Matchups are so important in the playoffs. All of a sudden, teams aren't facing different opponents every night. They're playing the same team, again and again, in a seven-game series, and in each first-round series this year, there is one key matchup or X factor that can determine the outcome. We tried to identify those factors and explain what each team can do to give themselves an advantage in the series.
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers
Once again, the Bulls' defense has been spectacular all season long. This year, however, Chicago seems to struggle on offense. The Bulls are ranked 20th in the league with an overall points per possession (PPP) of 0.911, according to Synergy Sports. That said, the Bulls' offense has been very good at finding shooters in catch-and-shoot situations. Chicago is the third-best spot-up team in the NBA, averaging 1.009 points per possession and 40.7 percent shooting in those situations, according to Synergy. The 76ers, like the Bulls, are an excellent defensive team. Their 0.869 PPP allowed makes their defense the third-best in the league. Against spot-up opportunities — the Bulls' best offensive category — the Sixers hold opponents to 0.894 points per possession on just 36.9 percent shooting.
Because Chicago generally struggles to score, the Bulls' ability to get points from their spot-up shooting (which makes up 18.5 percent of their total offense), and the Sixers' ability to stop them, will help determine the outcome of the series.
In the two Bulls-Sixers games this season where Derrick Rose played, Chicago won the battle of catch-and-shoot offense vs. catch-and-shoot defense. In those games, Chicago scored 44 points on 41 spot-up possessions and shot 47.4 percent. What made Chicago successful against the Sixers when Philadelphia usually locks down spot-up shooters? The Bulls players do a great job of moving without the ball. Philadelphia is a young and active team, but their defenders tend to ball watch. Normally, that doesn't hurt them because they're quick enough to recover and close out on shooters, especially when those shooters don't move to take advantage of defenders turning their heads. Chicago's shooters are different, though. They're always moving, looking for defenders to fall asleep or overhelp, and when the Bulls' shooters see an opportunity they dart to the open space and call for the ball.
In these clips, watch how Kyle Korver, Rip Hamilton, and Luol Deng respace the floor when their men lose sight of them. The result is open midrange jumpers and 3-point looks. With Rose slashing to the lane and working off ball screens, Chicago's shooters should have many opportunities to space the floor and get open shots. If they knock them down like they have all season, the Bulls should have no problem advancing.
Prediction: Bulls in five
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) New York Knicks
This will be the marquee series of the first round. The obvious matchup to look at here is Carmelo Anthony vs. LeBron James. It's an important matchup between two of the NBA's best players, but it's hard to predict how it will play out. It's unclear how Miami will choose to defend Anthony — with a rotation-based scheme or one-on-one with defenders like James and Shane Battier. And even if Anthony goes off in the series, the Knicks will need a second or third scorer to be a real threat to Miami. So instead of taking a wild guess about what will happen between LeBron and Melo, I want to focus on the Knicks' 3-point offense vs. Miami's 3-point defense.
Earlier in the year, I wrote about Miami's struggles to defend the 3-point line. That hasn't changed over the course of the season. According to HoopData.com, 25.6 percent of their opponents' shots are 3-point attempts. Normally, that would be good, an indication that teams can't get to the basket against the Heat defense. But Miami's problem is that many of the 3-point looks they give up are wide open, and teams shoot 37 percent against them from behind the arc. That's the fourth-highest 3-point percentage allowed in the NBA.
Look at the chart below. You can see that the Knicks — even though they had a very different lineup each time they played the Heat — had some success from 3-point range in their three games against Miami this season.
With red meaning below average, yellow meaning average, and green meaning above average, you can see that New York scored most effectively at the elbows (where Anthony does his work) and the 3-point line. Miami gives up so many 3-pointers because their defense is built to collapse from the corners when they help. This makes it tough for their wings to close out on shooters.
Against dribble penetration, Miami's defenders sink into the paint, and this opens up kick-out passes for perimeter shooters.
New York can also get open 3s against Miami by running the pick-and-roll. The Knicks ran a perfect example of this kind of play against the Clippers this week.
Amar'e Stoudemire sets a ball screen for J.R. Smith and the Clippers try to trap Smith when he uses the screen. Smith passes out of the trap, hitting Stoudemire on the roll. Now, the defense is out of position and the Clippers converge on the painted area to stop Stoudemire, who then passes to a wide-open Steve Novak in the corner.
The Heat's defensive philosophy is to trap ball screens and help from the corner. If the Knicks can get the ball to Stoudemire quickly and he can find the shooters when Miami's defense collapses on him, the Knicks can create open 3-point shots and maybe help them give the Heat a first-round scare. These open shots should be enough to get New York a win or two, but I can't see them pushing Miami past six games.
