Happy Playoffs Eve! Hug your loved ones, watch a movie (Gravity will still be good on television, right? Right? RIGHT????), and drink some beers, because after tonight, the NBA becomes all-consuming for two long months.
Let’s get right to it and look at the big questions for all eight playoff series.
Golden State Warriors (6) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (3)
1. Can the Dubs Actually Do This Without Andrew Bogut?
So much for #FullSquad. Golden State is clearly in trouble. It would appear the Warriors are done without Bogut’s rim protection, expert passing, and brutal screening. His post defense against Blake Griffin will be the biggest void, after Bogut got most of the Griffin assignment in the last two meetings between the teams.
David Lee has battled Griffin well on the block, but he’s a sieve otherwise, and the absence of one more big man raises the specter of foul trouble and the Dubs’ ugly deep bench. The Clippers destroyed Golden State whenever Bogut hit the bench, gobbling up 30 percent of available offensive rebounds — a monster number.
Despite the absence of Bogut, the Warriors have the goods to make this competitive. Smaller lineups with Lee/Jermaine O’Neal at center and either Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes at power forward have been effective; the five such groups that have logged at least 50 minutes together are a combined plus-164 over 482 minutes, per NBA.com. The Warriors can spread the floor, and they hit 41 percent from deep against the Clips — a major victory against the league’s stingiest 3-point defense.
Stephen Curry on the pick-and-roll requires Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to get a bit out of their comfort zones, and Curry has taken advantage of tiny cracks to launch 3s, get into the lane, or find screeners rolling to the rim:
Green and Lee are skilled passers who can work the ball around to open shooters from the low post. Golden State scored a healthy 107 points per 100 possessions against the Clippers, and L.A. has struggled to bottle up above-average offenses all season. The Clips’ wing players are on the small side, though that’s less of a concern if J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes can play heavy minutes. But expect the Warriors to post Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Barnes up against Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison — and to draw help.
The Dubs can also go small without fear against most of the Clippers’ bench lineups, and foul trouble to either Griffin or Jordan would be a game-changer in this regard.
2. Do We Get to the Second Half of Game 2 Without a Scuffle?
Probably not, but Bogut’s absence decreases the likelihood of a full-on fight. Stupid ribs.
3. But … Defense?
The Warriors have a healthy system, and they coaxed Griffin into a ton of midrange jumpers by playing him this way on the pick-and-roll:
About 42 percent of Griffin’s shots against Golden State came via midrange, up from 34 overall. The Warriors will also play Chris Paul for midrange jumpers on the pick-and-roll, mostly using Thompson on him and hiding Curry on Barnes or Redick:
Griffin posted up more than usual against Golden State, per Synergy, and though he shot 47 percent on those plays, he didn’t single-handedly destroy the Warriors.
Again: The tools are here for Golden State. But those tools are just sharper with Bogut around — better post defense, more threatening challenges on those Paul drives, quicker passing decisions.
PREDICTION: Clippers in six
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)
1. Can the Grizz Score?
Memphis has the best record in the league since Marc Gasol returned from a knee injury in mid-January, though it ranks “only” ninth in point differential over that span, per NBA.com. It should not be a shock if Memphis wins this series.
But the Grizzlies will have to score better than they’ve managed against the Thunder defense. Memphis scored just 98.6 points per 100 possessions against Oklahoma City this season, though Gasol and Mike Conley were together for only two of those games. (Russell Westbrook also missed two of the four games.) That mark would have ranked 29th overall, and it’s about what Memphis managed last season in its five-game grind-fest against OKC.
The Thunder’s defense has sprung some leaks over the last couple of months, mostly from 3-point range. Sadly, Memphis is not equipped to exploit those leaks. No team attempted fewer 3s than the Grizzlies, and they may need to keep either Tayshaun Prince or Tony Allen — total duds from outside — on the floor at all times to guard Kevin Durant.
Oklahoma City has held Zach Randolph to 37 percent shooting this season, using mostly its centers and Nick Collison. Randolph has torn apart Serge Ibaka, so the Thunder will likely have Ibaka guard the more pass-happy Gasol. Big Spain must do damage in that matchup for Memphis to win.
Collison has long been a thorn in Z-Bo’s side, though Randolph was able to find his footing against him in last season’s playoffs, per NBA.com. Conley might also be able to take advantage of a hyperaggressive Thunder defense; Westbrook is always jumping himself out of position, and the Thunder big men can scamper a bit too far from the hoop at times:
Thabo Sefolosha will likely see some time on Conley, as well. The Thunder’s multiple–point guard lineups might give Memphis the chance to throw Conley and Nick Calathes on the floor together.
