Flipping the script in the playoffs
What has changed so far in these playoffs? What needs to change going forward?
OK, Israel, we're two games into the playoffs for each series, and the most dramatic change is that the series I expected to be the most entertaining also became the most intriguing: Nuggets-Warriors.
The 131-117 score in Game 2 comes as no surprise considering the two teams involved. But did you expect the Nuggets to take one of the only two home losses in the first 16 games? That's what made this such a dramatic shift. The Nuggets just surrendered the most decisive home-court advantage in the league. (Although the Mile High altitude becomes less of a factor in the playoffs when the visiting team has had three days to adjust to the thinner air and isn't checking into its hotel at 3 a.m. coming from a back-to-back on the West Coast.)
You had to figure the Warriors would have one crazy shooting night. It's even crazier that their 65 percent shooting on field goals and 56 percent shooting on 3-pointers came in Denver. How much bigger will the rims look to the Warriors at home, with Oracle Arena packed with frenzied, yellow-shirted fans?
In the process, the Warriors could be on the verge of upending the oldest tenet of the NBA, one that dates back to the George Mikan days: inside beats outside. What the Warriors are doing is creating inside opportunities from their outside shooting ... because the alternative is to yield an open jumper to the guy who just made more 3-pointers in a single season than any other player in the previous 33 NBA seasons since they painted the line on the court.
In a late attempt to slow Stephen Curry down, the Warriors double-teamed him out beyond the arc, a good 25 feet from the hoop. The other defenders were spread out to cover the rest of the Warriors' shooters, which allowed Festus Ezeli to cruise right down the middle, unguarded. Curry fed him and Ezeli had a dunk. The Warriors' 3-point threat led to a shot at the rim. No post-up, no drive, no backdoor cut. This is a new NBA.
If this is the new NBA, I like the direction it's going.
As much as high-flying dunks and impressive athleticism are entertaining, there's something about watching a hot shooter put on a show that keeps your eyes glued to the screen and your body on the edge of your seat.
To me, though, the biggest change in that series didn't come from just a couple of scorching shooters in Curry and Klay Thompson. It was the surprising balance offered by "power forward" Harrison Barnes, in what turned out to be a brilliant move by Mark Jackson. The rookie took advantage of switches and played an efficient game near the rim, making David Lee's absence less problematic.
But I don't think it signaled such a drastic change in the series. You knew the Warriors would get hot and stay hot in a game (or even two) in this series. That can happen at home or on the road.
But the Warriors are still having issues defending, and that won't necessarily improve in Oracle Arena. The Nuggets have to trust that their attacking mentality can prevail, even in Oakland.
The biggest shift in these playoffs might be in the Knicks-Celtics series, where the Celtics went from cagey veterans to creaky old-timers in a hurry. Most of us thought, given how many times they've shocked us in the postseason of late, that Boston would turn it on against the Knicks and put a serious scare into the desperate New York fans. Instead, we're watching (stop me if you've heard this before) the definitive end of the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce era in Boston. The C's have 48 points combined in the two second halves (as a one-game total, that would've been the fewest points scored in the shot-clock era, by one point). And Boston is losing to a couple of isolation artists, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith.
The Celtics used to obliterate teams that relied too much on isolation. These aren't those Celtics, and that's a change no one wanted to admit was true until now.
Hold up, the Celtics looking older and slower and incapable of doing what they used to qualifies as news to you? Man, I need to put together a Spotify playlist so you can listen to some Sam Cooke: "It's been a long, long time coming. But I know a change is gonna come."
The Celtics don't feel different, they just feel like they're at the logical concluding point when you factor in their age, the loss of Ray Allen and the absence of Rajon Rondo. The Celtics were bound to miss him come playoff time. The playoffs are the province of the stars. You need them -- and need them at their best -- to advance. That's one thing about the NBA that hasn't changed. J.R. Smith said that without Rondo the Celtics are "a little fuzzy up top on who they want to get it to and why." And if anyone would recognize a little fuzzy on top, it's J.R. Smith.
