Eight Things to Watch for This Weekend in the NBA Conference Finals

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All three games in these conference finals have been close, but the outcomes — two Golden State wins, one DeMarre Carroll injury — raise the sad specter of a boring final four. The next 72 hours will determine whether we get some mega-stakes games in the middle of next week. Let’s bounce around eight things to watch over Memorial Day weekend, a.k.a. a super-fun time that doesn’t really exist for anyone affiliated with the NBA.

1. Can James Harden Keep Doing This?

Houston scrapped for improbable late rallies in both games at Roaracle, and it was one frenzied Harden possession away from stealing Game 2. Dwight Howard looked steady, Houston’s switch-everything scheme gummed up Golden State’s offense in the second half of Game 2, and the Rockets have played snippets of very smart defense. There are real reasons for optimism.

But I’m worried that Harden can’t possibly keep cookin’ like this. He’s whipping up five-star dishes with Dumpster-dive ingredients, and if he cools, it’s unclear if the Rockets have a fallback plan.

Just as they did in the regular season, the Warriors have defanged Houston’s pick-and-roll attack. They will switch most Harden–Josh Smith pick-and-rolls, leaving Harden in the very capable mitts of Draymond Green. The Harden-Howard pick-and-roll is switch-proof — the Dubs don’t want Andrew Bogut lurching after Harden — but it lifts Houston’s best lob finisher away from the rim, and the Warriors are strangling all of Harden’s options.

Klay Thompson is battling around picks and funneling Harden toward Bogut’s help defense. With Bogut half-occupied, Howard should have a free rumble to the rim. But he doesn’t, because Green is ignoring Smith1 along the baseline to snuff the Howard lob threat. Good luck navigating this:

With the Dubs basically playing 3-on-3 near the basket, their perimeter defenders can stay close to home:


Smith will get the occasional baseline floater, but those are tricky shots, and the Warriors will live with stuff like this from Smith and Terrence Jones:

Harden floaters and step-backs have been the only reliably available shots on these plays, and he has drilled them like some cold-blooded Wild West sharpshooter. A lot of Houston’s pick-and-rolls have ended with Harden shrugging his shoulders, pulling the ball out, and draining some crazy one-on-one shot over Thompson.

Harden is 14-of-23 combined on long 2s and shots from the part of the paint outside the restricted area in this series, per NBA.com. He shot just 35 percent on such shots in the regular season, and they comprised only 28 percent of his attempts. More than half of his shots in this series — 23 of 41 — have come from those areas, and Golden State has warped Houston’s overall shot selection.

The Rockets jacked about 13 long paint shots per game in the regular season; they’re averaging 23 of those bad boys against Golden State, a number that would have led the league by a mile.

Golden State has the Rockets cornered in a spot where Harden has to be supernaturally brilliant for them to survive in the half court. He has been up to the task, and Jones has canned some tough hooks in traffic — the exact shots Golden State is conceding.

What happens if that well dries up? Smith is flinging up garbage, and the Rockets have scored just 88 points per 100 possessions with Smith and Howard on the floor — a sub-Sixers number. As I wrote in my preview, Houston may have to go small, with Trevor Ariza at power forward, to lubricate the gears at some point.

They also whipped out more alternatives to the simple high pick-and-roll in Game 2, and they should dip even deeper into their bag going forward. They started the game with a “snug” pick-and-roll, in which Harden posts up and Howard scampers down to set a pick:


That confuses the usual help assignments a bit, and if Harden can turn into the middle of the floor, he might have an alley-oop pass to Howard, since there is no other defender on that side of the floor to crash down on the big fella. But the Warriors were primed for the play, with Green ignoring Smith to clog the paint, and forced Harden into a brutal step-back job. Houston ran a bunch of sideline pin-downs to spring Ariza and Corey Brewer into the paint, and it absolutely has to go back to the Harden–Jason Terry pick-and-roll. It puts Curry in a bad position, and it’s surprising that the Rockets didn’t lean on it sooner. The Smith-Howard pick-and-roll has worked some,2 but Golden State got more comfortable with it in Game 2.

Houston has to keep hurting Golden State on the glass when the Warriors go super-small with Green at center.

Harden can also put his head down and barrel through and around help defenders; he did that a few times in Game 2, and he has generally gotten more calls at home in the playoffs. He can juke the Dubs off-balance by veering away from picks, though even that tactic has produced nothing but toughies:

2. How Much Can Carroll Give the Hawks?

If the answer is “not much,” this series is probably over. Carroll is by far the Hawks’ best option against LeBron James, and on a more basic level, Atlanta has been bad when even one of its starters comes off the floor. The Hawks starting five is plus-88 in the playoffs; all other Atlanta lineups are minus-46 in 401 minutes — the equivalent of losing by almost six points over a 48-minute game. The bench trio of Kent Bazemore, Pero Antic, and Dennis Schröder has been borderline unplayable, to the point that Mike Budenholzer has to think seriously about scrapping it.

