Your NBA Conference Finals PreviewNoah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
A weird playoffs of injuries, buzzer-beaters, more injuries, basket interference plays, phantom timeouts, Tony Allen, comebacks, collapses, and cheap shots has left us with an intriguing final four: three teams who exceeded preseason expectations, a returning King, and four of the league’s most prolific 3-point-shooting teams. Someone alert Phil Jackson!
These four teams trudged through a lot to get here, and all of them are dealing with injuries to rotation players. They deserve hearty congratulations; 26 jealous teams are at home watching. Let’s dig into what they might see.
After nine games of ragged, listless, and sometimes clueless postseason play, the Rockets transformed mid-series against the Clippers into a disciplined two-way crew that valued every possession. It was legitimately shocking.
Houston will have to play with that same focus and care from jump street, and maintain it for 48 minutes every night, to have any chance against a Warriors team dancing toward the championship. The Rockets’ track record suggests they can’t do it — that they will doze for the occasional three-minute stretch in which Stephen Curry becomes hot lava — but perhaps in snatching the Clippers’ soul they learned something about what it takes to win deep in the playoffs.
The Clippers and Warriors scored at near-identical rates in the regular season, but Golden State plays with an openness and freedom that confounds. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan eat inside the foul line; Houston’s big men could hang in the paint on the pick-and-roll, and Dwight Howard was a one-man rim barricade over the final three games. Sagging back like that concedes open jumpers, but Chris Paul needs time and space to unfold a slow release; if Paul’s defender stays within an arm’s reach, Paul has to keep driving and juking for a midrange jumper.
Stephen Curry is a fast-twitch anomaly who needs only a teensy slit to unleash hell. One half-lurch the wrong way, one shoulder-to-shoulder bump against a Draymond Green pick, and you are toast.
This is why you might see Dwight Howard skittering 30 feet out of his comfort zone to squelch a Curry–Andrew Bogut pick-and-roll:
This is why the Curry–Draymond Green pick-and-roll produced more points per play than almost every other such combination, per SportVU data, with Green’s rampaging 4-on-3s emerging as a worthy supplement to Curry’s scorching comets:
This would have been a great Patrick Beverley series. Beverley is well-balanced, ferocious, and fast; he slithers around picks and sticks on Curry’s hip so that Houston’s bigs can hold their position just below the 3-point arc. Houston’s remaining point guards, Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni, are overmatched. They hung with Paul, but you can survive a false half-step and a speed deficit against Paul in a way you simply cannot against Curry.1
It’s tempting to suggest that Houston sic Trevor Ariza on Curry, but the Warriors starting lineup offers no safe hiding places. Harrison Barnes can score over smaller players down low, and slotting Terry there means James Harden has to exhaust himself chasing Klay Thompson. And do you really trust Harden to stay in tune full-time against a sniper with an unfair turbo release?
Houston has sometimes preferred Harden on Thompson, which seems counterintuitive, but it helps eliminate a deadly Golden State weapon: the transition 3s they get out of cross-matches, as opposing defenders scramble to find their correct assignments. Thompson almost always guards Harden, which means that if Houston wants Harden defending Barnes on the other end, two Rockets may have to crisscross the court like Jim Valvano after the 1983 NCAA title game.
That is chaos. Golden State, the league’s best transition team, thrives in chaos.
Houston took a haughty approach to transition defense in the first four games against the Clippers. The Rockets over-pursued offensive rebounds, gambled for steals, and had the offense-to-defense first step of a kid walking to the principal’s office. Sag your shoulders for a moment and some Warrior will be canning an open 3.
Barnes is a less taxing assignment for Houston’s MVP, but going that route means sliding the point guard onto Thompson — a tough ask. Thompson is a smoother post player than Barnes, and he’s comfortable raining catch-and-shoot jumpers over little guys. We’ll see Ariza take turns on Curry, especially when Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are on the floor as safer havens, but every matchup trick produces new and different risks.
Houston in the end might be best living with Terry on Curry, and leaving Ariza on the wing, where he can leverage his length shifting in and out on help assignments. They could also go without either Terry or Prigioni, but we haven’t seen much of that in the playoffs. If the Rockets are on point, they have the goods to make the Warriors work for it. Josh Smith and Terrence Jones are mobile enough to string Curry out on those dreaded Curry-Green pick-and-rolls, Howard can step off the punchless Bogut, and Houston’s wing defenders can crash down behind Howard as needed:
Those wings will have to read when the crisis in the middle of the floor requires more help — and when it is safe to recover back out to Golden State’s army of shooters. Ariza aces that test, but Brewer and Harden have bad habits — recklessness for Brewer, sleepiness for Harden — that enlarge existing gaps and tear open new ones. They will have to be on point all the time.
