We’re almost done separating the wheat from the chaff of the NBA playoffs, and the two conference semifinals that are already set feature what looked at the start of the year like plausible conference finals matchups.
The stewards of grit-and-grind, all in for this moment after flipping another future first-round pick for Jeff Green, have a lot to be worried about as they head to Oakland to face a 67-win juggernaut:
• Mike Conley’s face is broken. Conley wants to play in Game 1, but it’s unclear when he’ll be ready — and whether having a broken face, and the knowledge that one’s face can be broken, might cast a pall of caution over Conley’s jitterbug style.
The Grizzlies have no chance to win this series without him. Beno Udrih rained pull-ups all over Portland early in the first round, but he’s dealing with an ankle injury, and he’s too slow to guard Stephen Curry even at full health. Memphis could hide him on a wing player, shifting the Curry assignment to Courtney Lee and Tony Allen, or even Green, but the Warriors don’t offer many hospitable hiding places.
Udrih can’t puncture the paint like Conley, and he’s a much less dangerous 3-point shooter. Memphis is the last team that can afford any decline in its perimeter threat level.
Nick Calathes is a hound for steals, but he can’t shoot at all. Pairing Calathes and Allen adds up to playing 4-on-5 against a Golden State defense that is smarter than almost anyone about ignoring poor shooters. This series has a whiff of the Spurs-Grizzlies conference finals sweep in 2013, when San Antonio barricaded the post by playing 15 feet off Allen and Tayshaun Prince.
• And then there is stuff like this:
Anyone who watched the Warriors’ league-best defense strangle opponents knows it would be sloppy to characterize this series as a classic finesse-against-power battle. There’s not much finesse in an Andrew Bogut arm bar, or Draymond Green bending his knees, bracing his chest, and refusing to yield a single goddamned inch in the post.
But the Warriors do have a huge edge in speed and shooting, and Memphis is the league’s preeminent smashmouth team. Memphis wins these kinds of clashes by bringing the pretty kids down to its level — by playing “in the mud,” as the Grizzlies like to say. But what happens when a team that can outrun you, outpass you, and outshoot you is just as comfortable slogging through that mud?
Look at that first clip. Green snares the rebound from Zach Randolph, sprints away in transition, and creates an open corner 3 for the world’s greatest shooter. That is death. That is one team winning a mud-wrestling match, turbo-boosting its way out of the mud, slapping on a jet pack, and morphing into an entirely different team — all in a few seconds. Golden State is the league’s deadliest fast-breaking team, and the Grizzlies will struggle to keep up.
Randolph and Green will be at the nexus of this series, though they probably won’t guard each other as much as fight fans might like. Green defended Marc Gasol in two of the three regular-season matchups, leaving Bogut and Randolph to commit violent acts against each other. Gasol has to exploit his height advantage over Green and rediscover his early-season aggressiveness as a post scorer for Memphis to have any chance.
Green was generally up for the fight, and the Warriors will help him by sliding away from any weak Memphis outside shooter to deny entry passes or dig down on Gasol post-ups. Bogut will occasionally let Randolph fire from midrange to quash a Gasol post-up:
Gasol and Randolph will get a lot of good midrange looks in this series; the Warriors drop their big men back against pick-and-rolls, conceding some decent pick-and-pop jumpers. Sometimes the game is simple: Memphis will need Randolph and Gasol to exceed their normal percentages from midrange over the course of this series.
Luring Green into foul trouble could swing a game for Memphis. The whole look of the Warriors changes when Green hits the bench; they struggled badly against the Pelicans in the first round when Green fouled too much.1 Fatigue also looms as an issue. The Warriors were frighteningly dependent on Green in the first round; they played him to exhaustion, and trying to bump Randolph out of the paint before he catches the ball 75 times per game would tire out anyone.
Something he also did in a Warriors-Grizzlies game.
The Warriors suddenly turn guardable when they play two traditional big men together, and one go-to solution — going small with Harrison Barnes at power forward — carries more risk than usual against the Memphis bullies.
