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Achilles' Heel of Every 2013 NBA Playoff Team-to-Be

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2013

Achilles' Heel of Every 2013 NBA Playoff Team-to-Be

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    Heading into the 2013 NBA playoffs, some teams appear vulnerable, while others appear virtually invincible.

    But every team, including the Miami Heat, has at least one weakness that can be exploited in the right matchup.

    Whether it's a lack of size, three-point shooters going cold, a slew of turnovers or potential injuries, no team can overcome a worst-case scenario in the playoffs.

    As the Chicago Bulls learned the hard way last season, even the strongest championship contenders can have their postseason aspirations blown apart in the blink of an eye. (Here's looking at you, Derrick Rose's ACL.)

    With the playoffs rapidly approaching, here's a blueprint of what could stop each of the projected playoff teams from achieving its championship dreams this season.

    Note: Statistics and records are current through games played on April 5. In the Western Conference, I've included slides for both the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz, as it's too early to say which team will end up with the No. 8 seed. Teams are presented in reverse seeding order by conference, starting with the East.

Milwaukee Bucks: Shooting Efficiency

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    In Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, the Milwaukee Bucks have guards who can explode for 30 points on a moment's notice.

    But Ellis and Jennings can each fall victim to an itchy trigger finger at times, making shot selection the Bucks' biggest bugaboo heading into the playoffs.

    Of the 90 guards who appeared in at least 40 games this season and played at least 20 minutes per game, Jennings is tied with John Salmons for the 12th-lowest field-goal percentage (.397). Jennings has especially struggled from close range, only knocking down 44.9 percent of his 323 shot attempts from within five feet of the basket.

    Ellis has fared slightly better, ranking 34th with a field-goal percentage of 41.8, but that's still nowhere near high enough to strike fear into opponents' hearts. For the Bucks to stand a chance in the playoffs, they'll need the post-All-Star break version of Ellis, who's been shooting 45.4 percent from the field.

    The Bucks appear to be on a collision course with the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs, meaning that they're likely doomed unless they knock down every shot attempt. Ellis and Jennings will only speed up the process, though, if they can't start knocking down buckets at a consistent clip.

Boston Celtics: Rebounding

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    If the Boston Celtics hope to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, they'll need to rebound better.

    The Celtics rank 29th in the league in rebounding percentage, grabbing only 47.5 percent of their available rebounds. For some perspective, the Indiana Pacers lead the league with a rebounding percentage of 53.1.

    While Boston has long ignored offensive rebounds during the Kevin Garnett era—snaring a league-low 20 percent of available offensive boards this season—its defensive rebounding rate hasn't been much better in 2012-13. The C's are tied with the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls for 19th in the league in defensive rebound rate (73.2 percent).

    It's no surprise that Boston has struggled on the glass this season, as Garnett has manned the 5 in their three most popular lineups. The Celtics also rank in the bottom half of the league in pace (17th), averaging 93.83 possessions per 48 minutes, which only places more importance on each possession.

    The Celtics can't be expected to improve much in terms of offensive rebounding, as their strategy dictates that it's better to concede those boards in order to run back and get in better defensive position. If Boston can't step up in terms of defensive rebounding, however, it will likely be making an early exit from this year's playoffs.

Atlanta Hawks: Josh Smith's Shot Selection

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    Josh Smith thinks that he's worth a max contract this summer. I think he's crazy.

    There's no questioning that Smith has the requisite tool set to be a superstar-caliber player. He's also guaranteed to fire up at least a couple shots per game that would get most players benched immediately.

    Take one look at his 2012-13 shot chart and you'll be blinded by the amount of red you see. Smith has attempted more shots from 15-plus feet from the basket (472) than from within five feet despite shooting less than 33 percent from that range.

    J-Smoove has also attempted nearly 200 three-pointers despite the 30.4 percent clip. No one's mistaking him for the second coming of Ray Allen, to say the least.

    If Smith decides to rein in his shot selection and make a concerted effort to take shots closer to the rim, the Atlanta Hawks stand a puncher's chance of escaping from the first round of the playoffs. If not, don't be surprised when an endless stream of long two-pointers from Smith leads to the Hawks' early postseason demise.

Chicago Bulls: Lack of Depth

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    The Chicago Bulls took a calculated risk in the summer of 2012 by not re-signing major contributors from their Bench Mob, including Omer Asik, Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson.

    While the emergence of Jimmy Butler this season has mitigated some of that damage, the Bulls could really use some of that depth with the playoffs around the corner.

    Derrick Rose still hasn't returned from his torn ACL, leaving Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson to man the point. Rip Hamilton remains out indefinitely due to a creaky back, and his backup, Marco Belinelli, is day-to-day with an abdominal injury of his own.

