B/R NBA's 2-on-2 Sweet 16 Bracket: Which Duo Takes All in NBA Jam-Style Tourney?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 20, 2017

B/R NBA's 2-on-2 Sweet 16 Bracket: Which Duo Takes All in NBA Jam-Style Tourney?

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    Tournaments and brackets are hot this time of year, and search engine optimization never rests. So we've compiled a fun little two-on-two tournament featuring 16 sets of NBA teammates, pre-ranked and set against one another for your entertainment.

    These made-up games will be played to 21 by twos and threes, and it'll be winners' outs. You score, you keep the ball because that's how every half-court pickup game among true competitors (and not cowards) works.

    Also, there'll be a referee with a whistle, and he'll award shooting fouls and free throws according to typical NBA rules. That'll help us keep the hackers at bay, even if fouling out won't be possible.

    Five-second backdown rules will be strictly enforced because nobody wants to watch grind-it-out post-up battles. And perhaps most importantly, the higher seed gets to start with the ball—a major advantage in a make it, take it scenario.

    Finally, players with minor injuries qualify for inclusion, but guys out with more significant maladies and/or those sidelined indefinitely weren't up for consideration. That's bad news for they Toronto Raptors, who didn't even make the tourney without Kyle Lowry, and slightly less bad news for the Golden State Warriors, who don't get to use Kevin Durant.

    Let the games begin.

Round 1: Cleveland Cavaliers (1) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (16)

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    Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James and Kyrie Irving

    Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins

    Irving is probably one of the best isolation scorers alive, and LeBron James is the best overall basketball player walking the earth. So yeah, they're the top seed in the tournament.

    With Irving's 1.11 points per isolation play ranking first among all those who've used at least 100 such possessions this season, he's going to be too much for either Towns or Wiggins to handle. You may have also noticed Irving's penchant for making big shots in tough conditions.

    An elimination game to 21 counts as a tough condition by our standards.

    James can guard either player, and even if it'll be tough for the Cavs duo to overcome Minnesota's greater collective size—Towns is 7'0", Wiggins 6'8"—the experience factor weighs heavily in favor of James and Irving.

    Good luck to the young Wolves trying to solve the screen action between Irving and James as one or the other gets downhill toward the lane in a hurry. With no third defender to help in a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop, there's no way to keep either Cleveland player from gaining an instant advantage via screens.

    With the Cavs getting the ball first, this will be quick work.

    Winner: Cavs

Round 1: Milwaukee Bucks (8) vs. Boston Celtics (9)

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    Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton

    Boston Celtics: Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford

    If you trim the parameters to include guys who use at least 9 percent of their possessions on isolation plays, Isaiah Thomas (not Irving) is the game's most efficient isolation weapon.

    He'll be a handful for Antetokounmpo and Middleton.

    But Thomas has to defend as well, and he's just too small to do anything against either opponent. Antetokounmpo will be able to work his way to any spot he wants, and Middleton will freely shoot right over Thomas as if he weren't even there.

    Horford isn't quite mobile enough to handle either Buck, and Antetokounmpo's passing will punish the Celtics duo if they ever sag off Middleton to help on his drives or his post-ups. Middleton, being one of the game's most trustworthy three-point shooters (42.9 percent in his 16 games this season), will make the most of those kickouts.

    Winner: Bucks

Round 1: New Orleans Pelicans (5) vs. Washington Wizards (12)

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    New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins

    Washington Wizards: John Wall and Bradley Beal

    We won't get a larger bulk discrepancy than this one, and size will turn out to matter when the Pels and Wiz collide.

    Davis' length and versatility won't be enough to stick with either Wall or Beal on every possession, but the 6'11" center should be able to bother his matchup often enough to generate a few misses. And when the Pelicans get the ball, it's difficult to see how Washington will prevent total low-block annihilation.

    Forget preventing shots; the Wizards won't even be able to deny post entry. Without a third defender helping out on the back line, fronting Cousins or Davis isn't an option. Toss in Wall's shaky shooting (44.8 percent from the field), and it might not be that tough for Davis or Cousins to sag off and dare him to win with long twos.

    Leaving that extra space will help diminish Wall's obvious quickness advantage.

