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 which 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 in their first-round playoff series. Here’s a look at the Western Conference.
1. Golden State Warriors vs. 8. Portland Trail Blazers
Warriors Three Things to Know
1. Kevin Durant the Rim Protector
Durant has more blocks per game this season with the Warriors than at any point in his career. Part of that is the switching defense the Warriors employ, which routinely lets Durant feast on smaller guards. It’s also from using him as their primary rim protector when they can, pressuring the ball in their speedy lineups and funneling players towards Durant.
Who Durant defends in this series, and how frequently the Blazers try to avoid forcing switches, will be an intriguing subplot to a series that is expected to be fairly one-sided.
2. Sagging or Pressuring Draymond
The Dubs offense is so special thanks to having three of the best shooters (and scorers in general) in the entire world circling around each other while a 6’8″ forward/ center handles the ball and sets his teammates up with passes. Green leads the team with seven assists per game, which is top 10 in the league and ahead of the likes of Mike Conley, Rajon Rondo and Damian Lillard.
Green has weaknesses: he’s shooting only 30 percent from three on the season, which allows defenders to play him loose on the perimeter and clog those passing lanes, daring him to shoot. Pressuring Green has led to solid results too: he averages only a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio in losses, and better than 3:1 in their wins. In games where Green commits four or more turnovers, Golden State is 14-6, going 53-9 in all other games.
When Draymond is sloppy and picks up his dribble without a clear passing option available, Portland might be able to get a steal or two and an easy transition bucket.
Personnel and matchups help dictate if opponents can place this pressure on Draymond without giving up something else. In those games, Steve Kerr is smart about play calls, putting the ball in the hands of Steph Curry more frequently in ball screens. Stotts and the Blazers must key onto every little detail they can that helps them get an edge, and Green’s play is one such piece of minutia.
3. The Defensive Rebounding Thing
No team is worse than the Warriors at allowing offensive rebounds, one of the biggest drawbacks of their switching defense. It may not hurt them a ton against Portland, who is only a league-average offensive rebounding team, but it’s worth monitoring if this could be an issue for the Warriors as they move forward in the postseason. No first-round series is a certainty, but this one is worth feeling comfortable about. In matchups where that defensive rebounding could decide a game with a two or three point swing, the Warriors could be in trouble.
Blazers Three Things to Know
1. Needing Nurkic
The Trail Blazers are 14-6 when Nurkic plays. 27-35 when he doesn’t. It’s pretty much as simple as that. His health is paramount to the success for the Blazers this postseason. They lost all four contests to the Warriors this season too, so being short-handed in the frontcourt won’t help matters. If Nurkic plays and plays at full strength, they have a chance for a couple games. Without him, they’d have to go small with Aminu at center and get great scoring performances from Lillard and McCollum to have a chance.
2. Attacking Switches
Especially out of timeouts, the Warriors have been susceptible to getting beat on screening or re-screening actions designed to take advantage of their switching defense. A switching scheme is a great way to prevent teams from scoring off ball screens and on dribble penetration, and would force guys like Lillard and McCollum to give it up.
Any defensive scheme has its weaknesses, and the Warriors are no different. Anticipating a switch before a screen is set means slipping the screen, splitting the trap or attacking aggressively off a ball screen to draw a foul can all cause backfire against Golden State. Coach Stotts needs to get creative, but he can coach the Blazers into a few easy buckets that might be the difference.
3. Three-point shooting
At the end of the day, Portland lacks the defensive firepower to stop the Warriors. Lillard and McCollum are below average defenders with incredibly difficult matchups, and going small with Aminu as a center would open up Durant’s offensive acumen.
So if you can’t stop them, how do you beat them? You get hot from three. The sixth-best three-point shooting team in the league is capable of stealing a game or two if they get hot. Their three-point defense (third last in the league) might have a difficult time against the best shooting team in the world.