    The Bulls frontcourt hasn't escaped the injury bug, either, with Joakim Noah day-to-day due to plantar fasciitis and Taj Gibson out indefinitely with a slight knee strain. No offense to Nazr Mohammed, but a team that relies on him for 30-plus minutes a night (as the Bulls have done in Gibson and Noah's absence) likely won't make it out of the first round of the playoffs.

    The Bulls need at least Noah, Gibson and Belinelli, if not Rose, if they hope to make some noise in this year's postseason.

Brooklyn Nets: Inflexibility in Rotations

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    Assuming the Brooklyn Nets can hang onto the No. 4 or 5 seed in the East and survive their first-round playoff matchup, they'll have a hot date with the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals.

    If Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo doesn't get creative with his rotations against Miami, the Nets stand no chance of pulling the upset.

    For nearly 80 percent of Brook Lopez's 2,079 minutes on the floor this season, he's been paired with either Reggie Evans or Kris Humphries at power forward, according to NBA.com's John Schuhmann. Neither, as Schuhmann notes, can be considered a floor-spacer by any means.

    Against Miami, a frontcourt of Lopez and either Humphries or Evans stands virtually no chance of success. Assuming Gerald Wallace (at the 3) draws the defensive assignment against LeBron James, that leaves Lopez and Humphries or Evans to drift out to the perimeter to guard Chris Bosh and Shane Battier, respectively.

    The Heat have already blown out Brooklyn three times this season, as the Nets simply don't have the personnel to match up. Despite Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov's declaration that a berth in the conference finals would define a successful season, Brooklyn appears all but guaranteed to fall short of that goal.

Indiana Pacers: Pace

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    Despite what their team name might lead you to believe, the Indiana Pacers actually rank near the bottom of the league in terms of pace.

    Indiana only averages 92.82 possessions per 48 minutes, which ranks 25th in the league. Instead of runnin' and gunnin' like the Houston Rockets or Denver Nuggets, the Pacers prefer a grind-it-out, half-court style of offense.

    The Pacers are lucky in that many of their projected Eastern Conference playoff counterparts also prefer a more slow-paced game. The New York Knicks (92.07), Chicago Bulls (91.99) and Brooklyn Nets (90.94) rank 26th, 27th and 29th, respectively, in terms of pace this season.

    If Indiana can goad their playoff opponents into playing its style of slow-down, half-court basketball, it is more likely to emerge victorious. Once Roy Hibbert can get settled in the paint defensively, the Pacers are the toughest team in the league to score against, as evidenced by their league-leading defensive rating of 95.7.

    If the Atlanta Hawks, Knicks or Miami Heat can consistently get out in the open court against Indiana, however, the Pacers could be considerably more vulnerable to getting knocked out of the playoffs early. 

New York Knicks: Three-Point Shooters Going Cold

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    The New York Knicks are poised to be one of the only Eastern Conference teams that could throw a scare into the Miami Heat, especially if Carmelo Anthony continues his 40-point scoring tear.

    The Knicks need their three-point shooters to remain on point if they hope to pull the upset over Miami, though.

    New York is tied with the Houston Rockets for the league lead in three-point field-goal attempts per game (28.7). If the Rockets and Knicks maintain their current pace, they'll each finish with the most three-point attempts per game in NBA history.

    Anthony and crew aren't just jacking three-pointers with reckless abandon, though. The Knicks rank sixth in the league in three-point shooting percentage (37.3) and trail only the Golden State Warriors in shooting percentage on above-the-break three-pointers (37.9).

    If the Knicks can stay hot from long range in the playoffs, they'll have a solid chance of winding up in the conference finals against the Heat. For a team that's won only one playoff game since 2001, that's none too shabby.

    If New York's long-range shooters go cold, however, the Knicks might not even survive their opening matchup.

Miami Heat: Injuries to the Big Three

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    It's not exactly bold to predict that the Heat will emerge as the Eastern Conference champs. They've already done so in each of the past two seasons and only appear stronger than ever before.

    Let's not forget, however, how vulnerable the Heat looked during the 2012 playoffs when Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal tear in Game 1 of Miami's second-round series against the Indiana Pacers. Had Bosh not returned in the middle of the conference finals, there's no telling if Miami would have had the wherewithal to triumph over the Boston Celtics.

    If Bosh, Dwyane Wade or LeBron James go down with an injury that forces any one of them to miss significant time, the seemingly invincible Heat could suddenly appear mortal.

    Interior size also stands out as a potential weakness for Miami, as noted by Kevin Pelton on ESPN Insider, as a team with multiple bigs could punish the Heat in the post.

