We’re midway through the conference semifinals. What do the remaining eight teams need to keep their playoff dreams alive? Dr. Shootaround is here to prescribe just the right thing.
Portland Trail Blazers
(all GIFs by Jason Gallagher)
netw3rk: The great thing about following a young team on the come-up is being able to enjoy the exuberance of its play without having to consider its technical flaws. It’s like the basketball version of a child’s drawing: The creativity and initiative displayed are wonderful, as long as you don’t care about coloring outside the lines. Unfortunately for the Blazers, the difference between just getting into the playoffs and slugging it out against the title contenders is like the difference between your mom pinning one of your sketches to her fridge and a museum hanging it on its walls. A lot of hard work and ruthless self-examination of craft is needed to make that leap, and it’s obviously not going to happen in one day.
But, since we’re here, let’s tear apart little Johnny’s finger painting a little bit.
• Dame Lillard. Love him. Probably my favorite of the league’s young guards. Uncanny shot-maker, calm beyond his years, with an assassin’s instinct for the right moment to loop a garrote around a victim’s neck. Cool, cool.
Problem: He’s a bad defender. Not “James Harden unplugged controller–level” bad defense — he’s aware of what’s happening — but he lacks lateral quickness and, more important, the strength and guile to fight through screens. The Blazers give up almost two points more defensive per 100 possession with Lillard on the court, per NBA.com.
• Portland’s defense in general. The Blazers were ranked 23rd and 24th in the NBA in guarding pick-and-roll ball handlers and action off screens. The Spurs, meanwhile, are really, really good at both of those things. In Game 4, 29.9 percent of the Spurs’ offense was off the pick-and-roll, and Tony Parker is cutting Portland into red and black ribbons.
Improving defensively is the obvious age-old, time-to-grow-up advice handed down to fun, young teams since the dawn of time, and it applies here. But it’s too late for that now; the broom closet is open. Portland lacks the All-Universe-level one-on-one talent that is the only definite Kryptonite for the Spurs Machine; the Trail Blazers’ offense is overly reliant on the 3-pointer; and if LMA isn’t hitting his midrange shot, he suddenly becomes one-dimensional.
So, how can the Blazers advance? Dump out the crayon box, turn up “Black Portland,” and take enough 3s to make even J.R. Smith shake his head.
San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat
Chris Ryan: Now that we’re all done telling each other the ghost stories of the first round about increasing parity, we can actually sit back and relax and watch the unstoppable forces of the universe begin their collision course. We are all just Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men. This was always going to happen. There was nothing we could do to stop it. Miami will play San Antonio in the Finals. It’s just a matter of how quickly we get there. Really, the only prescription I have for these teams is to give themselves over to the basketball universe and allow this fait accompli to take place. Resistance is futile. Just be yourselves, guys. Everything else will take care of itself.
Corban Goble: “Outside of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, we’re more talented than them,” Joe Johnson said over the weekend. He’s on to something.
Though LeBron and D-Wade have proven themselves to be champions several times over, I feel like they’re both at the stage of their careers where their personal brands are often the priority, over playing basketball. What if they just bailed on the playoffs? What if LeBron is secretly involved in the Beats by Dre acquisition? What if Band of Outsiders has a sample sale? What if both their forthcoming television series are struggling to launch and ’Bron and Wade gotta hit the writers’ room to create some new characters? Should brand opportunities, in special circumstances, outweigh basketball emergencies?
’Bron and Dwyane, if you’re reading this, know that the answer to the last question is: absolutely yes. If the Nets are to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, they’re going to need to secure this advantage that Joe Jesus prophesied. The Nets are as good a Finals contender as anyone in the field, outside of their team age and the subpar play of their Max Contract player.
OTHER IDEAS: Brooklyn runs the Grinnell offense (Pierce-Mirza-Anderson-JJ-Garnett to flip out long offensive boards), Miami gets locked in the funk of its listless second half of Game 3 (I’m calling it the “reverse Sage the Gemini”), Mikhail Prokhorov pays Lil B $45 million to curse the Heat, a recently discovered tiebreak rule forces Jason Kidd and Erik Spoelstra to play one-on-one for the series, scientists equip Mason Plumlee with one of the nuclear cores from Pacific Rim.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Danny Chau: The Thunder will return home for Game 4. You’ll likely hear about their desperation, their hunger. The team tends to play better under those presets. That’s the stuff we grasp for in lieu of adjustments within a system that might not exist. The Thunder system might not be anything more than the gravitational pull of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That might be enough; it probably is. But what order and balance the team had in Games 2 and 3 seemed to be misplaced yesterday. The players not named Durant or Westbrook managed to score a total of only nine points combined in the second half of Game 4.
At their best, OKC’s supporting cast feeds off of Durant and Westbrook’s greatness, and there is a kind of transference that occurs. It’s easy to play angry when your two pillars are leading the charge. When that clicks, the Thunder achieve a oneness on the floor that almost takes the place of an actual offensive system. Think about how the Spurs, as a unit, seem to break down the game of basketball into protons and electrons. Except instead of being a legion of androids, the Thunder are just a bunch of angry dudes with sledgehammers.