Prediction: Warriors in 5
4. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 5. Utah Jazz
Clippers Three Things to Know
1. Moving Gobert from the rim
L.A. won three of the teams’ four meetings this season, all by double digits. This is a series that’s hard to predict, but one that a fully-functioning Clippers team should be able to handle. They’ve had success because DeAndre Jordan, a big man with a lack of outside acumen, has been crafty at finding ways to remove Rudy Gobert, the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year, from standing in front of the rim.
Perhaps it’s the great passing ability of Chris Paul that can neutralize Gobert when he’s on the move, but the Clippers have still been able to run their aerial attack against the Stifle Tower. CP3 can draw Gobert out of his comfort zone, force him to corral him more as a ball handler and then deliver the ball over the top to DeAndre.
Don’t sleep on the putback dunks either, where Jordan simply uses his athleticism to take down Gobert. All eyes are on the matchup between these two. The Clippers absolutely must find ways to attack Gobert and get him away from the rim or buried beneath it to get the easy baskets at the rim they thrive on. It will be a chess match throughout.
2. Small-ball second unit
Both teams can go to their bench and find players with experience, savvy and the ability to swing a game in their favor. The Clippers’ have hung their hat on a small-ball approach on their second unit all season long, with multiple ball handlers (Austin Rivers, Ray Felton and Jamal Crawford) around up-tempo bigs Marreese Speights and Wes Johnson. That may change against Utah, where Austin Rivers is unlikely to play the first few games of the series.
Where does Doc turn for his second unit, a group he’s rolled out there together for stretches longer than most coaches will stomach with their reserves. Does Paul Pierce slide in for Rivers at a slower pace, one that Utah would like to play at? Do Mbah a Moute and Redick eat a few more minutes and play with that second group, allowing Luc Richard to shadow Hayward and Redick to gun against second units?
The right move might be to go bigger, since the Jazz are already decently small with their second unit, playing Joe Johnson at the small-ball four. Don’t adjust your television sets if you see a Joe Johnson-Paul Pierce matchup going on. It’s not 2009.
3. Blake Griffin, Three-Point Threat?
In the 30 games since returning from injury, Blake Griffin has shot 37 percent from deep. That’s not a typo. Long stating his desire to improve the range on his jumper, the realization of that dream appears to be here and it couldn’t come at a better time for the Clips. The offense started to regress to normal averages across the league and needs more spacing with DeAndre Jordan and Mbah a Moute on the floor.
In this series in particular, that shooting will be key. The Jazz’ lineup of Favors and Gobert in the frontcourt is slow-footed and could be thwarted by a pick-and-pop presence. Favors and Gobert are both too good to split only 48 minutes, and the Griffin matchup is a better one for those two than a small-ball second unit. Utah may have to live with Griffin’s shooting, and if he knocks one or two down early, good luck scoring enough to get back in the game with such a spacing-cluttered offense. Pay too much attention to Griffin on the pick-and-pop and Chris Paul carves up a defense. Bottom line: he needs to keep hitting these outside jumpers.
Jazz Three Things to Know
1. Getting Hayward Free
The defensive pressure that Luc Richard Mbah a Moute applies is real; just as real as Utah’s reliance on Hayward to score. Hayward struggled mightily in his three games against the Clippers this year, scoring only 15.7 points on 38 percent shooting from the field. Mbah a Moute is the main reason for that. He’s fast, physical and has enough plus-defenders around him to be aggressive in all his matchups.
This is where Utah’s slowest-paced offense can come back to bite them. Frequently, Hayward finds the ball in his hands late in the shot clock, needing to make a one-on-one play or create for others to get a quality shot. When going against a defensive-stopper like Mbah a Moute, those late-clock plays become lower-percentage plays.
