We’re 10 games into the NBA playoffs, and home teams are already 9-1. There’s still plenty of time for drama, with six teams trying to tie their series at 1-1 and the feisty Grizzlies heading home with a real chance to get back into things against the Clippers. Let’s pause, step back, and take a look at the early winners and losers from the first three days of the NBA’s postseason.
Winner: Paul George, Modern Superstar
George is growing into the kind of star who can thrive in a league of smarter defenses that clog the lane and make it difficult for any player, even a superstar, to hold the ball up top and go one-on-one to the rim — or even to get there via a slow-developing pick-and-roll. George minimizes his dribbles, choosing instead to fly off one screen, catch the ball up high, and then take one dribble directly into another screen for a fast-moving pick-and-roll. He can post up, survey the encroaching defense, and make the correct pass:
He rarely forces the issue off the dribble, in part because he tried to do so early in the season and found himself coughing up a heap of turnovers while attempting to navigate defenses loading up against his dribble penetration. About a month into the season, Frank Vogel placed a blanket prohibition on George trying to split defenders, Dwyane Wade–style, on the pick-and-roll, and then worked hard to vary the way George got his touches.
A national audience1 got to see George’s maturity in full bloom on Sunday.2 He attacked judiciously, even against an overmatched defender in Kyle Korver, catching the ball on the move for quick-hitting pick-and-rolls and going one-on-one only when the defense wasn’t quite prepared for it. He shot when he should have and passed when he should have. His defense on Korver, and later on Josh Smith, was phenomenal. Watch how steady and smart George is on his feet here in staying attached to Korver’s hip on the initial curl play, helping briefly on Smith in the lane, stunting over toward Al Horford in a way that makes Horford pause (and gives David West time to recover). Finally, George takes a half-slide back toward Korver on the left wing just as Horford considers passing there:
And when the Hawks went big, with Smith as the nominal small forward, George battled and pushed Smith on the block until Smith meekly retreated to the perimeter for awful jump shots. A masterful performance; George even has permission to try to split defenders again:
Winners: Big Men Who Can Shoot Corner 3s
Man, how freeing it is for Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra to slot Serge Ibaka and Chris Bosh in the corners, knowing they can actually hit open 3s if defenses surrender that shot. Simply positioning a big man there, even just a mildly threatening one, opens up so much space for perimeter players to attack the rim, drive-and-kick, or post up from a position in which they can survey the whole floor and find 3-point shooters. Both Miami and Oklahoma City have enough rim-attacking talent on the perimeter that it doesn’t feel like a waste to have a potential rim-attacking big man chilling 22 feet from the basket; Atlanta stationing Smith beyond the 3-point arc feels much more wasteful, since the Hawks are so starved for free throws, and Smith’s judgment in picking his 3-point shots can be so poor.3
Back to Bosh and Ibaka: There was a time, even earlier this year, when it felt like their adventures from the corner were a regular-season frivolity that would vanish when the games started to count. Brooks and Spoelstra didn’t even wait half a quarter to show they were serious about incorporating these corner 3s going forward, and that defenses should take heed.
Losers: Perimeter Players Who Can’t Shoot
Defenses are more attentive in the playoffs. Stakes are higher, rotations are shorter, and teams can game-plan for a single opponent. Defenses are better at exploiting weaknesses, and they will pick at those weaknesses, perhaps even to an unhealthy degree, until an opponent surrenders and changes course. In the playoffs, that often means blatantly ignoring poor perimeter shooters to disrupt more threatening action elsewhere on the floor. And if those shooters miss their open looks, or if their teams refuse to pass them the ball, defenses will get bolder and bolder until the opposing coach finally lifts that player.
