Red Flags for 1st-Round Playoff Survivors
If your favorite NBA team is one of the 13 still alive, congratulations! But also: Grab your umbrella, because we're about to rain on their parades.
Lasting this long in the first round of the playoffs doesn't shield teams against criticism. If anything, it increases the magnification of the microscope.
Certain squads, like the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks, are facing elimination games because of select shortcomings. Others teams, like the Toronto Raptors, have stumbled through the postseason amid cracks in their armor. Even the teams that have broken through to the second round before everyone else—Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets—have concerns that could stand to be addressed.
Not all of these red flags are detrimental. The presented issues will vary in significance, depending on the situation and team's performance through the first round thus far.
Basically, we're chasing down the answer to one question: Which sore spot is most likely to prevent a surviving band from journeying deeper into the playoffs than it already has?
Atlanta Hawks: The Roller Coaster That Is Dennis Schroder
Dennis Schroder's play in the Atlanta Hawks' first-round series against the Washington Wizards has unfolded as you would expect—only more so. His swings from one end of the spectrum to the other are wilder, and it's not yet clear if he makes them better for long enough stretches to keep the offense afloat and the team alive.
Look at how much his performances have varied:
- Game 1 (loss): 25 points, 9 assists, 8-of-16 shooting (3-of-5 from deep), 2 turnovers, minus-11
- Game 2 (loss): 23 points, 6 assists, 8-of-21 shooting (1-of-8 from deep), 1 turnover, plus-2
- Game 3 (win): 27 points, 9 assists, 10-of-22 shooting (3-of-7 from deep), 3 turnovers, plus-18
- Game 4 (win): 18 points, 1 assists, 6-of-15 shooting (2-of-6 from deep), 1 turnover, minus-13
Atlanta is averaging more points per 100 possessions when Schroder is off the floor—never a good sign for a starting point guard, particularly when his primary backup is a combination of Kent Bazemore and Jose Calderon. Even as the offense upped the ante in Games 3 and 4, his rating went almost unchanged.
This is a constant push and pull when hitching so much importance to a 23-year-old trying to balance his attack mode with playmaking duties while, by default, covering some of the league's most dangerous talents.
Schroder's turnovers are under control, but there's an (unofficial) ongoing competition between him and Tim Hardaway Jr. to see who can rack up the most ill-advised shot attempts. He'll defend half of a possession beautifully, whizzing around Marcin Gortat's screens with precision, but then fall apart immediately after, dilly-dallying in the middle of two assignments, unsure of whether to switch. If he's not in foul trouble, it's often because he's not being aggressive enough.
Sometimes, the Hawks are at their best with Schroder. Other times, not so much. This give and take isn't going anywhere. Atlanta can only hope he hits at the right times so its series, and entire postseason, hopes aren't dashed amid trademark topsy-turviness.
Boston Celtics: Defensive Rebounding
Surprise, surprise: The Boston Celtics have a defensive rebounding problem.
They are grabbing 65.5 percent of the Chicago Bulls' misses—the lowest mark of the playoffs by 6.2 points, which is roughly the same distance between the second-place Milwaukee Bucks and 10th-ranked Bulls.
There is no easy fix for this deficit. There's no remedy, period. Boston's bigs aren't exceptional glass-crashers. A guard or wing can be one of its two most threatening presences on the boards during any given game.
Lineups head coach Brad Stevens can cobble together to mitigate this under-the-rim shortfall generally aren't worth the offensive tradeoff. And he's not trying to pretend differently. He's taken the rotation in the complete opposite direction.
Subbing Gerald Green into the starting lineup for Amir Johnson has spearheaded a tactical renaissance. The Celtics are more explosive, have shooters at every position and can switch better on defense. But the resulting starting five only grabs 58.1 percent of Chicago's misses—a disastrous number.
For context, the worst mark over the past 20 years belongs to the 1997-98 Toronto Raptors. And they still corralled 62.9 percent of available defensive rebounds.
Underrepresentation on the glass won't be enough to force a pivot. The Celtics' new starting cast is outscoring the Bulls by more than 25 points per 100 possessions. They'll ride with it, and the current small-ball model in general, and hope a lack of defensive rebounding doesn't manifest itself into a season-killer.