So how does Quin Snyder and the rest of the team get Hayward free? Put him in as many dribble handoffs as possible. Hayward has elite body control and is a great decision maker at high speeds. If the Clippers choose to sag off Gobert and Favors on the perimeter, we could see Hayward just run into handoffs all night. One of my favorite actions: a Horns look where Hayward starts at the elbow and gets a screen freeing him up into a dribble handoff. Lots of traffic for Mbah a Moute to get through.
2. Two-way games from Hill, Favors and Hood
Depth and having different buttons to push is nice for a coach, who can manipulate rotations and styles of play to get his team an advantage. For Snyder, the need to push buttons comes from the lack of reliable two-way play the Jazz’ role players have employed. George Hill has to have a big series: he will be counted on for more offense if Hayward struggles, and his defensive assignment of Chris Paul is a crucial one.
Beyond him, Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood are vital. Favors’ defense on Blake Griffin (or DeAndre) will be important to spell Gobert and ease the burden he has defensively. Rodney Hood shoots 33 percent from three on the road and above 40 percent at home; he’s above 40 percent in wins and just above 30 in losses. As his shooting goes, so go the Jazz. His presence to suck defenders out of the paint and give Utah the slightest of upticks in production will go a long way in this series.
Bonus question for Utah to answer: who is their backup point guard heading into the postseason? Neto, Exum and Mack have all shuffled back and forth, and have pros and cons to their cases for the job. I don’t envy Snyder having to make this call.
3. Prepare for Hack-A-DeAndre
Utah is a team with a great deal of depth, especially on their frontline. Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Boris Diaw, Trey Lyles, even Jeff Withey will get in from time to time. With all eyes on the Gobert vs. Jordan matchup, the Clippers may be forced to remove DeAndre for stretches when preserving the lead if Utah chooses to put him on the free throw line. It’s a strategy that has been met with criticism or even skepticism of its merits in the past, but if there’s a team equip to execute the strategy, it’s Utah.
Rivers went out and acquired the sweet-shooting Marreese Speights for this exact reason — a big man that can be trusted on the floor before the clock allows Jordan to return (under the two minute mark of any quarter). It wouldn’t be shocking to see Withey come into the game in the second or third quarter with the sole intent of forcing DeAndre out of the game while Gobert gets a rest. The point is this: Quin Snyder has this in his arsenal, ready for whenever he needs it. As Utah tries to slow things down frequently, this is one strategy whose usage is important in a neck-and-neck series.
Your move, Doc.
Prediction: Clippers in 7
3. Houston Rockets vs. 6. Oklahoma City Thunder
Rockets Three Things to Know
1. Screening actions against two big men
At this point, there are zero secrets: the Rockets want to play fast, and play fast they do. In order to utilize speed in today’s NBA, lineups have to be a bit smaller, especially in the frontcourt. Houston went 3-1 against Oklahoma City during the regular season with this formula, but improvements came later in the year. After averaging only 102.5 against the Thunder in the first two games of the year, Houston successfully managed to push the pace in the two meetings in 2017, averaging 127.5 points.
That breakthrough came with a lineup change, committing to going smaller and starting Eric Gordon instead of Ryan Anderson. The lineup of Harden-Beverley-Gordon-Ariza-Capela speeds up the action and traps one of Oklahoma City’s two big men on the court in dangerous screening actions. When OKC goes with Kanter off the bench, the spread pick-and-roll attack with Ryan Anderson has great effectiveness. The more the Rockets can befuddle those big man rotations with spread-out screening actions, the more openings they’ll have at the rim.
2. Spain PNR
While this isn’t a “new” action in terms of invention, the Spain Pick-and-Roll attack is just beginning to seep its way across the NBA in playbooks. Both teams run it in this series, both in different ways. Houston’s effectiveness, driven by the constant shooters that Mike D’Antoni can trot onto the court, has given dozens of easy buckets to the Rox throughout the year.
