Heat Check: Taking the Temperature of the NBA PlayoffsJason Miller/Getty Images
Even with all four series tied 1-1, it feels strangely as if the second round has barely started — like we haven’t seen the “real” series yet. Chris Paul is hurt, Mike Conley missed Game 1 in Oakland, J.R. Smith is about to return from his semiannual act of team sabotage, and John Wall may be done for the year after missing Game 2.
All four series are unusually unsettled as we enter a weekend that will determine the direction of the second round. Let’s bounce around to see what we’ve learned and predict what might happen next.
• Well, this sucks.
• It royally sucks. Do people still say things royally suck? Because this royally sucks.
• The Wizards hung around in Game 2 without Wall, but they made a bundle of tough shots — including a few rim-backboard-net rolls — and exhaled as the Hawks missed an unusual number of wide-open jumpers. (Missing wide-open jumpers is apparently the Hawks’ new strategy. It’s an interesting against-the-grain wrinkle from Mike Budenholzer.)
The Raptors invited Washington into the paint by trapping Wall as if he were Steph Curry, opening up easy passes to rolling bigs who could then work 4-on-3. The Hawks are much smarter than that. They’ll sit back on the pick-and-roll, concede midrange jumpers, and force Washington’s ball handlers to find something better within tight confines.
Wall in Game 1 saw what the Hawks were giving him, and then he took more. He won footraces to the rim, nailed midrange jumpers, and used canny hesitation dribbles to suck help defenders an extra step toward him — and away from an open teammate at the rim or behind the arc. It was a masterful performance.
Bradley Beal and Ramon Sessions pulled off a decent Wall impression in Game 2, but it will be hard for them to sustain that. The Wiz offense has died without Wall all season, and it’s hard to see them beating Atlanta three more times without him. Sessions is a worse shooter than Wall; the Hawks should go under picks against him, and if they do, Sessions will struggle to find a path to the rim.
Beal has amped up his off-the-bounce aggression in the playoffs after a season in which his pick-and-roll game was a running disaster. He settled too often for long pull-up 2s, though it can be hard to find anything better when defenders crowd the paint because of Wall, Marcin Gortat, and Nene. But in the playoffs Beal is putting his head down and taking an extra dribble or two into the teeth of the defense — even if he’s not super-comfortable doing it and may not have a plan. He’s pushing himself, and that’s healthy for a Wizards team suddenly without its best playmaker.
Look at how the Wiz give Beal a head start by having him screen for Sessions, and then run into a little flare screen for Gortat — just enough motion to get the defense on its heels by the time the real action starts. And Beal takes it from there. Having Beal run off a screen before taking a handoff from Gortat accomplishes the same trick:
• Note the lack of respect Atlanta shows Otto Porter in those clips. The Hawks have clearly taken a “prove it” stance with Porter and Drew Gooden, and Porter especially has made Atlanta pay. But without Wall around to bend the defense, the Hawks might be able to stick one step closer to everyone else — just close enough to run them off 3s.
• Atlanta has also been switching more on defense since Game 4 of the Brooklyn series, and it may get braver without having to worry about Wall zipping past Al Horford. When Washington goes small, with Paul Pierce at power forward, the Hawks have even switched Jeff Teague onto Pierce during pick-and-rolls — banking on their ability to help and recover on any Pierce post-up.
Switching a smaller guy onto Nene would be dangerous, but Nene has given Washington nothing — even though the Wiz have started both games with called post-ups for him. He has struggled at times chasing Paul Millsap around the perimeter on defense, and if Nene continues to no-show, the Wiz will have to think about trading some size for better spacing — especially since scoring will already be harder with Wall out. They went to Pierce earlier than usual in the second and fourth quarters, but Pierce can play only so many minutes at power forward if he’s also starting games on the wing.
Kris Humphries was shooting extra jumpers at practice Thursday, and the Wiz could even slide Porter to power forward if they go one body deeper into their wing rotation. Porter called a potential battle against Millsap a “mismatch” when I asked him about it Thursday, but Millsap hasn’t been able to punish Joe Johnson or Pierce enough in the playoffs to make opponents queasy about going small.
