One Burning Question for Every NBA Playoff Team
The playoffs are a week underway, and each series is taking shape. And as they do, each team has certain questions.
Well, at least 15 teams have questions. One seems to have nothing but answers.
Some have questions about players, coaching, injuries and psychology. Some are more concerned about this year. Some are one step into the offseason.
The questions listed here are ranked according to their seeding in the playoffs.
8. Milwaukee Bucks: Why Did We Have to Open Our Big Traps?
Sometimes, the best way to make a point is with a metaphor.
One day, when I was a kid, I took my dog for a walk in this big open field. I took him off the leash and let him run around. Suddenly, he stopped running and lay down in the middle of the field.
Something clearly had his interest.
He would hit one front paw on the ground, then the other, rhythmically going and back and forth from left to right. I went over to see what was going on.
He had a baby bunny rabbit hopping back and forth between his paws. Hop, hop, hop...paw. Turn around, hop, hop, hop…paw. Turn around, hop, hop, hop…paw.
Sunshine thought he was playing. The poor little bunny was giving it everything he had to get away, but he was just a toy to be played with.
Then, tragically, Sunny mistimed a paw swipe and accidentally hit the poor little fella, snapping its spine and killing it. He was really sad about it, but that's not the point of the story.
The point of the story is that's what the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks remind me of in the first series.
The Bucks hop back and forth from paw to paw for the first half, staying alive and keeping it respectable, but we all know that sooner or later, LeBron James, aka LeBorg, is going to crush their spine and kill them.
The Heat were going to win this series regardless, but you can’t help but wonder if Ellis and Jennings flapping their gums didn’t make things just a little bit worse.
8. Houston Rockets: Is It Time for Linsanity?
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that Jeremy Lin is worth the Linsanity that literally launched him into worldwide fame. He’s clearly not. But you have to wonder if he can go off a little bit now that Russell Westbrook is out.
Going against Reggie Jackson has been a home run for Lin. He averages 23.5 points and 7.8 assists per 36 minutes with Jackson on the court, shooting 54.5 percent from the field. That’s in comparison to 14.7 points and 7.4 assists per 36 minutes on .560 shooting going against Westbrook.
Then you add in the nugget that with Westbrook out, the Thunder are going to need to lean on Kevin Martin to compensate for the lost offense (they give up 4.3 more points per 100 possessions with Martin on the court), and it adds to the possibility that Lin goes off.
If the Rockets can take advantage of Westbrook’s injury, they may be down but not out. They haven’t dropped a home game yet. If they can hold serve, they can even the series and have a chance at the shocking first-round upset.
7. Boston Celtics: Can They Avoid History?
The Boston Celtics currently have 225 points through the first three games. That’s an average of 75 points per game, which, if it stands, would be the worst offense in postseason history.
The current lowest average for a series (the 1955-56 Knicks lost a playoff game with 77 points, but it wasn’t a series) is the 2009 Detroit Pistons, who scored just 78 points per game in getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Celtics need to either win or score 88 points to avoid being the most anemic offense in postseason history. The way things have gone so far, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, as they haven’t even broken the 80-point barrier yet.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, this is only the second time that a team has failed to score at least 80 in each of its first three losses in a series.
As an aside, if both teams are swept, this would be only the second time in NBA history that neither Boston nor the Los Angeles Lakers win a postseason game. Both teams missed the playoffs entirely in 1994.
7. Los Angeles Lakers: Has Rome Fallen?
As far as this postseason goes, there aren’t any questions. The Lakers are done like burnt toast. But the manner in which they are getting toasted raises questions about the future.
Even Rome fell. It took a couple thousand years, but it fell. Over the last half-century, the Lakers have been the most dominant team in American professional sports. But after an offseason that was supposed to restore them to prominence, they barely made the postseason. And it’s been ugly since they got there. I’m talking spawn of Alfred E. Newman and Kathy Bates ugly.
