Miami/Charlotte Series Preview

The soon to be Hornets are one of the best success stories of the season, making the playoffs for only the second time in their existence on the strength of Al Jefferson’s offense and a revamped defense. Their reward is a brutal first round series against the defending champs and assurances that they won’t have to play in May.

Jefferson has put the offense on his back since arriving in the offseason. Everything revolves around his post ups on the left block. Charlotte likes to have the ball entered to him there while the power forward (usually Josh McRoberts, but also Cody Zeller recently) hangs out on the left wing. Various other actions take place off the ball, often designed to get cuts for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is an awful jump shooter and needs to use backdoor cuts to add value on offense. The rest of the perimeter players – Gerald Henderson, Kemba Walker, Gary Neal, Luke Ridnour (and McRoberts) – can spot up for threes around the post up, and the Bobcats have managed to make their offense respectable with this strategy.

The main alternative they use is the pick and roll, usually with Walker handling the ball and one of the forwards screening. They like to set these up on the left wing, so Jefferson will wander over to the right block or elbow to clear a little room. The Heat will be able to ramp up their intensity from “we just won two championships and the rest of the conference sucks” to “ridiculous” on defense now that the playoffs are here, and having to hide a player like Kidd-Gilchrist will hurt Charlotte’s ability to make them pay for overhelping on Jefferson.

The Bobcats have relied heavily on their 6th ranked defense to rack up wins, but even that has some Miami-specific holes. MKG has played well on that end, but LeBron James has owned him in their matchups this year, including a 61 point game against him in March. Gerald Henderson can do a decent job on Dwyane Wade, but may get pulled away due to help duties a decent amount.

On the inside, Jefferson’s shortcomings have been covered up in part by allowing him to remain near the rim instead of chasing opponents around the perimeter. Chris Bosh can upend that scheme thanks to his ability to step away from the basket. Bosh demands that defenders follow him – he’s hitting over 48% between 10-23 feet this season. Jefferson can hide out on Udonis Haslem or Chris Andersen if they’re in the game, but the Heat might want to consider playing small to eliminate that possibility.

Either way, the Bobcats aren’t likely to win more than one game in this series, if they can manage that. Miami just has to hope that they can get through the series fairly quickly and avoid any injuries. As for Charlotte, they can only hope to record the first playoff win in franchise history and enjoy the strong improvements they have made. They are a few important pieces away from making any sort of meaningful impact on the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

San Antonio/Dallas Series Preview

The Spurs once again rolled through the regular season and will begin another push to try to secure a 5th title. Dallas slid into the 8th seed and this unfavorable matchup thanks to a loss in the last game of the regular season to the Memphis Grizzlies. Now they have the daunting task of facing a juggernaut that sported the league’s 4th best defense and 6th best offense in the regular season.

San Antonio has basically turned into an unstoppable collective at this point. Not one player on the roster averaged more than 30 minutes per game, and they kept winning even as several key players missed games. Now everyone is healthy and ready to go.

Increased minutes are expected for the starters and Manu Ginobili now that the playoffs are here, but the role players are also well adapted to playing the now-classic Spurs style offense – slash and kick with crisp ball movement and spacing, resulting in a ton of layups and corner threes. They’ve even managed to do this in recent years without having to lean on flawed specialists like Matt Bonner to open up the offense, and everyone contributes on the other end as well. Simply put, these guys are good.

Dallas’s defensive personnel doesn’t match up very well to the Spurs, and the weaknesses are most glaring on the perimeter. Jose Calderon may be an excellent shooter, but he is going to be blistered by Tony Parker if they are matched up across from one another. Rick Carlisle knows this, and will likely try to find some innovative ways to hide Calderon’s weaknesses when he is on the floor. Unfortunately, his backcourt mate, Monta Ellis, isn’t exactly a stopper, so expect to see some strategic zones to try to slow the San Antonio attack. Devin Harris may also see significant time on the floor against Parker.

When Parker hits the bench Ginobili will take the reins of the offense, but Patty Mills will see a lot of time as well, and the Australian speedster is going to give the Dallas defense fits. Shawn Marion has lost a few steps to age, but he may get some spot duty on the point guards if things start getting out of hand.

The Mavs will hope to keep the games close using their powerful offense. As it has for years, it all starts with Dirk Nowitzki. He has a ton of ways to score, and will stretch Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter away from the basket. Pop could avoid this by slotting Kawhi Leonard or Boris Diaw on Nowitzki, but he will get his points either way. Dirk can get a shot off over anyone and his presence in the pick and pop will cause the Spurs to abandon some of their typical principles. He can force the big defender to pay too little attention to Ellis or Calderon, and they will be able to feast on the extra space.

San Antonio will also need to watch Dirk in transition, where teams still lose him as he trails the play. He winds up with a lot of open threes this way, but the Spurs are unlikely to lose him as much as most teams.

When Harris has been on the floor he has unleashed an extra gear to the offense, and there’s a lot of firepower available off the Dallas bench – Vince Carter is an excellent shooter and Brandan Wright offers elite finishing to take advantage of the spacing the shooters provide. The plethora of weapons and Carlisle’s coaching propelled the offense to a tie for 2nd (with the Heat) in offensive efficiency.

