So, it seems the second round of the 2014 NBA playoffs is taking after the first—only the complete and total opposite.
While the first round fractured families and halted the American economy with a never-ending series of euphoric binge basketball, you'd have been perfectly fine going to bed by 9:30 p.m. ET the last two nights. Three of the first four games were over by halftime. The other was Wizards-Pacers, a snoozefest only decided by six points because Indiana hit a barrage of garbage-time threes.
The beautiful offensive music of Houston-Portland or bi-nightly overtimes of Oklahoma City-Memphis this was not. The Spurs, Clippers, Wizards and Heat all won with ease and looked decidedly like the better teams doing so.
Luckily, the NCAA tournament was last month. The NBA playoffs are decided by a series of chess moves, actions and counter-actions designed to nullify what's working for your opponent.
Wednesday night will mark the first opportunity for Scott Brooks and Frank Vogel to make those necessary adjustments. The Thunder and Pacers both face absolute must-win scenarios. Only a handful of teams in NBA history have come back from down 2-0 after losing the first two games at home.
A win for the Clippers or Wizards in Game 2 and we might as well press the proverbial simulate button on those series. Let's take quick look at both contests and make some educated forecasts sure to go wrong this evening.
Washington Wizards at Indiana Pacers (7 p.m. ET, TNT)
You almost have to feel bad for Roy Hibbert at this point. The Pacers' All-Star center is in the midst of the worst slump of his career and has become easily the league's most derided playoff figure. There's an icky level of schadenfreude that's creeped into discussing Hibbert's very legitimate struggles, which would make me want to defend him if that were remotely possible.
In Hibbert's first 498 games as an NBA player (regular season and playoffs), he finished with zero points and zero rebounds in a game four times. Three of those instances were in his rookie season. Hibbert has goose-egged on scoring and boards three times in the past month alone, including Monday's Game 1 embarrassment.
While his struggles could partially be attributed to the Atlanta Hawks' ability to stretch the floor and take him away from the rim, the Wizards are more traditional. Marcin Gortat and Nene are both good mid-range shooters, but neither stretch the floor beyond the arc. Randy Wittman also typically stations one of his two bigs, usually Gortat, at or around the basket in most offensive sets.
Put simply: Hibbert needs to be better.
The problem here is that there is no obvious solution. Hibbert can't just magically will touch back into his hook shot or put on rubber-magnetic gloves and become a rebounding machine. He's actually grabbing a higher percentage of contested rebounds during the playoffs than he did the regular season, per SportVU data provided by the NBA. His overall rebound rate on balls he has a chance of grabbing is not all that different, either.
And for all the talk that verticality is dead, check this: Opponents are shooting 29 percent against Hibbert at the rim during the playoffs. That would have been the NBA's best regular-season rate by a mile and a half. Hibbert is doing some good things in these playoffs—they're just not nearly enough to outweigh all the bad.
Against the Wizards, Hibbert is far from the only problem. Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal blitzed the Pacers from deep, knocking down nine of Washington's 10 three-pointers. Some of that can be amounted to "things happen." Ariza isn't going 6-of-6 every game and the Wizards aren't going to shoot 62.5 percent from the series—ain't happening.
But Washington got some of its looks via uncharacteristic negligence. The Pacers have to do a better job of identifying shooters in transition and semi-transition.
The Wizards are one of the league's deadliest transition offenses and John Wall does a great job of knowing how and where to hit his shooters in rhythm. Three of Ariza's long-range bombs came as the direct result of Wall collapsing the Indiana defense or forcing attention with semi-transition dribble drives that freed an open jumper.
Also: Paul George was just plain sloppy at times. The Wizards caught him overhelping or sleepwalking into a backscreen a few times. There is no reason on God's green earth why George is doubling on Nene in the high post here:
George also had a poor showing on the offensive end. The Wizards tried forcing him into mid-range jumpers by dropping on picks, and he happily obliged. George attempted only five shots in the restricted area—Ariza basically punked him on both ends of the floor.