Milwaukee was essentially playing offense four-on-five when Luc Richard Mbah a Moute or Marquis Daniels were on the floor, and something close to 3.5-on-5 when the Bucks had two traditional big men alongside their designated defensive specialists. Milwaukee has four semidangerous perimeter players — Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, J.J. Redick, Mike Dunleavy Jr. — but can play only two at once if they are committed to slotting three lineup spots to Mbah a Moute/Daniels and two big men.4 The Heat paid Mbah a Moute zero attention; LeBron James spends almost the entire possession below with at least one foot in the paint, far from Mbah a Moute in the left corner, ready to help on this Redick–Ersan Ilyasova pick-and-roll:
And this time, it’s Wade “guarding” Mbah a Moute in the right corner by coming all the way across the paint to challenge Ilyasova on the roll:
The Clippers strangled the Grizzlies’ starting lineup in Game 1, mostly because they played far off both Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen; Memphis scored just 91.9 points per 100 possessions in the 16 minutes those two shared the floor, well below Washington’s league-worst overall mark, per NBA.com. Both must find ways to make themselves at least viable offensive options. Prince is going to have to hit the occasional jumper when the Clips leave him be, as Caron Butler does here to snuff out a Mike Conley–Marc Gasol pick-and-roll in the middle of the floor:
If Prince can’t hit jumpers and won’t even space himself to the 3-point arc, the Grizzlies will have to counter this kind of defense by involving him in secondary actions that flow out of the Conley-Gasol pick-and-roll — and then into third and fourth actions that keep the Clippers’ defense moving until it breaks:
Allen is a ferocious defender, and it is an annual tradition in Memphis to complain about Lionel Hollins cutting Allen’s minutes in the playoffs. That criticism has some merit, considering Hollins has given precious time to Gilbert Arenas, Hamed Haddadi, Austin Daye, and other “blah” players, and that Allen stands as Memphis’s best defensive option on Chris Paul. But it’s easy to understand why Hollins often feels queasy watching Allen’s defender screw up everything Memphis tries to do on offense. Memphis did fine with Allen on the floor in Game 2, mostly via getting into their offense much earlier than usual, when the Clips’ defense was still scrambling, and some pick-and-roll brilliance from Conley. (Side note: Please stop with the “if they had Rudy Gay!?!??” nonsense. They had Rudy Gay, and their offense was terrible — both this season and in last season’s playoffs, when Gay shot 42 percent and played lazy transition defense that enabled Nick Young’s greatest career highlights. The Grizzlies lost Game 2 for a host of reasons, including Chris Paul’s crunch-time insanity, and they lost Game 1 because their vaunted defense sprung leaks all over the place.)
Others in the unguarded club include Harrison Barnes, outlined here, Metta World Peace, Keyon Dooling (not ready for this right now), and Gerald Wallace. The Nets are used to teams ignoring Wallace, and their two best offensive players — Deron Williams and Brook Lopez — are good enough to keep Brooklyn’s offense humming against most teams. World Peace emerged as a league-average 3-point shooter by the end of the 2010-11 season, but he has slumped since, and needs a ton of space to hit shots at an acceptable rate. Teams are fine playing off both World Peace and Steve Blake to swipe at Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard in the post; World Peace and Blake will make some shots as a result, but good defenders (hello, Kawhi Freaking Leonard!) can recover to contest a decent chunk of those shots, and all that digging down into the post brings the bonus of live-ball turnovers.
(As an aside: World Peace is a decent post-up player, and the Spurs have no backup for Leonard who can check him down there. I wonder if the Lakers might consider bringing World Peace off the bench, or finding some other way to spot him some minutes when Leonard is sitting and/or only one of the Gasol-Howard duo is on the floor to take up the paint. Gregg Popovich could easily counter by simply reinserting Leonard right away, but it’s an interesting conversation.)
Basically, it gets harder in the postseason to play guys who can’t shoot, especially as more NBA teams embrace aggressive, Tom Thibodeau–style help defense concepts.
Winner: The C.J. Watson–Deron Williams Combination
Matchups are everything in the postseason. This combination was a catastrophe on defense in the regular season, and opponents outscored the Nets by 19 points total over the equivalent of about seven minutes per game in which these two shared the floor, per NBA.com. But the Bulls’ backcourt is basically punchless, and the one guy that does pack some punch, Nate Robinson, is Lilliputian. The Nets can experiment with the Watson-Williams combo against Chicago all they want, given Williams’s size and Thibodeau’s use of a Robinson–Kirk Hinrich duo. The Nets have played Williams and Watson together for 27 minutes already in this series, and Brooklyn is plus-20 in that span.