Houston should spend parts of this series getting even funkier and switching a ton on the perimeter. They’ve been comfortable switching Smith and Jones onto Thompson, and Smith might be able to hang with Curry for a few seconds after switching a Curry-Green pick-and-roll. Curry can smoke him off the bounce, but you have to live with Curry nailing floaters — or with Green posting up Terry on the back end of that switch.
One wild card in the Rockets’ deck: going small, with Ariza at power forward, an alignment that would allow them to slot Ariza on Green — and switch almost everywhere. The Warriors have seen it all by now, and they can adapt to anything. If Houston rushes into small ball, Golden State can default into Curry-Bogut pick-and-rolls that drag the Rockets’ only rim protector far from the hoop. If Curry slices through that first line of defense, it’s over:2
Going small would also address the more serious challenge of how the hell Houston is going to score in the half court. In four games, only two of which featured Howard, the Rockets’ half-court offense scored just .796 points per possession — a mark that would have ranked 29th overall, ahead of only the Philadelphia Lottery Champions of 2015, per Synergy Sports. Vaporize the Rockets’ riotous fast-break attack and it’s unclear how they can squeeze out enough points.
Smith and Jones have done splendid work as pick-and-roll playmakers — middlemen between Harden at the top and Howard finishing things with a cram job. The Clippers adjusted their hyperactive defense at times to account for that; on Harden-Smith pick-and-rolls, they had Blake Griffin sit back around the foul line instead of lunging up to trap Harden. That kept Griffin close to Smith on rolls to the hoop, which in turn allowed DeAndre Jordan to stick with Howard — snuffing those Smith-to-Howard lobs that eviscerated Dallas in the first round.
The Clippers wanted to stay attached to Harden, hug Howard near the rim, and force the other Rockets to beat them. Smith and Harden would have to nail tricky floaters. Houston’s shooters would have to can 3s and make plays off the dribble when the Clippers ran them off the arc.
Golden State will try something similar, only this is what they do already, and they’re miles better than the Clippers defensively. Scoring between Green and Bogut at the rim is something that belongs on American Gladiators, and playing two traditional big men guarantees they will both be lurking there:
It’s easier to pull up early, and Harden settled more than usual for midrange shots against the Warriors, per NBA.com. He can hit those, but he shot just 40 percent overall against Golden State, and nudging him inch by inch into the anti-Morey dead zone is a series-changing incremental victory.
Thompson danced step-for-step with Harden, and Harden appeared unnerved at times, launching crazy 3s as if he knew the rim were off-limits — and that Houston was way behind. Golden State has the deepest pool of long and smart wing defenders in the league. They’re good individually — and they’re brilliant together. They move as one, on a string, shifting into passing lanes with their arms spread wide, and sliding back out to shooters who thought they were open.3 They will ignore Smith, Brewer, and Jones on the perimeter, strangle the paint, and leave Houston to ping the ball between third, fourth, and fifth options:
With Green and Barnes splitting power-forward minutes, the Warriors are uniquely equipped to switch any pick-and-roll between Harden and Houston’s power-forward crew. The Rockets can complicate things with some trickery,4 but if the Warriors use Green to silence an entire genre of pick-and-rolls, the Rockets will have to look elsewhere.
Steve Kerr should be bold in this series using Barnes at power forward almost every painful second that Green rests. Smith and Jones can test Barnes in the post, but Barnes is surprisingly hard to dislodge, and the Warriors can send help if need be. Smith isn’t Zach Randolph, and if the Warriors can play entire games with at least four shooters on the floor, they are very hard to beat.
With a ridiculous five rotation players capable of guarding Harden, Golden State can switch all over the place — on and off the ball. Houston’s cleanest path to points in the half court could be going small, with Ariza at power forward, and spreading the floor around switch-proof Harden-Howard pick-and-rolls.
