Monday, April 21, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs: The Not-Quite Preview

I had a chance on Thursday to put up a post previewing the NBA playoffs... and then went to the driving range for my first bucket of the year. But I did have thoughts about each of these series! Originals are in italics, reflections on this weekend's games following:


Indiana Pacers - Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks lack of interior scoring will hurt against a Pacers defense that will regain some of its footing in a focused, playoff atmosphere. Atlanta have nobody to check Hibbert inside and will have a tough time stopping penetration by Stephenson and George. Indiana though is playing poorly enough that a random Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, or Paul Milsap scoring bonanza will give them trouble. Pacers in 6.
For some reason I thought a different Indiana team would show than the one that did Saturday night. For an anachronistic team that prides itself on defense and interior play, Indiana's lack of either was egregious. Each Hawks pass looked a few steps faster than the Pacers defenders making the defense bend in all sorts of convoluted ways. On offense, David West and Roy Hibbert were complete non-factors. The broader issue is that these do not seem like problems of scheme; rather, it's the players' inability to execute at a high level. How much these Pacers need a guy like Tyler Hansborough to inject their bench with much-needed athleticism and energy. The other problem? The Hawks won that game handily and it was no fluke - all their shots were good ones. Maybe the extra days of rest between games will benefit Indy's energy level after a grueling season as the top dog in the East, but that rest benefits Atlanta, too.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

2014 March Madness: Finale

Congratulations to the Connecticut Huskies, the 2014 Men's and Women's basketball champions. Congratulations also to those that bet against me these last few rounds and made some fat stacks. I wrote before the game that I was rooting for Connecticut but picking Kentucky. So what happened?

Foul shooting. This was rightfully brought up multiple times during the TV broadcast. Kentucky's inability to hit free throws and UConn's inability to miss changed the game. The broadcasters brought up this issue in the UConn - Iowa State game: when you don't miss from the line, it's incredibly hard to lose a lead. That is a preeminent reason why I stated in my preview that if UConn got a lead, look out. On the other end, I can't prove that foul shooting influences Kentucky's aggressiveness, but my conjecture is that it does. It's hard to summon the will and skill to bully your way inside and draw fouls, time after time. When the freebies aren't dropping, I think that challenge gets harder. Something to study in the future. 

Dribble Drive Offense. I believed that Kentucky's relatively simplistic dribble drive offense would provide a release valve against UConn's perimeter pressure. I was wrong. Very wrong. Ryan Boatright made sure of that. It's a funny thing how intense off ball pressure, pushing guys off their spot, can make them tentative when they get the ball. Is there really a difference between catching the ball at the 3-point line and catching it a few feet further back? If anything, the latter gives you more room to accelerate. But for the young, inexperienced Kentucky guards, it made them hesitate, doubting their ability to go around defenders and attack the rim. Remember James Young's nasty dunk and procession of freebies that cut the lead to one late in the 2nd half? Those came on rim runs, runs the other Kentucky guards were unable to replicate. Nothing against the dribble drive, but Kentucky's inability to get the defense off balance with fake actions didn't help their cause. Again, I was dead wrong. 

The Kentucky Bigs. All those highlight reel putback dunks are fun, but Kentucky's bigs also caused some major spacing issues that didn't help their guards' cause. On defense, it was a bad matchup for the Wildcats, going up against a team that relies on jumpers and consistently made the bigs show on the pick and roll. Then there's Julius Randle, who some are decrying for a poor performance in this game. My response would be that Randle balled for several straight games. He clearly needs polish, but I never doubted his effort. But his inability to take UConn inside, even with guys like Niels Giffey guarding him (sorry Niels), was a concern. I think he's a sure-fire NBA starter for defense and rebounding, but will he develop the skills to create his own offense? I didn't see that this season. 

Shabazz Napier. Shabazz was electrifying in this game. He had no problem dribbling into the teeth of the Kentucky defense, using a low handle to get inside and crafty hesitation moves to throw defenders off balance. A few more turnovers than you'd like, but he made some incredible passes too; that's the way he's played all year. I have little doubt that he'll succeed in the NBA as a backup guard who can start alongside strong defenders (a bigger version of Boatright). For some reason I like players that see the floor, can dribble to anywhere they want, and can shoot the lid off the defense (see Burke, Trey). 

UConn Bigs. The box score stats are wholly misleading. Phillip Nolan, DeAndre Daniels, and Amida Brimah shot 4-19 and grabbed only 11 of UConn's 34 boards. They also held Kentucky's NBA bigs to 7-17 shooting and 15 boards (out of 33). They did all the little things: protected the rim, spaced the floor, boxed the Kentucky bigs out so their guards could grab rebounds. Nolan had more fouls (4) than every other box score stat combined (1 rebound, 1 steal), but had a tangible effect on the game when he was in. 

