First Round StorylinesThe first week of the NBA playoffs has been action packed, filled with great individual and team performances plus a few surprises. One team has already mercifully been sent fishing--the underachieving and disinterested Detroit Pistons; at this point I am sure that even their most ardent fans are glad that they will not have to watch the Pistons play anymore this season. The other 15 playoff teams all have at least some life left, although a few of them face the looming prospect of an elimination game. Here is a series by series look at the NBA playoffs:
Cleveland Defeats Detroit, 4-0
Scoring Leader: LeBron James (CLE), 32.0 ppg
Rebounding Leader: LeBron James (CLE), 11.3 rpg
Assists Leader: LeBron James (CLE), 7.5 apg
Even though the Pistons basically took a roll of stamps and mailed in their performance--for most of the season, not just this playoff series--the way that Cleveland won is still significant. There have been plenty of mismatches in the 63 year history of the NBA playoffs but this is just the 52nd sweep of a best of seven series. The Cavaliers are the third of those 52 teams to win every game by a double digit margin. Their success is based on defense, rebounding and the all-around brilliance of LeBron James and during this series they made it clear that they are a tough, mentally focused team that will accept nothing less than winning a championship; except for a brief lapse in concentration during the fourth quarter of game two, the Cavs played at a consistently high level, setting their own standard of excellence as opposed to just coasting versus an obviously disinterested opponent.
James averaged 32.0 ppg, 11.3 rpg and 7.5 apg, joining Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird as the only players in NBA history to average at least 30-10-7 in a playoff series. James also became the only player other than Robertson to post at least 1300 points, 400 rebounds and 350 assists in the first 50 games of his postseason career.
It has been painful for any basketball purist to watch the Pistons play during this season and it is a welcome relief to not have to see them, think about them or write about them for the rest of the playoffs. While intelligent NBA observers like Jeff Van Gundy understand that Allen Iverson is not the sole reason for Detroit's struggles this season, far too many people have mindlessly jumped on the anti-Iverson bandwagon. In 2007-08, Iverson averaged a team-high 26.4 ppg (third in the NBA) for a Denver team that won 50 games; he averaged a team-high 24.5 ppg in the playoffs for Denver. I don't believe that he suddenly lost all of his skills and explosiveness this season; the Pistons simply did not utilize him correctly, a point that ESPN's Avery Johnson has repeatedly mentioned: you don't trade for a future Hall of Famer who has been a starter for his whole career and then refuse to make any changes to your offensive system to incorporate the things he does well. We only saw glimpes of what Iverson could have done for the Pistons this season: Iverson and Rasheed Wallace tied for team-high scoring honors with 25 points in a 106-95 win over the Lakers on November 14; five days later, Iverson scored 23 points and Wallace added 21 points in a 96-89 victory versus Cleveland. In those games, Iverson and Wallace frequently ran screen/roll actions, with Iverson driving to the hoop, pulling up for the jumper or feeding an open teammate (often Wallace). For some reason, after beating the two teams that will almost certainly meet in this season's NBA Finals, the Pistons did not continue to use Iverson effectively, instead constantly changing their lineups and shifting the roles of various players.
Injuries also sidetracked the Pistons. Iverson, who played in all 82 games last season, was hobbled by a back problem after the All-Star break and by the end of the season the team told him to not bother to return. There has been a lot of speculation about just how seriously Iverson is really hurt, because he clearly did not like the idea of coming off of the bench, which is the role that first year Coach Michael Curry eventually decided to force Iverson to accept. It will always mystify me why the Pistons apparently predetermined that Rodney Stuckey had to start no matter what, thereby consigning at least one perennial All-Star (Iverson or Richard Hamilton) to the bench. Stuckey is still a bench player at this stage of his career and even though in a perfect world players should do what their coach asks them to do I can understand why neither Iverson nor Hamilton felt comfortable in a reserve role.
The idea that the Pistons performed "addition by subtraction" when they banished Iverson is belied by the way that they closed out the season--a 3-4 record when just a couple more wins could have vaulted them up to the sixth seed, thereby avoiding Cleveland and Boston in the first round--and the fact that they were by far the least competitive of the 16 playoff teams. The Pistons scored 84, 82, 68 and 78 points in their four playoff games, so I don't want to hear about how "efficient" their offense supposedly became sans the allegedly "inefficient" Iverson; the one thing Iverson most assuredly can do is "get buckets" and while it is obvious that the Cavs would have won the series anyway, Iverson's scoring punch probably would have been enough to help the Pistons avoid being swept (assuming that the Pistons actually used Iverson correctly, which they were strangely disinclined to do).
