The playoffs are finally here, and each series brings dozens of tiny X's-and-O's questions, all important in deciding the eventual outcome. We'll have plenty of time to dig into the juiciest of those as each series moves along. For now: A big-picture primer on the questions that will define the playoffs.
Do the Miami Heat Have Another Gear?
In some obvious ways, the Heat will indeed be better in the playoffs. The stars will play more and longer, at least when games are still at stake, and the Heat can minimize or even eliminate lineup combinations that just haven't worked; the Norris Cole–Ray Allen combination, for instance, could be on the chopping block. And though Udonis Haslem's shot has warmed a bit and he holds an important leadership position, the Heat could squeeze his minutes by giving more time to both Chris Andersen and Shane Battier. Several NBA folks expect the Heat to reinsert Battier into the starting lineup at some point, to maximize small ball and better spread the floor from the opening tip.
And the Heat's frenetic-by-design defense always has another gear, one we've seen plenty of times — in last season's playoffs, and in all those regular-season games in which Miami morphed into another team with the score tied and eight minutes or so to go. They'll up the urgency in trapping ball handlers on the pick-and-roll, deflect more passes out of those traps, and rotate earlier behind the play. The Bucks have some of the necessary ingredients to serve as a functional warm-up challenge for Miami: three speedy pick-and-roll ball handlers in Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, and J.J. Redick, all flying off elbow screens; a deadly pick-and-pop big man in Ersan Ilyasova; and an offensive system that has given Miami some trouble in the past.
But those ball handlers lack both the size to pass over Miami's traps promptly and the combination of speed and physicality to take those Heat defenders all the way to the rim. Miami has done a solid job running Ilyasova off the 3-point line.1 Miami should have an easy time containing Milwaukee's threatening players because the Bucks almost have to play one or both of Marquis Daniels and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute at all times to have any shot at defending James and Wade.2 The Heat won't pay those two any attention on the wings, making it even easier for Miami to squeeze Milwaukee's shooters.
The real tests will come after Miami's probable first-round sweep, though it's unclear how tough the tests will really be. The league's best defensive teams, including the behemoths (Chicago, Indiana, Memphis) who might be able to bully Miami's small-ball units, typically don't have the scoring/passing/shooting punch to beat the Heat four times in seven games. Oklahoma City and San Antonio have the two-way chops, but the Spurs are banged up, the Thunder's offense might be a hair too predictable and stationary, and the amped-up Oklahoma City defense still has to prove itself against Miami.
Miami enters as the favorite.
Whose So-So Defense Can Go to the Next Level?
Think about all the interesting teams that must prove themselves on that end for us to really take them seriously as title contenders. In rough order of intrigue:
• New York Knicks. Potentially the most interesting Eastern Conference challenger to Miami. New York has the passing, shooting, and spread-pick-and-roll game to mimic how the Mavericks, using the same center and the same perimeter quarterback, carved up Miami's aggressive defense in 2011 — a defense, admittedly, that played two big men, lacked Shane Battier's small-ball flexibility, and represented the Year 1 version of a multiyear experiment. New York is also best as a smaller team, with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, meaning they don't have to contort their normal rotation to counter Miami's go-to units.3
But New York ranked just 16th in points allowed per possession, and has been a hair worse and foul-prone since the All-Star break; only the Raptors, turning into Utah North under Dwane Casey, have allowed more free throws per opponent shot attempt in that span, per NBA.com. Anthony is really the only large wing on the team, meaning New York can be at a size disadvantage against teams with multiple big wings — including Boston, its first-round opponent, and even Miami, if the Knicks wish to spare Anthony the LeBron assignment. They have no rim protection outside of Tyson Chandler, Anthony's help on the back line is uneven, to be kind, and their hyperactive rotations around the perimeter have to be pitch-perfect to contain the 3-point arc. Boston knows very well how to generate switches that leave a smaller Knick guarding Paul Pierce, and the Celtics have found open 3-point looks against New York by running some simple off-ball screening action and taking advantage of some miscommunication or sloppy switching.
