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NBA Playoffs Winners and Losers, So Far

After a stunning start, the NBA’s second season is already looking better than the first

The first 72 hours of the NBA playoffs have been wild compared with last season’s early chalk-fest. We’ve had nine competitive games out of 10,1 crazy finishes, a GM giving an ECW-style promo, massive scoring totals, and lots of other fun stuff.

Here’s an early look at the winners and losers from three days of bleary-eyed hoop-watching.

Winner: Tony Allen

I will never forget chatting with Tony Allen two seasons ago about how he squirmed around pin-down screens designed to free Kevin Durant for jumpers. He didn’t accept the fundamental basis of the question — that it was a hard thing to do. “You just do it,” he would say. I would counter: “OK, so, there is one large man running at you with the singular goal of blocking your path, and a slithery 7-foot scorer directing you into that large man’s chest. What is the best strategy for avoiding that large man?” And he would respond, again and again: “You just do it. You don’t get screened.”

The Thunder ran a version of that play for Kevin Durant in the waning seconds of overtime Monday, when they trailed by two points. They used Serge Ibaka as the screener, a larger man than they normally use. And Allen, true to his word, just would not get screened:

I mean, look at this. Allen bends over low, shrinking himself and burying his head in Durant’s belly, almost as if he’s a sprinter crouching for the start. And Ibaka, even while setting a moving pick, just flat misses him. It’s uncanny. Durant had no choice but to pass, and Ibaka traveled.

Durant shot 36% while guarded by Allen, and 57% against everyone else, per ESPN’s internal tracking. Allen missed 27 games recovering from a wrist issue this season, and he has a reputation as a guy who likes his body to feel just so before he comes back from injury. The Grizz probably wanted him back earlier, but he looks fresher and faster than everyone else right now. He’s a better option than Tayshaun Prince; the Thunder don’t guard either of them, cramping the Grizzlies’ already cramped spacing, but Allen has defended better and done more damage cutting away from the ball. It will be interesting to see if Dave Joerger starts him, and going forward, there’s no reason for Allen to be on the floor when Durant is resting; he picked up a foul early in the second quarter while Durant sat.

All hail the Grindfather.

TBD: Scott Brooks

The good: Brooks has learned from past series against Memphis, and he is going small, with Durant at power forward, almost the second Joerger removes either Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph. He has used a relatively quick hook on the Thunder’s sometimes unwatchable starting lineup, swapping Nick Collison and Caron Butler in together for Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha — a move that forces Mike Conley to guard Russell Westbrook.

Going small also forces Memphis into a juicy choice: Match Oklahoma City by downsizing, or stay big and pound the crap out of them. Butler is slow now, meaning Randolph should be able to guard him fine in big-versus-small matchups. Joerger has balanced these dueling impulses well. The Grizz extended their lead in the first half of the fourth quarter using a Beno Udrih–captained small group, and closed the game with their bigger lineup — a move that forced Oklahoma City to put Perkins back on the floor.2

The Thunder’s defense has been cleaner, though Westbrook has been a mess, jumping himself out of position, losing Conley on backdoor cuts, and finally forcing Brooks to move Sefolosha onto Conley. That’s nice in theory, but it forces Brooks to, you know, play Sefolosha over Reggie Jackson, and the Grizzlies don’t guard Sefolosha at all. (Presumably, no one is forcing Brooks to play Derek Fisher over Jackson.) Westbrook’s insanity pays off in steals and scary rebounds that fuel Oklahoma City’s transition attack, but on balance, he has hurt Oklahoma City’s defense.

Regardless: The outside-in help has been crisp and targeted, without the over-helping in the paint that resulted in a deluge of open 3s in February and March.3

The bad: Oklahoma City’s starting lineup is still prone to droughts it can’t afford against elite competition. The group is minus-15 over two games, and doing poorly on both ends, per NBA.com. Brooks may need a quicker hook, and to consider staggering minutes just a bit more, so that one of Westbrook and Durant is on the floor at all times — and Durant can get more small-ball time early in the second and fourth quarters, when the Grizz have a backup big in the game.