• Millsap is 12-of-28 from deep in the playoffs, but he has a slow release, and I wonder if it’s really necessary for teams to leap out so far on Millsap pick-and-rolls:
It’s a way to keep a defender closer to Millsap in case of a pick-and-pop jumper, but he loves to slip through those traps, snag a pass from Teague, and work 4-on-3. The Hawks are deadly when they start pinging the ball around. Dropping back on Millsap risks letting him wind up from deep, but the Wiz should have the goods to contest those shots:
• The Beal–Kyle Korver matchup will be the heart of the series. Korver is only 9-of-26 so far, but he jukes Beal out of his shoes a half-dozen times per game; if Atlanta converts a few more of those gaffes into points, the Wiz will be in trouble.
Korver has guarded Beal a lot, and the Hawks may not like the idea of Korver on Pierce. But Atlanta may rejigger its matchups now that Beal will have the ball more. At the very least, Kent Bazemore should be hounding Beal whenever he’s out there.
• But, yeah, this sucks. Can we sneak the Spurs into the Eastern Conference playoffs somehow? Plop San Antonio players into a draft for the four remaining East teams?
• Getcha popcorn ready, because the Grindhouse is going to be on fire after the Grizz stunned Golden State on the road in Game 2.
• A basic reality: I still don’t think the Grizz have an answer for Stephen Curry pick-and-rolls that involve Zach Randolph defending the screener. Randolph has to leap out in case of a Curry 3-pointer, and he’s just not quick enough to prevent Curry from turning the corner or recover onto Draymond Green as Green rolls free to the basket.
Golden State became undisciplined in Game 2. The wrong players took the wrong shots early in the shot clock, and when the Grizz defense contained the first Curry pick-and-roll, the Warriors moved on to something else instead of running poor Z-Bo right back into another one. They weren’t cruel enough.
Memphis gets that, which is why it was interesting to see Dave Joerger switch Marc Gasol onto Green during the fourth quarter of Game 2. Gasol’s no faster than Randolph, but he’s bigger and a little more balanced scurrying around far from the hoop. Joerger has also experimented1 with Jeff Green on Draymond Green, an attempt to inject a speedier player capable of switching onto Curry.
You can’t hide in the playoffs. Golden State can simply find Randolph’s guy and have him screen for Curry. But if that guy is Andrew Bogut, the Dubs lose a little bit of playmaking. If it’s Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala, the level of outside shooting around the central action isn’t quite as lethal. Mike Conley can do a credible job on Curry, which means Tony Allen can focus on his Revis Island job against Klay Thompson.
Toss it all together and you can see Memphis manipulating the matchups just enough to chip away at Golden State’s beautiful scoring machine.
• That said, no such manipulation was necessary in Game 2. Randolph hustled his ass off when the Warriors did run him through the gantlet, and the Grizz played in a constant state of hyperawareness against all the Warriors’ cutting and screening:
Golden State usually gets a ton of easy buckets out of basic stuff away from the ball; Curry jogs into a screen for Thompson, and the sheer level of shooting involved — it’s like fire screening for lava — spooks the defenders into some Keystone Kops miscommunication.
The Grizz ain’t falling for that crap. They played a clean game. Any team wishing to beat Golden State has to make it earn every bucket.
• Tony Allen is a national treasure.
• It should be impossible for Allen to throw an entry pass into the post. The Warriors are good about sinking way off Allen, but there were a few possessions on which they still allowed him enough space to thread a bounce pass into Randolph or Gasol.2
• Here’s the fundamental dilemma for Memphis: Going small would make it easier to defend Golden State, but it would also mean reducing minutes for one of their three best players. And that’s untenable. Memphis hasn’t gotten enough from Vince Carter or Jeff Green to win a small-ball series against Golden State.
Gasol and Randolph are 14-of-28 on post-ups in this series, per Synergy Sports — a tidy number, but not quite enough to panic a defense into constant trapping. The Warriors do send help at them now and then, and that opens up looks for Grizz shooters.
The brothers from another mother can also get Draymond Green into foul trouble, and as I wrote in my preview, that is the Grizzlies’ best way into this series. Golden State’s alternatives to Green either make them easier to guard (David Lee, Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights) or so small (Barnes) as to be at a potentially fatal disadvantage on the glass. And they all make Golden State a less frightening defensive team; Lee just doesn’t look ready to play competitive playoff basketball. The Warriors in the postseason have wilted with Green on the bench, and that has continued in this series; he was even plus-2 in their Game 2 loss.