But the Warriors will try small ball, even against a Randolph-Gasol tag team that spooks most opponents into mothballing such lineups. The Warriors were brave enough to try it for small stretches in the regular season, and Steve Kerr won’t crack after one Randolph post-up score over Barnes. He’s a curious sort who might want to see if the shooting advantage bears fruit over a longer sample. Hell, he might even try Green at center, just to see what happens, and will be downright giddy downsizing when Memphis rests one of its starting bigs.
If that game-within-the-game breaks right for Golden State, there might even be a moment when Dave Joerger sweats about removing Randolph to match up against a speedier Golden State group.
That’s not to say Kerr and his staff will be reckless. If Memphis rampages over smaller Golden State lineups, Kerr won’t die on a small-ball hill. Golden State respects Memphis’s size; the Warriors switch on defense less against the Grizzlies, and Festus Ezeli figures to have more of a role in this series.
Still: Dubs small ball is a natural counter to Memphis second units that feature Jeff Green at power forward, and Kerr won’t be afraid to guard Kosta Koufos with a smaller player. The freaking Warriors, man — they beat you at any size.
Randolph stands as the bellwether of this series. He’ll have to fight for every basket on offense, and the Warriors will target him on the other end. Randolph had trouble defending the deadly Curry-Green pick-and-roll, a play that requires Green’s defender to leap out above the 3-point arc to prevent a lethal Curry triple. Randolph has improved his defense in Memphis, but scampering with Curry 30 feet from the rim stretches him to the breaking point. Curry can turn the corner, find Green rolling free to the rim, or pick out some other option:
Golden State also loves to attack from the side, where Green can slip into open space, veer into the paint, and search out his best passing options:
It would be safer for Randolph to sit back, but playing that way requires absolute perfection from the guy guarding Curry; fall even a half-step behind while lurching around a Green pick, and you’re toast:
Conley’s a good defender, but someone bigger — Lee or the ferocious Allen — would have a better shot flashing under a Green pick and reappearing in Curry’s grill. Slotting Conley2 onto Barnes, Shaun Livingston, or Klay Thompson invites some danger, but Memphis will try it, and Andre Iguodala will be a safer choice when he’s out there.
If he can play at all.
Memphis knows the Randolph-Green matchup is a problem for its defense. In the last game these teams played, Joerger started with Randolph guarding Barnes and a wing defending Green. The idea was simple: get Randolph the hell out of pick-and-roll defense and give Memphis a chance to switch the Curry-Green action.
But the Warriors are mean. They hunted Randolph, just as they pursued Ryan Anderson in the first round when Monty Williams frantically shifted Anderson from safe house to safe house. If Williams hid Anderson on a random usher, the Warriors would have had that usher set picks for Curry. Against Memphis, they went right into Curry-Barnes pick-and-rolls and unleashed Barnes to attack Randolph off the dribble. Golden State has the flexibility to make every choice a wrong one.
The Grizzlies couldn’t find the right choice with Thompson, who shot 62 percent against them and dropped 37 points in one half. Allen and Lee overplayed the threat of Thompson curling around screens for jumpers, and Thompson responded by absolutely murdering Memphis with back-door cuts:
Golden State can generate easy buckets without any help. Gift some breakdowns, and it’s over. Allen only played 39 minutes against Golden State this season because of injury, and having him back as a potential Klay-stopper should vaporize some of these gimmes.
On the other end, it’s always a slog for Memphis, even in a season in which they finished 13th in points per possession — the best mark of the “Grit and Grind” era. That’s especially so against opponents that can throw two strong post defenders on the floor at all times. But the Grizz have the goods to make this a fight. Gasol3 will overpower Green on some possessions, and when Green tries to front his man, the Grizz will shift right into the league’s niftiest high-low passing combination.
Or Randolph, when that matchup materializes.
But Bogut and Green were ready for that dance in the regular season. Green twisted and slithered his way back into position against those Memphis high-lows, and Bogut and Green are telepathic in improvising switches when it’s convenient:
The interior battle is going to be a bloodbath, and it is going to be awesome. Strap in.
Curry was too cavalier chasing Conley around picks in the regular season, yielding a bundle of open 3s, but if Conley is healthy and humming, the Warriors could sic one of their wing defenders on him.