Again, things aren't as bad as they seem. George got some good looks and is an above-average shooter from the mid-range. He's going to knock down more than a quarter of his shots the rest of the series, and was phenomenal against Atlanta on both ends. The Pacers are asking a lot of David West, having him body Nene on both ends, but he should be better than 6-of-15. Lance Stephenson hasn't had two consecutive bad games all postseason.
The Pacers aren't contenders at this point. They're just due for a positive regression.
Score Prediction: Pacers 97, Wizards 91
Los Angeles Clippers at Oklahoma City Thunder (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT)
Point God, thy name is Chris Paul. The Thunder ran into an offensive buzzsaw in Game 1. There's no other way to put it. Paul knocked down eight three pointers himself, one shy of tying the NBA playoff record, and the Clippers dropped 39 points in a first-quarter assault Oklahoma City never recovered from.
When they're in a rhythm and not distracted by the insensitive comments of their bottom-feeding (soon-to-be-former) owner, the Clippers are the best offensive team in basketball. J.J. Redick is Paul's perfect muse at the 2, Blake Griffin finished a deserved third place on the MVP ballot and DeAndre Jordan is so big, strong and athletic he's there to clean up whatever messes are made.
Nights like Monday are when Scott Brooks and his staff should put away the film, tip their cap and move along. These Clippers have one or two games per series where they're just not going to miss—as the Warriors found out in Game 7 of the first round. Paul is not going to knock down 8-of-9 from beyond the arc again, and some of the shots he hit were a mere product of being ridiculously, incredibly good at playing basketball.
"I thought on a lot of those threes, especially early in the game, we had a hand in his face and a hand in his shots," Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha told reporters. "So we did a decent job, but those shots went in and that boosted their whole team."
Other shots were the result of odd or overaggressive defensive decisions. Here, Russell Westbrook cheats hard on Jordan's pick, taking a full two-step hop into his body to force Paul away from the middle of the floor. Sensing what Westbrook was doing, Paul plays Westbrook's cheat against him and winds up with a wide-open three:
Nick Collison is a very smart player. Great teammate. Good dude. I do not know what in the hell he is doing doubling Paul here, unless Brooks gave explicit instructions to not allow him to shoot under any possible circumstances. It doesn't work. The images below highlight a wide-open Jamal Crawford on the wing, but Griffin smartly fakes Kevin Durant into going back over the Crawford, leading eventually to a wide-open Paul three:
The Clippers also turned those overaggressive traps and double-teams into easy baskets near the rim. Oklahoma City was the league's fifth-best defense during the regular season and came into the second round having held Memphis to the playoffs' lowest offensive efficiency. But the Clippers have a myriad floor-spacers, the league's smartest point guard in Paul and one of its best passing big men in Griffin.
When the Thunder are cooking defensively and ratcheting up the aggression at the right time, they can disrupt any offense. They were out of control against a good team at times Monday night, and it showed. Brooks might want to consider toning it down a little bit and sticking to shooters rather than helping, similar to how the Mavericks played the Spurs in Round 1.
The Clippers are going to get theirs no matter what. Allowing them 29 three-pointers and 15 makes is a one-way ticket to elimination.
Los Angeles remains a thoroughly mediocre defensive team, one that had a ton of trouble defending Durant and Westbrook during the regular season. Matt Barnes is their best option against Durant. Doc Rivers might wind up pushing Barnes' 34-year-old legs to the limit for that very purpose, we'll see nothing of the struggles Durant went through in the Memphis series.
Westbrook scored an under-control 29 points in Game 1, mostly with Paul guarding him. One has to wonder if it's just too much to ask of Paul, still dealing with a hamstring injury, to go at this tasmanian devil for seven straight games.
There is no obvious second answer here. Redick is a very good team defender but not quick enough to handle Westbrook's foot speed, and Darren Collison might actually self-immolate if asked to handle the task. The onus falls on Paul, then, so I'll be interested to see how he looks in Games 6 and 7.
Serge Ibaka did a fine job on Griffin in Game 1 and has been a thorn in his side in recent years. This series will be something of a litmus test for Griffin after skating through seven games of David Lee on the other side. If the Thunder get anything from Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler, we should head back to Los Angeles 1-1.
Score Prediction: Thunder 111, Clippers 103
All stats via NBA.com
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