Foul? What Foul?

The other day I had a dream. I happened to be walking behind an NBA referee, and he dropped his rule book on the ground. I opened it up to Rule 12, Part B, Section 1. It read:

Section I–Types
a. A player shall not hold, push, charge into, impede the progress of an opponent by extending a hand, forearm, leg or knee or by bending the body into a position that is not normal. Contact that results in the re-routing of an opponent is a foul which must be called immediately.
b. Contact initiated by the defensive player guarding a player with the ball is not legal. This contact includes, but is not limited to, forearm, hands, or body check.

In handwriting, the official had scribbled something in the ledger that said “Ignore – Final Two Minutes.” I immediately woke up and the world made sense for a second, until I realized that was all a dream.

Referees try not to call fouls in the last minutes of a game. I can only guess this is because they don’t want to be the one to decide the fate of the game. No one wants to be remembered for giving Larry Johnson a four point play, although I highly doubt Jess Kersey is a household name. In the above example, the player is remembered for his accomplishment, not the official who made the call. If the whistle is blown, no one will blame the official if there was a foul on the play. What’s not debated is whether L.J. was fouled or not. What is debated is if he should have been granted the continuation. Often it seems that the referees are reluctant to blow the whistle at all. The end of a close NBA game sometime resembles the rough parks in NYC, where the motto “no blood, no foul” is taken seriously.

There are certain game ending plays that I’ll always have in my mind as questionable, because of the possibility that a foul (or two) might have went uncalled. Charles Smith’s blocked layups (4 cleanly shots blocked?), Reggie Miller’s 8 points in 16 seconds(did he push the inbounding player to the ground?), Jordan’s shot against Utah (did he use his left hand to push Byron Scott aside?), etc. I’m not saying there is evidence to fully prove there were fouls during these times, but I can question the validity of these plays because of laissez faire approach taken by NBA referees in the closing moments.

These playoffs have given me at least two more moments to burn in my memory regarding last minute no-calls. First is Mark Madsen trying to foul Shaq. Mark wanted a foul. Shaq wanted a foul. The referee wanted to hide under his bed. Mark Madsen figured that hugging Diesel wasn’t enough, so he took Shaq’s arm and placed it around his neck. Still no foul. I think Minnesota should add Tracy Morgan to the roster, to give shack another spanking.

The second is Reggie Miller at the end of the Pacers/Pistons game. We’ve all seen it a million times. Miller pump fakes. The defender jumps. Miller jumps into the defender. Foul shots ensue. Apparently the referee didn’t feel that body to body contact was enough to call a foul. You can question whether this common Reggie tactic is a foul, since Miller is jumping into his defender. However if this play happened in the first quarter of a regular season game, I’m sure Reggie would get the call. That’s the whole point. What is a foul at one point of the game, should be a foul for the entire game. Referees need to be consistent with the rules right up to the very end of the game.

What A Difference A Game Makes

In an earlier column about the Timberwolves, I said that Minnesota improved their team on the defensive end. This is exactly how that they beat the Lakers last night. In game 1, LA had a field day, having an effective field goal percentage of 51%. Last night their eFG% dropped 10 points, to 41%. To put these numbers in perspective, 51% would have been an average night for league leading Sacramento, while game two would have looked bad even for this year’s Bulls (44.5%).

Only Derek Fisher (1-2, 1 3PT) and Luke Walton (1-1, 1 3PT), had an eFG% of 50% or better. Karl Malone went from a robust 8 of 13 in game 1 to a meager 2 for 5. Malone also had a dubious distinction of getting called for traveling by getting run into by his own teammate during the act of shooting. Gary Payton’s game 2 eFG% (40%), while better than his game 1 (36%), still leaves much to be desired. Kobe still scored a lot of points, but his 10-24 night lacked any hits from beyond the arc (0-4 3PT). Even the Timberwolves brand of hack-a-Shaq worked like Kryptonite against the Laker center, as Shaq went 4-10 from the field and 6-14 from the line.

