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Quick Thoughts on the NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Edition

With the NBA playoffs in full force now, it’s time to take a look at some emerging trends. At this point, each series has completed at least two games, and a lot of them are knotted up at one game apiece, as road teams have compiled a shocking 9-7 record in the first sixteen games. Only the defending champs have defended their home court advantage and, for all the complaints of lack of parity, no one looks unbeatable so far.

 

Jeff Teague of the eighth-seeded Hawks has been causing havoc on Indiana’s defense. (Photo by Brian Spurlock/USA Today Sports)

 

(1) Indiana Pacers vs (8) Atlanta Hawks

Hawks Lead 2-1

Atlanta is a bad matchup for Indiana.  With the injuries to Al Horford and Gustavo Ayon, Atlanta lacks a traditional back-to-the-basket post player.  Instead, Mike Budenholzer has run with a rotation of Paul Millsap, Pero Antic, and Elton Brand (with some Mike Scott sprinkled in for good measure), all of whom are far more proficient as face-up jump shooters from the midrange out.  This has put great stress on Indiana’s defense, particularly with the conservative approach they take with Roy Hibbert.  As the anchor of the Pacers defense, Roy Hibbert is supposed to back off on all pick and rolls, sagging into the paint.  Against most traditionally built teams, this approach works as the big man will either roll to the rim or remain close enough to the painted area for Hibbert to close out.  Atlanta is changing this up by asking their bigs to “pop” off the pick and roll rather than cut to the basket.  To make matters more complicated, Indiana’s point guards cannot handle Jeff Teague.  This has made it even harder on Hibbert: on the one hand, he needs to get back to his big man, who is running behind the arc (or at least away from the paint) but he also needs to keep Jeff Teague from getting to the rim (a lay up will always be the easiest shot in the game) while the guard gets back into position. It’s a tough position for Hibbert to be in, and Frank Vogel needs to find a new strategy to deal with these problems.

Frank Vogel’s adherence to specific lineups is becoming detrimental.  Indiana has developed their identity on a few tenets: defense and big lineups.  Indiana earned their reputation for smash-mouth basketball through their two Goliaths in the middle – David West and Roy Hibbert.  But as Indiana’s defense struggles against Atlanta’s floor spacing and the offense continues to stagnate, the team has to find new ways to win if they want to make it to the next round, much less win a title.  For better or worse, Frank Vogel continues to push Indiana’s typical two-big lineup.  Vogel’s stubbornness to refuse to tinker with his lineups is placing additional stress on the team.  He has a fixed nine-man rotation, from which he deviates little. But he did show promise in game 2 with George Hill and C.J. Watson actually sharing floor time together.  We also saw Luis Scola and David West play much of the fourth quarter in Game 3 as the two bigs, but Vogel should try to test—even for small stretches—different lineups, such as no center on the floor or small-ball with Paul George or even Chris Copeland at the 4 position.   If Indiana wants to continue on in these playoffs, Vogel will have to find ways to squeeze out points from his offensively-challenged squad, and that may require use of lineups with very little on-court time together.

 

Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls have had their hands full against Nene and the Washington Wizards. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

 

(4) Chicago Bulls vs (5) Washington Wizards

Wizards lead 2-1

Nene isn’t necessarily doing anything better than Joakim Noah; he’s just got more options.  Nene’s huge Game 1 may have resulted in some derision towards the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.  Here, the Brazilian big man shot, dunked, and passed his team to a definitive victory to seize homecourt from the Bulls.  It was followed up with a not so spectacular game, but Nene was called upon to be the Wizards’s closer, and he still filled that role admirably.  The Wizards are now in complete control in terms of series wins, and people are admiring Nene’s ability to “out-Noah” Joakim. While Nene has indeed impressed with his variety of skills, he’s most certainly benefitted from simply being on a more skilled team.  Chicago’s offense, even with Joakim’s excellent passing and offensive rebounding, is anemic at best whereas Washington has been built slowly but surely with a number of weapons—three-point shooters, big men who can space the floor or play in the post, and youth.  Although built around John Wall, coach Randy Wittman has learned the usefulness of Nene’s all around game.

Washington is healthy.  Chicago boasts one of the regular season’s best defenses, while Washington was home to a below average offense.  However, Washington has found ways to stretch, bend, and even break the Bulls elite defense on their way to their two road wins.  During the regular season, Washington’s offensive rating was a mediocre 103.3 points per 100 possessions, tied for 16th in the league.  Against Chicago and their elite defense, the Wizards offense struggled even more, as was to be expected.  In three games against Chicago this season, the Wizards offense fell to 100.6 points per 100 possessions, which–if stretched for 82 games–would have only outpaced the Chicago Bulls themselves amongst playoff teams and even then not by much (less than 1 point).  However, in two games against the Bulls, Washington’s offense has exploded, with an offensive rating of 107.2, an increase of nearly four points from Washington’s regular season rating and a crazy six-and-a-half point increase against the Bulls defense.  But Washington’s finally healthy, something they can only claim once when they played the Bulls in the regular season (Bradley Beal was on a minutes restriction, playing fewer than half a game, and in their final meeting, Nene was out).  In the one game that Washington wasn’t hampered by injuries, the Wizards managed a 14-point win. We can look for this trend to continue.

