Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Chess Game

If you watched Game 4 from the beginning Sunday, you may have seen the 'Chess Game' lead-in that TNT put together. Now, the lead-ins on nationally televised sports are usually insufferable, as evidenced by ABC's choice of a Tom Petty song for their NBA playoff games. (Tom Petty? Really? Is that because of the urban, hip-hop flavah? I can't wait for the Sports Guy's column on this one.)

But the 'Chess' theme, while heavy on the cheese, was actually pretty insightful for this series, which is boiling down to identifying and exploiting the best match-ups on the floor. Now, you may say that every NBA game is about that, more or less. But this series has taken it to extremes. Let's face it - Detroit-Cleveland is about Detroit trying to stop LeBron, period, and I would argue that the other series all break down to similarly simplistic equations. But Phoenix-LA is much more complex. For instance, the Clippers would just as soon post up thier guards as their bigs.

On the Suns' side, this is mostly about 'shortening' the bench during the playoffs as described by Doug Collins. As the stakes get higher, coaches stick with their horses for more and more minutes. There's no point saving their legs if the season could end in a game or two. So James Jones is coming off the bench and Tim Thomas is starting, and yes, the Suns get bigger and a (they hope) better on the boards. But this is really just a natural progression that started toward the end of the regular season and continued into the playoffs. D'Antoni wants his best players out there, and while Thomas and Jones each averaged about 23 mpg during the season, Thomas' minutes have been increasing, and Jones' have been decreasing, continuing into the playoffs. Thomas is up to almost 29 mpg against the Clippers, and that is with foul trouble limiting his minutes in games 1 and 2. Jones is down to 16 minutes per against the Clippers, and one gets the impression he wouldn't be getting that many minutes if Marion and Thomas weren't picking up first half fouls.

Meanwhile, Eddie House, who averaged 17.5 mpg during the season and 9 against the Lakers, is down to 13 minutes TOTAL in the four second round games, with most of those minutes coming in garbage time of game 2. Once D'Antoni realized he had a series on his hands, he stopped putting House in the game, giving those minutes to Nash and Barbosa. You'd do the same.

So the Suns are down to a 6 man rotation, with 7th man James Jones getting some spot minutes due to foul trouble.

The Clippers have the luxury of a deep team, though it got more shallow with Kaman's injury. The way I look at it, the Clippers have 7 guys capable of starting for most teams in the league (Kaman, Brand, Maggette, Mobley, Cassell, Livingston and Radmanovich) and an 8th guy who is their defensive stopper (Ross). It doesn't matter whether you start Ross or not - that's a philosophical question. But he's going to play about 20 minutes (partly because of his back, partly because of his lack of offensive game.) And as Dunleavy has pointed out, it is an exceptionally flexible team, capable of going big or going small, going offense or going defense, going low post or going perimeter, etc. (This is not even including Rebraca who will be a key component if the Clippers advance.)

So the moves the Clippers have made have been more strategic, less out of necessity. For instance, within the course of 4 games, the Clippers have changed their philosophy regarding Steve Nash, which you would have thought would have been pretty well-established, given that he's the MVP and all. Nonetheless, in mid-stream, they've decided it's better to work him hard on both ends of the floor than to play their best defender on him. QRoss can make Nash work hard on offense - but Nash wasn't forced to guard Q on defense in game 3, allowing him to recuperate some, and removing one of LA's best offensive sets, the post up against whoever Nash is guarding.

In games 1 and 2, D'Antoni started Jones, matching up Jones on Ross and Nash on Cassell. Jones was the designated double-teamer on defense, but with Cassell backing down Nash, and Brand and Kaman abusing Marion and Diaw, there were too many double-teams to handle. The Clippers shot 61% and 54% in the two games.