Pistons General Manager Joe Dumars will never say this, but in light of what happened this season it is obvious that trading Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess (who was re-signed after one month) for Iverson was purely a deal to create salary cap space for the future (by letting Iverson--and Rasheed Wallace--walk after this season the Pistons will be serious players in the free agent market). At the time of the trade, Dumars mentioned that financial flexibility as a positive factor but he also spoke about jump starting the team's offense by taking advantage of Iverson's ability to draw fouls and to create shots for himself and his teammates but--other than a handful of early games, including the two mentioned above--the Pistons never played that way; giving playing time to young players (most notably Stuckey) clearly took precedence over trying to win this year. I suspect that if Dumars were forced to take a lie detector test then he would admit that he did not think that the Pistons could win the East with Billups or with Iverson, so he preferred to take his lumps and position the team for the future. We shall see if whoever he adds to the team can join forces with Stuckey and the other youngsters to once again make the Pistons relevant.
The absence of McDyess early in the season negatively affected the Pistons overall. McDyess, seemingly the only veteran member of their rotation who played hard during the playoffs, more than once labeled his team's performance versus Cleveland as "embarrassing" and he is 100% correct. McDyess tied his playoff career-high with 26 points in game four, outscoring the other four Detroit starters combined.
Boston 2, Chicago 2
Scoring Leader: Paul Pierce (BOS), 23.5 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Joakim Noah (CHI), 11.3 rpg
Assists Leader: Rajon Rondo (BOS), 10.0 apg
Derrick Rose's sensational playoff debut as the Chicago Bulls temporarily wrested home court advantage away from the injury depleted defending champions has perhaps obscured the fact that the best point guard--and best player--in this series has been Rajon Rondo; Rondo leads both team in assists, is just .2 ppg behind Pierce for top scoring honors, trails Noah by just .5 rpg and he already has two triple doubles: Rondo is playing like Jason Kidd did in his prime, except Rondo is scoring more prolifically and shooting better from the field. The Bulls have won two overtime games, while the Celtics had one close win and one blowout victory; it seems obvious that if the Celtics had a healthy Kevin Garnett patrolling the paint on defense and drilling jumpers, setting screens and making passes on offense then Boston would not have had too many problems in this matchup but the Celtics have made it clear that Garnett "will not be walking through that door" (to borrow a quote from the Celtics' dark days a few years back) and his absence has turned this into a hotly contested, fun to watch series. The Celtics' trumps are experience and home court advantage and--Chicago's game one win in Boston notwithstanding--that should be just enough to get them past the Bulls. Future Hall of Famer Ray Allen was dreadful in game one but has played very well since then, shooting 14-25 from three point range in the past three games. Future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce has only shot well in one game out of four and is only averaging 1.8 apg, so in Garnett's absence he has not exactly backed up his bold words from last summer about being the best player in the NBA.
Orlando 2, Philadelphia 2
Scoring Leader: Dwight Howard (ORL), 24.0 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Dwight Howard (ORL), 13.8 rpg
Assists Leader: Andre Iguodala (PHI), 7.5 apg
Dwight Howard is posting the highest playoff scoring average of his career but he is attempting fewer than 12 shots per game; the Magic lost the two games in which he scored very well (31 points in game one, 36 points in game three) and won the two games in which he posted modest scoring totals (11 points in game two, 18 points in game four). These numbers reinforce the truth of my explanation of why I would not take Howard over James or Bryant; if you single cover James or Bryant, they will score 40-plus points and their teams will almost certainly win--but if you single cover Howard and stay at home on Orlando's shooters then Howard is not dominant enough to consistently go off and score 40-plus points in a winning effort. It is important to vary your defensive coverages against any great player but if I were coaching against Howard my default coverage would be man to man, with my center trying to prevent Howard from catching the ball in the paint; Howard is not a great passer, so if you force him outside of the paint and either don't double at all or wait to double until he puts the ball on the floor then he will not burn you as a playmaker.
Just like last year, the Sixers are proving to be a tough out that "fights above their weight" (to use a boxing phrase); they play better than you would expect based on their mediocre regular season record (41-41). Nevertheless, just like the Sixers took a 2-1 first round lead last year only to lose in six games, I expect that the Magic will eliminate them and that the series will not go the distance.