    However, Miami's lack of size could be considered as much a strength as a weakness. With Bosh playing the 5, opposing centers must drift out to the perimeter to respect his jumper, leaving wide-open driving lanes for James, Wade and the rest of the Heat.

Utah Jazz: Al Jefferson's Defense

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    Any team seriously considering offering Al Jefferson a hefty contract this offseason only needs to spend a few minutes on Synergy Sports to realize why that might not be so wise.

    Jefferson may be averaging 17.4 points and 9.0 rebounds per game for the Utah Jazz, but he's also nothing short of a defensive sieve.

    The big man ranks 318th in the league in individual defense, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), allowing 0.92 points per possession. He's 87th in the league in post-up defense (0.78 PPP), 275th in spot-up defense (1.06 PPP) and 296th in isolation (1.11 PPP), per Synergy.

    It's no coincidence that the Jazz rank 22nd in defensive rating, allowing 104.7 points per 100 trips down the floor. That's the worst defensive rating of any potential playoff team, and a large part of it can be traced back to Jefferson.

    Jefferson isn't the only culprit for the Jazz's lackluster defense, as noted by Grantland's Zach Lowe, but he's hurting more than helping on that end of the floor. Assuming Utah qualifies for the playoffs, the Jazz can't afford to give up easy baskets in a likely first-round matchup against the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder.

Los Angeles Lakers: Transition Defense

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    It only takes minutes of watching the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers to identify their Achilles' heel.

    With Dwight Howard still not fully recovered from effects of offseason back surgery, the Lakers are terrible at transition defense. More often than not this year, they've paid the price.

    Both Mike Prada of SB Nation and Zach Lowe of Grantland have highlighted some of the Lakers' more egregious errors this season. But suffice it to say, it's a systemic failure by the team.

    With Metta World Peace out with a torn lateral meniscus likely through the first round of the playoffs, the Lakers can't afford such poor defensive effort. The recent 101-81 whomping of the Dallas Mavericks demonstrated that the Lakers do have the ability to play lockdown defense when committed. (Who knew that's what Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, could do for a team?)

    The Lakers have no chance of playoff survival without tightening up defensively. And they're merely fighting to face either the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder—teams that can light up a scoreboard to the point of submission before halftime. 

Houston Rockets: Turnovers

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    If the Houston Rockets hope to upset either the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs in their upcoming first-round matchup, they'll have to significantly cut down their turnovers.

    Houston leads the league this year with 1,263 giveaways—82 more than the next-closest team (the Phoenix Suns). Of course, part of that is because the Rockets also lead the league in pace, averaging 98.61 possessions per 48 minutes.

    It's not just their per-game turnover stats that raise alarms, however. The Rockets also lead the league in turnover ratio, giving the ball away 16.5 times every 100 possessions.

    James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik—Houston's three prize offseason acquisitions—have been the three biggest culprits, averaging 3.7, 2.9 and 2.1 turnovers per game, respectively.

    Each and every possession, of course, carries added weight come postseason time, and Houston needs a crash course in ball control, ASAP.

Golden State Warriors: Three-Point Defense

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    One of the Golden State Warriors' greatest strengths this season—three-point shooting defense—could also be their undoing in the playoffs.

    The Dubs rank fifth in the league against the three, with opponents only knocking down 34.1 percent of their long-range shots. Through the Warriors' first 47 games, opponents converted only 33 percent of their attempts.

    That three-point defense sprang a leak on Feb. 5, however, when the Houston Rockets tied an NBA record by drilling 23 three-pointers in a 140-109 blowout against Golden State. Over their next 17 games, the Warriors couldn't stop the bleeding, allowing opponents to convert 39.4 percent from beyond the arc (26th in the league).

    They've tightened back up defensively in the 12 games since March 9, with opponents converting just over 30 percent from three.

    Seeing as how their likely first-round opponent, the Denver Nuggets, rank 25th in the league in three-point shooting percentage (.341), the Warriors should hold the advantage from long range. It's just a question of which Golden State defense shows up come playoff time.

Memphis Grizzlies: Lack of Three-Point Shooting

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    No team in the NBA is less reliant on the three than the Memphis Grizzlies.

    They rank dead last in the league in both three-pointers made (4.7) and attempted (13.5) per game. Memphis only ranks 23rd in the league in three-point shooting percentage (34.6 percent), too.

    That's not a huge surprise, given that the Grizzlies' strength comes from pounding the ball down low to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. When Memphis traded Rudy Gay for Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye and Ed Davis in February, it became even more clear that the Grizzlies would live and die by their post game this season.

    But as recently noted by Jared Wade on B/R, no team has ever won the NBA title when ranked last in three-point attempts since the implementation of the three-point line more than 30 years ago. According to Wade's research, a team that finished last in attempts has only reached the conference finals five times, the latest being the Utah Jazz in 1998.

