For a while there, it looked like we were headed for the most exciting and unpredictable playoffs in NBA history. Then the second round started.
The game-winning jumpers, cabal of seven-game series and white-knuckled nervousness transmogrified into a bleak and traditional affair.
The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, defending champions of their respective conferences and best two basketball teams on the planet when firing on all cylinders, have looked exactly that. Miami and San Antonio have taken care of the Brooklyn Nets and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively, winning each game by double digits in the process. So much for Brooklyn's perfect regular-season record against Miami and Portland's young legs pushing San Antonio's aging vets the distance, right?
The saying goes that no series actually begins until a team wins on its opponent's home floor, but we all know that's farcical. As noted by Joe Freeman of The Oregonian, NBA teams have won 94 percent of time when taking a 2-0 series lead. If series don't "start" until a road team wins, that's because all other series are essentially dead on arrival.
Brooklyn and Portland are on life support. The Nets can't score or stop Miami's perimeter guys from penetrating, and the Blazers can't do anything right. Both teams return home Saturday night with a steep uphill climb coming, so let's preview both contests and see what (if anything) can be done to make these series competitive.
Miami Heat at Brooklyn Nets (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
We might not get a competitive game here, but at the very least we'll never, ever forget what borough of New York City the Barclays Center resides. (We get it, Brooklynites. Try maybe, like, another chant at some point, please? Or maybe show any life whatsoever. That'd also be pretty cool.)
The Nets mirrored their crowd's lifelessness in Miami. The Heat averaged a ridiculous 1.19 points per possession in the first two games, overwhelming Brooklyn to such an extent LeBron James has only scored 22 points in each contest. The box scores in Games 1 and 2 for Miami's starting lineup are almost eerily similar. James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers each scoring in double figures. Throw in a revitalized Ray Allen, and this is arguably the best Miami has looked all season.
James and Wade have destroyed Brooklyn's perimeter defenders off the dribble, penetrating deep into the paint to bend Brooklyn's defense and get an open shot for themselves or shooters parked in the corner. The Heat are using 28.5 percent of their possessions in spot-up opportunities against the Nets, up 4 percent from their regular-season average, per Synergy Sports. That seems like a small difference, but those possessions bleed into one another and have an effect over a long series.
Just look at all the eyeballs on James here before he kicks it out to Shane Battier for a corner three:
The Heat are shooting 40.4 percent on 47 attempts from three, 20 of which have been the juicy corner variety. That's not an accident. Wade and James are forcing Brooklyn to clog the paint against a dribble-drive, and both stars are playing unselfishly in kicking it out to open teammates. Maybe only San Antonio is better at knowing when to make the extra pass.
While the obvious answer is to stick closer to the shooters and play pick-and-rolls straight up, the Nets have no other alternative. Paul Pierce knows LeBron better than perhaps any other defender, but he's 36 years old and three steps slower than the zeitgeist of their battles in Boston. Joe Johnson is better against Wade, and you never know which version of the Heat guard is going to show up each night. Wade has nonetheless been a nightmare against Brooklyn's bench-heavy units.
Jason Kidd has occasionally had Nets players switch on pick-and-rolls, which has only resulted in even more matchup hell. Pierce is already having trouble enough—asking Mirza Teletovic to guard the world's best player one-on-one is just asking for shots like this:
The Nets are going to struggle to find a workable solution. Miami is scoring 1.263 points per isolation possession in the first two games, a number that would have led the league by a mile during the regular season, per Synergy. They're also getting a ton of good looks getting out in transition and semi-transition, scoring buckets before the Nets can set up their team defense.
"Teams are trying to figure out ways to be at their best (in the playoffs)," James told reporters. "We have to continue to work our offense, work our defense and just find a way."
It doesn't help that Brooklyn's offense has also gone anemic. Deron Williams is Point Guard Roy Hibbert following his scoreless Game 2, a zombified husk of a superstar waiting to be taken out to pasture. Someday, when we're old, gray and reading Internet 2.0 from our spacepods in Mars, we're going to have a laugh pulling up old columns advocating for Williams over Chris Paul.
