Laker defense skilled at ending possessions with a steal or a charge call. Second, the Magic, aside from Howard and backup Marcin Gortat, do not attack the offensive glass. There's no reason the Lakers' defensive rebounding rate should ever dip below 70% in this series, and I think it's reasonable to hope that it approaches 80%.

(Gortat, by the way, is excellent. He's easily the best backup center in the league and could start for about 10 teams. He's no Howard, of course - nobody is - but Gortat's no stiff.)

IV.  When Los Angeles Has the Ball.

Rye beat me to an observation about Orlando that I wanted to make, which is that they managed to play fantastic defense this year with one great defender (you'll never guess who) and a bunch of guys who individually don't wow you, which is a neat trick. Howard so owns the painted area that his lesser teammates can focus on locking up on the outside, and he and Gortat are among the game's best defensive glassmen. It all makes for a surprisingly stout unit.

As for Rye, I plan to retaliate by spilling a drink on him at the SS&R holiday party. And because he already used the only interesting observation I had about the Orlando D, here are some numbers for you to look at:


TO% FTA/FGA FT% EFG% TS% 3Pt Bias 3Pt % Reb Rate PPP
Los Angeles O    14 (5th) 0.30 (18th) 77 (14th) 51 (6th) 56 (7th) 22% (17th) 36 (19th) 29% (3rd) 1.10 (3rd)
Orlando D   14 (25th) 0.28 (6th) -- 47 (1st) 51 (1st) 19% (2nd) 34 (2nd) 76% (2nd) 0.99 (1st)

 

Hey, I just thought of some more stuff! Thanks, numbers!

Orlando's is the platinum edition of the Houston D we saw in the second round (pre-Yao injury): very few turnovers forced, but lots of missed shots and defensive rebounds and very few fouls. And the shot attempts allowed tend not to be threes, which is yet another neat trick in light of the low foul rate. You'd think that a defense that closes out aggressively on three-point shooters would foul often as opponents compensate by driving to the hole, but Howard is such a deterrent that Orlando doesn't have to live with that tradeoff. Breaking news: Dwight Howard is really good at basketball.

But let's be clear: these aren't the 2008 Celtics. As Cleveland demonstrated to the tune of 1.11 points per possession, a good offense can score against these guys, and the Lakers have more ways to generate points than did the Cavs. Kobe, I suspect, is in for a monster series. Guarding him will likely be a combination of Courtney Lee, Mickael Pietrus and Turkoglu, none of whom is capable of Battier-caliber harrassment.

On the front line, the Lakers should always have a mismatch begging to be exploited. Basically, just look for who Howard isn't guarding, and that's where the Lakers can attack. At any point in time, either Gasol or Odom should be able to wreak havoc against Gortat, Lewis or Turkoglu, depending on how defensive assignments are lining up.

The rebounding war at this end will be classic strength-on-strength. If only the Lakers and Magic had faced each other before, we might have some idea whose strength will win out!

V.  Dude, what are you talking about? These teams played twice in the regular season.

Ah, yes. I knew that and was merely testing to see if you're still reading. Good to see you staying on your toes.

The first game between the Lakers and Magic was in December at Amway Arena. Kobe (41 points, 3 assists and 8 rebounds) was splendid, and Fish (27 points, 4 assists and 5 rebounds) had probably has best offensive game of the season, but Jameer Nelson posted an almost identical line (27 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds) and the Lakers came up just short when Sasha missed a three with just a few seconds remaining. Here are the tempo-adjusted stats from that game, which included 92 possessions for each team:

TO% FTA/FGA FT% EFG% TS% Off Reb% Def Reb% PPP
Los Angeles   12 0.29 96 45 53 30 73 1.12
Orlando 16 0.54 62 57 59 27 70 1.15

 

The second game was at Staples in January. Kobe (triple double) was strong once again, and Lamar (17 points, 3 assists and 9 rebounds) had a nice night, but the Orlando shooters bombed away for 12 threes to spearhead a six-point Orlando win. Nelson (28 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds) was even better than in the first game, and Howard ripped down 20 rebounds, including eight of the offensive persuasion. This was a 98-possession game that finished like so:

TO% FTA/FGA FT% EFG% TS% Off Reb% Def Reb% PPP
Orlando   16 0.41 68 52 56 35 70 1.11
Los Angeles   11 0.29 74 45 49 30 65 1.05

 

Are you aware that the regular season head-to-head matchups have correctly predicted the winner of every playoff series so far? They have indeed, so we shouldn't be casually dismissive of what happened last winter. Nevertheless I'm not troubled overmuch by the regular season results, and I'll tell you why.

1.  Jameer Nelson will either not play in the Finals or not play much. He was the big problem for the Lakers in the first two games, but he's been hurt and hasn't played since February 2nd. I know there's all sorts of chatter about his returning for the Finals, but that strikes me as a potentially disastrous idea for Orlando. After four months off, his first taste of real game action will be in the Finals? What sort of condition will he be in? What sort of effect will he have on Alston? Is he in shape to guard anyone, even a Derek Fisher? And why risk disrupting the great offensive flow you found against Cleveland? In defense of the idea, at least he doesn't play a critical position that controls and initiates offensive sets, like point gua-... oh.

The absence of a fully operational Nelson is important because....

2.  The Lakers' problem against Orlando in the regular season was on defense, not offense. Over two games the Lakers scored 1.08 points per possession against the Magic D. That's less than the Lakers' average, but not bad at all, and materially higher than Orlando's typical defensive efficiency. Where the Lakers had problems was in keeping Orlando from scoring, and that's where the injury to Nelson, who's an offensive force but nothing out of the ordinary on D, makes such a big difference. Alston's not horrible, but he's much less likely to abuse Fish than Jameer would be.

But here's the most important reason not to get worked up over the two regular season games....

3.  It was only two games.  In the conference playoffs, the head-to-head regular season results cover four games' worth of data, which is scant to begin with. Now you're cutting that data sample in half, so you should be very reluctant to assign any importance to it. And when the most recent of the two games was in January? The evidence is old and cold, my friends.

VI.  OK, cool. What should I be looking for on Thursday night?

Here are the six key pressure points, three each for the Laker O and Laker D:

1.  Is the Triangle sequence starting with an entry pass to Pau in the low post, or are the Lakers launching quick jacks from the perimeter instead?

2.  Is whoever's guarding Kobe having any success whatsoever?

3.  Is Orlando following the Denver strategy of leaving Trevor Ariza open at the three-point line, and if so, is he hitting the open shot?

4.  Is the Laker defense completely befuddled by the Orlando pick-and-roll, or just mostly befuddled?

5.  Is the amount of time it takes Bynum to pick up two fouls measured in minutes or seconds?

6.  Is Pau or Lamar flashing out successfully on Rashard's three-point looks, or is 'Shard getting and knocking down open treys?

If over the course of the series, half or more of these questions are answered in the Lakers' favor, we'll have our championship.

VII.  Official Fishmore Prediction: Lakers in 6.

Enjoy Game One, you beautiful bitches.

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