Takeaways from Sunday's NBA Playoff Action
The high seeds kept right on rolling on Day 2 of the NBA playoffs on Sunday, running the favorites' record to a perfect 8-0 thus far.
Paul George posted a triple-double against the Atlanta Hawks, announcing his arrival as a legitimate superstar and getting his Indiana Pacers off to a dominant start.
Then, Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs forced the Los Angeles Lakers reserves to try to win Game 1 from the perimeter. Let's just say that proved to be a shrewd strategy.
Later on, the Miami Heat coasted to a decisive win against a clearly overmatched Milwaukee Bucks squad. LeBron James hardly broke a sweat and still threatened to notch the day's second triple-double.
And in the nightcap, the Oklahoma City Thunder proved that they could do everything the fast-breaking Houston Rockets could—only better.
The stars shined and the league's top teams imposed their wills in an action-packed Sunday slate that gave fans everything they could have asked for from the opening weekend of the 2013 NBA postseason.
The Pacers Play with an Edge
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A quick run down the stat sheet might give the impression that the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks played an evenly matched contest on Sunday.
In fact, based on Atlanta's advantage in field-goal shooting (50 percent to Indiana's 45) and three-point accuracy (41 percent to Indiana's 37), you might even come away thinking that the Pacers were lucky to win.
But the Pacers totally dominated the Hawks by winning loose-ball battles, relentlessly attacking the rim and generally outworking Atlanta at every turn. In short, Indy played "angry."
Two key stats illustrate the thoroughness of the Pacers' advantage in the intensity department: They shot 34 free throws to Atlanta's 14 and won the rebounding battle by a margin of plus-16.
As the Hawks settled for the path of least resistance by firing up jumpers in the mid-range area, the Pacers pounded the paint, never letting Atlanta rest on defense.
Paul George scored 17 of his game-high 23 points at the foul line because he refused to settle for perimeter looks when his shot wasn't falling. Instead, he put his head down and drove the lane.
Roy Hibbert threw his weight around on both ends, and David West played with his typical grit as the Hawks simply appeared to lack the desire to compete on Indiana's level.
The Pacers played with a clear edge, and it made the difference in Game 1.
If the Hawks can't match the Pacers' urgent and focused approach, they aren't going to be around for much longer.
Paul George Has Arrived
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After earning his first All-Star nod and taking over the role of alpha-dog from the injured Danny Granger during the regular season, Paul George showed postseason viewers that he is ready to shine on an even bigger stage on Sunday.
Despite making just three shots in 13 attempts from the field, George was unequivocally the best player on the floor in Indiana's Game 1 victory over Atlanta.
He notched a triple-double with 23 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds, but the numbers weren't the only proof of George's ascension to stardom. His dogged defense on the perimeter made things difficult for every Hawk from Jeff Teague to Josh Smith, and his ultra-aggressive offensive mindset was the tone-setter for an inspired Pacers effort.
Plus, he had a vicious chase-down block on a Shelvin Mack layup attempt, showing incredible desire long after the game's result was all but certain.
At just 22 years old, George still has plenty of room to grow. That should be a very scary thought for the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Josh Smith Needs a New Approach
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You'd think that Josh Smith would have learned by now that he needs to shelve his jumper. For years, Atlanta Hawks fans have been groaning audibly whenever J-Smoove gets the ball on the perimeter, well aware that he's about to hoist up yet another ill-fated attempt.
Smith is a ball-stopper on the wing, typically killing whatever offensive flow the Hawks might have generated when he gets his touches 20 feet from the hoop. That'd be a bad enough tendency on its own, but he compounds the issue by taking some of the lowest-percentage looks imaginable.
Smith made just 30 percent (per Hoopdata) of his 3.8 attempts per game from 16-23 feet in 2012-13. No player who tried that many jumpers from the area on the floor known as the offensive "dead zone" made a lower percentage than Smith did.
In Game 1, the Pacers were more than happy to concede Smith's pet shot, knowing that his heaves from that distance were tantamount to turnovers. The strategy worked well, as Smith made just one of his four attempts from that distance (and stopped the ball whenever he got it on the perimeter).
It's a strange thing that the veteran forward still takes such a high number of shots from an area that has yielded so little success throughout his career. And it's stranger still when you consider how effective Smith can be when he gets into the lane. Against Indiana, he made five of his six attempts in the paint.
After nine years of chucking, it appears as though Smith will never scrap his errant jumper. But with the Hawks showing no signs of wanting to re-sign their franchise free agent, I guess the good news is that Smith's atrocious shot selection won't be the Hawks' problem for very much longer.
A Good Game Plan Goes a Long Way
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The San Antonio Spurs played a horrible offensive game against the L.A. Lakers, hitting just 37 percent of their shots from the field and 32 percent from long range. Fortunately for San Antonio, a solid defensive game plan that forced L.A.'s perimeter players to make shots ensured that the Lakers would have a rough time scoring as well.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Spurs had notched a 91-79 victory.
San Antonio collapsed on Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in the lane whenever either one got a touch, daring the big men to fire the ball out to open shooters. Howard's hardly a distributor, as his lone assist can attest, but Gasol can't help but move the ball to open teammates.
Whenever he did, the result wasn't good.
The Lakers shot 41 percent from the field and hit just three of their 15 long-range attempts.
San Antonio will continue to willingly surrender open looks from the perimeter against the Lakers, especially if Steve Nash keeps up his strange reluctance to let fly. In 29 minutes, L.A.'s best three-point shooter attempted just one triple.
L.A. is now faced with a game-planning choice of its own: either hope its outside shooters magically find their range or implement some more dynamic action in its offense.
