Lakers-Magic Game 2: Tempo-Free Boxscore Breakdown

Cognitive Dissonance

This is going to be on the test, class, so please listen carefully: the Orlando Magic were the best defensive team in the NBA this year.

What? Don't look at me like that. Honestly, they were. Possession for possession over the course of the season, they were the most difficult team to score against.

That statement tends to generate more than its share of error messages among the audience. Many reject it in spite of its empirical validity. Present it to a roomful of even reasonably knowledgeable NBA fans, and you can almost see the cognitive dissonance take hold. I regard this phenomenon - the inability or refusal to accept the Magic as an elite defensive unit - as having two latent causes, both arising from flawed but deeply rooted analytical biases about the sport of basketball that many of us carry around.

The first is the tendency of many commentators and fans to measure defensive performance on a per-game, rather than per-possession, basis. In terms of points allowed per game, Orlando was seventh best in the league this year - not bad, certainly, but not such a gaudy ranking as to bring the Magic D to the attention of Breen and Van Gundy. What separates Orlando from the six teams ranked above them, however, is simply pace. Each of those teams was in the bottom half of the league in average possessions per game, whereas the Magic were in the top 12. Those six teams weren't actually better at keeping points off the board; they just played more slowly and thus held down the number of opportunities both they and their opponents had to score. This concept of tempo-adjustment hasn't yet entered mainstream NBA discourse, and as a result Orlando's defensive excellence is being obscured by a cloud of inferior data.

The second reason the Magic D is not so widely praised is considerably less wonky: when we watch the Magic play, they just don't look like the great defenses of yore. Aesthetically I mean. We as longtime NBA observors attach certain visual associations to top-quality defensive play. The Kevin Garnett scream and MEAN FACE. The Bruce Bowen hip-check. The Bad Boy Pistons' considerable willingness to risk criminal prosecution by inflicting violence in the lane. The Magic don't bring it like that.

No, their defensive style is of the disciplined and businesslike variety. Maybe they don't yowl and make ridiculous Gatorade commercials, but they rotate and stay on their assignments. They have the self-control not to gamble or bite on shot fakes. They foul less than anyone. They have deceptive size and length available for deployment. They have Dwight Howard to deter casual approaches to the rim. And they rebound - honey, do they ever rebound. A huge part of good D is ending your opponent's possession after one missed shot, and the Magic do that better than almost every team out there.

All of which is my long-ass way of saying that nights like Sunday - when the Laker scoring machine spit parts and made strange noises and could barely scrape together a point per possession - those nights are going to happen against these guys. They really are that good. It's not like they arrived in the NBA Finals and decided to start sucking. The Lakers can handle it, of course, but remember the second and third quarters of Game One? That was more the exception than the rule. LA Times columnists may have decided that a single game defines an entire series, but our readers here at SS&R know better. The three games in Orlando - and I personally will be very surprised if there are only two - are likely to be more struggle than not.

The full Game Two numbers are after the jump. Thankfully Orlando doesn't have a guard who can make a shot right now, otherwise these would look a hell of a lot worse.

There were a cool 100 possessions per team last night. Give it up for round numbers and easy math!

TO Rate FTA/FGA FT% EFG% TS% Off Reb% Def Reb%   PPP  
Orlando 20% 0.34 74 48 53 24 90 0.96
Los Angeles    12% 0.36 86 49 56 10 76 1.01

 

In Game Two the Laker and Magic offenses were each terrible at one thing. In the case of the Lakers, they rebounded only one out of every 10 missed shots - an absurdly, unacceptably low offensive rebounding rate. Their previous playoff low was 20%, a mark "achieved" in Game One of the Utah series and Game Four of the Houston series. So... yeah. Fifty percent worse than the previous low. Nice work, fellas.

The Magic, for their part, turned the ball over on one out of every five possessions - likewise a playoff worst for them. Over a third of their turnovers were committed by Howard, who has a terrible habit of bringing the ball down low when he's in the post. Terrible for Magic fans, that is. The Laker perimeter defenders (Kobe BryantTrevor Ariza and Derek Fisher) are collapsing on him and swiping the ball free when he does so.

The thing is, for the game the Magic had a total of 92 shooting possessions to the Lakers' 91, meaning Orlando's turnovers and L.A.'s failure on the offensive glass almost exactly offset each other. It also means that the outcome was decided by how efficiently each team converted those shooting possessions - in other words, by the True Shooting percentages in the table above, which are separated by a mere three points.

Orlando's shooting was obviously not a repeat of the Game One slopfest, but it was just bad enough to cost them the game. Six missed free throws by the Magic - two on four attempts, uncharacteristically, by Jameer Nelson - loomed large in a game this tight, especially with the Lakers nailing upwards of 85% of their freebies. And from the field, the Magic guards are dragging their entire offense to the ocean floor.

Check out the shooting numbers for the Magic's backcourt quintet through the first two games of the series:

    2-Pt         3-Pt         FT        SPs      Points   Points/SP True Shooting %
Alston    3-9 0-8 4-4 19 10 0.53 27
Lee 3-9 1-4 0-0 13 9 0.69 35
Nelson 4-9 0-3 2-4 14 10 0.71 36
Pietrus 3-10 3-6 1-3 17 16 0.94 46
Redick      1-4 2-7 0-0 11 8 0.73 36
Group 14-41 6-28 7-11 74 53 0.72 36

 

Reached for comment, John Starks described this shooting performance as "OH HAYLE NO!"

Moving on, please enjoy the following additional stat-rodesiacs, guaranteed to get your lady or gent in the mood....

  • Sasha Vujacic: only five minutes played. This is progress, people! He still managed to miss his only field goal attempt.
  • Weird stat of the series so far: in the second quarter of Game Two, Howard and Kobe Bryant combined for only one shooting possession.
  • Trevor Ariza (0.65 points per SP) hasn't found his stroke yet in this series, but his D on Hedo Turkoglu last night? Va-va-va-voom.
  • Kobe averaged 1.08 points per SP in Game One and 1.07 in Game Two. This is very much in line with his efficiency against Houston (1.07) but about 11% off his efficiency in the Denver series (1.21).
  • I remain amazed at what an efficient offensive weapon Pau Gasol is. Behold his points per SP across the last 10 games:

Game Points Per SP
Game Six vs. Houston   0.93
Game Seven vs. Houston   1.11
Game One vs. Denver 1.18
Game Two vs. Denver 1.31
Game Three vs. Denver 1.25
Game Four vs. Denver 1.50
Gave Five vs. Denver 1.40
Game Six vs. Denver 1.54
Game One vs. Orlando 1.33
Game Two vs. Orlando 1.26

Kind of a clunker in the sixth game of the Houston series, but then it's badassery all the way down. The talk before each Laker game is whether the opponent will choose to double Kobe, which is understandable enough. At what point, though, do you start gameplanning around Pau and hope that Kobe just has an off-night shooting the ball? Pau is good enough that this isn't a ridiculous question.

The combined team stats through Game Two are below. Bon appetit!

Poss/48 Mins  TO Rate   FTA/FGA      FT%       EFG%      TS%    Off Reb% Def Reb%    PPP   
Orlando 88 15 0.36 73 42 47 24 76 0.92
Los Angeles    88 11 0.28 85 49 54 24 76 1.08
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