Thunder Win Pretty

by Jeff Fogle 18. April 2011 01:21

It can be hard to capture in numbers when a sporting event approaches art. And, writers who try to turn sports into art usually make you wish they hadn't bothered. There's only one Frank Deford. Let's see if we can present the numbers from Sunday night's Denver-Oklahoma City game in a way that captures just how well played this fantastic NBA showcase really was...

We start with tempo. Often playoff games turn into plodding affairs that approach steel cage wrestling matches.

GAME ONE PACE FACTORS
95: Denver/OKC
92: New Orleans/LA Lakers
92: Atlanta/Orlando
91: Memphis/San Antonio
90: Indiana/Chicago
89: Philadephia/Miami
88: New York/Boston
83: Portland/Dallas

The porridge was just right here, after a weekend of the traditional slower paces. It wasn't run-and-gun out of control. It was pushed to the limit of what made sense with this level of athleticism in an important game.

SHOOTING PERCENTAGE OF THE LOSER
51%: Denver
46%: LA Lakers
46%: Portland
46%: Indiana
45%: Orlando
42%: New York
41%: Philadelphia
40%: San Antonio

You know it's a good game when the losing team shoots that well. And, we're not talking about a game with bad defenses. Both Denver and OKC had guarded very well since the trading deadline. They brought tough, intense defenses on the floor...yet Denver shot 51% and OKC shot 49%. The shooting was sharp, at an enjoyable pace, against defenses that were battling.

COMBINED TURNOVERS

16: New Orleans/LAL in 92 possessions
21: Philadephia/Miami in 89 possessions
22: Denver/OKC in 95 possessions
24: Indiana/Chicago in 90 possessions
26: Memphis/San Antonio in 91 possessions
26: Portland/Dallas in 83 possessions
27: Atlanta/Orlando in 92 possessions
30: New York/Boston in 88 possessions

Portland/Dallas looks even more like a wrestling match here. It must have been played in the old Sportatorium. That rundown suggests New Orleans/LAL was the cleanest game. Amongst the matchups Chris Paul wasn't playing in, Denver/OKC has to rank second because of the extra possessions. Clean execution and clean shooting at an enjoyable pace.

Part of what was going on here I think was that we've gotten so used to seeing veterans playing slow playoff games the past few years that we've forgotten what it might be like if YOUNG STARS who were still frisky melded at just the right time. Imagine Kevin Garnett in his early prime surrounded by teammates who could win playoff games. Take five years off the current Celtics and Lakers. Give LeBron James and Dwyane Wade six talented teammates who were just disrespected for weeks by the national media. That's in the neighborhood of what we just might be seeing in this Denver/OKC series. At least, that's what the first game felt like to me.

OKLAHOMA CITY 107, DENVER 103
Two-Point Pct: Denver 57%, OKC 50%
Three-Pointers: Denver 4/16, OKC 9/19
Free Throws: Denver 21/33, OKC 22/28
Turnovers: Denver 11, OKC 11
Rebounds: Denver 34, OKC 37

(Expanded boxscore is here)

Denver lost this one in three main areas:

*TREYS: They averaged 8.1 per game in the regular season, but were a poor 4 of 16 here. This is a category they're supposed to win, but they were outscored by 15 points from behind the arc. The final score in 1's and 2's was Denver 91-80.

*FREE THROWS: Denver had the better inside game, yet converted only 21 of 33 free throws. They were outscored at the line despite getting five more attempts.

*LATE GAME OFFENSE: As many expected, Denver still doesn't have a proven plan for what to do late in close games. It's a strong team that lacks a real go-to-guy in crunch time. The Nuggets only scored two points in the last three minutes.

DENVER'S POSSESSIONS, UP 101-100 AT 3-MINUTE MARK

Felton misses 9-foot shot
Felton misses 3-foot shot
Galinari turnover
Martin misses inexplicable 22-foot shot
Felton misses trey
Galinari makes 2 free throws after inexplicable foul on OKC
Smith misses desperation trey at buzzer

Oklahoma City knows that either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook is going to be taking those late-game shots. Felton took the bull by the Horns and went 0-3. I'm still not sure what Kenyon Martin was doing.