• Los Angeles Clippers. A season-ending seven-game win streak, mostly against bad teams, vaulted the Clippers back into the no. 9 spot in points allowed per possession, territory from which teams can smell a championship run. But that finishing kick followed a massive step back in the middle of the season; the Clippers ranked just 17th after the All-Star break, and they are facing a Memphis front line that knows how to attack the Blake Griffin–DeAndre Jordan combination. Marc Gasol lit up the Clippers for 54 percent shooting overall, including 20-of-35 against Jordan in half-court situations, per video on Synergy Sports. His post moves have confused Jordan, and he rained jumpers when Jordan played off of him to protect against a high-low pass to Zach Randolph — a pass Gasol can make when Griffin tries to front Randolph in the post. Memphis understands how to methodically bend the Clippers' defense with Mike Conley pick-and-rolls, constant yin-and-yang movement from Gasol and Randolph, and whip-smart interior passing.
The Clippers, though, should be up for this. They've already shown a tendency to help far off of both Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, and they should be able to clog Memphis's offense when both those guys are on the floor. And the Grizz's lack of a threatening shooting guard alongside Mike Conley should allow Vinny Del Negro to pair Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe as much as he wants; Allen doesn't have enough scoring game to leverage any size advantage, and Jerryd Bayless, so potent of late as a backcourt partner with Conley, doesn't have enough of a size edge to move the needle. That's bad news for Memphis, since Bledsoe has flummoxed Mike Conley for two seasons running. The only downside for the Clips: Playing Bledsoe and Paul together might cut into Jamal Crawford's minutes, though Del Negro briefly used all three last week, and it allows Allen to defend Paul without creating a bad mismatch for Conley.
If the Clips' defense quakes against Memphis, we never should have taken them seriously.
• Denver Nuggets. Denver has improved steadily on defense, but the Nuggets are missing a solid all-around defender in Danilo Gallinari, and they have struggled all season to defend 3-pointers — a Golden State speciality. The Warriors shot 46 percent overall, and a silly 44 percent from deep, in four games against the Nuggets; they went 1-3 in those games mostly because they couldn't generate free throws on offense or force turnovers on defense, two chronic Golden State weaknesses. But the 3s were there when Golden State wanted them, and if the Warriors can slow Denver down just a bit on the other end, they could make this a series.
Stephen Curry has nailed pull-up 3s on the pick-and-roll when Denver's big men drop too far in hopes of corralling him near the paint:
The Warriors could also confuse Denver with some screen-the-screener action, as they do successfully here against the Lakers in getting Curry some extra room for that pull-up jumper:
And as those big men step out to deter that deadly jumper, as JaVale McGee does in the photo below, Curry must work around them and get into the teeth of the defense:
The Nuggets also had a shocking amount of trouble with simple guard-guard screens away from the ball, allowing David Lee to find open shooters as Denver defenders got confused about whether or not to switch.4 Ball-watching and gambling, hallmark tendencies of Corey Brewer and Professor Andre Miller, can be especially deadly against the Warriors — even if Denver needs to gamble a bit to force turnovers and generate easy points. The Nuggets must find the right balance between discipline and chaos if they want to push toward the conference finals.
• Brooklyn Nets. They've settled in as something close to average, which is actually quite nice, considering the inherent limitations of this roster. Brook Lopez has improved his defense in general, and especially his rim protection, but he's still slow afoot and inconsistent against the pick-and-roll. The team's rebounding collapses whenever Reggie Evans sits, and there just isn't a whole lot of team speed here.
Still, average defense is more than enough against the Bulls' punchless offense. The Nets will need something more, this season or next, to make any serious noise.
• Golden State Warriors. It didn't get much notice, but the Warriors, with help from a home-heavy schedule, righted their defense over the season's last 20 games. Golden State actually ranked seventh in points allowed per possession after the All-Star break, a stunning reality even with the friendly schedule, given just how badly they fell off in the middle of the season.