The Mavs sport the worst defensive efficiency marks of any team in the postseason, however, and that will be the difference in this series. The Spurs took each of the four regular season meetings between these two, and while Dallas can steal a game or two with its stellar offense, only injuries or ridiculous luck are going to stop the San Antonio Basketball Collective from rolling into the next round.

Oklahoma City/Memphis Series Preview

Memphis dodged a matchup with the San Antonio Spurs thanks to win over Dallas in their 82nd and final game of the regular season, but the matchup with the Thunder isn’t all that much better. A consolation prize of facing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is little consolation at all.

Memphis drives its offense off of two main actions – the high/low work of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and Mike Conley-led pick and rolls. When Gasol and Randolph are at work, they will often post Randolph while Gasol sets up shop at the left elbow. From there he can use his high skill level to torment opponents by seeking out cutters or popping a jumper. Randolph can still batter opponents in the post, and he and Gasol can switch spots when Gasol posts up – Randolph prefers the baselines a bit more, but he’s converting over 40% of his attempts beyond 10 feet.

When not running the high-low game, Memphis leans on the brilliant pick and roll play of Conley. He likes to team with Gasol, making them a very tough duo to defend due to both being strong shooters and passers.

In past seasons teams have been able to brazenly help off the wings to suffocate both of these actions, but the addition of Courtney Lee in a trade with Boston this season has provided a little breathing room. He’s not exactly Ray Allen, but he certainly commands more respect than Tony Allen or Tayshaun Prince. All of this has added up to a league average offensive rating on the year for Memphis. This undersells the quality of the offense given the number of games missed by key players and that Lee only joined the team midseason.

Memphis may be playing respectable offense at the moment, but the types of teams that have caused the Thunder’s top-5 defense trouble have been free-wheeling pass and shoot squads. The grit-and-grind Grizzlies play into the OKC personnel too much. Kendrick Perkins will find usefulness against Gasol and Randolph, while Serge Ibaka can hang relatively close to the rim where he’s most deadly. On the perimeter Westbrook has the athleticism to stick with Conley and Durant will be free to use his length to disrupt passing lanes while helping off of Prince.

The loss of Nick Calathes to suspension will create some big issues for the Griz when Conley is taking a breather, but that impact can be lessened with the increased minutes load the starters will be getting relative to the regular season.

When the Thunder have the ball they naturally lean on the prowess of Durant and Westbrook to guide them. Memphis still managed a top-10 defense this season while adjusting to a new coach and missing Gasol for a chunk of the season, but good luck stopping Durant. Tony Allen has caused him problems in the past by doggedly denying him the ball, but Allen’s role has been lessened as Memphis has sought more floor spacing.

Coach Dave Joerger may want to consider starting Allen over Prince with Conley, Lee, Randolph, and Gasol. This lineup has seen about 67 minutes on the season and have played well together, so it may be something to watch. In general Memphis has more depth and lineup options than in previous years, having gotten solid contributions from subs Mike Miller, Ed Davis, and Kosta Koufos.

The Thunder bench also offers some intriguing pieces, among them plus-minus god Nick Collison and speedy scorer Reggie Jackson. Old-timer Derek Fisher will see plenty of minutes as well to the confusion of many viewers.

If Memphis can bother Durant and manufacture enough space to allow Conley, Randolph, and Gasol to operate they will be able to take a game or two, but this is ultimately Oklahoma City’s series to lose.

Indiana/Atlanta Series Preview

The Pacers’ blistering hot start came as a stark contrast to the malaise shared by the rest of the East, and their mediocre finish came while several other teams in the conference were finally beginning to find their stride and ready themselves for a playoff push.

The other team to follow a similar path? Their first round opponents, the Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta got off to a solid, if unspectacular start, and were easily the 3rd best team in the conference for most of the first two months of the season thanks to a balanced attack featuring Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Jeff Teague. Their decline started with the loss of Horford for the season with a torn pectoral (he has the dubious distinction of having suffered two of the three torn pecs in NBA history), and was compounded with a series of injuries to the rest of the roster.

Indiana’s problems have been a bit tougher to pinpoint. Roy Hibbert’s stellar defense and respectable offense from the beginning of the season have tailed off, and Paul George has fallen from fringe MVP candidate back to his levels from last season (and worse in some ways). The defense has remained strong, though not at the historic levels of the beginning of the season. The offense…uh, that’s another issue. They have been downright terrible at times, with Hibbert and George’s regression combining with a general lack of cohesiveness to tank any offensive productivity they once managed.

This has never been a team that leaned on its offense – the defense paid the bills, and the offense just had to keep from being too awful. Lately the offense has simply been too awful for the team to win consistently, and they need to correct that if they want to make a run to the conference finals (and beyond).

This may be a uniquely unpleasant matchup for the Pacers thanks to Horford’s replacement at center, Pero Antic. Antic is a 31 year old “rookie” center from Macedonia who has played for years in Europe. He shoots 41.8% from the field and posts a mediocre 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per 36 minutes. Not the typical profile of a guy who can cause problems for a #1 seed. So what gives?