As great as Durant (41 points, 9 rebounds) and Westbrook (31 points, 7 assists) played...and as strong as OKC was with players filling their roles...Denver could have won this game with normal trey production, a little more focus at the FT line, or with a more structured plan of attack in the last few minutes.

I kinda like stacking Game One numbers like we did at the top. Let's wrap up the weekend with a few more categories...

FINAL SCORES IN 1'S AND 2'S
Chicago 86, Indiana 69
Miami 85, Philadephia 68
Portland 75, Dallas 59
New Orleans 97, LA Lakers 82
Denver 91, Oklahoma City 80
Atlanta 85, Orlando 75
Boston 72, New York 61
Memphis 83, San Antonio 80

Stable playoff series are usually very stable in this category. Too early to know which matchups will be stable, and which will bounce around a bit given emotional highs and lows. Clearly the Lakers and Spurs have something to work on. Dallas and OKC better not rest on their laurels.

SHOOTING INSIDE OF 10 FEET
Denver 71%, Oklahoma City 58%
Atlanta 63%, Orlando 62%
Memphis 69%, San Antonio 50%
New Orleans 59%, LA Lakers 58%
Philadelphia 60%, Miami 56%
Boston 48%, New York 48%
Chicago 52%, Indiana 42%
Portland 58%, Dallas 31%

I just ranked those by the combined totals in each game. It's after midnight local time and I couldn't think of a logical way to rank them! Denver humbled Kendrick Perkins just a bit. The "ugliness" of Boston/New York gets some context here. Dallas is flirting with disaster if they don't lift that low number.

Back Monday by midnight to look at Philly/Boston and Indiana/Chicago (only a doubleheader this time). Fitting time to end. TNT just played that commercial (again) with where the blond lady is singing that song that has actual words but sounds like jibberish if you have the volume turned kinda low while you're typing. Catchy at first...scary after the 10th time through. What is it? 50 times at least through the eight weekend telecasts? Could this be why Dwyane Wade sat out practice today with a migraine?

Did you notice that the kids voices in that car commercial with the parents singing "Just call me angel..." sound identical to the kids voices they give the office workers in the subway sandwich commercials? At least they stopped showing that ad from the college tournament broadcasts that made my wife want a miniature giraffe with a tiny treadmill.

See you late Monday...

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Mission Accomplished

by Jeff Fogle 9. April 2011 00:13

Conspiracy or not, Denver's work is over. The Nuggets lost to Oklahoma City, beat Dallas, and lost again to Oklahoma City. Mission accomplished. Denver did what they could to help launch the Thunder into the #3 spot instead of Dallas (making life easier for the Nuggets in the process). Or, maybe it was all just a coincidence...

Will Denver admit to the strategy? I think people reading media quotes from George Karl this week sensed a wink. Let's say it this way. If they WEREN'T doing that on purpose, they're going to be in big trouble vs. OKC in a first round match up of #4 and #5 seeds!

This Week
Game One: Oklahoma City 101, Denver 94 (in Denver)
Game Two: Oklahoma City 104, Denver 89 (in OKC)

If you assume home court advantage is 3-4 points...then those results are right on the money. Oklahoma City grades out as 11 points better on a neutral site with a 7-point win at Denver and a 15-point win at home. Does anybody really think that Denver's that much worse than OKC? 

We mentioned the other day that Denver showed poorly in key hustle stats like two-point defense and rebounding. That was true again Friday.

Two-Point Shooting: OKC 49%, Denver 44%
Rebounds: OKC 46, Denver 40

Let's see what impact Denver's week has had on the Western playoff picture...

