The NBA regular season and postseason are two very different organisms. The former involves constant travel, blips of lethargy, and a ton of chance. Players take possessions, quarters, and entire nights off to relax their over-worked bodies. Coaches experiment with different sets and lineups. There are trades and signings that shake up rotations and disrupt depth charts. Some organizations don’t even want to win.
Everything changes in the playoffs. The bad teams have gone home, and each of the sixteen surviving squads heads into battle with a set roster and a specific opponent in its sights. With reams of data collected from the previous 82 games at their disposal, coaches and players look to take their play from the regular season and build on it in some way or another. Everyone is hunting for another gear.
Heading into the 2017 playoffs, here’s a look at a few teams that have easy avenues to reaching that higher plane, and others that could struggle to get there in the face of stiffer competition.
Ready to Hit Another Gear
Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City is a collection of flawed-to-mediocre basketball players led by an emotional, triple-double-hoarding barbarian. Russell Westbrook initiates everything while his four teammates react as best they can.
But even with the scoring title and a potential MVP trophy on the way, Westbrook’s individual brilliance couldn’t lift the Thunder above 47 wins and a negative point differential. The hill only gets steeper from here.
In ways that mirror last year’s squad, however, this roster is adaptable. There’s less talent, but this group is still flexible enough to go big or small, a necessary characteristic that could come in handy right away against the Houston Rockets.
Oklahoma City’s starting lineup (Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, André Roberson, Taj Gibson, and Steven Adams) has outscored opponents by 48 points in 208 minutes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that whether it’s random or correlated to there being two more traditional bigs in the frontcourt, they allow 42 percent shooting from deep on 27.8 attempts per 100 possessions.
That’s unbearable in a first-round matchup against the most prolific three-point shooting team in NBA history. Houston spreads the floor with Ryan Anderson at the four, Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza spotted up in the corners, and Clint Capela rumbling through the paint. It’s a hard lineup to stop even with versatile athletes at all five positions.
The Thunder may need to go small with players like Jerami Grant. Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
To match up better (and provide a bit more pop on the offensive end), the Thunder may need to downsize. Alex Abrines, Doug McDermott, and Jerami Grant are the best options. Grant is the worst shooter of the three, but he’s also an ideal defender who can help slow down Harden and Anderson’s pick-and-pop collaboration. Throw him on Ryno and stick Roberson on Harden, then simply switch every time a screen is set. (This also applies to Capela.)
If the Thunder aren’t getting stops and can’t own the glass with Gibson and Adams on the floor, they may turn to McDermott or Abrines to provide more fireworks from behind the arc. And instead of deploying Enes Kanter for 25 minutes, Billy Donovan may let Gibson shine as a small-ball five, surrounded by three spot-up shooters and Westbrook’s verve.
Oklahoma City probably won’t advance, but we could at least see the Thunder offense in its most explosive form. Defense-first lineups helped carry the Thunder to this point, but defeating Houston without a consistent offense of your own is impossible.
The Raptors have the clearest avenue to a whole new level of success. His name is Kyle Lowry. After unergoing wrist surgery at the end of February, Toronto’s All-Star point guard has appeared in only four games since the All-Star break, which means he’s only played 81 minutes with Serge Ibaka. The Raptors are +7.1 points per 100 possessions in that limited sample size against three teams that didn’t make the playoffs.
There’s little to learn from the data, and Toronto definitely wishes it had more time to reintegrate its most important player on a team that played exceptional basketball while he was out. But none of this means the Raptors are in trouble. Dwane Casey just has too many options for that to be the case: Lowry plus Bench 2.0 lineups, versatile groups that have four quality three-point shooters plus DeMar DeRozan, units that can pound the glass and protect the rim without sacrificing too much on offense.
Toronto’s next gear has a name: Kyle Lowry. Photo by Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
This team entered the season with fingers crossed that Jonas Valanciunas could build off last year’s postseason success—before things were cut short by a badly sprained ankle—and become a more stabilizing presence on both ends. That didn’t happen, but it doesn’t matter.
Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have helped turn what was an average defense into a cement wall, and both have been 40 percent three-point shooters since joining the We The North movement. In fact, don’t be surprised if Masai Ujiri wins Executive of the Year, because, well, he’s the Executive of the Year.
If the Raptors want to close with Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, Lowry, DeRozan, and Norm Powell, they can. How about Cory Joseph, Ibaka, Valanciunas, DeRozan, and Lowry? Or Tucker, DeMarre Carroll, Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka?
This team has every base covered heading into the playoffs, and the more reps Lowry gets with his new teammates, the better they’ll be.
One of the most confounding dilemmas in the NBA can be found in Indiana, where Paul George does not want to play the position that most benefits him and his team. It’s weird.
