No matter whether the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks can pull off an unheralded upset against the Indiana Pacers, their offense has been one of the most fun to watch in the playoffs. Unconventionally, for sure.
"Watching the NBA growing up, I knew it was a whole lot of isolations and one-on-ones, but (coach Mike Budenholzer) runs a whole different style and I'm liking it," Hawks point guard Jeff Teague said.
Most of the time, the Hawks have no post-up player, and the NBA's offensive staple—the pick-and-roll—is not that often used either. Instead, to try to make the larger Pacers open up the paint, Budenholzer has all five players circumnavigate the outside—some even run behind the point guard when he attacks for wider spacing and shot opportunities—and he stresses constant movement and quick decision-making. Sharpshooter Kyle Korver's presence has also helped with spacing, and the Hawks lead the playoffs with 11 three-point makes per game, while only collecting eight offensive rebounds per game. If you miss it, get back and defend—simple as that.
"If you don't have the shot, drive it, and if you don't drive it, pass it, and that's what we do," Teague said. "It's a lot of ball movement and player movement. We didn't move the ball well in the fourth quarter of (Game 4's Pacers' win), and that's not us. When we move the ball, when we swing the ball on the perimeter, everybody is moving, we're really good."
With the outside play, Budenholzer even has his big men, Paul Millsap and Pero Antic, pick-and-pop. Interestingly, coming into this season, Millsap had only made 31 threes from 2006 to 2013. This season, he had 76, and he's shooting 44.4 percent from downtown in this series. And Antic, at 6'11", has been the best stretch-5 in the playoffs, totally reconfiguring the Pacers' defensive anchor, Roy Hibbert, to guard the perimeter.
"(Antic) is definitely a unique player," Teague said. "He's a really good defender and then he's able to stretch the floor like he does. He can put the ball on the floor and make plays. He's a good passer. He's an all-around really good player, and that's huge."
Of course, Teague himself has been the one making everything go on the court. Teague, a blur with the basketball who's averaging 19.5 points and 6.5 assists per game in the playoffs, said he's "still growing as a player," combining elements from three top point guards.
"I like Steve Nash, the way he penetrates and keeps his dribble alive, and (Rajon) Rondo, just his versatility—he can push the ball and play in the half court," he said. "And Chris Paul's overall ability, just to be an attacking guard in pick-and-rolls."
So what's the game plan for the rest of the series? If ain't broke, don't fix it. The Hawks will continue with their unorthodox offensive attack.
"Just doing the same thing we've been doing," Teague said. "I wouldn't say we've surprised (the Pacers). I think they knew that we were an explosive offensive team. We beat them twice in the regular season and I think they knew that we were going to be talented."
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The 20th anniversary of a historic upset
With the Hawks-Pacers series in mind, this year's playoffs mark 20 years since the Denver Nuggets made NBA history by becoming the first eighth seed to upset a No. 1 team, the Seattle SuperSonics. While the Sonics boasted the best regular-reason record at 63-19, led by headline names Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf, the Nuggets were the youngest team in the league at the time, featuring Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
In the clinching Game 5—the Nuggets initially trailed 2-0—Mutombo had eight blocks and 15 rebounds. When the game ended, Mutombo famously dropped to the court holding the ball above his head, crying. He later said, "I just cannot believe we won this game." Mutombo's 31 blocks is still an NBA record for the most in a five-game playoff series.
The future: John Wall and Bradley Beal
It's still the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson show as far as best backcourts are concerned, but closing in are Wall and Beal. With the Washington Wizards up 3-1 on the Chicago Bulls, Wall is averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 assists per game, and Beal is the team's high scorer at 20.5 points.
"The biggest thing that I love about them is they never get rattled, no matter the situation is," teammate Al Harrington said. "They play like their seasoned vets at such a young age. They still can get a lot better, but I just like the way they carry themselves, the way they work, they're very professional."