Jockeying in the West (Spurs have clinched #1)
2...LA Lakers 55-24 (vs. OKC, vs. SA, at Sacramento)
3...Dallas 54-25 (vs. Phoenix, at Houston, vs. NO)
4...OK City 53-26 (at Lakers, at Sacramento, vs. Milwaukee)

Los Angeles is getting perilously close to blowing the #2 seed after an 0-4 week. The Lakers do own the tie-breaker over Dallas because they won the Pacific Division and Dallas will be runner-up to San Antonio in the Southwest Division. Oklahoma City also owns the tie-breaker over Dallas as winner of the Northwest division. Oklahoma City still needs some help if they are aiming for the #3 spot. Continuing on...

5...Denver 48-21 (vs. Minnesota, vs. Golden State, at Utah)
6...New Orleans 46-33 (at Memphis, vs. Utah, at Dallas)
7...Portland 46-33 (Lakers out) (vs. Memphis, at Golden State)
8...Memphis 45-34 (vs. NO, at Portland, at LA Clippers)

Denver's adventures this week have prevented them from locking up the #5 seed. It's unlikely they'll lose their last three games as favorites though. Portland, New Orleans, and Memphis is still a mess...and everyone's trying to avoid the Lakers as they grab a chair when the music stops. Two head-to-head games you see in parenthesis amidst the bottom three will have a big impact in determining who finishes where.

That will give us something to talk about next week.

Why is there such concern over the brackets? A glance at the updated won-lost records since the All-Star Break help make it clear...

Western Standings since ASB
LA Lakers 17-5
Oklahoma City 18-7
Denver 16-6
Memphis 14-8
Portland 15-9
New Orleans 13-8
San Antonio 14-9
Dallas 14-9


Even though the Lakers aren't playing at peak intensity this week, that 17-1 stretch before the downshift showed they were championship ready. You don't want to finish #7 and play them in the first round. You probably don't want to be in the 3-6 match up either because a series win just gives you the Lakers in the second round. That's a tougher call though because getting to face whoever finishes #6 may be a better option than playing #5 Denver. Picking your poison is hard enough. Many of the labels are still blank!

As expected, the Chicago Bulls wrapped up the top seed in the East with a Friday night victory in Cleveland. The #1, #4, #5, and #8 spots in the East are already locked in. Here are updated standings for the tweeners...

2...Boston 55-24 (at Miami, at Washington, vs. NY)
3...Miami 55-24 (vs. Boston, at Atlanta, at Toronto)

Boston currrently holds the tie-breaker edge. But, they visit Miami Sunday and will be road underdogs. If Miami wins that game, and wins out, the Heat get the #2 seed and home court advantage in a projected second round meeting with the Celtics. If Boston lifts its game significantly from Thursday's disappointing loss in Chicago and wins out, they'll win the coveted #2 slot.

6...New York 41-38 (at Indiana, vs. Chicago, at Boston)
7...Philadelphia 41-39 (vs. Orlando, vs. Detroit)

New York owns the tie-breaker based on a superior divisional record (the series mark was 2-2). They have a tough two-game tango to finish, but those games may be meaningless to Chicago and Boston at tipoff. Note that the Bulls still have a chance to catch San Antonio for best overall record (and home court in the championships).

San Antonio 60-19 (vs. Utah, at Lakers, at Phoenix)
Chicago 59-20 (at Orlando, at New York, vs. New Jersey)

Chicago would own home court over any other Western team if the Bulls reach the Finals. The Lakers 0-4 slide took them out of that race.

Might as well the Eastern records since the All-Star Break since we ran the Western numbers.

Eastern Standings since ASB
Chicago 21-4
Orlando 14-8
Miami 14-9
Boston 15-10
Philadelphia 14-10
New York 13-12
Indiana 13-13
Atlanta 10-14

Chicago's been in a class by themselves with a young hungry team.

Friday was a night where expectations largely held. So, no reason to post Transition Points. Sole addition I'd make is that Geoff Ogilvy is currently in 5th position at the Masters. Saying his name REALLY fast is the only way I'll ever get close to experiencing the leaderboard at Augusta.

No Saturday night report because there aren't any meaningful games (outside of the Spurs hoping to beat struggling Utah in their race for best overall record). Back late Sunday to review key numbers from Boston/Miami, and maybe New Orleans/Memphis in the 6-7-8 morass out West...