The Thunder’s offense remains predictable, without any continuity or natural second and third options. They are running plays, but the Grizzlies know what’s coming, and if Allen or some other player can kill the clock with artful ball denial, the Thunder are always up against it without a plan.4 The Grizz have a shot against the dreaded Westbrook-Durant pick-and-roll as long as Courtney Lee is guarding Westbrook, and Gasol has been magnificent shifting around the back line.

Still: Let’s see more of that play, and more, more, more of Durant running high pick-and-rolls involving Randolph:

Winner: Craig Sager

It might seem a little odd to call someone with leukemia a winner. But what an outpouring of affection for one of those weird figures adored by a certain subset of the populace, but largely unknown outside that world. The Sager–Gregg Popovich montage is always a hit, and I loved that Pop insisted Craig Sager Jr. do the in-game interview with him. Get well, Sages.

Winner: Beno Udrih

Udrih wasted away with the miserable Knicks and barely played for Memphis, but with Nick Calathes suspended, he suddenly finds himself running the Grizz second unit and hitting his typical pull-up jumpers. One suggestion: Maybe he shouldn’t play without Gasol also around as a facilitator; the minutes Udrih played with Gasol sitting in Game 2 were terrifying.

Winner: Mila Kunis

So, this Mila Kunis Jim Beam ad campaign … I mean … it’s pretty good … right? Am I the only one sweating?

Mount Rushmore references jumped the shark this season, but here’s my Mount Rushmore of drinking buddies:

• Jon Hamm: Cool guy, likes sports, drank beer with Simmons on the B.S. Report.
• Paul Rudd: Obviously delightful, big Knicks fan.
• Ryan Gosling: Seems very chill during promotional appearances, and as a younger guy, he’s our ticket into hip places — even though he seems like he’d probably just prefer a dive.
• Kunis: We need a woman, and she won me over with this, especially her revulsion at the thought of Jäger bombs. Did anyone not fall for her in Forgetting Sarah Marshall?

Winners: Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge

The playoffs bring in a national audience that ignores the regular season, and it’s nice when two of the league’s stars, including perhaps its most polarizing one, set fire to dumb screaming narratives as that new audience watches.

Griffin has been unguardable against Golden State when foul trouble hasn’t erased him. He’s destroying everyone in the post, bending entire defenses his way for hockey assists, running the break for a Clippers team that would prefer avoiding Golden State’s set defense, and dishing smart passes. The “he can only dunk!” morons have been very quiet.

He was also pretty good defensively in Game 2, when the Clippers contained the Stephen Curry pick-and-rolls that ate them up in Game 1. And they didn’t really do anything all that differently. They still trapped Curry, though perhaps a hair less aggressively, with the Clips’ bigs mostly coming to the level of the pick instead of chasing Curry toward half court.5 They switched more pick-and-rolls involving Curry and a wing player, and avoided playing Paul, Darren Collison, and Jamal Crawford together in a super-small lineup when Game 2 was actually in play.

Paul was better chasing Curry over those screens, staying on his hip. The rotations behind the play were tighter as the Clippers scrambled in 3-on-4 situations. The two Clippers bigs switched assignments seamlessly, with instant communication, and the wing defenders shifted in and out on a string. And note how in the last clip here, the Clips manage to force Curry toward the sideline — a smart thing they’ve rarely pulled off:

Sometimes the adjustment is simple: Be better at what you’re doing. The Warriors helped by abandoning some of the stuff they did in Game 1, including those pick-and-rolls in which they cleared one side of the floor for Curry and his screener — a very tough set to defend.

Aldridge played the game of the postseason so far, and the game of his life, in Portland’s incredible Game 1 win in Houston. He is clearly healthy, and his game reflected that renewed vigor. He pushed for deep post-ups and jump hooks instead of settling for long jumpers, and when he saw Houston (kind of) giving him pick-and-pop jumpers, he mixed things up with drives to the rim and hard rolls.

That kind of diversity is crucial, especially when Dwight Howard is guarding him and jumping out far on pick-and-roll plays. Aldridge was solid on defense, though he’ll have trouble managing Howard when Robin Lopez rests.

