We've reached the midway point of the first round, which means it's tension time over the weekend. We'll have the Celtics, Bucks, Lakers, and Hawks fighting for their seasons, and we'll get our first taste of one of the NBA postseason's truly delicious treats — a Game 4 of a 2-1 series, the first pivotal moment of any playoffs, with the outcome making the difference between a tied series and one that just feels over.
Here's a look at one or two key questions facing each of the eight series, listed here in order of intrigue:
Does Vinny Del Negro have a rotation tweak in store?
In one sense, the Grizzlies claimed Game 3 by simply getting back to what they do best: They loaded the paint and the strong side on defense, strangling a Clippers offense prone to stretches in which it is not committed enough to moving the ball from side to side. And they pounded the interior, with Zach Randolph looking healthy and frisky, bullying Blake Griffin out of the way for offensive rebounds and fighting through Griffin's fronts. The Grizz also worked to get the Clippers' big men moving, often by having Randolph and Marc Gasol screen for each other, or interact in some other way, to force a switch or get Randolph favorable position:
To some degree, this series will be decided based upon which team finds the energy, mental strength, and in-the-moment coaching required to keep its big men moving around and playing off each other in productive ways on offense. There are no mysteries between these two.
But Lionel Hollins and his staff made some key small adjustments in Game 3. After playing Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince together for an average of about 26 minutes in each of the first two games, Hollins sliced that figure to 17 minutes on Thursday, staggering his two non-shooters, working in some three-guard lineups, and giving both Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter extended chances to introduce some breathing space into the Grizz offense.
Vinny Del Negro, who has largely coached a very nice series, had no ready response in his pocket. The Eric Bledsoe–Chris Paul combination, a potential wild card in this series, has logged just six minutes total through three games, in part because its small-small nature allows the Grizz to shift Allen onto Paul. (Memphis did that anyway for stretches of Game 3, with both Allen and Pondexter, and the Grizz expertly snuffed out the Clips' attempt to post up Chauncey Billups on Mike Conley.) Paul and Bledsoe played only about two minutes together on Thursday, and we didn't see any of the three-guard sets that had injected some chaos into the first two games. Ronny Turiaf, out of the rotation not long ago — as recently as the first half of Game 3, in fact — found himself playing crunch-time minutes next to Lamar Odom. Bledsoe was Bad Bledsoe in Game 3, missing all four of his shots and committing three fouls in just 14 minutes, including one inexcusable foul on Keyon Dooling 75 feet from the basket with the Grizzlies in the bonus. Will Del Negro trust him for big minutes in Game 4?
Who plays for Denver, and when?
George Karl has spent much of the year telling anyone who will listen how much he likes Kosta Koufos, and how quickly Koufos picked up Karl's big-man spacing concepts, but after two straight bad games, Karl sounded as if Koufos might be on the fringes of his rotation. If that's the case, what happens? Does Karl slot JaVale McGee, usually tethered to Andre Miller, into the starting lineup? And would that result in Miller starting as well, as he did in Evan Fournier's place in the second half of Game 2?
And what about Kenneth Faried? Faried reclaiming his starting spot would force Karl to choose between going back to a traditional lineup, with two bigs and Wilson Chandler sliding back to small forward, or perhaps even going small and slotting Faried in as a high-speed center.
The decisions have major implications for how Golden State attacks the Nuggets, and even for Mark Jackson's starting lineup. Jackson started Harrison Barnes at power forward in Game 2 to match Denver's small-ball lineup, which featured Chandler at power forward. But if Denver goes "big" again, Jackson may opt to start Carl Landry next to Andrew Bogut, a move that would in turn present some interesting challenges for Jackson in staggering his big-man rotation.
Can Denver clean up its defense?
The Warriors in Game 1 ran a ton of pick-and-rolls involving Stephen Curry and Golden State's power forwards — David Lee and Landry — and the Nuggets, generally playing small, responded by having the speedy Chandler trap Curry far from the hoop. In Game 2, the Warriors adjusted; they had their centers set the high screens for Curry, forcing Denver's much slower big men into a terrible choice between laying back and watching Curry shoot jumpers, or scurrying far out of their comfort zones and watching Curry cross them off the bounce.
Here's McGee yielding too much space — though, in his defense, the Warriors run a screen-the-screener action that has been effective for them all season:
And here's Jarrett Jack, running the play in Curry's place, jetting around the out-of-his-element Faried for an easy bucket:
Denver has to be better defensively, and Karl's rotation choices will define how the Nuggets go about that process.
