The perfect pace for each conference finalist

Over on Gothic Ginobili, Aaron McGuire has a brilliantly insightful post on the pace that best suits each of the four teams remaining in the playoffs. McGuire charts how often each team won in the regular season based on the pace they played, using number of possessions per 48 minutes to measure pace.

What he finds is that San Antonio is tops at forcing teams to play its preferred pace of 96-100 possessions per 48 minutes -- well above the league average of 91.3 -- and that when they pushed the pace past 96 possessions/48 minutes, the Spurs went an incredible 28-3!

Everyone else would be well served by slowing them down, if that's at all possible.

The whole post, which you really should read, includes a pretty table detailing his findings. Here are some of McGuire's takeaways from the data:

  • BOSTON: Bet you didn’t expect this, huh? Out of all the paces the Celtics play at, one stands above all others as the absolute worst they could possibly play at. I refer, of course, to… an absurdly slow game? The Celtics force the pace low by Doc Rivers’ own desires — in the Big Three era, he has always preached a defensive-oriented strategy of keeping as few possessions as possible. This season, though, the Celtics have been bloody awful when they play their slowest. When they have under 91 possessions in a game, the Celtics have a losing record (12-15), a defensive rating WELL above their season average, allow teams to shoot almost 50% from the field, and barely ever draw fouls. On the other hand, when they play to a league-average pace, they’re a really excellent team — a +9 differential, fantastic defense, and a sparkling 16-4 record. Had you shown me Boston’s numbers before I did this exercise, I wouldn’t have believed it. But it’s true. When the Celtics play super-slow, they’re a terrible team. Doc Rivers may deserve a bit of blame — no other team is more inefficient at forcing the tempo that suits the team best, and to some extent, that’s on his game plan.

  • SAN ANTONIO: As the Spurs get slower, the Spurs get worse. As the Spurs get faster, the Spurs get unbeatable, improving on both the defensive end AND the offensive end. They also shoot better, which speaks to Chip Engelland’s yeoman’s work in ensuring the Spurs maintain proper form on quick, set shots and the Spurs added efficiency when they force a transition-heavy, D’Antoni style of play. I discussed this a bit at 48 Minutes of Hell, so I won’t belabor the point. But really: the Spurs are great when they play fast, and more than any other team left, they’re the best at dictating the tempo and forcing teams to play fast. A deadly combination, that.

  • MIAMI: Little rhyme or reason to the Heat’s numbers, though some funny stuff here. They average a differential of +7.1 in games with over 100 possessions, but somehow managed to go 5-4 on those games in the regular season. Which means they won those 5 games by over double the margin they lost by. Absolutely silly. Overall, the Miami defense actually gets a bit better as the pace goes up — their real problems come on the offensive end. I take back my first statement. This actually makes a lot of sense to me. As a team highly reliant on two players, it stands to reason that there is some sort of upper limit on the number of possessions LeBron and Wade can use up in a single game. The more possessions the Heat use, the more likely that one of those extra possessions is something useless, like a Joel Anthony layup or another bricked Battier three. Thus, their offense gets a bit less efficient as the possessions rack up and they’re forced to burn more possessions on their atrocious bench. As a mathematical example, assume LeBron a usage rate of 33%. In a 90 possession game, that’s 30 possessions — in a 100 possession game 33. That means that Non-LeBron players used 60 possessions in the 90 game and 67 possessions in the 100 game. What this means, big picture, is that even if the ratio is the same there are more possessions spent on players you know can’t really give you much. In simplified terms… how easy is it for two players to have 50-60 out of 80 points in a slow paced game compared to 70-80 points out of 110 in a fast paced game? It takes more effort, and it takes an increase in a player’s usage above and beyond simple extrapolation.

  • OKLAHOMA CITY: To hearken back to economics, the Thunder are in an odd position of not really having big marginal advantages over anyone in any one area, despite a lot of strengths when averaged across buckets. Their only real weakness is that they simply can’t play slow-down, knock out ball the way a team like Miami can — indeed, the Thunder actually were better than the Spurs at super-slow games, and far better than the Celtics. But against the Heat, that relative strength becomes a massive boondoggle. The, conversely, the Thunder are well above average at a faster-paced game… but still significantly worse than either the Heat or the Spurs! The only decisive advantage the Thunder really have in terms of pace is to play a very normal, league-average 91-95 possessions. My theory is that the Thunder defense gradually breaks down as the game gets faster, but the offense (isolation based and transition-heavy as it already is) doesn’t have a second gear that allows it to become more efficient in a fast-paced setting.