In game 3, with Thomas in the starting lineup and Nash guarding Ross, the Suns were much better suited to handle the Clippers. Basically, Marion and Bell were left to check Cassell and Mobley one-on-one, and neither made them pay with their sub-par offensive performances. Only Brand and Kaman forced double-teams. Kaman is still growing as a player, and the single most important thing he needs to work on is working against the double team. Currently, he has a tendency to panic, resulting in a bad pass, or a 'happy-feet' travel, or a charge when he tries to go quick, etc. The rest of the league is watching, and Kaman is going to see a steady stream of doubles until he learns what to do. (Time to dust off a John Wooden chestnut: be quick, but don't hurry; take that Walton!) So the matchups in game 3 left Nash free to double either Brand or Kaman, with the Kaman double being advantage Suns. Not nearly as good as the odds were in games 1 and 2.

By inserting Maggette into the starting lineup for Ross, it forced Phoenix to totally re-think the matchups as well as their double teams. D'Antoni came up with the creative (and pretty effective) idea of putting the 6'3" Nash on the 6'10" Radmanovich, Radmanovich being the least comfortable of the Clippers starters with his back to the basket. (Of course, this would not have been an option had it not been for the injury to Kaman.) Even so, it made the double teaming strategy a much bigger gamble. If Nash is the double-teamer, someone has got to rotate to Vlade or it's three points. The Suns were forced to stay home more often, and Brand went back to abusing Tim Thomas and everyone else in purple.

As for Ross, Dunleavy has realized that it's against Barbosa more than Nash where Ross is vital. With Barbosa and Nash on the floor, Dunleavy MUST have 2 of his better perimeter defenders on the floor (that means Mobley, Livingston and Ross, choose two). Mobley can actually do a respectable job on Nash, and guarding Nash is really more about the team than about the individual anyway. Nash isn't lightning quick - he's quick enough, and incredibly smart. But Mobley can get beat, and still recover to Nash with his length, while his experience helps him cut off Nash's passing lanes. Incidentally, this is why Livingston actually does a better job than any other Clipper on Nash. He is quicker than Mobley, longer than Ross, AND has the same 'pass first' gene as Nash. When Barbosa enters, Mobley is in trouble; Barbosa is just too quick, which is where Ross comes in. (Cassell will always be matched up on Bell, and he should be able to do a good job of forcing him off the 3 point line, making him put the ball on the floor where he is not as good, game 4 notwithstanding.)

If Ross is only in the game when Barbosa and Nash are in together, it still guarantees the Clippers a diabolically one-sided guard match-up on offense, as neither can guard Cassell or Mobley or Livingston. And the beauty part about posting up guards is that when the double comes, they are less likely to turn the ball over, and more likely to be able to make the pass to the open man. Livingston in particular is devasting in the low post. He's 6'8" and the best passer at the age of 20 in the history of the world. I can see the Livingston post up being a staple in Staples for years to come.

It will be interesting to see what Dunleavy does if and when Kaman can play. I for one would certainly not be in a hurry to get him back out there. Kaman will be crucial in a Western Finals matchup with either Dallas or San Antonio. But against the Suns, he's the odd man out (and I do mean odd). Although he can certainly force the double team, as I've mentioned, he invariably makes the wrong decision when the double comes. (He'll get better, I know, but the playoffs is no time for on-the-job training.) And on defense, he is a liability, forced to guard either Tim Thomas at the three point line, or the quickness of Marion or Diaw. He's been in significant foul trouble in 2 of the 3 games he's played, and he's committed 10 turnovers in 87 minutes. I know he got 16 rebounds in game 2, but Corey Maggette averaged 14.5 rebounds in the LA games, and Sam Cassell got 11 boards in game 4. I'm saying, we don't need Kaman to KILL them on the glass. EB remains the only legitimate big on the floor, and the remaining Clippers are all bigger than their Suns counterparts. (Everyone knows that Shawn Marion is undersized for a power forward, but I don't think people really get it. He is listed at 6'7", 228. Maggette is 6'6", 225. Kobe is 6'6" 220. Marion is a shooting guard, playing power forward.)

And if Radmanovich hasn't been working on his post-up game against little white guys, someone needs to lose their job.