The Domino Game

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Avoiding NBA Extinction

It may only be the first round of the playoffs, but don’t tell that to the teams in these series who are fighting for their lives

Three more playoff series could end tonight, as we wrap perhaps the greatest first round in NBA history. Here’s where each series stands after five games, and what we might see in Game 6 and (please?) Game 7.

Houston at Portland

Neither team can stop the other, which sounds sort of like the prophecy in Harry Potter and also counts as a disappointment for the Rockets. Houston actually did stop some people in the regular season, finishing 12th in points allowed per possession.

Portland has been the league’s best postseason offense so far, even as LaMarcus Aldridge has slowed down since a volcanic start in the first two games. Patrick Beverley is Houston’s only above-average perimeter defender, and he’s battling knee issues, a fever, dysentery, severe diarrhea, Breaking Bad withdrawal, and chronic dizziness caused by the Blazers’ pinwheel logo.

James Harden has defended with lazy lack of interest, disappointing the hopeful who assumed he would play with a heartbeat in the postseason. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum have both hurt him in the post, and he has been chronically inattentive away from the ball:

The rest of the non-Beverley crew has been leaky, and using Troy Daniels to goose the offense only makes the Rockets’ defense shakier and shorter. Damian Lillard has grown friskier as the series has wound on, realizing he can blow by any non-Beverley defender, and that he might be able to turn the corner against an occasionally shaky Dwight Howard and get to the rim. Ditto for Nic Batum:

Lillard is slinging fiery off-the-bounce 3s anytime the Houston perimeter defense suffers even the slightest slip-up:

LILLARD

Howard and Omer Asik, as sweaty and sad-looking as ever, have contained Aldridge over the last three games, but his influence looms over every Blazer possession. The Rockets in Game 3 began rotating a third defender over very early on sideline pick-and-rolls where Aldridge fades toward the baseline. Watch how early Terrence Jones scampers across the baseline and into Aldridge’s space as Asik and Howard leave Aldridge to double the ball handler:

The Blazers have a chance in these scenarios to play 4-on-3. They haven’t taken full advantage yet, in part because Aldridge is not a great passer. But he’s decent, and Portland has found ways to scramble Houston’s defense until a drive or open shot emerges.

The Trail Blazers are also feasting in transition. Portland has shot 46 percent from deep and scored nearly 1.35 points per possession, a mark that would have led the league by a long shot in the regular season, per Synergy Sports. During early stretches of the second and fourth quarters, Houston has tried to junk up the game by going small, switching a ton, and scrambling Portland’s offense.

That manufactured chaos has worked at times, including during the Rockets’ monster run in Game 5 on Wednesday. The downside: when Houston scrambles the matchups so crazily on defense that it cannot find the appropriate assignment in semi-transition.

Little things like this over short stretches of bench-heavy play can decide a series this close. The turnover battle is another such thing to monitor. The Blazers nearly set a league record for fewest forced turnovers in the regular season, and the Rockets — the league’s most turnover-prone non-Sixers team during the season — are indeed taking much better care of the ball in this series. A sudden case of the yips could cost someone their season.

Houston’s offense has been an object of mockery, but the Rox are averaging a healthy 110.4 points per 100 possessions — no. 2 overall in the playoffs — and demolishing Portland on the offensive glass. However, the offense has wheezed in crunch time, when the Rockets become too predictable.

Striking the right balance with two brilliant individual players is tough. Howard’s post-up game was unreliable for much of the season, but he has owned Robin Lopez this year. Lopez has put up a better fight in the playoffs; Howard is shooting 47 percent on post-ups and drawing fewer fouls than normal, and Houston overall is averaging about 0.90 points per possession on trips that end with a Dwight post-up, per Synergy.

That’s actually quite good for post-ups, which are low-efficiency as stand-alone scoring chances; that mark would have ranked seventh overall among teams. And it undersells Howard’s impact as a post-up threat in this matchup. Portland is mixing up its coverages, but when the Blazers send extra help, Howard has done a decent job moving the ball to open shooters ringing the perimeter. Houston has mostly missed, but the looks have been good. The non-shooting fouls Howard draws in the post don’t show up in these numbers, either, but they put Portland players in foul trouble (including Aldridge in Game 5) and get Houston into the bonus earlier.

Harden on offense has swung between unwatchable and brilliant, and those Harden isolations everyone hates have actually been effective. He’s shooting 15-of-29 on those plays with a low turnover rate, and he’s come up with a few huge shots and assists out of them late in games.

But he’s shooting just 34.7 percent overall, and Houston suffers when he becomes stagnant. There are too many possessions like this, when Portland snuffs out the first option — one of my favorite Houston plays — and the Rockets just devolve into isolation nothingness:

For the love of Clutch the Bear, move into something else! The Rockets in Game 5 got some traction clearing one side of the floor, running a pick-and-roll, and having Harden veer toward the foul line — a technique known around the NBA as “snaking.” It’s a way to give Howard a free roll to the rim, or to force a switch:

This isn’t rocket science, even if having both Asik and Howard on the court makes for a thick forest in the paint. The crowd down low is one reason about 40 percent of Harden’s shots in this series have come from either the midrange area or the section of the paint outside the restricted area; only 29 percent of his regular-season shots came from those places, per NBA.com.

