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Every Play Counts: Detroit-San Antonio

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 1/9/05

In "Every Play Counts,"'s Kevin Pelton focuses on one player or team in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be fascinating. Also see Michael David Smith's original "Every Play Counts" at

"We're very honored, but we realize it is a great responsibility to play in the JV game," San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said before his team took on the Detroit Pistons in an NBA Finals rematch on Christmas Day. "We have to do a good job to make sure the fans stay around to watch the varsity game."

While ABC's promotion may have focused on the Lakers-Heat matchup that followed the Pistons and Spurs, there was no question which game basketball purists were excited to watch. With both teams starting 2005-06 quickly, another Spurs-Pistons Finals seems a likely possibility.

Like many others, I enjoyed Detroit's victory over San Antonio tilt after opening gifts Christmas morning (I got a Matt Hasselbeck jersey just in time for the NFL playoffs), but didn't have a chance to revisit it for "Every Play Counts" until well into the New Year. That proved fortuitous, however, as I'm able to preview the teams' battle in San Antonio this Thursday, nationally televised on TNT.

If you watched the game, it was obvious that Detroit won it by virtue of offensive rebounding. The Pistons grabbed 18 offensive rebounds, seven by Ben Wallace alone, and scored 20 second-chance points. Take away a few of those, and Detroit's 85-70 margin would evaporate. A look at Dean Oliver's Four Factors for the game reveals how close it was other than rebounding:

Team      eFG  OReb%  TO%  FTM/FGA
Spurs    .413  .133  .096   .107
Pistons  .455  .429  .122   .146

What is strange about this is that the Pistons have struggled with their rebounding this season. As was explored last month at CourtsideTimes.Net, defensive rebounding is the main reason Detroit ranks a middle-of-the-pack 15th in Defensive Rating (through Saturday), way down from their top-three performance the previous two seasons. The Pistons grabbed 73.0% of available defensive rebound opportunities in 2004-05. This year, that's down to 69.1%, better only than the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA. The Pistons have been very effective on the offensive glass, grabbing 30.8% of available offensive rebounds, so their Christmas performance was actually more abnormal in terms of defensive rebounding.

Because there are 10 players on the court, the average player grabs 10% of all rebounds while in the game. But only three Pistons regulars (Ben Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace) are at or above this mark, and Rasheed Wallace's 11.1% rebound rate is subpar for a power forward. That puts a lot of pressure on Ben Wallace, and he came up with approximately 30% of all rebounds while he was on the floor against the Spurs, while McDyess (27.9%) was also great.

I watched the Pistons-Spurs tape Friday, after watching the Pistons beat my own beloved Sonics, which meant I saw a pair of dominating performances by Wallace on the glass -- he grabbed 21 rebounds in the live game as Detroit outrebounded the Sonics 54-41. The Pistons can't count on Wallace being that dominant on the glass in this matchup, but there was a reason for Detroit's rebounding advantage that isn't apparent from simply looking at the box score -- the number of rebounds the Pistons got after the Spurs were forced to step up with help defense to stop dribble penetration.

To take a better look at how both teams defended, I scored the game using Dean Oliver's defensive stats. To briefly summarize, the categories are FM (forced misses/blocks), FTO (forced turnovers/steals), FTS (missed free throws where the player in question committed the foul), DFGM (field goals defended/3-pointers) and DFTM (made free throws). "Team" refers to plays which were not defended by one specific player.

Name         FM    FTO  FTS DFGM  DFTM
Parker      3.5     3/3      4.5/2   2
Finley        2     1/1        2     1
Nesterovic    5              1.5     2
Duncan      9.5/1 2.5/2   1  1.5     3
Bowen       9.5     1/1      2.5     
Horry       4.5/1   1     1    4     1
Van Exel      3    .5          2
Mohammed      5                2
Barry       2.5           1    2/2   3
Oberto                    2
Team        3.5               12/1

Name         FM    FTO  FTS DFGM  DFTM
Billups       8     1/1        1     2
Hamilton      5           1          1
BWallace      7     2/1   2  5.5     2
RWallace     12/2   1/1        6     1
Prince        6                2/1
McDyess       4   1.5     1    3     1
Evans         1    .5     1    2/1   1
Arroyo        1              1.5
Maxiell                        1
Team          1     1          8

The first thing I'm obligated to mention, for those who aren't familiar with defensive statistics, is how much more these numbers reveal than the standard box score defensive stats (blocks, steals and fouls). Each team blocked just two shots, while forcing a total of 79 other misses. Despite six stops, Tayshaun Prince officially was not involved in the game at all defensively, putting up zeroes in all three categories.