And yet the schedule gets tougher now. Nobody knows what Andrew Bogut might contribute, and if he can't play long minutes, the Warriors have to get by with Festus Ezeli and big minutes from the Lee–Carl Landry combination. Ezeli can't catch the ball, and the Lee-Landry front line has been predictably shaky on defense. Stephen Curry's defense has regressed, and it's hard to see how the Warriors will keep Ty Lawson from either getting easy shots in the lane or kicking the ball to shooters and drivers revving up along the 3-point arc.
One small bit of encouragement: The Warriors, even with Bogut in street clothes so often, led the league in defensive-rebounding rate — maybe the single most surprising stat of the season, considering Golden State finished dead last in that category in five straight seasons before this one. They held steady in the regular season against Denver, the league's most ferocious offensive rebounding team, and they'll need that trend to carry over into this series.
And remember that horrific zone defense Golden State was playing in late February and early March? They haven't played it nearly as much since; Golden State has broken out the zone on fewer than 5 percent of its defensive possessions since March 1, way down from its zone-happy peak — about 12 percent of possessions — in the three weeks or so before that.
But the zone could be a wild card against a Denver team that lacks 3-point shooting. George Karl told me recently he expects teams to try zone against Denver in the playoffs, and that Denver has been working on its zone offense.
• Los Angeles Lakers. True story: The Spurs' powerhouse offense scored just 95.8 per 100 possessions in three head-to-head games against the Lakers. That mark would have ranked dead last for the season, and Robert Sacre started at center in one of those games. Dwight Howard sat out that game with an injury, and that happened to be the only time in three tries the real Tony Parker showed up against L.A.; Parker, just recovering from an ankle injury when these teams last played, shot 12-of-21 in those three games with Howard on the bench and just 7-of-23 when the big fella played, per NBA.com.
The sample size is obviously tiny, but the film reveals something: The Spurs offense looked pretty gummy against the long-armed Lakers. The court looked tighter than usual with the Tiago Splitter–Tim Duncan combination facing the giant Pau Gasol–Howard duo, and the Lakers didn't seem especially concerned with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green on the perimeter.5 Howard's presence visibly unnerved Parker on Sunday in Los Angeles, though, again, Parker was working off some rust. The Lakers actually did quite well containing the Spurs' pet side pick-and-rolls to one side of the floor, clogging Parker's passing lanes to the weak side, and forcing Parker to kick the ball to a big man at the foul line. Here's a screenshot from a Parker-Splitter side pick-and-roll, with Duncan filling in behind the play:
That strategy will yield some open Duncan 20-footers, but the Lakers will live with that. The Spurs are almost mean in picking on an opponent's weaker big man — Al Jefferson is still having nightmares about last season's playoffs — but if the Lakers stick Gasol on Splitter, it will be interesting to see how willing Gregg Popovich is to turn San Antonio's pick-and-roll game over to Splitter just for the sake of targeting Gasol.
The Spurs have been slumping offensively for more than a month, and though much of that came with one or both of Duncan and Parker sitting, this team just isn't whole right now. Manu Ginobili's status is uncertain, Parker is recovering, and Boris Diaw is gone. Diaw's minutes were down already, but he provides a useful combination of passing, shooting, and dribbling from the power forward spot, and the Spurs don't have a great replacement ready — especially since the coldhearted release of Stephen Jackson makes it trickier for San Antonio to go small. Matt Bonner's open looks always seem to close in the playoffs, and the Lakers will happily play off DeJuan Blair to clog things up elsewhere.6
Look, the Lakers have been bad defensively all season. They're lucky the Spurs aren't a transition machine beyond Parker (and occasionally Leonard), and they'll surrender some open looks when they allow Parker to get to the middle on side pick-and-rolls:
But a limping Spurs team isn't a bad matchup for the Lakers. They probably can't generate enough offense to win it, but don't be shocked if they limit the Spurs scoring machine.
• Houston Rockets. Houston has also played top-10 defense since the All-Star break, and the Rockets have been stingy all season whenever Omer Asik has been on the floor. Unfortunately, they've drawn the nightmare of all matchups. Houston can't even hang its hat on luring the Thunder into a small-ball battle, since Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant at power forward outclasses the Rockets with Chandler Parsons or Carlos Delfino at power forward.
