Without Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers entered their first round Western Conference playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs as heavy underdogs. Two double digit losses have done little to quell the expectation of a rather quick and easy series for the Spurs. Steve Nash is so hobbled, he might as well take the court with a cane, and now, with the added injury troubles of Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks, the Lakers do not have a single healthy guard in the rotation of four they relied on during the 28-12 run that got them into the postseason. As they say in Charles Dickens novels, things look bleak.
But the Lakers are not that far away from making this a competitive series. All they need to do to make these games close and compelling is one simple thing: Stop being so generous. Despite all their troubles, despite the injuries, despite ... well ... everything, the Lakers are still giving the Spurs the series. Literally.
Turnovers. Over two games, neither of which were close, turnovers are by far the primary difference between the two teams. In fact, placing the two teams on an even playing field with respect to turnovers nearly erases the double digit victory margin all by itself. At the very least, if the Lakers were as good at taking care of the ball as San Antonio is, we would have seen two tight contests. At best, the Lakers could have been heading home with a split if the turnover discrepancy wasn't so great.
In Game 1, the Lakers lost by 12 points in a 91 possession game (San Antonio had 92 possessions). The Lakers had 18 turnovers out of their 91 possessions, meaning they spent nearly 20% of their offensive possessions just giving the ball back to San Antonio. On the evening, the Lakers scored a rather moribund .87 points per possession (PPP). But, if you take out those 18 turnovers, the PPP improves to 1.082. San Antonio, on the other hand, scored 91 points on 92 possessions, good for .99 PPP. They turned the ball over just nine times, so they scored 1.096 PPP on their non-TO possessions. What does all this mean? If TOs weren't a thing, or if they were a thing equally, the Lakers would still have lost Game 1 ... by two points. Normalize the turnovers (i.e. give LA nine more possessions at their non-TO scoring rate), and the estimated final score of Game 1 would have been 89-91. If you remove the extra possession the Spurs had in the contest (which is just sort of a random thing that can sometimes happen), the score goes to 89-90. Game 1 was a virtual dead heat, except that one of the two teams in the dead heat started 10 feet behind the other.
Game 2 was less competitive, but still shows a game that could have been much closer than it was. In game 2, the Lakers scored 1.08 PPP to the Spurs 1.20 (obviously, the defense was not anywhere near as solid in game 2, for either team). The turnover differential in game 2 was just 5, 13 for the Lakers and 8 for the Spurs. Perform the same statistical wizardry on the second game, and the Spurs still win by 5, with a final estimated score of 97-102 (Note: the Spurs once again had an extra possession. Take that away, and its a four point game 97-101). So, while Game 1 could have legitimately swung the other way if the Lakers had taken care of the ball, Game 2 was a more definitive Spurs victory. But five points is a hell of a lot closer than 11 points, illustrating once again that while the Spurs are clearly the better team in this series (at least based on the parts each team has available), the contests could be a lot more competitive than they seem.
Also worth noting is how much the Spurs offense might improve because of the Lakers' turnovers. In Game 1, the Lakers were actually stunningly good in transition defense, holding the Spurs to 1-5 shooting and one shooting foul (in which only one of the two free throws was made) on fast breaks as a result of a turnover. So, the Spurs only scored three points on six fast break opportunities from turnovers. But, in game 2, the Spurs scored six points on three fast break opportunities from turnovers. Take those opportunities away from the Spurs and you get a normalized PPP of 1.297 against the Lakers' normalized PPP of 1.282. Neck and neck again. The estimated score of Game 2 using these values would result, once again in a two point Spurs victory.
Look, this is funny math. It is in no way scientific proof that the Lakers, even in their crippled state, are just as good as the Spurs, or that we can expect the Lakers to somehow make this series competitive in the remaining contests. The analysis for Game 1 ignores fast break components and the analysis for Game 2 does not, because the fast break components make the argument for Game 1 less compelling and the argument for Game 2 more compelling (although, in my defense, I think we can all agree that the Lakers getting killed in transition due to turnovers is far more representative of reality than the aberration of Game 1). As analyses go, this is statistically biased and unconvincing of anything more than qualitative statements.
The Spurs are the better team, they would (probably) be the better team even if Kobe weren't on crutches and Steve Nash didn't need a walker to make it from the locker room to the bench. Also, while normalizing turnovers makes for an interesting exercise, the main point here is that turnovers are not normalized, nor are the turnovers in the first two games at all an aberration of how the Lakers have played this season. The Lakers have struggled with both sides of the turnover equation (giving them up on offense, forcing them on defense) all season long, ranking 17th in TO% and 29th in forced TO% on the season (San Antonio isn't really impressive by that count either, ranking 22nd on O and 14th on D). In order for the Lakers to have a realistic chance in this series, they needed the Spurs stars to be hampered enough to counter-balance some of what LA has lost due to injury, and it just hasn't been so (Manu in particular has been amazing considering he played just 12 minutes in the month of April prior to the playoffs.) Barring a whole slew of changes in favor of the Lakers, changes that should not be expected based on any available evidence, the Spurs are going to win this series, and they deserve to do so.
Of course, none of that changes the fact that if the Lakers could take care of the ball as well as San Antonio does, this would be a far more competitive series. The Los Angeles Lakers are gifting the series to the San Antonio Spurs, in the most literal sense of the word. This should not be a surprise. They've been giving away games all season long.
|Game 1||Game 2|
|PPP w/o TO||1.082||1.096||1.282||1.325|
|Score w/ bal TO||89||91||97||102|