Memphis can unclog its offense by playing two of Jeff Green, Lee, and Vince Carter together, but that means sitting Allen and sacrificing defense. And Memphis has been loads better all season, on both ends, with Allen on the floor, per NBA.com. That is in part because of the alternatives. Green is shooting 27 percent in the playoffs, and the Grizzlies struggled to integrate him after a euphoric post-trade honeymoon. Lee appears to have finally found his way out of a long shooting slump, but Carter has spent most of the year in one, and he has declined badly on defense. He looks like a broken-down player at times, and this could be a very bad series for him on that end.
Regardless: Memphis can’t win with stagnant post-ups or the usual Conley/Gasol pick-and-rolls; those plays are good, but they are predictable, and you don’t beat Golden State four times playing predictable ball. Memphis needs to stretch its playbook and keep the ball moving:
Stasis is defeat, but Memphis has trouble capturing that kind of dynamism for a full 48 minutes.
It just feels like the Warriors have answers for everything — every lineup type, every adjustment, every potential defensive matchup. They can play the Grizzlies’ style, but the Grizzlies can’t play Golden State’s style. If the Warriors stay healthy and manage to keep Green on the floor, they should head into the NBA’s Final Four.
PREDICTION: Warriors in five if Conley plays. A sweep if he sits.
Jason Miller/Getty Images
Cavaliers vs. Bulls
Kevin Love’s sad injury clouds everything. It’s hard to remember a second-round series in which there was so much uncertainty over fundamental things — which lineups one team might play, and how the other could respond.
Love spent too much time as a passive spectator, but just having a power forward drag an opposing big man out of the paint enabled perhaps the league’s most lethal spread pick-and-roll attack. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving could survey the defense, choose the best pick-and-roll option,4 and slice teams apart. Against the Bulls, the choice was easy: With Joakim Noah guarding Love 25 feet from the basket, LeBron could drag poor Pau Gasol into the meat of a pick-and-roll, drive right at him, and eat at the rim.
Including having James and Irving screen for one another.
That’s harder to manage playing Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov together — especially against a Chicago defense well versed in packing the lane to snuff out your first option. Where LeBron and Irving once saw clean passage to the rim, they might now see a crowd:
The Bulls have always been good at coaxing LeBron into midrange jumpers; they’ll go under picks, drop their big men back, pack the paint, and leave James and Irving with few other options. Both stars can hit clean midrangers, especially if their defenders crash into picks, but Chicago can survive by limiting Cleveland to a diet of these shots:
The obvious counter for David Blatt is to play small, and the Cavs might be able to get away with that for most of this series — or even start that way, keeping Thompson in his bench role. If they’re anxious about downsizing against the behemoth Bulls, watching film of the Chicago-Milwaukee first-round series will calm them. Milwaukee happily guarded Noah with wing players, confident that the Bulls’ limping leader5 couldn’t punish them in any way — in the post, on the glass, whatever. And the Bucks were right.
Though Noah did look springier in Games 5 and 6.
Slap LeBron onto Noah, as Cleveland did occasionally this season, and the Cavs could switch any two-man Noah–Jimmy Butler action. LeBron normally gets the Butler job himself, and if the Cavs prefer to keep it that way, they could even slide James Jones or Iman Shumpert onto Noah. Going that route against Taj Gibson is more of a gamble, but the Bucks did it and still mostly neutered Gibson’s post game.
One problem: Going small requires playing three skilled wings together, and the Cavs right now have exactly three such players. One of them — J.R. Smith — will miss the first two games after committing his semi-annual Dumbass Act of J.R. Smithiness against Jae Crowder. That leaves only LeBron and Shumpert, meaning the Cavaliers will have to play someone among Jones, Shawn Marion, and Mike Miller — or use the Irving/Matthew Dellavedova combination more.
Those are, umm, not great (Bob) options. Jones has been a key cog in Cleveland’s small-ball lineups, but he’s basically just a stand-in for a better player to be named later. He guards power forwards so LeBron doesn’t have to, and he can hit standstill 3s when he has a mile of space. In games that matter, LeBron should be guarding those power forwards, and Smith or Shumpert should be jacking those 3s.