Loser: James Harden’s Extra Defensive Gear

My favorite sequence of the first 72 hours might be this: Harden juking Wesley Matthews for a second-quarter driving score, talking all kinds of crap in Matthews’s face, and then immediately falling asleep on the next possession as Matthews cut behind him for an easy layup. News flash: That layup counts the same as a highlight drive.

Harden is a spectacular offensive player. One of my favorite little NBA things is when Harden handles the ball up top, sees a help defender out of the corner of his eye leaning an extra half-step into the paint, and rifles a no-look pass to that defender’s man.

If Houston wants to be a serious playoff team, Harden needs to take defense seriously. He didn’t in Game 1. And while Matthews was one of the league’s best post-up players all season, right now it’s a problem.6

Harden struggled on offense, especially late, and that’s the downside of Houston running a system that is mostly based on improvisation. To play that way, you must keep the ball moving, so that the improv set can breathe and shift the defense. When the ball stops, no one knows what to do next, and the rest of Houston’s players looked tentative when the rock found them in crunch time. They did have success with the Jeremy Lin–James Harden pick-and-roll, though.

Winner: Damian Lillard’s Clutch Play

Lillard has struggled on defense, which was predictable, but holy hell, this guy has been remarkable all season in the clutch. Bonus points for Terry Stotts, who designed smart plays, understood the two-for-one implications, subbed offense/defense at the right times, and played Hack-a-Howard as well as it has ever been played.

Mark Jackson should take note: If you believe in the intentional fouling strategy, you don’t abandon it if the victim goes 2-for-2 on the first try, as Howard did in Game 1. Jackson has gone this route twice on DeAndre Jordan, a worse foul shooter than Howard, and ditched it both times after an initial 2-of-2 from Jordan. That’s just bad math, and results-over-process thinking.

The Blazers had a more dire need to use the strategy, since they were behind and running out of time, but Jackson should be more confident in the process. He nailed fouling Paul when the Dubs were up three with less than 15 seconds left in Game 1, and Jackson prepped a great offensive strategy — even if Hilton Armstrong, of all people, helped.

Winner: Masai Ujiri

Everyone in the T-Dot should pitch in and help the Raps pay the $25,000 fine the league levied for Ujiri’s F-bomb — the best part of which was Ujiri pausing, smiling, and obviously thinking about whether this was a smart thing to do. Was anyone offended by this? If you say you’d have been embarrassed if your team’s GM made such a comment, I don’t believe you.

Winner: The Funky Nets

The Nets’ weird small/big lineups threw Toronto for a loop, especially when Paul Pierce was on the floor doing his old-man power forward thing; the Nets scored nearly 108 points per 100 possessions when Pierce played, and fell apart when he sat, per NBA.com.

He hurt the Raps as the screener on pick-and-pops, and Amir Johnson, a big-man helper at heart, lost track of Pierce on the perimeter. Toronto also got a bit scrambled tracking matchups in transition, leading to several open Brooklyn looks. Speaking of Johnson …

Loser: Amir Johnson

Johnson logged just 21 minutes in Game 1, and if his ankle remains an issue going forward, Toronto is in trouble. He’s their best defender, and they probably don’t have the goods to play full-time small ball against Brooklyn.

Back to the Nets: Joe Johnson feasted on post-ups,7 and the Raptors had no coherent answer for a little pick-and-roll play the Nets use with Johnson as the ball handler. Sometimes Toronto dropped back, allowing Johnson to get into the paint, with Pierce’s gravity influencing things from the corner:

Sometimes the Raps hedged hard, opening up 3-point shots:

Toronto may want to simplify. The Nets’ ability to switch almost anything, including plays involving Amir Johnson as the screener, also gives Toronto fits; Brooklyn blew up an Amir Johnson–DeRozan handoff play the Raps love by simply switching Pierce onto DeRozan.