Chicago Bulls: Point Guard Rotation Run Afield
In the span of weeks, Rajon Rondo went from the point guard the Bulls wouldn't guarantee a consistent role to the player who shifted the balance of a playoff series, for both better and worse.
A fractured right thumb has sidelined Rondo since Game 2. Though initial timetables didn't have him returning until the second round, he's already returned to practice in a limited capacity.
"Just watching him wince a little bit when the ball was coming to him makes me think it's a long shot," head coach Fred Hoiberg said about the possibility of Rondo returning before the end of the first round, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. "But if there's anybody who can do it and will try to fight through it, it's Rondo because of the competitor he is."
Non-contenders should typically be against rushing an injured player's recovery. The Bulls are different. They're trying to figure out whether they have enough juice to run it back next year. And the returns from alternative point guard options aren't good:
|Bulls With:||MP||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
Canaan's sample is promising, but it comes across one game. It says a lot that Rondo remains the most-used option, despite missing the last two tilts.
Chicago's offense, more recently, is too predictable without him. The defense knows the ball is going to Jimmy Butler or Dwyane Wade. Certain combinations that feature those two without a conventional pilot have found success, but that increases the number of possessions on which Butler must check Isaiah Thomas.
This remains a problem even if the Bulls make it out of the first round or Rondo returns before then. Will he be the same player? Was the beginning of this series a mirage? Can Rondo hold up on opposing 1s every night? Those are just a few questions to which the Bulls have no answers—and they may not be able to get some before it's too late.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Starting Lineup Defense
To criticize the Cavaliers defense is to swipe at low-hanging fruit. Besides, they've shown an ability to lock down when it matters. They rank fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions during the second half of postseason games, as well as the second-best mark during crunch time.
Stifling the Indiana Pacers isn't the most herculean task. And the Cavaliers are tied with the Rockets for the worst defensive rating in the first half. But the late-game results are encouraging. Those from the starting lineup are not.
Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson are allowing 111.4 points per 100 possessions when on the floor together—more than they are scoring. Four-game samples are nothing, but this group let up 111.2 prior to the playoffs. They're right on par with a league-worst regular-season standing.
Cleveland has other combinations it can turn to, and head coach Tyronn Lue isn't afraid to use them down the stretch. The starting five made just six fourth-quarter appearances during the regular despite playing in 27 total games and logged only seven total minutes in the final frame through the first round.
Starter designations no longer carry the same cachet. Total minutes matter more, as does who gets the nod in the clutch. But porous sets to open games—the Cavaliers are second-to-last in first-quarter defensive rating—have repercussions that reverberate throughout the rest of the night.
Irving and Love may spend more time on the bench, as they did on occasion versus Indiana, if Cleveland falls into a hole. Kyle Korver is harder to cover up for when looking to defense-first lineups off the bench. Five-out arrangements with Channing Frye or Love at center are harder to prop up.
These are champagne problems in the Eastern Conference. In the Finals, against the Warriors or one of the Western Conference's other superpowers, they become roadblocks to the Cavaliers' second straight title.
Golden State Warriors: Andre Iguodala's Three-Point Bagel
Head coach Steve Kerr's open-ended absence from the sideline matters—especially when he's being supplanted by meme-in-waiting Mike Brown. But Golden State didn't miss a beat when Kevin Durant, a top-five talent, sat for two games. Kerr's absence shouldn't be viewed in more detrimental terms.
Plus, the Warriors have been here before. Kerr's back issues prevented him from manning the game-day ship for more than half of last season, through which time the team was 39-4. This year's iteration has more star power, is equally deep (shouts to JaVale McGee) and just as trained in performing amid absences.
So let's nitpick something else—like Andre Iguodala's 0-of-9 showing from beyond the arc against the Portland Trail Blazers, for instance.
If nothing else, Iguodala's outside accuracy is crucial leverage for the new "Death Squad." Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson don't need the threat of him to fire away, but the most dangerous lineup in basketball shot under 34 percent from long range during the regular season.
For the Warriors to reach peak unguardable status, Iguodala needs to make his threes.