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Spurs Regain Control of Destiny

by Jeff Fogle 4. April 2011 00:28

That was quick! San Antonio held serve Sunday with an easy home win over Phoenix. The Los Angeles Lakers were caught flat-footed at home by the Denver Nuggets, losing a game that may ultimately cost them the #1 seed in the West.

Of course, finishing #2 in the West means the the Lakers can avoid worrying about Denver for the time being, and will probably lock up with #3 Dallas who they just crushed Thursday night.

Not exactly the end of the world for the Lakers!

If you watched both Lakers-Mavs and Lakers-Nuggets, you saw a much softer level of intensity Sunday. It's as if the Lakers had a message to send to Dallas about a likely meeting in the second round, and they delivered that message emphatically ("You've got no chance against us!). Sunday vs. Denver? It was more like "Well, we've heard you guys are playing well...but we may not have to worry about you at all...so we'll just kind of play this one by ear and see how it goes."

A faster tempo game than the score suggests was nip and tuck most of the way. Then Andrew Bynum of the Lakers banged up his knee a bit and sat out crunch time. Suddenly Denver was making shots while Kobe was launching poorly advised misses. It was Nuggets by eight by the time Jack Nicholson noticed something was wrong. The Lakers could get close, but time ran out on a comeback. Denver 95-90.

Worth noting:

*Ron Artest wasn't much of a factor in 29 minutes. He only made one basket. And, he's most dangerous defensively when he can harrass the best scorer on the opposing team. Denver is so balanced that it kind of takes Artest out of the game defensively. He can't harrass everybody at once.

*Denver was so balanced that only nine players saw minutes, but seven of the nine were positive in plus/minus. The worst scores were Nene at -2 and Raymond Felton at -1. Nobody was better than +7. On the one hand, you can sense that Denver's not sure who to go to when they NEED a basket. That could be an issue in the playoffs. On the other hand, defenses will have trouble denying whoever's on the floor a good look because ball movement is so good.

*Danilo Gallinari scored 20 points in the first half. Felton had 16 points in the second half. They were on the Knicks not too long ago.

*The Lakers bench outside of Lamar Odom (6th Man of the Year) could be a hindrance in big games. Matt Barnes was -12 in plus/minus in just 18 minutes...and he's been more of a mouth than a force since returning from injury. Shannon Brown was -8 in 11 minutes. Steve Blake was -4 in 19 minutes. The Lakers starters are a year older. The playoffs are likely to be a grind in the tough West. I know, the bench can't be worthless if the team is 17-2 since the All-Star break. Will they step up when it matters most? They didn't today.

In terms of the playoffs...it's tough to disagree with the Lakers' recent surge in the markets to championship favorite. And, Denver is going to have a very difficult path even if they keep playing well. Oklahoma City-Denver in the 4-5 slot is going to be something special. The winner then faces the #1 seed in the second round. And, that's just for the right to go to war again in the Western Finals.

San Antonio will deny LA the #1 seed if they can go at least 4-1 against this schedule:

Tuesday: at Atlanta
Wednesday: vs. Sacramento (back-to-back)
Saturday: vs.Utah
April 12: at LA Lakers
April 13: vs. Phoenix (back-to-back)

A Spurs' loss to Atlanta Tuesday, and the Lakers get back control of their destiny. Here's what the Lakers have left:

Tuesday: vs. Utah
Wednesday: at Golden State (back-to-back)
Friday: at Portland (big game for Blazers)
Sunday: vs. Oklahoma City
April 12: vs. San Antonio
April 13: at Sacramento (back-to-back)

The Lakers will be favored in all six. They were favored today and didn't win.

Transition Points

*Dallas lost at Portland Sunday Night 104-96. It was a tough spot for the Mavs because it was back-to-back off a loss at Golden State, and a third game in four nights. They have to be disappointed to show so poorly on the road against the Lakers and Blazers on this trip. But, the bigger issue may be that this is now the SEVENTH straight loss to Western Conference playoff teams since early March.