Can either of these teams score?
Well, we know the Bulls can't really score; they ranked just 24th in points per possession in the regular season. The Nets ranked a robust ninth, and third in the Eastern Conference, but they have absolutely fallen apart over the last two games against a Bulls defense gleefully ignoring Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace. The degree to which Wallace has become a liability — not just an average player, but a straight-up liability — in the first season of a four-year, $40 million deal is stunning.
Brooklyn has scored just 88.6 points per 100 possessions in this series with those two in the lineup, a figure that would have ranked last in the league by nearly 10 full points — a remarkable stat, considering it includes the Nets rout in Game 1. That number is down to an unthinkable 62.2 points per 100 possessions over the last two games.
The Bulls aren't even worried about switching Kirk Hinrich onto Joe Johnson when Johnson and Deron Williams run a pick-and-roll, normally a threatening action, because Chicago knows it can just overload on Johnson's post-up by ignoring Evans and Wallace. Watch here, as Carlos Boozer slides off of Evans, Nazr Mohammed crashes off of Brook Lopez, and Luol Deng bothers Lopez's shot by leaving Wallace alone up top:
Chicago screws up this help scheme a bit, but it doesn't even matter. Reggie Evans actually shot, and missed, two jumpers in this game, the NBA equivalent of an offense shrugging and waving the white flag.
The Nets have to at least consider starting the C.J. Watson–Andray Blatche combo in place of Evans and Wallace; both played heavy minutes, along with the suddenly unearthed MarShon Brooks, as the Nets rallied late in Game 3. (And, yes, when C.J. Watson and Andray Blatche represent your offensive salvation, you might be in trouble.)
P.J. Carlesimo and his staff also have to get a bit more creative, and the Brooklyn players have to commit to exerting a bit of extra energy to move the ball from side to side, set creative screens, and execute some fast-moving and unpredictable sets. Brooklyn's post-up stuff isn't working, and the Nets have a tendency to stall out on one side of the floor at times. They can't do that here; they have to do stuff like this, with a ho-hum Williams-Johnson pick-and-roll morphing into a Williams-Blatche pick-and-roll that catches the Bulls off guard:
Both teams are trying to manufacture spacing, a challenge for each. Chicago has lifted both its big men to the foul line area more than it typically does, and has run several pick-and-rolls with one side of the floor — the side where the big man screens and rolls — totally clear of other bodies. Whichever team figures out the right equation first will score, and win.
How will Boston play offense?
The Knicks have suckered Boston into playing through Paul Pierce on the block against smaller defenders, and it hasn't worked. Boston is dead last in postseason scoring, and I'd type out the points-per-possession figure, but the NBA.com stats database self-destructed when I tried to look it up.
Here's the thing about Pierce post-ups in the center of the floor: They take the only reliable and respected 3-point shooter in Boston's starting lineup and place him in the center of the court, where the four other New York defenders can have at him. It doesn't help that Avery Bradley likes to cut down the middle of the floor during those post-ups, and that a Boston big man at times will join Bradley right under the rim.
I mean, good luck scoring in this crowd, Mr. Aging All-Star Small Forward:
Boston has also tried to post up Kevin Garnett in isolation, but both Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin are stout defenders, and Garnett is hurting. The Celtics need to rediscover the side-to-side vigor they found right after Rajon Rondo's injury, when their offense took on a five-out style, with pick-and-rolls flying all over the place, that looked like a slower version of what Miami does. Jeff Green, for instance, will do better if he can catch on the move behind a Pierce-Garnett pick-and-roll:
(The same is true of Carmelo Anthony, who did well in the second half of Game 2 by catching behind Raymond Felton–Chandler pick-and-rolls and driving past his defender.)
Boston got some traction late in Game 3 by running Pierce-Garnett pick-and-rolls, watching the Knicks switch and then send help toward Garnett in the middle, and then working the ball around for open 3s. They need more of this, or it will be over, soon.
We had this section ready to go. As you might imagine, the Russell Westbrook injury news changed things a bit on this front. For a complete breakdown of the series now and what Westbrook's meniscus injury means for the Thunder, see here.
Where did Atlanta's defense go?
The Hawks have been embarrassingly outclassed in this series. The Pacers are shooting 46 percent overall, including 38.6 percent from 3-point range, and when they're not hitting any shot they want, they're getting to the line a ton (31.5 times per game) and rebounding 35 percent of their own misses — the best offensive rebounding rate of the playoffs so far, and one that would have led the league in the regular season easily.