Miami 2, Atlanta 1
Scoring Leader: Dwyane Wade (MIA), 27.0 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Josh Smith (ATL), 9.3 rpg
Assists Leader: Dwyane Wade (MIA), 6.7 apg
Wade had a subpar game one performance (19 points on 8-21 shooting, eight turnovers) in a 90-64 loss but he returned to form in two convincing Miami wins. What most observers either do not see or simply refuse to acknowledge is that Wade is receiving a decent amount of help from his teammates. No, the Heat are not a championship caliber team, but they are not just a one man band, either: Jermaine O'Neal is averaging 15.3 ppg on .536 field goal shooting versus Atlanta, Udonis Haslem is nearly averaging a double double (9.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg) while shooting .650 from the field and Daequan Cook is providing timely three point shooting (9.3 ppg, .400 three point field goal percentage). While much is made of the playoff experience that the Hawks gained last year by pushing the Celtics to seven games in the first round, Wade and Haslem started for a Miami championship team in 2006 and O'Neal has Eastern Conference Finals experience from his days with the Pacers.
The Hawks had home court advantage at the start of this series but now must win a game in Miami to avoid falling into a 3-1 hole, a deficit that only eight teams in playoff history have overcome. As TNT's Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley have repeatedly noted, the Hawks are an outstanding transition team but their halfcourt offense is dreadful: "Dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, bad shot," as Smith put it; it is like watching a team of five clones of Steve Francis or Stephon Marbury in their "primes." Barkley said that any decent team from his era would have
"beaten the Hawks like a drum" in a playoff series and he could only shake his head at the fact that the Hawks simply cannot manufacture a quality shot attempt when they are not running and gunning.
L.A. Lakers 3, Utah 1
Scoring Leader: Kobe Bryant (LAL), 26.5 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Carlos Boozer (UTA), 14.3 rpg
Assists Leader: Deron Williams (UTA), 12.0 apg
Kobe Bryant's one bad game out of four attracted a certain amount of attention but overall he has been the best player in this series and he has increased his numbers in several categories (rebounds, assists, steals, free throw percentage) compared to the regular season while maintaining his scoring average and field goal percentage; Bryant bounced back from his 5-24 shooting in a game three loss to shoot 16-24 and score 38 points in game four as the Lakers took a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Bryant shot 9-17 and 8-17 as the Lakers posted double digit wins in the first two games of the series but in those contests the most notable aspect of his game was not his efficient shooting but rather his deft playmaking; he had eight assists in game one and nine assists in game two but those numbers only tell a small part of the story: for instance, on one play in game two, Bryant drew two defenders out near the three point line, fired a cross court pass to Trevor Ariza and Ariza made a touch pass to Derek Fisher for an open three pointer that put the Lakers up 27-14. TNT's Reggie Miller commented, "Even though Kobe Bryant will not get the assist on that, it (Fisher's open shot) is because everyone is coming to help (on) Kobe and he made the pass that led to the pass for the wide open three for Fisher." On the Lakers' next possession, the Jazz did not double team Bryant and he swished a three pointer; the dominant positive feature for the Lakers in this series has been how well Bryant has read the defense and either made pinpoint passes or else hit open shots, with game three being an aberration mainly because Bryant simply missed shots that he normally makes: though the Jazz should also be given credit for contesting most of those shots, Bryant clearly proved in game four that when he is on his game he will score even against good defense.
In his April 25 L.A. Times column, Bill Plaschke discussed the Lakers' game three loss:
Numerous people have mentioned that Michael Jordan would never allow the Chicago Bulls to lose a game like Thursday night's -- his team would never blow a 13-point third-quarter lead while Jordan made only five of 24 shots.
Bryant shook his head.
"One big difference," he said. "Michael had Scottie Pippen. He had someone who could distribute the ball and keep everyone else involved."
Bryant momentarily sighed.
"Michael could come out and shoot the ball 40 times a game," Bryant said. "I can't do that."
Again, he smiled.
"Having someone like Pippen would be a big luxury for me, because scoring is what I do best, but it's OK," he said. "It's a challenge, and I welcome the challenge."
What many people fail to understand is that even though Bryant is not as good as Jordan was, Bryant is actually shouldering a heavier load; Jordan had a Top 50 teammate in Pippen, a player who served as a defensive stopper and the team's primary playmaker, freeing up Jordan to be a deadly scoring machine, but the Lakers rely on Bryant to not only be the leading scorer but also to be the primary playmaker and the top perimeter defender. Against Utah, Bryant has been trying to find a balance between helping get his teammates going while at the same time taking advantage of his own scoring opportunities. After game three, Bryant acknowledged that perhaps he had been waiting too long in each game before asserting himself as a scorer.
