Tuesday, May 19, 2015

NBA Playoffs: Conference Finals Preview

Houston vs. Golden State

What a rollercoaster ride for the Rockets. Many people think the Clippers lost that series. I don’t disagree (more on them later). But don’t understate how well the Rockets played in the last three games. They finally began to understand that playoff basketball requires effort, determination, and focus on each defensive possession.  Their execution from a coaching and playing standpoing on that side of the ball changed the nature of the series. Sure, the Clippers were up big in Game 6 and should have won that – but the Rockets were still executing their defense. That defense sprang leaks as the Clippers got out in transition, but so will any defense. They key is they stuck with it and got the stops they needed to in the 4th quarter. I killed Josh Smith earlier in the series for loafing on defense when it didn’t involve his mark. His coming to play changed the complexion of the lineup – instead of the Rockets compensating for an iffy jump shooter with a questionable motor, he was an iffy jump shooter that provided valuable rebounding energy.

As for the Warriors – they showed you what they can do when the shoot well and what they can do when they don’t. Despite shooting horribly in Games 2 and 3, they were in both games. They got within 4 with a couple minutes left in Game 3 despite Steph missing a wide-open three and both he and Klay missing a bevy of free throws. As I’ve said all along – that’s the scary thing about these Warriors. You can only beat them when they shoot poorly, so you have to hope they have 4 bad shooting nights in 7 games. But even then, even when the shots don’t fall, the defense gives them a shot. People compare them to the 2011 Mavs who rode an unbelievable hot streak from Dirk Nowitzki to a title. That team played great matchup defense - Miami was a particularly juicy matchup once Rick Carlisle et al figured out that LeBron couldn’t/wouldn’t shoot. But this team can matchup with anyone on D and that’s a problem.

As far as Houston vs. Golden State – I’m not going to regurgitate analysis you can find elsewhere. Zach Lowe as usual has some good stuff up at Grantland. I’ll just leave one nugget: how to Pablo Pirigioni and Jason Terry get minutes in this matchup? Pirigioni should get credit for a masterful defensive performance on Chris Paul. But if you watch how he did it, it mostly relied on him giving up the long jumper out of the pick-and-roll, recovering at about the free throw line, and then contesting the jumper. Paul wasn’t blowing past anyone (more on this later), so Pablo just sat on that midrange J. Try the same against Steph Curry? I’ve seen Steph play in person. His ability to shoot before the pick-and-roll is over is unfair. That same tactic won’t work in this series. If they can’t guard Steph, the problems cascade. They need extra ball handlers since Ariza/Brewer/Smith aren’t quite trustworthy. Terry gives them good spacing around Dwight and Josh – we all saw in Memphis how tenuous playing with even three good shooters is against Golden State.  So those two need to play. Can you cross-match them on Klay? No, the Warriors are happy to oblige with Klay post-ups. Harrison Barnes is the least-threatening Warrior, but he finally seemed to discover against Memphis that he can shoot over darn near anyone. This is going to be a huge problem. Warriors in 5.

Cleveland vs. Atlanta

Cleveland’s defense did what they needed to against a streaky Chicago team – clog the lane and rebound. Watching Chicago try to manufacture any offense out of the halfcourt was akin to torture. The Cavs’ own offense was pretty iffy, existing on a diet of LeBron isos, but at least that’s, you know, a viable option. The good news for Cleveland is that they should be able to do some of the same against Atlanta. The bad news is that if the Hawks play Hawks basketball, they are going to have troubles stopping them. The Triston Thompson/Timofey Mozgov duo played well in stretches but struggled against smaller lineups, and the Hawks default lineup is small. The more ideal Kyrie – Sump – JR – LBJ – Mozgov/Thompson lineup can only play so many minutes together. They’re best shot is to slow the game down, try to get as much out of the lineup as possible, and hope the Hawks play in the muck.

The problem for Atlanta is that they obliged Washington’s pace last series, and even Brooklyn’s style the series before. This team should be running and scoring in the 100s. I know their depth is an issue, but have you seen Washington’s bench? It was a dumpster fire! So was Brooklyn’s! How do you not run those team into the ground? Against Cleveland, Atlanta has no good option to defend LeBron – not many teams do. But they do have a tool that has proven useful, and that’s to run him into the ground. That happened in 2011 and 2014. But that type of play requires a team with great confidence and chemistry, and if there’s anything the Hawks lack, it may be those ingredients. I strongly opposed their decision (maybe it wasn’t a decision – these guys are clearly hurting, but still) to sit the starters so much down the stretch. I didn’t believe they were good enough as a team or had a good enough individual player that they could play themselves into shape in the playoffs. There are just too many weird matchups and styles to do that. What works against one team may not in the next series. You need to rely on the continuity of running the same system night in, night out, which they failed to do at the end of the season. Against both Brooklyn and Washington, the Hawks just seemed indecisive at times. It’s like they were thinking about how to get the most efficient shot instead of shooting it and trusting the process. I don’t care how many 3s Kyle Korver misses. He should be taking 6-7 a game, and taking them with confidence, early in the shot clock. Sure, it may not work out – shooters have bad games – but I’d rather the Hawks lose playing Hawks basketball than anybody else’s.