Houston Rockets: Nene Playing Better Than Clint Capela
When the Rockets signed Nene over the summer using their room exception, there's no way they knew he'd be the steal of the offseason.
Joe Johnson might have a thing or 80 to say about this, but it's true. Nene is outperforming expectations, and then some, while adhering to head coach Mike D'Antoni's systemic constructs. As Michael Pina wrote for Vice Sports:
Instead of drifting out for mid-range jumpers as frequently as he used to, Nene's pick-and-pop game has dwindled. He's constantly rolling toward the rim, either sucking help defenders in to open up a three-point opportunity for someone else or finding himself open at the basket.
He's a sandbag with legs whenever he sets a pick. (Of all players who logged fewer than 1,200 minutes, only Aron Baynes and Lucas Nogueira tallied more screen assists, per NBA.com.) Nene erases on-ball defenders with broad shoulders and a thick waist, always smart enough to plant himself at an angle that can spring Harden, Lou Williams or Eric Gordon on a free run toward his own hapless defender.
In no way is this an issue. It's a luxury—or rather, it's supposed to be. Clint Capela's effectiveness cratered in the first round, increasing the burden placed upon Nene.
Houston is getting outscored by 13.1 points per 100 possessions with Capela jumping center—by far the worst net rating among everyday rotation players. Opponents aren't shooting an unreasonably high percentage against him at the rim (52.6), but he was abused by the Oklahoma City Thunder's bigs and not catching the ball or finishing as well out of the pick-and-roll.
Maybe Capela will find more success in later rounds against frontcourt enemies who don't double as street fighters. Except, those matchups don't exist. He'll meet either Marc Gasol or a mix of Dewayne Dedmon, David Lee and Pau Gasol in the second round. And a potential Western Conference Finals bout with the Warriors will see him wage hardwood warfare versus Draymond Green, JaVale McGee and David West.
Nene is good to soak up additional responsibility. He's also 34. Playing him 25 or more minutes per game isn't a last resort the Rockets should want to explore.
Los Angeles Clippers: Cold Streaks from Luc Mbah a Moute and J.J. Redick
Blake Griffin's season-ending big toe injury isn't a red flag. It's reality. And the Clippers need more out of Luc Mbah a Moute and J.J. Redick on offense if they're going to supersede it.
Credit the Utah Jazz's defense with holding Redick to sub-32 percent shooting from downtown after he buried almost 43 percent of his treys during the regular season. Joe Ingles is suffocating him, and the Clippers go through protracted stretches without even pretending to run something for Redick off the ball.
Playing smaller is supposed to neutralize aspects of this problem. The Clippers induce more switches and overall chaos, at which point the Jazz can rotate or abandon shooters altogether.
Utah has taken the latter route with Mbah a Moute, and he's not making them pay. Most of his threes have gone uncontested, but he's shooting 33.3 percent when left alone. Redick hasn't been much better; he's hitting fewer than 29 percent (2-of-7) of his open and wide-open three-balls.
Both Mbah a Moute and Redick are members of the Clippers' most used smallish-ball lineup—a cocktail built around them, DeAndre Jordan, Chris Paul and Marreese Speights. This group is 4-of-15 on three-point attempts.
Again: The Jazz are part of this slump. But the defensive matchups won't get any easier—not with the Warriors awaiting the winner of Utah-Los Angeles. And if the Clippers aren't able to spring Redick free at will, they at least need him and Mbah a Moute to convert whatever high-quality looks they do get.
Memphis Grizzlies: The Zach Randolph Conundrum
Inserting Zach Randolph into the starting five hasn't helped the Memphis Grizzlies per se. The lineup with him, Vince Carter, Mike Conley, James Ennis and Marc Gasol is getting rocked on both ends of the court and was even worse during season-saving victories over the San Antonio Spurs in Games 3 and 4.
Stashing Z-Bo with the starters allows head coach David Fizdale to bring JaMychal Green off the bench and pound on second-stringers, so there's that. But it also limits the minutes of a far more successful Gasol-Green dyad.
Randolph is holding is own on defense. The Spurs don't have the frontcourt personnel to run him off the floor unless Kawhi Leonard is playing power forward, and some of his secondary lineups fared quite well through the Grizzlies' two-game winning streak.
