By Adam Spinella
A long, drawn-out NBA season has trimmed the fat, getting rid of nearly half of its teams as the move to postseason play begins. Preparing for the postseason is why we watch the regular season with such precision; to discern what type of playing style each team will utilize, figure out what is important and closely watch each matchup and chess match within the series.
After sifting through the game film, the stats and the narratives surrounding each series, we’re ready to boil it down simply for you. For each team, there are three things to watch for each team in their first-round playoff series. Here’s a look at the Eastern Conference.
1. Boston Celtics vs. 8. Chicago Bulls
Celtics Three Things to Know
1. Defensive Rebounding, Here We Go!
We’ve heard about it all season: Boston’s Achilles heel is their inability to rebound the basketball. And what better first-round opponent to grapple with than the league’s second-best offensive rebounding group in Chicago? The Bulls will crash the glass relentlessly for second-chance points, led by Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis. Boston allowed the Bulls to bring in 60 offensive rebounds in their four games this season. Sixty. Fifteen per game. Almost four per quarter. Chicago didn’t grab more against any Eastern Conference foe.
As Brad Stevens has long contended, rebounding isn’t solely on the big men. A lot of the time, they are doing the boxing out while other guards and wings run in to grab the rebounds. But ultimately, rebounding is a test of will power, and as Pat Riley once said “no rebounds, no rings.” A tiger doesn’t change its stripes overnight (or just because it’s the postseason now), so whatever ways Stevens can motivate his group or tactically alter their game plan to limit second-chance points will go a long way in Boston’s comfort in this series.
2. Run Them to Death
Chicago’s guards are old or big or slow or all three. Wade and Rondo have some mileage on their odometers. Jimmy Butler, if he spends any time guarding Thomas or Bradley, is an easy target since he’s their top offensive threat. But the Celtics want to do to the Bulls what most teams do to them: run their top offensive players all over the court on the defensive end, wear them out and disintegrate their offense by extension.
Thomas is fast and will be able to get open frequently. Check out this set the Celtics run for Avery Bradley, which is one that could fully tire any of the Bulls’ three primary guards.
3. Hiding Isaiah
For a team that’s as good at being team-oriented on offense and maximizing their talents the way the Celtics are, Boston is really a league-average defensive team. They have two elite defenders on the wings in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, both of whom will be occupied with Wade and Butler in this series. Horford is a solid defender, but he’s not a vertical rim protector.
Facing a team with definitive scoring wings like Chicago makes it harder to hide Isaiah Thomas. Thankfully for Thomas, his likely matchups (Rondo, Carter-Williams, Cam Payne) are not scorers that can exploit him possession after possession.
While the draw of facing the Bulls in the first-round is poor in terms of clashing styles (brute interior presence and rebounding vs. Boston’s spread and finesse style), the silver lining is that Isaiah won’t be too much of a negative on the defensive end. He always makes shots, and his offensive presence is crucial to Boston’s wining probabilities. If they advance, no matter who their second-round matchup is, Thomas will have his defensive work cut out for him.
Bulls Three Things to Know
1. The TNT Bulls are real
Three of the first four games in this series are on TNT. Uh oh…
Seriously, I have no clue what it is with this team, but this is a legitimate thing. Twenty straight home wins for games on TNT. Another few victories over the Celtics on Turner. It’s strange, there’s no way to describe how much this is just a random coincidence, but it is being talked about on the team. And in a mental game, any inch of mental advantage you gain matters.
2. Rondo is actually quite good
Say what you will about his personality or antics, perhaps no player is smarter with the ball in his hands than Rondo. Quietly, Rajon has had an unbelievable second-half of the season. March was a kind month, scoring 9.8 points with 7.2 assists per game, while shooting an insane 51.4 percent from three. Teams usually dare Rondo to shoot, but he’s 24 of his last 48 from deep.
Rondo figures to see a steady diet of Isaiah Thomas this season, where it is paramount that Rondo attacks to score and looks to do more than just facilitate. He’ll be placed in plenty of ball screens or one-on-one situations, especially when the Bulls go with shooters surrounding him.
