Had Gertrude Stein been a hoops fan, and if she had lived to watch it, Game Four of the Western Conference Finals would have reminded her greatly of Oakland. There was, in last night's game - as she famously observed of her hometown - no there there. Not only did it fail to change either the dynamics of the series or its likely outcome, but it provided no information about either the Lakers or Nuggets that we didn't possess beforehand. It was an epistomologically useless event, a three-hour exercise in advertising and ticket sales that needed to happen only to appease the arithmetic logic that says every best-of-seven series must contain a fourth game.
Thanks to the geniuses at Who Wins, we already knew that NBA teams positioned as were the Lakers last night, up 2-to-1 in a best-of-seven having played the first two games at home, lost Game Four more often than not, but nonetheless went on to win the series almost 90% of the time. In other words, the Lakers' loss last night was both to be expected and probably irrelevant. And exactly how they went about losing was neither, I argue, surprising nor cause for alarm.
If you're reading this, you already know the two determinative factors in the game. One was the Nuggets' huge advantage in free-throw attempts. I'll touch on that briefly below, and you have heard and will continue to hear plenty from my colleagues about it. The other biggie was the Nuggets' offensive rebounding: they collected 39% of their own misses. That stat, while no doubt galling to Laker fans, is not something the Nuggets will be able to repeat at Staples.
The Lakers didn't feel like working on the boards last night. It was an effort issue, and we know it was an effort issue because we have solid baseline knowledge of what kind of rebounding teams both they and the Nuggets are. The Nugs were the 15th best offensive rebounding team in the NBA this year - stone cold mediocre. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, they rebounded only 26% of their misses. Against the Lakers in the regular season, they rebounded only 22% of their misses. This playoff series features the same schemes and same personnel as the regular season, so there's no reason, if the teams are playing with roughly equal verve and energy, Denver's offensive rebounding rate should come anywhere close to 40%. Put the Lakers in front of a friendly crowd and in a game they're motivated to win, and that number will plummet.
Look, winning NBA games on the road is hard. If you're weary and MEHnervated from an epic victory two nights prior, it's all the harder. And if your very talented opponent needs the game more than you do by orders of magnitude, you decide that maybe it's not worth working to get position if it means yet another elbow to your already-sore midsection. Sure, I'd have loved for the Lakers to crank up yet another massive effort last night to put this series on lockdown once and for all, but I wasn't on pins and needles thinking it might happen. Don't know about you, but I've long since stopped waiting for these guys to transform into the relentless killing machines of May 2001.
And you know what? That's OK. It doesn't make this year's Lakers bad people, or a disappointment to our nation's children. It just makes them human.
We've all heard stories about hardscrabble, common-man heroes who held down two jobs for 50 years and never missed a day of work. That's awesome - they're awesome - but most of us aren't like that. Most of us on most days, we go to work and exert ourselves enough to get the job done. On some days, we really crank it up and take names when circumstances call for it. And then there are days when the juice just isn't there. When we're half-assing ourselves through the day and hoping no one important notices. When we're struggling just to survive long enough to get home and flop on the couch with a revitalizing tumbler of Woodford Reserve.
So the Lakers... they were thinking about the couch and the bourbon last night. It's not ideal, but it's kinda the way we're all wired. I'm not going to devote a lot of neural capacity to worrying about it.
The full Game Four numbers are next. Go pour yourself some Woodford over ice, then join me for a look. Gertrude would approve.
Game Four allotted 92 possessions to each of the participating squads. This would be a breakneck pace for Cleveland and Orlando but is a skosh on the pokey side for a game involving the Nuggets and Lakers. That's what happens when you force hardly any turnovers and allow offensive rebounds by the bushel. Your opponent's possessions just... never... end.....
|Off Reb Rate
Let's talk about those free throws. Officiating is rarely my subject matter of choice, but I know it's on everyone's minds, so let's open up to each other and delve into our feelings.
Yes, 0.57 free throw attempts per FGA is an extraordinarily high ratio. And yes, I shared your displeasure with many of the touch calls that sent Nuggets to the line, over and over, last night. But allow me to point out a few considerations that might help to ease your blood pressure on this topic.
First, as often as the Nugs traipsed to the stripe in Game Four, the Lakers did so even more often in Game Three, posting an FTA/FGA ratio of 0.63. Also, for the series - scroll down to the bottom for the composite numbers through four games - Denver has an FTA rate only slightly higher than L.A.'s. And during the regular season, the Nuggets had the best FTA rate of any team in the league - by a pretty substantial margin, no less. So it's not as if they're excelling at something that's out of character for them.
And for those Laker fans starting to light up torches and sharpen pitchforks over the officiating in Game Four, bear in mind that there's every possibility that the free-throw disparity swings in the other direction when the teams return to Staples. As I intimated when you last heard from me, the nice thing about responding to bad officiating, when it goes against your team, with stoic grace is that when the next game rolls around and your team is the beneficiary of some iffy calls, you don't have to defend or apologize for them.
So yes, I most certainly feel your pain. But there's peace of mind to be gained from thinking of whistles as Acts of God. Sometimes your team's the tornado, sometimes it's the uninsured double wide about to drop-kicked across the plains.
Climbing down from the team level to some individual player numbers.... Danger! Unexploded stat bombs!
- J.R. Smith had a fine game - 24 points on 20 shooting possessions (SPs) - but the way the ABC crew were going on about him, you'd have thought he ripped off some crazy, 80% True Shooting performance. When you take into account his three turnovers, it's clear that his night didn't merit praise of such effusiveness. I'm very OK with Denver trying to win two more games by routing 20% of its offense through him.
- Luke Walton, now scoreless in the last two games (albeit having used only four SPs), continues to do nothing on offense, but am I crazy or did he actually look decent guarding Carmelo? No one's going to confuse him with Alvin Robertson, and I realize that Melo was hurt, but Luke appeared to hold his own surprisingly well.
- Mike Breen: I know you have a lot of airtime to fill, but please think twice before saying things such as, in regard to Sasha Vujacic, "He's been cold, but he's the type of shooter who just needs one make to get himself going." (I'm paraphrasing, but he did say something very close to that.) Sasha's at 36% True Shooting for the playoffs and has made more than two FGs only twice in 16 postseason games. Clearly, one made field goal does not get him going. To the contrary: it seduces him into still more off-balance jacks, to the near-violent irritation of every Laker fan watching.
- This is kind of amazing: in the playoffs so far, Sasha has attempted 81 field goals.... and only two free throws. I suspect he's closing in on some kind of record achievement in the field of free-throw-line aversion.
- Andrew Bynum (14 points on nine SPs, five rebounds and no turnovers) looks just fine to me. Are we finally over the psychodrama surrounding this kid? Can we be, please? Phil, just give him 32 minutes a game and let's all get on with our lives.
- Anthony Carter (two whole points!) actually scored for the first time in the series. Everyone, please remain calm. Our nation's leaders are preparing a response to this shocking development.
Series numbers through four games, ahoy! And come back again after Game Five. Please... it's never the same without you.