Still, he's a liability on offense when his jumpers aren't finding nylon. Memphis carved out just enough buckets with him in Games 3 and 4 but remained more potent per 100 possessions when he was on the bench. He rates as the team's least valuable player for the postseason, solely due to his offensive status, according to NBA Math's Total Points Added.
Joe Mullinax of Grizzly Bear Blues offered some tweaks to counter Randolph's impact if Memphis remains bent on using him:
One adjustment I would like to see Fizdale make, outside of more [Troy] Daniels minutes, is more high-low sets with Randolph at the elbow and Gasol in the paint. The Spurs love to crash down on the Grizzlies' bigs (and for good reason), and Marc is much more of a willing passer in the lane than Zach is. Vince Carter/Mike Conley/Troy Daniels on the perimeter alongside a Gasol and Randolph high-low could be pretty difficult to defend.
Half-court touch-ups only go so far. The Grizzlies can conjure ways to endure Randolph's offense against the Spurs' slow-paced sets and traditional frontcourt combinations. They'll be hard-pressed to keep him in the rotation if they earn the right to meet the more explosive Rockets in the next round.
Milwaukee Bucks: The Little Things
After thoroughly outplaying the Toronto Raptors through the first part of a best-of-seven set, the Bucks' momentum has stalled. They've lost each of the last two games, the most recent of which wasn't even kind of close.
The Raptors are the more talented team. They're deeper, too. But the Bucks pushed them to the breaking point by playing smart basketball. Unforced errors are peppered throughout their latest losses, and in the face of Toronto's adjustments, they have failed to make modifications of their own.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greg Monroe are the only players reaching the free-throw line with any regularity. Milwaukee as a team is barely putting down 71 percent of its freebies—second-worst rate in the league, ahead of only the Thunder, who are teeming with hack-a options.
No team has a higher turnover rate than the Bucks over their last three games. And sure, three games is three games. Blah, blah, blah. But ball protection shouldn't be difficult.
Too many of Milwaukee's passes are lazy and telegraphed. Guys are getting careless when they do have the rock. The Hawks are the only team in the East averaging more lost-ball turnovers, according to NBA Miner.
Worse: The Bucks aren't reacting quickly enough on possessions changes. They're not an especially fast team to begin with, but they're playing noticeably slower in the postseason. Their battle with the Raptors in transition is about even—inexcusable when Antetokounmpo is the primary ball-handler.
This, for whatever reason, appears to be by design. The Bucks use 14.2 seconds per set after grabbing a defensive rebound, the most in the Association, according to Inpredictable. Pushing the pace wouldn't hurt, since they place just 13th in points per possession under these circumstances.
If head coach Jason Kidd isn't planning a wholesale about-face to combat Toronto's personnel shift, his team at least needs to play smarter and be more opportunistic. The Bucks' chances of sneaking past the Raptors are dim as it is, and this blend of errant and predictable offense won't serve them well in a second-round date with the Cavaliers.
San Antonio Spurs: Performance Without Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard needs help.
That's not something you hear, or read, or expect to hear or read, around San Antonio. Alas, helping hands have become an issue for the Spurs, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote leading into their Game 5 sparring with the Grizzlies:
It is cliche, and usually inaccurate, to say any player almost "single-handedly" won an NBA game. Not with Game 4 in Memphis. Leonard damn near pushed the Spurs across the finish line by himself with a two-way run—a prolonged Kawhi spasm—of such unceasing, tenacious brilliance, you almost couldn't believe what was unfolding. "Hi. I am going to take the ball from you now and then score a basket. Then I will take it again, except this time I will pass it, get it back and hit a three-point shot. Thank you for your participation."
Leonard is rising to the all-everything challenge. He's averaging 31.6 points per game on a 58/54/98 shooting slash. No part of that is a typo.
To some degree, the Spurs' one-man show is working. They're outpacing the Grizzlies by 15 points per 100 possessions with an unfairly high offensive rating when Leonard is in the lineup.