According to a bespectacled former Laker, a few pick-and-rolls wouldn't hurt:
Of course, fans have been clamoring for that all season without much success, so it's hard to imagine much changing now.
Game 1 Not a Total Loss for Lakers
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It's hard to take any positives away from a 12-point loss in the postseason, but the Lakers can look back on their Game 1 defeat with some optimism for the future. And no, it's not because there's some reason to believe that their perimeter shooters will suddenly start knocking down their shots.
The Lakers should be encouraged by their defense.
Throughout the regular season, the Lakers looked totally disorganized on the defensive end. Dwight Howard was slow to rotate, the guards couldn't stay in front of anyone and Kobe Bryant showed absolutely no interest in helping his teammates. As a result, they finished in a tie for 18th in regular-season defensive efficiency.
But against the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles actually looked like a pretty good defensive club. San Antonio had to work for its shots on the perimeter, and the Lakers' size made things difficult in the paint.
Perhaps even more impressively, the Lakers showed a consistent plan in their pick-and-roll defense against Tony Parker, forcing him to give up the ball to shooters in the mid-range area for low-percentage shots. Tim Duncan, in particular, struggled to do damage from the top of the key.
In addition, the decision to defend Tiago Splitter with Howard allowed the Lakers' shot-blocking center to patrol the middle and help on Duncan in the post when necessary.
Ultimately, the Lakers' defensive improvements weren't enough to offset their inability to score. But considering how bad they looked during the regular season, it's truly remarkable that the Lakers are exhibiting a cohesive, well-executed plan all of a sudden.
It may not be enough to win the series, but at least L.A.'s defense has finally come out of hibernation.
What Does the Heat's Extra Playoff Gear Look Like?
Here's what we know: The Miami Heat are good.
Here's what we don't know: How much better can they be?
Miami treated its playoff-opening tilt against the Milwaukee Bucks very much like most of its typical regular-season games. There were scoring lulls, some occasionally sloppy play and a pretty reserved (yet still brilliant) effort from LeBron James.
Save for a 7-0 burst in the third quarter that was punctuated by a ridiculous wrong-footed dunk by James and a follow-up slam by Chris Andersen, Miami was on cruise control.
In other words, the Heat played as well as they needed to, but there's no way they played as well as they could have. Considering that the final result was a 110-87 Miami win, that's saying something.
It's easy to forgive the Heat for coasting against Milwaukee. The Bucks' inefficient offense and reliance on difficult shots hardly makes them a threat to do more than narrowly avoid a four-game sweep. If the Heat have an extra gear, they aren't going to need it in this series.
Plus, the Heat spent their highly successful regular season coasting. There's an awful lot of recent evidence that shows they don't need to exert maximum effort to win games.
That's fine for now. But at some point—probably against an opponent that actually belongs in the playoffs—the Heat will have to find that extra gear.
Bucks Fans Should Hope Ellis and Jennings Leave Town
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Both Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are likely to hit free agency this summer—Jennings as a restricted free agent and Ellis as an unrestricted free agent if he opts out of the final year of his deal.
And Bucks fans should desperately want both of them gone.
That might seem harsh, but consider the following:
—Ellis and Jennings were remarkably healthy all season long, totaling 162 games between them.
—The backcourt duo was surrounded by capable shooters like Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Dunleavy and J.J. Redick (after the trade deadline).
—Milwaukee's interior defense was awesome, featuring the brilliance of Larry Sanders and the solid support of Ekpe Udoh, Samuel Dalembert and even rookie John Henson.
In short, the Bucks were as good in 2012-13 as they possibly could have hoped with their current roster, and all they have to show for it is a 38-44 record and a date with certain death against the Heat.
Jennings and Ellis probably aren't winning players apart, but they're certainly not winning players together.
Undersized, shoot-first guards who don't defend are just fine for highlights. But they put a low ceiling on almost any team's potential.
Game 1 was an appropriate example of that proposition, as Ellis and Jennings tallied their points, but failed to involve their teammates (five assists combined) or play decent defense.
For discerning Bucks fans, the end of the Ellis-Jennings era can't come soon enough.
Houston Is in Big, Big Trouble
It would have been so easy to say "Houston, we have a problem." But because this is the postseason, it's time to dig deeper for analytical cliches.
Unfortunately, no matter how deep the Houston Rockets dig, they won't unearth a way to hang with the Thunder.
OKC beat Houston at its own game on Sunday, using athleticism to run past, jump over and power through the outmatched Rockets. The Thunder won by an eye-opening score of 120-91. And frankly, it wasn't even that close.
Jeremy Lin (four points, four turnovers and 1-of-7 shooting) was no match for Russell Westbrook (19 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds) on either end.
Serge Ibaka dominated inside and out, controlling the paint with three blocks and burying jumpers whenever Houston's defenders collapsed on Oklahoma City's penetration.
And, of course, Kevin Durant scored at will, pouring in 24 points on just 15 shots.
The list could go on, but it's more accurate to simply say that the Thunder—top to bottom—can play the Rockets' favored up-and-down game better than they can. And if Houston can't rely on its scattered style and transition offense to outscore its opponents, it has no chance.
What's worse, the Rockets' defense simply isn't stout enough to keep OKC from getting whatever it wants in half-court sets or on the break.
Nobody should be surprised by the way OKC was able to outclass Houston. Because while the Rockets led the NBA in pace during the regular season, the Thunder trumped their offensive efficiency rating by three-and-a-half points per 100 possessions.
So it stands to reason that a faster pace simply means even more efficient offensive possessions for the Thunder. In that sense, Houston is only quickening its own defeat by pushing the tempo.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, they're only constructed to play one way.
If it's any consolation for Houston fans, the Rockets are going to be leaving the playoffs in the same, familiar way they were able to qualify for them in the first place: in a hurry.