3. Push when Westbrook Sits
The strength of this Rockets team (other than their style and superstar James Harden) lies in their excellent guard play. Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Pat Beverley… those are three pretty good guards to flank Harden. For Oklahoma City, they trot out the worst backup point guard in the playoffs in Semaj Christon. When Christon dons the floor, it’s blood in the water time for Houston. How effectively they push at the end of odd quarters and the beginning of the evens (typical times when Westbrook sits) could push a lead to an insurmountable level.
Thunder Three Things to Know
1. Westbrook bully posts
Star power notwithstanding in this series, the little things are what elevate Westbrook above Harden in my book. Harden operates in more space, has better shooters and fewer bigs to clog the lane, and is a worse defender. But the Westbrook has more brute force in his arsenal, driven by his will to win and extreme physical threshold.
One key area where his bully-ness shows itself is in semi-transition, when Westbrook sees a smaller defender on him. Instead of slowing down to set up one of their deliberate pick-and-roll attacks, Russ just clears out an entire side of the court, backs his man into the post and smashes him in the mouth with some shoulders before steamrolling him for a shot.
It’s a brutal action to guard, and the small Rockets guards are prime candidates for abuse. Undoubtedly it will be Patrick Beverley checking Westbrook, but when he’s out of the game it’s go-time for the Westbrook bully backdown.
2. Andre Roberson baseline cuts
Quietly, Andre Roberson is the best defender in the league not getting any talk in DPOY conversations. The guy is a freak on defense, and it’s allowed him to stay on the court despite what seems like a zero-sum game thanks to his putrid offense. Billy Donovan might need him more than ever in this series, giving Westbrook and Oladipo a break from defending James Harden in tireless screening actions he comes off.
On offense, Roberson has found one niche to maintain some use: cuts along the baseline. The Rockets’ defensive game plan will undoubtedly be to help heavily off Roberson when he’s on the perimeter, cramming the lane to prevent Westbrook drives and easy post finishes. When Westbrook attacks downhill towards the rim, Roberson has become one of the best in the league at seeing the back of his defender’s head, sprinting along the baseline and getting an easy dunk or layup as a result.
3. Staggering Top Two Scorers
The Thunder have two go-to guys on offense when they need a bucket: Russell Westbrook and Enes Kanter. Purposefully, Donovan has staggered their minutes throughout the season for several reasons. Defensively, it puts less pressure on Westbrook to defend in pick-and-rolls when opposing teams try to attack Kanter in those actions. On offense, it gives the Thunder a chance to keep their offense rolling when Westbrook catches his breath on the bench. How high is Kanter’s usage for the Thunder this season? Per 36 minutes, Kanter scores more points than Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony and Devin Booker.
During the regular season, Westbrook and Kanter shared the floor for an average of ten minutes per game in the 70 they both played in. Compare that to 28 minutes per game for the Westbrook-Adams duo. As mentioned in the Rockets preview, Houston salivates over Oklahoma City two-big lineups, and Donovan is purposeful about avoiding Kanter and Adams sharing the court. But rotations change in the postseason. Will Donovan change things up to get more offense with Russ and Enes playing together?
Either way, defending the speed and space of the Rockets will be the concern number one for the Thunder, and their lineups will reflect Donovan’s best attempts at doing so.
Prediction: Rockets in 6
2. San Antonio Spurs vs. 7. Memphis Grizzlies
Spurs Three Things to Know
1. Kawhi’s 4th quarter defensive assignment
The Grizzlies only have two go-to scorers that the Spurs need to worry about defending: Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. With several big men capable of checking Marc (including his elder brother), San Antonio should be able to throw enough defensive pieces at the Memphis center. It’s the Tony Parker-Mike Conley matchup that’s more concerning.
Parker has slowed a bit, and Conley is the engine that drives the car for Memphis. With Chandler Parsons done for the year, who is Defensive Player of the Year Candidate Kawhi Leonard going to defend? Expecting him to check Conley the entire game might be a little unrealistic, but in the fourth quarter, Popovich could unleash Kawhi’s ability onto the head of the snake for Memphis trying to shut off their late-game offense. Too much of Kawhi chasing Conley around screens and the Spurs’ top offensive threat tires a bit.
