Jeremy Conlin previews and predicts Round 1 of the NBA post-season.
The NBA’s Second Season is upon us. I’m rather bored of the rote “list each series in order of seed and conference,” so instead, I’m listing each series in order of intrigue. Picks will be in bold.
East: Indiana (3) vs. Orlando (6)
This was shaping up to be a rather interesting series until Dwight Howard went out with his back injury. Had he played, the Magic would have been a team with one superstar (Howard), one criminally underrated supporting star (Ryan Anderson), and a bunch of garbage (everyone else) going up against a team with no true elite player, but eight guys that all make significant contributions. Ultimately, we’re left with the least interesting series in Round 1. Indiana in 4.
And when I call Ryan Anderson criminally underrated, I mean it. Anderson grabbed 12.9% of available offensive rebounds this season, 6th-best in the league. While you’re thinking about that, also consider that 1) he was better than Kevin Love, Tyson Chandler, Blake Griffin, Andrew Bynum, and Dwight Howard in that category, 2) this was with Dwight Howard beside him on the floor, competing for those very same rebounds and 3) he led the league in 3-PT Field Goals made, and doing so at a clip that put him just outside the top 20 in 3-PT%. In the history of the NBA, the list of players who averaged 3.5 or more offensive rebounds per game, and 2.5 3-PT Field Goals made per game consists of Ryan Anderson… and that’s it. That’s the whole list. Yeah.
West: San Antonio (1) vs. Utah (8)
Here’s the dirty little secret about this matchup – it isn’t that different than San Antonio’s Round 1 matchup from last season, when they lost to Memphis. Much like the Grizzlies last season, Utah is a goofy offensive team – somehow 7th in the league in offensive efficiency despite the fact that they’re just 17th in True Shooting Percentage (TS%). They make up for the fact that they’re a dreadful 3-point shooting team (just 27th in the league in 3PT%) by limiting turnovers (5th-lowest Turnover Rate) and crashing the offensive boards (2nd-best Offensive Rebound Rate). Like Memphis last season, they have a lot of size and depth in their frontcourt, which could cause problems for San Antonio’s thin front line outside of Tim Duncan.
That being said, San Antonio man-handled Utah during the regular season this year, winning the series 3-1, the only loss on April 9, a game where Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili all had the night off. In each of the three wins by San Antonio, the Jazz were held well below their normal Offensive Rebound Rate, and the Jazz failed to run San Antonio off the three-point line. The Spurs combined to shoot 26-59 (44%) from three in those games. Tony Parker also played incredibly well in each game, averaging just under 22 points per contest with 61% True Shooting. Both of those trends should continue. San Antonio in five.
Parker’s great play this season, coupled with San Antonio’s success as a team, has been leading some to believe that he belongs on the 1st-Team All-NBA, or even in the MVP discussion, which I find rather laughable. As John Hollinger mentioned in his awards column earlier this week, the mainstream NBA media has a dreadfully hard time accepting that a deep team with no true superstar can achieve the #1 seed in the playoffs. The Spurs success this year stemmed from the fact that they have 11 players that are, at worst, slightly worse than average. This is not a team like Miami where, after the top three players, everyone might be a week away from the D-League. It is a deep, talented roster, and while Parker had a great season, he shouldn’t crack the top 5 on any MVP ballot, and should probably be relegated to the 3rd-Team All-NBA.
East: Boston (4) vs. Atlanta (5)
Given the always-perplexing world of the NBA Playoffs, Atlanta will have home-court-advantage in this series despite the fact that Boston is the #4 seed. Boston automatically receives the #4 seed by virtue of winning the Atlantic Division, but because Atlanta has a superior record, they get home court.
The only time Atlanta beat Boston this season was on April 20, a game that Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen all watched from the bench, but the two Boston wins were far from convincing, a 79-76 win on March 19, and an 88-86 win in overtime on April 11.
Many of the matchups seem to favor Atlanta as well, such as Boston’s propensity to commit turnovers (5th-worst Turnover Rate) against Atlanta’s propensity to force turnovers (6th-best Opponent’s Turnover Rate).
However, Boston has shown a tendency to “flip the switch,” for the lack of a better term, in the playoffs, enjoying the league’s best record since the All-Star break, including those two wins over Atlanta. The Hawks have also surged, with the 3rd-best average scoring margin in the league over the last 16 games, but Boston has posted at a nearly identical clip (+6.48 for Atlanta, +6.29 for Boston) and done it against a significantly harder schedule. Boston in 6.
West: Memphis (4) vs. LA Clippers (5)
This matchup will really come down to how well Memphis can bottle up Chris Paul in the screen-roll game, if at all. The Clippers are ranked 2nd in the league in screen-roll ball handler PPP (points per possession) at 0.86, trailing only Oklahoma City at 0.89. They’re also 7th in screen-roll roll man PPP at 1.01. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are near league-average in containing opponents’ screen-roll ball handlers, and Zach Randolph has never been particularly strong in screen-roll coverage. If Chris Paul gets to the spots he wants to in the pick-and-roll game, I don’t see any way that Memphis can slow down the Clippers.
