By: Joe Mags
The NBA playoffs are here. This season’s West is as strong a conference as any in NBA history; the 48-win Phoenix Suns will attest to how loaded the Top 8 teams featured in round one are this year. Here’s a look at the projected difference makers in each opening series.
San Antonio Spurs (No. 1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (No. 8):
Patrick Mills: San Antonio has scorched Dallas on 43 percent shooting from behind the arc, and Mills was particularly lethal, nailing 11 of 23 3-pointers. In general, Dallas has been useless against San Antonio’s point guards; Tony Parker has made 26 of 48 FGA against the Mavs. Dallas prefers playing slow, allowing its super efficient half court offense to set up, but if the two lead guards for San Antonio are pushing the ball and hitting shots, the Mavericks have no chance of winning the series. (They probably don’t anyway.)
Devin Harris: To this point, Harris might get more burn than usual because he offers a large defensive upgrade over Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis. But increasing Harris’ workload means playing lineups that are not as good offensively (duh). Harris can help his own cause by knocking down open jump shots, looks that will present themselves against a disciplined San Antonio defense which will prioritize the dangerous Mavericks (Nowitzki, Vince Carter) over the harmless ones (Shawn Marion, DeJuan Blair, Brandon Wright). Harris is shooting six percentage points below his career average (44 to 38 percent) this season, which is horrible, but necessity can breed innovation; the Mavericks can’t win games in this series without capable defensive lineups, but equally important is that those lineups also shoot respectably from the field.
Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 2 ) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (No. 7):
Nick Collison: Zach Randolph has struggled from the field against Oklahoma City, where he is often pestered by the consummate professional and plus-defense of Collison. Collison, who has been in the news lately for a number of reasons, doesn’t play a ton (16.7 minutes per game) but he plays every night, and Oklahoma City scores 115 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, which would lead the NBA. Scott Brooks insists on playing Kendrick Perkins, but it’s clear the Thunder’s best lineups start with Serge Ibaka at the 4 or 5, and any available minutes at center should belong to Collison and Steven Adams. Aside from when Memphis sits Randolph or Marc Gasol – when Oklahoma City should go small, move Durant to power forward, and play at 110 possessions per game tempo – Oklahoma City should use Collison as much as possible in traditional, two-bigs lineups.
Mike Miller: The Thunder give up open jump shots because they gamble more than most teams. In a cruel irony, this trend means just about nothing to Memphis, which remains a team incapable and uninterested in shooting 3-pointers. The exception is when Mike Miller is on the floor, who remains one of the prettiest jump shooters in the game – the strongest perimeter threat on Memphis by far. The trouble is Miller doesn’t offer much else, and is a huge liability on defense. He also plays the same position that the game’s best scorer does; Miller will never be asked to guard Kevin Durant, meaning Tony Allen or Courtney Lee will have to guard-up from the shooting guard position. But if Conley can handle the Russell Westbrook assignment, and Allen/Lee/Tayshaun Prince are formidable enough offensively to form a rotation on the wing, then Miller should see enough minutes per game to be a factor against the Thunder’s venerable perimeter defense.
Los Angeles Clippers (No. 3) vs. Golden State Warriors (No. 6):
J.J. Redick: When Redick is on the floor, the Clippers are killing defenses for 117.7 points per 100 possessions. But is he healthy? Can he stay on the floor all spring? Is he going to be a reliable crunch-time option for Los Angeles? For the Clippers – who never fully addressed their bench this season, and remain one of the smallest teams in basketball – Redick might be the difference between making a run at a championship and losing in round one to Golden State.
Harrison Barnes: The bad news for the Dubs is that Andrew Bogut is out. A blessing in disguise? Now Mark Jackson will be forced to play Barnes at power forward where he is most effective. It’s a lineup that hasn’t been used enough (everyone in the room stares at Jackson) but the Curry/Thompson/Iggy/Barnes/Lee unit has scored 123 points per 100 possessions. That’s (in theory) a ton of points! Barnes doesn’t look like a small forward; he is not a confident enough creator to play on the wing at this level. But his athleticism allows him to overwhelm bigger players, and much like Kawhi Leonard for San Antonio, his ability to exploit traditional bigs could give Golden State an unexpected boost against Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and the Clippers.
Houston Rockets (No. 4) vs. Portland Trailblazers (No. 5):
Patrick Beverley: His health is as important as Redick’s to the outlook of the Western Conference. If Beverly is on the floor against Portland, Damien Lillard’s job is tremendously difficult, and the subplot of whether or not Beverly can coax him into a fight becomes a real thing. (10 to 1 odds?) Without Beverly, however, Lillard is too much for every other perimeter “defender” on Houston’s roster. Lillard/LaMarcus Aldridge pick-and-rolls force defenses to make decisions – how much attention to give to Lillard on the perimeter, whether or not Aldridge’s man stays with him or drops back into the paint, if a third defender should help or not – and Houston will be close-to-helpless without Beverly locked-in on Lillard.
Sidebar: The most important star matchup of the first round? Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge. If Howard is the primary defender on Aldridge, will he stay in the paint on those aforementioned pick-and-rolls or come out on Aldridge to deny the mid-range jump shots he adores so much? And if Howard does choose to follow Aldridge away from the basket, where Aldridge has taken more mid-range jump shots than any other player in recent NBA history, who is left underneath the basket to block out Robin Lopez? How Howard approaches Aldridge will go a long way to determining who wins the series – who draws the Spurs in round two. End sidebar.
Wesley Matthews: One of the best post-ups in basketball – seriously – Matthews is going to love his matchup against James Harden. If Portland can get Harden on an island multiple times per game, Matthews will add to the growing number of Youtube clips devoted to breaking down Harden’s lack of ambition on that end of the court. (Note: Harden is a deserving 1st-Team All-NBA player who is the scariest 2-guard in basketball. Portland won’t have a great answer for stopping him.)
Finally, my playoff predictions:
San Antonio over Dallas, 4-1.
Oklahoma City over Memphis, 4-3.
Los Angeles over Golden State, 4-3.
Houston over Portland, 4-1.
Indiana over Atlanta, 4-1.
Miami over Charlotte, 4-1.
Toronto over Brooklyn, 4-3.
Chicago over Washington, 4-3.
San Antonio over Houston, 4-2.
Oklahoma City over Los Angeles, 4-3.
Indiana over Chicago, 4-1.
Miami over Toronto, 4-1.
Oklahoma City over San Antonio, 4-2 (Sorry TIM!!!!!!!)
Miami over Indiana, 4-2.
Oklahoma City over Miami, 4-3.