Winner: The Indomitable Chicago Bulls
Chicago’s Game 2 effort in Brooklyn might have been the single most inspiring performance any team has put on this season. The Bulls — the hurting, thin, scoring-challenged Bulls — were going to play their hellacious style of defense for as long as it took to steal that game. They were everywhere, darting away from Brooklyn’s less-threatening players in order to clog the lane on Williams, thwart Joe Johnson before he could get past the dotted line, and muck up Lopez’s post-ups. The Nets had to raise the white flag on the rangeless Wallace–Reggie Evans combination, rolling instead to Watson and Andray Blatche down the stretch.
And the Bulls, bless them, just didn’t care. They crashed and recovered as many times as necessary to snuff out any Brooklyn shot. I know it’s crazy to say, given Williams was 1-of-9 from the floor, but he wasn’t even that bad on offense. He broke down Chicago’s perfectionist pick-and-roll defense in ways most point guards manage only once or twice per game — if they’re lucky. Williams crossed over Hinrich and Robinson repeatedly, confusing them with change-of-direction dribbles that allowed him to get into the middle against a Chicago defense built around the idea of forcing all point guards toward the sideline on the pick-and-roll. He dribbled himself into position to toss some defense-bending pocket passes to Lopez and Kris Humphries rolling to the rim — passes Chicago almost never allows. Williams managed this much more easily when Nazr Mohammed was in the game for Joakim Noah, whose performance, given his plantar fasciitis issues, was borderline astounding. That save late in the fourth quarter leading to a backbreaking Robinson 3-pointer was legitimately inspiring.
And none of Williams’s smart dribbling mattered. Even when Williams broke down Chicago’s first line of defense, a tough task on its own, the second and third lines were already there to close any gaps. The Bulls don’t have any shot of winning the title or making the Finals, but Game 2 was a reminder: This is a proud, fierce team that can beat just about anyone on a given night. They will make you earn it. And that includes Miami.
(Potential) Winners: Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, and Jason Terry
They’re not winners yet, but it’s clear each of these players has a chance to have a big impact on this series. Lee and Bradley are easily Boston’s best one-on-one options against J.R. Smith. Bradley, despite a small size disadvantage, defended Smith much longer than expected in Game 1; Smith was just 1-of-6 in half-court situations with Bradley on him, and 6-of-13 on all other shots, per Synergy Sports.
Both Lee and Bradley got fantastic looks out of post-ups by Paul Pierce and Jeff Green, and especially when Pierce posted up a defender other than Carmelo Anthony. Green and Pierce are both too strong for those non-Melo wings, and Pierce is crafty enough to draw help in the post even against the bulkier Anthony. Both are willing passers out of the post, and Boston showed over and over they can whip the ball from the post and around the perimeter, just ahead of New York’s rotations:
The Knicks will probably clean up all those breakdowns that led to Bradley cutting wide open to the rim on Pierce post-ups, but Boston can work its way to good perimeter looks against New York — especially when the Celtics work their offense to get a switch of an undersize Knicks defender onto Pierce.5
The Celtics’ defense is as sound as ever. Boston coaxed Anthony into a bundle of ultra-difficult shots by sending an extra defender to his side of the floor, clogging his driving lanes and positioning the other three Boston defenders in Melo’s passing lanes:
Bradley does an especially good job at stationing himself simultaneously in two different passing lanes in this second clip.
New York scored just 95.9 points per 100 possessions in Game 1, a mark that would have ranked dead last in the league. Anthony moved the ball more often in the second half, and the Knicks figure to adjust by posting him up more and asking him to drive immediately upon the catch when he gets the ball at the elbow against a slower defender (e.g., Bass). New York thrived all season by having Melo suck in extra attention and feed the ball out to an army of spot-up shooters.
But the Celtics are masters at helping in this way without opening up too many holes elsewhere on the floor — and plugging whatever holes do open faster than other teams. There’s a reason Melo has shot just 37 percent over five games against Boston this season, and why New York’s offense has scored well below its average rate over those five games.