Wall has been a terror in transition in the playoffs, thanks to his 2.8 steals per game. He became a better team defender this season, finishing fifth-best in points per play allowed from the pick-and-roll ball-handler (0.648), according to Synergy Sports. You see his defensive appetite in the playoffs when he picks up his man near half court and gets low and wide, claps his hands and looks focused in an active stance. Where he still needs to improve is with his midrange jump shooting—a work in progress as he shot 36.6 percent from that area during the season, per NBA.com.
"He has to, because so many guards go under on the pick-and-roll against him," Harrington said. "Now he's locked in with midrange stuff—the floaters, the little jumpers and stuff like that. And that's what John is developing now. He's putting a lot of work in. I watch him every single day do certain little drills where he shoots the midrange jumpers, and now he's making them in the game."
As for Beal, while he's always had the spot-up three-point shot down, he's getting better at cleverly working off of his man when a screen is about to be set. He's skilled at backdoor cutting and quick backwards pedaling at the flip of a switch to get open. Overall, he doesn't waste his steps; he maximizes his reaction time, footwork and setup to get open—and, most importantly, he's gaining confidence.
"When he misses a couple shots in a row, he believes in himself that he's going to come back and knock three or four shots in a row," teammate Chris Singleton said. "He can hit the big shot."
Overall, the future is real bright for this duo.
"I can see them both being All-Stars starting together playing in the All-Star Game for probably the next 10 years," Harrington said. "But the key is that they can stay together. I think they'll be possibly playing for some championships."
Inside perspective on the Heat
When the Miami Heat were involved in a three-team trade in January and acquired Toney Douglas from the Golden State Warriors, it satisfied a longtime desire for the two-time defending champs.
"The Heat were trying to get me ever since I came out of Florida State (in 2009), and championship teams don't really make trades unless they really want to or need to," the defensive specialist and skilled three-point shooter said. "It's a blessing to be able to join a championship team and try to win a title."
Douglas took Bleacher Report inside what it's like to experience the Heat's championship culture for the first time, their staple pick-and-roll defense and how he stays ready for his potential big moment in the playoffs.
On LeBron James and the Heat: "He's a winner, man. He's always in the gym working out. He leads by example, you know when he's serious. When he talks, everybody listens—from the coaching staff to the players to everybody because he has a winning mindset. And here, the whole Miami Heat organization, team, franchise is a win-attitude team, and if you don't come here to work and you don't have the same mindset as these guys have, you just don't need to be here. It's perfect for me because I have that same mindset and I've always been a hard worker."
On Erik Spoelstra: "He's a filmaholic. Before practices, he loves to point out the details of what we need to be doing—the little things on offense and the defensive end. When we're in practice, we work on it. He makes sure that we're well-prepared for our opponent. That's how he is; I love it."
On Heat's P&R defense: "It's good because we have players like Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen, Greg Oden, Udonis Haslem. They all have a great work ethic and they're in real good shape to be able to do that, because as a big on this team with the way our defensive schemes are, you've got to be in shape, you've got to be able to move laterally with guards and you've got to be able to contain and get back. They're the real key to our defense. I give my hat out to all our bigs because they help the guards out a lot."
On defensive work with fellow point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole: "We're all here for one goal, man. With Mario, if I see anything that he needs to do better on the defensive end or in games or in practice, I'll tell him, and just vice versa. And I'll tell Norris, and he'll tell me. We're all athletic and quick and we're all chasing one dream, and that's to do whatever it takes to win."
On staying ready: "As soon as I came here, the coaches are always saying, 'Here, being with the Miami Heat, you always got to stay ready because your number will be called.' I'm always staying ready because you never know—things happen, people get hurt. Everyone on the 15-man roster they need. At some point, everybody is going to have their special moment."
Oh, boy! Troy Daniels delivers
Sixty-for-sixty-two from three-point range. That's what Daniels shot in one workout last preseason with the Houston Rockets, according to his agent, John Spencer, before being one of the last cuts on the team.
"He made 30 straight, missed one, made 30 straight again and then missed another one," Spencer said. "He can shoot it—and he's got the balls to shoot it, too."
