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Takeaways from Thursday's Playoff Games

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 26, 2013

Takeaways from Thursday's Playoff Games

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    Things can change quickly in the NBA postseason, and in the cases of the Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies, key wins may well have altered the courses of their respective series. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks looked like deer in the headlights.

    For the third straight time, the Miami Heat proved that the Bucks simply don't belong in the postseason. Try as they might, the Bucks couldn't stop the Heat from continuing their dominant run. Monta Ellis turned in a dud of a performance while the Heat bench exploded, leading Miami to an easy 3-0 series lead.

    Then, the Bulls put on a defensive display for the ages, limiting the Brooklyn Nets to 22.5 percent shooting in the first half. Thanks to a big third quarter from Luol Deng and just enough offense down the stretch, Chicago took control of the series.

    Finally, Zach Randolph came out of hibernation as the Grizzlies defended their home turf to notch their first win against the Los Angeles Clippers. With a gritty, physical victory and a couple of key strategic developments, it looks like Memphis has a chance to build on the momentum it created in Game 3.

    Though there were only a trio of games on Thursday, there were still plenty of important tidbits to take away as we hit the midpoint of the first round.

Monta Ellis Should Have Opted Out of His Contract at Halftime

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    I realize I have a tendency to be a little rough on Monta Ellis. Really, though, it's not just him; I'm harsh toward most players of his ilk. You know, the ones who play a low-percentage brand of offensive basketball, kill their teams on defense and generally prevent the creation of a winning atmosphere.

    Some players are capable of such spectacular highlights that they trick viewers into thinking style is substance. Ellis is the league's best example of that phenomenon.

    With the ability to opt out of his deal after this season, Ellis will almost certainly leave Milwaukee. After the way he played on Thursday, even the staunchest Monta defenders have to admit that the Bucks will be better off without him.

    Ellis shot just 2-of-9 from the field and made only one of his six three-point attempts. In 40 minutes, he had virtually no positive impact on the game. Of course, his defense was even worse.

    But I've ripped him for a few paragraphs, so I'll turn it over to some other folks who pointed out a couple of Ellis' key faults in Game 2.

    If I'm the @miamiheat, I'll take Monta Ellis jacking 3's all day. Dude shot 28.7% from 3 during the regular season #HEATvBUCKS

    — Josh Martin (@Josh_E_Martin) April 26, 2013

    Dear Monta, Ray Allen is your man. He's a good 3-point shooter, especially from the corner. So you might want to pay attention to him.

    — John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 26, 2013

    Allen surpassed Reggie Miller's NBA playoff record of 320 three-point makes, and it felt like Ellis' absent-minded defense was responsible for about 319 of those. Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea.

    Ellis mentally checked out of the game in its early stages. Luckily for Bucks fans, he probably won't be their problem after Miami wins Game 4 on Sunday.

Dwyane Wade Would Like to Forget Game 3

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    Ellis isn't the only guy who'd prefer to forget what happened on Thursday night. Dwyane Wade will also hope for some selective amnesia after making just one of his 12 field-goal attempts.

    Wade's struggles weren't from lack of effort, though, as his other statistical contributions clearly attest. With 11 assists, nine rebounds, five steals and two blocks, D-Wade was extremely active and at least found ways to help his team when his shot didn't fall.

    Ellis sure didn't do that.

    In another break from the perimeter-oriented failure of Ellis, Wade's misses came largely around the basket. On the night, he took only two shots outside of 15 feet.

    A disastrous shooting performance isn't all Wade would like to forget about his ugly Thursday, though. He also took a kicked ball to the face on one play in the fourth quarter, only to suffer another shot to the mouth on a drive moments later.

    After making 50 percent of his shots in Games 1 and 2, there's really no reason to view Wade's rough night as anything other than an aberration. And if all of his future poor showings result in easy wins, Miami will be in fine shape.

    Wade had the worst shooting night of his career (1-12) and the Heat still beat the Bucks by 13. Such is life for Miami.

    — Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) April 26, 2013

    (Final note: Ellis and Wade are compared here because Ellis himself equated his game to that of Miami's elite shooting guard. It's only fair they get equal time, right?)

Miami's Bench Is Ready

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    It was awfully easy to look good against the Bucks' embarrassingly disorganized defense on Thursday, but the Heat still have to be encouraged by the performance of their bench.

    Allen went off, drilling three after three from the corners en route to 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, and Chris Andersen spread his wings to the tune of 11 points and six rebounds in just 14 minutes.

    Even Norris Cole, by no means a favorite of the analytics community, displayed his real value as an on-ball defender. He scored seven points, but it was his hounding of Brandon Jennings that really gave the Heat a boost.

    Shane Battier missed both of his long-range attempts, but he was the only Miami reserve who didn't play a terrific game.

    The Heat's stars are essentially a known commodity at this point. Over the balance of a series, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade will play well. If Miami continues to get such excellent work from its bench, the Bucks probably won't be the only team it sweeps during this postseason.

The Bulls Don't Know How to Quit

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    After suffering a 17-point defeat and getting a particularly discouraging performance from a hobbled Joakim Noah in Game 1, it would have been understandable if the injury-plagued Chicago Bulls had folded up the tents in their series against the Brooklyn Nets.

    But that's not how Chicago does things.

