2014 Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

Posted on Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 and is filed under NBA. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

By: Joe Manganiello

The best basketball players in the world begin post-season play this weekend. (The Playoffs are almost here!!!!!) Here is a breakdown of each playoff team in each conference.

Atlanta Hawks – No. 8

How did they get here?

In short, they outlasted the New York Knicks. Manhattan’s team played over .500 basketball in 2014, and even though the banged-up Hawks are currently ten games below .500 over the same span, the Knicks spotted them a ridiculous amount of games in the early-goings of the season.

What key statistic defines this team?

According to 82games.com, the Hawks most popular lineup for the season includes Al Horford – the team’s opening day starting lineup that logged 390 minutes before Horford went down for the season on Dec. 26. Similar lineups with Pero Antić and Elton Brand plugged in for Horford respectively have barely combined for that amount of usage. The Hawks are 21-30 since he went down, and there inability to find a dominant lineup in his absence is a large culprit for that.

Who is their most important player?

First-time All-Star selection Paul Millsap has carried as much of the team’s workload as he can in Horford’s absence, but his style of play is not exactly conducive to being a team’s No. 1 scoring option. Additionally, the team has predictably struggled whenever Millsap comes off the court.

Can this team make a run to…?

First-year head coach Mike Budenholzer has done a very respectable job with limited personnel. Budenholzer intended to bring a related version of what San Antonio (his former organization) does on the court to Atlanta, but Horford’s injury made that difficult. Without an elite forward to use on the pick-and-roll, Atlanta was forced to rely heavily on the perimeter; the Hawks have scored 27.9 percent of their points on three-pointers and attempted 31.6 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, both of which are the second-highest marks in the NBA respectively. (For reference, San Antonio – one of the best shooting teams in basketball – are outside of the Top 10 in both categories.)

Atlanta is not a team equipped with a deep stash of shooters, unlike San Antonio, and the result was not scoring the basketball particularly well; they scored 102.4 points per 100 possessions over their last 25 games, less than Detroit and Cleveland over the same stretch. Ultimately, Atlanta is the most likely candidate to get swept in the first round.

Charlotte Bobcats – No. 7

How did they get here?

Al Jefferson provides a challenging problem for the majority of opponents. Staying true to what they are, the Bobcats play at a Bottom 10 pace that allows Jefferson to catch the ball on the block and go to work as often as he’d like to. Jefferson is the only player in basketball with over 300 FGA from 5-9 feet, and he is hitting them at a league-high percentage.

What key statistic defines this team?

They have the third-most efficient defense in the Eastern Conference. This became a startling figure immediately because (A) Charlotte has been an embarrassing defensive team in recent years, and (B) they invested an eight-figure salary in a big man who is admittedly bad on the defensive end. But the numbers don’t lie here: Charlotte’s most popular five-man unit (Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Josh McRoberts, Jefferson) has played over 400 minutes together, and is holding opponents to 98 points per 100 possessions.

Who is their most important player?

While his jump-shooting remains a league-wide punchline, Kidd-Gilchrist has morphed into one of the league’s big-time perimeter defenders. Look at how MKG handled Carmelo Anthony earlier this season.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPCMgpnWsvg

Can this team make a run to…?

The second round? Eh… Charlotte does have some things it can take advantage of against Miami. MKG and Henderson are plus-defenders who can handle their assignments on LeBron and Dwyane Wade, and Miami’s defense does not have one capable defensive option for Al Jefferson. Throw in a coming-of-age moment or two from Kemba Walker – do not think his alma mater’s title run can’t ignite something inside of him reminiscent of his own title run in 2011 – and Charlotte has the makings of a tough out for Miami. With all that said, Charlotte would be overachieving if they force six games against Miami. This team’s major accomplishment of 2013-14 is making the playoffs at all.

Washington Wizards – No. 6

How did they get here?

John Wall is the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. (Boom.) And since Feb. 19, the Wizards have the tenth-best winning percentage in the Association, which is tied with Houston and ahead of Oklahoma City and Miami.

What key statistic defines this team?

Washington has had a defensive efficiency in the Top 10 on the season (102.4 points per 100 possessions). This has allowed them to play well on the road, where they have played over .500 this season. Both their starting lineup (Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene, Marcin Gortat) and their third-most popular lineup (Martell Webster subbed-in for Beal) allow less than 100 points per 100 possessions.

Who is their most important player?

Surprising team defense numbers aside, Wall’s leap on/off the floor in his fourth season has left the greatest game-to-game impact on the team. For one thing, he’s actually on the floor; after missing 33 games a season ago, Wall has played every game this season. His competitve streak gives the Wizards an identity. And Wall’s jump shot isn’t a flagrant detraction from his overall ability anymore: his three-point percentage has climbed from 26 to 35 percent; and he makes a full three-pointer more per game than he did a season ago. The only other point guard in basketball that can compete with his counting stats is Chris Paul.

Can this team make a run to…?

