These Conference Finals are Classics

When I weighed in last week, the San Antonio Spurs had won 20 games in a row and were being seriously compared to the greatest teams of all-time.  The Miami Heat were in the process of walking right through the Celtics, as Stephen A. Smith (loudly) declared would happen.  The Conference Finals were assumed to be a somewhat dull speed bump for the Spurs and Heat on the way to a Finals re-match.

What a difference a week makes.

A week later, the Thunder have won three straight games to put the Spurs back on their heels and on the brink of watching the Finals from home.  Meanwhile, the Celtics have posted double-digit leads in three straight games and held on to win two of those contests to even up their series with the Heat.  Both match-ups have sported some serious heavyweight blows exchanged on both sides, with stars a-plenty all performing at high levels and producing some strong, memorable basketball.  All four of the Conference Finalists would make worthy champions, a rarity in this league.  And every game is must-see TV, as evidenced by Game 4 of the Heat/Celtics series setting the record for the most viewed basketball game on cable television in history.  We’ve had overtimes, 4th quarter heroics, triple-doubles, 4th quarter mishaps, and even knuckle push-ups in these Conference Finals.

In short, the Conference Finals have become instant classics. 

Out West, the Thunder have been re-writing the narrative.  People forget that the Thunder actually controlled most of Game 1 against the Spurs before giving up a 9-point lead in the fourth quarter.  After two games, the narrative was that the Spurs were the much better team and the Thunder didn’t really have a shot.  But a week later, with the Spurs on the ropes, the new narrative is that the Thunder are the younger and better team that just had to work through their postseason inexperience to take over.  What I pointed out last week was that the team that played most like a TEAM would have the advantage in this series.  And as I watched Game 5 last night, I was struck that this was still holding true.  While last week the Spurs were getting contributions from everyone and playing clock-work basketball, in Game 5 it seemed to be only Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker contributing for the lion share of the second half.  When they made their 4th quarter run was when Tim Duncan and Stephen Jackson joined in to make it a true team effort, but the two-man show before that…despite the fact that Ginobili and Parker were playing really great…wasn’t enough to defeat the full team effort of the Thunder.  In the last two games, the Thunder have gotten six 15+ point performances from five different people.  They are hitting the Spurs from every angle, including the shocking one of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins combining for 41 points on 90|PERCENT| shooting in Game 4.  Once again, team is triumphing over the pairs and trios of talented individuals.

Back East, the Celtics and Heat are locked into the kind of close, hard-hitting dog-fight that we really should have expected.  I’m arrogant enough about my basketball takes that I actually get amused by watching the national media cover this series, as to me they just completely miss the point and talk about all of the wrong things.  On Monday I spent all day hearing about how the Heat miss shots in the last 10 seconds of games, or how Rajon Rondo is the best point guard in the NBA.  While these angles might be worth discussing…especially Rondo, who has been playing awesome ball in this series…when it comes down to the core success of one team or another, the answer is much simpler: which player can force the remaining three games to be played more in his image: LeBron James or Kevin Garnett?  That’s it.  That’s the question.  It’s been the question for the past five seasons, and it’s still the question now.  Don’t believe me?  Check this out.

In every year that Garnett has played in the playoffs for the Celtics they have eventually faced a LeBron-led team in the postseason. In 2008 and 2010 the Celtics sent LeBron home, and in 2011 LeBron returned the favor. And the games have been split right down the middle…coming into this season the teams had played 18 total games, with the Celtics winning nine and LeBron’s squads winning nine.  This season the series is currently 2 – 2, making the overall game record 11 – 11 at the moment.  As close as it can get.  I say that the key stat to look at to evaluate this extremely close match-up is the relative +/- between Garnett and LeBron.

In the nine victories for LeBron’s teams entering this season, here are the on-court/off-court +/- stats per 48 minutes for the main principals:
LeBron: +20.0
Garnett: +7.4
Rondo: -2.6
Paul Pierce: +13.9
Ray Allen: +10.0

In the nine Celtics wins, on the other hand, here are the same on/off +/- results:
LeBron: +2.5
Garnett: +19.5
Rondo: -11.0
Pierce: -5.0
Allen: -18.3

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The absolute numbers aren’t so important because the sample sizes are too small for full accuracy.  But the very clear trend is that when LeBron’s teams have won, LeBron has been the one putting up dominant on/off +/- values…and when the Celtics have won it’s been Garnett with the dominant values.  Rondo’s, Pierce’s, and Allen’s +/- scores seem to have little-to-no correlation as to the team’s success in these match-ups. 

And thus far, through the four games of the 2012 series the same pattern is holding true.  LeBron has by far the highest on/off +/- on either team in the Heat’s two wins, and Garnet has by-far the highest on/off +/- on either team in the Celtics’ two wins.

And as always, the most important use for numbers is to put them into context and tie them to what we see on the court.  I think it’s obvious why LeBron would be the weather vane for his team.  But with Rondo putting up nightly triple-doubles, why is Garnett still the key to the Celtics?  One word answer: defense.  When Garnett is on the court and playing well, the Celtics stifle their opponents…when he’s off, the Celtics are a sieve.  In games 3 and 4 the Heat shot in the mid-30|PERCENT| shooting range with Garnett on the floor, but shot up near 80|PERCENT| (not a misprint) from the field with him off the court.

So, that’s what it is.  If LeBron can establish the Heat offense, fast breaks and easy shots, with some James/Dwyane Wade hero ball mixed in for good measure then the Heat likely advance.  If Garnett can lock the Celtics’ defense, making James and Wade over-rely on hero ball and not letting their supporting cast into the equation, the Celtics advance.  It’s really that simple.

These Conference Finals have turned into Instant Classics.  I wonder what the new story will be this time next week.