That’s a small difference over a tiny sample of games, but that’s what the playoffs are about: tilting things in your favor on the margins over a short stretch.

Houston needs to keep up the spice — more Harden/Lin or Harden/Parsons pick-and-rolls, and more little touches like the flare screen Howard sets here after a Lin/Harden pick-and-roll draws a switch:

One last thing to watch: Terry Stotts has often gone small, with Dorell Wright at power forward, whenever Houston removes one of the Asik/Howard pairing. It seems like a brilliant move, but the Blazers are a collective minus-10 in 89 minutes with either Wright or Batum at power forward. It will be interesting to see if Stotts goes this route or flips more minutes back to Thomas Robinson.

The margins here are so, so small. Basketball at this level demands full mental and physical engagement. Portland has brought that more consistently than Houston and is a win away from advancing.

San Antonio at Dallas

Basketball is about trade-offs, especially when you’re facing a top seed who has blitzed you for several years running. The Mavs in this series have made one overarching trade on defense: They are giving San Antonio almost free entry into the paint on pick-and-rolls, but sticking like glue to the Spurs’ 3-point shooters around the play.

If Tony Parker and Tim Duncan run a pick-and-roll, Dallas wants either Parker or Duncan to shoot the ball — even if they get a good look. The Mavs are trying to contain that action with only the two defenders directly involved, with a small show of help from the team’s second big-man defender along the back line. Not involved: the two players defending spot-up shooters.

Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon stay out of the paint on the weak side, allowing the other Dallas defenders to fend for themselves:

Ditto for Shawn Marion and Ellis on the right side here, as Tiago Splitter, playing his brains out in this series, scores on the roll:

The plan has worked, to some degree. The Spurs have scored 105.7 points per 100 possessions in this series, a solid mark, but below what they managed in the regular season. They’ve attempted four fewer 3s per game, and seven fewer than they averaged in eviscerating the Mavs over four regular-season games. The two main participants in the pick-and-roll have finished a combined 32 percent of San Antonio’s possessions so far, up from 22 percent in the regular season, per Synergy. The Mavs have nearly vaporized Danny Green and Marco Belinelli.

But San Antonio has slowly sniffed it out. The Spurs have upped Patty Mills’s minutes in an effort to get more long-range shooting on the floor. Parker is looking for the pocket pass on side pick-and-rolls, knowing his partner will have a free rim run — especially when Boris Diaw shifts just a bit up toward the foul line, as he does here:

Most of all, they’ve taken the ball out of Parker’s hands, given it to Manu Ginobili, and shifted the pick-and-roll from the side to the middle of the floor. That has been death for Dallas, in part because they just refuse to leave shooters in order to clog the lane. That leaves Ginobili and his partner (usually Splitter) free to tear up Dallas’s defense two-on-two. You can see Dirk Nowitzki, guarding Diaw in the right corner here, fighting his instinct to slide in against this Duncan roll:

And on this Splitter dunk, you can spot Rick Carlisle on the sideline telling Devin Harris to stay put on Mills instead of crashing in on Splitter:

SPLITTER2

The Spurs are plus-16 with Ginobili on the floor, and minus-23 when he sits, per NBA.com. Their starting lineup has struggled badly to score, leading to earlier appearances for Ginobili in Green’s place. If Dallas gets this to Game 7, it would not be a shock for Gregg Popovich to start Ginobili.

And this series is not over. The Spurs still aren’t getting their juiciest shots, and the rest of the Western Conference is watching for a potential blueprint. The Spurs have not been able to stop the Mavs’ offense. Dirk Nowitzki finally caught fire during a scintillating stretch in Game 5, and Dallas seems to get a major game from at least two among the Calderon-Harris-Ellis–Vince Carter quartet.

Calderon and Harris have enjoyed all the open jumpers a pick-and-roll with Dirk produces, Carter took advantage of some puzzling lapses in San Antonio’s perimeter defense in Game 5, and Ellis has been a slashing problem. He has a nice synergy with Nowitzki, and he senses immediately when the Spurs are misplaying him. He has gotten to the basket in this same basic way several times per game, the result of a San Antonio miscommunication:

What happens here: Ellis’s defender, Kawhi Leonard, preps to force Ellis away from the Nowitzki pick, which is standard San Antonio defense. One problem: The Spurs, like every team, throw out their standards in the face of Nowitzki’s jump-shooting. Diaw is attached to Nowitzki here, prepared to leap out on Ellis as he goes over the pick. That leaves Ellis an easy seam:

MONTA

There probably aren’t many adjustments left to make at this point. Both teams played some wacky lineups in Game 5, and the Mavs have shifted Shawn Marion more toward Ginobili. The Spurs can pursue post-up mismatches at their discretion, and they might go small more, with Leonard at power forward, when Marion shifts to that spot during Nowitzki’s rest periods.