But as the season has gone on, Rondo has seemed more comfortable with his role playing off the ball and deferring to Butler or Wade to be creators. When defenses have to close out to him and respect his jump shot, he throttles them with quick passes on the weak side, trapping defenders on the back side that split him and another shooter.
Reports of Rondo’s demise were incredibly premature. He did struggle this year to fit into a mismatched group of players in Chicago. But he’s hitting his stride just in time to play spoiler to his former team.
3. Playoff Experience and Underdogs
Let’s face it, the Bulls are the underdogs despite whatever TNT aura exists or the splitting of the season series means. Experience though, is real. Boston is devoid of major playoff experience, with Horford and Bradley the only two guys to play in double-digit playoff games during a single season. Chicago, on the other hand, has champions in Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. For whatever experience counts for, that may be one of the few areas that favor the Bulls.
Prediction: Celtics in 6
4. Washington Wizards vs. 5. Atlanta Hawks
Wizards Three Things to Know
1. Susceptibility in the pick-and-roll
The Wizards offense has kept them as one of the top teams in the East this season and secured them home-court in the playoffs, but their defense isn’t good. Only the Blazers and Cavaliers have a worse defensive rating than Washington among teams to make the playoffs.
The area where Washington struggles the most is against the ball screen. Scott Brooks has favored a more aggressive style, hard-hedging with Marcin Gortat and the bigs to try and limit dribble penetration. Wings like Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre and Bradley Beal all must be ready and willing to rotate off the ball as a result.
Against Atlanta this is a big problem, as the Hawks have ditched their ball movement-oriented style in favor of a more Schroder-PNR type of attack. Washington gambles and forces turnovers frequently, and will continue to do so against the Hawks. Like any high-risk, high-reward style, the result when they don’t get a steal is an easy opportunity near the rim.
2. Otto Regressing
Since January, Otto Porter’s three-point percentage has dropped dramatically. He was at 49.4 percent in January, went down to a more normal 45.5 percent in February, fell off a cliff in March to 35.9 percent and went just 4-for-14 in April. His last 11 games have seen him shoot a smidge above 30 percent from deep. His numbers are sinking, and they’re sinking fast.
I’m not one to pay too close attention to these trends over the course of an 82-game season, but with Porter things are different. Porter was only a 35 percent shooter from three coming into the season, so it was a bit surprising to see his name among the best shooters in the league by the All-Star Break. As he’s begun to regress to his league average, those few timely buckets or corner threes in the postseason are the difference in close games.
3. Bojan & Small-Ball
The acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic has lifted the Wizards’ second unit from one of the worst in the league to a better scoring unit. He’s shot 39 percent from three and provided adequate spacing for John Wall or other ball handlers they throw in the game. But the 6’8″ Bogdanovic has done so in small-ball lineups that nobody really anticipated when they acquired him: he’s spent half of his minutes at the four since joining the Wizards, according to his Bball-reference page.
The best small-ball lineup the Wizards trot out there consists of Wall-Beal-Bogdanovic-Porter-Morris, the ultimate spacing unit around John Wall with enough size to handle a frontcourt. Will Scott Brooks gamble with this group against Atlanta? If he does, do they successfully attack Howard, or let Howard abuse them a bit down low? Brooks has gravitated towards this lineup in the fourth quarter recently, and that could be an offense-for-defense type of adjustment he makes late in games.
Hawks Three Things to Know
1. Taking care of the ball
Dennis Schroder is a high-turnover point guard with a loose handle. The Hawks lack a true backup point guard to alleviate those concerns and replace him with when the defense is really getting into the ball. Washington averages the second most steals per game in the NBA, led by ball-hawk John Wall and reserves Kelly Oubre and Brandon Jennings that can come into a game and alter the tempo with full-court pressure. How do the Hawks, a team averaging nearly 16 turnovers per game (a bottom three number in the league) manage to take care of the ball better this series?