To take the analysis one step further, I've calculated some composite numbers based on the raw data: effective field-goal percentage allowed, points given up, possessions defended, Defensive Rating (points per 100 possessions), possessions faced per 40 minutes and the percentage of possessions I marked as being "help defense."

Name        eFG%  Pts  Pos   DRtg Pos40 Help%
Parker      .688   13   12  108.3  12.3  16.7
Finley      .500    5    5  100.0   7.2   0.0
Nesterovic  .231    5  7.5   66.7  19.1  20.0
Duncan      .136    6 15.5   38.7  16.1   9.7
Bowen       .208    5   13   38.5  12.8   7.7
Horry       .471    9 10.5   85.7  18.0  14.3
Van Exel    .400    4  5.5   72.7  11.9   0.0
Mohammed    .286    4    7   57.1  16.4  71.4
Barry       .667    9  6.5  138.5  16.4  15.4
Udrih               0    0          0.0
Marks               0    0          0.0
Oberto              0    1    0.0  30.8   0.0
Team        .806   25 15.5  161.3        31.1

Name        eFG%  Pts  Pos   DRtg Pos40 Help%
Billups     .111    4   11   36.4  12.4  18.2
Hamilton    .000    1    6   16.7   7.4   0.0
BWallace    .440   13 16.5   78.8  17.1  33.3
RWallace    .333   13   19   68.4  26.0  31.6
Prince      .313    5    8   62.5   7.5  37.5
McDyess     .429    7  9.5   73.7  14.8  10.5
Evans       .833    6  4.5  133.3  11.4  22.2
Arroyo      .600    3  2.5  120.0   8.0   0.0
Delfino             0    0          0.0
Milicic             0    0          0.0
Maxiell     1.00    2    1  200.0  30.8   0.0
Team        .889   16   10  160.0        31.8

The numbers tell an interesting story, one supplemented by watching the game. San Antonio played a "balanced" defense, with the big men facing relatively more possessions and every regular but Michael Finley facing a possession every four minutes. On the Detroit side, none of the three wing players were particularly involved in the defense, though all three defended well, including Rip Hamilton holding opponents to 0-for-5 shooting. (I also tracked deflections, and Hamilton was the only player in the game with two. There were five total.)

Naturally, these numbers say almost as much about the offenses as they do the defenses. Detroit's balanced attack kept the Spurs defense busy, enabling the Pistons to overcome Bruce Bowen locking down defensively on Hamilton, who shot just 4-for-15 from the field. The Spurs offense ran almost exclusively through point guard Tony Parker and forward Tim Duncan. (That probably won't be true in this matchup, with All-Star shooting guard Manu Ginobili back in the San Antonio lineup after being sidelined in the first game by a sprained right foot.)

While both Wallaces and McDyess took their turns on Duncan, most of the responsibility for him fell to Rasheed Wallace, and he did a fine job in this regard. Wallace is one of the league's most underrated defenders, a versatile defensive player capable of containing on the perimeter or battling in the post. His length made life difficult for Duncan, who got hot when McDyess was defending him early in the second quarter.

(I actually was pretty impressed with McDyess' defense, which wasn't considered a strongpoint of his game early in his career, but Duncan hit some difficult shots. At one point during this stretch, the Spurs actually brought Duncan off of a curl at the right elbow to hit a jumpshot, which I don't know that I've ever seen before with a player of Duncan's size.)

Returning to Wallace, what truly made his performance was his ability to contain Duncan and provide help defense as often as any Piston. Detroit's defense was pretty straightforward, with the strongside big man stepping up to defend penetration, usually by Parker. San Antonio's defense provided much more balanced help defense, with both posts typically helping and the rest of the defense sucking down. This tended to allow the Pistons more open outside shots and second chances, which was reflected in the 25 points they scored that were not credited to any Spurs defender.

Popovich made a dramatic strategic change during the game, switching centers at halftime. Rasho Nesterovic played 16 minutes in the first half, Nazr Mohammed 17 minutes in the second half, with neither seeing the court in the other half. Both players did a good job with their help defense, but Mohammed was really active early in the third quarter as the Spurs made their comeback. Plus-minus provides another measure of Mohammed's effectiveness; San Antonio was +7 with him on the court. Mohammed is considered a weaker help defender than Nesterovic, and if he can defend at the same level, that allows the Spurs to take advantage of his tremendous offensive rebounding (he had two in this game, shooting 5-for-7 from the field for 10 points). Mohammed hasn't been playing much recently, but I'd expect that to change Thursday.

Both of San Antonio's All-Defense First Teamers showed their value in the Christmas Day game. Bowen, matching primarily on Hamilton but also Prince and Chauncey Billups at times, held opponents to 2.5-12 shooting, while Duncan allowed just 1.5 makes in 11 attempts.

As for the Spurs' less heralded defenders, the results were mixed. Though his stats weren't tremendous, I was surprised by how well Nick Van Exel was moving at age 34 after missing 26 games last season with an arthritic left knee. Detroit seemed to be going after Brent Barry to some extent when he checked into the game, and Barry was San Antonio's least effective defensive player in terms of Defensive Rating.

For Detroit's defense, the big key in the Christmas Day matchup was containing Parker. He had six points early and was getting into the lane at will, but the Pistons did a much better job of keeping him on the perimeter the remainder of the game and he ended up shooting 7-for-17 from the field.

ABC played up the fact that Parker leads the NBA in points in the paint, and commentator Bill Walton wondered early in the game, "How difficult is it to make Parker a jump shooter?" Harder than it seems, I'd say. My opinion is that while teams know and understand the scouting report on Parker, which says to back off him a couple of steps, it's tough for point guards to break the habit of not giving their opposing counterparts room to operate. If you look at Parker in the playoffs, he's typically started series well before fading as they wear on. I think what I saw from the Pistons was that pattern on a very small scale.

(What of Parker's improved jumpshot, you ask? I'm not buying it. His effective field-goal percentage on jumpers this season is 36.3%, which is actually down from last year's 40.5% mark.)

Looking forward to Thursday, there are three reasons the Spurs can expect a different result:

  • It's unlikely the Pistons will be as dominant on the glass.
  • They'll have home-court advantage.
  • Manu Ginobili

    While Ginobili is the last factor I mentioned, his presence will probably be the most important. On Dec. 25, San Antonio's swingmen (Barry, Bowen and Finley) combined for 15 points on 6-for-17 shooting; Ginobili averages 15.5 points. Ginobili is having an off season from 3-point range, hitting just 32.4%, but still will help stretch the Detroit defense after the Spurs shot 2-for-7 from downtown in the first matchup.

    Nobody in the NBA is playing better basketball than the Detroit Pistons right now, but look for San Antonio to prevail Thursday.

    Mailing List

    Back in the old Hoopsworld days, I had a mailing list that notified readers when my columns were posted. Now that I'm writing several different places, it seems appropriate to bring it back. If you'd like to join, please e-mail me at

    Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA. He can be reached at

    Also see Kevin's previous columns for
    The Year in Stats
    Why I'm an APBRmetrician
    Wanted: Open Minds
    Investigating Dwyane Wade's Injury Risk
    The Similarity of Eddy Curry and Mike Sweetney
    Rating the Rookies: Projected Fantasy Stats
    Valuing the Preseason
    Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant
    Comparing the 50 Greatest
    Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Pick-and-Roll
    Every Play Counts: Antonio Daniels

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