2. Have the Thunder Learned?
News flash: Memphis is going to ignore Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins, and other Thunder players to overload the floor against Durant:
This style of defense eventually wore out Durant last season, though having Westbrook back provides another killer option. The Thunder must commit to some variety on offense and milk pet plays that work — especially the Westbrook-Durant pick-and-roll. Conley hates that play because he might have to switch onto Durant, and the Grizz may at times shift Conley onto Sefolosha and slide a wing defender onto Westbrook to neuter this action.
The Thunder have also had success putting Durant in pick-and-rolls high on the floor, and especially when they involve Randolph:
As always, we have to watch Scott Brooks’s lineup choices. He should be ready to pull the plug on Perkins fast, and to go small the second Dave Joerger removes one of the Gasol-Randolph duo. No such small lineup played more than five minutes against Memphis in the regular season; Memphis was actually more willing to go small, with James Johnson at power forward, and Johnson could be a wild card in this series as a Prince-Allen alternative. Brooks was slow to go this route last season.
PREDICTION: Thunder in seven
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (8)
1. Can the Mavs Do Anything Against the Spurs’ Offense?
This is a nightmare for Dallas. The Spurs have swept the Mavs over the last two seasons, and blitzed them for 115 points per 100 possessions in four games this season — despite missing a key rotation part in every game.
Dallas just doesn’t have the goods defensively to keep up with San Antonio. Tony Parker torched Jose Calderon, getting into the middle of the defense whenever he wished, with loads of air space behind him, losing Calderon behind picks, and finding shooters everywhere. The Spurs shot 43 percent from deep against Dallas on a ton of attempts, and Parker alone went 26-of-48 in three games from the floor.
All that penetration scrambled the defense, producing heaps of offensive rebounds and free throws for the Spurs — two things they don’t get all that often. Tim Duncan alone shot 32 free throws in four games. Give San Antonio extras, and you’re toast.
The Mavericks have monkeyed with matchups a bit. They’ve played with hiding Calderon on Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard, but Leonard has made that too dangerous. They even started Wayne Ellington on Parker in one game, and the seldom-used Ellington has appeared in all four San Antonio games — evidence of both blowouts and Rick Carlisle’s need to find some guard, any guard, capable of playing two-way ball. The Spurs scored better than 120 points per 100 possessions against Dallas when Calderon and Monta Ellis played together, a bonfire of points.
Devin Harris and Jae Crowder offer peskier alternatives, but at the expense of spacing; it’s just hard to play a so-so shooting guard with Shawn Marion and a traditional center on the floor. If things go badly, expect Carlisle to rejigger the rotation, and to play lots of zone; only the Bucks played zone more often this season, per Synergy, and the Mavs played more of it than usual against the Spurs.
2. Can Dirk Go Off?
Dallas will need an epic Nowitzki series to win even two games, especially since Gregg Popovich will sic Leonard on Monta Ellis. Dirk’s a genius, but the Spurs are well equipped to at least contain him. Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw will see the bulk of the assignment, and Diaw especially has the quick feet to hedge away from Dirk on pick-and-rolls and recover just in time to make him work:
The Spurs have not required the kinds of dramatic double-teams that leave Dallas’s expert shooters open. Dallas will try all kinds of funky screening actions to spring Dirk, but it won’t be enough. The Spurs may also go small and try Leonard and Nowitzki, though that hasn’t really worked.
PREDICTION: Spurs in four
Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (5)
1. Can Portland Find a Defense?
The Blazers were a below-average defensive team all season, and both of Houston’s stars torched them. Dwight Howard overwhelmed Robin Lopez in the post, shooting 60 percent on about 10 post-ups per game against Portland and drawing a ton of fouls, per Synergy. The Blazers hate doubling the post, but Lopez had no answer for Howard’s combination of speed and power. It was ugly.
Howard’s post work has been up and down this season, with a ton of turnovers. If he can thrive there and James Harden does his normal thing, the Rockets will be very tough to beat.
Speaking of Harden: He drilled a lot of open 3-pointers out of simple pick-and-rolls with Howard, mostly because Lopez prefers hanging far back in the paint. This is trouble:
Harden can also build a head of steam this way, cross Lopez over, and get to the rim for the usual pile of ugly drives, boring free throws, and kickouts to Houston shooters.
