It’s Not Them, It’s You

Lonely Boys at the Top

A Playoff Preview

Two more epic battles are set to take place in the NBA’s second season

Miami-Brooklyn

Brooklyn was a Paul Pierce fingertip away from being a punch line — a $200 million wheezing antique unable to get out of the first round … again, after mortgaging even more of its future for the remnants of Boston’s championship past. But Pierce swatted that Kyle Lowry floater, and now the Nets get the series for which they were built.

The Nets are a perfect foil for Miami. Pierce and Kevin Garnett feel legitimate hostility toward the Heat stars. Brooklyn’s front office put real stock in the notion of collecting players who would be unafraid of Miami’s speed and athleticism in the postseason crucible. The Boston guys have been there before, Joe Johnson’s blood pressure never changes, Deron Williams is allegedly a superstar (spoiler alert: He’s not), the team is stocked with heady vets, and Andrei Kirilenko’s hairstyle has mysterious hypnotic powers.

The Nets went 4-0 against Miami in the regular season, though putting too much stock in that lopsided record is dangerous. All four games were close, and none featured the full rosters we’ll see in this series. Dwyane Wade and KG missed two, Williams and Mario Chalmers missed one apiece, and the first meeting, way back on November 1, featured Brook Lopez and a Nets team that played an entirely different style.

Boston and Chicago can tell you how much regular-season success against Miami matters in the playoffs.

But the record suggests the Nets can be competitive against Miami, and that they do some things that bother the Heat. The Nets after January 1 were among the league’s best teams — a turnover-forcing machine that confounded opponents by shifting Paul Pierce to power forward, using lineups that were somehow big and small at once, jacking oodles of 3s, and covering the entire court on defense with their length and speed.

Using Pierce at power forward alone makes the Nets an interesting matchup for Miami. The Heat are at their best with LeBron James at power forward, a look that forces painful contortions for teams that play two traditional big men. The Nets? They don’t give a crap. If the Heat start Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem, as they did against Charlotte, the Nets happily have Pierce guard the punchless Haslem. If the Heat revert to their smaller lineups, the Nets just shrug and match up.

The Heat will likely get back to their small-ball roots against a matchup that begs for it. Shane Battier has been in mothballs for the last month, and if he can’t get minutes against a team with so many big wings, he’s probably done. But Battier will likely reenter the rotation, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he starts over Haslem — as early as Game 1. He’d likely defend Pierce to start, but Battier, James, and Wade will flip-flop assignments a ton in this series.

The Nets will do their own manic switching, and they have five legitimate options against James: Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson, Pierce, Johnson, and Andrei Kirilenko. Hell, they even risked having Mirza Teletovic guard James in their last meeting with Miami, when Garnett sat out and the Nets got traction with an ultra-small lineup featuring Teletovic at center.1

Livingston emerged as the team’s preferred option on LeBron, though Johnson will spend a lot of time on James. Livingston’s defense is even more valuable in this series than it was against Toronto, and he’ll likely move back into the starting lineup over Anderson. The Nets swapped him out because he can’t shoot, allowing the Drakes to abandon him and double Johnson in the post. But the Heat have the bulk to defend Johnson’s post-ups one-on-one with either James or Battier, making Livingston’s shooting a bit less of a liability.

Bottom line: Both teams will switch a ton on defense, both on and off the ball. Whichever team does so most cleanly will have a major edge. When not completely dialed in, the Heat can get pretty cavalier about tracking matchups, and both teams suffered fatal switch-related communication breakdowns — like this Miami dud:

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That Nets possession is instructive: They are running the offense there through the high post, using cuts and screens away from the ball. The Nets are not a heavy pick-and-roll team, which is wonderful against Miami, the league’s stingiest pick-and-roll defense; the Heat allowed a ridiculous .577 points per play on possessions that pick-and-roll ball handlers finished with a shot, drawn foul, or turnover, the best mark in the league, per Synergy Sports.

Good news: Brooklyn’s offense featured the lowest share of such possessions among all 30 teams. The Nets post up, work the above high-post action, run shooters off picks, and seek out mismatches for isolation attacks. They do not run pick-and-rolls to score, which makes them immune to Miami’s frenzied traps.

When the Nets do run the pick-and-roll, they often run it to pass — as a vehicle to just start the ball moving around the floor:

Brooklyn is a smart passing team, patient about whipping the ball around and bending the defense until it spots an opening it likes. That’s the best way to attack the Heat’s aggressive defense and use that hyperactivity against them. Brooklyn scored 104 points per 100 possessions against Miami, a healthy number, and earned more free throws than the foul-averse Heat normally yield.