After a season’s worth of juggling two point guard lineups, Budenholzer has abandoned that approach this season. Schroder and Jose Calderon have logged zero minutes alongside together this season, while Schroder and Malcolm Delaney average fewer than three minutes per game together. If the Wizards can successfully rattle Dennis and create transition points from turnovers, that will significantly alter Atlanta’s offensive approach.
2. The Hardaway Explosion
Nobody has been more important to keeping the Hawks’ offense afloat in the post-Korver era than Tim Hardaway Jr. His emergence in the second-half of the season as a legitimate scoring option give Atlanta someone to run sets for outside the pick-and-roll. While the Hardaway-Beal matchup might be one worth monitoring, Atlanta cannot win games if Hardaway doesn’t score. He’s averaging over 17 points per game after the All-Star Break.
The little things are where Hardaway gets his money’s worth. Instead of working to get open off screens all the time, he is already savvy at making timely backdoor cuts when overplayed on his inside shoulder. He’s got the length and athleticism to finish at the rim, too.
3. Shooting (Bigs) cures a multitude of sins
Atlanta is a solid defensive group with turnover issues, a pick-and-roll heavy attack and a lack of reliable depth. But they have some extraordinary shooting big men that can cause the Wizards’ pick-and-roll coverage to suffer. Paul Millsap (only 31 percent on the year) has always been reliable from the outside, and his playmaking ability on the perimeter forces defenders to gravitate towards him. Ersan Ilyasova (35 percent from three with the Hawks) is a stroker as well, and his playoff experience only aids Atlanta. Even Mike Muscala (41.8 percent) has gotten in on the action and is the valuable stretch-five that Budenholzer covets.
Washington will be able to score in this series. John Wall is too good, he’s surrounded by shooters and the Wizards are clicking on offense. For the Hawks, they’ll have to find ways to keep up with the pace that Wall wants to keep the game at. More outside shots out of pick-and-pops, spacing on dangerous Schroder ballscreens or passes through the heart of the defense from the top of the key are all ways that Atlanta’s stretch bigs will have to contribute positively.
Prediction: Wizards in 5
3. Toronto Raptors vs. 6. Milwaukee Bucks
Raptors Three Things to Know
1. Simplicity rules on offense
Nothing about the sets and plays that the Raptors run is incredibly evolutionary. Dwane Casey has a great package of counters to his frequent sets that he can dial up at any moment, but their bread-and-butter revolves around simple actions for Lowry and DeRozan. Whether it’s a ball screen or an off-ball screen, everybody in the gym knows who they’re running plays for.
And they still can’t stop it.
DeRozan and Lowry compliment each other nicely, and the use of the mid-range by DeRozan has opened up scoring on other levels for his teammates. Screens for those two come at times when defenders are not always expecting. With shooting bigs (Ibaka, Patterson) standing in the corners, they have time to come off the screen and survey defenses while acting in space.
2. Scoring on an island
That said about their offense and its simplicity, the Raptors are the anti-Warriors to a certain degree. The ball rarely moves within their offense, instead sticking in the hands of Lowry and DeRozan as they look for the best shot for them. No team had fewer assists than the Raptors did this season. Against the length of the Bucks and their multiple plus-defenders, lack of ball movement can backfire.
The contrast in this series: ball movement within an offense can lead to turnovers. Since Toronto is very deliberate and doesn’t swing the ball side-to-side frequently, they limit the chances a defense has to steal the ball. Casey wants to turn this series into a half-court offensive showdown, where the Raptors thrive and the Bucks can’t survive.
3. Leveraging the post
Do the Raptors play to their strengths (the guard-oriented attack) or their opponent’s weakness (post defense in their starting unit)? It’s a typical quandary that coaches and teams face throughout the season. While the Raptors have liked to get Jonas Valanciunas established early in games (particularly if you look at prior postseason series) they go away from him quickly and never return. With Thon Maker or Spencer Hawes serving as poor post defenders, the Raptors could find an advantage trying to pound the ball inside.