• Milwaukee Bucks. It's not happening unless LARRY SANDERS! turns into some combination of Bill Russell and Iron Man. The Bucks have been average defensively this season and awful without SANDERS! Precisely zero of their four perimeter gunners are capable of guarding either James or Wade. They are capable of funneling those players toward SANDERS! on pick-and-rolls, but the Heat stars are used to that kind of defense, and they'll find teammates for more efficient shots. Bye-bye.
Health and Luck: Who'll Get the Good Fortune?
Health is always a factor in determining the NBA title, and an unusual number of teams with interesting postseason potential are facing a ton of injury uncertainty. How that uncertainty trends over the next couple of weeks will help determine their respective ceilings.
• Chicago Bulls. Brooklyn-Chicago is the hardest series to predict, simply because we've seen so little of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson over the last few weeks. A Bulls team with its full complement of ace defensive bigs is a perfect antidote to a potent Brooklyn offense that can be slow and predictable, and features two starters — Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans — the Bulls can basically ignore. The Bulls always aim to strangle the strong side. They get downright scary when they can do so with even greater abandon against a team featuring multiple nonentities on offense. Jimmy Butler can make Joe Johnson work, and if the Bulls are feeling especially frisky — or if the Nets lift Wallace for Keith Bogans/Jerry Stackhouse/MarShon Brooks — the Bulls could unleash the Butler–Luol Deng combination on Johnson and Deron Williams. (Both Deng and Butler should get some chances against D-Will in crunch time, and did during four tight regular-season matchups.)
But if Noah and Gibson are limited, the Bulls would be a totally different team. They'd lack a big man to both contend with Lopez, who thrived against Chicago this season, and shut Williams off on the Williams-Lopez pick-and-roll. And if those two are really limited, the Bulls might resort to small ball, with Deng or Butler getting time at power forward — a tweak to which the Nets have a few different ready responses.
Regardless, Chicago is a non-threat if Noah and Gibson aren't near 100 percent.
• Boston and New York. The Celtics are going nowhere if Kevin Garnett isn't ready to play at least 30 minutes per game of peak-level ball. The Knicks say Tyson Chandler's neck and back issues are gone, and they'd better be; the Knicks might be able to win this round with a so-so Chandler, but they're Heat (and perhaps Pacers) roadkill without their pick-and-roll centerpiece and defensive anchor in top shape. Pablo Prigioni's injury isn't a killer, since the Knicks might want to start a bigger lineup against Boston's very big Avery Bradley–Paul Pierce–Jeff Green–Brandon Bass–Garnett combo — a lineup that has logged only 38 minutes all season, including zero against New York. But the Knicks have played very well with two point guards on the floor, provided you still count Kidd as a point guard, and New York needs all the bodies it can get.
Regardless: Boston is going to throw at least three different defenders7 at Anthony and shift its defense to his side of the floor when Melo posts up or isolates on the wing:
Boston needs its defense to be totally on point in shifting this way, and that means having Garnett out there to direct traffic. The Celtics need to position themselves in passing lanes, stick close to particular shooters,8 and rotate around New York's deadly perimeter attack without a hitch. Boston will also need to take care of the glass when Anthony is on the floor and in attack mode. The Knicks, a below-average offensive rebounding team for the season, nabbed 32 percent of their own misses against Boston when Melo was on the floor — a tick above Denver's league-best rate, per NBA.com. Lots of those were Melo putback attempts, but sending extra help toward Anthony will always create rebounding voids elsewhere. Boston needs a group effort on the glass.
And they'll need Garnett's scoring and passing from the lost post, a crucial driver of their playoff run last season.9
Anthony has to move the ball against Boston. He too often took Boston's bait in the regular season, driving toward the help defense and pulling up for contested 18-footers. That won't fly here, and Anthony will be more effective moving the ball if Chandler is in the middle as a lob threat, and the Knicks have passers galore around the perimeter.
