Wednesday, May 21, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs: 2nd Round

I know it's 3 games into the Conference Finals. I wanted to get this up earlier but have been working on a Donald Sterling piece that has taken a lot of thought and introspection. But these games keep coming and I can't keep falling behind. After a dramatic 1st round, the 2nd round had its work cut out and wasn't nearly as exciting. It did reveal something about each of the winners and losers, however.


Spurs over Blazers in 5
Portland was one of the most fun-to-watch teams of the entire playoffs. Screw it - Portland was THE funnest-to-watch team of these playoffs. From transcendent performance by LaMarcus Aldridge to heroic shot-making by Damian Lillard, this team proved it belonged and that the league was better for it. Despite all the offensive heroics, however, Portland has been an uneven defensive team all year. Partly because Lillard and Mo Williams have no shot at stopping the ball, Portland has had trouble executing their preferred defensive strategy. Their bigs prefer to drop back on pick and rolls, but against quick, intelligent ball handlers who can shoot, that can be a recipe for disaster.
Tony Parker proved to be the ingredient in that disaster. I actually thought that Rick Carlisle had stumbled upon something in the 1st round against San Antonio - cover the Spurs honestly and make Tony Parker shoot 30 times to beat you. Well, we've found out that Tony Parker will certainly take you up on that. He eviscerated the Blazers inside and out and showed Lillard how to get easy shot after easy shot. The Spurs needed Parker, too, as Manu hasn't looked the same since expending incredible offensive and defensive energy in the Game 7 win against Dallas. Popovich doesn't like to pull out his Manu-Gets-You-Out-Of-Jail-Free card too early, but Carlisle made him play it.
Still, Portland's inability to stop the Spurs offense and an untimely injury to Mo Williams led to a Blazers team that was deficient in every stage of the game. If anything, this may have revealed the gap between the well-oiled Spurs and playoff teams that are not-quite contenders (and if the gulf between these two is great, Houston never really had a shot at all). Well played by the Spurs.

Thunder over Clippers in 6
I still can't figure out how the Thunder won this series. For long stretches during games and especially during crunch-time, the Thunder were playing 2-on-5 offensively, often running through one or two token actions featuring remedial screen action 25+ feet from the basket. After the Clippers expertly diffused these non-threatening sets, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant often found themselves isolated far from the hoop. That was the plan? #FireBrooks
The problem for the Clippers (and really for any team) is that when Westbrook and Durant are hitting tough shots, there is precious little between the Thunder and victory. In their 4 wins, the Thunder stars combined for incredible stat lines:

If you assume that each assist goes for 2 points (conservative) and every 2 free throw attempts equal 1 possession used (reasonable), Durant and Westbrook created 1.26 points per possession. According to ESPN, the league-leading Clippers scored 1.094 points per possession during the regular season. Given the league's PPP standard deviation of 3.366, Durant and Westbrook's figure in those 4 wins was 4.82 standard deviations above the Clippers' regular season mark and 6.42 standard deviations above league average. When these two guys are on, they're not in the same universe as everyone else.
I could go on. Durant and Westbrook are averaging 57.6 points per game this postseason. Guess how many times MJ and Scottie did that? Their highest was 55.2 in the '93 playoffs. Kobe and Shaq got to 59.8 combined during the '01 playoffs when the laid waste to the league but were ~55 points in 00 and '02. And while the Lakers stars averaged 22.7 boards per game during that magical run, 9.3 combined assists is well off the Thunder pace. But step back for a second - we are comparing Kevin and Russell to the greatest scoring tandem in playoff history. Just think of what they could do if they had a Phil Jackson, a younger Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Horace Grant, Robert Horry, and Brian Shaw.
And that's the Thunder's problem. They don't have those guys. For a team that opted to trade James Harden for multiple pieces, they are bereft of depth, and that's before Ibaka went down. Nobody (besides Durant, apparently) likes Sefolosha and Perkins as starters. Nick Collison bizarrely doesn't play. Jeremy Lamb is an even bigger question - really, he is so bad that Brooks couldn't play him one minute in the final four games of the Clippers series? They couldn't identify one or two things he does well enough to get 5 minutes a half? How did they blow player evaluation this bad?
As for the Clippers - they needed one extra rim protector all year and couldn't find him (Jason Collins?). Glen Davis was a mockery. Blake Griffin is too valuable offensively and doesn't have a great wingspan. DeAndre Jordan was constantly in foul trouble. The other remaining teams all have two quality defensive bigs (Adams and pre-injury Ibaka, Duncan and Splitter, Hibbert and West, Bosh and Andersen). We're splitting hairs, but these roster construction details matter. While Darren Collison won them a game, what would this team be like with Eric Bledsoe backing up Chris Paul? Unfortunately we'll never know.
And yet despite the Clippers' flaws, they were a few plays from winning this. About the out-of-bounds call - I thought it was the right call. When a defensive player knocks the ball out of an offensive players hands, they almost always return the ball to the offense unless it bounces off the guy's arm or chest or leg. When two players go for a rebound and hit it out of bounds, they almost always give it to the guy with superior rebounding position. I agreed that the video looked inconclusive as to who touched it last and thought it was a reasonable call. I have a tougher time with the foul on Paul to send Westbrook to the line for the game-winning free throws but I'm okay with it only because Chris Paul was playing Seattle Seahawks-style MMA defense on Kevin Durant the whole series and got away with it. That's exactly the same way I play bigger players but the result was a somewhat shackled MVP. Pretty good numbers, though, even somewhat shackled. Pretty good numbers.


