NBA playoff primer: Eastern Conference
The interlude between the conclusion of the NBA regular season and the start of the playoffs lasts but a few short days, during which players and coaches are expected to thoroughly prepare for the series to come while fans attempt to make sense of complicated, fast-approaching matchups. The Point Forward is here to get you up to speed with both our big-picture previews and this more detail-oriented primer. First up is the Eastern Conference.
Miami Heat (1) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (8)
• During the season series, the Bucks slowed down the Heat to a degree — just not to a degree that really matters. The gap between these two teams is so vast that even though Milwaukee kept Miami off the free-throw line, forced more turnovers than the typical Heat opponent and held Miami to an effective field goal percentage 4.6 percent lower than its season average, the series still tilted in favor of the defending champs, 3-1. That, in a nutshell, is the pain of playing a series against the Heat: Miami’s diminished form is still largely good enough to beat most potential opponents.
The Bucks had their moments (most notably in a still-baffling 104-85 win over the Heat in which Milwaukee dropped 35 points in the fourth quarter), but this looks to be a clean sweep as the Heat tighten their rotation and home in on the limitations of the single opponent in front of them.
• The closest thing the Heat have to a legitimate, exploitable weakness is their uninspiring performance on the glass. On the whole, though, Miami did fantastic rebounding work against a Milwaukee team short on box-out bigs. Chris Bosh — the Heat player most often criticized for his lack of rebounds — averaged 13.7 boards against the Bucks, including a healthy 4.3 offensive rebounds. The latter helped Miami grab an offensive board on 27.6 percent of the possible rebounding opportunities in the season series.
• With the playoffs comes the tightening of the rotation, and the Heat stand to gain the most by slashing the minutes of second-year guard Norris Cole. During last year’s title run, Cole’s regular-season minutes (19.4 per game) were essentially cut in half for the postseason (8.9), a natural evolution of the rotation as Erik Spoelstra looked to maximize his best lineups. Expect more of the same, which takes away one of Milwaukee’s few advantages from the season series.
Whenever Cole was on the floor against Milwaukee this season, the Bucks transformed from an unremarkable team into an outright powerhouse. With his help, Milwaukee outscored Miami by 23.7 points per 100 possessions — an astoundingly horrible rate. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, for whatever reason, can’t quite make up for the inconveniences of Cole’s game, but the Heat regularly drub the Bucks (+18.4 per 100 possessions) whenever they remove Cole from the equation. That may seem like a relatively minor factor in a long series with so many more prominent players, but Cole played roughly 35 percent of the total minutes in the season series against Milwaukee while demolishing the advantages of most every lineup in which he participated.
• Marquis Daniels, forced to defend James at times, was regularly thrown aside on LeBron’s drives and post-ups. Daniels is a decent enough defender on perimeter players in general, but, like so many similar specialists, he just doesn’t have the size necessary to hang with a player that big and that versatile. He did an admirable job of cutting off what driving lanes he could, but LeBron is LeBron, and to guard him is to welcome physical disadvantage.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, however, holds more similarity to James’ physical profile, albeit without the necessary foot speed. Nevertheless, swapping out Daniels for the taller, rangier Mbah a Moute resulted in a massive defensive swing against Miami, while using both of those players in tandem created even greater defensive gains. With Daniels guarding Wade, Mbah a Moute on James and Larry Sanders lurking in the paint, Milwaukee did well in trying to take away Miami’s primary modes for creating offense. But those same lineups were also incapable of scoring, as tends to be the case with any group that features Mbah a Moute alongside other limited offensive players.
• On a related note: Milwaukee controls ball handlers in pick-and-roll situations well because of the attention paid and effort expended by Sanders, which in theory would also make them better equipped to deal with James and Wade off the dribble. Unfortunately, the Bucks pay so much attention to that initial offensive option that they regularly neglect the contingencies (pick-and-pop bigs, spot-up shooters) — areas of the game that just so happen to coincide with Miami strengths.
The Pick: Heat in 4.
