Sounding the Game 7 Alarm

Oh, hey, you had plans Saturday? Like, plans to be a human being — to perhaps enjoy a glass of the magic elixir called “beer,” or to investigate this yellowish orb that seems to be lighting up whatever exists outside your window?

TOO FREAKING BAD.

The NBA has no time for your pursuit of humanity. There are three Game 7s on Saturday, and the way things have been going, we’ll probably get three more on Sunday. With previews of Friday’s elimination games up and running, here are some addled and hasty thoughts on Saturday’s Game 7s.

Golden State–Los Angeles

Sometimes shit just happens. The X’s and O’s tilt every series, and it certainly matters how the Clippers are defending those pesky Stephen Curry pick-and-rolls; whether smaller Golden State lineups with the David Lee/Draymond Green duo, or even super-small lineups with just one of those guys, can win the offense/defense trade-off; how often the Clippers are willing to switch the Curry/Andre Iguodala pick-and-roll that has increasingly become a weapon in this series; and whether Golden State finds the right balance in pursuing all those post-ups from Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Iguodala.

Maximizing all those things on the fringes absolutely matters, but sometimes random nonsense just happens. Jordan Crawford and Marreese Speights toss in some unexpected points; J.J. Redick misses a bunch of open 3s; DeAndre Jordan mistimes his jump and loses a crucial rebound after an ugly Barnes post-up with 1:20 left and the Dubs up only two; Iguodala nails some crazy jumper over Jordan with the shot clock running down. Winning a close playoff series is about tilting the X’s-and-O’s edge just a hair your way, and then hoping the lucky stuff at least evens out.

To wit: Chris Paul is hobbled, and that may really be all that matters here. He could not push off easily in Game 6, which meant he could not chase Curry around off-ball screens. He flat lost Curry a few times, and then surrendered and began asking for switches. The Warriors on the other end were willing to switch Draymond Green onto Paul with more impunity, and even to chance a few possessions with Curry and Jordan Crawford on him. Some of those switches left Thompson on Blake Griffin, and the Clippers were mostly unable to take advantage.

The Clippers went small early in the fourth quarter of Game 6 to match a super-small Golden State lineup, and any group with Paul, Griffin, and three shooters around them should be impossible to defend. Just run a Paul/Griffin pick-and-roll and see what emerges. But that lineup couldn’t gain any traction, and the Clippers in the last 90 seconds played through Jamal Crawford instead of Paul.

The Clips can still win this thing with Paul hobbled. He’s still a presence that must be honored. Green has done wonderfully in the post on Griffin over the last two games, but Griffin can get him into foul trouble, and David Lee has as much shot against Griffin down low as I do at this point. We have no clue if Jermaine O’Neal can even play.

The Warriors have mixed up coverages on Griffin, and when they doubled in Game 6, their rotations scrambling around after Griffin’s kickout passes were mostly on point.

The Clippers have rebounded 29.2 percent of their own misses in this series, a number that would have trailed only Detroit (remember the miserable Pistons?) in the regular season, and the damage has been uglier when the Dubs play with just one of the Lee/Green/O’Neal trio. But those small Golden State lineups are borderline impossible to guard, with so much shooting and passing all over the floor.

The Clips can go small along with those groups, but doing so means removing one of the Griffin/Jordan combination, and an underplayed story of this season has been Doc Rivers’s inability to find a small-ball combination that really works. Hedo Turkoglu and Danny Granger work only in short stretches, if at all; Granger has played more small forward in this series, and Turkoglu is basically shot. Jared Dudley has faded to oblivion, and Big Baby Davis, the third big who might introduce some flexibility, has been a disaster.

That has left the Clips to often stay big, hiding Jordan on Iguodala and hoping Jordan can hurt Harrison Barnes on the other end. Wanna win this series? Make the little plays like Thompson did here in a gritty bit of gang rebounding to help ease the size disadvantage Golden State faces:

The Warriors have done their best without Andrew Bogut as their ace screener and last line of defense. They’ve made themselves hard to guard when they take care of the ball. Mark Jackson’s job might be in jeopardy, but he has mostly coached a good series. He realizes the Warriors can win this thing only one way, and he has the team playing that way.