    A renewed defensive intensity led to a 90-82 victory for the Bulls in Game 2. And then in a momentum-shifting Game 3, Tom Thibodeau's gritty club displayed a whole new level of stopping power.

    After falling behind by an early margin of 17-5 on Thursday, the Bulls completely shut the Nets down. Brooklyn made just one of its next 26 field-goal attempts.

    Read that last part again and let it sink in.

    Now, it warrants mentioning that the Nets are one of the least imaginative offensive teams in the NBA. They run a ton of isolations and rarely swing the ball from the strong side to the weak side in an effort to force defenses to scramble.

    In fact, the pick-and-roll is about as creative as P.J. Carlesimo's squad gets on offense.

    Because of that simplicity, the Bulls' next-generation D is perfectly tailored to take advantage of Brooklyn's sets. Chicago crowds the strong side more than almost anyone, and without multiple weak-to-strong actions, there's no way to take advantage of all of the aggressive help the Bulls send toward ball-handlers.

    And isolation drives are destined to fail against a Bulls scheme that makes sealing off the paint its top priority.

    In other words, the Nets' boring offense and the Bulls' inspired defense combined to create a near-perfect storm that produced the 1-of-26 stretch.

    Chicago used the final 17 minutes of the first half to show why it's capable of beating any team on a given night. Persistent offensive struggles will always make it hard for the Bulls to put together consistent stretches, and the injuries sure don't help either.

    But because they're capable of defensive performances like the one they put on in Game 3, the Bulls will never be an easy out.

Luol Deng Deserves Some Attention

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    Despite their stunning defensive performance in the first half, the Bulls only took a seven-point advantage into the break.

    But Luol Deng made sure the lead would hold up by taking control of the game in an inspired burst to start the third quarter.

    Deng is a machine. Lu has 12pts in the first 3:58 of the 3rd qtr. #NETSvBULLS

    — Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) April 26, 2013

    Machine, indeed.

    Deng led the NBA in minutes per game for the second straight year in 2012-13 and also earned his second All-Star nod. He's not a highlight generator, and it's possible that Carlos Boozer's 22 points and 16 rebounds will get more attention in the aftermath of Game 3.

    But Deng is a legitimate star on both ends of the court.

    Chicago couldn't have stymied Brooklyn's offense in the first half without him, and his third-quarter scoring helped stabilize the Bulls' hard-won lead.

    With a final line of 21 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in 44 minutes, Deng played one of the most inspired games of this young postseason.

    Thanks largely to him, Chicago now possesses a 2-1 series lead.

Memphis Is a Different Team When Z-Bo Is Right

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    Things hadn't gone Zach Randolph's way in the first two games of his Grizzlies' first-round series against the Clippers. Foul trouble limited the veteran forward to an average of 28 minutes per game during the Games 1 and 2.

    And in those minutes, Randolph wasn't quite his usual self, averaging just 13 points and six rebounds per game.

    In fact, it was reasonable to worry that Randolph simply suffered the natural decline brought on by age and a deterioration of his already limited athleticism. His post-All-Star-break numbers certainly contributed to that theory.

    In 27 games since the annual February exhibition, Randolph's numbers dropped across the board. He averaged just 14.9 points and 10.7 rebounds per game on 43 percent shooting. Each of those figures were higher before the break.

    But in Game 3, Randolph returned to form, totaling 27 points and 11 rebounds in Memphis' first win of the series.

    When Z-Bo is right, the Grizzlies offense gains a couple of additional options. Instead of having to rely on Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to create shots for everyone, Randolph can set up shop in the mid- and low-post areas. When he's at his best, he commands a double-team.

    If one doesn't come, he scores with regularity, as the Clippers learned on Thursday. In addition, he's a good enough passer to move the ball to shooters when the second man digs down on him.

    The Grizzlies had to win this game. Thanks to Randolph, they were good enough to do that.

Eventually, Great Defense Wins

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    Despite the consistently excellent defense of Tony Allen and Mike Conley, Chris Paul maintained total control over the first two games of the series between the Grizzlies and Clippers.

    That changed in Game 3, as Allen and Conley again took turns hounding Paul all over the floor, finally succeeding in taking the league's best floor general out of his game. Most importantly, coach Lionel Hollins used his defensive dynamos to slow Paul down without resorting to constant double-teams.

    When Paul is doubled, it opens up endless possibilities in the Clips offense, and he's more than happy to find the open man. Single coverage, if successful in containing Paul as a scorer, is really the way to handle L.A.'s point guard.

    Memphis finally succeeded in that effort.

    Paul shot just 4-of-11 from the floor, registered only four assists and turned the ball over five times.

    There's no shame in finally succumbing to the relentless pressure of the NBA's best defensive backcourt duo. In fact, it's impressive that CP3 managed to string together a pair of good games against the Allen-Conley tandem.

    It'll be no easy task, but if the Grizzlies can continue to bottle up Paul, the Clippers will find it extremely difficult to score enough points to be competitive. Everything L.A. does depends on Paul getting to his preferred spots on the floor, and his teammates need him to set them up.

    Paul is as ornery as they come, so he'll surely be itching to take it to Conley and Allen in Game 4. But the Grizzlies have a tactical advantage now, and Paul will only continue to wear down as Memphis sends a fresh pair of legs at him whenever he's on the court.

    Great defense from Conley and Allen might not be enough to swing this series, but it has certainly given the Grizzlies a better chance than they had just a couple of days ago.

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