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NBA Playoffs 2014: Assessing Top Big-Picture Storylines from Round 1

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NBA Playoffs 2014: Assessing Top Big-Picture Storylines from Round 1
Mark Humphrey

Given the excess of last-second finishes, overtime games that eat into our sleep schedules, and the slow erosion of our family's patience with our immersion in the two-month slog known as the NBA playoffs, it would be hard to blame anyone for failing to view this first week in a macro lens.

The first round has just been too damn good to concentrate on anything else.

In 2013, lower seeds won exactly 40 percent of their games in Round 1. Heading into Sunday's slate of contests, lower seeds had won half of their games. That increase is good for almost an extra game per seven-game series going to the underdog.

Natural regression says this trend will not continue. While it's ongoing, though, there have been few more exhilarating first rounds in my lifetime. The demise of the Pacers is a perpetual gut-wrenching Worldstar street fight you can't help but load over and over and over again. The Mavericks and Spurs may help basketball steal soccer's "beautiful game" moniker. The Grizzlies and Thunder are ensuring that will never actually happen.

Every series has at least one captivating storyline in its favor. Al Jefferson is playing on one leg in a series his team has no chance of winning. Nene, the supposed veteran leader and stabling force of the Wizards' locker room, may have cost his team the series with a momentary act of immaturity. The (alleged, as reported by TMZ) heinous and reprehensible behavior of owner Donald Sterling continues to be a black mark and distraction for a Clippers team that may be the best in the Western Conference.

The whole thing is so dizzying that I need to watch a Scott Brooks-designed offense to regain my equilibrium. With Sunday's games ongoing and more on tap throughout the evening, let's check in quickly on some big-picture stuff that will continue shaking out as Round 1 progresses.

 

Does Anyone Want the West?

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This could obviously be phrased in a more positive light: The West is every bit as good and deep as we thought during the regular season. We're all missing Phoenix's unique brand of basketball and the individual brilliance of Goran Dragic at the moment, but it's hard to say we're not all better off with the Internet darling sitting at home.

The West bracket shook out in such a way that every matchup is near-perfect. Memphis has one of the few men tough and smart enough to guard Kevin Durant in Tony Allen. Rick Carlisle is probably the only NBA coach who can match wits (or even outwit) Gregg Popovich. The Clippers and Warriors plain hate each other. All Houston and Portland do is play mind-numbingly exciting brands of basketball.

It has been a nonstop thrill ride—one that literally tests the bounds of everything we thought we knew about professional basketball. The NBA is an inherently predictable league. Forty-eight NBA champions have been No. 1 seeds. Nineteen Larry O'Brien trophies have gone to all other seeds combined. The expected process involves top-seeded teams—even in a conference separated by such thin margins—to eventually win out.

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What's been exposed through this first week is that the West isn't so much a monolith but a collection of very good but very flawed teams.

Popovich has been outcoached every step of the way by Carlisle. San Antonio allowed just 100.1 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, good for fifth-best in the league. The Mavs have torched the Spurs for 109.4 points with the same possession rate, a mark roughly equivalent to Dallas' season-long offensive explosion.

Translation: Carlisle has treated Pop's defense like a regular-season opponent. Dallas also had a ton of success in the first two games switching on pick-and-rolls to force Tony Parker into mid-range jumpers and to avoid the second and third passes that make the Spurs so lethal.

After finishing more than 20 percent of their possessions via spot-up jumpers during the regular season, the Spurs have done so on only 14.9 percent through three games, per Synergy (subscription required).

Dallas has done a brilliant job in particular of preventing corner threes. The Spurs averaged 6.6 corner threes per game during the regular season, but are averaging just barely more than half that during this series. I'm still picking San Antonio to advance and liked some of the improvements Popovich made in Game 3 offensively. But there is plenty of crow to be eaten for those who expected an expedient Mavericks departure. 

Few expected Oklahoma City to have an easy time with Memphis. The two sides went through a slugfest last season, and the Grizzlies were arguably the NBA's best team after Marc Gasol returned from injury.

Seeing Durant and Russell Westbrook shoot below 40 percent while Reggie Jackson has to come through with a career night to bail them out is another thing entirely. OKC head coach Scott Brooks remains unable to concoct a cogent offensive game plan. The Thunder are very solid if they're able to score off their first action, and Brooks has more than a few pet plays in his arsenal. But the offense goes from flowing to irreparably broken the moment that first action fails.

Case in point: Late in regulation Saturday night, Brooks called a smart pin-down screen designed to free Kevin Durant. Allen fought through the screen hard, and when Durant caught the ball, he was at the free-throw line without space to beat Allen off the dribble and without any help from teammates. The Thunder stood there like they were waiting for the guest of honor to arrive at a surprise party. 

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Durant held for a second, saw no one was doing anything and hoisted a contested mid-range jumper that clanked off the rim. Memphis is one of just a few teams that can present these problems for Oklahoma City. That said, it's not promising for Brooks, Durant or Westbrook that they're open to the same criticisms lobbed their way going back to 2012. 

The Clippers-Warriors series has played out largely as I expected. The Clippers' Game 1 loss was a bit of a surprise, but Andrew Bogut's continued absence is beginning to show Golden State's cracks. We'll have to see how the Clippers handle their current "distraction," which we won't be using this space to discuss, but L.A. should win this in five or six.

