Point Blank – March 20, 2017
Warriors/Thunder means plenty tonight (Enes Kanter will sure as hell never be Wilt Chamberlain, but take a look at the numbers)…And in the Big Dance, a quick Conference Call (did the ACC just have the worst second round ever)…
It is not all that unusual to wake up a little punchy on this particular Monday, a feeling that many of you can probably relate to – four consecutive days of wall-to-wall college basketball can do that. What was expected to be a wide open tournament with no dominant teams has turned out to be just that, and as the Sweet 16 approaches there is a legit question – just which of the teams left can’t honestly win this thing?
A big part of the focus here this week will go towards those matchups – it will be “The Game Inside the Game” across each of the regionals beginning with the Midwest here tomorrow, then the West on Wednesday, East on Thursday and South on Friday. I’ll touch upon some of the intriguing conference notions in a moment, but first the focus shifts to the NBA, where the playoffs may still be a month away, but there are key positioning elements leading up to those brackets taking place already, the battle for the seeds wide open in both conferences.
I’ll also begin the week with the jukebox plugged in, and for once losing a great does not have to bring a note of sadness into play but instead appreciation – Chuck Berry lived beyond his 90th birthday, and we just can’t ask for much more from life. It would be almost impossible to fully state the impact that he had on the emergence of Rock and Roll, and if there is a lament it is that his guitar playing was held back just a bit, so much of his musical career based on the crafting of a song instead of just letting the fingers soar on stage. For proper tribute, here is one of the true masters just having some fun with Eric Clapton and Keith Richards -
Now back to the hardwoods, and even though Kevin Durant will not be around this time, there are reasons for some high drama to take place in Oklahoma City.
Item: It really is “Game On” out West
So much has changed in the Western Conference since Durant’s injury, Golden State not just looking vulnerable, but having those vulnerabilities reflected in the shifting of the standings – it is just a two-game lead over the Spurs for the top seed, and the growing realization that there is not going to be an easy playoff series anywhere. Denver is currently sitting as the first-round opponent, and the Nuggets are #5 across the entire NBA in net offense/defense PP100 since the All Star break.
It is in the second round where the challenge gets far more serious than once perceived, and the prospects are very real that the Warriors could be up against Oklahoma City, and potentially still be without Durant for that confrontation. That puts tonight’s showdown under the microscope, because there is a lot to see. The Thunder nearly won the series last May because they had superior size and depth around the basket, and those matchup elements are even more pronounced now.
Let’s start from the OKC side of the equation, and as noted here last Tuesday, it was time to start paying attention now that all hands are on deck. The Thunder stumbled in the fourth quarter at Portland in the first game with Victor Oladipo back, but since then it has been a 5-0 SU and ATS run in which they have beaten the market expectations by 54 points, for 10.8 per game. Included in that run was a commanding 102-92 win over San Antonio, a night they led by as many as 20 points. What was once a depth-shy team is now one that has been reconfigured to play with a high level of energy – Taj Gibson being moved into the starting lineup to add some veteran savvy, which takes pressure off of Domantas Sabonis, and when Sabonis is combined with Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott, plus the development of Alex Abrines while Oladipo was sidelined, Billy Donovan now has options. Those options could also mean Russell Westbrook not having to go as hard down the stretch, in order to save energy for the playoffs.
Item: On Enes Kanter’s recent production
Why haven’t the markets picked up on Oklahoma City improvements yet? Sometimes when a guy considered to be a role player goes on a run it simply isn’t fully appreciated, and that is the story with Kanter. While his defense remains poor there are few big men with better offensive skills, and by bringing him off the bench, Donovan can expose matchups against opponents that lack size and depth in the front-court. Like the Warriors.
Kanter struggled in his first game back from injury, but like Oladipo perhaps the injury can be considered to be a plus – each has saved some wear and down by having down-time, which leaves them fresher come playoff time. Over the last 11 outings since that unproductive return game, Kanter has scored 166 points and grabbed 82 rebounds while playing 184:14. Those base numbers may not cause anyone to do much more than have a quick blink until you look at them this way –
Production per 48 minutes
Over those last 11 games, Kanter’s production rate has been Chamberlain-esque. No, he will never be in that league, not even in his own dreams, but it does show the kind of tool that he brings to the overall OKC picture. And with him being healthy again, plus the addition of Gibson, the Thunder have not just been the NBA’s top rebounding team since the All Star break, but the top by a significant margin –
NBA Rebounding, post All-Star game
1. OKC 55.0
2. MINNESOTA 53.1
3. UTAH 52.8
4. TORONTO 52.5
5. PORTLAND 52.3
In truth the Thunder have been even better than that when we consider the difficulty of opposition in the category – in their 12 post-break games they have played the Jazz and Trail Blazers twice, and also the Raptors once. For comparison, Golden State in that same span is #18 at 49.5, and it raises some key questions tonight – can the Warriors hold their own on the boards, and where does Steve Kerr go with his rotation in this matchup now, and again in May.