Winner: Ty Lawson
Lawson was a quiet 6-of-15 in Game 1 and faced a bunch of bigger, long-armed defenders, since the Warriors would apparently rather have Chris Mullin guard Lawson than Stephen Curry. And Lawson will meet an invigorated Andrew Bogut when he does get into the lane.
But there’s some good news for Lawson going forward: The Nuggets are defending the Lawson–Wilson Chandler pick-and-roll by having Chandler’s man stay attached to Chandler, fearing his jump shot, rather than sliding away from Chandler to cut off Lawson.6 Here are two examples from Game 1, both involving Carl Landry as Chandler’s defender:
If the Warriors continue to go this route, Lawson should have a clear path into the lane, a place from which he can do serious damage as a scorer and passer.
Winner: Prof. Andre Miller, PhD
It has been three days since his glorious Game 1 sonning of the Warriors, so there’s no need to belabor it here. All of the Warriors failed his class. Miller played like he’s seeking an honorary degree somewhere.
Winner: Chris Paul, Clutch God
What Paul did to Memphis last night, making four of his last five shots,7 should be illegal. (So should some of the nutty shots Jamal Crawford made over Jerryd Bayless in the first half, actually.) Paul did this to the Grizzlies in the 2012 playoffs, and this regular season he shot 16-of-33 (48.5 percent) in the last three minutes of games in which the scoring margin was three points or less. Among 66 players who attempted at least 20 such shots, only nine shot a better percentage than Paul, and only one of those (Al Jefferson) did so on as many attempts.8 The concept of “clutch” is notoriously finicky; a team that comes out as “clutch” under one set of time-and-score parameters might appear mediocre or downright chokey if you play around with the factors. A player who scores in crunch time one season might toss up bricks the next. But Paul has been a consistently above-average clutch player, and his teams have almost annually scored at ridiculously efficient rates, especially given that league-wide efficiency tends to drop on crunch-time possessions. What a player.
Winners: The Clippers, Doing the “Little Things” Against Memphis
If you charted the battle of the “little things” that are actually huge, I’d bet you the Clippers would be winning right now at something like a 2-to-1 ratio — the DeAndre Jordan tip-outs, the Grizzlies committing silly fouls (Darrell Arthur hip-checking Paul on a cross screen, Allen fouling Crawford near half court), several Memphis perimeter players failing to box out in Game 1, and the Grizz randomly losing dangerous players in transition.
Every team commits some of these mistakes throughout a 48-minute game, but it just seems like when these two teams meet, the scale tips dramatically in the Clippers’ favor.
Loser: Houston’s Defense
It was almost a refreshing testament to the importance of experience, both individually and in working as a team: The Rockets had the right ideas defensively against Oklahoma City, but they just couldn’t execute those ideas correctly.9 The Rockets helped aggressively off the Thunder’s weaker offensive players, especially Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, to crowd the paint against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
But playing this way takes practice, smarts, and five-man cohesiveness, and the young Rockets just aren’t there yet. A team overloading on a Durant post-up, as Greg Smith is doing here by sliding over to Durant’s side of the floor, just cannot give up the simplest and shortest possible pass — to Ibaka, right under the darned hoop:
And here, on this Westbrook-Durant pick-and-roll, the Rockets somehow manage to both sag away from Durant, leaving the league’s most efficient scorer wide open from 3-point range, and fail to put a body on Nick Collison in the paint:
The Thunder back-cut James Harden for multiple easy layups, got out ahead of Houston in transition, and took advantage of the tendency among Houston’s perimeter players to gamble in passing lanes instead of closing out. Houston isn’t ready for this, and that’s fine; this is Year 1 of a long-term project, and the Rockets are ahead of schedule.
(Potential) Losers: The Thunder Backup Wing Brigade
It won’t be an issue in this series, and it might not crop up until and unless the Thunder meet Miami in the Finals, but it’s a tad concerning that Oklahoma City hasn’t been able to find a second wing player who combines size, defense, and outside shooting. Sefolosha is as close as Oklahoma City has to this type of player (other than Durant, obviously), and he did maintain a 40 percent–plus mark from 3-point range while hoisting 4.2 triples per 36 minutes this season — way above his career attempt numbers. But defenses still don’t guard him, and Sefolosha doesn’t make them pay in high volumes, or off the dribble. The rest of Oklahoma City’s backup ball handlers/wings are either too small for the job (Reggie Jackson), too old and too small (Derek Fisher), or flat-out disastrous on defense (Kevin Martin).
