Commentary

Best and worst of the first two rounds of the playoffs

Originally Published: May 16, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

David WestAP Photo/Dave MartinDavid West is deserving of recognition for carrying a heavy load for the Hornets -- bad back and all.
Well, it's been a whirlwind ride. Six series in seven different cities have given me a pretty fair taste of what these playoffs have been about. From last-second shots to fourth-quarter (and third-quarter) meltdowns to misadventures with flame retardant, we've had a lot to digest over the past month or so.

So now that I'm back in Hollinger HQ for a couple of days, it's time to take a look back and commemorate what's happened in the first two rounds so far.

I'll do it the only way I know how: by passing out a bunch of awards. Through two rounds of the playoffs, here's how I'd hand out trophies if it were up to me:


Most Valuable Player of the Playoffs: Chris Paul

No longer just a cult hero among League Pass junkies, Paul has moved into the national spotlight with scintillating performances against the Mavericks and Spurs -- two veteran teams that many expected to bounce the younger Hornets out of the postseason. Paul leads all playoff performers in PER and has established beyond a shadow of doubt that he's the game's best point guard as the Hornets set their sights on a first trip to the conference finals.

Yes, he's averaging 24.6 points and 11.0 assists per game in the postseason while shooting 50.7 percent from the floor, even though he's played the past six games against one of the league's most accomplished defensive squads. But here's my favorite stat: He's turned it over on only 4.8 percent of his possessions in the playoffs. That, my friends, is insane -- not even stand-still jump shooters can get their turnover rate that low, much less a guy asked to create something on nearly every trip. As a result, the Hornets have the lowest turnover rate of any playoff team.



Rookie of the Playoffs: Rodney Stuckey

OK, they can't get a do-over on drafting Darko Milicic, but at least the Pistons got something out of him. That's more than Memphis can say … or Orlando. In fact, the Magic's trade of a No. 1 pick and Kelvin Cato's expiring contract for Milicic and Carlos Arroyo two years ago might have cost them the series. Detroit used the pick to take Stuckey in the draft last June, and he held down the fort while Chauncey Billups sat out Games 4 and 5.

Detroit won both games to move on to the conference finals, and Stuckey played well enough for his team to win. The highlight was a 15-point, six-assist, two-steal outing in the clincher, as the 6-5 guard showed he can be an effective scoring point because of his ability to beat smaller players off the dribble and finish at the rim.

Just as important, the trade kept Stuckey off Orlando's roster -- the Magic could have really used him. Instead they played Arroyo 16 minutes the entire series while the offense dissolved in a sea of turnovers in the final three halves.

Stuckey is also the only rookie to both make the second round and average at least 12 minutes a game (he's getting 22.2).



Sixth Man of the Playoffs: Luke Walton

With Manu Ginobili now starting for the Spurs, there's an opening for the title of league's top sixth man. While Walton is unlikely to claim it for a full season, he's been the league's best reserve in the playoffs.

For the postseason, he's averaging 9.2 points per game on 57.7 percent shooting and throwing in his usual stellar passing, helping to make up for some spotty play from starter Vladimir Radmanovic (more on him later). Walton's 16.82 playoff PER is the best among all reserves with at least 175 minutes, easing the pain of a forgettable regular season in which he struggled with foot and ankle problems.



Breakout Player of the Playoffs: David West

West had a forgettable Game 6 against the Spurs, but it's hard to overemphasize how good he was in Game 5. West carried the team on his sore back en route to a 38-point, 14-rebound, five-block domination of the Spurs, and it was just one of several outstanding games he's put together in the postseason.

For the playoffs, he's averaging 21.3 points, 8.0 boards and 2.0 blocks while shooting 47.0 percent from the floor, and it's finally getting him some national recognition. While West made the All-Star team this year, he wasn't a well-known commodity a few weeks ago but his ability to mix midrange jumpers with low-post moves has made him a potent scoring threat. Should the Hornets win Monday and advance to their first conference finals, the recognition will only increase.