Item: Did Golden State catch a second wind at home last week or was it more a case of weak competition
The Warriors were on a three-game losing streak when they returned home last week, Kerr having mailed in the final leg of a back-to-back vs. San Antonio by giving his key cogs the night off, and then two more days of rest before returning to the court. In the return they were shockingly behind by 12 points in the fourth quarter vs. the 76ers before rallying to win, and the follow up were easy wins over Orlando (122-92) and Milwaukee (117-92).
Did Golden State find a comfort zone in those wins? I will bring that question to the forefront while watching tonight, because there are real questions about the rotation. Curry/Green/Thompson/Iguodala are all set, but look at the scramble among the others over those last three games -
BUCKS MAGIC 76ERS
Pachulia 12:05 21:24 12:28
McCaw 15:25 19:50 13:44
Barnes 24:04 20:14 22:13
Clark 17:54 19:53 11:46
Livingston 17:36 18:47 11:58
West 12:13 12:19 11:11
There is a lot to process through in this matchup, and while doing the charting for the long-term purposes ahead, I will have about a half of a position on #612 OKC (8:00 Eastern) at +2 in pocket, +3 being the go price for a full investment. I don’t believe this is the proper price point for where these teams are overall right now, and in particular for the way they match up against each other (although as the morning trading plays out the +2 is already becoming scarce).
Item: Conference Call Time - did the ACC just have the worst tournament second round ever
The varying performances by the respective conferences has been rather stunning as the field got reduced to 16 teams. The Big 10 was considered to have had a down year and not much at all was thought of the SEC, while the ACC was considered to be in a tight battle with the Big 12 for the best conference in the nation this season. Here is how things look among the leagues that still have a team in play (listing in order of their ATS success) -
PAC 12 8-1 7-1-1
BIG 10 8-4 8-4
SEC 7-2 6-3
BIG 12 8-3 7-4
BIG EAST 5-5 4-6
WCC 3-1 1-3
ACC 7-8 2-13
Want to play oddsmaker for a moment? What price would you have put on the SEC (five teams in the field) having more Sweet 16 representatives than the ACC (nine teams), if you had been asked to do that last week.
Here is where it gets particularly stunning – in going 1-5 SU and 0-6 ATS in the second round, the ACC teams lost to the closing market price by 90.5 points, for a tick more than 15 per game. And of course if you followed closely North Carolina’s survival was certainly not easy, the Tar Heels trailing 65-60 vs. Arkansas before going on that late 12-0 run.
There is a lot to sort through here, both in leading to the Sweet 16 matchups, and also in doing the various post-mortems on this particular season. But while doing some of that sorting there is also a ticket to get into play this evening…
In the Sights, NIT…
Wichita State showed in two solid tournament performances that the Shockers deserved far better than a #10 seed, and may have also given us another piece of evidence – that Illinois State belonged in the Big Dance as well. So after seeing the Redbirds pull away from UC-Irvine in their NIT opener, I believe this is a fair price range in another game their defense can dominate. That makes #616 Illinois State (7:00 Eastern) worthy of investment this evening, with -5.5 easy to find in the Monday trading, and perhaps the prospect of a -5 showing up (and bingo, the early markets have now helped us out, with as low as -4.5 having become available).
One of my preferred matchup modes is bucking the short road underdog that will have trouble scoring, and the end-game in this one will likely mean the Golden Knights having to play from behind on the road. While their size has led to a solid defensive season they struggle so mightily to convert on the other end, rating #170 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, and a horrific #334 in TO%. They are up against a Redbird defense that is #18 in the land, and does not show a weakness across any category, Dan Muller having the depth to have his team guard tenaciously for the full 40 minutes.
Yes, UCF does bring the matchup issue of a team having to cope with 7-6 Tacko Fell, but State got a bit of positive prep on that front in going up against 7-2 Ioannis Dimakopoulos from UC-Irvine last week, so that matchup is not all that new for them. I expect this one to be won by the Redbirds defense, and in particular note that with school back in session there should be a terrific crowd on hand to make things more difficult on the visitors.
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