Memphis 104, Dallas 103 (in Dallas)
New Orleans 93, Dallas 92 (at New Orleans)
LA Lakers 96, Dallas 91 (in Dallas)
Portland 104, Dallas 101 (in Portland)
San Antonio 97, Dallas 91 (in Dallas)
LA Lakers 110, Dallas 82 (in Los Angeles)
Portland 104, Dallas 96 (in Portland)

They're still a #3 seed, and are in great shape to hold onto that spot. But, Dallas isn't showing any signs of being in the same class as the Lakers or Spurs in terms of contending for the title. They're in worse form lately in games that matter than most everyone else in the West.

An interesting tester awaits Wednesday when Denver visits the Metroplex. Dallas doesn't play until then. Denver will be on night two of a back-to-back after hosting Oklahoma City.

*Portland has every reason in the world to keep battling hard because the 6-7-8 spots in the West are so close...and #6 will likely draw Dallas while the other two get the Spurs and Lakers. The Blazers just took out Okahoma City and Dallas to start a homestand. Three of their last five will be at home as well.
 
*It's tough to see Shaquille O'Neal being much of a factor in the playoffs for Boston. He could only play five minutes in his Sunday return before badly straining a calf muscle. He's carrying so much weight that something is going to break down in any comeback. Just watching him try to get up and down the court tonight, I strained a calf muscle. Rajon Rondo will need to put on that Superman cape of his in the postseason. He apparently put it back in storage after the win at San Antonio.

*The Knicks are back to racing all over the floor now that they've had some time to rest their legs. A layoff since Tuesday led to an up tempo 123-107 win over Cleveland Sunday evening. Cleveland had 22 turnovers, helping inflate the Knicks victory margin. New York was actually outshot 53% to 48%.

*There are no games Monday in the NBA because of the NCAA Championship game. Let's skip Monday, then come back late Tuesday to look at highlights from the busy 13-game card (that includes San Antonio-Atlanta, Philadelphia-Boston in a potential playoff preview, and Oklahoma City-Denver in an extremely likely playoff preview). If any interesting stat notes pop up from Monday night's UCONN-Butler game, I'll post those Tuesday Night.

Other big games this week:
Wednesday: New York at Philadelphia, Denver at Dallas
Thursday: Boston at Chicago
Friday: Denver at Oklahoma City (the rematch!), LA Lakers at Portland
Sunday: Chicago at Orlando, Boston at Miami, Oklahoma City at the Lakers

Man, brutal week for Oklahoma City! But a week for basketball fans that should give us a strong sense for how the postseason might play out...

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Miami's Fascinating Odyssey Continues

by Jeff Fogle 17. March 2011 00:31

It's been a few weeks of extremes for the Miami Heat. Surprising losses to Chicago, New York, Orlando, San Antonio, Chicago in a revenge spot, and Portland...followed by impressive wins over the LA Lakers, Memphis, and San Antonio. Just when it seemed the Heat had righted the ship during a very challenging schedule gauntlet, Oklahoma City found a new way to embarrass them Wednesday night...

OK City didn't try to take away LeBron James, hoping Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh couldn't carry the team. OK City didn't try take away Wade and hope that LeBron spent the night setling for jumpers. Oklahoma City basically took away EVERYONE in their 96-85 win.

What's the opposite of a balanced scoring attack? Miami had a "balanced non-scoring" attack.

From the Floor:
LeBron James: 8 of 21 (38%) for 21 points
Dwyane Wade: 7 of 21 (33%) for 19 points
Chris Bosh: 6 of 17 (36%) for 21 points
Everyone Else: 9 of 19 (47%) for 24 points

Have we seen anything like this before??? We've talked a few times about how Miami can't seem to beat quality opposition if they can't get good games from all three stars. It takes an impressive defense indeed to hold the entire trio to sub-par outings.

How did Oklahoma City do it? Using their athleticism and length, they minimized the number of easy dunks and layups that James and Wade usually convert. Nobody can eliminate them all. OK City put up a wall that was hard to scale.

