What We’ve Learned in the NBA Playoffs

Kevin Garnett and Josh Smith

Kevin Garnett and Josh Smith Photo Credit: Icon SMI

By Zachariah Blott

Orlando Magic vs. Charlotte Bobcats

1) There is just no defense to stop a team with multiple three-point shooters in the starting lineup and multiple three-point shooters off the bench. If there was, Larry Brown would have found it by now. Instead, the Magic have hit 23 trifectas through two games, which were two easy wins even with the Bobcats having a higher FG% and grabbing more rebounds. Don’t forget that many of Orlando’s long-range shooters have hard-to-defend height (6-10 Rashard Lewis, 6-10 Ryan Anderson, 6-6 Mickael Pietrus, and 6-6 Vince Carter won’t stay 0-9 outside).

2) Turnover margin is the most important stat that almost no one looks at. Of the Four Factors, turnover margin is the second-most important number when evaluating why a team wins or loses. So far, the Bobcats have turned it over 5 and 7 times more than the Magic, which creates 4- and 5- point swings at numerous points throughout a game. Something to keep an eye on in the second round if Orlando gets through: these turnovers have more to do with Charlotte’s O than the Magic’s D. Charlotte was the only team in the league to turn the ball over on more than 15 percent of their possessions this year (15.1).

Orlando Magic lead 2-0. Next game: Saturday in Charlotte

Atlanta Hawks vs. Milwaukee Bucks

1) Andrew Bogut’s defensive presence is what drove the Bucks. Milwaukee’s improvement from last year to this year can be attributed almost completely to their improved D, which roadblock centers are always the most important piece of. After a nasty arm break, the big Aussie isn’t playing in the postseason, which has allowed Atlanta to get away with Offensive Ratings of 118 and 111 in their first two wins. Milwaukee’s offense is definitely not strong enough to keep up with this sort of onslaught.

2) Good luck figuring out who to lock down in Atlanta’s starting lineup. All five have gone for double-digits in both games, including the underrated trio of Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, and Al Horford. In Game 2, all three scored at least 20 on a combined 29-47 shooting (62%). Don’t forget that the Hawks also bring Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford off the bench. He averaged 18 per during the regular season, able to both get to the rim and shoot spot-up triples.

Atlanta Hawks lead 2-0. Next game: Saturday in Milwaukee

Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat

1) Admit it: you forgot about the Celtics and assumed their team plane crashed somewhere. After playing .500 ball for the past two months, Boston came out and jacked the fourth quarter from Miami in Game 1, taking it big-brother style, 21-10 for a 9-point victory. Then everyone remembered that the Celtics are filled with Playoff-tested vets who play unselfishly and bust their humps on defense. Even with Garnett riding the pine due to a one-game suspension, the C’s had Game 2 locked up early in the 3rd quarter, winning 106-77.

2) Dwyane Wade really, really needs a new supporting cast. He’s been forced to do everything as the rest of his starting lineup has provided him with exactly one double-digit scorer each game. Michael Beasley should be a far more consistent contributor by this point (his college stats were better than Durant’s, in the same conference no less), but his head may not be in it. It looks like Wade will re-sign with Miami this summer, but they better bring in another max-contract guy or it won’t become long before that 2006 ring looks about 15 years old.

Boston Celtics lead 2-0. Next game: Friday in Miami

Cleveland Cavaliers-Chicago Bulls

1) As much as we know who all of LeBron’s teammates are, he really is doing most of this himself, which spells doom for later in the playoffs. There is no reason an eighth seed that played poorly down the stretch is hanging around with a team that was 20 games better during the regular season. The Cavs have had only one overpowering quarter in each of the series’ three games; otherwise the two squads have been pretty even. James is doing his usually dominating thing, and then you got … uh … Antawn Jamison? Mo Williams? Admit it, you think Cleveland’s second-best player is Anderson Varejao, a reserve. There is no way a club that’s barely staying ahead of this Bulls team is making it to the Finals unless, well, you know.

2) That being said, Cleveland will continue to win some games if they keep shooting 49% and averaging 24 assists per 38 made field goals a night. A huge part of this is obviously due to LeBron’s contagious passing chops, but don’t forget that they have plenty of smart players (Anthony Parker, Varejao) and legitimately decent passers (Shaq, Williams, Delonte West). A lot of this has to do with playing Chicago, but ball movement and smart shot selection really do get internalized after a while.