Defensive Player of the Playoffs: Tayshaun Prince

Kevin Garnett was the regular-season Defensive Player of the Year, and deservedly so, but in the postseason nobody has been better than Prince. In the first round, he completely neutralized Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, holding him to 33.3 percent shooting and forcing 4.3 turnovers a game out of him to take the Sixers' leading scorer out of the series.

In Round 2, he didn't dominate quite as thoroughly against Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu, but he made the signature stop of the series when he rejected Turkoglu's dunk attempt in the final seconds of the clinching Game 5. Additionally, Turkoglu's 17.2 points per game in the series were well off his 19.8 in the regular season, and he made only 12 trips to the free-throw line the entire series. And like with Iguodala, Prince forced more than four turnovers a game out of Turkoglu -- which is pretty impressive considering how rarely he gambles on D.



Ski Mask Award: Detroit Pistons

They get this award for stealing Game 4 in Orlando, 90-89, making them the only team to win on the road in the second round. I'm still not sure how they did it. Detroit trailed by 15, didn't have its best player and was coming off a Game 3 in which it was waxed 111-86. It would have been pretty easy to pack up and go home at that point.

Instead the Pistons slammed the door on one of the league's best offenses, holding the Magic to just 26 points over the final 21 minutes and taking Dwight Howard completely out of the game. Then they pulled Lindsey Hunter off the inactive list for 26 quality minutes, slowed the game to a crawl, force-fed the ball to Richard Hamilton and Prince and somehow eked out a highly improbable win. It was an impressive performance that, amazingly, remains the league's only road victory in Round 2.



Best Tactic: Spurs' Hack-a-Shaq

For years, coaches have tripped all over themselves with how to use the Hack-a-Shaq. In the first-round series against Phoenix, Gregg Popovich became the first to really master how to use this weapon to his advantage. He used it in second quarters, when he had guys like Jacque Vaughn and Robert Horry in the game anyway and didn't care if they picked up fouls, and used it when he had the lead to eliminate the chance of a 3-pointer.

Most of all, he used it at the end of quarters to get the last shot, and is continuing to use it with Tyson Chandler and Melvin Ely in the New Orleans series. If New Orleans has the ball with 25 seconds or less left, Popovich simply fouls intentionally so he can get the ball back for the Spurs. This should be a Eureka! moment for other coaches, and I expect it will be the league's most widely copied tactic next year.



Worst Tactic: Atlanta's two fouls and you're out

I still don't know what the Hawks were thinking by yanking all their players as soon as they got two fouls in the Boston series. The idea behind pulling players with foul trouble is that they won't foul out late in the game, or stop defending if they know they're about to get No. 6. Well, Atlanta turned that theory on its head in the first round by taking any player with two fouls out of the game for the rest of the half.

First off, this can have its own unintended consequences -- if a player picks up a foul a minute into the game, how much D do you think he'll play if he knows a quick No. 2 means 23 minutes of pine time? But more important, the penalty of fouling out is that a team doesn't get the player's services for the rest of the game. So taking them out so early effectively "fouls them out" in the first half; instead of the possibility of a player missing time later, he's definitely missing that time early on.

Fortunately for the Hawks, none of their losses were close, so the strategy didn't end up costing them. That didn't make it any smarter, though.



Worst Use of Smoke and Fire: (tie) New Orleans and Boston

New Orleans had a 20-minute delay between the first and second quarters of Game 1 when a stunt involving the mascot's jumping through a ring of fire ended badly; the crew was supposed to put out the flames with a special flame retardant but instead one guy panicked and brought in a regular fire extinguisher, spreading white muck all over the floor. The odd postscript was that after the delay, Byron Scott sent out a lineup of David West and four reserves. But nobody had played for 20 minutes -- were his starters tired?

While several other teams enjoy pregame pyromania, Boston is the only arena where players must navigate through fog banks during the opening minutes because of all the resultant smoke. It's bad enough that two Cleveland players have sat out lineup introductions for fear of aggravating allergies.