Loser: DeMar DeRozan

DeRozan will be fine, but he pooped the bed in his first playoff game, and Toronto has an interesting dilemma now: Get DeRozan going by force-feeding him for midrange shots, as the Raptors did in the second half, or redirect more of the offense into pick-and-rolls? Any pick-and-roll involving Jonas Valanciunas will bring Brooklyn’s lone big man away from the hoop, potentially opening up a flood of offensive rebounds for Toronto against the glass-challenged Nets:

Loser: The NBA

The league cannot win. If it releases nothing about officiating, fans accuse it of hiding the truth. When it admits a mistake, fans ask why the league does not send out such releases about such-and-such other play that made them very angry. There are fans in Toronto, host of the 2016 All-Star Game, who actually think the league is conspiring against their team — that Adam Silver is sitting in his office, thinking of ways for Toronto to lose.

Look, studies have found evidence of star calls, especially in loose-ball situations in which a star collides with a nonstar. But there is contact on every single NBA possession. There were lots of instances in Game 1 of Toronto players making contact that went uncalled — on both ends. Ditto for Brooklyn. The calls ended up tilting a bit Brooklyn’s way, but that’s not evidence of a grand conspiracy. It’s evidence of how hard it is to referee an NBA game, especially when things get more physical, and the impossibility of legislating out some of the game-to-game and quarter-to-quarter randomness of what constitutes a foul amid constant jostling.

Get over it.

Loser: The Pacers’ Broken Offense

These are old issues — bad spacing, a lack of motion, poor screening, and possessions like the one Steve McPherson highlighted here, where literally nothing of consequence happens. And that was not an isolated incident in Game 1.

My personal test for the Pacers’ health: Are they making the extra pass when it is obviously available? Here the Hawks put the extra pass on a platter for Indiana by overreacting to David West’s midrange jump shot, sending an extra defender at him, and the Pacers often just shrugged and chucked:

Paul George and others drove into crowds and ignored spot-up shooters. This team has the tools to be better; we’ve seen them be better. They start three good long-range shooters, and they know how to make the extra pass. They did so several times in Game 1. Both Lance Stephenson and George can bully Atlanta’s wing guys on the block, opening up pet plays like this:

George and C.J. Watson ran some pick-and-rolls together, and we even saw a rare George-Stephenson pick-and-roll. Those plays can confuse defenses; they hold promise for a desperate team. The Pacers must be diligent about at least running something, and running more of the right things.

Winner: Playoff Teague!

The Hawks are now 3-0 against Indy when Pero Antic is available,8 and their starting lineup is a monstrous plus-41 in 54 minutes against the Pacers this season, per NBA.com. Atlanta has shooting at every position, and that has proved too much for the Pacers so far. The Teague–Paul Millsap pick-and-roll was especially damaging. The Pacers prefer to drop their big men back on such plays, but when you do that against Millsap, this happens:

Indy is almost caught in between a switch here, and we might see them switch a bit more often on this play as the series moves on — hopefully in more coordinated fashion. We even saw the Pacers abandon their usual strategy and have Ian Mahinmi, more mobile than Roy Hibbert, jump out hard on Teague:

It would be shocking if Frank Vogel started Mahinmi and used Hibbert off the bench against Elton Brand, who stays closer to Hibbert’s territory at the rim. But nothing really worked in Game 1, and Teague tore them apart regardless of which style Indiana used. Luis Scola can’t guard anything, and Millsap will take him to the block the second Scola enters the game. We may well see George take some of the Teague assignment, especially since Vogel has used George Hill to chase Kyle Korver in past games. The Pacers are in trouble.

Winner: The World, When Antic and West Didn’t Fight

I was scared watching on TV. If these two fought, they’d somehow come out unscathed, and every other person in the arena would get injured.

Winner: James Jones

Umm … is Shane Battier dead? Are they saving him for a more competitive series? Did anyone see this coming?

It was surprising that Erik Spoelstra waited until late in the second quarter to go small,9 since the Bobcats have only one post-up threat in Al Jefferson. But when Spoelstra called Jones’s number, Miami’s moribund offense took off; the Heat outscored Charlotte by 18 points during Jones’s 14 minutes, while Charlotte won the remainder of the game by seven points.