• Indiana Pacers. The Pacers noticed how Atlanta blatantly tanked its last two games in order to slide into the non-Miami side of the bracket — even if doing so meant a first-round matchup against the Pacers' league-best defense. Atlanta's a decent scoring team, but it's mostly struggled — even more than we'd expect — against top-10 defenses over the last two seasons, and it threatened during much of this season to set an all-time record for futility in getting to the foul line. The Hawks take a lot of jumpers, and no defense carved away the most profitable jumpers better than Indiana; the Pacers' opponents shot a league-low 32.7 percent from 3-point range on the second-fewest attempts, and only Chicago allowed fewer corner 3s. The Hawks would seem to be in trouble.
But George Hill has been dealing with hip and groin injuries, and he'll have to find his fastest gear to contain the much-improved Jeff Teague.
The Pacers, of course, have bigger ambitions than a first-round win over Team Expiring Contract (and Al Horford), and those ambitions rest largely on bludgeoning the shit out of everyone with their long-armed defense. Hill is a key part of that.
• San Antonio and Denver. Mostly covered above. It's depressing to think a string of recent injuries might have fatally harmed one presumptive contender (the Spurs) and a fearsome threat that got better and better all season. Which brings us to the last question
Is the Grizzlies-Clippers Winner Our Only Hope?
The playoffs feel like a coronation for Oklahoma City in the West and Miami in the East, and injuries have raised serious questions about teams that otherwise might have been able to challenge the march to a Finals repeat. The winner of this bloodbath rematch might be our only hope, and that adds extra drama to what is already the most droolworthy first-round matchup.
These teams know each other so well, and the games are usually so close. The stars here are the point guards and the big men, and though every tiny thing will be important in a series this tight, whichever set of stars can maintain its highest level of play the longest in this endurance test should tip the series. For Conley, that means running the pick-and-roll with precision, and looking to score in the lane, in the biggest test of his career. The Clippers will mostly drop Jordan and Griffin back10 on Conley pick-and-rolls, and Conley has shown the ability to fool both of them with smart hesitation dribbles on his way to the bucket.
Paul is a proven big-game commodity, of course, and the Grizzlies' base pick-and-roll defense — having the big man guarding the screener drop back toward the foul line — by its nature surrenders those midrange elbow jumpers Paul loves. Memphis's bigs might have to step out a bit farther to take those shots away, and Paul will have to punish them by driving around them or drawing-and-dishing.11
Randolph and Griffin will bully each other in the post, probably to a stalemate. The real test for each will come when the other team runs sets designed to get them moving on defense. Both the Clippers and Grizzlies — but especially the Clips — have a tendency to get stagnant on offense during the drudgery of a game, with the ball sometimes sticking on one side of the floor. That hasn't hurt the Clips in the big picture; they're a top-five offense overall, and their offensive centerpieces, Paul and Griffin, are among the very best passers at their positions, capable of turning a stagnant possession into a brilliant one with one skip pass. But the Grizzlies are perhaps the league's best defensive team, and they can choke a predictable offense.
Both must stay committed to running their best stuff — cross screens for big men on the block, screen-the-screener action instead of run-of-the-mill pick-and-rolls,12 and various bits of misdirection:
There are a million other subplots — Bayless's unproven defense and tendency to ball-watch; the lack of rim protection for the Grizzlies when Gasol sits; how aggressively Memphis wishes to dig down on Griffin post-ups; the way Lionel Hollins divvies up the backup big-man minutes between Ed Davis and Darrell Arthur; the real possibility of a fight; the Lamar Odom–Jordan crunch-time debate; Bledsoe's minutes; Del Negro's ability to scream very loudly at Memphis shooters and stomp his feet like a cranky child; the Clippers' decision at the trade deadline to stand pat with this team rather than aggressively upgrade; and Del Negro's future as coach.13 This is the series of the first round.
Miami in 4
New York in 5
Brooklyn in 714
Indiana in 5
Oklahoma City in 5
San Antonio in 7
Denver in 5
Clippers in 7