There are some saying now that UConn wasn't this year's best team. That may very well be true (the purpose of the tourney is to crown a champion, not find the best team). But you know what? These UConn Huskies are well coached, play fantastic defense on the perimeter and inside, hit their freebies, know who their best player is, and saw the best player if this year's tournament do some ridiculous things. If this tournament was played again starting tomorrow, the Huskies probably don't win it. But with those attributes, I'm done betting against them.

#YouMakeTheCalls #YMTC #MarchMadness

Monday, April 7, 2014

2014 March Madness: The Title Game

For how great this year's games have been, Saturday's Final Four match between Florida and Connecticut was surprisingly anticlimactic for most of the second half. Good thing we had Wisconsin - Kentucky still ahead! A few thoughts and a prediction for tonight (bet against it).

NOTE: I watched Florida - UConn on tape delay as I was attending sessions of #LDSconf - a highly recommended source of inspiration
I don't know what UConn does to  opposing offenses, but this is the second straight game where a veteran bunch running a proven system have seemed discombobulated against the Huskies D. Scottie Wilbelkin and Co. have gotten what they've wanted all tournament - pick-and-rolls that lead to layups, rim dives by the roll man, and a bevy of pie threes. Then undersized Huskies amp up the perimeter pressure and everything falls apart. Even the Gators' made baskets often came of incredible individual athleticism, the type of shots that aren't sustainable over 40 minutes. 

On offense, the Huskies took care of a few mistakes by the Florida half-court defense, and combined with a few opportune run-outs on offense, provided the catalyst for a lead the Gators couldn't surmount. That lead will be key for the Huskies tonight - for several straight games, Kevin Ollie's team have proven that they don't give up second half leads. If they can get some room tonight, expect Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels, and the UConn Huskies to take down the  nets. 

The problem the Huskies have to solve, one they haven't really faced all tournament, is that of Kentucky's size. Every time the Wisconsin Badgers would go on a run, every time they seemed to have the Wildcats offense solved, someone would come up with a offensive board and putback. This Wisconsin team had 5 full days to prepare for Kentucky's size and couldn't do it. Can UConn? The other thing about Kentucky that impressed me was Coach Calipari emploring his team in the second half to act like winners and to go to the rack. It's exactly what I would have told them. The ability to take the ball via pass or dribble from the high post near the 3 point line to the block without turning it over is the most valuable perimeter offensive skill. It's why I thought Trey Burke was the best of last year's rookie class (and still believe so). The Harrisons are great shooters, but Calipari's system is designed to give them space to attack the rim. That may be a problem for UConn - they have played great defense against teams using more inclusive offensive sets. A team that relies on individual brilliance may in a weird way work against them. 

As for the Badgers - what a game. This game did nothing to disprove the fact that Frank Kaminsky, a scrub from last year who can't crack the NBA draft's top 100, was the Final Four's most impactful player. He compromised Kentucky's defense with his existence, opening driving and passing lanes for his teammates. He competed and protected the rim on D despite not having the physical tools that will see the Kentucky frontcourt players drafted ahead of him. He was a joy to watch. 

Wisconsin also impressed me with their offensive discipline and patience. They nary took a poor shot - time after time, when a Badger dribbled into trouble, he would turn, pivot, and reset the ball at the top. Despite Kentucky bottling their best player for most of the game, Wisconsin submitted a masterful offensive performance. It's hard to get to the Final Four, but something tells me Bo Ryan will be back, soon. 

You have seen how pitiful my predictions have been. Yet, like Monty Python's black knight, I forge on. I've written both of these teams off so many times, to Michigan State, Wichita State, Louisville, Florida, and the like. You would think me learned by now, loathe to write one of them off again. But at that risk, I proclaim that the Kentucky Wildcats will vanquish the Connecticut Huskies and claim their 9th national title. I'm rooting for the Huskies. I love Shabazz Napier's story and Kevin Ollie's Ollieness. But Kentucky has size you can't coach, and their dribble drive offense is opening the court for the bigs. After two weeks of laser focus, the young Wildcats faltered in their last game - and still won. That's why I'm picking them in this one. Go on, Shabazz, Kevin, and DeAndre - prove me wrong. 

#YouMakeTheCalls #MarchMadness #YMTC

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

2014 March Madness: The Final Four

Each year, I think to myself that the tournament cannot get better. Each year I'm wrong. The George Masons, Butlers, and VCUs of the past are replaced by new mid-majors who play as a team and throw haymakers. Stars come out of nowhere and dazzle. Thrillers upon thrillers. And despite a bevy of last-second shots, remarkable comebacks, one of my feelings about this final four is that each team deserved to be here. Each team deserved to win. Here's why.

I know, it's a lot of red. I'm guessing you have a lot of red on yours, too.