*Kendrick Perkins (6'10" center) brings a playoff level of physicality to the Thunder. He fouled out in just 16 minutes. But, it's as if the whole team has accepted they need to battle like Perkins if they want to win in the playoffs. A snarl doesn't come naturally to the face of good natured Kevin Durant. He's learning.

*Serge Ibaka (6'10" power forward) grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked 3 shots in 31 minutes.

*Nazr Mohammed (6'10" center), another big that Oklahoma City acquired with the playoffs in mind, played 15 minutes off the bench. He grabbed nine rebounds, and had a plus/minus of +9 in limited action.

*Nick Collison (6'10" power forward) provided 27 good minutes off the bench, earning a plus/minus of +14.

I don't normally link to shot charts. I should probably do more of that with Miami given their recent ebb and flow. Here's ESPN's visual from this game. Look at all the missed shots (X's) in the paint for Miami. Look at all the missed jumpers when they realized they couldn't drive successfully. (And, be sure to look for Joe's boxscore Thursday morning that will list performances from shot various locations).

Clearly, this is something that opposing defenses are going to throw at them all through the playoffs. It's been clear to the naked eye that opposition paint defense is at the heart of these scoring totals in Miami's seven recent losses.

Ten Games into the Gauntlet
Miami in Losses: 89-86-96-95-86-96-85 (90.4 avg., 89 median)
Miami in Wins: 94-118-110 (107.3 avg., 110 median)

Put up a wall, and you can keep Miami in the 80's. Miami can be beaten if they're in the 80's.

I also wanted to point out that OK City had a good game from long range. Miami has been inconsistent guarding the perimeter during this high profile series of games. The Thunder was 9 of 20 for 45%, which equates to 67.5% on two-pointers.

Opponents 3-pointers during Gauntlet:
Chicago: 4 of 21 (awful)
New York: 8 of 30 (awful)
Orlando 16 of 29 (55.2%, equal to 82.8% on two's)
San Antonio: 17 of 28 (equal to 91.1% on two's)
Chicago: 3 of 14 (awful)
Portland: 7 of 17 (41.2%, equal to 61.8% on two's)
LA Lakers: 7 of 16 (43.8%, equal to 65.7% on two's)
Memphis: 1 of 10 (awful)
San Antonio: 6 of 22 (awful)
Oklahoma City: 9 of 20 (45%, equal to 67.5% on two's)

Totals: 78 of 196 (39.7%, equal to 59.7% on two's)

It's not happening every game obviously. Chicago really helps any Bulls' opponent by shooting treys! But, this has to be seen as a potential Heat weakness for the playoffs. Versus a playoff subgrouping, they're allowing almost 40% on treys. Good luck with that when two's and one's become more difficult to gather after referees have swallowed their whistles.

The gauntlet finishes Friday and Saturday with a road game at Atlanta and a home game against Denver.

Transition Points

*Denver continued to be a dynamo with a 102-87 win at Atlanta (thanks for that transition schedule makers!)

Given the estimated number of possessions, Denver will almost be exactly in line with the numbers we ran the other night. They're still playing like champions, and still defending like champions since the Carmelo Anthony trade. The bulk of that dominance has come without injured scoring threat Danilo Galinari too.

Some tough tests are ahead. This could turn into one heckuva story during the playoffs.

*Odd mix of numbers in the Orlando/Milwaukee game. Andrew Bogut of the Bucks had to sit out with a migraine, which meant Dwight Howard was likely to have a field day.

9 of 11 on two-point shots
31 points
22 rebounds

Yeah, that's a field day. Except...Orlando could only score 33 points in the second half in a 93-89 overtime win. Howard was 13 of 24 from the free throw line, as the "Hack-a-Dwight" was once again a valid defensive ploy.

Does Orlando win with Bogut on the floor for Milwaukee? Possibly not given their recent form.

