The right five
As a fan, I approach the game today with a high level of uncertainty I cannot shake off – despite the have-been-theres, the memories of victories past, my purblind faith in my team. Game 3 will be pivotal in such an even series, and a win by the Spurs would put the pressure back on Memphis’s shoulders. Just like all of my fellow bloggers, I have been looking back at the last two matches, trying to find the whys and the hows: why did we lose Game 1? Was Manu the only reason we won Game 2? What changed? What should change?
In predictable fashion, I turned to whatever statistics I could find, and opened a spreadsheet. (My own version of the Batman utility belt scene, where Batman makes sure that all of his gadgets are in place, clips his Batbelt, then puts on his cape and rushes off to fight crime. That’s me with a spreadsheet, only sadder.) Instead of looking at the individual stats, which have been thoroughly analyzed by the Spurs blogging community, I decided to look at the performance of the Spurs’ 5-man units against the Grizzlies, both in the last two games and in the regular season. A wonderful site for this sort of data is Basketball Value, where stats gurus study the impact of players and teams using advanced statistics.
I put together a small table that summarizes the monsoon of data in Basketball Value’s. To understand it, you should basically know two things. The “1 year plus-minus” is an adjusted version of the classic plus-minus which also takes into account the unit’s performance during the regular season, albeit giving more weight to the playoffs results. The “unadjusted rating”, on the other hand, simply consider the points scored by the unit and its opponents, and the possessions used by each to score them. In simpler terms the first parameter tries to calculate how the 5-man unit should perform, whereas the second one shows how it has performed so far. Easy, right?
The following table shows all of the 5-man units that have seen minutes during the first two games of this series. Let’s look at it.
The first thing that comes to my mind while looking at these numbers is that our starting unit has been clearly superior to the Grizzlies’, against whom they have seen the lion’s share of their minutes. This highlights the importance of Manu for the Spurs, since replacing him in the lineup for Neal has proven disastrous for the team, and while ultimately positive, Game 1’s starting unit featuring Hill was much less efficient (and shows a negative value in adjusted plus-minus). It is also encouraging that this is likely to be our closing unit, unless we are in a desperate need for a triple, and will be matched up against the Memphis’s starters – give or take a Shane Battier.
Tim and Manu are the stars of the adjusted +/- estimates, a testament to the Spurs’ dependency on their leadership and their steady hand against the suffocating Memphis defense. Furthermore, the values confirm both the opinions of the experts and the clamor of the crowd: the Blair-Bonner combo is a recipe for disaster, and while it hasn’t hurt us as much as you would think, it should be avoided at all costs. The Grizzlies’ height demands that we fight fire with fire, not with gargantuan sandwiches and extraneous exclamation marks.
The obvious is patent: small ball has hurt us, especially in the form of a Parker-Hill-Neal backcourt. For all of Neal’s fearlessness, and despite my belief that his quick release is better suited to Memphis’s in-your-face defense than Bonner’s, he has failed so far to positively impact the series, as evidenced by his combined -18 plus-minus after two games. Neal has been acting for a while as Jefferson’s virtual backup, often paired with Hill in the backcourt, but despite Neal’s shooting prowess masking some of the second unit’s issues, the lack of a real shooting forward on the bench is one of the Spurs’ most glaring holes.
It’s important to note that two games is a small sample for accurate statistical analysis, and you are thus welcome to take my words with a grain of salt the size of Texas. To examine our conclusions, we can look at the most common 5-man units used by the Spurs versus the Grizzlies in the regular season, which I have once again summarized in the table below.
Jefferson, Ginobili and Duncan all appear once more as equivalents for success against our ursine opponents. It is interesting to see how much success Blair has had in the past against the Randolph-Gasol dynamic duo, especially when Tim is guarding his back. A few ugly mistakes in Game 1 (a spin move that should have never been, forever etched in my memory; a humbling block born of stubbornness and an allergy to kickouts) have moved many Spurs fans to believe that Blair’s ACL-less, mundane height rendered him useless against the imposing presence of the lesser Gasol’s rugged self and Zach Randolph’s rough attentions, but the truth is that Blair has been a spark for the second unit in a few key sequences despite his unimpressive shooting percentages – maybe the only real spark, too, since his +9 combined plus-minus is by far the best among bench players.
(Before anyone calls me out regarding the Bonner-Blair combo’s apparent excellence in this second table, know that that particular unit never had to face Randolph. Bonner is part of many disastrous, less popular units. …Hmm. Who’s that in the 5th more efficient unit? “Splitter”? Hm… Nope, never heard of him!)
Ginobili is back in the active roster, and Coach Popovich will have an easier time moving his chess pieces for it. The rational Spurs fan should request more minutes for Blair, especially if paired with Tim, and for McDyess to finish the game with the other starters. He should request the minimization of the minutes for any of the small-ball units, and for Neal to see more minutes at the 2 position with Ginobili than at the 3 with Parker and Hill. He should hope that neither Manu nor Jefferson nor Duncan fall into foul trouble.
And if he sees Bonner and Blair on the low post, he should cross his fingers, grab a beer, and pray hard to the Gods of the 3-pointer.