According to Elias, their 31-point loss to the Spurs in Game 3 was the worst loss by a Lakers team at home in postseason history.
Yes, they were without Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, and no, Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris are not the same. But that’s the problem, and Game 3 proved why. Bryant and Nash will be a combined 74 next year. They are not the future.
Bryant, may have his torn Achilles completely heal before the season starts. Or he may not. Bryant is 34, and as you get older, the body doesn’t heal quite the same. Just ask Chauncey Billups. And yes, Bryant has a great will, but you can’t will your body to get better. Just ask Derrick Rose.
Dwight Howard is expected to sign with the Lakers (per Sam Amick of USA Today), but no one has ever accused Howard of not being able to change his mind about a thing. The way this postseason has gone, it very well may. Even if Nash and Bryant do come back, how many elite seasons can he expect from them?
This means that he has to hope that when the Lakers get their cap space in the offseason of 2014, they can build a team around him, which is going to take a year or two to jell, if they get the right pieces. And they are not getting any help from the draft since the Lakers have traded away every pick.
Sure, Kobe Bryant can try and stick around just so he can pass up Michael Jordan on the all-time list, but do we really want to see him hobbling around on one foot, playing way past his prime, just so he can do it? I know Bryant has emulated every part of Jordan’s career, but that doesn’t mean he needs to copy the Washington Wizards years.
Lakers fans probably don’t want to accept this, but there’s a strong chance that they are about to enter into the darkest period of their franchise’s history.
6. Atlanta Hawks: Where Have You Been?
The Atlanta Hawks were playing like they are done for the year. Counting both the regular season and postseason, they are 11-17 since March 1 and have been outscored by a total of 67 points. They had won three games against winning teams, the best of which was against the Brooklyn Nets.
The Hawks weren’t very good anyway, but with the team getting ready to be broken up, they were playing like it. They lacked enthusiasm, effort, energy, desire, hutzpah or whatever you want to call it. They were playing like a team that is just waiting for the offseason to arrive.
Then Game 3 happened, and it was unreal. It was as though they were trying to win all three games in 48 minutes and the next two besides. Their defense was absolutely crushing the Indiana Pacers, holding them to .272 shooting and just 69 points.
The Hawks have apparently decided to join the playoffs. Where have you been is part of the question. The rest of it is: Are you here to stay? Clearly with Atlanta, it's as much a matter of commitment as anything.
6. Golden State Warriors: Can Stephen Curry’s Ankle Hold Up?
Stephen Curry continues to ascend into elite point guard status. After setting the single-season three-point record, Curry has now led the Golden State Warriors to two straight wins after seeing their All-Star, David Lee, go down with an injury.
Curry has been outright beasting in the last two playoff games, averaging 30 points, 12 dimes and six boards in the two wins, shooting .525 from the field and a ridonkulous .471 from deep.
He is averaging 26.0 points per game overall, fourth in the postseason, and first with 11 assists per game His true shooting percentage is .606, while his player efficiency rating is 25.9. It's safe to say Curry is absolutely blowing up the postseason.
And he’s done this pretty much on one ankle. Which begs the question, will it hold up? What he’s doing is just impossible to say enough good things about, but he’ll need to hold up for the Warriors to pull off a massive upset without Lee.
5. Chicago Bulls: Who Needs Derrick Rose?
As Nate Robinson led the Chicago Bulls to their remarkable comeback, Steve Kerr facetiously queried, “Who needs Derrick Rose?”
And in Game 4, they sure didn’t. The Bulls got 52 points and 18 assists from the point guard spot.
Robinson’s 34 points were the most off the bench in a decade worth of postseason games. Kirk Hinrich played an hour. He was the oldest player to ever log 59 minutes in a postseason game.
But Robinson and Hinrich aren't the reasons why the Bulls are doing so well without Rose.
The Bulls are finding ways to win, even if it does take four hours to do so, because they are coached by Tom Thibodeau, and his teams seem to find ways to do things that shouldn’t be done. They stop winning streaks without Rose or half the team even if one is the second-longest streak in history. Even if stopping two 13-game streaks in the same season had never been done.
They do it because they play hard and smart. You don’t see a lot of missed assignments from them. You don’t see them missing their rotation or making a lot of stupid plays. Even Robinson has learned to play in the system. You certainly don’t see them quit.
The word “grit” seems to be the en vogue word to describe them. (If you don’t believe me Google, “Chicago Bulls grit.”)
The Bulls are becoming the San Antonio Spurs of the Eastern Conference. They have a coach that wins games. As long as Thibodeau is on the sideline, never, ever, ever count them out, even if they’re down 14 and there are three minutes left and they have half their team with five fouls and Derrick Rose still isn’t going to #return.
5. Memphis Grizzlies: Can Mike Conley Rise to the Occasions?
Mike Conley has been on the cusp of stardom for the last couple of years, never quite breaking out. Now, without Rudy Gay, he becomes the Grizzlies' best scoring perimeter player, but one who compliments their system much better because he’s willing to feed the ball inside to their strength.
Prior to the trade, Conley averaged 13.0 points and 5.8 assists per game. After Gay was traded, Conley averaged 16.4 points and 6.4 assists. During the postseason, he’s averaged 15.3 points and 9.3 assists through the first four games—numbers which are all the more impressive when you consider he is going up against Chris Paul, the Association’s best floor general.
Conley is finding his place among the elite point guards in the league. The Memphis Grizzlies are absolute beasts inside with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. They are not a question mark. They are an exclamation point. The question for the Grizzlies is, can Conley continue to rise to the occasion?
4. Brooklyn Nets: How Can Players on a Postseason Team Not Know Their Roles?
P.J. Carlesimo will get the blame for the Brooklyn Nets' struggles this postseason, and he pretty much deserves it. Whether Gerald Wallace should know what his role is on the team or not is not the point. It’s that you have a player who isn’t by any means lazy or troublesome who doesn’t know his role heading into the postseason.
It was summed up by this tweet from Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry.
Poor Brooklyn, they brought a Carlesimo to a Thibodeaux fight.— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) April 27, 2013
And this is why the P.J. in Carlesimo stands for “probably jobless.” His “temporary” status is highly unlikely to be changed to permanent after this series.
Truthfully, the Nets have had effort. They are down 3-1, but not so much because they’ve been outplayed as out-coached.
4. Los Angeles Clippers: Is Chad Paul Capable of Coaching the Clippers to the Finals
Unbeknownst to the good folks at State Farm, there is a third Paul born to assist. Chris and Cliff have a triplet named Chad, who is an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Clippers. Chad actually does more coaching than head coach Vinny Del Negro, though he does it by necessity, not choice.
Some try to vindicate Del Negro, pointing to his in-game decisions, which, if we’re being completely honest, aren’t really bad. But what they don’t realize is that the great coaches don’t do most of their coaching during the game.
Sure, guys like Tom Thibodeau, Gregg Popovich, George Karl and Doc Rivers do their own bit of yelling, hollering, talking and motivating during games. They call plays. They make adjustments. Thibodeau even actually plays defense. It’s not to say that in-game coaching isn’t important.
But there needs to be an actual system in place, and with the Clippers, it seems that the system is “give it to Chris Paul and see what happens.” The defense is “just kind of run around and try to keep the other team from scoring.”
Too much onus is being put on Chris Paul. He can’t be Chris and Chad at the same time. Essentially, it’s too much to ask a player to generate not only the offense, but also the entire offensive philosophy. The Clippers are embroiled in an intense series with the Grizzlies right now, all tied up at two games apiece. They will go as far as Chad and Chris Paul take them, and it will be in spite of Del Negro, not because of him.