But that would hurt Houston’s defense. The Rockets might be able to find a middle ground on that end by taking Smith off of Green, hiding him on Barnes, and slotting a wing player onto Green — building an easier switch into defending the Curry-Green pick-and-roll.5 But Memphis tried that at times, and Barnes torched Randolph off the dribble. On offense, Houston could have Terry set picks for Harden, forcing Golden State to abandon switching or have Curry battle the MVP runner-up.
The Rockets have a fighting chance if they fight like they did in closing out the Clippers. They have the speed and length on defense to disrupt the Warriors, and, when they’re dialed in, the smarts to shift more shots to Green, Barnes, Iguodala, Bogut, and others — and away from the Splash Brothers.
Howard might be able to coax Bogut into foul trouble, and he’s fearsome enough on the glass to make Kerr hesitate busting out the unguardable super-small lineups with Green at center. David Lee and Marreese Speights have zero shot against him, and though Festus Ezeli has made huge strides on offense — including the acquisition of human hands — every minute he plays still feels like a small victory.
The Rockets are a dangerous offensive rebounding team, and they have to hurt the Warriors on the glass to win this series. Harden is a wizard, and he will have a game or two when it doesn’t matter who guards him, what adjustments the Warriors make, or what lineups Houston plays — games where he just gets to cookin’.
But Golden State has been the better team over the balance of the season, they swept Houston, and they are flexible enough to counter whatever Kevin McHale has in the bag.
Prediction: Warriors in five
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The biggest question in a series between two wheezing teams with injury issues and thinned-out benches is simple: Which lineups do Cleveland’s co-coaches want to play?
Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson logged exactly zero minutes together in the one game Cleveland and Atlanta played after David Griffin, the Cavs GM, saved the team’s season by nabbing Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, and J.R. Smith in one mega-transaction.6 Those two bludgeoned Chicago with offensive rebounds, and they could do the same against a smallish Atlanta team that ranked just 22nd in defensive rebounding rate.7 Mozgov has never been better at protecting the rim, and Thompson has the speed to scamper around the perimeter with Paul Millsap.
But the Cavs have zippo spacing on the pick-and-roll with Thompson and Mozgov crowding the paint. There are no lanes for driving or passing. Against Chicago, LeBron reverted to a kind of state-of-nature basketball: lazy one-on-one jumpers and bulldozing post-ups that made Jimmy Butler look overmatched. DeMarre Carroll can hound LeBron one-on-one as well as almost anyone outside San Antonio, but no wing player can deal with him in the post. That kind of bully-ball is just brutally difficult work for LeBron relative to conducting spread pick-and-rolls — another cost of going super-big, and a reminder of what the Cavs lost when Kelly Olynyk hit Kevin Love with his finishing move. No single event of the last three months had a greater impact on the championship picture.
Atlanta defanged that pick-and-roll attack in their last meeting by blitzing James and Irving:
Playing that way is a gamble with Kevin Love spotting up. The rotations get longer, and Love’s shooting makes defenders think twice about helping away from him. There is no time for such reflection against a LeBron James offense. Pause and you die.
Everything is easier for Atlanta with Thompson in Love’s place amid a double-big lineup. The Hawks don’t have the size of a classic great defense, but they make up for it with speed, precision, and dogged effort. They’ll smother the ball with extra bodies, and when you swing it to the other side, they’ll meet you there on the catch. Shrink the distance they have to cover, and the Hawks can lock you in a vise grip.
Going big also makes it hard for the Cavs to hide a gimpy Kyrie Irving from Jeff Teague. Irving might be able to survive against Carroll after guarding another canny shooter-cutter type (Mike Dunleavy Jr.) for parts of the Chicago series, but that would leave LeBron on either Korver or Teague. LeBron can handle both — duh — but they are the kinds of taxing assignments he typically absorbs for only a few crunch-time possessions. But Irving’s defense is going to be a problem. He has issues navigating picks when he’s healthy, and Atlanta can slice you apart if Teague gashes the paint and draws help.
Teague has to amp up his score-first aggressiveness if the Cavs guard him with Irving or Matthew Dellavedova — just as he did in the last round when John Wall was out. Dellavedova battles, but Teague is just too quick and crafty for either of them, and the Hawks should let Teague attack one-on-one — without a screener to clutter things up:
Going smaller, with LeBron at power forward, could juice the offense and make it a bit easier for Cleveland to rejigger the matchups on defense — though hiding Irving would require LeBron to suck it up and take Millsap for big minutes. Lineups featuring Irving, Shumpert, Smith, James, and one of Mozgov and Thompson have killed it in the playoffs on both sides of the ball, per NBA.com.