 

Are the Pacers Really in Trouble? Or Are the Hawks Just a Terrible Matchup?

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The quick answer: Yes. To both queries. Pinpoint whatever arbitrary cutoff point you want—the Danny Granger trade, the Andrew Bynum signing, Roy Hibbert's "selfish" comments, etc. 

The Pacers have been broken offensively for months. What we're seeing through these first four games against Atlanta has been the same thing that's been showing up since, at the very least, the All-Star break. Indiana scored 100.2 points per 100 possessions after the mid-February hiatus. The Pacers have scored 100.4 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs.

Hibbert is a broken shell of himself on both ends of the floor, which is only exacerbated by the Hawks' roster composition. If he's not finishing at the basket with efficiency—and, let's be real, he's never been that guy—and isn't able to protect the rim, Hibbert is basically a useless 7'2" pair of stilts. The Hawks are on pace to shatter the single-series record for three-point attempts and rarely have fewer than four guys capable of taking the three on the floor at any time.

Elton Brand, the one player against whom Hibbert can be Hibbert defensively, was basically excised from the rotation in Game 4. I'm unsure whether that's even the right call at this point. The Pacers have showed some level of offensive cohesion with the David West-Luis Scola front line—a look Frank Vogel completely ignored during the regular season—and Hibbert is so far in his own head he's an active minus.

Indiana is scoring 104.8 points per 100 possessions in minutes Hibbert is on the bench. That's roughly an average rate. When Hibbert is on the floor, the Pacers nosedive to 96.2 points over the same time frame—a level of putridity not even matched by the Sixers during the regular season.

Instead of going long minutes with Pero Antic and Mike Scott, two guys who can stretch the floor, as the ostensible center, Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer might want to ratchet up Brand's minutes in an effort to coax Vogel into playing Hibbert. (The Pacers have defended at roughly the same efficiency regardless of Hibbert's presence.)

There have been signs of Atlanta's strategy showing its flaws. Going 33-of-94 from beyond the arc over these last three games hasn't resulted in the most efficient offense. The Hawks actually have the fourth-worst offense in these playoffs from an efficiency standpoint. They've too often settled for bad threes early in the shot clock.

The advantage to having Hibbert limited is opening up the rim. Atlanta hasn't taken enough advantage of that, which may come back to haunt it over the course of the series. The Pacers remain favorites to make the Eastern Conference Finals, but that's mostly by default. No under-.500 team has won a first-round series in the best-of-seven format, and Washington and Chicago have flaws in their own right.

As a challenger to the Miami throne? Yeah, not so much right now. 

 

Burgeoning Playoff Star Heat Check

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Before the playoffs, I wondered if we'd see a Harrison Barnes/Kawhi Leonard-level breakout performance. Here is a look at a few of the players who have stood out the most in that regard.

 

Bradley Beal (SG, Washington Wizards): Beal was on the list of players I thought had the best chance of a breakout playoff performance, and he's done about as much as one can expect thus far. Heading into Sunday's afternoon matinee, Beal was averaging 21.3 points, 4.7 assists and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 46.7 percent from beyond the arc. The second-year guard carried Washington's offense at times down the stretch in Game 2 and Game 3, knocking down shots when John Wall's off-the-dribble creating was stagnant. Though not quite a plus on the defensive end, Beal has still managed to acquit himself well there. Solid start.

 

Jeff Teague (PG, Atlanta Hawks): Teague hasn't nearly been as good as the #PLAYOFFTEAGUE team would make you think. He's still wildly variant in terms of scoring efficiency—especially over the last two games. While his 22-point, 10-assist effort in Game 3 helped put the Hawks over the edge in the fourth quarter, it should go without saying that there are, indeed, four quarters in a basketball game. Negativity aside, though, Atlanta plays with this strange, incomprehensible confidence any time Teague has the ball in his hands down the stretch. #PLAYOFFTEAGUE is real, folks. Feel the magic.

Jonas Valanciunas (C, Toronto Raptors): Though down 2-1 to Brooklyn, the first round has been nothing but a win for the city of Toronto. Masai Ujiri holds the crown for world's coolest general manager. Toronto has had easily the best crowd of any playoff team thus far. And Valanciunas continues to haunt the Cavaliers while simultaneously tantalizing Raptors fans with his potential. Jonas is averaging a cool 14-14 nightly line against the Nets, and Toronto has destroyed Brooklyn on the boards when he's in the game. If Valanciunas ever figures out how to create shots more consistency, all the promise scouts spoke of before the 2011 draft could come to fruition.

 

Reggie Jackson (PG, Oklahoma City Thunder): This one comes with roughly 14 asterisks. Jackson was dreadful in the first three games against Memphis. Almost to the point of being unplayable. Brooks at times went with Derek Fisher over Jackson, and the latter had been so bad in his previous minutes that you couldn't fault the move. And, believe me, the Internet will do anything to fault Fisher. But Jackson battled through and had the game of his life Saturday night, which could either be a blip on a poor playoff radar or the spark of something special that could put the Thunder over the edge.

 

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