The Eastern Conference finals? That would be a surprise. Even with the addition of Andre Miller before the deadline, this is not a tremendously deep or talented team, and in many ways they overachieve. Beal continues to come in and out of being one of the most promising players in basketball; his shooting splits over their last 27 games leaves room to be desired (.419/.344/.753). Can this team upset Toronto and advance to the second round? Without question. A potential second round series against Miami would likely be humbling for Washington, where playoff experience, coaching ability and overall talent levels matter most.

Brooklyn Nets – No. 5

How did they get here?

Improbably, Brooklyn turned around what was one of the most disappointing beginnings to a season in recent NBA history (10-21 over their first 31 games, the most expensive team in the NBA) to finish comfortably above .500 and firmly in the playoff race. They did so without former All-Star center Brook Lopez, and with a dynamic shift in their rotation and playing style, including playing Paul Pierce at power forward and replacing Lopez in the starting lineup with guard Shaun Livingston.

What key statistic defines this team?

An abominable mess on defense for their first 30 games – too slow to defend the perimeter, not big enough to protect the rim – Brooklyn has turned things around to the tune of a Top 10 defense in 2014. Their perimeter defenders are long and muscular, which gives teams without size in their backcourt nightmares, and when Garnett is healthy (arguably their largest cause for concern) they are quicker than most at the forward and center positions.

Who is their most important player?

According to 82games.com, when Pierce sits down the Nets allow 113.2 points per 100 possessions. This is not because he is a savant on the defensive end, nor because he has suddenly found his calling as a contemporary forward. Pierce is critical to what Brooklyn is doing on defense because of his offense. He’s a mismatch for any power forward to cover, because power forwards are seldom asked to chase around Hall of Fame bound wingmen with an array of tricks to get off open shots. Pierce wears out larger players on that end of the floor, and on defense, he is wide enough to deny post-up opportunities on the block.

Can this team make a run to…?

The NBA finals? No. Poor start or not, with all of the money they spent on the former Celtics, Brooklyn will be judged by what they do (or more importantly won’t do) in June. The Nets swept the Heat on the season – a statistic that is probably over-analyzed, but is certainly not unimportant – and has the confidence to play against any team, any night.

Here’s the problem: their impromptu retooling of their personnel works during a hectic regular season when opponents don’t have ample preparation time; it will not have the same “Got ya!” impact during seven-game series that last for several weeks. First-year head coach – not just with the Nets, but as a coach at any level – Jason Kidd is going up against a tactical genius in Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls have “been there, done that,” and have played meaningful games in the Eastern Conference finals. They are a huge team with an All-NBA center; Joakim Noah might average a triple-double for the series. The Bulls are not a typical No. 4 seed in a bad conference.

Chicago Bulls – No. 4

How did they get here?

Good question. Former MVP and franchise player Derrick Rose failed to start and finish his third-straight season, and the frustrated (and historically cheap) Bulls front office responded to that by trading Thibodeau’s most often used soldier Luol Deng. And yet, Noah transformed into Bill Walton-light, Thibodeau remained as stark as ever roaming the sideline, and the Bulls went 34-15 following the deal with Cleveland.

What key statistic defines this team?

Taj Gibson played every game, posting career-highs in points (13.1) and foul-shooting (75 percent), and providing scary frontcourt defense alongside Noah off the bench. Gibson could very well win 6th Man of the Year; the Bulls don’t survive the Deng trade without his emergence as the team’s second-best player.

Who is their most important player?

This is what Noah did in a head-to-head matchup against Dwight Howard in March. He averaged 14.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists last month. LeBron James is the best player in the East – but how many other players are really, REALLY, making as large an impact per game as Noah?

Can this team make a run to…?

The Eastern Conference finals? Yes. The Bulls should be able to bully the smaller Nets, and it will be interesting to see what version of the Pacers they have to play in round two. If Indiana doesn’t raise their offensive play, Chicago is more than capable of defeating them in a cage match of a series.

Toronto Raptors – No. 3

How did they get here?

The latest example of dealing Rudy Gay to improve the team (see: 2012-13 Memphis Grizzles), Toronto emerged as the best team in the Atlantic almost immediately after redistributing all of Gay’s 18.6 FGA/G. The Raptors transformed into a top shooting team without Gay, hitting 9.3 3PM/G in 2014 (T7th in NBA) with a Top 10 true-shooting percentage, and won 34 of 52 games from Jan. 1.

What key statistic defines this team?

The Raptors two most popular lineups this season included Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, and Jonas Valanciunas. According to 82games.com, there was a tremendous shift in production once second-year wingman Terrence Ross replaced Gay in the starting lineup:

With Gay: 243.6 minutes - 1.01 points scored per 100 possession – 1.11 points allowed per 100 possessions

With Ross: 589.9 minutes – 1.13 points scored per 100 possession – 1.07 points allowed per 100 possessions

Who is their most important player?