Orlando's last seven games:
Lost to Chicago 89-81
Lost to Portland 89-85 (Howard suspended)
Rallied very late to beat Sacramento
Lost to Golden State
Beat Phoenix without Steve Nash
Lost to the LA Lakers
Beat Milwaukee without Andrew Bogut

It hasn't mattered much for the projected 4th seed Orlando in the standings with #3 Miami and #5 Atlanta also going through sluggish stretches. Still, it's not exactly a recent resume you can hang your hat on.

*Memphis at New York is the marquee game on Thursday's light schedule. Back when it's over to run some numbers. Will try to also squeeze in any interesting NCAA tournament statistical developments.

*VCU shut critics up Wednesday with a stingy 59-46 win over USC in a matchup of #11 seeds. The difference was on three-pointers, where VCU's 9 of 24 was a lot better than USC's 1 of 9. Southern Cal actually won two-point shooting 48% to 31%.

Connectivity isn't as great as statheads would hope for in college sports. It's always tempting to look at early NCAA and NIT results to see if any conference may be overrated or underrated. Maybe tonight is a plus for VCU'S Colonial conference with George Mason and Old Dominion playing in 8-9 games soon against Villanova and Butler respectively. Butler's conference, the Horizon, has already had poor showings from Cleveland State (barely getting past Vermont at home) and Wisconsin-Milwaukee (losing by 9 Wednesday at Northwestern).

The Big 12 is showing some early vulnerability. Nebraska was waxed by Wichita State Wednesday Night. Colorado just kind of took care of business as a huge favorite over Texas Southern. The ACC has had nothing but good results so far against an admittedly easy schedule.

Enjoy the first big day of the Big Dance. See you late Thursday...

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Denver Dynamo

by Jeff Fogle 15. March 2011 00:41

Let's check in on the Denver Nuggets, who have been playing at a very high level ever since the Carmelo Anthony trade...

A 114-103 win tonight at New Orleans continued a stellar 8-2 run since the trade.

In the 9 games prior to Monday night:
Offensive Efficiency: 110.6
Defensive Efficinecy: 96.9

That's a huge spread that would be impossible to maintain over a longer stretch. In fact, it's been inflated a bit by a 40-point win over Charlotte at a time when many were questioning whether or not the Bobcats were even trying any more...and a 30-point win over Detroit on night two of a back-to-back for the Pistons. Denver is a team with a chip on its shoulder, and most of its BENCH also has a chip on its shoulder for a variety of reasons, so the Nuggets aren't showing much mercy.

Let's put those extreme blowouts aside and see what we get in the other seven games:
Offensive Efficiency: 104.9
Defensive Efficiency: 97.6

The offense falls way down, but the defense only takes a little hit. Over seven games vs. a reasonable mix of opposition (no superpowers, but playoff caliber teams or contenders in Phoenix, Utah, Atlanta, Portland, Boston, and Memphis), you're still getting a very big spread. Check out these comparable totals...

104.9 to 97.6: Denver in that 7-game hunk
105.1 to 97.7: Boston through Sunday action
103.7 to 97.0: Chicago through Sunday action
105.8 to 99.1: Orlando through Sunday action

If you include the blowouts, it's like the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals. But, even if you throw them out, since the trade Denver is performing exactly like those Eastern powers on a per-possession basis. It's hard to see with the naked eye because Denver plays at a much faster pace. If Chicago or Boston started running like crazy, but still maintained their quality, that's basically Denver since the trade.

Let me emphasize this. Denver is DEFENDING in a way that's comparable to Boston and Chicago on a per possession basis...and a little better than Orlando.

I'll throw in some other powers so that stands out...

109.0 to 101.1: San Antonio through Sunday action
108.6 to 101.4: LA Lakers through Sunday action
107.9 to 102.9: Dallas through Sunday action

Denver's defense has taken a meaningful step forward when facing quality in the post-Carmelo era. The offense notices his absence vs. quality, but they're still winning consistently anyway.

This should be a fascinating week to monitor the Nuggets...

Wednesday: at Atlanta
Friday: at Orlando
Saturday: at Miami

They're playing like an Eastern playoff team. This week brings a taste of the Eastern playoffs!

