Monday, May 5, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs: 1st Round

Let me echo this statement that had been ad infinitum, because the significance of it is special: this was the best first round, EVER. We thought that the pall tanking, injuries, and even scandal have cast on the league this year may negatively affect the product or our ability/willingness to connect with that product. We were wrong. Game 7s. Buzzer-beating game winners. Over times. Best round ever. I'll try to recap some key points in each series and throw up some 2nd round predictions, too.


Spurs over Mavericks in 7
Dallas played an extraordinary brand of defense over the first several games that had legendary coach Gregg Popovich and all-world point guard Tony Parker flummoxed. On offense, despite Mavs hero Dirk Nowitzki struggling with his shot, Dallas kept things alive in crunch time by running everything towards the rim. It was a coaching masterpiece. How Rick Carlisle devised a functional defense/offense out of this fun but motley crew is beyond me - it may be better than him coaching the only group to best LeBron's Heat. Some coaches can build teams, others prefer to lead contenders to the next level. Carlisle can do it all. 
But when push came to shove, the Spurs were too good. Too much Manu, too much Tony and Tim, too much defensive intensity in Game 7. Spurs wings pressured the Mavs all day and harassed Dallas into a stream of turnovers. They flipped a switch in that game, but I'm worried about them because they don't usually have to find that switch, have to dust off Manu, this early in the playoffs. 

Thunder over Grizzlies in 7
I was disappointed the NBA suspended Zach Randolph for Game 7. He didn't deserve it. There was no wind-up, no premeditation - he just responded to some jostling by Steven Adams. Tech him, fine him, but don't mar Game 7 with a suspension. If this were LeBron, or Durant, or Blake Griffin, I honestly think the outcome would have been different. On the other hand, those guys have learned how to keep their emotions in check. 
For me, this series was about Scott Brooks' inability to coach offense. Time after time, when the Thunder needed a bucket and he drew a play, it would result in a rub screen for Durant 30 feet from the basket and... that's it. I understand that there's only so much you can do when Russell irresponsibly pulls up for 3 or when the players don't execute - BUT THAT'S ON THE COACH, TOO!! The best out of bounds plays (I did a study on them but the sample size was too small) include a decoy action, a shooter that is not the one to receive the initial pass, and some screen-the-screener stuff. The Thunder had none of that. Once Memphis proved that smaller, more physical defenders could disrupt the Durant/Westbrook pick and roll, it seemed Brooks gave up on trying to design offense. 
The other conundrum the Thunder faced may sink them in their next series against the Clippers. For some reason, Scott Brooks insisted on playing Kendrick Perkins, though he did eventually figure out that Kendrick may not be the best option for offensive sanity. Nick Collison couldn't stay on the floor. Steven Adams got some run but remains unproven. They tried to go small with Durant (passably) guarding Marc Gasol, but it killed their rebounding. They couldn't send extra guards to rebound because they desperately needed transition points to avoid facing the Memphis Half-Court Defensife Buzz-Saw (TM), now being sold at Home Depot (look in power tools, in aisle "T" for "Tony Allen"). I have a guess that having only one playable big (whom the Thunder completely overlooked of offense despite his becoming a great jump shooter) may be an issue in the second round versus LA. Or in the Conference Finals against Timmy/LaMarcus. 
Memphis played smart and tough and should be proud of 1st year coach Dave Joerger, who pantsed a guy that's coached All-Star games. 

Clippers over Warriors in 7
I thought the Dubs would have trouble against LA's size, and they did. What I didn't expect was LA's inability to exploit this advantage or indifference to doing so until late in the game. And while Coach Mark Jackson is clearly underwater schematically, he showed great courage and pressed all the right buttons to get the Warriors any slight advantage. Game 6 was a masterpiece - he employed a host of high-variance strategies that gave his injured team a puncher's chance. 
Doc Rivers coached a different sort of masterpiece and I have to give him some credit for the rejuvenated Chris Paul that played in Game 7. Whether this is sustainable will be a big question against Russell Westbrook, a vastly different player from Steph Curry. 
Boy wasn't Curry fun to watch? It's amazing then that we wasn't even the most fun-to-watch scoring guard in this half of the playoffs. That distinction goes to...

Portland over Houston in 6
Damian Lillard. AKA assassin. At the end of this series, I had seen him pull up for so many 3s that I was shocked when one didn't go. Same for LaMarcus Aldridge jumpers. These were all close games, but too many times, Houston just couldn't get a stop when the needed one. Weird that one of the best matchups of the first round didn't even go 7 (disappointing is also another adjective). Aldridge turned out to be a nightmare matchup for a Houston team that hasn't a real solution at power forward, and McHale's inability to hide James Harden defensively was a problem. 
I've seen the 11 minute YouTube video caricaturing James Harden's defense. I'll always remember a crunch time sequence in game 4 where Harden let Nic Batum blow past him, forcing the Rockets into crisis help rotations from the weak (left) side. The only guy that didn't rotate or find a shooter? James Harden. By the time the ball was swing back to the right side, Harden was woefully out of position and could merely lunge at his man - only to see him blow past again. He was bailed out by Dwight Howard block on that possession, but overall James Harden was unplayable defensively. You just can't win ball games with a guy like that. 
The Rockets' offense was fine. Harden struggled some but Dwight found his stride and turned his post-ups into a weapon again. But it was Portland that won this series. For such a young team, they were mature offensively and came up with every big rebound or loose ball again and again. 


