The level of
dominance by home teams in the second round playoffs has been
astounding. As of the time of this writing, only one game has
been won by a road team (Detroit winning game 4 in Orlando). In
the Western Conference, home teams are a remarkable 11-0. What
has caused this dominance? The normal, easy answers include
energy from the home crowd, being able to stay at home, and
playing in a familiar setting. After all, the concept of home
court advantage has been around almost as long as sports
themselves and there is some truth to most rational home court
theories. But 11-0 in the incredibly balanced and tough West?
The Boston Celtics, dominant against the weak Eastern Conference
during the regular season, a combined 0-5 on the road against a
sub par Atlanta team and the mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers?
Something is seriously amiss, something beyond the normal home
court advantage. That something is the refereeing.
look at the real playoffs, located in the Western Conference.
The San Antonio Ė New Orleans series has seen virtually every
game follow the same script. The two teams are roughly even for
a half and then the home team dominates the third quarter and
wins going away. How have these unanswerable runs been possible?
Home cooked refereeing. The home teams have been allowed a lot
more leeway in how physical they are allowed to play and are
given the benefit of the doubt when referees decide whether an
act was good, hard-nosed defense or a foul. The road teams
havenít been so lucky. The statistics show only a modest
difference in fouls per game (the road team is called for a
little over 5% more fouls per game than the home team so far in
the series) but a significant difference in free throw attempts
per game. The home team takes about 22 free throws a game and
the road team takes about 17. The home team takes about 26% more
free throws than the road team in the average game. The road
team has taken more free throws than the home team in only one
of six games. These are two well coached teams and San Antonio
oozes championship experience; surely the teams arenít
alternating who is aggressive and who attacks the rim based on
where the game is played. Why is it that Tim Duncan getting his
defender to bite on a pump fake and leaning under to get a shot
off and draw contact considered a good up and under move leading
to either two free throws or a three point play opportunity in
San Antonio but called a clean block by the airborne defender in
egregious is Utahís series against Los Angeles. In this series,
the road team is called for an average of 30 fouls a game while
the home team is only called for 24.4, meaning that the road
team gets called for about 23% more fouls than the home team in
the average game. In only one of five games has the home team
been called for more fouls than the road team. The free throw
disparity is even more striking, with the average game having a
roughly 41 to 27 free throw attempt advantage for the home team.
The home team takes 50 percent (FIFTY PERCENT!) more free throws
than the road team.
ends of a close game teams will start to foul intentionally and
send the other team to the free throw line to extend the game.
This could explain some of the disparity in free throws but not
nearly all of it. The Spurs and Hornets have blown each other
out repeatedly, and there is no end of game intentional fouling
in a 20 point game unless early 90s Don Nelson is involved. The
games between Utah and LA have been closer but have featured
such enormous disparities in free throw attempts that even
without looking back at the play by play it seems very unlikely
that these end of game fouls would cause a 14 free throw a game
Western Conference features two series with evenly matched
teams. No team is at a major talent or coaching disadvantage.
This makes refereeing pivotal. The borderline calls all swinging
toward one team make that team the aggressor and put the other
team on its heals, usually causing the former to win and the
latter to plan for next game. The whistles have favored the home
teams consistently and the home teams have dominated. It doesnít
take Tim Donaghy to see that the referees have really made a
difference in the playoffs.
Let Him Score
canít write a short article, hereís a bonus second part.
havenít figured out why teams bother to consistently double team
great players. A truly great player is one that not only can
dominate on their own but consistently raises the play of his
teammates. There have been very, very few great players who were
not good (or better) passers. Why allow them to not only score
on you but to get their teammates easy shots as well?
most part, these great players will get theirs (in terms of
points) regardless of what defensive strategy the opponent goes
with. You may be able to limit them to somewhat below their
average or force them to shoot a lower percentage than usual,
but in the end you will rarely shut down a great player. Theyíll
get some garbage baskets, theyíll get to the free throw line
more, theyíll just hit tougher shots. One way or another,
theyíre going to score. But if you double team them, they will
also pick you apart passing the ball.
the Cavs. Besides Lebron James, they donít have anyone who can
consistently create their own shot. Ilgauskas is 7í3 and can use
that to get some shots, but otherwise the cupboard is pretty
bare. Yet teams continue to consistently throw 2 or 3 defenders
at James on every play. James is happy to feed the shooters who
surround him. Once a shooter gets some open looks and makes a
few baskets, they become much more dangerous. Last year, Daniel
Gibson finished off Detroit in the conference finals, but it all
started with Gibson getting wide open catch and shoot jumpers
courtesy of Detroitís entire defensive focus being on James. You
can beat Cleveland when James scores 35. Itís much harder to
beat Cleveland when Gibson scores 25, West adds 18, and so on.