    The Pelicans will bully their way to a first-round win here.

    Winner: Pelicans

Round 1: Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (13)

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    Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin

    Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley and Marc Gasol

    This tourney needs an upset, and if you're going to tab a team to lose a round earlier than it should, it's always safe to go with the Los Angeles Clippers.

    Griffin isn't as quick as he used to be, and Gasol is actually the better three-point shooter in this matchup of bigs. Plus, the Grizzlies center isn't someone Griffin can batter into the stanchion with his herky-jerky, head-down drives. If Griffin gets hot from 18 feet, maybe this turns out differently. But as long as Gasol stays in front of him and contests, it's hard to see the Clips gaining an advantage.

    Gasol, by the way, is the most effective post-up player in the league. Nobody scores more on the low block than he does.

    Conley is kind of like an 80 percent version of Paul—a guy who does many of the same things but not quite as well. It's worth noting, though, that he's got a bit of a size advantage on CP3 (6'1" to 6'0") and has been forged into a grind-it-out competitor by playing his whole career in Memphis.

    Add all that up, and you can see the Grizzlies methodically working their way through a tough contest as L.A.'s duo unravels amid referee grievances and dirty looks at one another.

    Winner: Grizzlies

Round 1: Houston Rockets (6) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (11)

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    Houston Rockets: James Harden and Eric Gordon

    Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum

    Blowout city, baby.

    Lillard and McCollum don't get the ball to start, and neither has a prayer of keeping Harden from doing whatever he wants.

    With 2017 three-point contest winner Gordon spacing extra deep (he's second in the league with 6.3 attempts from 25-29 feet per game and shoots a higher percentage from that distance than he does from 20-24 feet), doubling Harden becomes impossible. There's just too much ground to cover.

    Remember too there are free throws in this tournament. So it's possible the Rockets win this one on 21 straight charity tosses from Harden as the Blazers duo wilts against his physical onslaught.

    Among players with at least 200 pick-and-roll ball-handling possessions, only Jimmy Butler has drawn shooting fouls more often than the Beard.

    The Blazers have no chance here.

    Winner: Rockets

Round 1: San Antonio Spurs (3) vs. New York Knicks (14)

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    San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge

    New York Knicks: Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis

    Quietly (because that's the only way he does anything), Leonard's foul-drawing prowess as a pick-and-roll ball-handler is right there with Harden's toward the top of the league. So he'll be a handful for either Anthony or Porzingis when coming off a high screen from Aldridge.

    In a gruesomely unfair twist, Leonard is a better overall pick-and-roll scorer than Harden, with a 1.07 points-per-possession average that ties Isaiah Thomas and Lou Williams for the top spot in the NBA.

    More than anything, this comes down to the Knicks not being able to get stops. Maybe the 7'3" Porzingis' length prevents Aldridge from burying every mid-post turnaround, but Anthony has no shot to slow down Leonard.

    Kawhi, meanwhile, can guard either opponent. And it's not like Melo has the burst to torch Aldridge off the dribble anymore. Anthony is now in his 14th season, and the 32-year-old's disappearing burst has him taking fewer shots near the rim than ever. And it's not like he has an advantage shooting over the taller Aldridge if switches create that matchup.

    Winner: Spurs

Round 1: Oklahoma City Thunder (7) vs. Indiana Pacers (10)

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    Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo

    Indiana Pacers: Paul George and Myles Turner

    It feels foolish to bet against Westbrook, especially with Oladipo and his recent red-hot shooting as an outlet. But this is a tough matchup for the possible MVP.

    George is a long and versatile stopper who can harass Westbrook in the more confined space of a half-court setting. Without the chance to speed up the game via transition attacks, Westbrook loses his most potent weapon.

    Though the spectacular drives tend to obscure it, the truth is Westbrook isn't a great finisher. He's hitting just over 57 percent of his shots in the restricted area. For reference, 29 teams average a higher conversion rate in that zone this season.

    Sure, he gets there plenty. But Russ doesn't finish the deal as often as you'd think. And George will only make it tougher on him.