    Can the Grizzlies become the first? Not likely.

Los Angeles Clippers: Hack-a-Big-Man

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    If the Los Angeles Clippers find themselves clinging to a late lead in the postseason, don't be surprised to see the opposition revert to the hack-a-big-man strategy.

    To put it kindly, many of the Clippers' big men are cover-your-eyes awful from the charity stripe. DeAndre Jordan actually touts the lowest free-throw percentage (.391) in the league for players who have appeared in at least 40 games while playing at least 20 minutes per game. (Yes, he's worse than Dwight Howard.)

    Blake Griffin, the other member of the Clippers' starting frontcourt, hasn't fared much better. He's only shooting at a 66.3 percent clip from the charity stripe—14th-worst in the league for players who have appeared in at least 40 games while averaging at least 20 minutes per game.

    There's not much help coming from the Clippers reserves, either. Lamar Odom (50 percent) and Ronny Turiaf (36.5 percent), the Clippers' two most frequently used big men off the bench, are just as much liabilities from the free-throw line as Jordan and Griffin.

    If Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro isn't careful, his team's playoff fate could well be decided by a subpar free-throw shooter standing on the charity stripe.

Denver Nuggets: Replacing Danilo Gallinari in Crunch Time

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    The Denver Nuggets' quest to prove that you don't need a superstar to win an NBA championship took a massive blow when Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL against the Dallas Mavericks on April 4.

    Gallinari, the Nuggets' second-leading scorer (16.2 points per game), also served as one of the team's best three-point shooters, knocking down 37.3 percent of his tries from deep. Of Nuggets players averaging at least 20 minutes per game, only Wilson Chandler (40.2 percent from long range) trumped Gallinari's three-point shooting percentage.

    Without Gallinari, the questions about the Nuggets not having a superstar for crunch time will only grow louder. In the final minute of games within a five-point margin (either ahead or behind), Gallinari knocked down eight of his 15 field-goal attempts (4-of-7 from three).

    Chandler, Corey Brewer and Andre Iguodala will be expected to pick up the slack with Gallinari out, but only one of them (Chandler) should be considered a legitimate threat from deep. Brewer (29.7 percent from long range) and Iguodala (30.8 percent) will likely only hurt the Nuggets if they start firing away from deep late in games.

    Denver point guard Ty Lawson will also need to embrace a larger role offensively in the wake of Gallinari's injury, but he's battling a slightly torn plantar fascia of his own at the moment. The Nuggets have the depth to compensate for the loss of Gallo, but it remains to be seen who'll bear the burden of being the team's primary crunch-time scorer. 

San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili's Hamstring

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    Manu Ginobili's hamstring could be all that's standing between the San Antonio Spurs and a berth in this year's NBA Finals.

    On April 1, the Spurs announced that Ginobili would miss the next three to four weeks due to a strained right hamstring that he suffered against the Los Angeles Clippers on March 29.

    Ginobili's injury not only opened the door for the Oklahoma City Thunder to steal the No. 1 seed from the Spurs, but it also holds potential playoff implications if it lingers.

    If the Spurs are without Ginobili and his uncanny sense of coming through in clutch moments, opponents can focus their defensive backcourt attention on Tony Parker.

    In Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Gary Neal, the Spurs have the backcourt depth to compensate for Ginobili's loss in the short term. As long as Tim Duncan continues playing like he's 10 years younger than he actually is, you'd be crazy to count the Spurs out in the playoffs.

    Given what a meat grinder the Western Conference playoffs are shaping up to be, however, the Spurs will need Ginobili for a run to the NBA Finals.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Selfishness

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder have the talent to make it back to the NBA Finals for a second straight year.

    As ESPN.com's David Thorpe pointed out for ESPN Insider recently, selfish play will be the biggest obstacle in their way.

    The Thunder have two of the league's top six scorers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, which can only help come playoff time when they're in need of a basket in a pinch.

    But statistically, as the season has worn on, each player has only reverted more into me-first mode, as Thorpe notes. Westbrook went from averaging around 22 points and 8.5 assists per game in November and December to nearly 25 points and six assists per game in February and March.

    Durant's shift occurred more recently, as he went from per-game averages of 24.4 points and 5.5 assists in February to 27.6 points and 3.8 assists in March. Could it be that the quest to become the first player in NBA history to finish with the scoring title while shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line is weighing on Durant's basketball psyche?

    With Durant, Westbrook, a vastly improved Serge Ibaka, one of the most underrated players in the league in Nick Collison, Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder have the pieces to survive the Western Conference playoffs. It's just a question of how isolation-centric they become, especially in a potential conference finals matchup against the San Antonio Spurs.

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