The Hawks are so thin that might not be possible, and if Carroll’s out, Bazemore will slide into the starting lineup. He’s a noisy pest, but he has zero chance dealing with James in the post. Paul Millsap held his own against LeBron down the stretch of Game 1, but he defended James only when the Cavs went small, slotting LeBron at power forward opposite Millsap.

That’s not an option from the tip, since it would leave Bazemore to battle one of Cleveland’s big men. The Cavs rebounded a ridiculous 41 percent of their own misses in Game 1 with Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson on the floor; imagine how greedily those two might feast on smaller lineups.

The Hawks could flash back to Millsap’s Utah days and slide him to small forward in jumbo lineups, but that runs counter to the pace-and-space world Budenholzer has built. The Hawks will probably just double LeBron in the post and wager they can scramble around fast enough to squelch open 3s once LeBron kicks the ball out:

LeBron will collect on that wager eventually. He always does, and when the Cavs go small, the Hawks have to cover longer rotations. The Carroll implications go even further: If the Hawks need Bazemore, umm, more, the Cavs suddenly have an easy hiding place for Kyrie Irving. They stashed him on Carroll a few times in Game 1, but Carroll can sneak around Irving for 3s, offensive rebounds, and cuts to the rim. Bazemore is less physical and less dangerous.

Sticking Irving on Bazemore might only be possible when the Cavs go small,3 but that’s enough to revive the Cavs’ best small-ball groups: Irving, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, James, and one of the Bash Brothers. Those lineups logged zero minutes in Game 1, mostly because Irving could not guard the Yi Jianlian Memorial Chair. Matthew Dellavedova took Irving’s slot down the stretch, and while he’s had some big moments in these playoffs, the Cavs reach a different danger level with all of their best players on the floor.

If Irving can just hang with Bazemore, the Cavs could shift Shumpert onto Jeff Teague, an adjustment that makes it even easier to switch pick-and-rolls.

Get well, DeMarre.

3. How Freaking Cute Is Riley Curry?

REALLY FREAKING CUTE. I say we just give up and go extreme on this thing. Why limit it to just toddlers? Let’s get pets up there. You’re telling me you wouldn’t watch a Howard postgame press conference if he arrives at the podium with a snake around his neck? Does Bogut have a dog? Let’s invite some grandparents. Have Gregg Popovich bring his adult daughter with him next season.

4. Will Golden State Keep It Simple?

Look, you need variety against any playoff-level defense. If Houston is going to switch damn near every Curry pick-and-roll, you have to spend token possessions posting up Green on Terry and ticking off counters around the floor. If you pick at every potential mismatch, maybe you convince Houston to abandon the idea.

But … really? I mean, have we seen any evidence that Jones, Josh Smith, and Howard can stay in front of Curry after switches? Do we really need to overthink beyond unleashing Curry to attack one-on-one? Look at the chain of events just a single Curry dribble against Jones can set off:

One false step and it’s over:

Clint Capela stood his ground against Curry on switches in Game 1, but Capela is a bit player, and somehow, I’m confident Curry would figure that matchup out.

Curry is an unprecedented player. He has expanded the very notion of what is possible in the NBA. He makes shots, and threatens to make shots, that no player before him even attempted regularly. Just let him do his thing.

Maybe you can’t do it every single trip. Maybe the Rockets would start trapping at midcourt, as they did in flustering Curry toward the end of Game 2. Maybe they’ll (again) remove their nominal point guards, slot Brewer onto Curry, and stop the switching. But the Warriors are prepared for those things.

If Golden State is going to do other stuff, it has to do it vigorously. It can’t just go through the motions. We’ve seen how dangerous Curry can be in this series running around and setting screens off the ball; when he has set back screens in Games 1 and 2, the Houston defenders may as well have just fallen on the ground and assumed the fetal position. He’s even more dangerous doing that after a switch, since a slower big guy is chasing him. Houston will try to switch every off-ball screen in that situation, so that a wing eventually ends up on Curry, and it executed that well for parts of the second half Thursday night.

But do you trust Houston to hold the chain together over 48 minutes? Allow me to honor our ex-boss here and quote my series preview:

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.

That was the first 18 minutes of Game 2. Houston’s defense was embarrassingly bad over that stretch. We know that Terry and Pablo Prigioni can’t keep up with Curry’s sprinting and twitchy shoulder fakes, but Prigioni especially just zoned out tracking Curry off the ball. The rest of the Rockets helped for no reason, gambled for no-chance-in-hell steals, and failed to communicate in rotating around the floor.

You can scream about the last play — Kevin McHale not calling a timeout, Harden freezing for a tick in the face of a double-team, the hot-potato passing between Harden and Howard. It wasn’t ideal, but those are hothouse moments, and everyone ripping McHale would label him a genius had Harden nailed some nutty triple to win the game.

Houston lost Game 2 in the first 18 minutes. It tightened up on defense after that, and these guys play with such freaking force and spunk. There have been times over the last 10 days when it has been hard to understand how the Rockets are doing this — how they went from comatose to rampaging. They don’t have great shooting. Howard is banged up again. Their defense can collapse into an orgy of incompetence. Hell, even Harden sat on the bench during one of the greatest comebacks in league history.

A big part of it is just that they are relentless. They are fast, athletic, and long, and they keep coming at you. It is exhausting. They are bullies, in their own way. But Golden State got a little slow and a little wasteful in the second half. When Curry gives the ball up, it has to keep the machine moving at peak speed.

5. Can Atlanta Solve the Cavaliers’ “I Dare You” Defense?

I loved Cleveland’s game plan on defense in Game 1. It flat-out disrespected Teague, ducking way under screens and daring him to hit jumpers. It played Teague as if he were Rajon Rondo, and no team has gone quite that far in leaving him open this season. Teague had a solid game, but guarding him that way on the pick-and-roll allows the big defending the screener to stay home instead of helping on him. A pick-and-roll isn’t so useful when it doesn’t generate a single help rotation:

The Cavs took the same approach to Millsap and Al Horford. Instead of trapping far from the hoop to prevent pick-and-pop jumpers, they had their big men drop back, contain Teague, and then scramble back out to the Atlanta bigs:


The risk is obvious: a bounty of open jumpers. But both Atlanta bigs have relatively slow releases, and Millsap especially goes through tentative stages when he passes up open 3s for herky-jerky drives. Both are capable drivers, and there will be runs when they punish this strategy with swishes and pump-and-go buckets. But sagging away from them keeps Cleveland’s defense in a shell and prevents Atlanta from slicing through traps — and into the 4-on-3 situations in which they are so lethal, swinging the ball ahead of rotating defenders until they land on an open triple.

Thompson has the speed to contest those open jumpers and then slide along with Millsap and Horford when they drive.

The Hawks have other counters in their bag. If Teague knows defenders are going under picks against him, he can accelerate into turbo gear and try to beat those defenders to the spot, Monta Ellis–style:

Teague can pull the ball out for isolations; he can torch both Irving and Dellavedova, though things get dicier against Shumpert. He can go over the pick one way, reverse his tracks, and take a rescreen back the other way — increasing the chances that his defender just gets lost in the forest:

And the Hawks will continue to try to spring Kyle Korver. They got close in Game 1 — Shumpert and J.R. Smith experienced some hiccups — but close won’t be good enough anymore.

But I like Cleveland’s overall strategy. It’s on the Hawks now to adjust.

6. Can Atlanta Punish the Cavs’ Small Lineups?

This may be the crux of this series. Cleveland was reluctant to go small against the Millsap-Horford combination until the fourth quarter; before then, the Cavs used LeBron and James Jones at power forward only when Antic and Mike Muscala were on the floor.4 Cleveland knows Millsap and Horford can hurt smaller defenders on the block, and the Hawks should have fined Schröder for launching this floater during a precious possession in which Horford had Jones on him:

But the teams got down to business in the fourth quarter, and Atlanta was plus-10 overall when the Millsap-Horford combination faced smaller Cleveland lineups. Is that advantage real when LeBron — and not Jones — is on the floor to man the power-forward spot?

We’ll see. Some of it stems from LeBron spending the fourth quarter vomiting up possessions with 1-on-5 caveman basketball. Millsap stayed in LeBron’s grill, but it’s unclear if he has the quicks to hang if Cleveland decides to run an actual NBA offense. The whole point of going small is to put three shooters around LeBron-Thompson pick-and-rolls, and it has been maddening to watch Cleveland go small and not run any of those plays. When they finally ran one, LeBron flew for a dunk. Imagine that! The Cavs need to put Millsap through the ringer, on and off the ball, and make him prove he can survive.

I can’t wait to see how this plays out in Game 2.

7. Should Leandro Barbosa Ever Defend Harden?

No. I get what Steve Kerr is doing here — let’s maximize the quality of the help around Harden — but he might want to lock this away.

8. We Haven’t Seen Much Hack-a-Whatever in This Round. Has Your Quality of Life Improved?

Yes. Yes it has. I’ve heard the same stuff as Ken Berger of CBS Sports: that there was division among the 30 general managers at their recent meeting over potentially changing off-ball foul rules to vaporize Hack-a-Shaq from our lives — and that teams with hacking victims predictably favored change.

A rule tweak before next season is probably a 50-50 bet as of now, and both sides have valid points beyond their blatant self-interest. But you can’t deny how much better the viewing experience has been this round with minimal hackage.

Enjoy the weekend, everyone. Let’s root for some competitive series!

Filed Under: 2015 NBA Playoffs, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA