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Playoff Thoughts

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 5/5/06

My thoughts while watching the last few days of the Playoffs, in bullet format ....

  • There is no denying the fun and excitement of the NCAA Tournament's one-and-done format, but let us not overlook the advantages of the NBA's best-of-seven system (I'm looking at you, KnickerBlogger). Even if you ignore the in-the-eyes-of-the-beholder benefit of a system which favors the best team winning the series, or that keeps a referee's whistle from playing quite as large a role (imagine being a Nets fan if the Pacers had won their series on Anthony Johnson's two free throws in Game 1; for that matter, imagine being the referee if that play would have decided who advanced), there is an advantage in terms of building drama that is unparalleled in a seven-game NBA series. The role of adjustments and counters magnifies the role of coaching and also increases the tension between the two teams. The last two weeks, that has produced some great basketball.

  • Yes, Doug Collins. You would like to play on Steve Nash's team. I can't disagree. But we understood it the first 872 times.

  • Don't get me wrong - Collins is still probably my favorite national color commentator, though I'm enjoying Jeff Van Gundy during the Playoffs.

  • During the Cleveland-Washington Game 5 on Wednesday, I saw something I don't recall ever seeing before. The Cleveland ballhandler was dribbling on the left elbow when a teammate motioned behind him. That brought the teammate's defender, Antawn Jamison, into the play, and there seemed to be some confusion between Jamison and Antonio Daniels, who was on the ball, allowing the ballhandler to go to the basket for a hoop. Van Gundy, working the game, didn't seem to make much of it, so maybe this isn't uncommon, but I'm wondering whether it was drawn up that way by Mike Brown or just totally fortuitous.

  • It's interesting contrasting what I see in Game 6 from the Suns on the pick-and-roll with what I saw in the Every Play Counts I did early this season. As I hinted at the end of that column, Phoenix's problem was that the better mismatch for them is generally the post player defended by the guard, but neither Kurt Thomas nor Brian Grant was capable of exploiting this matchup.

    Boris Diaw, on the other hand, is a pretty crafty post scorer who had a great hook shot over Smush Parker late in regulation in Game 6. Tim Thomas, who was in Chicago when I wrote that column, also scored in the paint. Besides that, Nash was more aggressive in going to the basket against big men, mostly Kwame Brown, who was in foul trouble. As great a shooter as he is, Nash is surprisingly mediocre when he shoots off a standstill dribble. Overall, the Suns late-game offense is much less stagnant than it was early in the season.

    Generally, I agree with what Kurt from indispensable Lakers blog Forum Blue And Gold said before Game 6: "I think Nash is very good at picking apart anything if you keep showing it to him long enough. What Id like to see them do is switch tactics a few times. Show for a while, then switch. Try not to let him get comfortable."

  • During the regular season, I thought about doing an Every Play Counts on the topic of plays out of timeouts, but dismissed the possibility of collecting any useful stats. Little did I know that Roland Beech could track every such possession this season, as he did earlier this week. Like, apparently, many readers, my first thought was that it wasn't fair to judge coaches by their team's unadjusted performance; no coach in the league could get Portland to score well out of timeouts.

    After seeing, by popular demands, ratings based on the differential between overall performance and performance out of timeouts, I do see Roland's concern that this method is unfair to coaches of good teams. There has to be a happy medium, doesn't there?

  • Anthony Johnson scored 40 points in a Playoff game? Really?

  • While we're talking 82games stats, I've been meaning for some time to address the issue of the game-winning shot attempt stats that have been the source of heavy interest. While I appreciate the effort to put hard evidence to this area, I hope the game-winners by both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James during these Playoffs -- both players rated amongst the lowest-percentage stars in terms of game-winning attempts -- can serve as a reminder of the limitations of these numbers.

    Bryant's 32 "game-winning" shot attempts from the start of the 2003-04 season through April 13 of this year were the most attempted by any player, but that's still a paltry number in the grand scheme of things. Bryant, after all, averaged 27.2 shots per game this season.

    From a statistical perspective -- and here I mean the actual mathematical discipline -- we can be 95% confident that Bryant's "real" shooting percentage in game-winning situations is somewhere between 36.5% and 7.3% -- which is to say, there's still a lot of variability. The difference between the upper and lower bounds of the confidence interval is nearly 10 makes over Bryant's 32 attempts.

    Basically, looking at even nearly three years worth of data on game-winning shot attempts and trying to draw conclusions from them is like flipping two coins 20 times and declaring the one that lands heads more frequently to be more likely to land on heads. You just can't tell from such a small sample size. And if three years of data is relatively meaningless, can you imagine how little one shot tells us about a player's true ability?

    I believe rather firmly that there is such a thing as clutch ability for NBA players. I don't believe that it's something we can ever really quantify statistically, except maybe -- maybe -- in extreme cases like Carmelo Anthony. And of course he managed to miss not one but two potential tying attempts in Game 1 of the Nuggets series. Go figure.

  • On Tuesday, prior to Game 5 of the Lakers-Suns series, both John Hollinger (Insider only) and your humble scribe happened to pen columns discussing the oddity of Phoenix's poor Offensive Rating over the first four games of the series. (We even both managed to use the same stat to denigrate the Suns' offensive rebounding, noting that Sacramento's Bonzi Wells had only one fewer offensive board at the time than Phoenix as a team.)

    From there, the columns diverged a bit, with Hollinger tracing the Suns' problems to their inability to grab an offensive board, while I focused on Phoenix's subpar two-point shooting and invisible bench. Lo and behold, all three issues have turned around over the last two games. The Suns have grabbed 18 rebounds in their wins, as compared to 20 in the first four games; they've shot 57.3% on 2s (71-of-124) and gotten back-to-back double-figures efforts from James Jones (who is starting, but not one of the team's key five players) as well as 33 points the last two games from Leandro Barbosa, who filled in brilliantly for Raja Bell in Game 6. Regression to the mean?

    What has happened over the last two games does seem to point toward Phoenix winning a third straight game at home on Saturday to take this series, but would you want to bet against Kobe Bryant? Me neither.

  • Saturday's game will definitely be one of the most highly-anticipated First Round games I can ever remember.

    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
    Every Play Counts: Detroit-San Antonio
    The Value of Kobe Bryant
    Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Suns D
    The Value of Steve Nash
    The Curious Case of Darko Milicic
    The 2005-06 Every Play Counts All-Defensive Teams
    Playoff Predictions

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