We got through the first weekend of the NBA playoffs with three upsets (almost a fourth in Cleveland) and we now have a taste for which players have created issues for certain teams. This is just a brief preview on what to look for in the remainder of the first round:
Indiana @ Cleveland
Lance Stephenson versus Cleveland’s “Et Cetera” Guards
Stephenson was a mismatch nightmare for Cleveland’s porous defense, especially their bench unit.
Down the stretch, Indiana did a great job of forcing favorable mismatches; if Stephenson or George could get switched onto literally anyone other than JR Smith or LeBron James, they could exploit it with size, speed, or shooting. The Cavaliers have nobody off of the bench to defend Stephenson. Deron Williams is too small, Richard Jefferson is too slow, and Kyle Korver simply isn’t a good defender. The result was 16 points on 8/13 shooting for Lance, to go along with 7 rebounds and 3 assists with no turnovers, and a game-high +7 off the bench. The Pacers played Stephenson at the point for a long stretch in the fourth quarter, while playing Teague off-ball. Indiana consistently found ways to exploit the Cavaliers’ lackluster switching schemes and very nearly took game 1 from the defending champs because of it.
Milwaukee @ Toronto
Milwaukee’s Arms versus Toronto’s Stagnant Offense
Dwane Casey is well-known for being the anti-Steve Kerr. Toronto’s off-ball movement is nonexistent, and there are at least four Raptors who get paid millions to do nothing but stand in the corner while Kyle Lowry attempts high ball screens or while DeRozan posts up. The purpose of off-ball movement isn’t necessarily incentivizing passing, but rather, making passing less risky. Passing to a shooter coming off of a down screen might not be any more likely to get an open shot, but forcing a turnover becomes far more difficult if the ball is being received while the defender is fighting through a screen.
The problem is that without those screens to create separation, Milwaukee and their freakishly long-limbed players wreaked havoc on the Raptors’ passing lanes, as well as their driving ability. Milwaukee deflected 20 passes. They forced 10 turnovers, which is twice the amount they gave up. The length of Giannis, Thon Maker, Khris Middleton and company forced Toronto to simplify their already-elementary offense to pull-up jumpers, post-ups and drives, all of which were defended well by the Bucks, especially in the second half, in which Toronto scored a measly 32 points.
Thon Maker had a huge game defending the rim. Jones Valanciunas was expected to be able to produce against Maker, but only ended up with 9 points on 2/5 shooting. Going forward, Dwane Casey needs to find ways to let their suffocating offense breathe a little, while Jason Kidd has to preach to his troops about not fouling. The Raptors shot over twice as many free throws, and on a night where Kyle Lowry doesn’t miss every 3-point shot he takes, that could end up being a deciding factor.
Game 2 will be full of interesting adjustments on both sides, and should be a very interesting tactical battle to watch.
Atlanta @ Washington
Marcin Gortat versus Dwight Howard
John Wall was a monster against the Hawks, but we expected that. Dennis Schroder is one of the only players in the NBA who is fast enough to guard Wall, but he’s not anywhere near as big or strong, and is generally somewhat lacking in defensive IQ. The Hawks tried sticking Bazemore and even Hardaway Jr. onto Wall, but the best point guard in the East didn’t care.
The more important – and somewhat surprising – matchup was that of Marcin Gortat against Dwight Howard. Dwight Howard is a notorious playoff performer. Throughout his career, he’s averaged 19 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in the playoffs, including absurd marks such as 27/15.5 in 2011 and 26/13.7/2.8 in 2014.
I know it’s only game 1, but Dwight got outplayed. He out-rebounded Gortat 14 to 10, but Gortat grabbed 6 offensive boards to Howard’s 4 and was outscored 14 to 7. Howard looked small and slow next to Gortat. Howard had zero screen assists on the day, while Gortat had 7, and the Polish Hammer contested more shots. Any way you look at it, Gortat did far more than Howard to help his team win.
The other matchup that was intriguing was Millsap against Markieff Morris. Millsap is the better player, obviously, but Markieff held his own with physicality (arguably, that physicality may have been against the rules, but such is life in the NBA playoffs). Millsap will probably come back to Washington with a vengeance after taking to Twitter to complain yesterday, and Kieff will want to continue to prove himself to be a legit 4 against one of the best in the league.
Chicago @ Boston
Marcus Smart versus Isaiah Thomas’ Fatigue
The Bulls’ win in Boston was easily the worst basketball we saw all weekend. The Bulls shot 25 threes, above their regular season mark, and shot only 32% on those, below their regular season mark. Both teams turned it over a lot. The Celtics actually didn’t do that poorly on the offensive boards, but their consistent failure to secure defensive rebounds was infuriating and just kind of sad. The real (and somewhat less expected) story of this game, though, was the ocean of difference between Boston’s offense when Isaiah Thomas was on and when he sat.
Isaiah Thomas was +12 and Marcus Smart -13, but the difference in their play was even bigger than that.
Think about playing NBA 2K for a moment. Some players might be somewhat good in real life, but you hate using them. Your offense is useless. You run pick and rolls to no avail, or shooters might come off of pin-down screens in the corners, but nothing works. The reason? Dribble penetration.
Isaiah Thomas was the only Celtic yesterday who was capable of doing anything, anything at all, to disrupt the defense and create penetration. The Celtics have an entire army of a role players to spot-up and cut, but that means nothing without someone to create space for them. IT did that, Marcus Smart did not.
Emotionally, I felt absolutely awful for Isaiah Thomas. It was bad being counted out of MVP discussions, bad seeing your team viewed more like a 7 seed than a 1 seed. Then you add in the personal issues, which have been discussed ad nauseam (condolences from the entire Holyfield staff) and the fact that Isaiah was the only one creating anything for the Celtics, and this game 1 loss has got be just gut-wrenching.