The other thing that is radically different between games 1 and 2 in the box scores is the offensive rebounding. Minnesota only had 3 offensive boards (7% oREB%) in the first game, but more than tripled that amount in the next game with 10 (18% oREB%). It was a combined team effort as no Timberwolf had more than 2.

The Timberwolves may have more problems coming up. In addition to losing the home court advantage in the series, and heading to L.A. for the next two games, they might have to deal with the loss of Sam Cassell. Cassell has been fighting back problems, and had to leave game 2 after a few seconds. To make matters worse, he’s not Minnesota’s only injured PG, as Troy Hudson is out with a bad ankle. Journeyman Darrick Martin filled in nicely enough on the stat sheet (37 minutes, 4-11, 1 3PT, 6 AST & 0 TO). However the T-Wolves’ chances have to be decreased without their second best scorer. Cassell and Martin couldn’t be more different. Going from one player with a 52% eFG% that scored just under 20PPG this year, to a player who hasn’t played regularly in 4 seasons, with a career 44% eFG% will hurt their offense.

They will need someone or a group of players to pick up the slack. Latrell Sprewell shouldn’t be the one, since his 43% eFG% isn’t suited for the task. Even baseball guru Aaron Gleeman knows that Minnesota had more of a Big 2, than a Big 3. Of their top eFG% players, you can eliminate defensive specialists Ervin Johnson, Mark Madsen & Oliver Miller. (Did I just call Oliver Miller a defensive specialist? I guess that’s what happens when you have 6 fouls to give against Shaq). This means Minnesoters should be rooting for Hoiberg (56%) and Szczerbiak (49% in limited time, 52% last year) to shoot the rock more often. If there is anyone that should be picking up the scoring it’s Wally, whose role was reduced this year by the acquisition of Sprewell.

Standing On The Shoulders Of A Giant

Usually the title expression is in reference to when someone performs something great, but defers the credit to those that came before him to make it possible. If memory serves me correctly, it was Isaac Newton who used the expression (in it’s plural form) to honor those that made his discoveries possible. In this instance, I use it to describe the Timberwolves game 7 against the Kings. Kevin Garnett’s teammates jumped on his back, letting the giant carry them to victory. It was like Pippin & Merry on the back of Treebeard.

Garnett played the entire 4th quarter, and at one point had his team’s last 13 points. His contribution wasn’t limited to just scoring, since he also was the T-Wolves main rebounder (21), shot blocker (5), and even played backup point guard when Cassell was on the bench. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player do it all, like Garnett. He is simply a unique player that comes around once a generation.

Only considering the players I’ve seen in my lifetime, there is little comparison to Garnett in terms of skill set. Shaq is a dominant player on his own, maybe the most dominant player with the smallest skill set. Shaq is nearly unstoppable under the hoop, but his ability diminishes as he travels further from the basket as to where his free throw shooting is embarrassing. Shaq fancies himself as a skilful dribbler for a man his size, but only in Shaq’s mind does he have the handle of Garnett.

Tim Duncan is another 7 footer who opts to play PF instead of C. Unlike Shaq, the Big Fundamental has decent range for a player his size, but he doesn’t have Garnett’s shooting touch. Like Shaq, Duncan’s free throw percentage is a weakness at times, with a career low this year of 59.9%, something that hasn’t afflicted Garnett (career 76.1%).

Of the active power forwards, Karl Malone might be the most similar on offense, but he still doesn’t have Garnett’s dribbling ability or shooting range. In addition Malone was never the defensive player that Garnett is.

