Previewing Saturday’s NBA playoff games
Here are a few of the takeaways from the first week of playoff action leading into Saturday’s scheduled games:
Brooklyn Nets (4) vs. Chicago Bulls (5)
2:00 PM EDT, TNT
• The Nets’ lineups featuring offensive non-entities Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace are untenable. As I noted in my preview of this series, Brooklyn’s typical high-usage lineups make for a horrible fit against Chicago’s defense, as Tom Thibodeau has coached his team to ignore opponents that don’t pose an immediate threat. As such, players like Evans and Wallace can be left to their own devices outside the paint, all while the cast of Bulls defenders clog up the paint, swarm Brook Lopez, and limit Deron Williams’ access to the lane. As a result of that clutter, Brooklyn’s starting five has managed to score just 78.6 points per 100 possessions over the course of this series — a mark that sees them outscored by 8.2 points despite the Bulls’ own offensive woes.
• Chicago seems capable of competing without Joakim Noah logging heavy minutes. Game 1 didn’t exactly bode well for the Bulls’ two-way workings without a fully healthy Noah, but in the games since, a heightened team-wide energy and a particular rotation surprise have given the Bulls the edge. After playing a bit part for Chicago in the regular season, veteran center Nazr Mohammed sopped up a total of 34 minutes between Games 2 and 3 by playing solid defense against Brook Lopez, rebounding admirably, and converting the occasional open jumper. Those bit contributions have been huge for the Bulls thus far, and surely made it easier for Thibodeau to abide by Noah’s minutes restrictions.
Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5)
4:30 PM EDT, TNT
• The lack of range among the Clippers’ bigs is starting to become a problem. While the Nets struggle to find ways to deal with their lack of shooting against an excellent defensive team, the Clippers will have to do the same. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are decidedly more useful players than Evans and Wallace, but their inconsistency and inability, respectively, to hit mid-range shots makes it easy for the Grizzlies’ bigs to prioritize the off-the-dribble work of a dangerous ball-handler like Chris Paul. Griffin, in particular, has the ability to counter by either making shots or cutting more consistently, but the Clippers’ half-court offense has a terrible tendency to arrest into a Paul-watching party once things go awry. I can understand the temptation — Paul makes for one of the most entertaining players in the league — but the Clips will have to get moving in order to counter some of the spacing issues they encountered in Game 3.
• Tony Allen is working his ass off to provide offensive value. Despite being one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, Allen can be a difficult player for a coach to field for major minutes. He’s a guard who can’t shoot, shouldn’t handle, and can get in trouble when passing, making him functional almost solely as a cutter. That can be problematic for a Grizzlies team that needs spacing to free up its two interior bigs, and thus Allen averaged a mere (and career-high) 26.7 minutes per game this season for the sake of the greater good.
But against the Clippers thus far, Allen is trying his damnedest to create little slivers of non-defensive worth, be it by attacking the fast break at a full sprint or scrapping for an unlikely board. As a result, he’s been improbably productive (averaging 14.5 points and an amazing 9.5 rebounds) over his last two games, which has allowed Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins to play Allen around 35 minutes in each of those two contests. That’s huge in a series where Allen can help as a relief defender against Paul, not to mention lock down the Clippers’ other wing threats.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.
Indiana Pacers (3) vs. Atlanta Hawks (6)
7:00 PM EDT, ESPN
• Atlanta is overstretched defensively — as expected. The Pacers are a power-post team at heart and frankly, just have way too much size inside for Al Horford, Josh Smith and Ivan Johnson to defend them reliably. That disadvantage has forced a typically good Hawks defense to make all kinds of concessions across the board, from offering consistent doubles against the post to consenting to a weird (and seemingly unrehearsed) zone-defensive look. As a result, the damage done by David West and Roy Hibbert has been curtailed to a combined 25.5 points per game. But in the process, Atlanta has bent its defense so far backward it generally fails to succeed in any other area of defensive performance.
In making uncontested feeds to open teammates, the Pacers’ chances of committing a turnover have shrunk. In scrambling to prevent Hibbert and West from getting easy scores, the Hawks’ rotations are all out of whack, making it difficult to recover to slashing Pacer wings in time to stop their drives without fouling. Plus, all of that added attention hasn’t stopped Indiana’s bigs from pulling in offensive rebounds by the armful (they’ve grabbed an offensive board on an amazing 34.9 percent of their offensive possessions). Even beyond that: George Hill (20 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting in this series, including an identical 63.6 percent mark from long range) and Paul George (25 points, 12.5 free throw attempts, 9.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game) have had consistent access to the looks of their choosing, punishing Atlanta’s defense for its interior priority.
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Houston Rockets (8)
9:30 PM EDT, ESPN
• Patrick Beverley, in more ways than one, has legitimately changed the course of this series. Even beyond the ill-fated hustle play that ended up injuring Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley’s increased role and minutes have made the Rockets a much more interesting and viable first-round opponent than they were even a few days prior. Kevin McHale’s decision to go small as a default hasn’t just helped to space out the Thunder’s bigs, but also gave Houston the means to hide Jeremy Lin — who lacks the lateral quickness to guard Westbrook or Reggie Jackson — defensively. With Beverley also on the floor, Houston has a ball-hounding option capable of frustrating Jackson as he did Westbrook, all while Lin can operate from the relative safety of defending Thabo Sefolosha. That development alone isn’t enough to slide the series into question, but Beverley’s ball pressure and Westbrook’s injury will make things more difficult for the Thunder at their offense’s point of attack, all while he opens things up on the other end of the court with his perimeter shooting and ball-handling.
• The Thunder still have some work to do in terms of defending small-ball lineups. Houston’s offense sputtered to a 39.6-field-goal percentage in Game 2, but the Rockets were still able to manufacture some great looks both in the lane and on the three-point line by attacking the positioning of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. James Harden’s excellence as a pick-and-roll ball-handler has thus far compelled OKC to play Houston’s high screens rather aggressively, but in the process, they’ve distorted their defensive rotations and made it difficult to protect the paint. Overall, the Thunder’s big lineup has done well, both in this series and in the regular season. But the drive-and-kick Rockets should give them a nice test in terms of their capacity to defend smaller, stretchier groups, not unlike the high-powered Heat team the Thunder might potentially face in the NBA Finals.