    Indiana's duo can shoot over the top of OKC's smaller guards, and Turner's mobility makes him a terrific help option if he has to come off his man to assist at the rim. Better still, his length will help him close back out to a shooter if he has to dig down and recover.

    Winner: Pacers

Round 1: Golden State Warriors (2) vs. Utah Jazz (15)

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    Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry and Draymond Green

    Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert

    The Warriors come in with a suboptimal tandem because we don't know when Kevin Durant will be healthy. Rules are rules, though. Even when we make them up.

    Green is a nice backup plan, and he joins Curry instead of Klay Thompson because defense and size are nice if you can get them.

    Anyway, Gobert isn't a huge threat to beat Green on the block, so it may be tough for Utah to do much on offense.

    The Warriors will have to figure out how to hide Curry somewhere, and Hayward's size will make that tough. But a Curry-Green pick-and-roll is hard enough to stop with five defenders. It may be impossible with no help.

    Curry can initiate the play well beyond the arc, and Utah will have no choice but to switch or chase him way out on the floor. That creates far too much room to operate, and Green may get several straight-line shots at the bucket with no defender in front of him.

    Winner: Warriors

Round 2: Cleveland Cavaliers (1) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (8)

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    James' greatest gifts—court vision and that innate understanding of what nine other human beings will do at any given time—don't really come into play in a two-on-two scenario. The variables and complications diminish, and his preternatural ability to anticipate and solve shifting, complex situations become less valuable.

    Even when holstering one of his superpowers, James has enough other ones to swing this matchup for the Cavs.

    If the Bucks had someone a little more dynamic than Middleton, we'd have a closer contest on our hands. But Irving can't be stopped one-on-one, and he'll destroy Middleton if Antetokounmpo doesn't sell out to help.

    Irving's 48.8 percent conversion rate from the mid-range area is the best in the league among players who've taken at least four such shots per game.

    On offense, Antetokounmpo's inability to space the floor could allow James to cheat over and help against Middleton. And in James, the Greek Freak will find an opponent uniquely suited to counter an unfair combination of speed and size.

    Winner: Cavs

Round 2: New Orleans Pelicans (5) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (13)

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    This Pelicans duo will give us some ugly "your turn, my turn" stuff, but it's going to be effective against this particular Grizzlies team because Conley has to guard somebody on the block.

    Gasol can slide down to help without too much fear of a kickout leading to a made three by either Cousins or Davis. Both are shooting right around 32 percent on catch-and-shoot triples this season. But you also have to consider how quickly Boogie and AD will be able to turn and score over Conley before the help can even get there. Preventing either from gaining ultradeep post position will be impossible.

    And then there's the concern of, if Gasol does help down in time, the kickout could lead to Davis or Cousins coming downhill toward the lane in a hurry. Stopping either of those two with a full head of steam may not be possible—even for a positional defender as smart and instinctive as Gasol.

    If the Grizzlies duo were a bit more athletic or if it had a pair of guys with quick-trigger jumpers that could punish the lumbering Pels, the outcome might be different.

    But yet again, New Orleans has the sheer physical dominance to advance.

    Winner: Pelicans

Round 2: San Antonio Spurs (3) vs. Houston Rockets (6)

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    If you parse this one into two distinct one-on-one matchups, it's hard to see how the Rockets compete.

    Leonard is probably the player best equipped to neutralize Harden. His length, his footwork and his ability to cut off angles without fouling are all perfectly designed to counter Harden's attacks.

    In four meetings this season, Leonard helped hold Harden under 40 percent shooting twice. And it's important to note the Spurs won three of the faceoffs.

    Still, Harden's scoring totals in those three meetings—39, 31, 25 and 24—suggest Leonard isn't going to outright shut him down.

    That's why the other matchup dictates the outcome here: Aldridge can do whatever he wants against Gordon.

    Remember too that Houston lacks a passable defender at either spot. Switching is out, and even the simplest screening actions will probably confound the Rockets tandem.

    Maybe Harden gets hot and Aldridge can't keep Gordon from getting to the rim, but the likelier scenario is a solid Spurs victory.

    Winner: Spurs

Round 2: Golden State Warriors (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (10)

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    The Warriors have the two better players in a full-team setup, but that's not what this tournament's about.