The Irving-Smith-Shumpert-LeBron-Thompson lineup should be Cleveland’s “A” group for much of this series, especially since Thompson is an ace at switching onto smaller players late in the shot clock and forcing them into long jumpers. It provides the same level of spacing as any Love-centric lineup, and given that Love didn’t exactly make a leap on defense this season, it might make Cleveland even tighter on that end.
The Bulls just may not have a counter for that, or they may be reluctant to use their best one. They are like the Pacers; they never go small. It’s a core part of their identity: They are the team that punishes runts. But Noah and Gibson aren’t quite themselves, and Chicago didn’t hurt a smallish Bucks team too badly on the offensive glass — the place where these Bulls always decimated LeBron’s Miami teams.
Playing two of Gasol, Noah, and Gibson together makes for a cramped floor, especially with Derrick Rose and his on-and-off jumper working on a single day of rest for most of this round. Gasol is a key offensive hub, but he may not be able to hang defensively in this series; James and Irving went at him with something bordering on disrespect:
Chicago’s best shot might be heavy minutes with Nikola Mirotic at power forward, and one of the Noah-Gibson combo at center. Mirotic can’t guard LeBron6 but should be able to check Shumpert against Cleveland’s small-ball groups. Gibson and Noah are both mobile enough to switch onto LeBron or Irving toward the end of Cleveland possessions.
Although he did a few times.
Mirotic would space the floor on the other end and give Chicago a more realistic chance to produce enough points. If Chicago can’t win by bullying the Cavs, it’ll have to find another way.
And that’s the scary question for the Bulls: What if it’s Cleveland, and not them, that can win this series playing another style? The Thompson-Mozgov combination looks bad, but the Cavs poured in 111.1 points per 100 possessions with those two on the floor this season — a mark that would have led the league. They only logged 274 minutes together, and that scoring number would come down if they played more against opposing starters. The Bulls were also missing key players in all four head-to-head games against the Cavs.
But that scoring figure held up against Chicago, in part because the Cavs rebounded an astounding 37.9 percent of their own misses with their two bruisers playing. The dirty little secret about Chicago this season is that one of the league’s elite rebound-munchers has turned mediocre. Chicago ranked 19th in defensive rebounding percentage, and the Bulls were much worse than that with Gasol on the floor, per NBA.com. The Mozgov-Thompson combo could slaughter the Mirotic-Gasol all-offense unit on the glass, compensating for whatever offensive firepower that group brings for Chicago. And Thompson has the wheels to chase Mirotic around the perimeter on defense.
Even if Cleveland doesn’t start the Thompson-Mozgov pairing, it’ll need it with Smith in street clothes over the first two games. If they can score enough, the Cavs don’t have to monkey around as much with junior-varsity small-ball groups.
Chicago has some things going for it. A dialed-in Rose is a problem for Irving, who gets hung up on screens and remains a liability on defense; Shumpert will probably have to spend some time on Rose. Butler might be the best one-on-one answer for LeBron outside of San Antonio, though LeBron has just enough of a size edge to back Butler down in the post — and draw occasional help from a Bulls team loath to bend its defense that way. Tony Snell is a reasonable backup option should Butler get tired (stop laughing, Thibs) or into foul trouble, and he needs to play over the punchless Kirk Hinrich.
Butler will make LeBron defend everything — post-ups, one-on-one attacks, and pick-and-rolls in which Butler can play either part. Chicago’s size will impose itself at some point. Cleveland’s lack of depth is scary. This is a 7.5-man team missing two of those 7.5 players for the start of this series, and one of them for all of it. Kendrick Perkins might actually get minutes to do something other than set illegal screens, commit heinous traveling violations, scowl, and hit people.
But this thinned-out Cleveland team has a counter for everything; that is the glorious flexibility of having LeBron. The Bulls aren’t quite operating at 100 percent capacity, and Cleveland has another gear after coasting over Boston.
PREDICTION: Cavs in six.