Though often criticized for its diluted field, the first round of this year's NBA playoffs has provided an unusual amount of drama and potential upsets. With so many top seeds struggling in the early stages of the postseason, there are legitimate questions as to how many championship contenders truly exist.
Apart from Miami-Charlotte, every series looks competitive enough that it could swing in either direction at this point. Taking a deeper look at the closest matchups, here are a few X-factors that could make the difference in their respective series.
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies (Series tied 2-2)
X-Factor: Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder
Memphis' grind-it-out style stifled a Russell Westbrook-less Thunder team in last year's Western Conference Semifinals, as the Grizzlies suffocated Kevin Durant into an inefficient shooting series. However, even with Westbrook back this year, Memphis has largely halted OKC's isolation-heavy offense.
The Thunder have had problems combating Memphis' primary lineup, which includes two paint-clogging bigs in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. With no need to guard offensive black holes Thabo Sefolosha or Kendrick Perkins, the Grizzlies have suffocated the vital space needed to create one-on-one situations for Durant and Westbrook.
As Grantland.com's Zach Lowe illustrated before Game 4, the Thunder had few offensive alternatives to combat Memphis' defensive game plan:
Bottom line: The Grizz are going to squeeze the floor on Oklahoma City’s stars, and the Thunder offense has no backup plan once the first option fails. That leads to awful shot selection, especially from Westbrook, but Brooks will face an offseason reckoning if the Thunder bow out here.
Memphis' plan worked to perfection again in Game 4. However, no one accounted for Reggie Jackson exploding and saving Oklahoma City from facing a daunting 3-1 series deficit. Jackson's 32 points more than doubled Durant and Westbrook's combined production and set a new career high:
Going forward, Jackson must remain an integral part of the rotation. After playing no more than 24 minutes in any of the first three games, Jackson should continue to receive somewhere around the 37 minutes he played in Game 4.
Jackson is not the first option in the Oklahoma City offense, of course. But the Thunder should consider playing more lineups with Jackson and Westbrook, especially when Tony Allen is on the floor for Memphis and Sefolosha's defensive presence is less essential. The scoring threat Jackson provides could enable the Thunder to escape a feisty first-round series.
No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Dallas Mavericks (DAL leads 2-1)
X-Factor: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
On paper, the Spurs should have romped over the defensively challenged Mavericks this series. However, unexpectedly competent defense from the Dallas backcourt of Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis has flipped this series on its head, powering the Mavs to a stunning 2-1 series lead.
For San Antonio to reclaim control, Manu Ginobili stands out as someone who must catalyze the offense. In spite of his clutch layup that nearly won Game 3, Ginobili has mostly been inefficient this series. He has shot 4-of-14 and 4-of-10 in two of the games, and he turned the ball over six times in the Game 2 debacle.
Nevertheless, Ginobili has proven to be an offensive sparkplug, creating spacing for others. Ginobili easily had the best plus-minus rating (6.2) of San Antonio's regular rotation players this season, about a half-point better than Kawhi Leonard. In fact, the Spurs have totally imploded without Ginobili on the floor:
When Tony Parker cooled off following a 12-point first quarter, Ginobili kept the Spurs breathing in Game 4. Ginobili seized control of the offense as Popovich sat Parker for long stretches in the second half, even acting as the Spurs' primary ball-handler and distributing five assists.
With Dallas forcing San Antonio into a plethora of inefficient mid-range shots, Ginobili looks like the catalyst who could free up the Spurs offense and create better looks at the rim and beyond the arc. In a matchup that evokes memories of the mid-2000s, the 36-year-old veteran must recapture his form from that era to stave off a surprising upset bid.
No. 1 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 8 Atlanta Hawks (Series tied 2-2)
X-Factor: David West, Indiana Pacers
The Pacers offense was one of the league's most scrutinized and criticized units during Indiana's second-half malaise. After the All-Star break, the Pacers' putrid 100.2 offensive rating bested only Philadelphia's D-League-quality roster.
While the declines of Roy Hibbert and Paul George have been well-documented, David West has also not been free from guilt. West's shooting percentages plummeted after the All-Star break, per Basketball-Reference.com, which was part of a teamwide short-circuiting.
However, West may have given Indiana a stay of execution with his performance in its Game 4 win on Saturday. With 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting, West effectively kept the Pacers offense afloat during a first half that could have been much more lopsided:
More than his mid-range game, West provides an attitude and toughness that has been noticeably missing from a languid Pacers crew. As SI.com's Matt Dollinger notes, West may be the key toward propelling Indiana out of its hibernation:
West might have been struggling just as much as any Pacer at the time (well, any except Roy Hibbert), but the bruising power forward’s toughness and relentless drive are impossible to question. Since coming to Indiana in 2011, the 33-year-old has been a veteran presence and big brother to the team’s young, talented nucleus. He’s set a standard with his intensity on the floor and professionalism off it. And when the Pacers need a big bucket in the fourth, the sure-handed big man is usually the players the team turns to.
Indiana has been stranded at rock bottom for weeks. West might be the only one strong enough to pull them up.
West is not a No. 1 scorer at this point in his career, but he must become a reasonable facsimile of one for the rest of this series. Also, Atlanta bigs Pero Antic and Paul Millsap provide terrific offensive spacing, which have caused obvious problems for the lead-footed duo of West and Roy Hibbert.
However, if West jump-starts the Pacers offense, that will more than compensate for whatever problems the Hawks cause on the defensive end.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats, unless otherwise noted.
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