When Memphis is on offense, for the most part, they’re playing right into LA’s hands. Their screen-roll principals (ball handlers and roll men) rank 28th and 24th in the league in PPP, respectively, and they’re terrible in isolation situations, ranking 26th in the league. Because of the Clippers’ sloppy rotations and generally undisciplined help defense, those are the best ways to attack them. Memphis’ offense is built around getting easy buckets in transition, and if they can’t do that, pulling it back out before dumping it to Gasol and Randolph in the post. Unfortunately for Memphis, the Clippers are actually adequately equipped to defend that type of team. They’re athletic, especially in the front court, and rarely get beat down the floor in transition, they defend post-ups moderately well, and for the most part, they control their defensive glass.
The two biggest advantages Memphis has in this series are home-court advantage and Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies were 26-7 at home this season, while the Clippers were just 16-17 on the road, and Rudy Gay is the only player the Grizzlies have that can take advantage of the Clippers’ poor discipline in isolation situations. If Gay can win 1-on-1s from the high post, the Grizzlies can win the series, but if he can’t, they can’t. With Zach Randolph as rusty as he’s been and Marc Gasol’s scoring efficiency taking a swan dive, most of Memphis’ offense will need to come from Gay. At the end of the day, however, I’d trust Chris Paul to consistently get good shots for his team than I would Rudy Gay. Los Angeles in 6.
East: Chicago (1) vs. Philadelphia (8)
There are a few reasons why this series might not be a cakewalk for Chicago. First of all, there’s the rust factor with Derrick Rose. He’s played six games in the last six weeks, and really hasn’t been 100% healthy all season. They’ve been able to survive without him during the regular season simply because of superior depth and defense, but in the playoffs, when rotations shorten and predictable offenses get dismantled, it’s a different beast. If Rose isn’t effective, Chicago could be in real trouble, even against a team as schizophrenic as Philadelphia.
The other issue is the matchup. In the playoffs last season, Rose ran into problems when he was defended by longer wing players. Against Philadelphia, he could see plenty of that, particularly Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner. In the first game the two teams played this year, way back on February 1, Philly employed that exact strategy, and did a phenomenal job of forcing Rose’s pick-and-rolls towards the sideline, keeping him out of the middle of the floor where he’s most dangerous.
Granted, that game was three months ago, and the Sixers have been in free fall for most of the time since. Since starting 20-9, they’ve gone 16-21, and they’ve looked spectacularly bad doing so. On January 31, Philly had an efficiency margin (net points per 100 possessions) of +12.5. Today, that number is +4.7. It’s still a very good number, but it shows how far they’ve fallen since their hot start.
My guess is that Rose will be healthy, and that Philly will continue to go haywire, especially against Chicago’s stifling defense. Chicago in 5.
West: LA Lakers (3) vs. Denver (6)
This will likely be the most-contested series in Round 1. The Nuggets are actually superior to the Lakers in several ways, most notably in scoring margin (+2.88 for Denver, +1.42 for Los Angeles). The Lakers were 22-8 in games decided by five points or less, which generally doesn’t mean much more than they were lucky. The biggest statistical trend that troubles Denver is the overwhelming failure of teams without home-court advantage that also lost the season series. Teams with those two qualifiers have lost in 51 of the last 53 instances.
However, from a matchup perspective, Denver has several advantages. Kobe Bryant combined to shoot 19-69 (27.5%) in his three games against the Nuggets this season, and has never had a great deal of success against either Arron Afflalo or Corey Brewer, who he should expect to see a great deal of in this series. The Lakers’ other main mode of attack offensively is to post up either Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol, but Denver has had a great deal of success defending post-ups this season, surrendering just 0.78 PPP, 3rd-best in the entire league.
Interestingly, the Lakers seemed immune to this during their matchups this season, as Andrew Bynum averaged just a shade under 25 points per game on 66% shooting, with Pau Gasol chipping in with 16 points per contest on 54% shooting. On the other hand, only one of the Denver-LA games game after the trade deadline (when Denver swapped Nene for JaVale McGee, and in that game) saw both Bynum and Gasol shoot their worst percentages of the year against Denver. That will be the biggest battle in this series, whether Denver’s post defense can hold up against the Lakers’ size.
When Denver has the ball, they should have some advantages. The Lakers are 27th in the league in defending transition, surrendering 1.18 PPP. This is great news for Denver, who rank 3rd in the league in PPP transition offense at 1.2, accounting for 18.3% of their possessions, which is by far the highest ratio in the league. If the series turns into a track meet, Denver will have a serious upper hand. The Lakers have no real answer for quick guards in the open floor, and Ty Lawson and Andre Miller are among the best in the business in that category.
Furthermore, without Metta World Peace, LA becomes awfully thin on the wings, and if Danilo Gallinari finally finds his stroke, the Lakers will have no real answer for him. In his absence, the likelihood that Devin Ebanks and Andrew Goudelock see significant minutes increases, which will unlikely be anything besides disastrous for the Lakers.