A week from Wednesday they host the San Antonio Spurs in their first game vs. a Western power since the trade. Big tests later...April 3rd at the LA Lakers, April 5 vs. Oklahoma City, April 6 at Dallas, and April 8 at Oklahoma City. That's a killer four-game stretch that will come between bookends against non-contenders.

It looks like Monday's 114-103 result will kick the efficiency totals a tad higher (better on offense, worse on defense). Let's see what happens to the numbers in that Atlanta-Orlando-Miami sequence through the week.

Transition Points

*New York was off Monday, giving them time to think about a rematch with the Indiana Pacers Tuesday. New York suffered a stunning home loss to Indiana Sunday. Stunning because it came after a loss, and the Knicks had been bouncing back well after losses since the trade.

New York with Carmelo...
Offensive Efficiency: 110.8
Defensive Efficiency: 109.4

It's been a strange ride so far. The 6-5 record with Carmelo features two losses to horrible Cleveland and one to badly slumping Indiana...but road wins over Miami, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Memphis.

*Miami sure has found its form again. Following up on last Thursday's win over the LA Lakers, the Heat have crushed Memphis and San Antonio. It's not worth running the numbers because you can imagine CRUSH data! Their big game gauntlet ends this week with Oklahoma City, Atlanta, and Denver.

*Houston scored a necessary win over Phoenix Monday night, surviving a 95-93 naibliter. Steve Nash missed the game for the Suns with a pelvic injury that sounds like it might become a big problem. Luis Scola was out for Houston. Neither of those teams is currently in the top eight in the West. Hard to see them getting there shorthanded.

Phoenix is 2.5 games behind 8th place Memphis. Houston is 3.0 games back. There are 14 games left for Memphis and Houston, 15 for Phoenix.

*Big games Tuesday are Dallas at Portland and New York at Indiana if you're a Knicks fan hoping for a character check. Back late in the evening to run some numbers.

*Bonus NCAA Office Pool Ideas

--Ask for three-point heavy teams to score one upset for you, but don't ask them to string together wins deep into your brackets. Tough to win a bunch of games in a row with a volatile sine curve.

--Look at teams who emphasize two-point defense and two-point offense to be the most consistent (click on any team name at Ken Pomeroy's college website for data in those categories and a zillion others).

--There's a theory that Duke-Butler last year heralded an era of "team basketball" outperforming individual talent in the Dance because we now have a generation of kids who grew up wanting to go 7 of 24 shooting in big games so they could be warriors like Allen Iverson. That's probably a bit extreme (but sarcasm is sometimes right!). Many pundits are calling this the weakest field ever. And, many pundits are also decrying the lack of fundamentals and common sense basketball. Ergo...fundamentally sound common sense floaters (there are some out there) might be worth a shot as darkhorses in your brackets. Well, they've always been worth a shot for an upset or two. Now they may be worth a shot to go deeper.

--Keep in mind that #1 seeds have some tough paths this year. Check out how some of the #1's compare to their paired #4's in inside defense:

East
#1 Ohio State: 47% allowed on 2-pointers this year
#4 Kentucky: 42% allowed on 2-pointers this year

West:
#1 Duke: 43% allowed on 2-pointers this year
#4 Texas: 42% allowed on 2-pointers this year

Southwest:
#1 Kansas 45% allowed on 2-pointers this year
#4 Louisville 44% allowed on 2-pointers this year

Southeast:
#1 Pittsburgh 43% allowed on 2-pointers this year
#4 Wisconsin 45% allowed on 2-pointers this year

The seeds never go as smoothly as expected. But, if those teams do win...we're looking at superior internal defenses in three of four Sweet 16 matchups...with Ohio State and Kansas showing some potential overall vulnerability at 45% or worse. Figured I'd throw that out there now, with a playful prediction that none of the four #1 seeds will reach the Final Four. There are some real headaches for the #1's in the 8-9 slots...and some dangerous defenses in the 4-5 slots.

Should be a very fun event. If it's not crazy early, that just means some really good matchups down the road...

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