A bonus of all that passing: It eats up the shot clock. The four Miami-Brooklyn games were played at a snail’s pace, averaging just 88 possessions per game, via NBA.com. Take out the first game featuring Lopez, and that number drops to an absurd 85.6 possessions. Both marks would have ranked dead last among all NBA teams by a mile. These games made a Grizzlies-Bulls slugfest look like a Paul Westhead–era Denver game.2

Miami is a vicious transition team, and the Nets neutered that part of the Heat’s game. There’s a tradeoff in playing so slowly; taking so many possessions late into the shot clock can backfire into an ugly mess of desperation attempts. But the Nets are savvy enough to hunt smart looks, and slicing away Miami’s fast-break game might be worth it regardless.

Again: The Nets have a lot of Miami-specific advantages baked into their structure. They can defend LeBron and Wade in the post without too much help, though they’ll send occasional hard double-teams toward the skinny Livingston. But when the Nets do double, they are an exquisite help-and-recover team, stocked with smart defenders who make the right reads at the right times. A lot of those defenders have long arms that muck up passing lanes; only Miami forced turnovers on a higher share of opponent possessions this season, and both of these teams can be turnover-prone. Turnovers will be a key X factor here, a possible means for Miami to reignite its dormant fast-break game.

The Heat posted one of the lowest offensive rebound rates in league history. They don’t particularly care about offensive rebounds, and when they play small, they lack the personnel to get them. What a wonderful coincidence for Brooklyn, a terrible rebounding team.

The Nets are huge all over the floor, and they can always find a post-up advantage someplace. The Heat have to be careful playing some of their smallest lineups against Brooklyn; Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers logged just nine minutes together over three games, and the Heat take a gamble against Brooklyn using super-small lineups with LeBron at power forward and no other bulky Battier-type wing next to him.3

Williams has a permanent size advantage, and he was comfortable attacking Chalmers and Cole one-on-one, driving right into their chests for goofy runners. Miami was concerned enough about this to shade extra help toward Williams in the middle of the floor, opening up passes to 3-point shooters:

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All good news for Brooklyn! But you keep coming back to this: The Heat have the three best players in this series, and they are unguardable when they play small and surround LeBron with shooters — something they can do as much as they’d like against the Nets. If they’ve been saving Battier, it’s for this precise series, and if they haven’t, they’ll find other ways to play small — James Jones (first-round hero!), Rashard Lewis, etc. Miami shot just 33 percent from 3-point range against Brooklyn in the regular season, but they got their normal league-leading allotment of corner 3s and knocked them dead.

LeBron and Wade can leverage their speed in the half court, even if the Nets vaporize the transition game. The Heat did well against Brooklyn whenever they unleashed James off the ball in creative ways — as the high-speed screener in unconventional pick-and-rolls, or as a cutter while Wade ran things. Bosh has been aggressive driving against both Garnett and Mason Plumlee, and he should see a lot of open looks in this series.

Miami can do damage in the pick-and-roll the same way Toronto did: use Garnett’s man4 as the screener and bank on LeBron’s ability to blow by Brooklyn’s only big on the way to an unprotected rim.

The Heat are rested and versatile, and we know they reach another gear in the playoffs.

Brooklyn has a shot, but the Heat should take this.

PREDICTION: MIAMI IN SIX5

San Antonio–Portland

The Spurs are fortunate in that Dallas provided a seven-game rehearsal for this series.6

The Mavs’ obsessive goal against San Antonio was simple: take away San Antonio’s 3-pointers, stay attached to outside shooters, and force the Spurs to beat them with the two players directly involved in a pick-and-roll.

That’s not a fail-safe. Tony Parker will get a bonanza of open midrange shots, and the Spurs over Games 4 through 6 gave more control of the offense to the wily Manu Ginobili. But the Mavs did limit San Antonio’s 3s, and though the Spurs scored well even before their Game 7 rout, the Mavs at least held them under control — something they hadn’t managed in the regular season. That’s a win for a bad defensive team.

The parallels with Portland are irresistible, even beyond the Blazers featuring an elite jump-shooting power forward and a former Dallas assistant as head coach. Portland is a mediocre defensive team, 16th in points allowed per possession in the regular season, and Terry Stotts reconstructed its scheme around recognizing those limitations.

To wit: Portland stays home on 3-point shooters and seeks to reduce the game to a two-on-two contest against opposing pick-and-rolls. That’s not some magic elixir against the Spurs machine; San Antonio piled up nearly 107 points per 100 possessions in four regular-season games against Portland, per NBA.com.7

But it does make San Antonio at least work for it, and that’s step one toward hanging in against the league’s most polished team.

We are going to see a lot of this:

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The team that wins this series will be the one that tilts these scenarios its way — on both ends of the floor. For Parker and Ginobili, that means doing better than midrange jumpers as much as possible. Can they cross over Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge, get to the rim, and draw extra defenders — opening up kickout passes to open shooters? Can Ginobili get some open off-the-bounce 3s of his own? For the Portland bigs, it means finding the right balance in challenging Parker’s jumper without allowing him to drive by them or find the roll man for easy buckets.