That no-fear mentality bode true in Game 3, when Daniels saved the Rockets' season with a three-pointer in the closing seconds of overtime, preventing his team from going down 0-3. After shooting 3-for-6 from downtown in that contest, Daniels was 4-for-5 in Game 4. While the Rockets are down 1-3 in the series against the Portland Trail Blazers, he's been a needed scoring spark off the bench to help keep his team close.
So how does a guy who shoots that well from beyond the arc not get drafted last summer and only end up on an NBA roster, the Rockets, in late February after he averaged 21.5 points in the D-League?
"Teams like Charlotte said he was too small to play in the league," Spencer said. "They said they wish he was a point guard at 6'4", but he didn't have good enough ball-handling skills to play the point."
But Spencer knew that Daniels' three-point specialty, defense and work ethic—"He's one of those guys that just will not give up," he said—would find him a place in the NBA. He first needed to convince Daniels, after he got cut by the Bobcats and Rockets last preseason, not to accept a $70,000 offer to play in Australia.
"I told him that he was going to get cut (by the Rockets), but he would play in the D-League, and if he played as well as he should play he would be on their roster. And he did," Spencer said. "I had to convince him to take a sacrifice on the money because all the kids, all they see is the money. I had to tell him, 'If you go to Australia, the NBA doesn't send too many scouts down in Australia. You get lost in the shuffle.' Troy stayed true."
While the Bulls, Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic were all interested in Daniels in February, the Rockets needed offense after waiving the seldom-used Ronnie Brewer. Daniels is currently signed to a prorated minimum of $158,588, per Spotrac.com, and he has a contract for next season with a non-guaranteed clause that ceases on Jan. 6.
That's not the point, Rockets
During the season, the Rockets seemed to never feel settled with their point-guard situation. In fact, they reportedly wanted to acquire Rajon Rondo, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
Well, down the stretch in Game 4, Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley made costly mistakes—and perhaps that left a big dent in the Rockets' front office. With 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Lin dribbled into a corner on the opposite baseline where there was traffic, and Mo Williams caused him to fumble the ball. Williams then knocked down a key three-pointer. Then with two seconds remaining in overtime, Beverley dribbled right into a double team and Wesley Matthews cut him off for the steal. Game over.
While Lin and Beverley combined for five turnovers, Williams and Damian Lillard only had two—and they accounted for the four final points of the Blazers' Game 4 win (all free throws). There's still another game for Lin and Beverley to come back around.
Dallas' pick-and-roll duo
After point guard Steve Nash departed Dallas, the following years saw Dirk Nowitzki start alongside Devin Harris, then Jason Kidd and Darren Collison last season. But none were as good from three-point range as Steve Nash. That's why Jose Calderon (44.9 percent from downtown this season) has been a huge assist for Nowitzki (nearly 40 percent) and the Mavericks.
Their dual threat as shooters in pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops has created great ball movement and floor spacing, enabling more room for the explosive Monta Ellis to find creases in the San Antonio Spurs' tight-lipped defense.
"(Calderon and Nowitzki) definitely put pressure on defenses," an NBA scout said. "Then match that with Monta's playmaking and driving ability, and (the Mavericks) can be an offensive force at times."
What will next game bring for Harrison Barnes?
That's been a big question among the Warriors contingent all season long. One night, he'll score in double-figures; the next, he'll notch only a few points.
In the Warriors' Game 4 win to tie up the series against the Los Angeles Clippers, Barnes had 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting. While many of his points came in the blowout part of the fourth quarter, two of his makes were catch-and-shoot three-pointers. While Barnes is a finesse, cerebral player and sometimes overthinks, it was good to see him play well within the flow of the game.
It was an overall adjustment year for Barnes—he dealt with a foot and heel injury at the start of the season and adjusted to coming off the bench with Andre Iguodala in the fold—but now it's crunch time. He needs to bring it again in Game 5 for the Warriors, who've lacked second-unit offensive production all season.
The Tony Awards for defense and rebounding
It's 6'4" vs. 6'9". That's the matchup between Tony Allen and Kevin Durant, respectively—the key individual one defensively for the Memphis Grizzlies against the league's best scorer. In Game 4, while the Grizzlies lost, Allen helped hold Durant to 5-for-21 shooting. Overall in the series, which is tied up at 2-2, Durant is a negative-10 when Allen is on the court, and a plus-12 when he's on the bench, per NBA.com.
