Many of the problems that NBA teams face boil down to an allocation of scarce resources. On Friday, I wrote about the importance of intelligently dividing up the 240 minutes of playing time you get each game. That's one example. Another is the salary cap: what's the best way to allocate a limited payroll among 15 roster spots (plus, if you're the New York Knicks, Stephon Marbury and who knows how many other legacy mistakes still on the books from the Isiah Thomas era)? A third example - and the one that's on my mind after the Lakers' victory last night - looks at how a team allocates its shooting possessions among its various players on a given night.
(I suspect that most of you know what I mean by "shooting possession," but just in case: the term encompasses official field goal attempts plus any time a player goes to the line to shoot two free throws. The latter occasions - such as when a player draws a shooting foul, but the shot doesn't go in, or a nonshooting foul when the team is in the penalty - don't show up as FGAs in the boxscore but nonetheless use possessions, so we include them to get a full, accurate measure of scoring efficiency.)
I know I'm getting a bit wonky here, but bear with me.
In any given game, a team's total shooting possessions aren't fixed - the way playing time is, for example, at 240 minutes - but they're finite. A team will generally average one "look at the basket" each time it has the ball. A miss and an offensive rebound will give you more than one, and a turnover will get you less than one, but it roughly works out to one shooting possession per team offensive possession.
In simple terms: you're only getting so many shots before the final buzzer sounds, so a coach and his players have to figure out who's taking them, and when.
All of which brings me back to Game Three, and in particular the fourth quarter. To put the importance of those final 12 minutes in perspective, I present to you points per possession (PPP) from last night's game, broken down by period:
The Nuggets outplayed the Lakers for the first 75% of the game, and then saw everything fall apart. On offense they sank to sub-Clippersian depths. On defense they couldn't get stops. If special teams existed in basketball, they would have sucked at those too.
I argue that we can glean insight into the fateful fourth quarter by comparing how the two teams allocated their precious final looks at the basket. First, the Lakers:
That's it. Only four Lakers took shots in the final period, and they were the team's four best scoring options. And by far the best option used almost 40% of the possessions. For all of the grief that we've heaped on Phil Jackson during these playoffs, and I myself have been doing a lot of the heaping, he deserves credit here. In the fourth quarter, the Laker offense played with purpose, smarts and discipline.
To see what an offense looks like without those qualities, check out how the Nuggets chopped up their SPs in the fourth:
Seven different players took shots. Nearly 25% of the looks were routed to J.R. Smith, who entered the quarter with a 35% True Shooting mark for the series. The Nuggets' best offensive option, Carmelo Anthony, got only 16% of the looks. Some of this resulted from foul trouble, but that's much not an excuse. Melo didn't foul out until there was less than a minute left to play.
Winning basketball is thoughtful basketball. By the time the fourth quarter rolls around, you should have a coherent theory of offense: who's getting clean looks, who has the good matchup, where your points are coming from. How the Nuggets played the fourth quarter last night was the opposite of that: haphazard, intellectually lazy and lacking in strategy and discipline. We've seen it before from the Lakers, and no doubt we'll see it again, but in Game Three they were the smarter team and won because of it.
The full Game Three numbers are next. Jumpy jumpy!
There were 95 possessions per team last night, and people, please take a moment to appreciate the pace of play we enjoy here out west. Cavalier games are almost always in the 80-possession range, and not often at the high end of that range either. The Eastern Finals have been great so far, but they do play some slow-ass basketball in that conference.
The digits from Game Three:
Schnikeys! Check out the Lakers' ratio of free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts: nearly an insane 2 to 3. I make it a policy never to complain about whistles going against my team. Not that I think NBA refs do a good job - they're obviously a complete disaster - but I figure that if I don't bitch about not getting calls, I don't have to apologize when something like the above happens. Trust me, that all somehow makes sense in my head.
The other elephant in the room is the Nuggets' three-point "accuracy," which last night collapsed to below 20%, on 27 attempts. They won't be that bad again (I think), but that doesn't mean it's a good idea for them to take almost a third of their FGAs from distance. During the regular season, only about 23% of their field-goal attempts were threes, so it's not like they're running a scheme designed to generate long balls in great quantity.
One troubling stat for the Lakers: only 15 assists on 33 made figgies. The Triangle, it seems, has broken down in this series. The offensive attack has held up because none of the Denver big men can handle Pau when he gets good post position - and nobody in a Nuggie uniform can handle Kobe anywhere on the court - but that crisp cutting and dishing that we love to see just hasn't been there, at least not since the first quarter of Game Two.
Time for stat-bombage, starring Sasha Vujacic in Brickwatch 2009:
- Sasha missed three of four FGAs, and his TS% for the series went up. Because the Lakers won, we get to laugh about this.
- Anthony Carter, my new favorite Nugget, is scoreless in 36 minutes of play in this series. Time to get a pool going: how many total minutes will he have played before he scores his first point? Post your guess in the comments - winner gets a free, one month platinum subscription to SS&R. No purchase necessary, but before entering please note that prize does not actually exist.
- Trevor Ariza: 16 points on 10 SPs, 2 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block and only 1 turnover. I know a lot of you will disagree with me about this, but I'm beginning to think the Lakers got the better end of the Ariza-for-Evans-and-Cook deal.
- Derek Fisher played 26 minutes, or put another way: somewhere between 20 and 26 minutes too many.
Before I leave you with the composite series numbers below, a word about Kobe. He scored 41 points on 30 SPs, with 5 assists, 6 boards, 2 steals, only 1 turnover and some great defense that forced Chauncey Billups into a substandard game. He's now at 63% True Shooting for the series. You don't need me to tell you that this is beyond awesome. Suffice it to say that we're watching one of the best players in the history of the game, at something like the height of his powers. Enjoy it. Seriously - don't let the stress of these games drain away the pleasure of watching him perform at this level. It won't last forever, and we're not likely to see another one like him in our lifetime.