 

“**** the ******* Brookyln **** *** **** ********.” – Masai’s thoughts on the Brooklyn/Toronto matchup. (Photo by Ron Turenne/Getty Images)

 

(3) Toronto Raptors vs (6) Brooklyn Nets

Nets lead 2-1

The bell-weather for who wins this series is still Paul Pierce versus Amir Johnson.  Look at the stats of these two in both games:

Amir Johnson

Game 1: 2 points, 3 rebounds

Game 2: 16 points, 9 rebounds

Game 3: 7 points, 4 rebounds

Paul Pierce

Game 1: 15 points, 4 rebounds

Game 2: 7 points, 6 rebounds

Game 3: 18 points, 5 rebounds

This matchup is critical for both teams because it will show simply which style of play—Toronto’s more traditional two-big lineups or Brooklyn’s tall-small ball—is taking advantage of the other.  In Game 1, Amir Johnson was ineffective in defending Pierce and turned the ball over when trying time and time again to dribble into the paint.  However, in Game 2, Johnson bullied Pierce to an excellent game and Toronto win.  If Dwayne Casey wants to advance to the second round, he will need to stick to his gameplan in refusing to match Brooklyn’s lineup by scaling back his big man rotation.

Jason Kidd needs to figure out what to do with Kevin Garnett.  Kevin Garnett is limited to 20 minutes per game. Kevin Garnett has not played well.  Indeed, if all Garnett—known as one of the fiercest competitors who shows up even more intense in the playoffs—can muster through two games are averages of 6.7 points on 50 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds, then head coach Jason Kidd might need to rethink his strategy.  It’s understandable that Garnett isn’t a focal point for Brooklyn’s offense when he plays with the starting unit; with Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, and Joe Johnson all more capable shooters, it would make sense that Garnett sacrifice some of his shots for those three.  Nevertheless, Kidd has got to find something to do with Garnett–either give him more minutes or use him against Toronto’s bench units if he’s to continue to play role player minutes.

 

Lebron James and the Miami Heat have not found beating the Charlotte Bobcats–even with Al Jefferson’s injury–as easy as they might have hoped. (Photo by Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports)

 

(2) Miami Heat vs (7) Charlotte Bobcats

Heat lead 2-0

Charlotte just won’t go away.  I honestly can’t tell what is up with Miami.  It’s well known that they don’t show up as often for the “bad” teams.  This year it seemed more often than not they looked to be coasting, but we were all told that once the playoffs started, Miami would kick it back into gear.  Despite being up 2-0, that hasn’t happened yet.  Miami has struggled to put away the Charlotte Bobcats, a team with a subpar offense (though it has been improving in the last couple of months).  In Game 2, Miami built a large double-digit lead only to have to endure a terribly botched attempt by Charlotte to tie the game to take it to overtime.  Surprisingly, the stats are showing that it’s Miami’s offense and not their defense–which dropped significantly from last season–that may be to blame, as Miami’s offensive rating versus Charlotte from the regular season to the playoffs has dropped by a bit over 7 points per 100 possessions.  Granted, Charlotte is one of the best defensive teams in the league this year, and with the ability to focus on one opponent, Steve Clifford should be able to hone in on what to slow or to stop against Miami, but this is still a fairly dramatic drop for the Heat.
The more Michael Kidd-Gilchrist plays, the better Charlotte is.  We’re dealing with a very small sample size here, but the on/off splits for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are dramatic.  We shouldn’t be all that surprised.  Charlotte has no reliable small forwards outside of MKG, especially none who can hope to guard Lebron James. This is no different: Charlotte’s defense appears to collapse without Kidd-Gilchrist on the floor, giving up 40 more points per 100 possessions when he is on the bench.  Surprisingly enough, though, Charlotte’s offense thrives when MKG plays.  Yes, some of this has been the result of his excellent Game 2 performance, but with the former Kentucky star on the court, the Bobcats are host an absurd 113.5 offensive rating.  When he sits, the Bobcats only manage 91.3 points per 100 possessions.  This could be an extreme anomaly.  Charlotte actually performed worse on offense when he played during the regular season (though not by much) as his broken jumpshot caused spacing issues for the Bobcats on that end.  However, with Al Jefferson hobbled, the Bobcats need to generate points however they can, and Kidd-Gilchrist’s ability to score off of “garbage” buckets through basket cuts, duck ins, and offensive rebounds can be a critical source of points for the Bobcats.
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