Allen is smart at constantly putting an arm on Durant to establish contact, and he has the court sense to see surrounding offensive movement at the same time. Allen is also a quick leaper, which helps when contesting the uncanny 7'5" wingspan of Durant when he launches shots. Sometimes, though, Allen is late on pick-and-rolls and Durant's clever back-door cutting. The Oklahoma City Thunder star simply missed some gimmes in Game 4.
In addition to maintaining his ground defensively as a shorter guy, Allen had a ridiculous 10 offensive rebounds in Game 4. Get this: In the series, he's averaging nine rebounds per game—more than bigs Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. And Allen's career average is only 3.1 boards per game.
The Nets' power point-guard punch
The Brooklyn Nets had a lot of success this season with their dual point-guard starting backcourt featuring Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston. Now, the Toronto Raptors are giving the Nets a taste of their own medicine by going with point guards Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez in the fourth quarter. That was the case in the Raptors' Game 4 win, tying up the series.
With starting swingman Terrence Ross basically being benched at this point—he's only averaging 2.5 points in the series—Vasquez is not only making plays (7.8 assists average), but he's also scoring (11.3 points) alongside Lowry and DeMar DeRozan down the stretch. Notably, Lowry and Vasquez together have the highest plus-minus for any Raptors two-man lineup in the series (plus-40, per NBA.com).
Both point guards are hard-nosed on both ends of the court, especially Lowry with his unique ability to draw offensive fouls. And Vasquez's 6'6" size gives him an advantage at times collapsing the defense and making crisp passes. He only had one turnover in Game 4.
Inside modern-day scouting practices
For starters, to upload information on teams and players' tendencies, every NBA team's scouts now use FastModel Sports' two key programs: FastDraw (offensive play highlights) and FastScout (written team/player reports). The latest is FastModel on computer tablets, predominately the iPad, and Synergy Sports has become the industry standard for licensed video.
So what could be next?
"Allowing us to download video on Fast rather than us using different types of companies or systems to break down and watch video," an NBA scout said.
As far as how teams manage their scouting databases once the information is relayed by their scouts, there are three different methods. The most common is a custom-built program by the team that lives on a private, internal server, which cost between $50,000 and $60,000 to design, and around $20,000 per year to maintain. Those teams include the Bobcats, Cavaliers, Hawks, Magic, Mavericks, Raptors, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, Trail Blazers, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz.
"A third of the league builds their own very high-end, very sophisticated, very comprehensive internal database, which you can't get into," another scout said. "They'll tier it. The GM can see everything. The assistant GM can see most. But the scouts won't read the GM's notes."
The second way is no database—simply involving e-mails, Word documents and Excel spreadsheets shared among the front office. And the third, which is the trendiest, is a password-protected online account through basketball website RealGM.com. Eleven teams are now involved, including the Nets, Pacers, Warriors, New Orleans Pelicans and New York Knicks.
"It’s the depth of information, and the quality of our tools and reports that set RealGM apart," said Todd Essman, RealGM's chief operating officer.
But one NBA scout was surprised to hear that teams use RealGM, saying, "I'm really not sure why they would for security purposes." To note, at the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a big conversation piece centered around "high-profile hacks," according to another scout, in the wake of a breach of credit and debit card data at Target that may have affected as many as 40 million shoppers.
"NBA teams were saying that they feel like that could be the next big embarrassment, like if somebody downloads all your scouting files and tracks them or leaks them to Deadspin," the scout said.
But Essman made it clear, "We have never had a security issue. We practice the protocols that big financial institutions do so everything is as safe as an online banking session."
While internal databases have been around longer, RealGM's scouting service—which also has a salary cap and player transaction software product—first arrived during the 2011-12 season. Each team's cost per season is between $30,000 and $40,000, and the overall price tag is about $50,000 less than an internal database over a five-year span, according to a scout.
Essman said RealGM added six teams this season and have more interested heading into 2014-15.