Prediction: Heat in six
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Orlando Magic
Thanks to Dwight Howard's season-ending back injury, this series looks like a showcase for what could end up being the biggest mismatch of the playoffs: Roy Hibbert against Glen Davis. The 7-foot-2 Hibbert is a talented post player with an effective hook shot, and with a 6-foot-8 player like Davis trying to guard him, it could get ugly.
Look how comfortable Hibbert is on this move. He catches the ball, waits for his teammates to clear out, and then begins his move, a simple baseline drop step that leads to a hook shot. He knows Davis can't push him off his spot and he doesn't have to worry about his shot getting blocked. Easy work for the big man, and it's going to be that way all series long.
Prediction: Pacers in four
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
These teams are pretty evenly matched, and that means one outstanding player has a chance to change the dynamic of the entire series. The Celtics' Rajon Rondo seems like he has a real opportunity to be that player against Atlanta. Rondo is one of the most interesting players in the NBA. He's a point guard who isn't much of a scoring threat, yet he finds ways to create space for himself and for his teammates on offense, and he uses that space to set up scoring opportunities.
The enigma of Rondo was in full effect during his two regular-season games against the Hawks. According to NBA.com/Stats, Rondo posted an Offensive Rating of 85.5 (well below his season average of 101.5) and he shot just 7-30 (23.3 percent) without making a single shot outside the paint. The chart below shows just how poorly Rondo shot against Atlanta.
Looking at this shot chart, you might think Atlanta did a great job defending him. But there's a problem with that conclusion: Atlanta lost both games they played against the Celtics with Rondo in uniform.
The reason? Rondo averaged 16.5 assists and had an assist rate, the percentage of teammate field goals made that a player assisted on when he was in the game, of 64.7 percent, well above his average of 49.8 percent. Defending Rondo is a high-wire act. He can't shoot, so defenders often try to back off of him and let him shoot. But Rondo won't take bad shots; instead, he uses the space defenders give him to find open teammates. If defenders play him too tight, though, Rondo can drive past them. It can be a lose-lose situation, and Atlanta lost by giving Rondo too much space, especially when he used ball screens.
In the video above, Atlanta went way under ball screens set for Rajon Rondo. If that defensive strategy baits him into a shot, like in the first clip, that's great. However, that doesn't happen often enough to warrant going under screens. More often, Rondo uses the screen, picks up his dribble, and then has space to pick apart the defense and find the Celtic with the easiest shot. If Atlanta defends Rondo by going under screens, his passing will help the Celtics win the series.
Prediction: Celtics in seven
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Utah Jazz
A lot of people are wondering if the Jazz can replicate the Memphis Grizzlies' upset of the Spurs from last year. They point to the Utah big men, who might be able to overwhelm the Spurs on the block, much like Memphis's Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph did in 2011. Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson will do their damage this year, but the Spurs are an offensive team now, so any team that hopes to defeat them needs to get stops. Memphis did a remarkable job of containing the Spurs' pick-and-roll offense last year. The problem with Utah is that they aren't Memphis.
According to Synergy Sports, San Antonio runs the pick-and-roll 23.4 percent of the time on offense. Of those plays, 65 percent end with the ball handler finishing the play, and the Spurs post the league's seventh-best PPP (0.840) in those situations. The Jazz struggle to contain pick-and-roll ball handlers, giving up 0.872 PPP in those situations, which is second-worst in the league. In their regular-season games this year, the Jazz point guards haven't been able to contain Tony Parker.
On this possession, Parker gets a screen in the corner and takes the ball back to the middle. The Jazz defenders involved in the play are Jamaal Tinsley, who guards Parker, and Derrick Favors, who covers the screener. Favors takes a step back, inviting Tinsley to go under the screen and meet Parker on the other side. For whatever reason, Tinsley doesn't do that. Instead, he tries to fight over the screen and gets caught in it. Because Favors was stepping back to create space, he can't close out on Parker's easy pull-up jumper.
Devin Harris defends Parker on this possession. Again, Parker has the ball in the corner and uses a screen to go back to the middle of the floor. This time, however, Harris tries to jump to the high side of the screen to force Parker away from it. The problem is that Harris jumps out too early and too high, and that leaves Parker with an easy drive to the rim. On both of these plays, the Jazz defense made mental errors while guarding Parker on the pick-and-roll. Parker is too good and too fast for that, and he'll make the defense pay for every mistake.
Prediction: Spurs in four
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
Last season's Western Conference finals matchup is now a first-round series. A year ago, one of Oklahoma City's biggest problems against Dallas was scoring against the Mavericks' zone defense, and the zone will likely be a factor in this series.
Dallas plays zone on 8.1 percent of their defensive possessions, which is the third most in the NBA. Meanwhile, the Thunder offense still performs worse against zone than against man-to-man. Oklahoma City shoots 45 percent and posts 0.924 points per possession against man defense — second best in the league — but against zones the Thunder shoot 42.8 percent and post 0.956 points per possession, ranking them 15th out of the NBA's 30 teams.