The biggest X-Factor in the series is Kenneth Faried. He lacks the size to be the ideal post defender against either Bynum or Gasol, but he can compensate on offense by taking advantage of the Lakers’ sometimes-shaky screen-roll defense and crashing the offensive boards. He’s much quicker than most 4’s, and certainly quicker than any of LA’s bigs that will be defending him, so if they don’t adjust quickly enough, he could have a monster series. I think he will. Denver in 6.
West: Oklahoma City (2) vs. Dallas (7)
This is the series that has been giving me the most pause. The Grizzlies-Clippers and Nuggets-Lakers series are probably the two most evenly matched, but I still feel I have a decent grasp on what each team will accomplish in Round 1. With Dallas and Oklahoma City, I have no such grasp. Every time that I think Oklahoma City’s athletes will run Dallas out of the gym, I think back to last year’s Western Finals when it became abundantly clear that Dallas was a more disciplined team that executed their offense to absolute perfection. Hell, Dirk Nowitzki scored 48 points on 15 field goal attempts in Game 1 last year.
If Dallas has any advantage in this series, it’s the same one they had last year – they know that Dirk can eat up OKC’s forwards in isolation situations, especially Serge Ibaka. Ibaka is a great help defender who can fly in from the weak side to cover up everyone else’s mistakes, but when he’s the primary defender, he’s really not that exceptional. As the primary defender, he’s in the bottom 50% of NBA players in opponents PPP, ranked 258th overall. Against isolation plays, he’s ranked 129th among eligible players. His “best” ranking is against screen-roll roll men, where he ranks 67th in the league. None of those really jump off the page, do they?
On the other hand, I’m not convinced that Dallas can execute on the level they did last year. Jose Barea was a major factor in last year’s series, particularly in Game 1 when he scored 21 points in 16 minutes. They have Delonte West and Roddy Beaubois running their second unit offense, and while they’re both fine players, they just aren’t as effective in the screen-roll game as Barea was last season, and that makes me think Oklahoma City will have the upper hand.
Thanks to World Peace, one of the major trump cards that OKC was holding may now be a question mark. James Harden was a breakout star this season, and had quite a historic campaign (the list of guards who have posted a True Shooting % over 65% while averaging at least 10 field goal attempts per 36 minutes is pretty short), but after suffering a concussion when his head made unfortunate contact with Metta’s swinging elbow, it is unknown how effective he will be in Round 1.
If Harden is at full strength, Oklahoma City should win. If Dallas continues to struggle to execute offensively, Oklahoma City should win easily. Oklahoma City in 5.
East: Miami (2) vs. New York (7)
I mean, really, was anything else going to be here? We have the juggernaut that the media will never leave alone going up against the team from the largest market in the country. We have six “star” players (although only four of them are actually that good, sorry, Bosh and Amar’e). We have Carmelo and LeBron guarding each other for 44 minutes. I’m giddy.
Based on who you talk to, the Knicks could either win this series easily (assuming you’re talking to a Knicks fan), or get swept and lose every game convincingly (assuming you’re talking to someone who hates the Knicks). The reality is somewhere in the middle. There are some advantages that the Knicks have, but there are serious doubts as to whether or not New York will be smart enough to identify and take advantage of them.
The first is most likely to be a major factor in this series, and that’s Miami’s suspect 3-PT defense. They were 26th in opponent’s 3-PT%, and surrendered .97 PPP to spot-up shooters, 20th in the league. The Knicks should take advantage of this. They attempted the 2nd-most threes of any team in the league this year, and while they didn’t make them at a particularly impressive clip (33.6%, just 21st in the league), the sheer number of them has a big impact. Going strictly by FG%, New York ranked just 20th in the league at 44.3%. But if you look at eFG%, which weighs threes accordingly, New York jumps all the way up to 11th at 49.2%. The Knicks could easily have a game (or two) where they simply make everything and run Miami out of the gym.
The other advantage they have is when they play Carmelo Anthony at the 4 and surround him with shooters. It would be an even bigger advantage in this series, because Miami doesn’t have a post player that can take advantage of the small lineup. The Knicks would just throw Tyson Chandler at Chris Bosh, let Carmelo “guard” Joel Anthony or Ronny Turiaf, when in reality he’d just be roaming around and causing problems. It would be a situation that Miami wouldn’t really have an answer for.
However, as mentioned earlier, there are serious doubts as to whether New York will even employ that lineup now that Amar’e Stoudemire is healthy. If you utilize NBA.com’s +/- numbers, and look at New York’s best two-player combinations, you’ll find that the combination of Carmelo and Amar’e doesn’t appear on the list. Anywhere. In fact, it’s a pretty awful combination. When the Knicks play Carmelo, Amar’e, and Chandler in the frontcourt, they’ve been outscored. Considering how stubborn most teams are about playing their “best” players together, regardless of how well the lineup actually works, I would expect to see a lot of that combination in this series. And that’s why the Heat will win. Miami in 5.