One advantage looking into the post frequently provides: corner threes. Milwaukee’s scheme leaves the opposite corner wide open, and with shooting bigs like Serge Ibaka and Patrick Patterson it might be a good time to try and look inside early and often.
Bucks Three Things to Know
1. Their defense is funky.
No team defends quite like the Milwaukee Bucks. They’re super aggressive on the perimeter, front the post and sag off the weak-side corner, try to limit shots directly at the rim early in the clock and use their length to pester opponents. It’s an attack unlike any other in the league.
This video from Coach Daniel demonstrates some of the unique features this defense has within it and why it’s dangerous for teams that rely on the dribble frequently. Side note: the end of the video shows some examples of how Jabari Parker is a defensive liability for Milwaukee, and trading his presence for Khris Middleton’s may actually boost Milwaukee’s overall play despite taking away from their offensive acumen.
Their defensive rating is the fourth-worst amongst playoff teams, so it’s not like this is a mystery that other teams cannot solve. But it’s a puzzle for teams that rely on ball handlers to penetrate and create for others because rotations are so funky off the ball. In a long series, that could come back to haunt them, as once a team figures out their desired mode for attack, the Bucks may lack a ton of adjustments up their sleeves.
2. Who does Giannis guard?
Yes, this question does seem strange following a long video that talks about how the Bucks switch on-ball actions. But within their scheme, it’s actually more relevant than ever. Jason Kidd could put his superstar defender on Kyle Lowry or the primary ball handler, waiting for immediate ball screens or common actions on Lowry so that Giannis, when switching off of Lowry, is in prime rebounding position. It also would eliminate re-screens.
The Bucks could also keep Giannis guarding DeRozan, where his work in isolations would neutralize DeRozan’s most prevalent form of attack. That would then allow Brogdon/ Dellavedova to be physical with Lowry or Snell to use his length. Milwaukee has a lot of pieces, and they’ll all rotate between them as they switch.
Perhaps a third alternative is available: use Giannis on the weak side. Within their scheme, the Bucks need a solid defensive rebounder in the corner opposite the offense’s best post threat. As Monroe or Maker front the post, the opposite wing floods ball-side and is in position to be physical and rebound near the rim. With other perimeter defenders on the roster, perhaps Kidd can put Giannis off one of those two matchups for the majority of the game and keep the Raptors from getting second-chance points, where the Raptors have the fourth-most of any team that qualified for the playoffs.
3. Transition Strikes
Only Oklahoma City and Denver scored more points in the paint this year than the Bucks, who relied heavily on their slashing and the post scoring of Greg Monroe. In a seven-game series, defenses get smart and key in on weaknesses. While Milwaukee isn’t a bad three-point shooting team percentage-wise, they take a fairly small amount of threes relatively, and the Raptors will want to increase that number to take them out of their comfort zone. Milwaukee isn’t exactly known for their brilliant half-court attack.
The Bucks are just over a league-average team in transition, and that number will have to increase against a Toronto group that lies just outside the top 10 in defensive rating. Transition starts with defense (you can sense a theme here when talking about Milwaukee, huh?) and Milwaukee needs to be crisp on that end of the floor against one of the better offensive teams in the East.
Prediction: Bucks in 7
2. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 7 Indiana Pacers
Cavaliers Three Things to Know
1. Cleveland’s Defense Really Is Broken
Take this with a grain of salt, just because their defense is broken doesn’t mean they aren’t the best team in the East. What it means, rather, is that you can’t expect them to “turn it around” defensively in the postseason. Things are really bad on that end of the court.
It starts with personnel, where the Cavaliers have way too many poor defenders to hide. Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, Kevin Love, Deron Williams. The list goes on and on. Even Kyrie Irving is too much of a gambler to play plus defense consistently. Cleveland is 12-15 since the All-Star Break. Excuses should be cast aside about saving stuff for the playoffs or doing enough just to get by. That’s an alarmingly low record for a team that won the title last year.
So, is there a switch for the Cavaliers to flip?