Paul’s hamstring is a bummer, and a reminder that injuries impact the title chase every season. We shouldn’t really need this reminder anymore, but it’s worth remembering the next time some screaming lunatic shouts about why Player X has “NO RINGZZZ,” as if getting one is easy.

Atlanta-Indiana

Being an NBA coach would suck if it didn’t come with an enormous salary and a very small chance at glory. The Pacers became the darlings of the league precisely because they would not bend to anyone. “Will you play small ball against the Knicks, Coach, since they use Carmelo Anthony at power forward?” Imagine a sly grin on Frank Vogel’s face: “No way. We are who we are.” And the world cheered! The Pacers were badass, imposing their will on fools.

Start losing to a wacky Atlanta team playing five 3-point shooters at once, and your best virtue becomes a mark of your own idiocy. That imposition of your will begins to look like evidence of stubbornness. Results are all that matter, I guess.

Another word on luck in the playoffs: If Al Horford stays healthy, the Pacers are likely playing a Charlotte team with a bruising post-up center only a bit fleeter of foot than poor ol’ Roy Hibbert.

The Pacers didn’t go small in Game 6 as much as they just stopped playing Hibbert, along with Evan Turner and Luis Scola. Ian Mahinmi logged more time than Chris Copeland, and Indy closed the game with the David West/Ian Mahinmi pairing. Mahinmi is faster than Hibbert, and a better fit in a series that requires Indy’s bigs to move around more. Indy has a positive scoring margin for the series (plus-5) with those two together, and Vogel should start Mahinmi with the season on the line.

But the Pacers have morphed into destroyers whenever Copeland has been on the floor; they are a giant plus-16 in the meager 44 minutes Cope has logged, playing off-the-charts ball on both ends.

Look: Copeland is not some superhero. He’s a catastrophically poor defender, which is why Vogel has not played him all season. That will be exposed over time. But the Pacers have no time, and all the available evidence suggests he needs to be on the floor in this series. He can manage against Mike Scott and Pero Antic just fine, though the Pacers should avoid stashing Copeland on the brilliant Paul Millsap.

And on offense, the floor is just wide open when Copeland is out there with West or Mahinmi. The Pacers have an anemic offense, and they need all the open acreage they can get just to function. George Hill in Game 6 did a nice job stringing pick-and-rolls out to the sideline and drawing out the Atlanta traps, confident he could lob a pass across the court to his big man near the bucket.

Why was he so confident? Because there was no second big mucking up passing lanes around the hoop. All West had to do on this play was catch the ball and finish over Kyle Korver; Mike Scott, the second big, is up top patrolling Copeland:

More space makes the simple stuff easier, and the Pacers on offense can really do only the simple stuff. Sometimes they can’t even do that. They’ve had issues in this series just catching the ball, or throwing it in the general direction of a guy wearing the same-colored uniform. No team passes up more decent 3-pointers to hold the ball and think about stuff for a while.

The Pacers have actually come to remind me of the Heat in LeBron’s first season there, in one particular way: The gap between what Indiana runs on offense out of timeouts and what it runs during the course of play is a giant chasm. Vogel and his staff design some nifty stuff when the game stops, but during the run of play, the Pacers seem incapable of executing any complex actions.

Regardless: Either Paul George or Lance Stephenson will have a one-on-one mismatch every second they are on the floor, and a tad extra space makes it easier for them to just attack off the dribble. Ditto for West, who has made hay just driving his shoulder into dudes and attacking the basket. He is a bad mofo, as always. Hell, C.J. Watson scored a post-up bucket in Game 6 just because no one else was around the rim.

The Hawks have been overplaying West’s midrange jumper all series, sending a third defender — often Stephenson’s guy — over to bother him on the catch. They need to chill with that extra help, since Stephenson has realized he can cut free to the basket for layups while his dude is lunging toward West. He has even more space to cut when Hibbert is on the bench.