Most Out of Control Sound Effects: San Antonio

Teams' game ops crews occasionally fall into the rut of thinking that they can't let more than three seconds go by without piping in some noise -- the Hawks were like this a couple of years ago, to the point that it seemed they just had an Outkast CD on shuffle at some games.

San Antonio is the latest victim of this disease, but all its zeal for cacophony does is take its own crowd out of the game. By the time the fans can even think about really making some noise, they've been drowned out because their sound effects guy has already pulled something from his collection of Iron Maiden and Scorpions albums that he thinks will capture the mood. It's a shame because AT&T Center could be a really intimidating place to play; instead, it's certainly loud but a bit like being at a bad metal concert.



Board Stiff Award: Lakers

It's pretty amazing that L.A. is 7-2 in the postseason when one considers how badly it's been beaten on the glass. The Lakers are by far the worst defensive rebounding team in the playoffs, grabbing only 65 percent of opponent missed shots; of the seven other teams to win a round, all but one are above 70. Those second shots have a cost -- the Lakers are the worst team of the final eight in playoff defensive efficiency.

L.A. isn't much better on the offensive glass, Pau Gasol's clutch putback in Game 5 notwithstanding: only 24.5 percent of misses end up in their mitts, and among remaining teams only San Antonio is worse.

Fortunately, they rarely miss. L.A.'s true shooting percentage of 58.3 is easily the best among playoff teams, as is its offensive efficiency of 113.0. As long as its offense stays this strong, the second shots the Lakers allow at the other end won't be their undoing. That they scored at will at the end of Game 5, even with Kobe Bryant not taking a shot and Sasha Vujacic apparently spending the night on the Utah payroll, is a pretty good omen that they can keep it up.



Most Shockingly Bad Performance by a Player with a Clutch History: Sam Cassell, Celtics

Boston picked up Sam I Am because they wanted a guy with a history of hitting big shots in the playoffs. Instead he's been firing up ill-advised jumpers and getting torched on defense. For the postseason he's shooting 33.8 percent, and he's shooting a lot -- 17.0 field goal attempts per 40 minutes.

He also hasn't scored a basket since the first half of Game 2, missing 17 consecutive shots from the field, and it's not like he's been whizzing passes to open teammates to make up for it.

Part of the problem is that Boston might have placed too much faith in him -- it has been using him a lot in fourth quarters and game-ending situations even as he's imploded at both ends. It's cost the Celtics in a few of their road losses, most notably Game 6 in Atlanta.

Given that he played only five minutes in Game 5, one suspects the Celtics have noticed too. Look for him to have a much shorter leash for the rest of the playoffs.



Worst Implosion by a Young Guard: (tie) Jordan Farmar, Lakers, and Luther Head, Rockets

I can't decide what's worse -- going five games with a negative PER when your team is desperate for scoring or going into such a funk that the crowd is visibly relieved because you made a layup.

Farmar's faceplant has come on a bigger stage and over more games. He's shooting 27.7 percent for the playoffs and is last among point guards in playoff PER.

But one could argue Head's was even more damaging to the cause. With Rafer Alston out for the first two games, Houston desperately needed another backcourt player to step up. Head shot 1-for-14 in five games before earning a seat in Game 6, with as many turnovers as assists, and didn't make a single 3-pointer. He's dead last in playoff PER among all players, and by a huge margin.


Number of the Playoffs: 20-1

That's the record of home teams so far in the second round, which is pretty amazing, especially considering the margins of victory have been enormous. The only road win in the bunch was by a measly point, by a team that had lost its other road game by 26.

In the previous nine postseasons since Michael Jordan retired -- what I'll call the Parity Era -- the winning percentage of home teams in the second round has been 65 percent. This year in the second round, it's 95 percent.

The odds of this happening by random chance are only 0.48 percent (about 1-in-200), which means there's almost certainly something in the water here. It would be more likely to happen from chance if the home team's "true" odds were 75 percent, but in recent history that hasn't been the case.