George entered the league as a small forward. Today, he’s better suited at the four, where he can operate in space beside quicker teammates who can shoot and defend multiple positions. The Pacers might be the most awkwardly constructed team that made the playoffs, but they also have two complementary pieces already on board, should George have a change of heart and realize playing the four, even against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has little size, is the smart thing to do.
Myles Turner is a shot-blocking stretch five who can rebound, protect the rim, and space the floor. Indy couldn’t ask for more from that position. Then, in the old Shane Battier role, there’s C.J. Miles, one of the NBA’s premier catch-and-shoot artists. According to Synergy Sports, Miles is the most efficient spot-up player in the entire league (minimum 200 possessions). He’s the invaluable wing who can knock down open shots, create a little bit off the bounce, and defend multiple positions (including the beefy bigs who scare George).
Unfortunately, only about 7.8 percent of George’s minutes were spent in lineups with Turner as the only big this season, even though Indiana dominated that time, scoring 1.27 points per possession while only allowing 1.04 points per possession on the other end, per NBAWowy.
Put the ball in Paul George’s hands. Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Thaddeus Young had a career year behind the arc as Indy’s starting power forward, but that’s not his game. The Pacers are better served putting the ball in George’s hands even more than they have instead of running him off the ball like he’s J.J. Redick. According to Synergy Sports, almost a third of George’s offensive possessions were either coming off a screen or as a spot-up threat.
This isn’t the worst thing in the world, since he’s quietly one of the best shooters in the league, but the Pacers aren’t able to access every nook and cranny of their franchise player’s skill set when there are two bigs instead of three (or four) wings on the floor.
In addition to having him run even more pick-and-rolls—which he’s really, really good at—imagine more action where George is constantly setting ball screens, then popping (or slipping) out behind the three-point line. The rare instances when George is used in this way typically discombobulate the defense, forcing them to thwart Jeff Teague’s penetration and worry about leaving a sniper by himself on the perimeter.
Indiana entered the season wanting to score more. Play George at the four and they still can.
San Antonio Spurs
Almost everything above applies to San Antonio and Kawhi Leonard, except Leonard will play whatever position Gregg Popovich asks him to and the Spurs are a championship contender.
The Spurs have had a ton of success with jumbo lineups over the past couple seasons, but those groups have had a difficult time scoring when it matters most, mostly during muddy postseason possessions that force Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge to isolate and settle for tough shots in the mid-range.
They have little experience in these small lineups, and Leonard has played 93 percent of his minutes at small forward this season. But the roster is a little more flexible this year, with Danny Green, Jonathon Simmons, Kyle Anderson, the six-ten Davis Bertans, and Manu Ginobili all ready to step in on lineups that feature Aldridge at the five.
They can also go without a point guard and just let Leonard or Ginobili handle the ball. That’s where things get really spicy, and San Antonio’s already awesome offense goes up a notch.
Stuck in Neutral
These Celtics might be the least intimidating No. 1 seed in history. Already willing and able to shift from traditional lineups to small ball, there aren’t too many adjustments that can nudge them to higher ground.
Instead, they’re at the mercy of Isaiah Thomas’ need to rest, and everyone else’s ability to hit outside shots.
Boston has a cozy relationship with the arc: the Celtics drained 36.9 percent of their attempts and were the ninth-most accurate three-point shooting team before the All-Star break. It’s an especially impressive feat considering they also launched 33.1 per game; only the Houston Rockets and the Cleveland Cavaliers tossed up more. From Halloween to Valentine’s Day, the Celtics were 0.4 points per 100 possessions short of boasting a top-five offense, and that’s partly why.
Since the break, however, they’ve only connected on 33.7 percent of their threes, plummeting all the way down to 23rd. It’s good for the 17th best offense over that stretch. Threes matter! The good news is that Boston heads into the playoffs at full strength, with no restrictions on Thomas’ playing time.
Last year, the two-time All-Star went from averaging 32.2 minutes per game during the regular season to 36.7 minutes in a six-game series against the Atlanta Hawks. A similar increase this time around would bring IT up to 38.5 minutes per game, but it’s probable Brad Stevens extends his best player (and even a few other starters) even further.
The Celtics will rise or fall with Isaiah Thomas. Photo by Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
“We feel really good about our total minutes, our minutes per game, and where we’re at from a preparation standpoint and from a load standpoint thus far,” Stevens said. “The minutes per game is a conscious effort. It’s a long-term thing that you’re trying to manage within a game, which is hard to do, but very rarely do those guys get into the high 30s or low 40s.”
When Thomas isn’t on the floor, the Celtics are a stressful mix of contested jumpers, flailing drives, and sloppy passes. They blow leads as effortlessly as someone snuffing out a dozen birthday candles.
Only four players (Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarcus Cousins, and James Harden) finished the season with a higher usage rate than Thomas. Expect that to rise, as well, even as opposing defenses do their best to squeeze the ball from his hands.