Shumpert could guard Teague, Irving would slide to Carroll, and LeBron would battle one of the league’s most well-rounded big men. Some of those matchups are still dicey; Irving is a minus defender against anyone, and the notion of a spaced-out ball-watcher like J.R. Smith tracking Korver’s dragonfly flitting is enough to induce a panic attack.8
But a small lineup with Thompson at center opens the door to the kind of mass switching that can simplify defense for a rickety team. Mozgov and Thompson are good defenders, but scooting around the perimeter against Horford, Millsap, and Pero Antic stretches any traditional big man to his breaking point. Cleveland in March had Mozgov lunging out on pick-and-rolls involving Horford, and it went poorly:
The point of defending like that is to make sure Mozgov stays close to Horford — to prevent an open pick-and-pop jumper. But Horford and Millsap are uncanny at reading those hard traps, slipping into open space, and sucking in extra defenders. The Hawks can get a decent midrange jumper whenever they want. Those kinds of cuts (and Teague splits) are how they start the machine moving toward something better. The peak Hawks, whom we haven’t really seen since the last time these two teams played, get you in rotation and whip the ball around until they find the juiciest open shot.
It might be safer to drop down, wall off Teague’s drive, and scurry back toward Millsap and Horford before they can uncork jumpers. They can both pump-and-drive against that kind of defense, but if the Hawks beat you making a bunch of plays like this, you tip your cap:
Getting switchy provides a simpler answer. It could also create some ugly mismatches, but a speedy lineup is better equipped to send emergency help — fast. It’s also the easiest way to blanket Korver without a single lockdown defender, other than LeBron, suited to the job.
Going with Heat-style small ball would also force Atlanta into a dilemma on the other end: Do you match up position-by-position and let Millsap guard James, or keep Carroll on him — and hide Millsap on someone like Shumpert? Atlanta has preferred keeping Carroll on LeBron, but Shumpert has enough pep in his step to take bigger guys like Millsap off the bounce. Millsap isn’t the typical big guy, though; he’s fast, with genius tap-dancing footwork, and he could hang with Shump. But he can also slide around with LeBron, and Atlanta in the middle of the Brooklyn series decided to keep things basic and just have Millsap guard opposing small-ball 4s — first Joe Johnson, and then, against the Wizards, Paul Pierce.
Millsap has been comfortable switching onto LeBron in the past, and he has even swiped the ball from the King with his cat-burglar hands. Taking Carroll away from LeBron would free him to guard Irving — a move Atlanta made in the one head-to-head game LeBron sat out. Teague’s defense comes and goes, and if Irving has his zip back, the Hawks would do well to spot Teague some time away from the ball.
Putting Carroll on Irving also suffocates the dreaded LeBron-Irving pick-and-roll, since Carroll and Millsap could simply switch an action specifically designed to punish switches.
Look, the Cavs are going to do a bit of everything, and all of these decisions get much easier once these teams dip into their sad benches. James Jones does no harm as a small-ball power forward if he has Antic or Mike Muscala9 to guard, and Kent Bazemore will defend Irving when LeBron rests. The NYPD made sure Bazemore would be a key figure in this series as Carroll’s deputy chief on LeBron, but Bazemore just isn’t big enough to deal with James in the post. The Hawks have missed Thabo Sefolosha since the night of his injury, but they’ll feel his absence most here.
We’ll see Teague and Dennis Schröder play together; Dellavedova tailing Korver; and a ton of chess-playing with matchups. At the end of the day, you lean on your best lineups. We know what that is for Atlanta: one of the most polished starting fives in the league. We don’t know what it is for Cleveland, and the answer might change multiple times in this series.
It is hard to trust either of these teams. Atlanta has been off for two months, and its bench has been a disaster. Cleveland is even shallower, Irving is hurt, and every basket against Chicago was such goddamned hard work. The Cavs have limped across the finish line in a lot of their playoff wins against broken and overmatched opponents.
It feels like a toss-up, and Irving’s health is a huge unknown — and possibly the decisive factor in the series. But he says he’s a go in Game 1, and he finished strong against Chicago. I hovered fretfully between “Cavs in six” and “Hawks in seven,” but if Irving can rise to the occasion, then the league’s best overall player should have just enough weapons at his disposal to eke this out.
Prediction: Cavs in six