In fact there is only one player (that I’ve seen play), that has as diverse abilities as Garnett: Magic Johnson. Johnson, in case you were born yesterday, was a 6’9 point guard. Magic’s blend of efficient scoring (53% eFG), passing (11.2 APG – #1 all time), and rebounding (7.2 RPG) made him an offensive machine that earned him 3 MVPs and 9 All-NBA First Team honors. Magic was probably the best passer I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

My point is not to compare the two individuals in that manner, because despite their wide range of talents, they play much different roles. When Magic retired (for the first time), the game lost one of it’s greatest and most entertaining players. Today’s generation that will grow up never have seeing Johnson run one of his trademark fast breaks will be missing something, as I’m sure I am, never having seen Oscar Robertson or Cousy showcase their gifts. However watching last night’s game, Kevin Garnett gave today’s generation something to brag to their kids about.

Spurs/Lakers

Last night the NBA had one whole playoff game going on, but it was the marquee matchup of the second round. The Lakers and Spurs went at it again. In case you were out busy celebrating, you can find out easily who won the game, by looking at the score. But how they won is a different story. What statistics are the most important in relation to winning?

An article by Dean Oliver titled “The Four Factors of Basketball Success” discusses exactly this. In it he outlines the four most important team stats that lead to victory. They are (with weight in parenthesis):

1. Shooting % (10)
2. Turnovers (6)
3. Offensive rebounding (5)
4. Getting to the line (3)

So how did the two teams compare yesterday?

1. Shooting percentage (eFG%)
LAL: 53%
SAS: 56%

Both teams shot exceptionally well, although the Spurs had a slight advantage here. Watching the game I can tell you this was caused by a lot of layups from fast breaks for the Spurs & dunks by Shaq.

2. Turnovers (TO)
LAL: 16
SAS: 8

So far everything seems to be in the Spurs favor. To me these first two stats says something about the Lakers defense, or rather lack of. Not only did the Spurs shot at a high percentage (see above), but they only had 8 turnovers. It doesn’t seem that the Lakers did anything to stop them from scoring.

3. Offensive Rebounds (OReb% = oReb/attempts, where attempts = opp dReb + oReb – opp oReb)
LAL: 12/(33+12-6)=31%
SAS: 6/(6+42-12)=17%

Well here is one place the Lakers dominated. Most of the credit goes to Shaq who was nearly unstoppable at times. Not only did he have 6 of the Lakers’ 12 offensive rebounds, but he shot 15/21 (71%)!

4. Getting to the free throw line (FTA)
LAL: 18 (39%)
SAS: 30 (60%)

The Spurs dominated here as well. They had almost twice as many chances from the charity stripe, and they also converted at twice the rate. Duncan himself hit 10 (of 14), which is more than the Laker’s entire team (7 FTM).

Easily it was a contest dominated by the Spurs. Right now it doesn’t appear that the Lakers added the right players. Malone and Payton are great players, but when they’re not the focal point of the offense their contribution to their team is diminished. Why would you need Gary Payton, when your offense is primarily lobbing the ball into Shaq, or letting Kobe loose. They would be better served with a few guys that can’t create offense, but instead can do things like shut down their opponent, rebound, or hit their shots at a high percentage.

71+2>72

The title says it all. A simple child can understand that 71 plus 2 is greater than 72. There are many applications of this. If Farmer Jeff has 71 apples, and he picks up 2 more apples, he’ll have more than Farmer Farmer Phil. He’ll also have more apples if he stops to pick up 3 more as well, but if his only concern is having more apples than Farmer Phil, then 2 apples will do. So why don’t NBA players understand this?

I watched it live, but in case you didn’t here’s all you need to know about the end of the Rockets-Lakers game on Saturday night:

0:11 Houston Full Timeout. 71-72
0:00 Jim Jackson missed 24 ft Three Point Jumper. 71-72
0:00 71-72 Shaquille O’Neal Defensive Rebound.

Why was Jim Jackson behind the three point line? I watched the play live, and I’ve seen it at least three more times since on replays. Francis drives down the lane on the right side, and Jackson spots up in the left corner. The closest defender to Jackson is moving closer to the hoop, and is a few feet from the basket. Francis passes the ball to Jackson in the corner, and he misses a three pointer.