Brooklyn's problems run deeper than one player. Kevin Garnett is two of 10 in the series, Pierce can't do much but spot up when guarded by James, and Johnson's hot streak was apparently stopped at border control coming back from Toronto. The Nets have also lost the turnover battle in both contests, though they are doing a fine job of holding onto the ball compared to league average against Miami.
There just isn't much positive to say. Brooklyn kept the game close for three quarters Thursday night, but that took an out-of-this-world shooting performance from Teletovic and a bad night from Wade. Home court is a factor, and I suspect the pride of Garnett and Pierce will allow Brooklyn to win one of its two home games.
Good luck figuring out which one.
Score Prediction: Heat 103, Nets 91
San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Gregg Popovich might want to send Rick Carlisle a complimentary ring if the Spurs are able to grab their fifth title. It would be narrative-driven to say San Antonio's seven-game slugfest with the Mavericks was a wake-up call. More accurately, the series proved a perfect test case to prepare for the Blazers—a team that in many ways mirrors a younger Dallas.
The Spurs are outscoring Portland by 25.8 points per 100 possessions, scoring and defending at rates that would have set all kinds of regular-season records. They've knocked down 52.8 percent of their threes, assisted on more than half their field goals and kept the turnovers (a problem against Dallas) to a minimum.
Portland was a mediocre regular-season defensive team (15th in points allowed per possession), but this has been an outright embarrassment. The Spurs rarely put a "hider" on the floor, exposing the weak links in a dam already made of bubble gum. With one or two passes, San Antonio is able to crank out open shots like it's clockwork—no Spur has even played more than 37 minutes in either game.
Poor Damian Lillard. The kid had the star-making series of his life against Houston before being taken to class by Master Popovich. Lillard has made only one three on seven attempts after chucking up eight per game and making almost half against Houston. The Blazers have no chance if Terry Stotts fails to find ways to get Lillard open shots. Lillard was more aggressive in Game 2 from distance, pulling up in semi-transition and forcing the action off the dribble, but the shots aren't falling.
And Lillard remains an unsolvable problem on defense. Tony Parker ran him ragged for about a quarter before Stotts abandoned that arrangement in Game 1. He started out on Danny Green on Thursday, which is about the best-case scenario versus San Antonio. The problems started when Stotts decided "hiding" Lillard on Manu Ginobili was a worthwhile endeavor. Ginobili predictably balled out, running Lillard through a series of pick-and-rolls that left him dazed, confused and probably with a sore shoulder from banging against Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw.
Lillard is far from the only player at fault. Mo Williams is a terrible defender in his own right. Having the Lillard/Williams vs. Parker/Ginobili backcourt matchup is asking for death by way of pick-and-roll. Williams hurt his groin Thursday and is very questionable for Game 3, which might wind up being addition by subtraction defensively. Still, this is already an over-extended roster with a short bench and Wes Matthews can't guard everyone.
Portland has also gotten precious little on either end from LaMarcus Aldridge. His 32 points and 14 rebounds were mostly empty counting stats put up in garbage time, and Game 2 saw the All-Star big man shoot just six of 23 from the field. Like he did in Round 1 against Dirk Nowitzki, Tiago Splitter has done a marvelous job of making every shot difficult.
Aldridge is shooting 60 percent when Splitter is on the bench versus 31.6 percent with him on the floor. Thirty-eight of Aldridge's 48 attempts this series are considered "contested" looks, per SportVU technology, and Splitter's willingness to get dirty and play physical is an integral part of San Antonio's defense. I'm unsure how anyone, no matter how talented, could have a solid shooting performance when it takes this much effort just to get the ball up:
The Blazers tried freeing up Aldridge in the second half by running Splitter through multiple screens, which I suspect we'll see more of in Game 3. But Splitter is winning the one-on-one battle—which is about all you need to know about this series.
Expect the Rip City crowd to be typically ridiculous and Lillard and Alridge to be more comfortable than they were in San Antonio. Objectively, though, that's about the only positive in Portland's favor. The Blazers have been so thoroughly outplayed that if they don't take Game 3, we may be looking at a sweep.
Score Prediction: Spurs 111, Blazers 103
All stats via NBA.com.
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