New York Knicks (2) vs. Boston Celtics (7)
• This series hinges on two players: Raymond Felton and Kevin Garnett. It’s hardly some state secret that Felton is the Knicks’ best creator beyond Carmelo Anthony and that his dribble-drive game engages the rest of the team’s offense in ways that can’t be replicated elsewhere on the roster. Anthony will draw double teams, J.R. Smith can get his own and pass-first guards like Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni will make the right feeds, but New York relies on Felton to attack off the bounce as a means of setting its offense in motion. If he’s engaged and effective, New York has a great chance of winning this series. If not, the East’s No. 2 seed could be in pretty serious first-round jeopardy.
As far as Garnett goes, he missed the final two games of the season series, leading Boston to fall in lopsided fashion. Adding him back into the lineup will help balance out the series, but is his presence enough to close the gap? The data suggests it might be; in their games against the Knicks this season, Garnett’s presence alone represented a 19.6-point swing for the Celtics per 100 possessions — a statistical trend that makes sense given the challenges of defending the Knicks and all that Garnett provides. Having such a crucial defensive player available for the full series doesn’t guarantee Boston anything (particularly given that Garnett may still be limited due to injury), but it stands to make this a long and entertaining bout between two hot-blooded opponents that are closer in performance than the outcome of the season series (which the Knicks won 3-1) might suggest.
• Boston has done a fantastic job in defending Anthony this season (he’s only met his season average in points per play in one of four games against Boston, per Synergy Sports), has an elite pick-and-roll defense capable of slowing Felton and allows the fourth-lowest percentage on three-pointers in the NBA. Yet not one of those factors has prevented New York from scoring above its season-average scoring rate while winning games against Boston by double-digits, largely because the Celtics lack the firepower to keep pace with their defensive accomplishments and the Knicks have worked out a complete team offense.
That’s true, in part, because the Knicks’ reserves have been so consistently effective. Depth may be of less import in the postseason, but the impact of players like Smith, Kidd and even Steve Novak won’t dissipate completely, and should still offer the Knicks a point of relative strength (not to mention lineup flexibility and floor spacing) as it contends with other strategic disadvantages.
• This seems like the kind of series in which New York could probably get away with playing Chris Copeland behind Tyson Chandler at center, if only because Garnett and Brandon Bass project as less-than-pressing offensive threats. Copeland is a valuable scorer to have out on the floor, and his perimeter shooting specifically has helped the Knicks to deal with Boston’s loaded defense at times this season. Yet his game can often be a bit of a zero-sum enterprise, as he gives up almost as much as he scores on a regular basis. Garnett and Bass will put up some points in this series, but both present manageable threats that won’t kill the Knicks with their scoring.
The Pick: Knicks in 7.
Indiana Pacers (3) vs. Atlanta Hawks (6)
• It seemed as though the Hawks fell into this slot by design, presumably angling to avoid either the Nets or the Bulls in a 4-5 matchup. If that’s the case, the Hawks have made a strange miscalculation; there is virtually no reason for optimism in their upcoming series against the Pacers, with the only true variable involved being how long they last.
Indiana is a tough matchup for plenty of opponents, and it managed to keep every one of Atlanta’s most important offensive players under wraps during the season series, which the teams split. Beyond that, two of the players most central to Atlanta’s in-season strategy against Indiana are now gone; scoring guard Lou Williams is out for the season with a knee injury, while physical big man Zaza Pachulia is still on the mend following an April operation on his right Achilles tendon. Really tough breaks for the Hawks, as a perimeter player capable of generating offense and a big man who can defend opposing centers would have been pretty useful against an opponent this suffocating defensively and this big on the interior.
• As it stands, Al Horford will be giving up some size to Roy Hibbert, while Josh Smith surrenders an advantage to David West — two factors that matter a great deal for a Pacers team that posts up so frequently. West, in particular, has fared well against the Hawks this season, as he scored 21.4 points per game (in just 34.3 minutes) on 53.2 percent shooting over Horford, Smith, Ivan Johnson and any alternate big Hawks head coach Larry Drew could scrounge up. It also doesn’t help matters for Atlanta that Hibbert looks to be fully healthy again (he dropped 17 and 13 in his most recent game against the Hawks) and capable of exploiting his advantage on the block in spite of Horford’s outstanding defensive fundamentals.