3. Indiana Pacers: Will Fatigue Be a Factor for Paul George?
A good indication of player fatigue is when you see a steady drop in three-point percentage. The reason for that is that players, if they’re doing it right, are getting the push from their legs in their jump shot. As the season goes on and they get leg weary, they tend to lose that lift. This is even more true from deep, because the player needs more lift.
So, if you have a player with a steady and pronounced drop-off in his three-point percentage over the course of the season, it’s a sign he is getting fatigued—and you see that very much in Paul George. Over his first 20 games, he shot .393 from deep. Over his next 40, he shot .377. Over his last 22, he shot .300.
Paul George looks to be getting tired, and you see it in his postseason shooting too, where he’s 2-of-11 from downtown. He had a solid Game 2 from the field overall, but Games 1 (.231) and 3 (.364) were not very good.
And that’s going against Kyle Korver. Presumably the next two small forwards that George will be pitted against are Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. It’s not a knock on Korver to say he’s not in that company. It’s an understatement.
George is going to have to work much harder on both ends of the court to carry the Pacers through the next two series, but will he have the energy to do so?
3. Denver Nuggets: Can They Pull It Together?
The Denver Nuggets are on the verge of faltering once again. In nine of the last 10 years, they’ve made the postseason only to fall in the first round. They’ve changed coaches, changed teams and the only thing that doesn’t seem to change is their fortunes.
For seven years the “problem” was Carmelo Anthony, who couldn’t make it past the first round. For the last three years, it’s been that that they didn’t have a star. They have a ball hog for a star. They don't have a star at all.
The time for excuses and reasons is done. It’s time to pull it together. George Karl, possibly the Coach of the Year, needs to do some serious coaching. Denver is down two games to one, and historically when that is the case with the higher seed in the preliminary round, the series has gone to the lower seed 34 of 37 times.
Can Karl get the Nuggets to pull it together, or are they facing another first-round disaster? This would probably be the worst one yet.
2. New York Knicks: Can They Win Without Scoring Inside?
Boston’s anemic offense is giving New York a bit of a pass right now, but let’s not avoid giving the Knicks at least some credit for the Celtics' scoring woes. They are forcing the Leprechauns into jump shots, and the shots aren’t falling. It’s a winning formula.
But, bear in mind there’s the next series, which isn’t quite the same. In the next series, in fact, the Knicks are in danger of being “Celticed.” They are likely to be facing the Indiana Pacers, who, according to Synergy, are the best team in the league at defending the spot-up, which is what the Knicks live off of.
Indiana yields a miserly .88 points per play against it. The Knicks accrue 23.8 percent of their offense on it and are second-best in the Association.
The Knicks are all about hitting their shots. When they do, they win, and when they don’t, they lose. They are 18-24 when they have a lower field-goal percentage than their opponents and 36-4 when they outshoot them.
They are 35-4 when they shoot over .450 and 19-24 when they are under that benchmark.
Meanwhile, the Pacers have held a league-high 56 opponents below .450, and when they do, they are 42-14.
This suggests that if the Knicks are going to get past the Pacers, they aren’t going to do it living off the jump shot. Yet, that’s what they’ve been doing in the postseason. In fact, their 11.0 field goals in the restricted area are the fewest since the 2009 Detroit Pistons (who were also the most anemic scoring team if you remember).
The question for the Knicks is where do they get their points in the paint? Tyson Chandler has a high field-goal percentage, but that has more to do with his scarcity of attempts and frequency of putbacks than it does his offensive acumen.
2. San Antonio Spurs: The Door Is Open—Can They Walk Through It?
In 2011 and 2012, the San Antonio Spurs tied with the Chicago Bulls for most wins in the NBA, but in both cases, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference did not result in a trip to the NBA Finals.