Just a little thing to watch as Oklahoma City bounds toward June. Also: Please kindly eliminate those minutes when neither Westbrook nor Durant is on the floor, at least in high-leverage games.
Losers: Atlanta’s Defense
Atlanta was weirdly discombobulated in Game 1 in Indiana, even beyond Larry Drew’s puzzling decision to play Al Horford, Atlanta’s best player, just 28 minutes because of “foul trouble” and “Johan Petro.” The Hawks finished the season 10th in points allowed per possession, so while they weren’t an Indiana- or Memphis-level juggernaut, they were at least decent. But in Game 1, there were an alarming number of possessions in which it appeared as if multiple Hawks weren’t on the same page, and an alarming number of those possessions involved Josh Smith.
Smith has talked at length with me about the dangers of over-helping on defense, and he’s more cautious than some big men when it comes to straying away from his own assignment to quash a potential problem elsewhere. But being cautious is different from not providing any help at all, and when Smith goes the latter route on a pick-and-roll or some other play, the implication is that Atlanta’s scheme calls for the help to come from someplace else behind him. That help didn’t always come in Game 1, which means either Smith was wrong or the people behind him had no clue what to do. Here’s Smith sticking with David West on a Paul George–West pick-and-roll, leaving George an open lane to the rim, and forcing Jeff Teague to help off of George Hill in the closest corner — a major no-no:
The same thing happens on this Lance Stephenson–West pick-and-roll, with Smith allowing Stephenson to do his terrifying onrushing-boulder thing as the Hawks scramble to find him near the rim.10
Atlanta surrendered the equivalent of 116.4 points per 100 possessions, a sieve-like effort that put a damper on yet another very nice game from Teague — an impending free agent. The Hawks obviously have to clean this up immediately, though no amount of X’s-and-O’s strategery can transform the heady Kyle Korver into a wing stopper capable of slowing George.
Winners: Fans of Midrange Jumpers
Both the Bulls-Nets clash and the Lakers-Spurs series provide somewhat-rare battles between teams that both defend the pick-and-roll, almost universally, by having the big man guarding the screener drop down toward the foul-line area to contain the ball handler while the point guard defending the play scurries over the screen. It’s a risk-management strategy that surrenders some shots to prevent better ones. Point guards can turn the corner and pull up for relatively open 18-footers in front of that retreating big-man defender, as Steve Nash does here:
And with that big-man defender sliding over laterally, those point guards can usually kick to the screen setter popping open for a midrange jumper. Take it away, Timmay:
The Spurs and Lakers know their respective point guards and big men can get these shots whenever they’d like, though each defense will obviously try to contest them — by having their own point guard chase Nash/Tony Parker very close from behind, or by having the big take an extra step out against a hot point-guard shooter. This series will largely come down to which offense is more effective at working its way to better shots, and which defense is most vulnerable to that kind of persistence. Advantage: Spurs. Parker was able to get into the paint whenever he wanted, even if it took two or three pick-and-rolls to get there, and the Spurs are well-versed in working their system until it produces open 3-point looks. And the Spurs’ shooters can actually make those shots, and even find them in transition every once in a while.
The slow-poke Lakers’ alternative basically amounts to posting up Gasol and Howard and seeing what comes of that. They ran some other stuff, including a large helping of funky Gasol-Howard pick-and-rolls, but the Lakers without Kobe Bryant are a post-up team. And we’ve already seen the results of those post-ups: some decent 2-point looks, some very difficult 2-point looks, lots of free throws (half of which Howard will miss), some San Antonio steals, and a lowlight reel of bricked 3-point shots.
It’s early, but those hoping for some tension before a Heat-Thunder Finals, or for some other matchup, don’t really have much to point to right now. The high-octane offenses in New York and San Antonio struggled in Game 1s, and the Spurs are sorting through both injury rust and unexpected rotation issues on the front line. Let’s hope some of these teams rediscover their peak form and provide a real challenge.