What drives me mad is that Jackson stayed far away from the hoop. His defender was moving towards the hoop, so Jackson could have moved in closer as well. Certainly moving in from the three point line gives Jackson a higher percentage shot. If the Laker lead was two points, I can understand taking a wide open three pointer to win the game instead of opting for a chance at overtime. But the Rockets only needed two points to win, so why didn’t Jackson set himself up for a closer shot?

UPDATE: I’ve seen the replay yet again this morning. Jackson’s defender was Kobe Bryant who was in the paint at the time of the pass. Jackson could crept up to about 12-15 feet away & comfortably made the shot. I know hindsight is 20/20, but it’s basic basketball knowledge that when your defender goes towards the hoop to help out, you should move in as well.

Little Man In My Head

There’s a little man in my head
And he must have lived in someone else’s head before
‘Cause I was born in ’63
And he’s only been there since ’74

— “Little Man In My Head”
Dead Milkmen

Every once in a while, the part of my brain that thinks he’s a 94 year old grumpy man creeps out and spills it’s liver about basketball and just about anything else that can keep it awake for more than 10 minutes at a time. Today, this is what he shared with me.


ESPN has put up their experts’ picks on their web page. Not a single columnist has picked the East to win it all. I can understand the East being an underdog, but not one of their 12 experts is willing to go out on a limb on this one? Chad Ford has Gary Payton as the Finals MVP. Is the East that inferior that the 4th best player on a West team has a better chance to win the Finals MVP than any East team has of winning it all?

Marc Stein not only has the Mavs over the Kings, but apparently over the Twolves as well (since they he has them losing to the Spurs in the conference finals). Now that takes guts. I wonder how many other teams in the history of the NBA with a defense ranked in the bottom 5 have won not just one, but two series in the playoffs as underdogs. I mean an educated professional sports columnist like Marc Stein does know that the Mavs defense is that bad?

Bill Walton has the Lakers going all the way and Shaq as the Finals MVP. Just in case you were worried that he would be rooting for anyone else during his telecasts.

Moochie Norris has been left off the Knicks’ roster to make room for Allan Houston. Houston only has a 20% chance of playing this series. That seems about right, since Morris makes 20% of Houston’s salary.

Obviously the NBA moved the Knicks/Nets game to 4:30, because of the Yankees/Red Sox 1:20 game. I wonder if any game during the first month of the NBA regular season will ever mean enough to reschedule another league’s playoff game? Maybe an MLS game? Probably after that Freddy guy retires.

Or maybe they can just get rid of the regular season altogether and expand the playoffs some more. Sure an 81 game series may not be as exciting, but imagine all that extra playoff revenue!


Whew I think I got that all out of my system. On a positive note, you have to read this article. It’s just about the greatest article I’ve read concerning blaming a single player in a team sport. READ IT! Someone needs to give this guy some kind of prize.

Seeds

Here I am sitting with my NBA bracket. All empty & waiting to be filled out. I’m more curious about the thought process that goes into such an endeavor. What would make someone choose one team over another? If logic is in play, shouldn’t I always pick the higher seed, since they have home field advantage and are usually the team with the better record? Or do I use my gut feeling? What information am I using to base my picks on? Do I go with the hot/cold teams (SAS, MIN, IND, DET, and MIA are hot; NJ, MEM, HOU, and SAC are cold)? Do I take the teams with more playoff experience (LAL, SAS, NJ, & DET) over the ones that aren’t playoff tested (NY, DEN, MIA, & MEM)? Where can I find solace in my decisions?