This is a rough matchup for the Blazers. Houston turned the ball over more often than anyone but Philly, but Portland’s ultraconservative scheme produced one of the lowest forced turnover rates in league history. If the Blazers can tilt that equation just a bit, and get out in transition for some open 3s, this will be a different series.
2. How Much of an Issue Will the LMA Matchup Be?
Terrence Jones isn’t big enough for the job, though Houston will likely start that way. But Howard actually defended most of Aldridge’s shots this season; Aldridge shot 15-of-32 against Howard one-on-one, and 8-of-17 against Jones, per a video review of Synergy.
Howard can do the job without help, and Omer Asik can do the same off the bench. The downside to having Dwight guard Aldridge: Portland can put Aldridge in pick-and-rolls with Damian Lillard and drag Howard’s shot-blocking away from the rim. Howard prefers to drop back against the pick-and-roll, but Aldridge’s jumper is enough of a weapon that he sometimes will jump out hard:
Lillard is obviously lethal chucking 3s off the bounce, another reason Howard has to step out:
Aldridge loves to pop for those long 2s — no one has ever taken more in a season in recorded league history — but the Blazers need him to mix in some hard rolls to the basket:
Patrick Beverley’s health is crucial. The Rockets’ perimeter defense is a train wreck after Beverley. He’s the only guy capable of chasing Lillard over picks and sticking close enough to force Lillard off the 3-point line.
The other thing to watch: how urgently the Rockets react to Aldridge’s jump shot. They single-cover him in the post a ton, even with Jones, but the pick-and-pop is where things get interesting: Can they guard this play well enough with two guys, or will they send a third over to challenge him? That extra rotation Harden makes here means abandoning a shooter, and it opens up sequences like this:
That is where Portland thrives. Houston is smart enough to understand letting Aldridge chuck away is probably better, especially if the Rockets can gradually reduce the space and time he has to chuck.
Portland has other weapons — Wes Matthews is going to post the crap out of Harden, and the team’s expert offensive rebounding could hurt Houston, which goes through fits of laziness on the glass. But the Rockets should have enough on both ends to take this — provided Beverley is really ready to go.
PREDICTION: Houston in five
Miami Heat (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7)
1. Can the Bobcats at Least Contain LeBron?
LeBron straight murdered Charlotte, averaging 38 points per game on 63 percent, including his legendary 61-point explosion. The Kitties have never beaten Miami since “The Decision.” I have to check the math, but I think that bodes poorly.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will start on LeBron, and James has been determined to take MKG down onto the block for post-ups that draw help and unlock shooters elsewhere. Kidd-Gilchrist has sometimes been game, battling James into toughies like this:
But James has also overpowered Kidd-Gilchrist, and playing MKG heavy minutes carries a penalty: He can’t shoot at all, and playing a guy who can’t shoot against Miami’s speedy defense is death. LeBron will ignore him to help Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem deny entry passes to Al Jefferson:
Gerald Henderson doesn’t have the size for LeBron, and the Kitties need him for Dwyane Wade, who missed two of the four games between these teams. Anthony Tolliver has been next in line, and he doesn’t have the quicks for the job. Jeff Taylor would have been a nice two-way option here.
Speaking of quicks: The Heat have gotten great mileage out of simple high pick-and-roll involving LeBron and Jefferson, knowing the Bobcats will keep Jefferson in the paint — and that Big Al isn’t nimble enough to contain LeBron with a head start:
The Heat scored 116.6 points per 100 possessions against Charlotte, a mark that would have led the league by a mile. The Bobcats had no answer, and they are loath to send extra help LeBron’s way. And Miami can play small, with only one big man, about as much as it likes against the Bobcats; the Bosh–Chris Andersen pairing logged just two minutes over four games, and Bosh-Haslem just 18, per NBA.com.
2. Can the Heat Contain Big Al?
Jefferson has kept Charlotte close in some of these games by lighting up Miami for an average of 25 points on 57 percent shooting, but the Heat defense was actually stingier against Charlotte when Big Al was on the floor, per NBA.com. The Heat will make it difficult for Jefferson to get the ball, and they tried Greg Oden on him in the regular season. Bosh and Haslem will front, help defenders will lurk behind, while Miami will occasionally come with a hard double.
Big Al will get his, but unless Kemba Walker explodes — a tough task for him against Miami’s aggressive pick-and-roll traps — the Kitties are in trouble.