The fact is that the Lakers are a dynamic offensive team because of Bryant's ability to not only score but to create for his teammates; if he focuses too much on simply being a playmaker then he is actually shortchanging the team, because often the best option/most favorable mismatch dictates that he should shoot the ball.
Although Utah is obviously a more formidable team than Detroit, the Lakers' performance in this series provides an interesting contrast with Cleveland's performance in the other 1-8 matchup; while the Cavs won three games in which they scored fewer than 100 points, the Lakers have scored at least 108 points in their wins and they lost the only game in which they did not reach the century mark. The Cavaliers play good defense night in and night out, while the Lakers' defense is much less consistent; at times versus Utah, the Lakers look like the Washington Generals playing against the Harlem Globetrotters, giving up layup after layup. Carlos Boozer is leading all players in playoff rebounding, while Deron Williams is tied with Chris Paul for the lead in assists. The Lakers will win this series because of Bryant's skill set and because they have superior overall offensive firepower but they are not even close to playing championship level defense.
During game four, ESPN ran a graphic about the duos that have led Lakers teams to at least 65 wins in a season: Wilt and West, Magic and Kareem, Shaq and Kobe--and now Kobe and Pau Gasol. It is worth noting that Kobe Bryant is the only player in that group who has led the Lakers to at least 65 wins in a season without the benefit of playing alongside a future Hall of Famer--and those other duos consisted not just of Hall of Famers but of players who would make just about everyone's list of the top 15 players of all-time. While a similar observation could also be made about LeBron James and his 66 win Cleveland team that does not have any other future Hall of Famers, I still think that Bryant does not get enough credit for his impact on the Lakers; people talk so much about how talented the Lakers are but they are not a great defensive team and a lot of the "talent" that they display on offense is directly related to Bryant attracting so much attention that other players are playing one on one or even one on none. Yes, Gasol has a nice skill set for a big man but his game has been helped immeasurably by all of the attention Bryant receives. Guys like Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown were never considered to be good shooters until this year when they played alongside Bryant and had the chance to shoot wide open jumpers.
Andrew Bynum has been a complete non-factor in this series; the cumbersome knee brace that he has to wear seems to be making him tentative and in game four Coach Phil Jackson replaced him in the starting lineup with Lamar Odom. It is worth emphasizing that--contrary to the expectations expressed by several "experts"--Jackson never put Gasol, Bynum and Odom on the court at the same time this season. Last summer, I offered a a very prescient take on exactly what kind of team the Lakers would be in 2009 and I completely dismissed the popular notion that Jackson would play his three big guys together:
The Lakers still have the same strengths that enabled them to not only post the best record in the West but also defeat three 50-plus win teams in the playoffs: they have a Hall of Fame coach, the best all-around player in the NBA and a high powered offense. The Finals highlighted the weaknesses that they overcame to have such a great season: a lack of toughness that manifests itself defensively and on the boards and the lack of a legit, top flight small forward who can make a significant offensive contribution and/or lock down the opposing team's high scoring small forward. If Andrew Bynum returns to health and is productive then he can start at center and Pau Gasol can shift to power forward. In that scenario, the ideal move for the Lakers would be to trade Lamar Odom for a quality small forward. Odom is not an ideal small forward, so a frontline of Bynum-Gasol-Odom is not feasible, despite what some people may try to convince you; the only way that those three players can effectively coexist is if one of them comes off of the bench. Gasol is the second best player on the team, so he is not going to be a reserve. Bynum is the best postup player, so it does not make sense to sit him either.
While the Cavaliers are a defensive-minded team that is also capable of being offensively potent, the Lakers primarily rely on outscoring their opponents; that should not be a problem for L.A. in the Western Conference playoffs but if the Lakers do not become much better defensively by June then they will not beat the Cavs in the Finals.
Denver 2, New Orleans 1
Scoring Leader: Chauncey Billups (DEN), 27.7 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Nene (DEN), 10.0 rpg
Assists Leader: Chris Paul (NOR), 12.0 apg
The Nuggets cruised to home wins in the first two games of this series and had a chance to put New Orleans in a stranglehold after racing to a 22-6 lead at the start of game three--but the Hornets bounced back to eke out a 95-93 victory and can tie the series with a home win tonight. In games one and two, Chauncey Billups played almost flawless basketball; his role in "changing the culture" in Denver during the regular season has been a bit exaggerated--Denver's win total only increased by four but the Nuggets jumped from eighth to second because so many other teams in the West slipped, primarily due to injuries--but there is no question that he is the primary reason that the Nuggets are just two wins away from their first playoff series victory since 1994. That said, it should also be noted that Denver's improved defense has at least as much to do with the team's frontcourt play as it does with Billups, who in most cases is not even guarding his counterpart, Chris Paul. If the Hornets can protect their homecourt then it will be interesting to see how the Nuggets--who have some hotheads on their roster--respond to the pressure of game five.