Atlanta has no answer for Paul George among its wing and guard brigade. He destroyed Kyle Korver in Game 1, sliced up Devin Harris in Game 2, and appeared bemused when the Hawks actually tried Jeff Teague on him at one point. Roy Hibbert is too big for anyone the Hawks have, and the Pacers have gotten him looks out of a creative monster screen set they've installed for this series:
Larry Drew could counter by going big, with Smith shifting to small forward and taking on the George assignment full-time as part of a Smith–Al Horford–Ivan Johnson starting trio. Drew is clearly less excited about the ultrabig lineups without Zaza Pachulia, and Smith has been so-so by his standards, especially on defense, when Drew has actually let him play through foul trouble. George has looked surprisingly comfortable attacking Smith with face-up drives the few times they have matched up.
Basically, Indiana has just destroyed Atlanta's defense. The Hawks have looked uncoordinated in their help schemes, the Pacers have beaten them several times with easy back cuts, and Teague has been sloppy in tracking George Hill. Even the Pacers bench has gone off. The Hawks have scored well and attacked Hibbert effectively with Teague-Horford pick-and-rolls, but nothing will matter if they continue to stink it up on the other end.
Will Chris Duhon spot up from 35 feet away?
Of course he will! Will the Spurs actually guard him there? I can't wait to see!
Can the Lakers put together 48 more minutes of defense, or is this it?
The Lakers defended very well in Game 1, but in Game 2 they looked like a weary team limping toward the end of a wearying season. Tony Parker has been able to work his way into the middle of the floor on pick-and-rolls almost whenever he likes, and Pau Gasol by the end of Game 2 looked absolutely gassed in trying to help (and not really helping) on Parker drives:
That last play is a Parker-Bonner pick-and-roll, and the Lakers have had major trouble defending San Antonio whenever Bonner has played. San Antonio has scored (tiny sample size alert!) about 121 points per 100 possessions with Bonner on the floor and just 78.3 with him on the bench, per NBA.com. Needless to say, the high number is well above the league's best overall offense, and the low number much worse than the league's brickiest offense. And the number jumps even higher when Bonner is on the floor with the rejuvenated genius of Manu Ginobili.
(Note: This is not super encouraging in the long run, since competent defenses taking Bonner out of games, and eventually out of Gregg Popovich's rotation, is an annual playoff tradition at this point.)
Gasol isn't comfortable chasing Bonner at the 3-point arc, Antawn Jamison is a mess wherever he is, and L.A. just looks tired. Gasol, a generally noble player, just watched Tiago Splitter pick up a loose ball Gasol himself dropped and start a 2-on-1 fast break:
And Howard, moving better overall, still can't bring peak effort and defense for an entire game. Watch him reach meekly here as the "helper" on this Splitter post-up, and then loaf around as his own man, Tim Duncan, slides around him for an offensive rebound:
The Lakers are toast.
Will the Bucks get funky?
That's really the only drama left in this sweep. Miami is "only" plus-nine in the 90 minutes Ersan Ilyasova has played in this series, but they're a ridiculous plus-39 in the 54 minutes Ilyasova has sat, per NBA.com. The Bucks have not been able to score without Ilyasova stretching the floor, setting screens, and slipping into space in a variety of ways that can confuse Miami's trapping defense and get it scrambling.
There's a problem, though: The Bucks need as much shooting on the floor as possible, and they've been unwilling to risk putting out lineups that either feature Ilyasova at center or pair Ilyasova, a true center (LARRY SANDERS! or Ekpe Udoh), and three guards/wings who are not named Luc Richard Mbah a Moute or Marquis Daniels. Jim Boylan rightly understands that those two are the only perimeter players on hand with any chance of guarding LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but neither one can shoot, and the Bucks can't defend Miami regardless of which lineups they play. It's not as if Milwaukee is allowing Mbah a Moute to play LeBron straight up in the post; they're sending help, like everyone else does, and LeBron is either scoring or picking out 3-point shooters.
So it's time to get crazy: either spot Ilyasova some time at center, or ditch Daniels–Mbah a Moute and let SANDERS! and Udoh guard LeBron until they foul out. Don't laugh: Both have guarded James at times during this series, and Udoh got the LeBron assignment — and fared credibly — in crunch time during the regular season.
Get funky, Jim Boylan! Try sneaking Bango the Buck out there as a sixth defender if need be.