Having said all that, I think that Cleveland will have real issues guarding Jeff Teague. Kyrie already struggles at getting through screens, and the Cavs’ bigs aren’t always great at manipulating the screener to help him out. If Kyrie is truly on two bad wheels, this could turn into a long series of Teague forays into the paint. On defense, the Hawks at least have the personnel to give LeBron different looks (something the Bulls simply could not do). He’ll abuse DeMarre Carroll in the post and can go around Paul Milsap, but he seems just as content to shoot long jumpers. Both benches are disasters – Blatt because he has no options, Budenholzer because he has seemingly forgot how to substitute effectively. Both of these guys seem shaky on the sideline compared to Steve Kerr and Dave Joerger (and yes, Kevin McHale). I don’t think the Cavs are afraid of the Hawks at all. I don’t think they care about home court. I don’t think they respect the 4 All-Stars. But I also think the Hawks have a higher ceiling – they have played terribly the last two rounds and still won. I think if they can get back to the team I saw in the regular season, they win this in 7.

A few notes about the departed:

1.       I was waiting for Chris Paul to take over Game 7. I know he’s one of the best point guards to ever play the game. He’s a great shooter, defender, passer, leader. But he just hasn’t shown that 6th gear, that gear where everyone piles on his back and he manufactures basket after basket, stop after stop. Combine that with his inability to get his team in good positions in the waning moments of Game 6 are very real knocks on his All-Time resume. Maybe it’s his hammy. Maybe it’s the meniscus injury he suffered years ago as a Hornet. Maybe because he’s barely 6 foot and Russell Westbrook looks like a Greek God. The stats would tell you that taking over a game doesn’t matter. That it’s the thousands of little decisions and plays, the simple stuff, accumulated over a season that make a great player. I don’t disagree. But in the microcosmic sample size that is the playoffs, I wish Chris would have more of those games that take your breath away. Rose had them, so did Russell. Steph could go off at any moment. Rondo’s had it; so has Jason Terry. When will Paul’s moment finally come?

2.       Blake Griffin dribbles the ball off his foot a lot.

3.       Blake Griffin, we he doesn’t try on defense, really doesn’t try. Go to the end of this article and watch the GIF of Pablo swiping the ball and feeding to Harden Watch Chris Paul. Then Watch Blake Griffin. LeBron and Harden take plays off, but when Blake does it, he gets his money’s worth.

4.       DeAndre Jordan should try to bank in more free throws. You can’t make it shooting short – compensate long.

5.       Memphis played a great, great series. It was Grit-N-Grind at its best. Mike Conley was superhuman. They just don’t have enough shooting. Doug Collins made a good point about the Gasol/ZBo combo – they’ve had those guys together for half a decade and they couldn’t find 3 good shooters to put around them? I know they love Tony Allen, but in today’s NBA, you cannot have fewer than 3 shooters on the floor. You just can’t. But kudos to the Grizz who kept it real and made it entertaining. Mad respect for them.

6.       The Bulls are going to be make major offseason moves – that much we can agree on. One of those is likely to be the head coach. I was an ardent supporter of Tom Thibodeau for a long time, even as the rift between he and the Bulls’ management grew wider. But after that series, as hard as the Bulls worked, it became apparent – this team is never going to make the Finals with Thibodeau. They are banged up every year. Every year one of their guys plays killer minutes, whether Deng, Noah, or Butler. Their defense is based on solid principles, but lots of defenses are nearly as solid based on the same principles. The offense has failed to catch up –a team that can’t score in the half court and doesn’t look to run is just not going to cut him. I know his players love him. I know that he’s a good coach. I know that he’s resurrected careers and presided over one of the NBA’s great stories in Jimmy Butler. But reluctantly, I have to agree that for the Bulls to be great, they need a new coach. Tom Thibodeau will be okay – he’ll be successful wherever he goes, and some team will be lucky to have him.

7.       Washington made bold moves to resign their guys and keep getting better, and you know what? It worked! That city had good energy. John Wall and Bradley Beal can play together. Otto Porter is a real NBA player. They might get KD. Even if they don’t, they have an All-Star on their roster, which is a better than most teams can boast. They have holes, but like I said after last year’s playoffs, at least they know what those holes are (compared to a Boston, where every one of their starters could be gone by the time the reach the Conference Finals).


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