Brad Stevens needs to figure out how to get better shots with IT off the floor; this was a very predictable problem, and the reason why Ainge’s decision to stand pat was very questionable, but Stevens is a good coach, and I can only hope for Thomas’ sake that he figures something out, because Marcus Smart is not the answer.
Memphis @ San Antonio
Old-Fashioned Basketball versus Gregg Popovich
The Grizzlies stayed competitive in the first half behind Gasol’s and Conley’s ability to explode and make the most ridiculous shots over any defense, but the second half revealed what I suspect to be the future of this series. Zach Randolph was exposed, scoring only 6 points on 13 shots and a game-low -39. MINUS 39! Zach Randolph can’t surprise the Spurs’ veteran centers with his physicality like he can against other younger teams, and was completely neutralized as a result.
Marc Gasol got his. He scored an efficient 32 points, because on good nights, he’s an indefensible post presence. The telling statistic is the fact that he only had 2 assists. Marc Gasol’s post passing should open up easy points for his teammates, but the Spurs were able to keep with cutters and spot-up shooters off the ball, which meant that 32 points from Gasol, while nice, is not anywhere close to enough to win.
Tony Parker was phenomenal, and almost made me think that he was simply coasting through the regular season. Kawhi Leonard feasted due to the absence of Tony Allen. I thought this series could be close, just because it’s two similarly-built teams duking it out like the old days, but the Spurs’ depth, superior coaching and Memphis’ loss of Tony Allen to guard the Spurs’ MVP candidate is just too much for the Grizzlies to grind with.
Utah @ Los Angeles
Joe Johnson versus Blake Griffin
On paper at least, this looks like a matchup that should heavily favor the Clippers. After all, Griffin is much younger and more athletic. At the age of 27 and in his 7th season now, it seems like Blake should be in the prime of his career, but he’s somewhat stagnated. While he had a fantastic first half, he couldn’t seem to find a way to get things done in the second half as ISO Joe lived up to his name, taking over. While Griffin couldn’t stop Johnson on the defensive end, Johnson was up to the task of slowing down Blake even without Rudy Gobert in the game.
Chris Paul had a fantastic outing for the Clippers, but he’ll need help as the series progresses, because this is a very good Jazz team, and he simply didn’t have it on Saturday. Blake is supposed to be the second option on this team, and he can’t be outplayed for halves by a 35-year-old role player for Utah. He has to consistently be able to perform on both ends of the floor.
This is especially true if Gobert manages to come back before the series ends, because the paint will then close up for the Clippers offense, and it would be in Los Angeles’ best interest to try to end this series quickly rather than letting it go long. For Utah, they need to prolong their playoff run until they can get their center back, and looking forward they’ll need the depth and veteran leadership that Johnson can provide. Keep an eye on this matchup late in games, because if Saturday night was any indication, we’ll see Griffin and Johnson matched up again.
Portland @ Golden State
Dame/CJ’s Supporting Cast versus Steph/KD’s Supporting Cast
Especially without Nurkic, Portland is a classic case of “not enough chefs in the kitchen.” Both Lillard and McCollum had great games, scoring a combined 75 points against a top-3 defense and an inspired Draymond Green. In the end, however, despite all the money that Portland threw at half-decent role players in the offseason, Portland’s frontcourt and bench were just unable to keep up with the Bay Area juggernaut. Turner, Harkless, Aminu, Crabbe, and Napier combined for 4/13 from deep and Aminu failed to even log a single point.
Draymond, DPOY, shut down the interior. Portland’s dynamic starting backcourt is okay with that, but nobody else was. Portland doesn’t have anyone to guard Durant and Curry was able to casually score 29 because both Lillard and McCollum were too focused on being the entire Blazers offense to turn it up a notch on defense.
This is about the problem that was expected. The Warriors are just too good for a team that just barely got to .500 on the back of a hugely important center, then lost that center.
Oklahoma City @ Houston
Andre Roberson versus Patrick Beverley
Beverley won the first matchup in a blowout, but Roberson showed flashes. Andre “worst offensive starter in the league” Roberson put up 18 points on efficient shooting from deep, but his defense on James Harden was lackluster. Just like everyone expected, right?
Roberson has long arms and size, which is usually a good thing, but Harden quickly taught him to keep those arms away from his driving lanes, which negates any of Roberson’s physical gifts. After making sure that Roberson wouldn’t touch him, Harden used his explosive first step to burn Roberson time and time again. Harden dropped 37 and 9 with only 2 turnovers, and would have scored even more if his 3-point shot was falling.
Anderson, Ariza and Lou Will were 0-8 from downtown, the Rockets were 10/33 on threes (far below their normal 3PA rate and their 3P%) and it was still a blowout. Why? Patrick Beverley.
Hate him or love him, he does one hell of a job guarding Russell Westbrook, or any similar high-volume, low-efficiency ball-hog. Westbrook tried driving to the rim at first, but he had the ball stripped nearly every time. He tried pullup threes and midrange jumpers, but they weren’t falling. He tried letting Oladipo do some of the scoring, but Oladipo finished with 1-12 shooting and 0-6 from three. The Rockets defense put Westbrook in a corner and made him try to fight his way out, and on this night, Westbrook failed*. Another day, those shots might fall, he will drop 50 and he’ll be a hero again. Right now, though, Beverley has completely dominated his matchup and Roberson has not.
*I did notice that, even when Beverley was resting, Westbrook was still shook from how poorly he had played against Pat that he didn’t even try to attack Eric Gordon at all. I hope Billy Donovan noticed that.
Anthony Doyle was a contributor on this article.