PREDICTION: Miami in four
Chicago Bulls (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)
1. Who Wins the Battle of the Corner 3?
The Wiz shot 40 percent on 6.5 corner 3s per game, the sixth-highest number of attempts in the league. Chicago under Tom Thibodeau has been the league’s best team at vaporizing the corner 3 from the opposing playbook; Washington went only 5-of-14 against the Bulls over three games this season, per NBA.com.
It starts with Chicago’s work against John Wall in the pick-and-roll. Chicago is just better at this than everyone else. The Bulls’ point guards, especially Kirk Hinrich, stay on the ball handler’s hip, and their big men (minus Carlos Boozer) can handle containment alone. No help = no 3s.
The Wiz love midrange 2s — no team jacked more — and Wall especially loves pulling up from the right elbow when defenses drop back against him, as the Bulls will:
Chicago’s goal will to be limit Wall to that shot, and to bother it as much as possible from behind. If the Wizards can’t get anything better, Chicago will stamp them out.
Nene’s return offers some solace. Nene and Marcin Gortat are the rare pairing that can match Chicago’s bulk inside and on the glass; Gortat has given Joakim Noah problems in the post — he’s 17-of-29 against the Bulls for the season — and the clever passing possibilities between the Wiz big men open up more complex avenues to puncturing Chicago’s defense:
Nene’s also a vastly superior defender to Trevor Booker, and he’ll move around to cut off Noah’s high-post passing angles in smart ways.
2. But Who Plays?
Nene has come off the bench since his return, excising Al Harrington from the rotation and turning Drew Gooden into a spot-up threat around pick-and-rolls. But benches get short in the playoffs, and Randy Wittman, a first-timer here, should consider either starting Nene or using a very quick hook on Booker. (On a side note, if Nene does start, I’d expect Noah to guard him instead of Gortat.)
Chicago has been using a playoff rotation for months — a seven-man system, with cameos from Nazr Mohammed and Tony Snell. D.J. Augustin has been the Bulls’ savior, and the Wiz have been sloppy tracking him around picks — especially in Chicago’s road drubbing of Washington earlier this month.
Augustin’s a defensive liability himself. He’ll have trouble dealing with Wall’s power-speed combination and Prof. Andre Miller’s post game, and Thibodeau has sometimes stashed him away from the ball on safer covers like Martell Webster.
The Wiz have the toolbox to win this series, but it will be tough, and Chicago has been the stronger team since the Luol Deng trade.
PREDICTION: Bulls in six
Brooklyn Nets (6) vs. Toronto Raptors (3)
1. Will the Basketball Gods Punish Brooklyn for Tanking Into the No. 6 Spot?
Oh, right. The Nets were “resting” guys. The basketball gods see all. These have been arguably the two best teams in the East since January 1, when Brooklyn committed to a wacky brand of small ball with Paul Pierce at power forward. But the Raps have been better by point differential, and the Nets should not have looked at this matchup with such glee — despite their huge experience edge.
2. How Healthy Is Amir Johnson?
The Raptors have been good defensively this season regardless of Johnson’s presence, but that hasn’t been the case the last two months as they’ve been in a slump as Johnson has battles injures. Jonas Valanciunas finished strong offensively, but Johnson remains Toronto’s best two-way big, and the Raps have used him to guard Pierce against the Nets’ small-ball lineups.
The Nets have used Pierce’s speed and dribbling ability well against Johnson, luring Johnson into the paint so Pierce can spot up for 3s, and working Pierce as the screener in pick-and-rolls to get Johnson moving:
The Nets have the size edge all over the perimeter, and they’re going to post up a ton. Joe Johnson has gone hard at Terrence Ross on the block, and Shaun Livingston will seize any chance to attack Kyle Lowry or Greivis Vasquez; the Raps will use DeMar DeRozan on Livingston to counter this, but Deron Williams can also get some traction against Lowry down low.
The Raps have toyed with using Amir Johnson on Joe Johnson, but the Nets are going to find post-up edges regardless. Whether Toronto can help and recover without surrendering open 3s to the wrong players will probably determine the series; only two teams have launched more 3s than Brooklyn since the calendar flipped to 2014.
3. Do the Raptors Have Any Edges?
They generally avoid turnovers, crucial against a steals-happy Brooklyn team, though the Nets forced Toronto into a lot of them during head-to-head matchups. Lowry, the most insane All-Star snub in years, showered the Nets with a hail of 3-pointers; Lowry averaged 22 points on 50 percent shooting, including 13-of-27 from deep, in four wild games against Brooklyn. The Nets come out pretty aggressively on the pick-and-roll, and Lowry has been able to lure them into tiny little missteps that create just enough space for him to fire.
