First Round Recap/Second Round PreviewI correctly predicted the outcome of seven of the eight first round playoff series. I completely whiffed on the Washington-Chicago series; I did not expect Washington's frontcourt to dominate Chicago's frontcourt, nor did I expect that the Wizards would commit just 10 turnovers a game after averaging nearly 15 turnovers a game during the regular season. Most of the other storylines went according to the scripts that I envisioned, including Russell Westbrook proving to be the difference for Oklahoma City versus Memphis, James Harden flaming out as Houston lost to Portland and Indiana outlasting Atlanta even though the Pacers floundered during the second half of the season and despite the fact that the Hawks matched up well with the Pacers during the regular season.
Westbrook authored a dominant performance as the Thunder closed out the Grizzlies 120-109 in game seven. He produced 27 points, 16 assists, 10 rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot. Westbrook and Rajon Rondo are the only players in NBA history who have notched two game seven triple doubles. Jerry West, James Worthy, Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen each had one game seven triple double. Westbrook is often criticized for his shot selection and decision making but against Memphis under win or go home pressure he shot 10-16 from the field, though he did commit seven turnovers.
Westbrook missed last year's Oklahoma City-Memphis series due to injury and his absence is the single biggest reason that the Grizzlies prevailed; this time around, Westbrook averaged 25.6 ppg (sixth in the playoffs), a team-high 9.7 rpg (ninth in the playoffs) and 8.0 rpg (third in the playoffs) against Memphis. He is playing at an MVP level--putting up rebounding and assist numbers like Jason Kidd in his prime but with the added dimension of explosive scoring--and yet critics continue to snipe at him. It seems like every time Kevin Durant misses a shot it is Westbrook's fault. Neither player shot particularly well against Memphis but the duo helped Oklahoma City earn homecourt advantage during the regular season and both players came through in game seven at home.
Some people may attribute Memphis' loss this year to Zach Randolph's game seven suspension but there are two reasons that Randolph's absence should not be compared with Westbrook's absence versus Memphis last year: (1) Westbrook missed the entire series as opposed to sitting out just one game and (2) Westbrook missed those games due to a condition beyond his control, while Randolph disqualified himself because he punched Steven Adams in game six and every NBA player knows that there are strict rules against throwing a punch, let alone actually hitting someone. Part of predicting the outcome of a playoff series is making a judgment about which team's stars are more consistently productive and reliable.
Speaking of unreliable, James Harden could be a solid number two option or an excellent third option for a championship contender but unless or until he adds a midrange game, a postup game and some semblance of defensive awareness/effort to his skill set repertoire he will be better suited to a supporting role than a leading role. Harden averaged 26.8 ppg, 5.8 apg and 4.7 rpg in Houston's first round loss to Portland but he shot just .376 from the field and .296 from three point range; during last year's playoffs, Harden averaged 26.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 4.5 apg while shooting .391 from the field and .341 from three point range. Harden's game is based on shooting a lot of three pointers and flailing his arms while driving to the hoop, hoping to get bailed out with a foul call. Teams that deny Harden open three pointers and block his path to the hoop without fouling him can force Harden to shoot a low percentage. In other words, he is poorly suited to be the number one option for a championship contending team because when he faces elite teams he will not score efficiently and/or draw double teams, nor will he make enough contributions in other areas to offset his ineffective offensive game. The Thunder can and have replaced Harden's offense but Harden has not yet found two superstars like Durant and Westbrook who can take the pressure off of him.
Many "stat gurus" see little value in the midrange game, asserting that basketball teams should take the majority of their shots either at the rim or behind the three point line. The math behind that theory is sound--the highest percentage shots are dunks and open three pointers--and I used to take that same position with my teammates in recreational league/pickup play, arguing that a three point shooter who shoots .400 from that distance is equivalent to a two point shooter who shoots .600, but there are major differences between amateur basketball and NBA basketball. Teams below the NBA level can win by bombarding the opposition with three pointers, because the players' skill level and the coaches' acumen are not nearly as advanced as they are in the NBA. Paul Westhead had great success as a college coach and he won a WNBA title employing a fast paced approach with a high number of three point attempts but his 1980 L.A. Lakers championship team played a more conventional style.
The Houston Rockets' organization, led by Daryl Morey, believes very strongly in the three pointer/dunk theory and that is why Morey considers Harden to be a "foundational player." The evidence does not support Morey's belief. Portland crowded Harden at the three point line and cut off his driving lanes and Harden had no answer; his lack of a midrange game and a postup game became particularly evident in late shot clock and late game situations, because he has no effective way to free himself for a 15 foot jump shot and/or a back to the basket inside move. Kobe Bryant killed teams with those kinds of shots during his five championship runs and LeBron James added those shots to his arsenal in the past two season en route to leading the Miami Heat to back to back titles but Harden does not have those weapons and there is no reason to believe that he will develop that kind of game in Houston.
The Indiana Pacers looked terrible in the second half of the regular season. It is obvious that they have some internal problems, that Paul George is not yet quite as good as some people said and that Roy Hibbert is a bit overrated as well--but the Pacers still had the best record in the Eastern Conference after an 82 game marathon. That fact should not be casually dismissed. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Miami Heat will most likely expose all of Indiana's flaws but a team like Atlanta is not quite good enough to win a game seven on the road versus the Pacers.
I will stay true to my original second round predictions: Miami, Indiana, San Antonio and Oklahoma City will advance. The Nets were built to beat the Heat and did a fine job of that during the regular season but in a seven game playoff series LeBron James will wear down the Nets' aging nucleus. Perhaps I am still underestimating the Wizards but I just cannot see Washington beating Indiana in a seven game series no matter how bad the Pacers' chemistry may be and no matter how stagnant the Pacers' halfcourt offense can become. The Spurs are probably the only franchise that can win multiple titles and still consistently be counted out; the Blazers will fight hard but come up short. Throughout the Oklahoma City-L.A. Clippers series we will repeatedly hear that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook cannot play well together, that Scott Brooks does not know how to coach and that the Thunder miss Harden, the most inefficient volume shooter of the 2014 playoffs--and then Durant and Westbrook will shine in the series clincher as the Thunder advance to the Western Conference Finals.
posted by David Friedman @ 10:25 AM