Cleveland Cavaliers lead 2-1. Next game: Sunday in Chicago

Breaking down the rest of the first-round matchups, after the jump …

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Dallas Mavericks vs. San Antonio Spurs

1) It feels like the Spurs are toying with Dallas a little. Starting a terrible-for-the-offense George Hill over Tony Parker? Sure. Barely losing Game 1 after shooting 20 less free throws and getting 8 less rebounds? Of course. I understand how good the Mavericks are, but we’re talking about Tim Duncan here. Some people don’t recognize how great he is because there’s no flash in his game, but these people are idiots. SA should undoubtedly be everyone’s dark horse candidate to win the title; they just keeping finding a way over and over.

2) Dallas’ unheralded center duo of Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood is quietly having a nice series. They’ve combined for 15 and 18 rebounds in the first two games, and they’ve scored an efficient 17 points on only 12 shots. Throw in a handful of blocks plus steals per—part of their all-around good interior defense—and their contribution is nearly as important as the other four Maverick starters you already know all about.

Series is tied 1-1. Next game: Friday in San Antonio

Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz

1) Utah is tough as nails, and it all starts with Deron Williams. After losing center Mehmet Okur in Game 1 to an Achilles injury (and AK-47 is already done), the Jazz inserted Jolly Green Giant look-alike Kyrylo Fesenko into the starting lineup and pulled off the road victory. Williams has that gene that allows him to noticeably step up an already elite-level game in the playoffs. He scored 33 on 14 shots (16-18 from the line, talk about working a defense) and passed his way to 14 assists. Boozer hustled and banged for a 20-15 against one of the league’s best frontlines. Utah’s playing with a two-player bench and still making it a series against the rugged and rough Nuggets.

2) Denver’s bench could be the difference in every round they play in. J.R. Smith is a streaky scorer who can take over games (20 points in Game 1, only 9 in Game 2), Ty Lawson is a do-it-all spark who’s shown remarkable grit for a rookie PG (11 points, 6 assists, 0 turnovers, 1 steal in Game 1), and Chris Andersen’s tenacity inside the paint would stand out in a prison yard game. If their starting five can hang with other squads reasonably well (only the Lakers’, whose starters make an absurd $63 million, stand out), their reserves could be the unsung heroes.

Series is tied 1-1. Next game: Friday in Utah

Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers

1) Believe it or not, having an insane amount of injuries really does catch up to you. The Blazers had the second-most games lost to injury in the NBA this year (most: Golden State), so bad their Opening Day starting five was completely different than the five who started Game 82. So after gutting out Game 1 in Phoenix without Brandon Roy and the league’s top center tandem at the beginning of the season (Oden, Przybilla), Portland fans started mentioning the fact that they had won the season series against both the Spurs and Mavericks, their round two opponents. Whoops – maybe they didn’t realize that they were susceptible to a Suns club that runs most full-strength teams into the ground. Two crushing defeats later, injuries have officially caught up to this admirably overachieving team.

2) Jason Richardson is one hell of an X factor. He’s put up 85 points on 60% shooting overall and from deep, plus 24 rebounds, through three games. Nash creates defensive breakdowns everywhere. Amar’e runs the floor better than most big men, and they’ve got plenty of forwards and centers who shoot wide-open 3’s like they’re nothing. And then there’s Richardson throwing up 42 points in an important Game 3 on the road. It’s hard to gameplan for a guy who’s about the fourth- or fifth-worst problem the Suns present on offense, and then you realize he’s scored 15 to 25 per forever.

Phoenix Suns lead 2-1. Next game: Saturday in Portland

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

1) Someone other than Kobe needs to take some shots for the Lakers if they want their offense not to be so predictable. He’s shooting 37% for the series and averaging over 25 shots per. Just like the regular season, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are shooting much higher percentages but taking way fewer shots. They can get away with this against the Thunder, who are young and happy to be here (news flash: Kevin Durant will occasionally whip you silly for saying that), but it won’t cut it against the Nuggets, Mavericks, or Spurs.

2) The Lakers’ defense continues to be the team’s best asset. The Thunder have shot 40%, 39%, and 41% in the first three games. LA had the league’s fourth-best Defensive Rating during the regular season, and they’re showing it against the young OKC players, aggressively playing the passing lanes, forcing Durant and his teammates to take contested shots, and cutting down the Thunder’s ability to get offensive rebounds and second-chance points (except for Game 3).

Los Angeles Lakers lead 2-1. Next game: Saturday at Oklahoma City

Zachariah Blott cannot recommend Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is A Playground” enough.

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