Toronto should also be able to kill Brooklyn on the boards, provided the Raptors keep playing big; the Nets ranked 28th in defensive rebounding rate.
Brooklyn’s edge in crunch-time play has been overhyped, despite Johnson’s historic run of hero shots. The Raps are indeed uneven when they need a bucket in the clutch; they rank just 20th in points per possession in the last three minutes of close games, per NBA.com. But Brooklyn ranks 24th, and both teams finished around .500 in those games. (All those sample sizes are tiny and possibly meaningless, by the way, though the Raps were horrific in crunch time last season.)
The lack of back-to-backs favors Brooklyn, but keep an eye on John Salmons. He shot just 27 percent on the second end of back-to-backs, and his shooting percentage ticked up the more days off Toronto had between games. He’s a bulkier defensive option than Ross, a usable secondary ball handler, and a potential key cog if Dwane Casey decides to downsize and go small along with Brooklyn. Ditto for Steve Novak, who should be able to hide against Mirza Teletovic, Andrei Kirilenko, and other second-unit guys.
The Nets’ ability to switch on and off the ball might create some issues for Toronto; they’ve been comfortable switching Pierce from Johnson onto DeRozan on this pet Raps play:
PREDICTION: Nets in six
Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (8)
1. Will Some of This Series Be on NBA TV?
Of course! The NBA should just acknowledge this sad reality with an ad campaign that parodies the hokey CBS ads for the Masters: “The Hawks on NBA TV in late April: a tradition that really doesn’t stand out so much.”
2. Do the Hawks Have Something Here?
This would appear a whitewash on paper — the top-seeded defensive juggernaut against a sub-.500 team who backed into the playoffs only because the Knicks were slightly more terrible.
But the Pacers have lost themselves over the last two months, minus an encouraging recent home win against Oklahoma City and other blips of competence. Only the Sixers, a glorified D-League team, have scored fewer points per possession since the All-Star break. Atlanta blew the Pacers away in Indiana just two weeks ago, and won both games in this series in which Pero Antic, the Hawks’ quirky Macedonian center, was available. (Lance Stephenson missed one of those two Atlanta wins.)
The Hawks play heavy minutes with five capable 3-point shooters on the floor, an ultra-stretchy setup that would give any team problems. That has been especially so for the Pacers, who prefer to keep Roy Hibbert in the paint and start a power forward, David West, who isn’t the speediest dude anymore. Atlanta’s starting lineup outscored Indiana by 29 points in 29 minutes, a convincing victory over an admittedly tiny sample size.
If the Pacers drop Hibbert back on pick-and-rolls as they normally do, that will leave Hibbert’s man wide open for a pick-and-pop 3-pointer — or force an uncomfortable rotation from another Hawk to Hibbert’s guy:
You’ll note Hibbert is guarding Paul Millsap here. The Pacers have experimented with switching up their big-man defensive assignments, since Millsap is a better low-post player than Antic. But he’s also a good long-range shooter, and if the Pacers do swap assignments like this, expect Atlanta to adjust in kind.
The Hawks will also run Kyle Korver off a lot of quick-hitting picks, and if the Indy big man guarding the screener stays back, Korver will get a lot of looks like this:
Korver shot 10-of-20 from deep in four games against Indy, and the Hawks as a whole averaged 10 3s a game over the season series. It would not be a shock to see Frank Vogel limit Hibbert’s minutes a bit, though Ian Mahinmi is a protect-the-paint guy at heart and Luis Scola is a glaring defensive minus. Vogel has also shifted George Hill onto Korver in some prior matchups, since Hill is expert at scurrying around picks, but that might not be necessary here.
Bottom line: Atlanta has the goods to make this interesting, especially if Jeff Teague can navigate to the rim on some pick-and-rolls and make the correct passes.
3. Can Indy Bully These Guys?
Hibbert will have an enormous size advantage over every Hawks big, but he shot just 9-of-32 against Atlanta and missed a ton of chippies — which is kind of what he does now. The Hawks are thin on the wing; DeMarre Carroll is probably their only defender capable of physically matching Paul George and Lance Stephenson. Expect a lot of post-ups from Indy’s wings against Korver (a very solid team defender), Lou Williams, Cartier Martin, and perhaps even Shelvin Mack or Dennis Schroder in Atlanta’s dual–point guard lineups.
The Hawks are an average defensive rebounding team, perhaps presenting an opportunity for Indiana to rediscover the offensive glass.
PREDICTION: Pacers in six