So much for the 2013 NBA playoffs being a mundane coronation of the Miami Heat as repeat champions.
After getting off to a dreadful start, ripe with offensively benign basketball and non-competitive series, the first round of this year’s quest for the Larry O’Brien Trophy picked up in a big way this week.
The Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets both went on torrid runs while trying to become the first team to ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit and advance to the next round. Unfortunately for them, both of these teams fell short.
Meanwhile, injuries proved boundless, as stars like Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and David Lee all went down in Round 1—and that’s without even mentioning the Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant injuries that occurred before the playoffs began.
The rash of injuries has become a major topic of conversation, with Miami’s Shane Battier noting that it might be time to shorten the regular season as a preventive measure. "I think 60 is the perfect number," Battier said. "I've said that for many years. It's a long season."
Nevertheless, calling for changes to the regular season won’t help this year’s playoff crop. And despite the bevy of ailments going around the league, Sunday begins a Round 2 that should be absolutely captivating. Injuries may prove disappointing to the star lovers among NBA fans, but the adjustment that teams have made as a result of those losses has been arguably more notable.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a complete preview for both of Sunday’s nationally televised contests.
Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder
When: Sunday, May 5 (1 p.m. ET)
Where: Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City
Though they both won their respective first-round series in six games, there couldn’t have been two more different stories than Oklahoma City and Memphis.
The Grizzlies, with their backs against the wall after falling down 2-0 against the Clippers, roared back with a dominant four-game winning streak to close out the series. They also won each of the series’ final four games by more than 10 points, becoming the first team in league history to do so after falling behind 2-0.
Though their spacing issues were still present—and they’ll certainly be there against Oklahoma City as well—Memphis was able to rebound, thanks in large part to a rejuvenated Zach Randolph. The enigmatic forward flailed trough the series’ first two games—scoring 13 points in each while getting out-battled by Blake Griffin—but Randolph found himself again right as Memphis peaked, averaging 24.8 points and nine rebounds over the series’ final four games.
When Randolph and Marc Gasol were on the floor together, the Grizzlies averaged an astounding 116.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. That number would have eclipsed the Heat’s league-best number during the regular season by almost six points, and it dwarfs Memphis’ 101.7 points per 100 possessions from the regular season.
It seems the Grizzlies have recaptured what makes them tick—pounding the ball deep into the paint with Randolph and Gasol, with the latter helping Mike Conley with distributing responsibilities as well.
Those are stats that have to be awfully disconcerting for the Thunder, who are still struggling with the loss of Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City was able to scrape by the upstart Rockets in Round 1, but there are plenty of questions about the team’s long-term viability without their star point guard.
While it’s true that the Thunder kept a very good 107.7 points per 100 possessions rate against Houston without Westbrook, it’s at least worth noting that the Rockets’ defense was dreadful this season. And it's also worth noting that Oklahoma City too often relied on the transcendent Kevin Durant, who scored 36 or more points in three of the four games without Westbrook in this series. The offense look stagnant and without an answer, as Reggie Jackson was plugged in for his All-Star teammate and was essentially told “go do your best Russ impersonation.”
That changed somewhat in Game 6, though, as Kevin Martin came through with a much-needed 25-point performance. But Martin was seemingly only effective in small-ball sets, with Nick Collison playing a vital role in freeing him up for open looks.
Collison won’t be able to get as many minutes in this series because Memphis is one of a select few teams left in the NBA where Kendrick Perkins’ big-bodied bullying tendencies are desperately needed. Perkins played only four minutes on Friday, indicative of Scott Brooks’ need for small-ball against Houston.
That philosophy will change on Sunday. Can Oklahoma City score with Perk in the game and with Westbrook out? That question will linger over this entire series.
Indiana Pacers at New York Knicks
When: Sunday, May 5 (3:30 p.m. ET)
Where: Madison Square Garden in New York City
Speaking of teams facing a host of questions about their offensive viability, the Pacers and Knicks can’t exactly be thrilled with the way they each finished out Round 1.
Vaunted during the regular season, the Knicks’ three-point shooting went down a well against Boston. They made only a third of their shots from distance in the six-game series, looking more like the midseason malaise Knicks team than the late-season juggernaut that they became.
For New York, it comes down to the team’s disconcerting reliance on isolation sets. According to Synergy Sports, 27.1 percent of Knicks plays that ended in a field goal attempt, free throws or a turnover began in isolation—the most of any playoff team. They averaged just 0.73 points per possession in those sets, which was the worst of anyone in Round 1 by a significant margin.
So, in other words, New York’s most heavily used sets were also its worst. Unsurprisingly, that comes down to the two men who carried the Knicks down the stretch—Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith.
Long boasting the reputation as an offensive black hole, Anthony was particularly iso-heavy against the Celtics. ‘Melo was responsible for over 53 percent of the Knicks’ isolation attempts during Round 1, per Synergy, as Boston continually gave him opportunities on the right elbow—usually against Brandon Bass.
Anthony was dreadful on those attempts, at just 0.70 points per possession, and Frank Vogel will look to force him into similar situations in this series. Indiana was the third-best team in the league against isolation plays during the regular season, a key cog in its best-overall standing. The David West-Paul George combo did a very nice job on Anthony during the regular season, and ‘Melo should see a rotation of that duo again on Sunday.
That being said, the Pacers have their own host of concerns—particularly with George. The first-time All-Star disappeared in Indiana’s Game 6 triumph over the Hawks, finishing with four points on 2-of-10 shooting. George shot 41.8 percent in the series—right around his regular season average—but the consistency was just not there. He shot below the 40 percent mark in four of the six opening round games, with his overall percentage only being buoyed by going 18-of-28 in Games 2 and 5.
While the appeal of George is that he’s an all-around brilliant player, the Pacers are going to need a go-to scorer against New York. This isn’t a patched-together group of expiring contracts like Atlanta. The Knicks have visions of conference-championship glory, no matter how misguided it may be. (Spoiler: These teams are fighting to lose to Miami.)
Indiana knows what it’s getting from West and, to an extent, George Hill. Paul George has to step up in this series and be the man, though, or the Pacers might not get the rematch against the Heat that they so desperately want.