Damian Lillard’s defense is key here, and it is the glaring weak spot in his game. He struggles fighting over screens and staying attached to his guy, and he had trouble keeping Parker out of the middle on side pick-and-rolls:

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If Lillard hangs on Parker’s hip, this series feels different. If he can’t, expect to see a lot of Nicolas Batum on Parker, with Lillard shifting over to Danny Green. Hiding Lillard that way gets dicier when Stotts plays him with Mo Williams, an even worse defender, and it will be interesting to see how Stotts distributes those minutes — and if he can play them together at all when both Parker and Ginobili are in the game. Portland needs Williams’s bench scoring.

It would not be a surprise if Batum gets the Parker job almost full-time for long stretches of this series.

The Spurs might unleash Parker as a one-on-one scorer, removing the screener — and the extra defender he brings — from the equation. Parker isn’t an isolation guy, but he can torch Lillard, and the Spurs’ system conjures scenarios for him to do that outside the traditional pick-and-roll. It can be as simple as Parker fooling Lillard on hard cuts to the rim as a Spurs big handles up high:

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Parker will also scamper around a lot, leaving defenders in his wake before grabbing a quick handoff at the elbow. That’s basically a pick-and-roll, but it’s one in which Parker has a head start that frees him as a scorer.

The Spurs have other weapons, of course. Duncan had some success against Robin Lopez in the post, especially when he faced up Lopez and attacked him off the bounce. Lopez is one of the few bigs against whom Duncan still has a speed advantage. San Antonio hasn’t gone small much, with Kawhi Leonard at power forward, but the Spurs might consider it when Portland removes one of its starting bigs for Thomas Robinson or Dorell Wright. The one concern: That could open up the offensive glass for the Blazers, and they feast on extra possessions as a vehicle for putbacks and open 3s against a scrambled defense.

Portland’s offense presents a similar challenge, and the Spurs will tackle it the same way: erase the open 3-pointers and force Portland to beat them from the midrange. One difference: Parker can’t shoot 3s, but Lillard is one of the league’s best long-range shooters, perhaps second only to Stephen Curry in proficiency on off-the-bounce triples. Dude is a ridiculous shot-maker.

That threat has forced the Spurs’ big men to creep higher on the floor than they’d like on Lillard pick-and-rolls:

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Lillard can blow by those bigs, get into the lane, and create havoc. He’ll take fewer 3s this way — only 31 percent of his shots against San Antonio were from long range, down from 43 percent for the season — but he can open up other stuff for Portland. The Blazers had success springing Lillard for open 3s by running nifty screen-the-screener plays that give him lots of space to launch:

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Parker has regressed defensively, and he was especially bad against Dallas when he was dealing with ankle issues. If Lillard runs amok, the Spurs may have to shift Leonard onto him, something they did now and then in the regular season.8

That’s the trouble with Portland: It doesn’t offer a safe place to hide. Wesley Matthews can brutalize fools in the post — hi, James Harden! — and Batum is a crafty all-around offensive player. He is the most likely hider for Parker in the event San Antonio shifts this way, but that comes at a cost.

Also trouble: LaMarcus Freaking Aldridge, fresh off torturing the Rockets. Aldridge, like Dirk Nowitzki, is a scheme-buster — a guy who does one weird thing (shooting jump shots while being very tall) well enough to disrupt entire opposing game plans. Duncan really does not like venturing out this far against the pick-and-roll:

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But he has to, because hanging back in the paint means conceding death by open midrange jumper. Tiago Splitter is a bit friskier than Duncan, and I’d expect him to start on Aldridge after doing a workmanlike job on Dirk in the first round.

But Aldridge is a problem. When Splitter jumps out on the pick-and-roll, as Duncan does in that photo, Aldridge can mix in hard rolls to the rim that puncture San Antonio’s defense. Aldridge has shown a renewed aggression in the playoffs, and he has gone hard at both Splitter and Boris Diaw on the block — pushing hard for close-range righty hooks and up-and-under moves instead of settling for long fadeaways.

The Spurs are loath to double-team in the post, and way too smart to abandon corner shooters in order to challenge Aldridge 20-footers. They’ll do a bit of both just to mix things up, and that’s part of what makes Aldridge a scheme-buster.

The Mavs’ offense, the league’s best after the All-Star break, sliced San Antonio apart using Nowitzki’s shooting and heady playmaking from their collection of veteran guards. Portland might not be quite as deep in speedy perimeter playmakers, but they’ve got four who can do damage and plenty of 3-point shooting.

The Blazers have the tools to win this series. So do the Spurs. This should be fun. The Spurs have been a hair better all season, they’re deeper, and they have home-court advantage.

PREDICTION: SPURS IN SEVEN 

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA

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