Last season in particular, they were roughly as hot as the sun heading into the playoffs, having won 21 of their last 23 and riding a 10-game win streak. Then they won their first 10 games of the playoffs, sweeping through their first two opponents and then taking their first two over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Then suddenly, things collapsed. Oklahoma City took over in the second quarter of Game 3 and never looked back. Before they knew what happened, the Spurs dropped four straight and were packing their bags and heading home.
Now with Russell Westbrook out, the road appears to be open for the Spurs to get to the finals. The question is whether they will walk through it. This year could be the inverse of last year. The Spurs hobbled into the postseason, but they’ve been obliterating the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.
It may be all that stands in their way are the hobbled Warriors, led by an injured Stephen Curry, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who will try and play one-on-13 with Kevin Durant being their only reliable offensive option, sans Westbrook.
Can Tim Duncan claim his fifth ring and make his argument for his generation’s greatest player?
1. Miami Heat: Is One Plus One Still Two?
The Miami Heat are good. Not just good for this year good, but good for history good.
They have won 42 of their last 46. No team has ever had that successful a second half of the season. Ever. The Heat’s 38 wins in their last 41 games are the best in history. Next best is The Utah Jazz in 1996 with 36. And the Heat did that resting one, two or even three of their vaunted trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for much of the last two weeks.
In games where James played, they’ve won 35 of their last 36. Absorb that astounding piece of information in your thinking place before reading further. It is utterly ridiculous.
They have lost four games since January 16. That’s four losses in over 100 days.
In order to beat them in a series, an opponent is going to have to beat them four times in seven tries. If you are thinking it’s possible, yes, it’s possible. It’s also possible to fall out of an airplane and live, but I’m not going to bet on survival and jump out of an airplane.
You don’t have to be a fan of the Heat to appreciate what they’re doing. You don’t have to like it, but if you love the game, you have to respect it.
If my math is still correct, the rhetoric that changed from “he doesn’t have any rings” to “he only has one ring” is going to have make another transition to “he only has two rings.” LeBron James is leading a dynasty. Yes, he only has one ring now, but Michael Jordan only had one ring in April 1992.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder: Can They Win Without Westbrook?
Regardless of Kevin Durant’s remarkable Game 3 performance, let’s not dismiss Russell Westbrook as an important cog in the machine of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He is, after all, one of the top 10 players in the NBA, and losing top-10 players tends to have an impact.
Without dousing you in the specific numbers, according to NBA.com/STATS, the Thunder have a better true shooting percentage, effective field-goal percentage, rebound percentage, assist percentage, turnover percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and assist ratio with Westbrook on the court. They score seven more points per 100 possessions. They are quite simply a much better offense.
They have 34.3 percent of their shots come in the restricted area compared to just 30.6 percent when he's on the bench. Because of the kind of penetration Westbrook generates, the Thunder shoot better from the corner-three (44.9 percent to 41.1 percent) and above the break (37.2 percent to 33.2 percent.)
Westbrook's speed and ability to get to the rim provide the Thunder with more looks in the paint, and that in turn causes defenses to collapse on him when he breaks, issuing in a better three-point game for his kick. According to stats from STATS LLC (via Grantland), the Thunder score more than 1.2 points per play when Westbrook drives the ball, either through his shooting or scoring.
Surprisingly, he passes more than half the time he drives, a percentage which is above-average and contrary to his "shoot first" reputation. His teammates are more likely to hit their three pointers off of his passes.
It also makes the mid-range game far more effective. They shoot 43.3 percent to 37.0 percent. This is because the court is spread out with more scoring from inside the restricted area and outside of the three-point line.
The first game without their starting point guard bore this out. After a compelling start to the game, scoring 49 points in the first 15 minutes, the team overall floundered, shooting just .379. Durant did score a career-high 41, but he also scored a lot less efficiently, hitting just .433 from the field.
Durant may be able to successfully destroy the weaker defense of the younger Houston Rockets by just going Durantula on them, but will he be able to take on the Spurs single-handedly, or the Miami Heat? If he does, it will be one of the great postseasons in history.