There’s always a chance Al Horford becomes more aggressive with his in-between game. Avery Bradley’s fingertips could turn into a book of matches. Twenty-year-old Jaylen Brown might ascend beneath a harsher spotlight, or maybe Marcus Smart or Terry Rozier could end up giving Boston anything offensively. But it’s hard to depend on any of those scenarios coming true, let alone all of them.
Facing off against an erratic team like the Chicago Bulls in the first round is a break, and on the year Boston ranks third in defensive rating when given one day of rest between games. (They rank 19th on the second night of a back-to-back.) So a controlled playoff schedule could help.
Ultimately, though, with the Eastern Conference’s best record and noticeable momentum on their side, advancing past the first round isn’t the end game for the Celtics. Little matters if they don’t score in bunches, and relying on that as a game plan feels too random to instill any real confidence about how deep they can go.
Aside from launching more threes—not so easy against defenses that will prioritize taking those looks away—it’s unclear how Houston gets any better on offense in the postseason. Sure, Harden will play more minutes and they can toss in a few pick-and-roll-related wrinkles to create more space and get easier shots from the areas on the floor Mike D’Antoni wants to marry.
But the Rockets already rank first in points per possession after a timeout, per Synergy Sports. They already go super small by playing Harden, Ariza, Eric Gordon, and Lou Williams at the same time, and those lineups are basically what’d happen if Flash and the Hulk had a baby.
Generally speaking, Houston’s offense unfolds in predictable yet unstoppable patterns. Defenses are well aware Harden will get a high screen, and that they’ll need to stop his penetration while also accounting for a rolling Capela or popping Anderson. Meanwhile, three dead-eye shooters will dot the arc and impossible help-related decisions will be in order. Harden will read the coverage and in the blink of an eye the possession will end with either an efficient opportunity or a turnover. If Houston’s shooters are hot, good luck! If not, advancing to the next round is likely.
We’ve already seen the Bulls at their best. It’s Dwyane Wade wearing capris and a fluorescent pocket square. It’s outrageously hot three-point shooting, fluid ball movement, and a cupcake schedule.
At least one of those things is guaranteed to disappear in the first round of the playoffs; the Celtics won’t be as disinterested in winning as the Orlando Magic, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the New York Knicks were down the stretch. The rest of it is wildly unsustainable, and things will get worse before they get better.
Less Dwyane Wade might be more. Photo by Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
The Bulls were the worst three-point shooting team in the league before the All-Star break but have spiked to sixth since then, thanks to Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, and Rajon Rondo basically not missing any shots. Meanwhile, they ranked 22nd in opposing three-point percentage before the break and first afterwards (seriously, could they be any luckier?).
And then there’s Wade, who made a surprising return last week after he fractured his elbow on March 15. Chicago went 7-4 in the 11 games he missed, then lost to the Brooklyn Nets by one point in his first game back.
Injuries aside, Wade is 35 years old and experiencing rapid decline. He doesn’t get to the free-throw line nearly as often as he did even a year ago, and is posting the lowest assist rate and True Shooting percentage of his career.
Since the All-Star break, the Bulls allow 3.9 fewer points per 100 possessions when Wade doesn’t play. Their offensive rating leaps from a deplorable 97.5 when he’s on the floor (lowest on the team) all the way to 107.9 (highest on the team) when he sits.
The logical move here doubles as the least practical: Bring Wade off the bench and play him 15 to 20 minutes against opposing bench units when Butler and/or Rondo aren’t on the floor. But even if the Bulls successfully communicate to Wade that less of him is more, they still aren’t very good. They’ll start to flutter once their three-point fortune comes back down to earth, and in a seven-game series they’ll have few places to turn.
Cleveland’s weaknesses are well documented. Their defense has been an abomination all season, and only the Los Angeles Lakers were worse after the All-Star break.
Talk to players on the team and they’ll point to how a hectic March schedule and health issues helped fuel some disinterested play. When Cleveland locks in on one opponent, they’re still able to get stops by executing Tyronn Lue’s game plan, and the postseason schedule will simplify life. It’s easier to pull off a complicated strategy over the course of an extended series against the same players and the same system than to constantly change schemes on a game-to-game basis.
Counterpoint: Look at this team! Most of their young players aren’t good at defense and their old players are old! They rank 25th in defensive rating on the second night of a back-to-back. They rank 21st with one day of rest and also 21st with two days of rest.
LeBron James and Tristan Thompson can change games with their athleticism when it matters most, and Iman Shumpert is an overlooked wild card for what he brings on the perimeter. But breakdowns will occur. And when they do, in games where Cleveland’s hot shooters are damp, things could get very interesting. This problem may not have a solution, but the offense may also be too good for any of that to matter until they reach the Finals.
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