Dallas 3, San Antonio 1
Scoring Leader: Tony Parker (SAS), 29.3 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Dirk Nowitzki (DAL), 8.5 rpg
Assists Leader: Jason Kidd (DAL), 5.8 apg
There have been several times that the Spurs have been written off only to display a Rasputin-like ability to stay alive but this may really be the beginning of the end for the Spurs. Without Manu Ginobili they apparently do not have the necessary offensive firepower to keep up with the Mavs. Tim Duncan is also hobbled, though he had a strong performance (25 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists) in a game four loss. The Spurs are not as deep as they were during their championship seasons and they surely must now rue some of the cost cutting moves--like trading the rights to Luis Scola--that they made in recent years. Tony Parker has been fantastic but the Mavs simply have too much depth and too many weapons. The Mavs got off to a slow start this season but they are peaking at the right time; the return of former All-Star Josh Howard has really provided a much needed boost.
Houston 3, Portland 1
Scoring Leader: Brandon Roy (POR), 27.3 ppg
Rebounding Leader: Yao Ming (HOU), 10.5 rpg
Assists Leader: Ron Artest (HOU)/Aaron Brooks (HOU), 4.8 apg
After Houston's blowout game one win, this series has been very tightly contested but that does not change the fact that the Blazers are one loss away from being eliminated; they face the daunting task of having to win three straight games in order to advance to the second round. The Blazers do not have much playoff experience--but most of the playoff experience for Houston's players consists of being bounced out in the first round (though Ron Artest made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004 as a Pacer). I thought that Portland would enjoy several good matchups in this series and that those factors--big defenders capable of slowing down Yao Ming, a plethora of good outside shooters, a big-time star in Brandon Roy--coupled with home court advantage would be enough to tilt the balance in their favor but in an evenly matched series losing game one may prove to be too much for Portland to overcome.
The Blazers led 70-64 going into the fourth quarter of game four--and the Rockets have not been a good come from behind team in recent seasons--but they made several key mistakes down the stretch, including a pair of charging fouls by Brandon Roy, who otherwise played very well (31 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals, three blocked shots). Both of Roy's offensive fouls came on plays when he penetrated too far into the paint and a help defender slid into his path. Last year, when I made a skill set comparison between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, one of the reasons that I gave Bryant the overall edge was the potency of his midrange game: Bryant can stop on a dime and consistently make 15-18 foot jump shots, something that is still a weakness--the only remaining one--for James. Roy has a good midrange jumper but part of being a superstar player is not only having a variety of weapons/tools but knowing which one to use in a particular situation. Other than Yao Ming, the Rockets do not have shotblockers but they do have several players who are good at taking charges; therefore, you cannot expect to start a drive on the perimeter and make it all the way to the hoop in a halfcourt set versus the Rockets: you must be prepared to stop and either shoot the midrange shot or else kick the ball out to a three point shooter. Roy is a student of the game, so he will surely watch game film and make the appropriate adjustment, though it may be too late to save Portland in this series.
Ron Artest is a tremendous defensive player but his shot selection is simply horrible; he shot 5-20 from the field in game four but his performance was actually worse than those numbers suggest because--other than a few strong postup moves--the vast majority of his attempts were bad shots due to the time remaining, his location on the court, who else was open or all of the above. There is no reason that a player with his size and physical gifts should be a .422 lifetime shooter, including .401 this season--and he is only shooting .383 versus Portland. Artest is actually a very good passer when he wants to be but the problem is that he is convinced that he should be his team's number one scoring option, so if he has not had a good shot attempt in a while he will force up a bad shot the next time he gets the ball.
Here is the best commercial so far from the NBA playoffs, a joyful snippet of Biz Markie's 1989 top 10 hit "Just a Friend." Nobody beats the Biz:
The worst commercial is a staple on NBA TV, airing approximately 20 times an hour: "We will go Haier" the singers warble off key as viewers wonder why NBA TV is torturing us. I am convinced that the fast forward button on the TIVO remote control was invented in response to this commercial.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:44 AM