A good place to start is to look at recent history. I don’t have a team of experts at my call (this is a one man blog, not ESPN). So I’ll quickly use the last two years as a starting point, to find out what kind of team is most likely to pull off an upset. Here are all the underdog winners over the last two years:

Year	Rnd	TEAM	Seed	OPP	Seed
2002	2	BOS	3	DET	2
2002	2	LAL	3	SAS	2
2002	3	LAL	3	SAC	1
2003	3	NJ	2	DET	1
2003	2	DAL	3	SAC	2
2003	1	LAL	5	MIN	4

Out of the 16 first round games, there has only been one upset. The 5th seed Lakers played without Shaq for 15 games, and only missed the 4th seed by one game. However with their center (and franchise player) healthy, they took the Wolves in 6. They were as easily dismissed by the Spurs in the second round 4 games to 2. Of the latter rounds, it seems that the #3 seed has the best chance of survival. Subtracting the well documentated Lakers 2002 championship, 2 of the remaining #3 teams have won their second round game. Both teams were offensive orientated teams that just got hot at the right times. Boston behind the shooting of Walker & Pierce, and Dallas with their myriad of scorers. Twice the #1 seeds have been upset one series before the finals.

So with my extremely small sample size, what kind of data am I armed with? First round upsets are rare, but the further you go in the playoffs, the more perilous it gets. This should be obvious because the disparity between the teams gets smaller (instead of a #1 playing a #8, it’s a #1 playing a #4 or #2). In my small sample size, no team lower than a #5 seed is likely to pull of an upset. In history there have been lower seeded teams to move on past the first round (Knicks & Nuggets). However the odds seem too slim when given even odds (as a picking out a bracket is).

Leaving open the option that a #6 could slip by, I’ll take a quick gander at those two matchups. #6 Memphis isn’t likely to upset the Spurs. San Antonio still has the best defensive team in the league, and I think that makes it a little tough for an underdog to unseat them at home. Similarly with other #6 team, the Bucks. They are facing the #2 defensive team in the league, and I don’t see the Pistons losing with home court advantage.

The 5th seeds have a little better chance at unseating their opponents. According to me, a few days ago Miami only had a 17% chance of taking the 4th seed. Their opponent the Hornets were in the 6th seed. Thanks to the Bucks who mailed it in the last few games (why does that sound familiar?) those two get to play each other. Miami seems to have every edge, home court advantage, hot team going into the playoffs, and the better record. The Hornets only have their playoff experience, but I don’t think that’ll be enough to unseat the Heat.

Dallas-Sacramento is the matchup that could go either way. Both teams are great on offense. However the Kings have an average defense, while Dallas ranks among the bottom 5 teams. It’s not without the realm of possibility for the Mavs to take this series, especially if their offense explodes. However I can’t get over their defense being that bad, especially while facing the league’s best offense.

So in the first round, I’ll be a wimp and take all the favorites:
East: IND, NJ, DET, MIA
West: MIN, LAL, SAS, SAC

To keep my street cred, I’ll have to go out on a ledge in round two. So here we go. I’ll predict both 3rd seed to win their series. Detroit and the Spurs are ranked #1 & #2 in defense, and both teams finished with better records than their 2nd seeded counterpart. Not many people are taking the Nets over the Pistons, but enough people are not only picking the Lakers to win in the second round, but to go all the way. I can’t find a good reason to pick either of these teams to knock off the top teams, so I have an Indiana-Minnesota finals.

Second & Third Round:
East: IND def MIA, then DET
West: MIN def SAC, then SAS

For the finals, I’ll take Indy over Minnesota. Despite my hatred for the Pacers due to their rivalry with the Knicks, the East needs a to win a championship to gain any type of respect from the media. While the talent disparity is still there, an East team winning it all will let free agents feel they can win a championship in the East. Recently I’ve felt that players are going to or staying out West because they think it’s their best chance at winning a championship. Logic dictates that while it may be easier to reach the finals in the weaker East, the West is pumping out the rings faster than Sauron. In any scenario, I will be rooting for whoever represents the East in the Finals

Finals:
IND over MIN score of the final game: 91-84