Celtics Establish Superiority



There were many fears that the Lakers had lost a step this season. Off season trades had clearly made them slower. The veterans were all a year older. Kobe Bryant was playing with a bad knee. And, inexplicable home losses kept piling up.

The Lakers lost at home to Indiana
The Lakers lost at home to Milwaukee
The Lakers lost at home to Memphis
The Lakers lost badly at home on Christmas Day to Miami
The Lakers lost at home to Sacramento just a few nights ago

But, it's the NBA, and teams are known to sandbag during the long grind of the regular season. Maybe with a CHAMPIONSHIP REMATCH on the schedule, the REAL Lakers would show up and remind everyone why they're still the team to beat in the NBA this season.

Shooting Percentage: Boston 60%, Lakers 44%
Three-Pointers: Boston 9/17, Lakers 4/9
Free Throws: Boston 12/18, Lakers 20/27
Rebounds: Boston 43, Lakers 30
Turnovers: Boston 13, Lakers 8
Vegas Line: Lakers by 2.5, total of 184.5
: The game was closer than the final score most of the way. But, during fourth quarter crunch time, it was obvious that that Boston was significantly superior right now.

*Boston had an OFFENSE, with a variety of weapons who could score. The Lakers basically let Kobe dribble the ball around before forcing up a bad shot.

*Boston has a DEFENSE, with everyone helping each other as Kobe tried to get himself free. The Lakers were a step or two slow defensively, allowing for many open looks for Celtics shooters when the game was on the line.

*Boston had a SWAGGER, which sounds trite…but all champions have that. The Lakers apparently left theirs in a nightclub somewhere after celebrating last season's title. When it was time to bear down and win, Boston made it clear that they were going to win. The Lakers were hiding in the corner. This is most obvious in the rebounding category, the most physical basketball stat. Boston won the battle of the boards 43-30.

We don't normally run “Phantom Score” in the NBA because fewer pro games are polluted by long range or free throw shooting. In this case, Boston won the combination of two-point scoring and rebounding here 113-94, which helps made the case numerically for how well they were playing in the areas that matter most.

We're not ready to say now that the Lakers are toast in terms of the championship. Veteran teams pace themselves. Injuries will likely become an issue between now and the final round. We can say this. At full strength, right now, both Boston and San Antonio are playing much better, and much more consistently than the Lakers. Sure, the Lakers can kick things up a notch come playoff time. So can the Celtics and Spurs! If healthy.

There was one other day game Sunday in the NBA, and it involved two teams who are also thinking championship thoughts…

Shooting Percentage: Miami 52%, Oklahoma City 41%
Three-Pointers: Miami 8/18, Oklahoma City 8/18
Free Throws: Miami 22/32, Oklahoma City 27/34
Rebounds: Miami 41, Oklahoma City 41
Turnovers: Miami 20, Oklahoma City 12
Vegas Line: Oklahoma City by 1, total of 202
The second half certainly had playoff intensity, with the Heat winning that portion of the game 44-42. That would be 88-84 over four quarters with the same pace. But, the first half was much more like Phoenix playing the New York Knicks in a four-on-four game on roller skates. The stars came out in the mood to put  on a show offensively, while not particularly wasting any energy guarding people on the defensive end. So, we have a misleadingly high final score, triggered by a 38-35 first quarter win for the hosts that probably came while you were finishing off Sunday brunch.

Note that Oklahoma City actually LED here with less than a minute to go. Miami hit a shot to take the lead, then pulled away with free throws after Oklahoma City couldn't convert anything. This was a nailbiter game, with a nailbiter finish, against a nailbiter pointspread. Miami has a few guys who know how to produce when it matters. Oklahoma City is still a young team that's figuring out how to do that. If you had to go overtime to beat Minnesota and Washington, you're not the kings of clutch!

The good news for Miami is that they won shooting percentage handily in a playoff style game. The bad news is that turnovers were ridiculous. They better not give the ball away 20 times against somebody like Boston, Orlando, or even Chicago in the postseason or the partying in South Beach will have to wait a year (or two).