Part of San Antonio's regular-season charm, though, was its ability to tread water without its best player. And that statistical frill is no more:
|Spurs Without Kawhi:||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
Leaning on Leonard while Manu Ginobili and Danny Green carom threes off every part of the rim and LaMarcus Aldridge shape-shifts between passive and aggressive can get the Spurs out of the first round. It won't carry them any further, though.
Toronto Raptors: Three-Point Shooting
It appeared the Raptors would give us a bunch of alarms to sound at the beginning of the first round. Then they went and addressed their most pressing concerns.
The starting lineup is getting creamed? Boom, they swap out Jonas Valanciunas for Norman Powell, creating a unit that has outscored the Bucks by 16 points in 32 minutes.
DeMarre Carroll can't hang with Milwaukee's wings for more than small bursts? In comes P.J. Tucker, off the bench, to play more minutes.
Stir in a defense that has dictated the pace of play, and the Raptors are close to sitting pretty. They just need to hit more of their three-pointers.
Carroll, Tucker, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka are all shooting under 30 percent from behind the rainbow. There haven't even been nights when one of them gets hot. Lowry went 2-of-4 on triples in Game 5. That's the extent of this quartet's good juju.
Launching from distance isn't the Raptors' style. That's fine when you have patient playmakers in DeMar DeRozan and Lowry. But if Powell is their most consistent long-range threat, they're not going to win more than a series—if that.
Utah Jazz: Quin Snyder's Backup Point Guard Carousel
Backup point guard isn't the only red flag planted in Utah. It's just the most glaring one.
Power forward is a bit of a hiccup. Boris Diaw doesn't look good on offense, Derrick Favors is athletically overmatched as anything more than Rudy Gobert's backup, and Trey Lyes hasn't sniffed the floor. But the Jazz mask their suboptimal production by slotting Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson at power forward.
Some might argue that Johnson's crunch-time heroics are an issue, too. A 35-year-old shouldn't be a go-to option down the stretch. But it's pointless to rail against a closer who's shooting better than 85 percent (6-of-7) in the clutch.
And so, we land on George Hill's backup, which changes depending on Quin Snyder's mid-game inklings.
Shelvin Mack was the first second-string floor general off the pine in Games 1 and 2. Raul Neto joined him in Game 3. Snyder gave run to all three of Mack, Neto and Dante Exum in Game 4. And then he used just Exum and Neto in Game 5.
Rotations don't have to shrink just because it's the postseason. At the same time, the Jazz are 87 games into their schedule, and Snyder continues to audition backcourt understudies. That's excessive, especially now, when the opponent isn't changing on a night-to-night basis.
Shaking things up when there's no working fit can often be applauded, but if the Jazz aren't confident enough in one of their three supporting jockeys by now, they should turn over even more of the playmaking responsibilities to Hayward, Ingles and Rodney Hood.
Washington Wizards: Interior Defense
Markieff Morris almost earned a nod on his own. He's disappeared on the offensive end since Game 1, and Paul Millsap is getting the best of him at the other end. Morris has committed five fouls in each of his last three games and isn't making the right reads on Millsap's face-ups.
That's one of many symptoms plaguing the Wizards' interior defense. They're letting up almost 34 shots per game in the restricted area—the most for the postseason. Their rim protection has been fine, but they're forking over the league's highest free-throw rate.
When Atlanta drives, Washington commits a foul nearly 20 percent of the time. The Hawks recognize this and have entered a perpetual state of attack mode—one that dwarfs any off-the-dribble switch they previously flipped. No playoff team is averaging more free-throw attempts off drives as a result.
On the occasions when they get stops, the Wizards aren't doing a good enough job erasing second-chance opportunities. Atlanta is fourth in offensive rebounding rate, mostly because Washington's four-out lineups don't boast the size or physical punch to overpower Dwight Howard, Mike Muscala or even Ersan Ilyasova.
While the Hawks offense is hot-and-cold enough for the Wizards to handle, they won't be so lucky later on. Each of their potential second-round opponents, the Bulls and Celtics, have scorers who burst more readily through defenses.
And as for a possible matchup with the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, well, there's this LeBron James guy. The Wizards' foul-happy interior defense won't survive him—assuming it doesn't cost them a series before then.