Pacers over Wizards in 6
I don't know if anything was wrong with Roy Hibbert, but while he failed to produce as usual, his defensive presence was felt. Outside one ridiculous Gortat game that smelled a little fluky, Indiana's bigs handled their Washington counterparts much more effectively than Chicago did (very surprising). Of course, a lot of that was David West, but I have to give Hibbert some credit. The Pacers' other problem is that for the second straight round, they showed no interest in stopping pick-and-roll ball handlers from getting wherever they wanted. John Wall didn't have a great shooting series, but he was snaking around picks and effectively finding people. Bradley Beal was a terror. His .412/.387/.696 shooting line isn't elite, but I always felt like he took good shots, shots that the Wizards needed him to take.
The Wizards just needed one more dead-eye three point shooter other than Trevor Ariza in a contract year. In their wins, the Pacers effectively walled off the paint and turned the Wizards into jump shooters, and another great three point shooter would have done them well. But they were never contenders to begin with. The Wizards are now one of those teams that have confidence in its young stars, know what they do well, and know what type of players to surround them with. The cap situation is tough, but having organizational certainty is important.

Heat over Nets in 5
The Nets looked so old. Back in their glorious Boston days, Pierce and Garnett would never let LeBron have a rim run. The help was there faster, they were better at contesting, and if he got loose, a foul was always coming. In this series, the help couldn't even get to the spot quick enough to give the foul. This roster is only going to get older as Mason Plumlee shrunk a little in the playoff limelight. Mirza Teletovic may be a revelation but he has yet to prove he can contribute in ways other than splashing 3 after 3 after 3 after 3 after 3. But man, those 3s were sweet.
The Heat played adequate (not great) defense, ramping it up when situations called. They also ran some exquisite set plays out of timeouts late in games. Jason Kidd should get better, but Erik Spoelstra coached his pants off. The end-of-game play in Game 4 was my favorite. Down 2, they inbound to Wade, confusing the Nets who expected LeBron to have it. It's difficult to bend your defense to LeBron when Wade has the ball. Then, the old LeBron-Wade pick-and-roll, which the Nets had difficulty stopping whenever the Heat pulled it out of their bag of tricks. This team may not be as good as last year's squad, but they know who they are which should get them at least back to the Finals.


Spurs over Thunder in 5
If you follow my Twitter account, you'll notice some #FireBrooks mentions peppered in. That is harsh, advocating for someone else to be fired. I know that he earned $4.5mm in salary during 2013 (on a contract that will pay him, employed or not, through 2016), but I also know that NBA coaches work hard, harder than I work. So believe me when I say I don't take this lightly. But the Thunder need to fire Scott Brooks.
First, the things he's done well:

  1. Crafted an effective defensive system that plays to the strengths of his team
  2. Helped realize Durant's destiny become the league's best offensive player
  3. Survived major injuries to his second best player and a top-10 player overall
  4. Survived the jettison through trade of one of the NBA's top-20 players
  5. Survived despite having not signed, traded for, or drafted a single impact player since adding Harden in 2009
  6. Consistently obtained top seeds in a brutal Western Conference
  7. Managed to keep Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook from Kyrion Waitving their relationship
But after 6 seasons as the Thunder's coach, Scott Brooks has failed in the following areas:
  1. Develop a coherent offensive system with core principles, counters, and counters to those counters
  2. Identify optimal lineups on both offense and defense
  3. Make in-game and in-series adjustments to match the league's best coaches
  4. Develop non-lottery picks into useful contributors, exhibiting their strengths while hiding their weaknesses, giving them sufficient playing time
  5. Prepare his team of end-of-period and end-of-game scenarios, including play calling, foul situations, etc.
  6. Target complementary players to add to the team during the offseason
  7. Get better as a coach
That last part is the worst and most damning part of this assessment. Kevin Durant is clearly better than he was 3 years ago, when the Thunder lost to the Heat in the Finals. Scott Brooks is not. Reporters, columnists, and bloggers have complained for years about OKC's lack of an offense and Brooks hasn't been able to do anything about it. Yeah, injuries make it tough. The Miami Heat lost Chris Bosh in the 2nd round in 2012, reinvented themselves on the fly, and won the title. Scott Brooks can't even adapt to his personnel when all his guys are healthy. He stumbled into the Collison/Adams combo only via injury. And again, how does a team that traded James Harden for multiple pieces have no depth whatsoever? I know a lot of that is on Sam Presti. But the Thunder get praise all the time on how their organization is aligned, how the coaches and front office are on the same page. If Scott Brooks doesn't have a direct impact on roster construction (e.g. "go get that guy"), Presti certainly consults his coach when making moves. These are offenses that would have gotten Brooks fired in most other situations. But because he has the league MVP, he keeps getting a pass for the inexplicable. 
Depth is going to be a big problem against the Spurs. The Thunder's only shot in this series is to keep the games below 200 combined points, slow the game down, win possessions and basically muck things up for a Spurs team that likes to play beautiful basketball. Problem is, to do those things, you need to run extensive offensive sets with multiple actions to drain clock while setting the defense off-balance for the best-possible shot. That's not happening. You need to treasure the ball, and Durant and Westbrook cough up the ball A LOT. Finally, you have to realize what style of play will be demanded of you to win and commit your team to that style. Again, Scott Brooks hasn't shown this ability when his guys are around. Minus Harden and Ibaka? Spurs in 5.
A final note about the Spurs originally posted on Twitter (@xingtheli):