Well, Antic provides a unique combination of tough defense and shooting that frustrates the hell out of Hibbert, who would prefer to linger around the paint and squash drives rather than chasing guys around the perimeter. The Pacers have attempted to mitigate this issue by having David West stick with Antic on the perimeter while Hibbert guards Millsap, but Millsap is a tough cover in his own right thanks to his speed and shooting. He actually shoots a better percentage from the perimeter than Antic, who, while he takes over half his shots from deep, made only 32.7% of these attempts.

The Hawks’ roster in general features a lot of strong shooting by design, including one of the best shooters in the league in Kyle Korver, and they will use this to force Indiana out of their comfort zone as much as possible. With the defensive talent on the Pacers’ roster, that’s about the best a lower seed can do.

On the other end of the floor Hibbert struggles against Antic’s size and strong footwork, removing one of the options from the already limited Indiana attack. The battle doesn’t end in the middle though, and that’s where things can get a bit more tricky for the Hawks. Lance Stephenson’s athleticism will give Korver fits, and West is a tough cover for anyone, even a solid defender like Millsap. George can stretch DeMarre Carroll, and George Hill will require constant off-ball attention from Teague, who is prone to ball watching.

Atlanta’s strong shooting will push the Pacers in at least a couple of the games in this series, but this could also end up serving as the perfect tuneup for Indiana. The Hawks have struggled mightily with turnovers during the second half of the season, and after a few games the Pacer defense may have a good read on the ball movement that Atlanta uses to get its shooters open. A 10-turnover quarter or two could easily render this series near-unwatchable if the Hawks can’t keep things tight, and if it happens all of the drama surrounding the Pacers could magically disappear.

This series will be closer than the average 1-8 matchup, and Atlanta is better than their pathetic record indicates, but it would still be a monumental upset if they managed to take down an Indiana team that seemed to have a clear path to the Eastern Finals as early as a month ago.

L.A. Clippers/Golden State Series Preview

Potentially one of the most entertaining series of the first round took a big hit in the competitiveness department when the Warriors’ Andrew Bogut suffered a rib injury that will keep him sidelined for this series. Without Bogut, Golden State is going to be hard-pressed to deal with the intimidating size and athleticism of the starting frontcourt duo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

David Lee will be pressed into service as a smallball center much more than usual, and Marreese Speights and Jermaine O’Neal will both have to see more time than Mark Jackson had in mind. Jackson would be wise in these circumstances to employ a David strategy – make high-risk, high-reward choices and hope the variance pendulum happens to swing in his favor.

He has one hell of a team for it. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson average 14.5 three point attempts per game between them, and there’s not a better high-reward strategy in the game than jacking up a ton of threes and hoping they fall. Adding an extra wing in place of Bogut will probably only increase the number of threes taken, though the two likely candidates for those minutes (Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes) haven’t exactly lit the world on fire from distance this season.

The biggest boost the Warriors can hope for is actually from Lee manning the middle. He is a talented offensive player in his own right, but his presence at center will force the Clippers to reconsider some of their core principles. When Doc Rivers arrived, he made it a point to build up Jordan’s confidence and make him a better defensive anchor. One of the main strategies he employed to make this happen was to have Jordan linger around the paint most of the time. While Jordan will dutifully jump out to trap a ballhandler in pick and roll coverage, most of his energy is spent protecting the rim and using his athleticism to frustrate opposing drives.

With Lee, an effective outside-in big, Jordan may have to leave his usual spot and venture out a bit more. That could disrupt the Clips enough for Curry to go nuts a couple of times, and that sort of thing can swing a series. The Warriors have actually had a lot of success shooting threes against L.A., a big surprise given that the Clippers led the league in opponent 3-point accuracy (on the season opponents only hit 33.2% from deep). The path to an upset in this series will be paved with the long ball if indeed Golden State can pull it off.

Now for the bad news for the Warriors: L.A. led the league in offensive efficiency, and they’re not about to get stopped by David Lee. The presence of Andre Iguodala on the perimeter is the only saving grace for this team now that Bogut is gone, and his talents may be a bit wasted in this series. He can’t keep up with Chris Paul for long stretches, and is too small to deal with Griffin. The Clips don’t rely on their wings to initiate their offense, so Iggy will only be able to focus on stopping his man from getting open threes while also trying to disrupt passing lanes.

More bad news: Paul is known for coasting through the regular season and cranking up his intensity in the playoffs, and Curry is hardly going to be able to stop him. Without Bogut to help clean up the mess after the perimeter is breached this could be a long series for the Warriors as they scramble to deal with Paul. Once that breach happens, one of J.J. Redick or Matt Barnes will come open on the perimeter, or someone will have to help off of Jordan or Griffin. Many a poster-worther dunk has resulted from that action.

Neither bench is likely to move the needle much, although spot appearances by Glen Davis and Danny Granger for L.A. or Steve Blake and O’Neal for the Warriors will provide some throw-back charm to the series. Ultimately this should be a flashy and fun battle between two teams who can’t stop each other, but the Clippers have the definite upper hand.