Dallas knows that the Thunder are weaker against zones, so when they met this season, the Mavericks used even more zone, playing it on 22 percent of their defensive possessions. The Thunder posted a 0.962 PPP against Dallas's zone, and it seems that they are starting to figure out how to score against the Mavericks' D. In their last game against Dallas, the Thunder scored 42 points in 36 zone possessions.
Oklahoma City didn't make any huge adjustments in that game, but they didn't panic and they used simple offensive philosophies to attack the zone. The Thunder started flashing Kevin Durant to the middle of the floor whenever they saw zone. Watch this possession.
Durant flashes to the free throw line and gets the ball in an area where he can attack. If nobody covers him, he has space to attack or shoot an open jumper. If a defender sticks with him, he can play the situation. In this case, Jason Terry tries to defend Durant, but Durant uses his size to shoot over Terry. Another way to beat the zone is to set screens on the top defenders.
Zone defenses have a really hard time containing the pick-and-roll. Since no defender is assigned to guarding the screener, there isn't a hedge man. Also, the defender who gets screened has to worry about a number of things. Should he fight through the screen? Should he stay in his zone and pass off the ball handler to another defender? There are a lot of decisions to make, and when Russell Westbrook is about to blow by you and get to the rim, there isn't much time to stop and think.
In this year's playoffs, when the Thunder see the zone, I don't think they'll panic. They will hit Dallas with ball screens and simple flashes to the middle until the Mavericks are forced to come out of their zone to play man-to-man. Once that happens, the series belongs to the Thunder.
Prediction: Thunder in six
(3) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
Yes, the Lakers have Kobe Bryant on the wing, but if they want to win the championship this season, they will need to play through Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. These two big men will be front and center against the Nuggets in the first round. The Lakers have the best post offense in the NBA, scoring 0.899 points per possession on the block. Meanwhile, the Nuggets allow the third-fewest points per possession in the NBA on post-up opportunities, giving up a PPP of 0.780. Something's gotta give.
The matchup to watch is Bynum vs. the Nuggets' team defense in the post. The key to stopping Bynum, who got 12 points on 10 post touches the last time he played against the Nuggets, is to prevent him from catching the ball with deep post position. Because the Nuggets will be trying to contain Bynum with tall but not-so-strong post defenders like Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee, if Bynum receives the ball with one foot in the paint, he'll be nearly impossible to stop.
Here, Bynum catches the ball deep in the post. He dribbles once, executes a drop step, and then finishes with an easy bank shot. He'll kill the Nuggets if he gets position like this often in their first-round series. But if Denver can force Bynum a few more steps away from the basket, they stand a far better chance of stopping him.
Here, Timofey Mozgov makes Bynum catch the ball a step or two farther away than when he did in the first clip. So when Bynum tries the same move, he's much farther from the basket than he'd like to be and he ends up missing badly.
If I were coaching Denver, I would never let McGee or Koufus guard Bynum. I'd stick with Mozgov, who has the bulk to bother Bynum on the block, and I might even try the "Manimal," Kenneth Faried, on Bynum. Sure, Bynum would have a huge height advantage on Faried, but if Faried can muscle him to a spot 10 feet from the basket instead of five feet, Bynum will have a harder time scoring. The trouble for Denver is that even if they find a way to stop Bynum, they still have to worry about Gasol. The Lakers' bigs will be too much for Denver.
Prediction: Lakers in five
(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers
As good as Blake Griffin is on offense, he's just not a good defender at this point in his career, and he's particularly bad at guarding the post. This means that his matchup against the Grizzlies and Zach Randolph could be a rough one. Randolph has been matched up against Griffin twice since returning from a knee injury, and it has been a tale of two players. The first time, in late March, Randolph was extremely aggressive. He sealed strong, got excellent low-post position, and attacked the rim. For all of Griffin's physical strength, he hasn't learned to use his body on defense, and players who go straight at him tend to have success.
In this play, when the ball gets swung to his side of the court, Randolph gets into Griffin's body and seals him off to establish position. When Randolph catches the ball, he turns and attacks, finishing at the rim before the help defense can block his shot.
When Randolph plays like this, Griffin can't stop him. However, when these two met again earlier this month, Randolph let Griffin off the hook. On seven post-up attempts, Randolph turned and faced the basket five times (he didn't face up once in the first meeting). As a result, Randolph scored just four points on those seven possessions. When you watch the tape, it's plain to see that Randolph should have been far more aggressive.
Here, Randolph executes a soft seal and then faces up before settling for a jump shot. Perhaps he was tired or still feeling the effects of his injury, which caused him to sit out much of this season. But if Memphis wants to return to the Western Conference finals and become the NBA Finals contender many NBA observers believe they can be, Randolph needs to be extremely aggressive. I think he can pull it off four times in this series.
Prediction: Memphis in seven