Sunday afternoon in the colleges…

ST. JOHN'S 93, #3 DUKE 78
Shooting Percentage: Duke 42%, St. John's 58%
Three-Pointers: Duke 5/26, St. John's 3/5
Free Throws: Duke 21/27, St. John's 26/33
Rebounds: Duke 28, St. John's 27
Turnovers: Duke 17, St. John's 12
Phantom Score: Duke 70, St. John's 85
Vegas Line: Duke by 8.5, total of 141.5
: You longtime readers know that we've spent many years blasting the media for its incessant hype about the Duke program. We'll try to keep from going overboard here, because St. John's obviously played a bit over their head given the shooting percentages. Still, you saw Duke's weaknesses exposed in the national spotlight, against a team who's not likely to reach the Big Dance this year. St. John's is in the bottom quarter of the 16-team league by many estimates. Just above that range in any others. Duke never had a chance against them.

*Duke can play very soft defensively inside when facing teams who know what they're doing. That's what kept them from playing to their seed in the Big Dance for most of the last decade. They'd build a great record playing in an overrated conference…then run into physical, or fast, or smart teams from other places that would beat them in the paint. St. John's was 29 of 50 on two-pointers, for 58%.

*Duke relies so much on the three-pointer that they have limited hopes vs. quality when the treys aren't falling. The Blue Devils missed their first 10 treys in this game, and dug a hole that was impossible to get out of almost immediately. If treys are part of your arsenal, it's one thing. If they're almost all you have going for you in big games, then you need some good fortune to string together tournament victories. Duke received that fortune last year.

*Duke typically plays clean basketball, but they can become turnover prone against more athletic opponents. You saw 17 turnovers against St. John's, as the team seemed to panic when the bombs weren't falling.

*Phantom Score (two-point scoring plus rebounding), is a stat we invented many years ago to help show everyone why Duke isn't as great as you think. They often get friendly officiating at home (one-pointers), and their ability to make treys (three-pointers) always makes them dangerous. When you trim the game down to it's essentials…Duke's haircut doesn't look so good. The Phantom Score here came close to matching the final score. And, in fact, if Duke isn't getting friendly officiating and making a bunch of treys, their Phantom Score WILL be close to their final score. Real powers don't need one's and three's to win big games. Duke does.

So, St. John's isn't as good as they looked here. They entered amidst a losing stretch. And, Duke isn't as bad as they looked here because they'll normally shoot better than 5 of 26 from long range (and they'll win free throw attempts at home). You did get an early glimpse though of why you should be cautious asking for a March Madness repeat this year if you're a Duke fan.

Shooting Percentage: Dayton 44%, Duquesne 51%
Three-Pointers: Dayton 6/19, Duquesne 9/22
Free Throws: Dayton 4/9, Duquesne 13/28
Rebounds: Dayton 32, Duquesne 36
Turnovers: Dayton 20, Duquesne 12
Phantom Score: Dayton 74, Duquesne 78
Vegas Line: Duquesne by 8, total of 143
The relatively light Sunday schedule allows us to include an Atlantic 10 game. We discussed this conference in our Saturday report. The best team in the league, Duquesne, moved to 7-0 with an impressive home victory.

You might be surprised that we called Duquesne the best team in the Atlantic 10. If you've been reading the bracketology stuff, Duquesne isn't even in the Dance! ESPN has Temple as an 8th seed, and Xavier as an 11th seed right now. Duquesne isn't on the radar. As handicappers, YOU need to be aware that our Power Ratings, and many respected computer ratings from other places do in fact have Duquesne at the top. They're in first place in the standings, AND in respected ratings. Maybe ESPN will notice sometime soon.

We should note here that Phantom Score was closer, meaning Duquesne wasn't as dominant as it looked. And, that awful day from the free throw line is a bad sign for playoff basketball. You have to grab every point you can get when your season is on the line. We don't want to suggest that Duquesne is a hidden power. It's probably better to think of them as being “better than realized” in a conference that's worse than realized.

That wraps up our Monday report. We'll be back Tuesday with an in-depth look at the Purdue-Wisconsin game in the Big Ten, with an eye toward how the conference is shaping up as a whole in terms of March Madness hopes. We just wrapped up a series of articles outlining stat indicators for all the board conferences. We'll go further in depth this week and next with the marquee teams you'll be seeing a lot of on TV in February and March.

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