Garnett Shutting Down Top Competition

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I do research for a living, and there is an analysis technique called "data mining" in which the analyst looks at a set of previously gathered data after the fact to make new conclusions. For example, as part of my dissertation, I re-examined some neural recordings that my adviser had helped gather during deep brain stimulation surgeries. By re-looking at old data, I was able to find some patterns to help the surgeon we worked with identify the brain region where he wanted to do the surgery. Everybody won, and I got my degree.

I bring this up because when it comes to sports, Kevin Garnett is the most uniquely "data mine-able" player that I've ever seen. Whereas many great players look outstanding from a distance but perhaps less-so when you really go in depth, with Garnett it tends to be the exact opposite: the closer you look at his contributions, the more you realize that he has been doing amazing things that you didn't even fully appreciate. That happened to me again this week, in the aftermath of my post pointing out how KG had completely wrecked Big Al Jefferson and Kevin Love in their match-ups last week. Immediately after that post, KG went out and erased Chris Bosh (again) on Sunday. And in conversations on other message boards, I ended up looking more into how Garnett did when matched up against Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard this season. I just kept looking a little deeper and a little deeper into KG's defense this year, and then I summed it up and looked at the results and...

Even I was stunned.

I, who just last month made the claim that Garnett was still the best defensive player in the NBA, looked at the numbers of what Garnett was doing to several of the best offensive big men in the NBA this season and had to double-check to see if it was a misprint. I must have made a mistake*, as SURELY KG can't have been just absolutely shutting down the best big man scorers in the NBA, could he? Normally a great 1-on-1 defender might limit a great scorer to just under his scoring average, or perhaps make a player take some extra shots in order to produce the same volume. But what Garnett has done this year is to chop the volume AND the efficiency of many of his most difficult matchups, to absurd levels. And because he's played a lot at both power forward and center, Garnett has faced off with the best at each position.

Below are 10 such match-ups that I looked into which include the top-3 (and five of the top 8) scoring centers (one of them twice) in the NBA and two of the top-3 (and four of the top-7) scoring power forwards. I chose situations in which I remember Garnett as the primary defender for those players (i.e. I didn't include Blake Griffin, because I know for a good chunk of the game KG was on DeAndre Jordan). And in each case I went back through the play-by-play log to see how the player scored when he was on the court with KG, and compared that to how he was scoring in the 5 games preceding the Celtics match-up. Here is what I found:

On court with KG 5 previous (per 36)
Min Pts TS% Pts TS%
Nowitzki 1/11 30.2 14 55.4 20.1 53.9
Howard 1/23 12.4 3 19.6 21.3 55.6
Howard 1/26 21.4 5 37 21.3 55.6
Hibbert 1/27 16.3 6 30 18.4 57
Bynum 3/11 32.9 18 57.1 20 70.3
Smith 3/19 26.7 6 27.3 22 54.3
Gooden 3/22 19.4 6 33.8 21.2 63
Jefferson 3/28 21.9 8 40.9 22.3 59
Love 3/30 26.6 8 38.8 29.3 62.8
Bosh 4/1 25.7 4 20 19.6 58.3
Total (per 36) 12 37.9% 21.8 59.3%

On the whole, with Garnett as their primary defender their scoring volume is cut in HALF with a more than 20% drop in scoring efficiency compared to what they were doing coming into the game. That's unheard of! The only ones with anywhere near normal production were Andrew Bynum and Nowiztki, and even they were down a bit in either shooting efficiency or volume. But the rest?

Over 2 games, KG held Dwight Howard to eight total points on less than 28% true shooting percentage in almost 34 minutes as his primary defender!

Love had been averaging more than 33 points on 63% TS in the five games leading up to running into the buzz saw and getting shut down!

Poor Big Al, Bosh, and Josh Smith scored 18 points TOTAL on 29% true shooting in more than 74 minutes. That's a combined 8.7 points/36!

Just some fun facts for you to kick around on an off day. People have been paying more attention to how KG has been playing offensively of late, which is great. But his defense, too, has been at video game cheat code level as well.

*(As always, I welcome anyone checking my work. I included the date next to each game, and all info came from the ESPN play-by-play and game flows for each game)

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