Spurs over Blazers in 6
At some point, this is going to catch up to San Antonio. Pop had to pull his Manu card out early this year and had to noticeably ratchet up the intensity for Game 7. But they are a much better matchup against Portland than Houston was. The can credibly defend Aldridge one-on-one without ceding valuable offensive space like Houston did with the Howard-Asik pairing. They can drive the unproven Blazers defenders batty around the perimeter with Tony, Many, and a fearless Gary Neal. But they need the bench to be effective, not only because Portland's bench remains suspect, but because it's going to be a long playoffs if the Big 3 can't get some rest. 

Clippers over Thunder in 6
The Thunder will face the same problems they had in the first round. Their optimal lineup is probably Westbrook - Jackson - Butler - Durant - Ibaka, but can Durant guard DeAndre Jordan without ceding more than 5 offensive rebounds a game? If they can pull this off, the spacing will be an issue for LA on the other side, and forcing the Clippers to downsize is a win. 
I don't think they'll pull it off. I think Chris Paul's team will execute better than Rus Westbrook's in the clutch. The scrappy Matt Barne matches up well with Durant on paper. Doc Rivers is no offensive guru but I trust him more late in games.


Pacers over Hawks in 7
The Hawks didn't just reveal a blueprint to beat the Pacers (ignore Hibbert, spread the floor, attack the point, and show no respect). The revealed that the Pacers aren't the Championship-contending, defensive menace, East-leading Pacers. I won't go on about Roy Hibbert (ok, I will a little - is this performance the worst by an All-Star the the anteceding Playoffs, ever? This is about a team experiencing an organization-wide breakdown. They were beaten in every phase of the game this series and it's a miracle they are still alive. David West took over late in the series but was nowhere to be found in the first several games. Luis Scola and Ian Mahinmi give them nothing off the bench. One fo the NBA's purported deep teams, one that had the luxury of signing Andrew Bynum for depth, is now one of the thinnest with absolutely nobody off the bench I trust (maybe Chris Copeland). Their point guard is streaky, their shooting guard streakier, and nobody seems to like playing with anyone else.
And the Hawks? They played like they know who they are. They had no shot at competing with Indiana inside. Their only shot was to go small and stay small, and it worked. They now know exactly what parts to add to the puzzle which ironically is something Indiana does not have.

Heat over Bobcats in 4
I should have picked the Heat to sweep but I gave Al Jefferson the benefit of one game where he'd tear things up. Sadly, that only lasted for the 1st quarter of the 1st game. This Charlotte team have a ways to go but they validated the Jefferson signing and Kemba Walker is for real. That's better than it could be. So they're not as good as Miami - neither are most other teams.

Nets over Raptors in 7
The Raptors bigs played really well they just couldn't take it to the nets inside. Kevin Garnett looked his age, Andray Blatche is not a great help defender, and Paul Pierce is out of place defending true 4s. Then again, Truth had the series-saving block on Kyle Lowry after rotating off Amir Johnsno, so maybe it wasn't that bad for New Jersey. But the way you beat the Nets are to run, outrebound, outscore them in the paint, and generally beat them up physically. Instead, it was Joe Johnson feasting on the block and Deron Williams making big shots. Kyle Lowry has shown flashes of All-Star potential this season and did again in this series, but the Raptors just couldn't get the pace or identity they needed to compete. They desperately need a solution at small forward and need Jonas Valanciunas to take another leap.

Wizards over Bulls in 5
The Bulls just had no chance offensively. They only shot creator is D.J. Augustin, and while I love what Augustin gave Chicago this year, he just isn't a guy that can get you 35+ high usage minutes every game for a series. He's an overqualified bench guard that can make a contender very happy if paid the right salary. Joakim Noah is one of my favorite players ever, but the Wizards bigs outplayed him on the block. Joakim's strength isn't actually playing bigs one-on-one; it's his ability to control the defense, warp pick-and-rolls by bumping roll men, switching on ball handlers, clogging passing lanes, re-directing help traffic and potential cutters, and in general just mucking up the offense's normal flow. The Wizards played a simpler game and attacked the Bulls one-on-one. John Wall showed he could get to any point on the court he wanted (known in NBA lingo as "snaking" on the pick-and-roll) and he got his shooters good looks and to their credit, they canned them. Trevor Ariza is enjoying a career revival, a lot of which can be attributed to Wall's growth. For a team that blew it's high lottery pick (Otto Porter), the Wizards are a contender in the East.


Wizards over Pacers in 6
Does anyone still believe in the Pacers? If Jeff Teague can drive the Pacers' guards batty, so can John Wall. Bradley Beal is no Kyle Korver, but he's still a respectable shooter. The Wizards' bigs aren't the shooting threat that the Hawks presented with Paul Milsap, Pero Antic, and Mike Stott bombing away, but they will present issues on the block for the aforementioned thin Pacers frontcourt. If Roy Hibbert doesn't find himself (I think it's something extra-curricular), I think the Pacers will find themselves in Washington down 3-2 for a game 6. That's a scenario they need to avoid.

Heat over Nets in 6
I actually think the Heat won't have this much trouble, but I'm giving a regular season sweep and the presence of the Nets' vets the benefit of the doubt. The Heat will be fine playing against the Nets' small lineup and should be able to hold their own on the boards (a traditional Heat weakness). If Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett couldn't beat this Heat team with Rondo, Ray, and Doc in Boston, I see no path to them winning this series. 

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