STEPHENSON

The Hawks when Copeland was on the floor were also willing to switch pick-and-rolls involving Copeland as the screener, which allowed George to work against big guys; he nailed a crucial 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter against such a switch.

The Pacers are at home, and they’ve begun to play optimal lineups for this particular matchup. They should win this game, and if they do, they’ll get a more traditional Washington team in the next round. But Indiana over three months now has given us zero reason to think it can summon a quality two-way game when the situation demands one. The Pacers’ perimeter defense has been leaky for stretches in this series, and Hill has lost Korver several times over the last few games. Be careful, Pacers.

Oklahoma City–Memphis

Again, shit happens. Mike Conley has a hamstring injury, Nick Calathes is suspended, and as much as I enjoy a Beno Udrih pull-up jumper in transition, it’s hard to find a scenario in which Memphis wins on the road with Udrih as its only usable point guard. Conley will surely try to gut it out, as he did in the fourth quarter of Game 6, and if he’s at something like 75 percent or better, the Grizz clearly have a shot.

I mean, why wouldn’t they? Four of the six games have been absolute madness, though it says something about Oklahoma City’s comparably higher ceiling that the Thunder have the two double-digit wins.

Udrih seems like a nice man, but he can’t defend anyone, and if Scott Brooks is smart, he will force Udrih to chase Reggie Jackson around as much as possible. (Courtney Lee will surely continue guarding Russell Westbrook.)

Speaking of Brooks: His rotations have been decent in this series. He pulled the plug on his punchless starting lineup earlier and earlier, until finally concluding that Thabo Sefolosha’s lack of shooting outweighs his ability to check Conley on defense. Caron Butler is a respected spot-up guy, and starting him in Game 6 opened up the floor for Oklahoma City’s stars. It’s not a coincidence that Westbrook looked calmer, getting to the rim on the pick-and-roll and tossing artful passes to shooters on the weak side. Life is easier when there is space to breathe.

Brooks has also been aggressive, by his standards, in going small with Durant at power forward, a fascinating dynamic in this series. Brooks has typically gone that route only whenever one of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph sits, since he doesn’t want Durant banging with bullies for 30 minutes a night. But in the last two games, Brooks has chanced some small ball against the Randolph/Gasol duo, and the Thunder have blitzed Memphis in both big-small clashes.

Gasol can obviously overpower Durant in the post and on the glass, but Durant has fronted him, battled for position, and knocked away some entry passes with those gangly arms. The Thunder have been able to run off those deflections, and their small-ball speed just overwhelms the bulkier Grizz.

This won’t always work. The Grizz won the big-small battles in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 5, though by tiny margins, and there will be stretches when the Grizz dominate the interior. Memphis has also done well in this series occasionally going small itself, matching the Thunder and putting more shooting on the floor.

The right answers here are unclear, and vary game to game. That’s what makes this matchup so interesting.

It gets much less so if Conley is hobbled. He’s a quiet genius with the ball, and he has damaged an overaggressive Thunder defense that enjoys trapping pick-and-rolls 30 feet from the hoop when there’s no real need to do so. A little waterbug like Conley can squirt through those traps and into 4-on-3 situations.

Westbrook’s defense on Conley has veered into very bad territory at times — hyperactive, jumpy, and totally out of control. Conley has burned him over and over, including on several key possessions late in Game 5. If Brooks starts Butler again, Westbrook must guard Conley, and Memphis can take advantage of Conley only if he is at full trickster capacity.

Dave Joerger’s hook on Tayshaun Prince must be quicker than it was in Game 6, when Durant got off to a hot start. Durant is shooting 47 percent in this series when Tony Allen sits, and just 37 percent when Allen plays, and that gap persisted into Durant’s get-well game on Thursday. There’s really no reason Prince should be playing at this point, other than to give Allen a breather.

What a Saturday, huh? Enjoy it, everyone.

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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