And who knows? These two coaches might still have some cards to play.

Toronto at Brooklyn

This series has been all about Joe Johnson, Kyle Lowry, and glorious F-bombs. The Nets have died whenever Johnson has rested, and the Raptors have had zero answer for him. DeMar DeRozan doesn’t have the bulk. John Salmons has tried fronting Johnson, but that hasn’t worked, either, and the Nets don’t pay Salmons much attention on defense. Dwane Casey briefly unearthed Landry Fields, which worked well, except the Nets proceed on defense as if Fields is not even on the court.

Toronto has settled on more hard double-teams, and that may be the best bet going forward. Johnson is a skilled passer from the block, but when the Raptors have been primed for the job, they have rotated well enough to snuff out easy looks:

Note that the ball reaches Shaun Livingston (who travels) last here. That’s not an accident. He’s a bad outside shooter, the last priority amid rotation chaos. He’s also Brooklyn’s best option to defend DeRozan, which puts Jason Kidd in a difficult position.

More Toronto defensive goodness, forcing a Kevin Garnett contested jumper:

The Nets need to mix it up. They had success in their insane Game 5 comeback getting Johnson the ball in the middle of the court above the foul line, where it’s hard to double him, but the Raps may live with that. Johnson is easier to deal with when he drives into tricky floaters, and drawing double-teams is almost the entire point of having Johnson on the floor.

Another possible solution: Run Johnson in pick-and-rolls that get him the ball down low on the move, with his defender struggling to catch up:

The Nets have also lifted all four of Johnson’s teammates above the foul line, freeing him to flash into the paint for post-up. Jonas Valanciunas mucked up a few of those plays late by getting right into the chest of the entry passer and waving his giant arms like a madman; that kind of pressure can derail entire possessions.

The Deron Williams–Johnson pick-and-roll has been deadly all series. And when Salmons has fronted Johnson, the Nets have been smart about driving right at that pile of bodies, using it as one monster screen, and getting to the rim.

Bottom line: The Nets should be going to Johnson on basically every possession, in varying ways. They’re shooting just 29.7 percent from deep, and they’re bound to hit more of the good ones they’re generating.

Ditto for the Raptors and Lowry. Toronto is plus-18 in the 192 minutes Lowry has played, thriving on both ends, and an ugly minus-14 in the 48 minutes he has sat, per NBA.com. It’s just tough sledding for Toronto when Greivis Vasquez has to run the offense solo, putting more pressure on DeRozan to launch tough shots.

Brooklyn is attacking pick-and-rolls with both Lowry and DeRozan pretty hard, and Toronto has ripped the Nets apart by turning the corner and getting inside. Brooklyn has no rim protection behind its one big man, and no rebounding at all. Toronto has also been pretty mean to poor Andray Blatche, putting him in pick-and-rolls and gobbling up the easy shots.

Toronto continues to chase Brooklyn pick-and-rolls far onto the floor, a strategy that can expose the Nets:

How painful is it to watch KG miss bunnies like these? The decay has come so fast:

Toronto might consider dropping back a bit, especially if Valanciunas, dominant in this series, can stay out of foul trouble and earn the minutes he probably deserves.

The Blatche/Vasquez trade-off is interesting. Each is a bad defender who can really help on offense on the right night. Blatche has been an issue in the post, and Vasquez is killing it from long range; the Raps have been off the charts when Lowry and Vasquez share the court, and with both Salmons and Terrence Ross struggling, Vasquez has been the de facto third perimeter starter. He’s also a sieve on defense; Nets ball handlers have blown by him at will.

Ross is bound to break out at some point, though he has struggled defending Williams at the start of each half. Toronto might steady him by shifting Lowry to Williams and having Ross deal with Livingston.

The Paul Pierce/Amir Johnson matchup continues to be a bellwether, and it’s possible an offense-only wild card like Marcus Thornton or Steve Novak could put his imprint on this series at some point. One tip for Kidd: Never, ever, ever have Thornton guard Lowry again, as he did for a tumultuous stretch of Game 5. That’s a worse move than shaving your beard or going back to ties.

And, Brooklyn fans: Bring it. Come on. The Toronto crowd is embarrassing you; the official Nets Twitter account was right. Your team, bloated with nearly $200 million in salary and tax payments, is staring at its second straight first-round elimination. Make some noise on another crazy NBA playoff night.

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs, Houston Rockets, Dwight Howard, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets, Jason Kidd, LaMarcus Aldridge, Vince Carter, Zach Lowe, first round, Kyle Lowry, Joe Johnson

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA

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