• The Dubs prefer Green on Gasol, and Memphis has been smart about having Gasol and Randolph screen for each other as a way of forcing Golden State to switch that matchup:
• If Green does get into foul trouble, it will be interesting to see if Steve Kerr skips all of those backup bigs and goes straight to small ball — even with both Randolph and Gasol on the floor. He risked that during the third quarter of Game 2, slotting Barnes at power forward, and the Warriors went on a mini-run. Barnes blew by Randolph off the dribble, Golden State used its speed to snuff out Randolph post-ups, and the Warriors’ shooting stretched the Memphis defense to its breaking point.
One potential issue there: Golden State may have trouble generating points when Shaun Livingston and Iguodala share the floor. Defenses don’t respect Iguodala’s shooting, and Livingston lives near the basket. That can make for a cramped floor; look what Green faces as he catches the ball on a pick-and-roll with Curry:
It hasn’t hurt them in this series, but it did against the Pellies, and Livingston just hasn’t settled in against Memphis yet.
• When Conley rests, the Grizz may have to give the Curry assignment to someone other than Beno Udrih. He’s just not fast enough for the scariest job in the NBA. For entertainment purposes, I hope it’s Allen.
• With J.R. Smith back, the Cavs face an interesting lineup decision — one that could turn on Iman Shumpert’s health. The Cavs started Game 1 with a small-ball group, quickly discovered Mike Miller was unplayable, and went into Super Smash mode for Game 2 by starting Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov together.
That lineup just looks like it should fail. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving have no path to the rim on the pick-and-roll, since the Bulls can clutter the lane with giant humans. The Cavs know that, so they ditched the pick-and-roll, cleared the left side of the floor for LeBron, and let him attack one-on-one. Sometimes he settled for jumpers, and he can’t make one to save his life right now — something that will flip eventually if the Bulls keep going under picks against him.
But when he turned those isolations into post-ups, he was an unstoppable bully. Jimmy Butler is a freaking beast, but LeBron can back him down, and if he gets close enough to the rim, a help defender has to bum-rush him. The spacing is tight, but LeBron needs only a teensy crack to find Shumpert in the corner, Irving spotting up above the arc, or one of the behemoths cutting into the paint. It reminded me of the Pacers-Heat series in 2012 when Chris Bosh was injured and the Heat fell back on simplicity: Give the ball to LeBron and get everyone else out of the way. The Cavs’ normal spread pick-and-roll system, with Kevin Love spotting up around the arc, is a vehicle for basketball artistry. Game 2 was a battering ram slamming into a door until it busted.
And when LeBron or some jump-shooter missed, Mozgov and Thompson cleaned the glass. The Cavs have rebounded a preposterous 44 percent of their own misses in this series with Mozgov and Thompson on the floor, per NBA.com, and the Bulls don’t seem to have a ready answer. Thompson is just humiliating Pau Gasol under the rim, shoving him away, darting around him, and exposing the emptiness of Gasol’s gaudy rebounding stats.3 Joakim Noah is hobbled, a borderline liability. Taj Gibson has never been a great defensive rebounder, and Nikola Mirotic, who reportedly still plays for the Bulls, can’t bang with Thompson and Mozgov.
The Cavs overall are plus-19 with that combo, killing it on both ends, and I’d lean toward rolling it out there until the Bulls figure it out — something Chicago couldn’t do in the regular season, either.
• That said, Smith’s return reunites Cleveland’s one small-ball group composed of five actual NBA-level players: Irving, Smith, Shumpert, James, and one of Thompson/Mozgov. That group would unlock a less taxing path to points for LeBron4 and give the Cavs the potential for a super-switchy lineup when they want to lock down on defense — something we saw glimpses of toward the end of Game 2. Slot Shumpert on Derrick Rose, LeBron on Butler, and Thompson on Gasol, and the Cavs can switch any threatening action.
Switching like that carries risk, especially early in the shot clock; Gasol would have time to back down against Shumpert or LeBron, and Rose could size up Thompson off the bounce. But Thompson is among the league’s best bigs at sliding with little guys, LeBron guarded Gasol a few times on Wednesday, and the Cavs can use their speed to double the post.
• Smith in this alignment would have to guard Chicago’s second big man, and Irving would run around with Mike Dunleavy Jr. Those are not ideal matchups for Cleveland, but they’re also not so problematic that the Cavs should freak out about going small — especially if that second big is Noah. The poor guy just can’t do anything on offense right now, including make his free throws, and the Cavs should be comfortable with damn near anyone defending him if the matchup helps their offense.
Gibson presents a more fearsome post-up threat, but he hasn’t been able to exploit James Jones, and double-teams fluster him. Dunleavy could shoot over Irving, but Irving might do less damage to Cleveland’s defense away from the ball — and from Rose pick-and-rolls. And if Chicago does poke at one mismatch, the Cavs can rejigger the pieces.
• Another risk for Cleveland in going small: It makes transition defense harder, since all the matchups are scrambled. The Bulls on defense hide Noah on Shumpert, and as the teams change ends, all the Cavs have to find their assignments. Chaos breeds confusion, and Chicago in Game 1 nabbed easy points by rushing the ball up and scoring before the Cavs could right themselves.
• Remember when Aaron Brooks was good?
• I’m still waiting on the Cavs, and LeBron specifically, to shift into that extra gear on defense. The possibility grows with every passing game that the Cavs just don’t have it in them for 48 minutes. I mean, this team is a Finals threat, even without Love:
Look at all that frenzy! But that’s one possession amid seeping uninterest. LeBron’s switching and closeouts have been as flat-footed as they were in the first round against Boston:
The Cavs need LeBron fully engaged on defense, especially if they are going to play heavy minutes with just one traditional big man on the floor.
• It will be fascinating to watch how Thibodeau divvies up Chicago’s frontcourt minutes. The Noah-Gasol duo has fared better, at least by the numbers, than most people seem to think, but that may not hold up against Cleveland’s “A” team — especially since the Cavs should feel free to guard Noah with a smaller player.
The Bulls at some point will need Mirotic’s shooting to generate offense, but Thibodeau is reluctant to use him, and any two-man combination with Mirotic at power forward could hemorrhage offensive boards against the Thompson-Mozgov bruise brothers. Thibodeau could spot Mirotic minutes away from that pairing, but that kind of juggling can only get you a few minutes here and there. Still: That can be enough to swing a quarter, and then a game, and then a series.
A Mirotic-Gibson pairing looks most promising on paper, at least against smaller Cleveland lineups. Mirotic can stretch the floor on offense, and Gibson can switch onto LeBron (and even Irving) defending pick-and-rolls on the other end. Thibs will have to give that a look and reduce Noah’s minutes if he remains a total zero on offense.
• God, I hated writing that sentence. I love Noah, and watching him play right now sucks. Royally.
• It is past time for Tony Snell to get all of Kirk Hinrich’s minutes. The Cavs in Game 2 overreacted to the threat of Gasol’s midrange jumper, but they can afford to flood Gasol if Hinrich and his rec specs are chilling on the weak side of a Rose-Gasol pick-and-pop:
Sad Kirk is sad.
Snell can also give Butler a brief reprieve from guarding LeBron, though Thibodeau was smarter in Game 2 about yanking Butler whenever LeBron rested — even if it meant deviating from his rigid rotations.
Pray for Jimmy.
• Two things have saved this series form total unwatchability: apex Blake Griffin and some nifty interior passing leading to a Dwight Howard dunkfest on Houston pick-and-rolls. Do you like turnovers, free throws, and three-hour NBA games? THIS IS THE SERIES FOR YOU! There’s a reason I call Houston “Team DVR.”
• If you are surprised at how well Griffin is playing, you were probably among the crowd labeling him a one-dimensional dunker without a post game as recently as the halfway point of last season. Chris Paul’s absence has Griffin compiling bonkers triple-double numbers, but this is just an amplified version of the all-around stud he has been for two-plus seasons.
One problem: Griffin is playing himself into exhaustion, and Houston can exacerbate that by pressing Griffin when he brings the ball up. Watch him in the last two minutes of each of his shifts: His rotations on defense get slower, he doesn’t sprint up the floor, and he spends more offensive possessions on the fringes.