    Curry can't guard George (6'9"), and Turner's 6'11" size makes him a threat to either shoot over or back down against the Warriors' diminutive guard.

    If there's a player on earth who can simultaneously stop a stud wing and a dangerous stretch big, it's Green. But even if the Defensive Player of the Year candidate works some angry magic on both Pacers at once, the Warriors still have to score.

    Indy can probably leave Green alone on the perimeter, daring him to beat them with a 31.5 percent stroke from long range. Stepping in probably won't work for the Warriors forward either, as he's only shooting 18.8 percent from 16-23 feet and hates taking that shot—as evidenced by the fact that only 2.9 percent of his attempts come from that distance.

    Surround Curry and Green with three half-awake sentient beings, and they might win this whole thing. But pit them against just two opponents without support, and the dynamics change significantly.

    George's length and his ability to score from different areas of the floor are real weapons, and Turner is someone who can't be left alone on the perimeter.

    The Warriors will miss Durant in this round and be eliminated before the semis.

    Winner: Pacers

Semifinal: Cleveland Cavaliers (1) vs. New Orleans Pelicans (5)

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    Two factors determine the result in this one.

    First, we have to assume Cousins is tired by now. He's had to chase around smaller players more than usual in this tournament, and his conditioning has been an issue in both Sacramento and New Orleans this season.

    Second, I'm not sure how the Pelicans ever get the ball. Because to do that, they'd need to stop Cleveland.

    If you can figure out a way for either Davis or Cousins to keep Irving out of the lane or for either big man to stick with James as he backs out to the three-point line and then gets a screen from Kyrie, please relay that here because I'm having trouble imagining a way for either of those things to happen.

    If New Orleans lucks into a stop, it could go to work on Irving down low. But James can bring help and recover to a shooter without much fear of surrendering jumpers. And unlike the situation against Memphis, James can position himself more quickly to stop drives on the catch.

    And if you want to get down to it, I'm not picking representatives from a lottery team in the West to beat the best player in the world.

    Winner: Cavs

Semifinal: Indiana Pacers (10) vs. San Antonio Spurs (3)

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    The matchup advantages evaporate for George and Turner here, as they run into a team composed of two players who are basically better versions of themselves.

    George has no edges against Leonard, and even if some regard PG as a more complete offensive talent, that certainly hasn't been the case this season. Leonard shoots it a hair better from deep, scores more efficiently in isolation and operates in the pick-and-roll more effectively.

    George isn't bad at any of those things. In fact, he's really good at all three.

    It's just that Leonard is better. That's part of the reason he outscored and out-shot George in two head-to-head meetings this season, both of which were Spurs wins.

    Aldridge too is in many ways what Turner hopes to become.

    Turner is quicker and more athletic than his veteran counterpart and probably a better defender. But Aldridge's battle-tested turnaround game gives him a weapon the Pacers center lacks. And though he's made major strides this season, Turner still isn't the get-your-own-look scorer Aldridge is.

    The Pacers had a nice run.

    Winner: Spurs

Final Round: Cleveland Cavaliers (1) vs. San Antonio Spurs (3)

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The tournament format is huge here, and picking Cleveland to beat San Antonio is essentially a bet on offense...and a second, equally important wager on Aldridge's not having anywhere to hide.

    In a make it, take it scenario, Irving and James can build a significant advantage by isolating against Aldridge and getting to the rim or hitting jumpers over him, as he'll have no choice but to give a major cushion against quicker opponents.

    It's difficult to see a way for the Cavs to get stops, and we could see equally prolonged scoring runs from the Spurs if and when they gain possession. If Aldridge gets into one of those grooves from the left block, San Antonio could take this thing.

    In the end, it's just too hard to pick against James—even if the two-on-two setup doesn't maximize his talents. James' ability to fill any need—post-up, drive, facilitate, defend any position, shoot on the catch and off the dribble, help out with weak-side blocks—still makes him the most complete participant involved.

    Compensating for matchup problems on defense will be a tough task, but the Cavs have the offensive punch to make San Antonio pay for the slightest slips. Realistically, Cleveland only needs a couple of stops to close this out.

    Winner: Cavs

     

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference.