Analyzing the impact of four quiet postseason contributors
The stakes and drama of the NBA postseason have a way of stretching the extremes, with the most productive and harmful on-court influences taking on even greater hyperbole than usual. Great individual performers aren’t merely that, but the loving subjects of the entire stage of the news cycle. Struggling scorers or late-game no-shows aren’t merely victim to having a bad game against a tough matchup, but worthy of micro-level analysis and public scorn. None of this can be regarded as overreaction given how each individual element shapes a playoff series. But the emphasis placed on both ends of the spectrum often leave precious little room or regard for those doing quieter, less extreme work to help their teams’ postseason chances. Today, we’ll take a look at four of the contributors — all of whom are in action on Tuesday night – who have been crucial to their teams’ efforts thus far albeit without the narrative clout of some of the NBA’s headliners.
Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry’s play has both driven and largely decided the Warriors’ first-round series against the Nuggets to this point, but the oft-injured Andrew Bogut has made a marked imprint as well. Some of that has, surprisingly enough, come on the offensive end, where Bogut has adjusted marvelously to Denver’s aggressive trapping on the perimeter. Once George Karl made the determination for his Nuggets to blitz Curry so consistently and aggressively, Bogut’s offense became the most sensible concession; leaving Bogut open to receive a pass some 18 feet from the rim is an acceptable risk against a potent offensive team, particularly when the alternative is watching helplessly as Curry breaks down his man and creates points from any sliver of open space.
That gambit worked out for Denver on first implementation, but in the games since, Bogut has acted as a release option for the pressured Curry and immediately attacked Denver’s defensive rotations on the catch. Gone is Bogut’s wasteful (if also well-intended) deliberation on the perimeter, and in its stead are sequences like this one:
It’s sequences like this one that have made Denver’s chosen defensive strategy more gimmicky than effective, in no small part because Bogut has stomped his way into the paint and profited from the Nuggets’ defensive negligence.
Yet even more impressive has been Bogut’s clear defensive influence, as his placement on the court stands as a prime impediment to Denver’s offensive goals. The Nuggets earned the third seed in a competitive Western Conference by bludgeoning their opponents with an astounding number of points in the paint — the result of an uncompromising offense that pushed the pace and attacked the rim relentlessly. Yet there are far too many Denver players (Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos) in this series that Bogut can “guard” without ever really leaving the lane. That makes it incredibly tricky for Denver to take advantage of its side-to-side ball movement and quick dribble hand-offs, as none of that action succeeds in luring Bogut out of prime defensive position.
As a result, the Nuggets have averaged just 29.3 shot attempts in the restricted area per game in this series relative to 40.4 per game in the regular season. That’s astounding considering that both Denver and Golden State are playing at a blistering pace — notably faster, in fact, than even the NBA’s fastest-paced regular-season team (Houston). The possessions are plenty, but Bogut’s preventative defense has forced the Nuggets away from the rim and toward more difficult jumpers. That Denver lacks knockdown shooters — and is currently averaging a 31.3-percent shooting mark from three in the postseason — hurts the Nuggets’ cause, and forces them to drive deep into the paint knowing full well that Bogut is shadowing their every move.
That’s where Golden State’s plodding center has been even more impressive, as Bogut has posted the second-highest block percentage (the portion of an opposing team’s two-point field goal attempts that a player blocks while on the court) in the postseason while completely demolishing the Nuggets’ shooting percentages on the interior. For the series on the whole, Denver is hitting its season-average mark (62 percent) in terms of converting shot attempts in the immediate basket area. But when Bogut is out there taking up space and denying optimal driving lanes, the Nuggets shoot just 52.9 percent around the rim — a sub-Bobcats mark of restricted-area futility. Even when he’s not swatting shots directly, Bogut’s consistent paint presence has turned one of the league’s most dangerous basket-attacking teams into a stifled mess.
Quincy Pondexter, Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis’ lone effective reserve wing has averaged a mere 7 points per game over the course of the playoffs, without many rebounds or assists to speak of. Yet even those slight box-score contributions have proved essential for a Grizzlies team that’s otherwise short on perimeter options. Pondexter has hit just enough three-pointers in this series to grab the Clippers’ defensive attentions, and beyond that he has moved well without the ball on the occasions that the man guarding him is distracted by Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph in the post. Pondexter has also rather quietly outplayed rotational superior Tayshaun Prince in the four games to date, making him a worthy alternative at either wing position for Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins.
Plus, Pondexter has turned out to be a surprisingly effective change-of-pace cover on Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford, as his length gives him a different defensive latitude relative to Tony Allen or Mike Conley. The Grizzlies have done a fine job of keeping both of those crucial Clippers scorers on their toes thus far, an effort to which Pondexter has contributed, making him a far preferable choice to Bayless or even Prince. This may not be a breakout series for Pondexter, but he’s making his mark as an increasingly versatile defender and serviceable offensive asset.
Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets
Another terrific player with the misfortune of doing good work in Curry’s shadow. Lawson’s defense has been a wreck, but he remains the one Nuggets player who can consistently access the lane and manufacture his own offense on a regular basis — largely because he’s able to elude Bogut off the dribble and finish in tight quarters. Over the last two games, those qualities — along with some solid mid-range shooting — have resulted in 30.5 points (on 52 percent shooting) and 8 assists per contest. Those numbers compare favorably to Curry’s 30 points (on 54.5 percent shooting) and 9 assists a night in that same span. There are some crucial factors (three-point shooting, overall shooting volume, wins, etc.) that separate the two, but Lawson’s stutter-and-streak offense has simply been too fantastic to go overlooked.
Given the struggles of Andre Miller, Andre Igoudala and Wilson Chandler, Lawson’s ability to beat the first line of defense remains one of the primary reasons that Denver hasn’t taken a more disastrous turn in the series. Without him, Denver’s offense would devolve into a series of false starts and desperation jumpers, lacking in any capacity to keep pace with Curry and the Warriors’ hot streak.
Carl Landry, Golden State Warriors
It’s clear at this point that the Warriors could get by with their floor-stretching starting lineup for much of the game, but some B-side scoring is necessary when Golden State head coach Mark Jackson takes some of the principal contributors off the court. Remove Bogut from that starting group, and suddenly the Nuggets’ traps become increasingly viable. Sub out Curry or Jarrett Jack, and Golden State lacks the same ability to wreak havoc off the bounce. Each of those concessions could prove costly, but Landry offers a corresponding influx of offense to keep even the Warriors’ worst lineups afloat. So much of managing an NBA rotation is finding ways to stem tides and survive weaknesses, and in that regard Landry has made Mark Jackson’s job far easier than it might have been otherwise.
He’s lacking as an all-around player, but Landry thrives as a situational offensive option by posting up undersized Denver defenders, salvaging broken plays and scrapping for extra possessions on the offensive glass. He does far more to minimize deficits than build tide-turning runs, but over the last two games Landry (28.8 points per 36 minutes) has almost matched Curry (30.4 per 36) in terms of his per-minute scoring. By the numbers, the Warriors are actually outscored by the Nuggets when Landry is on the court (-3.1 points per 100 possessions), though that’s largely a product of his particular role. He fits in well enough among Golden State’s other higher-usage players, but where he’s of real value is in keeping things manageable when the Warriors trot out a less-than-optimal mix of players (an inevitability with Lee’s injury and the other shortcomings of this roster). In those situations, Landry does a fine job of keeping the deficit manageable, and in that, gives the Warriors the incredibly precious means to sustain with a limited rotation.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.