The Heat remain unguardable with LeBron at power forward and Chris Bosh at center. Dwyane Wade is a shaky outside shooter, and so the Heat become almost a normal team when they play with Wade, Bosh, and another big man who can’t shoot beyond 18 feet. Small ball should be deadly against Charlotte, since it forces Jefferson to either guard Bosh — who can blow by him off the bounce — or hide on a shooter. We might see Charlotte adjust and go small itself, with more minutes among the quintet of Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Tolliver, Gary Neal, Chris Douglas, and Roberts.

Winner: Wade’s Post Game

When Wade is healthy, this is a weapon. When he’s not, it dies. Wade was 2-of-4 on post-ups in Game 1, per Synergy Sports, and he looked overpowering against Henderson — a stout defender.

Loser: Upset Potential Against Juggernauts

Charlotte hasn’t beaten Miami since “The Decision,” and if Professor Al’s plantar fascia injury limits his mobility, the Bobcats just won’t be able to score. Entering the ball to Big Al is a chore, since the Heat are fronting him and rotating aggressively off Charlotte’s wings — especially poor MKG — behind the play.

The Bobcats tried everything to free Professor Al, including vicious cross screens under the rim10 and the kind of side-to-side pick-and-roll action Indiana uses to beat Miami’s fronts:

The task will get even harder if Jefferson can’t make quick cuts. A tough break for a great guy.

The Mavs, meanwhile, absolutely had to steal Game 1 after opening up a shocking 10-point lead in San Antonio. They had the Spurs a little out of sorts by starting Shawn Marion on Tony Parker and switching almost everything; got a monster game from Devin Harris; and used smart play designs to spring Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon for open jumpers.11

But they fell apart down the stretch, and the Mavs have been mediocre in close games all season — a major departure for what has been perhaps the league’s best crunch-time team over the last half decade. They got good looks, too — two jumpers from Dirk, a contested Vince Carter layup, and an open midranger from Ellis.

The Mavs will shoot better, especially Nowitzki and Calderon, but they are unlikely to coax such an inefficient game from San Antonio again. The Spurs have torn apart Dallas for years, and San Antonio gradually discovered little cracks in the Mavs’ switching scheme. They’ll shoot better than 3-of-17 from deep, Kawhi Leonard will knock in more of those post-ups against Ellis, and Popovich can blow away the Marion-on-Parker thing by inserting Manu Ginobili early for Danny Green — removing Calderon’s hiding spot.

Winners: Randy Wittman and Nene

The Bulls allegedly had a massive coaching edge in this series, and they still do. But Wittman and his staff designed some nifty stuff to get tastier things out of the pick-and-roll than the midrange shots Chicago wants to force. Nene’s presence increases Wittman’s niftiness quotient, since the big fella can do just about everything well on offense — pass, shoot, cut, and screen.

The Wiz didn’t just run simple high pick-and-rolls the Bulls could anticipate and snuff out. They started with some cagey misdirection, dribble handoffs, and other goodies designed to get Chicago’s defense off balance and — this is crucial — allow their own guards to actually go around picks. Chicago’s entire goal in life is to force opposing ball handlers away from screens by getting in their way.

But if you can just get around the actual pick, it forces more dramatic help and opens up passing lanes to rolling big men:

Nene and Marcin Gortat are also good at one little very Spursian trick: changing the direction of their pick, or “flipping the screen” in hoops talk. You need precise timing to do this, and it’s a good way to confuse defenses and give your point guard a head of steam — even if he’s ultimately going toward the sideline, where the defense wants him.

Washington in all piled up 112.8 points per 100 possessions against Chicago, a mark that would have led the league. John Wall didn’t shoot well, but he draws a ton of attention, and he showed he could manipulate Chicago’s defense with his speed. Wall overwhelmed D.J. Augustin, Professor Andre Miller, PhD, held office hours until he nearly vomited, and the Wiz got away with some defensive blips from Wall and Bradley Beal on the perimeter.

This series isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing hoops art, but it’s suddenly very intriguing — especially with Indiana farting around atop the bracket.

Three more games tonight. Let the madness continue!

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats, Indiana Pacers, Paul George, david west, Pero Antic, Roy Hibbert, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, masai ujiri, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Tony Allen, Blake Griffin, Steph Curry, Memphis Grizzlies

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA

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