I wish I could point out the culprit, but the margins have been so enormous to either side in almost every category that it's hard to pinpoint a single cause. I'm sure fans will immediately harp on officiating, but that's a tough one to finger as well. Having been at four of the six games between New Orleans and San Antonio, two in each arena, I can vouch for the fact that each team has simply played markedly better on its home floor. What I can't do, at this point, is offer up a good reason why.


Number of the Playoffs, Runner-Up: 0-21

Teams that win Games 3 and 4 at home after losing the first two games on the road don't have a great history, but that's especially true if that team also has been outscored over the first four games. Since the NBA-ABA merger, all 21 teams in that situation have gone on to lose the series. This year, three teams qualify: Atlanta is already done, while San Antonio and Utah are trying to become the exceptions.

San Antonio, obviously, has a much better shot now that it won Game 6 convincingly and David West has a back injury. That seems to be a common theme, as Utah's hopes of breaking the schneid depend largely on the condition of Kobe Bryant's back. Fortunately for the two home teams, a long hiatus before Game 7 gives West nearly four full days to recover and Bryant, should he need it, three. Speaking of which, how about another award …



Best Shoulders: Robert Horry, Spurs

First Steve Nash, now David West. Even when he's not scoring, or rebounding, or defending or doing much of anything else, Robert Horry has a way of impacting a playoff series, doesn't he? The similarity of the motion that sent Nash sprawling a year ago and the one that sent West to the floor Thursday is hard to ignore.

But as shaky a move as it was, New Orleans should call the league and beg it not to suspend Horry. The Spurs have been playing him mainly out of loyalty, and he's been absolutely killing them at both ends; in fact, about the only thing he's done well is intentionally foul Tyson Chandler at the end of quarters. Taking Horry off the court for Game 7 is the best favor the league could ever do for the Spurs.

And while the Hornets seethe over Horry's shot on West, here's a question: Why on earth was West out there, down 21 in the fourth with a bad back that the Hornets desperately need to get better by Monday? Byron Scott was killed for pulling his starters early in Game 4 of the 2002 Finals; ironically, it now seems he might have erred by waiting too long.



Worst Excuse for a Starter on a Contender: Vladimir Radmanovic

OK, I give up. Seriously, somebody want to throw me a bone and tell me why he's still out there instead of Vujacic, or Walton, or Ronny Turiaf or, well, just about anybody?

Despite the myriad of openings left to him by the Lakers' opponents, he's shooting 37 percent for the playoffs and sporting a single-digit PER. Throw in a regular season that was hardly scintillating and his usual porous defense, and it's a head-scratcher as to why he stays on the court so much. No other starter on a contender (not even Ray Allen) has played so poorly in the playoffs, or given so little justification for such a prominent role.



Put Me In Coach Award: Leon Powe, Celtics

Besides Kevin Garnett, the Celtics have four other big men. Of the four, Powe was easily the most effective in the regular season, but he's been an invisible man in the playoffs. Though the other three are struggling, Powe is averaging only 15.8 minutes per game in the postseason. In the past two games, he's sat in the second half while Doc Rivers played Glen Davis and P.J. Brown together.

This is a bizarre move. Powe, who gets little fanfare nationally, was one of the league's most effective power forwards in the regular season on a per-minute basis. His per-40 minute averages of 22.0 points and 11.2 boards jump off the page, as does his 57.2 percent shooting. In fact, Powe's 20.97 PER was seventh in the league among power forwards, outranking All-Stars Antawn Jamison, David West and Shawn Marion.

Given that Powe is both abundantly more effective statistically and has a massively better plus-minus in the postseason than Davis or Brown, it's been an odd choice to say the least. TNT's Mike Fratello alluded to five defensive mistakes Powe made in Game 2 of the Atlanta game during a telecast, presumably because Doc Rivers told him this. But one could also retort by pointing out all of the offensive mistakes that could be alleviated by having another frontcourt player in the game who actually scores once in a while.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.