James will get his regardless. But why let the other players
score at will?
the Spurs Ė Hornets series again. The refereeing changes
mimicking the changes in locale are important, but so too are
the teamsí defensive choices. In the first two games, the Spurs
tried to stop Chris Paul. They put defensive stopper Bruce Bowen
on Paul and set the defense to shut down Paul. Unfortunately for
San Antonio, Paul is already a great player (as evidenced by
finishing 2nd in the MVP voting in a very strong year for the
NBA) and he not only scored despite the added defensive
attention but also got his teammates very involved. New Orleans
routed the San Antonio in the first two games and made the Spurs
look very old. Then the Spurs changed tactics. Suddenly they
cared more about preventing Peja Stojakovic from getting open
threes and Tyson Chandler from getting alley-oop dunks and cared
less about how much Paul was scoring. The Spurs won three of
four since, with the one loss being a game where David West had
a career night with a very strong individual effort from a good
but not great player. Conversely, New Orleans continues to
double team Tim Duncan regularly and since fighting off a 103
degree fever, Duncan has picked apart the Hornetsí defense.
Suddenly, Oberto was getting open layups and guys like Manu
Ginobili, Michael Finley, and Bowen were getting clean looks at
threes. Why not let Duncan go one on one and score 30 or 35?
Isnít that better than watching Ime Udoka railing threes like a
drunk guy having a career night at the local barís pop-a-shot?
example for years has been Kobe Bryant. He is as unstoppable an
individual offensive player as there is in the NBA. Yet he is
not always a great player because he is not always a willing
passer. He seems to often lose confidence in his teammates and
never in himself (the latter for good reason). Los Angeles is a
much better team when he is moving the ball and getting
teammates involved. When he goes on scoring binges, teammates
just start watching him and stop moving and running the offense.
Perhaps itís out of awe, perhaps out of frustration, but
regardless his one man shows kill LAís offensive flow. And
because most playersí defense feeds off of whatís happening for
them offensively, Bryantís Laker teammates become more lax on
defense as a result of not seeing the ball for two quarters
except for the occasional inbounds play (and even then only
because the NBA doesnít allow players to throw an inbounds pass
to themselves off the basket support).
nights where Bryantís individual brilliance wins games. But in
the playoffs those nights are rare. Teams win championships. For
evidence of this, look back at Michael Jordanís playoff breakout
game. He scored 63 points against Boston one night. Larry Bird
was quoted as saying that it wasnít Michael Jordan playing bur
rather, ďg-d disguised as Michael Jordan.Ē Jordanís Bulls lost
that game. If I were a coach, my strategy against LA would be to
make Bryant work for his baskets but to stay on shooters at all
times. Do not let Fisher get open catch and shoot threes. Do not
let Odom or Gasol get open shots near the rim. Unless LA wants
to have a player taking open jumpers outside that playerís
comfort range, I would allow Bryant to score 40 if it meant that
the rest of his teammates would have trouble matching that 40.
Holding Bryant to 30 points while his teammates add 75 seems
not to say that you should never double team. If nothing else,
itís good to occasionally change defenses to keep the other team
off balance. Consistent double teams are at issue here,
especially when the double teams come so frequently that the
player knows that the double is coming and where it is coming
from. Double teaming as a change of pace is fine. Double teaming
to keep the ball out of a certain playerís hands in an end of
quarter situation is fine. Double teaming a great player who
will find your weakness (and with 3 men guarding 4, there will
be a weakness, especially as the playoffs advance and only good
teams with good coaches are likely to be left) and exploit it to
get teammates high quality shots seems to be a strategy that
should be reserved for coaches who would rather lose in a
traditional way than increase the chance of winning but risk
being questioned as to why they allowed one great player to beat
them by scoring so many points.
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