• A delightful Clippers subplot: watching one player demand the ball from Austin Rivers, only to have Rivers ignore the yelling and go off a wild journey toward the basket.
• Without Paul, the Clippers are manufacturing some good looks with basic handoff plays:
The Clips know Houston won’t slide from Griffin, and that puts enormous pressure on the poor saps chasing J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford: If Griffin catches them at all with his picks, those shooters have a clear look at the rim.
And if the Clips notice Howard ignoring DeAndre Jordan, they’ll improvise right into the same action using Jordan as the handoff guy instead of Griffin:
Houston has Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni guarding Redick, and those two have done a shockingly good job slithering around these screens. They both stumbled a bit toward the end of Game 1, and if that happens again, Houston might at least try playing without either of them — and using James Harden, Corey Brewer, and Trevor Ariza together. Reminder: Houston misses Patrick Beverley.
• Houston’s collective first step from offense to defense has been terrible, and it has cost the team major points in transition. Harden loves to gamble for steals and whine, the whole team mopes after live-ball turnovers, and there is a habit of standing around just in case a Rocket recovers a loose ball — even as every Clipper leaks out ahead of them. Houston cleaned some of this up in Game 2, but it was a big reason it wasted a chance to jump up 2-0 on a Clips team missing its best player.
• The segments of Game 2 that Jordan missed with foul trouble were a good advertisement for his worthiness of a max contract.
• I liked Houston going small in Game 2, with Ariza at power forward, the moment Hedo Turkoglu and Hedo Turkoglu’s T-shirt checked into the game. Houston stuck with that look even when the Clips came back with the Griffin-Jordan combo, using Ariza to check Griffin.5 That looks like a mismatch for the Clips, but Houston was able to double Griffin, recover back to shooters, and force the Clips up against the shot clock.
• The Rockets also opened the second half of Game 2 with Howard on Griffin — a matchup that can neuter Griffin’s post game but also brings Howard away from the rim. I’m intrigued.
• The Clips can get Ariza onto Griffin whenever they want; Ariza is guarding Rivers in part so the Rockets can switch Rivers-Griffin pick-and-rolls without feeling too much pain. Switching Crawford-Griffin pick-and-rolls is dicier; Crawford blew by Houston big men twice for buckets down the stretch of Game 2.
• Houston playing Hack-a-Jordan with Griffin on the bench is dumb. Playing Hack-a-Whoever to gain an extra possession at the end of a quarter is smart. The Clippers playing Hack-a-Dwight/Josh with Griffin resting and Harden on the court is at least semi-smart. I will now go vomit and then set my DVR to run an extra 90 minutes in case I fall asleep drooling.
• Houston has done a nice job reminding people you can still score a ton of points without a sexy stretch power forward. Harden and Howard are deadly pick-and-roll bookends, and Houston’s power forwards are capable middlemen — guys who can screen for Harden, catch the first pass, draw the defense, and lob for Howard on those gorgeous tic-tac-toe plays. The Clippers love lunging out on that first pick-and-roll, and Houston is good at slipping through that first crack on the way to a Howard flush:
It’s against the Clippers’ nature, but I like when they hang back a little more at the top of those plays, so Josh Smith and Jones don’t catch the ball with as much space to operate:
Griffin comes up only to the level of the pick, and that allows Jordan to hang back on Howard instead of lurching up toward Smith — the fatal move just before a Howard crusher. And check out how Redick abandons Terry on the weak side to pop up in Smith’s grill right when the first pass arrives. That’s dangerous, especially with Griffin already nearby to contain Smith, but the general idea is right: Stay close to Harden and Howard, and force Smith to make a play — a floater in traffic or a kickout pass to one of Houston’s shooters.
Those shooters are good, but not great, and none is all that dangerous driving into traffic if a Clips defender closes out on time to prevent a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. The Clippers are well-versed at flying around the floor in rotation, and even if Houston swings the ball one step ahead of those frantic defenders, the Clips can probably force at least a semi-contested 3-pointer if they play things right:
Letting Griffin hang back would also help him conserve energy, though it might not end up meaning all that much considering how much responsibility he has right now.
We’ll have a better feel for all of these series after a weekend of games. Enjoy it, everyone!