Tuesday, April 21, 2015

NBA Playoffs First Round – Western Conference Edition

Yes, I realize the playoffs already started. I wanted to get some thoughts down while they're fresh.

The Warrior’s defense is like ballet. Nobody is on an island. For a jump shooting team, being able to rely on the defense is such a relief. Bogut is causing havoc in the lane – just watch what happens when anybody, with or without the ball, tries to cross that area. He’s irreplaceable, and so is Draymond Green. How many players in the NBA can do what Green does? Kawhi gets close, but there’s a difference between a small forward that can slide to big forward and a big forward that can slide to shooting guard (defensively). LeBron could do it but we haven’t seen peak defensive LeBron for two years. Milsap has the body to do it but his instincts and feet are nowhere near as good.

Anthony Daivs is a beast. He will only get better. But have the Pelicans already wasted a good chunk of his prime? It’s obvious that Jrue Holiday isn’t working out. Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon have found a way to coexist, but neither of them are good enough shooters to space the floor around Davis, requiring the Pellies to turn to Ryan Anderson, who is an overall minus player. You can’t call him a stretch four when he doesn’t defend or rebound his position. They’ve given up significant assets, including picks and cap space, to assemble the present roster, and I’m not sure anybody other than Davis will be on the Pellies team that can call itself a contender. New Orleans can look north and see a Memphis team that is dangerous despite cramped spacing, but that Grizzlies team also has two players (Conley and Gasol) on relatively team-friendly contracts. The Pellies are on thin ice.

Houston really lucked into the matchup with Dallas. Their defense played well against the Mavs in game one, but the offense was only held afloat by the Mavs utter lack of defensive pieces around Tyson Chandler. The game plan Rick Carlysle threw at James Harden worked beautifully. The Mavs were able to stop Harden from penetrating and made the other Rockets beat them. Without Patrick Beverley and Donatus Motiejunas to space the floor, the Rockets watched Josh Smith stare at open 3s for several Mississippi’s before unleashing some dreadful shots. Harden has carried a heavy load all year, but it’s getting tougher and the defenses are more prepared to stop him. Daryl Morey is rightly praised for the pieces he’s added, but it’s one he gave away (Isaiah Canaan) who might have made a difference.

The Mavs are playing way above their weight class, and it shows when any of the starters go out. There just isn’t anyone dangerous on either end of the floor. Going inside with A’Mare kind of worked, but that’s not going to win a series. People forget that the 2011 title team had Jason Terry and JJ Barea coming off the bench. They also had quality defensive depth in the frontcourt, and yeah, Dirk Nowitzki was inhuman. The Mavs fought a valiant fight by making some big moves, but it looks like they’re staring at another summer of uncertainty.

The Clippers can complain about having to play the Spurs, but all their weaknesses may come to naught if Chris Paul can continue to do what he did in Game 1. Gregg Popovich is as good at adjusting as anyone, but it’s going to be a struggle for him to try and stop the Clippers’ starting offense. There just isn’t a good place to hide Parker, and he doesn’t have enough depth at big forward or center. I felt like the Clippers controlled game 1 from start to finish – they got the looks they wanted and played the defense they wanted. Yeah, the Spurs went on a few runs, but those seemed to coincide with the Clippers missing shots or rotations they normally make. And if the second unit can prove that it won’t hemorrhage points, look out.

Meanwhile, the Spurs looked a step slow and didn’t really get in a rhythm. The stats show that they missed a bunch of open shots, but I don’t think those shots were necessarily as open as you’d think. Parker was invisible, Manu was the same Manu we’ve seen for the last couple postseasons (exciting, and frustrating all at the same time), and their bigs were dominated by LA’s. The Spurs bench that played big minutes all year because of Pop’s superior planning/prioritizing looked lost against an inferior Clippers second unit. Zach Lowe wrote a great piece on the Spurs’ fantastic run over the last decade plus, and I really hope it’s not over. I hope that Pop can reinvent this team on the fly around Kawhi’s brilliance and pieces that the Spurs develop out of nowhere. But those pieces don’t look like they’re on this Spurs team.

Portland lucked into the 4th seed but they couldn’t luck into home-court advantage, and they can’t luck into a good defense with their current healthy roster. Losing Wes Matthews was huge – he gave them tremendous defensive flexibility on the wing. And as fun as Damian Lillard is to watch, as much as he was an assassin against Houston last year in a wildly entertaining first round matchup, he is just not an NBA-level defender yet. Point guard is the hardest position to guard since it’s so deep – there are just so many guys that can embarrass you in so many ways. But I remember a mid-March game against the Clippers, one of those games that can get lost in the schedule as teams just try to survive to the playoffs. The Clippers only won by 4, but Chris Paul scored 41 on 21 shots. He went 10/10 from the line and tossed 17 dimes. Chris Paul wasn’t just hot – he carved the Blazers up on the pick and roll. Blake or DeAndre would come up on a high screen and just obliterate Lillard. It seemed like Paul would be at the free throw line and Lillard would still be caught behind the 3 point line on the screen. This isn’t all Damian’s fault – Chris Paul is the best in the world at using hesitation crossover and in-and-out dribbles after the pick to throw the defense’s timing completely off. And his screeners have played with him enough that they know where to roll to, when not to get in his way, and how to keep the pocket passing lane open. But Lillard would consistently get caught in the beautiful ballet, allowing the Clippers to create 5-on-4s with Paul still dribbling. Chris Paul generally doesn’t need more help.

Memphis? Memphis is good. The defense will always be there. Gasol is a savant. Conley might be getting some of his explosion back. Jeff Green is fitting again more and more and if they can put enough shooting together, there’s no reason they can’t make the Western Conference Finals again and make some noise once there. They have some feisty bench cogs that fit different needs: Vince Carter for some offensive creativity, Beno Udrhi for ball handling, and Tony Allen for that vice-grip defense. This team is good.

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