Previewing Sunday’s NBA playoff games
Here are a few of the takeaways from the first week of playoff action leading into Sunday’s scheduled games:
New York Knicks (2) vs. Boston Celtics (7)
1:00 PM EDT, ABC
• Defending Carmelo Anthony well isn’t enough for the Celtics. Boston has done a decent job of crowding Carmelo Anthony, limiting his opportunities for post-ups against smaller defenders and slimming his driving lanes. Yet in spite of those efforts, Anthony has averaged 35 points on 45.3 percent shooting from the field over the first two games of this series, all while acting as the functional center of a competent playoff offense. Playing against an opponent like the Celtics practically requires that a team have a player capable of forcing the action when necessary, and thus far Anthony has done his part.
Yet even if that weren’t the case — suppose Anthony’s jumper weren’t falling so consistently, or he were’t getting to the free throw line so easily — odds are that the Knicks would still be in good shape. The initial pair of games in this series has been competitive at times, but the most prominent trend thus far has been the complete and utter failure of Boston’s second-half offense, which has been ground into a green pulp by New York’s smart defensive adjustments. To put things in statistical perspective: In the second halves of Game 1 and Game 2, the Celtics scored at a miserable rate of 55.6 points per 100 possessions — a mark that is literally half the output of the more productive playoff offenses. We’ve reached the point where Doc Rivers has added Jordan Crawford to the rotation out of sheer offensive desperation, though, given this roster’s limitations on that end, there seems to be no adjustment capable of alleviating the Celtics’ stagnation.
Miami Heat (1) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (8)
3:30 PM EDT, ABC
• Miami’s offense has been a bit sloppy, but Milwaukee still doesn’t stand a chance. Despite their bold style of play, the Heat generally do a commendable job of taking care of the ball. Part of that is Miami’s collective chemistry — a base of familiarity in terms of movement and positioning that minimizes bad passes. Yet in this series thus far, the Heat have been a bit careless with some of their half-court operations and more ambitious outlets, an outcome for which the Bucks’ pesky defense deserves plenty of credit. They may be overmatched, but Milwaukee isn’t at all daunted, forcing Miami to work through every half-court possession (the transition D has been understandably lacking) and earn every point. As a result, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have averaged a combined 8.7 turnovers per game between them, and the Heat on the whole are turning the ball over on 18.5 percent of their possessions — a significant increase of their their regular-season mark. Milwaukee ultimately isn’t effective enough offensively to really take advantage of those giveaways, and this isn’t really worth fretting about as a big-picture item. Still, in a playoff that’s ultimately Miami’s to lose, it’s worth making note of even the most cursory vulnerabilities.
• Rotation notes: J.J. Redick out of favor, Norris Cole still in. The playoffs bring the expectation that most every coach will tighten up their rotation, giving more minutes to the team’s top players and relying less on more questionable contributors. Yet both Jim Boylan and Erik Spoelstra have gone against that logic thus far, albeit in very different ways. For Boylan and the Bucks, that work against the grain comes in slashing the minutes of J.J. Redick after Milwaukee went out of its way to acquire him at the trade deadline. Redick is one of the Bucks’ better two-way players, but over the course of this series has played less than half of the minutes per game he logged for the Bucks in the regular season (13.7 in the playoffs versus 30.5 in the regular season).
As for Miami, Spoelstra has opted not to diminish the playing time of second-year guard Norris Cole, who was rendered a rotation afterthought in the 2012 playoffs. Cole tends to muck up the workings of one of the most explosive offensive teams in the league, and Miami seems to have a hard time constructing quality lineups with him in the mix. He’s played well in this series, to his credit, but it should be interesting to see if Spoelstra keeps Cole as involved going forward.
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (7)
7:00 PM EDT, TNT
• L.A.’s injuries make it virtually impossible for Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol to dominate in the ways necessary to make this a competitive series. Many an NBA team has suffered from the injury bug this postseason, but few have been so ravaged by the injury plague that’s currently coursing through the Lakers’ roster. The latest victims: Essential backcourt duo Steve Nash (hamstring/hip) and Steve Blake (hamstring) and starting stalwart Metta World Peace (knee), all of whom will miss what may be the last game of the Lakers’ season. Those perimeter deficits — on top of the absences of Kobe Bryant and Jodie Meeks — will put a lot of pressure on both Howard and Gasol to carry the bulk of the shot-creating load for L.A. on Sunday, but the Lakers have been so sapped of credible outside threats that it’s almost impossible for either to set up on the low block with enough room to operate.
The sad fate of the Lakers is this: Even with Howard playing well, Gasol posting a triple-double, and fill-in guards Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris putting up a combined 44 points in Game 3, L.A. still lost by 31 in an end-to-end blowout. San Antonio’s defenders already have a great sense of which perimeter threats they need to respect, with Nash and Blake perhaps chief among them. With those two gone, the Spurs will gladly take their chances with Goudelock, Morris and Chris Duhon to swarm Howard in the post, giving him precious little room to manage even the most basic of back-to-the-basket moves. The Laker offense isn’t as simple as giving the ball to Dwight or Pau and letting them go to work; we’ve now crossed a threshold of spacing and team-wide quality that will make it highly unlikely for either to have a big scoring night, if that possibility existed at all against the Spurs already-effective low-post defense.
Denver Nuggets (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
9:30 PM EDT, TNT
• Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer have controlled a huge chunk of the Nuggets’ possessions to underwhelming effect. Even though Denver is better-equipped to handle Danilo Gallinari’s season-ending injury than most, his absence has heaped a heavy shot-creating burden on the Nuggets other wing players. Of that group, Andre Iguodala seemed the most capable of assuming that responsibility, but over the course of this series thus far, it’s been Chandler and Brewer who have assumed more prominent roles in Denver’s offense — though largely out of offensive complications. Denver’s half-court execution has proved to be less than sterling thus far, particularly against a 1-2-2 zone that derailed their drive-and-counter-drive offense in Game 2 and in spots of Game 3.
Brewer and Chandler are fine players, both, but the former is averaging 13.3 field goal attempts in just 25.0 minutes per game, while the latter has managed 13.0 attempts in 36.0 minutes per game. Those figures are less damning than what they represent; though there’s no distinct problem with either Brewer or Chandler playing a bigger role in Denver’s offense, many of those shots are coming as a result of broken plays or sloppy execution — after which one of the two is forced to generate some kind of wild fling toward the rim. Both wings are shooting well below their season averages in terms of field goal percentage as a result, with Chandler converting a particularly disappointing 33.3 percent of his shots from the field this far.
Denver wouldn’t necessarily do well in diverting possessions specifically to get Iguodala (or others) more shot attempts, but presently both Brewer and Chandler would seem to be attempting a greater number of shots for the Nuggets than would be prudent given their offensive limitations. A reversal of that statistical trend — as we saw in Game 3 — may indicate some legitimate progress in terms of Denver’s half-court execution.
• Andrew Bogut is looking relatively healthy. This may seem to be a strange note after specifically citing Bogut as a player that the Nuggets could sag off defensively, but the Warriors’ oft-injured center has looked pretty good in this series thus far, and proved particularly helpful as a rebounder (he’s averaging 13.4 boards per 36 minutes) and rim defender. Bogut isn’t as mobile as he once was and the Nuggets in general are a tough collective cover. But Bogut is making his time on the floor valuable for the Warriors, and saving Mark Jackson from having to rely too heavily on Festus Ezeli, Andris Biedrins, and Draymond Green with David Lee already out for the playoffs with a torn hip flexor.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.