• Indiana is so adept at taking the little things away from its opponents on offense, and in the season series against the Hawks that was accomplished by playing conservative in coverage, attacking weak playmakers to cause turnovers and locking down the glass. Atlanta still shot well from the field — as the Hawks so often do — but couldn’t get much going consistently. Expect more of the same over the length of a series.
• The Hawks are in a weird spot defensively, as they’re weak on the wings and yet will need a quick, clever defender to challenge Paul George. That duty fell to Smith in many of these teams’ regular-season meetings, but without Pachulia in the lineup, Drew will likely need Smith to play big. That leaves the onus of defending George on a collection of players that are either undersized (Devin Harris), lacking defensively (Kyle Korver, John Jenkins), or offensive non-entities (Dahntay Jones). Not one of those prospects is particularly promising, and thus encourages Drew to make harmful strategic concessions. One example: With no player capable of sticking with George through a full pick-and-roll sequence, the Hawks opted during the regular season to give George room to fire up open threes from behind the screen. Not optimal, to say the least, and George torched Atlanta on those opportunities.
Conversely, Korver and Jenkins may also be Atlanta’s only hope of stretching out Indiana’s defense to the point of vulnerability. The Pacers are so solid defensively at every position that it’s difficult to attack them via mismatches, making it all the more important to space the floor. Jeff Teague’s work off the dribble will be essential, and Horford and Smith’s passing will prove vital, but there may not be much room to execute or manufacture offense without knockdown shooters like these two. They present their own problems in terms of coverage, but Drew may have little choice but to use them as much as possible for their impact on the offense’s flow.
The Pick: Pacers in 6.
Brooklyn Nets (4) vs. Chicago Bulls (5)
I’ve already covered this one in full series preview form, but here are a few more notes that didn’t quite make it into the final cut:
• Both the Nets and Bulls are generally good offensive rebounding teams that posted better-than-expected defensive rebounding marks in their head-to-head matchups this season, thus undercutting the second-chance efforts of the other. Between the two opponents, that stands to hurt Chicago far more than it does Brooklyn, if only because the Bulls are so pained for consistent offense. Hustle points are not just a nice lift but a means of sustenance for Chicago, and without that steady diet of extra possessions, it’s possible that the Bulls may struggle to keep pace with the Nets. Joakim Noah’s plantar fasciitis could also contribute to Chicago’s offensive limitations, as the hustle-junkie big man may not have the same spring in his step as he darts toward stray rebounds.
• We didn’t see the Bulls cross-match any wing players onto Deron Williams in the regular season, but you have to think it’s a possibility given all that Williams can do and how horrid Gerald Wallace has been this season. Jimmy Butler would seem capable of giving Williams some trouble with his length, and moving Luol Deng over to defend Joe Johnson would leave Chicago covered at both backcourt positions without much compromise. Tom Thibodeau doesn’t cross-match defensively as often as some other NBA coaches, but otherwise relying on Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson to slow Williams may compel him to make the switch.
• I alluded to this in the preview, but Boozer is set for a big series. Some of the Nets big men are too slow and some simply unaware, but none seems capable of totally stopping the curious game of one of Chicago’s most essential scorers.
Brook Lopez actually does a really nice job against Boozer in isolation and on the block, but tends to give him far too much room to fire up open mid-range jumpers out of pick-and-roll situations. To be fair, Boozer is a particularly tough cover on those plays; he typically makes great use of the space available and pops hard to an open spot, thus maximizing his distance from his defender and minimizing the window for that defender to recover. Evans would seem to be the best theoretical match, but Boozer too often gets the jump on him with a quick counter spin or shot fake, both of which give him just enough room to squeeze by for a better look. Beyond those two, Kris Humphries and Andray Blatche are pretty helpless, despite the fact that they would seem to be a decent match from a purely physical standpoint.
The Pick: Bulls in 7.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.