The Mavericks won 3 games against this Spurs team but playing amazing defense and running all their offense to the rim. The Mavericks. As in M-A-V-S. I'm predicting the Spurs only drop a game in this series, and if Indy makes the Finals, I would only spot them a game against the Spurs, too. If that happens, Dallas will have won as many games against San Antonio as the rest of the playoff field combined. Chew on that for a second, or a minute. I'll wait. The Mavs could turn out be possibly the second-best team in the playoffs (I recognize that matchups are huge). The Mavs. My reaction? A) Rick Carlisle is an alien, B) Dirk Nowitzki is a mutant, and C) suck it to the teams that tanked. Dallas is still better than you.

Heat over Pacers in 6

I know the Heat have won back home court and this is a little late, but even watching Indy build a double-digit lead in Game 1, I always thought the Heat would be okay (not just because I want a Spurs - Heat matchup. The issue with Miami over the last couple years has been that they play to the level of their competition and have a distinct on/off switch. The know that their talent can overwhelm other teams on most nights and if they need to, they can always ratchet things up a notch. It was increasingly frustrating to watch them let ball handlers saunter into the lane, forcing Spoelstra to call timeout. Then, they'd play a few possessions of possessed defense before lapsing into their lackadaisical ways again. There's no other team in the league where you can tell so obviously when they're trying.
The problem for Indy is that when Miami does try, they can bring it to a level the Pacers can't quite match. I didn't think the Pacers could get as hot as they were in Game 1 consistently, and that showed in Game 2. The Pacers are just one ball  handler/shooter short of being able to crack the Heat defense. If C.J. Watson is that guy, great for Indy. If he's not, Miami have the advantage.
The other thing that is dangerous about the Heat are how mature they've become. None are markedly better year over year. But collectively, they've figured out how to win tough games. I think that this maturation is the result of the streak they went on during the regular season last year. When the Big 3 first got together, they would run teams out of the gym. That run typically game during the 3rd quarter when they were fresher than their opposition and seemed to melt opponents down with pressure defense and an endless stream of fast breaks. Their first title relied on monstrous LeBron/Wade games (game 4 against Indy, game 7 against Boston, the entire OKC series).
Then Wade got a little older, the team got a little older, and it became harder to muster that athletic effort every night. The streak made highlighted the difficulty - as the target on their backs grew, I think they realized they weren't going to run people over anymore. Instead they turned to an old-school tactic. They conserved energy, kept games close (except the Cleveland game), hung around, and then, in the 4th quarter, they pounced. They would go on one run to either come back or put the game away.
Guess what? That's what the playoffs are like. That pattern is what Magic and Kareem, Isaiah and Joe, Michael and Scottie all figured out. The Heat admitted that the streak took a lot out of them and they would never do it again, but it was basically a 27 game facsimile of the playoffs. It's something that fellow contenders like the Pacers, Clippers, Thunder, etc. have never faced. I think the Heat learned a lot about how to win and even more importantly, a lot about themselves, during that streak.
I'm devoted to statistical analysis, but I think there's something to a team that learns how to win. Sometimes these things are un-quantifiable (or we have figured out how to quantify them). It's like an alley-oop. I've thrown a few and it's always a rush. On the box score, it's recorded just as an assist and layup/dunk. Even the fancy Sportvu cameras can only tell you that it was a nice cut, maybe against a defense out of position. But these tools don't reveal the subtle look between teammates as the gear to make the connection, the passer's ability to anticipate and put the ball on a dime, the scorer's ability to elevate, knowing where the ball will be, knowing what he has to do in midair to put it home. It's trust, communication, ability. Championship qualities. Maybe the Pacers learn to get that this series. They are certainly not afraid and can play Miami to a man (well, if the bench shows up). But I'm still picking the Heat.

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