Finding that groove is no given, especially without adequate steering from Scott Brooks. The repeated errors committed with Chris Paul guarding Durant made something clear: Durant and Westbrook aren’t promised success against anyone, no matter how enticing the mismatches. There is no mandate from heaven calling for a Thunder promotion. After Durant’s mind-bending four-point play from the left corner in Game 2 of the first round, and Westbrook’s equally ridiculous four-point play in the following game, you could’ve reasonably come to the conclusion that some sort of divine hand had descended on the team and given it the ultimate blessing. You could’ve, had the Thunder not lost both of those games. The team has naturally found its spark as underdogs, but desperation can’t always be the inspiration if Oklahoma City hopes to keep moving forward. To advance, the Thunder have to find the line that separates their exceptional talent from the corrosiveness of exceptionalism.
Los Angeles Clippers
Steve McPherson: You don’t beat the Thunder by squaring up to them. You beat them by making them beat themselves.
For Doc Rivers and the Clippers on Sunday, this meant creating mismatches. The Clippers put Chris Paul on Kevin Durant in the fourth quarter, and then brought a quick double whenever Durant tried to do anything with the ball.
Caught on the perimeter in that double, Durant did what any self-respecting team player would do: move it to another player in hopes of catching a speed-versus-size mismatch somewhere else. And man, did the Thunder try to take advantage, with all non-Durant players going 5-for-15 in the quarter, while the Clippers went 14-for-22.
Durant himself wasn’t even terrible, going 4-for-5 (although he did turn the ball over three times). But this wasn’t the Clippers shutting down Durant and making other guys beat them. This was the Clippers baiting the other Thunder players into giving in to their basest impulses. Rather than stymieing the Thunder’s freestyling, Los Angeles egged it on — the basketball equivalent of luring Bugs Bunny to your castle with a sexy wind-up lady bunny.
After the game, Doc Rivers claimed putting Paul on Durant was a move of desperation and not calculation, but going forward, this kind of approach is the best shot the Clippers have of getting past the Thunder. It might not always be that particular switch, but Los Angeles has to keep finding ways to goad the Thunder into bad decisions by tantalizing them. Oklahoma City just doesn’t have the on-court architecture to resist a sexy lady bunny.
Andrew Sharp: Someday you might find yourself wondering what’s worse: getting blown out and embarrassed in a playoff game at home where the offense barely cracks 60 points, or going out and blowing a huge playoff lead and losing at the buzzer? Thank god Wizard fans got to experience both this weekend so we can get to the bottom of this.
Aaaaannnnnd … the second one was definitely worse.
On Friday, at least everyone could all laugh at how horrible it was. At a certain point you become numb. Sunday was just watching someone slowly carve out your heart while you’re conscious the whole time. That “someone” was Paul George, but who even cares? It’s Sunday night as I write this, and Shaft just came on TNT, and this movie is so much better than thinking about that game.
What does this team need going forward?
John Wall needs a jumper. The Wizards need a new coach, because blowing a 17-point halftime lead generally comes down to coaching. You could also say the same about getting a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter and then blowing THAT in the final six minutes. These are problems Washington’s had all year, and now they’re back again. The Playoffs Wizards have turned into the #SoWizards Wizards of yore.
They need to get Bradley Beal better looks in the fourth quarter. They need Game 1 Trevor Ariza back. They need to stop being psyched out by the Pacers — that especially applies to Wall, who’s looked completely overwhelmed in the fourth quarter in all three losses. They need Gortat and Nene to at least be better than Al Harrington and Drew Gooden, and maybe even better than the Pacers. They need to not sign Ariza this summer because clearly this team isn’t ready to contend for a title, but you knew that already. The Wizards need a lot of things.
This series started out with so much hope and confidence, and then everything slowly got miserable and demoralizing over the last three games. In that way, Game 4 was a good metaphor for the whole series. But whatever. I need 24 hours. Shaft is on TNT — did you know Christian Bale was in this movie? — and Game of Thrones is on in a little while. If you need me, I’ll be over here trying not to think about whatever the hell happened this weekend.
Juliet Litman: The Pacers need to keep Roy Hibbert involved. He’s had success over the last two games, crediting a fishing outing with Paul George and George Hill as the catalyst for his return to form. Now on the brink of winning the series, the Pacers should cancel practice to tend only to the mental well-being of their big man.
• Begin Monday with a visit to the best paintball facility in Indianapolis. According to one commenter on the Indy A-List, Indy Acres Paintball is the “best place to let siblings work out their anger.” Finally, Evan Turner and Lance Stephenson can settle the fight that reportedly erupted on the eve of the playoffs. Andrew Bynum may have been released, but they should probably bring him along so Hibbert has a primary target.
• Next, they will need to decompress after the high intensity of paintballing, so the team should visit White River State Park for bike riding, pedal boats, and team-building activities. Veterans David West and Rasual Butler — the duo who confronted Roy after Game 2 against the Wizards — will lead the team in trust falls. Every guy has to take a turn catching Roy to confirm there’s no lingering animosity over his egregious performance of late.
Although: There are many other issues a Roy Hibbert trust fall does not expose. Maybe they turned on each other because of George’s escalating off-court drama, or maybe Stephenson’s maddening-yet-thrilling on-court style translates to only maddening off the court. There are so many other potential issues that only tangentially include Hibbert. Thus, the Pacers should end the day with a ceremonial bonfire. Each guy can air his grievance, throw some token into the fire, and, we hope, move on.