Before Corey Brewer‘s recent outburst, Ross had the most improbable 50-point performance in the NBA in years. He hit 10 three-pointers, an exhibition in shooting that is only expected every now and then from the likes of Stephen Curry – not a second-year player who began the season coming off the bench in Toronto. But his emergence from a slow-developing lottery selection to a sure-shooting wing with length and elite athleticism has Ross talked about as a potential breakout star this post-season.

Can this team make a run to…?

The Eastern Conference finals? Look, Toronto has been underrated for about three months now, and Lowry has all the motivation to use this spring as a super audition tape for his upcoming unrestricted free agency. But the winner of Toronto and Washington will be lucky to take a home game against LeBron James.

Miami Heat – No.2

How did they get here?

Miami failed to secure the No. 1 seed in the East because they never seemed all that interested in claiming it. Indiana played very dispirited basketball over the final two months of the season, and yet, resting key veterans and playing average-not-great defense seemed to be the priority for the two-time defending champions from the get-go. (Note: Sloppy defense and an offense unapologetically dependent on one player was still good enough to come within a single game of the top seed.)

What key statistic defines this team?

Dwyane Wade has missed 28 games this season, the most since 2007-08 campaign. With Wade frequently out of the lineup, James has tacked on a lot of additional usage by having to carry more possessions more often. Will Wade have a handful of “Wow, that’s why Wade is a first-ballot Hall of Famer” moments this spring? The answer will in all likelihood be yes. But Miami has not had much of an opportunity to polish the turd down the stretch of the season with Wade having to miss so much time.

Who is their most important player?

LeBron James is the best player on the planet. Even if he doesn’t add a fifth MVP award to his mantlepiece, it would be silly to write about any other player having a larger impact on Miami’s post-season.

Can this team make a run to…?

The NBA Finals? Yes. And I think they will, unless…

Indiana Pacers – No. 1

How did they get here?

The NBA’s best defense on the season, the Pacers locked up home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs by wearing out most opponents with their tenacious starting five. It’s true the last 30 games have placed a damper on their regular season – they are 15-15 and have been outscored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions – but the Pacers are still a well-coached, experienced, veteran team that has the luxury of playing 4 out of 7 games at home through the Conference Finals.

What key statistic defines this team?

Their acclaimed starting lineup has played well over 1200 minutes on the season (that’s a lot), and are holding opponents to just 97 points per 100 possessions. But this team puts a lot of pressure (and wear and tear) on this lineup. The next most used lineup for Indiana (that doesn’t involve current Los Angeles Clipper Danny Granger) has played a fraction of the minutes, and is practically the same group – the starting lineup with C.J. Watson subbed in for George Hill. Miami might struggle against Indiana’s starters, most teams do, but a lack of diversity on this roster could be Indiana’s undoing.

Who is their most important player?

During the 2013 portion of the schedule, Paul George was shooting 47 percent from the field, hitting 2.6 3PM/G on 39 percent shooting, and scoring 23 points per game to go along with 1st-team All-NBA defense. In 2014, however, he is shooting 39 percent from the field, his three-point percentage is down five points, and his points-per-game has fallen each month. Indiana broke their butt for the No. 1 seed in the East this season, but more important to their NBA Finals odds might be the level of play it gets from Paul George.

Can this team make a run to…?

The NBA Finals? Indiana at their peak has (A) the game’s best defense, (B) the game’s best starting lineup, and (C) a two-headed defensive monster (Roy Hibbert and George) assembled to stop LeBron James. Unlike last season, Indiana gets to play a potential Game 7 against Miami at home. There is a lot of confusion inside and outside the Indiana locker room currently after a rough two month stretch, and dissatisfying results thus far on two high-profile transactions – the signing of Andrew Bynum, trading Granger for Evan Turner.

But Miami isn’t the same team that won the last two titles. The Big Three has played much more basketball over the last four season than any other combination of teammates, and if Wade’s missed games total doesn’t concern Heat fans, maybe their 17-13 record since the All-Star break will. The Indiana Pacers have suddenly been slapped with a very powerful tag – that “nobody believes in us.” That pride coupled with having home-court advantage makes Indiana a very scary team this spring – and one that was built by Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird to dethrone the Miami Heat.

Joe Manganiello (@JoeMags_hoops) is a staff writer for pickinsplinters.com. He was published in the 2013-14 USA Today Sports College Basketball Preview. Peace, love, recycle and ball.

  • pgotham

    After listening to Bill and Jalen discuss the Nets they could be intriguing for the playoffs. Making Pierce a power forward allows them to switch all screens on the perimeter and avoid mismatches. Could be interesting if they advance far enough to play Miami.

  • pgotham

    The Pacers might rue the day they brought Bynum into that locker room.

  • pgotham

    Never thought I would say this but the East playoffs and no Knicks, Celts and 76ers yet it is still captivating.

  • pgotham

    Rudy Gay? Has there ever been a player who has been forced to eat as much humble pie?

  • Joe Manganiello

    He’s become the face of the Analytics vs. Traditionalists argument – and the analysts are winning!

    Sidebar: Gay has been a lot better in Sacramento from the field and with shot selection in general.

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