2. Let it fly!
Cleveland shoots the second-most threes per game, and they are also the second-best three point shooting team percentage-wise in the league. That’s why they’re able to make up for having such a poor defense. They can get three points to their opponent’s two (in fact, the defense is designed to bank on this and chase opponents off the line).
Cleveland has six guys shooting above 37 percent from three on the year. Other known shooters that are just beneath that mark: LeBron James (36.3 percent), Iman Shumpert (36 percent), J.R. Smith (35 percent), Mike Dunleavy (35.1 percent) and Richard Jefferson (33.3 percent). That’s right, 11 of the 12 guys they’re likely to suit up in the playoffs can stretch the floor. The Pacers have zero mobility in their second unit, so seeing how a backup frontcourt fares against a Pacers group powered by Al Jefferson or Kevin Seraphin.
3. LeBron time.
Yep, it’s officially the playoffs, so let’s see LeBron take over. He’ll have a few feisty defenders checking him in this series, but at the end of the day he’s in charge. Tyronn Lue lets him run this team, and as he searches for his seventh NBA Finals appearance in a row, he is allowed that latitude.
This year the Cavs have shied away from putting him in a ton of ball screens as his main mode of creation. Defenses adjusted, went under screens and dared him to shoot, or had enough weapons in their arsenal to change the coverages on the fly. That complicated the reads for James and could lead to turnovers.
This year, Lue is putting LeBron at the high post, throwing him the ball and letting simultaneous screening actions occur on each side of the court. That’s even more simple than a ball screen, and LeBron has been great when he feasts on isolations at the elbow. In late game situations and sets, look for Lue to dial up another one of these plays to let LeBron be LeBron.
Pacers Three Things to Know
1. Ride the hot streak
Since losing to the Cavaliers in double overtime, the Pacers won five in a row to clinch their playoff birth. Three of those wins came against playoff teams, and all of those three saw the team hold their opponents to 90 points or fewer. Yeah, Lance Stephenson has been part of it, but so has luck. The Hawks rested their starters on the final night of the regular season. Toronto was without Kyle Lowry. Milwaukee had 21 turnovers and looked incredibly sloppy after traveling from Oklahoma City.
Excuses aside, a win is a win and a streak is a streak. Morale must be high for the Pacers as they face a more vulnerable Cavaliers team than there’s been since LeBron returned. If they keep up their high level of defense and continue to make shots, this could be an interesting series. More than anything, the mental aspect of their underdog status must be attained. There can be no fear of these Cavaliers.
2. Turner’s Time
It’s the defense that’s more impressive for Indiana than their very average, vanilla offensive attack. Lots of that rests upon second-year center Myles Turner, who is developing into a defensive anchor for the group. Consider this: when Turner blocks four or more shots, the Pacers are 14-4. Grab nine or more defensive rebounds and they’re 7-0.
Turner will spend most of his time matched up with Tristan Thompson, tasked with keeping him off the glass and defending the rim and the short corners. What about when Thompson sits? How McMillan leverages his interior defense when the Cavaliers try to go five-out and spread the floor is worth monitoring.
Turner is also a key for the team on offense. When he makes multiple threes in a game, the team is 4-1. While his offensive output has slowed (as has his three-point shot – he’s only made five since the All-Star Break), his defensive acumen is improving each day and is a key for Indiana to pulling off an upset.
3. The Paul George Show
At some point in this series, PG-13 just has to take over. It’s the recipe for any team with a superstar that’s an underdog must follow. George has career-highs in points per game, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and two-point makes per game this season — he’s playing really great basketball. We know the personal rivalry between him and LeBron. If that’s any time to finally get over the hump, this must be it and George must carry the team on his back.
More than anything, his defensive energy and attention to detail needs to exist. It hasn’t for the Pacers this year, and George has been as much of a culprit as anyone on the team. It’s where they miss Frank Vogel and his defensive-oriented approach more than ever. Nate McMillan won’t rally the troops the way Vogel once did, but if the leadership can come by George (both by verbiage and example), these kids from Naptown just might have an outside shot.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 5.