2. Patty Mills’ Freedom
The Spurs have one of the best backup point guards in the league in Patty Mills, though they may not have him much longer. The emergence of Mills has helped keep Tony Parker fresh, playing their reserve point guard without a drop off and giving him trust. Mills has even earned the trust of Popovich to create in the open court, being featured in a double high ball screen set.
Mills is a capable PNR point guard that speeds up the pace and is deserving of more time with the ball in his hands. Popovich has always been a ball movement guy, but seeing him trusting a ball handling point guard to heavily create speaks to just how valuable Mills is to this team.
3. Don’t forget about Pau!
Memphis may have the better of the Gasol brothers at this point in their careers, but the elder statesmen in San Antonio’s possession has a few tricks up his sleeve. He’s a reliable three-point threat from the top of the key and the corners, a guy they can run post-ups for, and they utilize him as a passer very frequently.
My favorite of the sets Popovich runs this year: a dizzying X-cut around Gasol (or David Lee) at the free throw line. Gasol picks defenses apart at the top of the key, and this amount of player movement in a condensed space with rapid pace is a doozy.
Grizzlies Three Things to Know
New coach, same old philosophy. David Fizdale has (wrongfully so) come under fire for the team’s lack of offensive improvement, despite coaching a roster devoid of offensive talent. Fizdale has adjusted to his roster, playing a slow-down pace with deliverance on offense and a crisp and detail-oriented defensive attack.
Controlling pace is crucial for the Grizzlies to win games. No team has a greater variance in points in their wins in losses.
Wins: 104.7 PPG, 94.3 PTS allowed
Losses: 95.8 PPG, 106.2 PTS allowed
Keeping the games in the nineties is the only way the Grizzlies can win a few games this postseason.
2. JaMychal Green’s defense
In all likelihood, Tony Allen won’t be playing a massive role in this postseason. Now Fizdale loses his best defensive toy. Gasol will remain low to anchor the defense. Conley’s matchups are dictated by his size. That leaves Green as the next-best defender on the team, and more than likely he’ll end up with the assignment of LaMarcus Aldridge.
While Kawhi gets most of the attention, the Spurs play through Aldridge a ton, throwing the ball to him on the block and letting him survey defenses. Other times we see Aldridge utilized as a pick-and-roll option — an area where JaMychal can have a ton of impact on his effectiveness. Green is one of the best PNR defending bigs in the league, using athleticism and a 7’2″ wingspan to bother ball handlers when he hedges and recover to rollers quickly.
If Memphis is going to win, they’ll have to take something away. Lacking the personnel and health to fully counter Kawhi Leonard (and good luck to any team that tries), settling for limiting Aldridge’s role could be the right strategy. The more they force San Antonio’s shots to come from the perimeter, the more of a chance they’ll have. Marc Gasol will be fine down low and in the PNR against whichever center he guards. Forcing Aldridge to have a minimal role turns San Antonio’s offense into a Kawhi-centric or perimeter-oriented show — two things Popovich hates.
3. No Parsons, No Tony Allen, Who’s Next?
Marquee free agent signing Chandler Parsons is done for the year. Tony Allen might miss parts, if not the entirety, of the series with a calf strain. Taking away the team’s two most talented wings (and wing defenders) hurts in a series where Kawhi Leonard is awaiting on the other end of the court.
Vince Carter, James Ennis, Troy Daniels and perhaps even undrafted rookie Wayne Selden will have to play a role. Selden logged 27 minutes per game over the final two weeks of the season, albeit the Grizz had sewn up their playoff spot and were resting some of their other guys. But have you ever seen a team pull off a postseason series upset over a 60-win team with this type of wing play? The task is tall that lies ahead of the Grizz.
Prediction: Spurs in 4