Of course I knew the Celtics were on the verge of becoming this team. But again, they've fought off this inevitability for so long, and the Knicks have fought off winning playoff series for so long (cheap shot, but too easy) that some people thought this could be another classic Celtics shocker.
But if I shouldn't be surprised by Boston, you should've seen this performance from the Lakers coming from miles away.
Yes, at first I thought the Lakers caught a break when they moved up to the No. 7 seed on the last day of the regular season and caught the sliding, unsettled Spurs. Now I think it's the Spurs who are fortunate. Any of the other lower seeds (Memphis, Golden State or even the Rockets) could have swiped a game in San Antonio while Tony Parker was slowly getting back up to speed. The Lakers simply couldn't. They never posed a serious threat. The best they could do was find encouragement in keeping it close for a while.
Not only is the Lakers' newfound dependence on their two big men out of sync with the direction the league is going, but it's out of character from Mike D'Antoni's system and the way they've played all season. Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks are all hobbling or out, and the only good news the Lakers have on the injury front is the return of big man Jordan Hill. But with the NBA getting smaller and faster, adding a big for the playoffs would be like someone finally coming out with an MP3 player to rival the iPod in 2013. That's not where the tech battle is being fought today.
I used to go straight to the "Points In the Paint" stat when I grabbed a box score; that would usually tell you the story of the game. Wednesday night the Lakers outscored the Spurs in the paint 40-38 ... and still lost by 11.
The reason the Lakers even made the playoffs was because of timely scoring performances from Steve Blake to complement that inside duo in the final few games. There was no way Blake or any of the Lakers' role players were going to do enough to elevate the Lakers past the Spurs, no matter how banged up they appeared.
I'll tell you what needs to change if the Clippers-Grizzlies series is going to last very long. The play of Zach Randolph.
For all the discussion about the Grizzlies being able to win because of that stellar defense and ability to slow the game down, they need a true go-to offensive threat. That person was Randolph two seasons ago, and it was far more effective than Rudy Gay last season.
But Randolph just doesn't look like the same player who put up 22.2 points and 10.8 rebounds over 13 playoff games in 2011. So far in this series, he's at 13 and 6 and only 28 minutes a game.
The Clips are looking like a bad matchup for the Grizzlies. L.A. is just as comfortable in the half court as Memphis, can match up with Marc Gasol and Randolph, and has the best closer on the floor.
Memphis' best hope is to get a dominant performance or two from Randolph. Just not sure if he's still capable of it.
The Grizzlies struggled to score all season, and Z-Bo averaged only 15 points a game, so the continuance of those trends in the playoffs doesn't shock me. Mike Conley has shown he's capable of scoring as many points as it takes for Memphis to be competitive, so I'm not worried about the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies have become another example of teams going from post-oriented to perimeter-based. Even when they had Rudy Gay, he was at his best when he backed guys down on the block. In this series, at least, especially with the Clippers reluctant to leave their men to help, the best option for the Grizzlies is using Conley on screen-and-rolls.
The only way the revolution can become complete is if a team dethrones the Miami Heat. The Heat changed the game last season when they basically abandoned the center position, but they still were most effective running their offense through LeBron in the low post. It was a traditional principle, only with a smaller player. LeBron was half-Magic, half-Hakeem.
The next step would have to be a no-post offense. I'm thinking Oklahoma City Thunder. Notice how Kevin Durant is more effective up top than on the block. Watching the Thunder against the Rockets made me realize it's pointless for us to ask Durant to go to the low post. He's easier to double-team down there, and the possession is more likely to end up in a 3-pointer by Russell Westbrook or Thabo Sefolosha. I'd rather have Durant pulling up for a 3 or driving to the hoop.
A Thunder championship would also mean a breakthrough for the elite point guards. As much as we celebrate the likes of Westbrook, Chris Paul and Deron Williams (welcome back to the convo, D-Will) and debate who's better, none of them has won it all. Westbrook is the only one to even reach the NBA Finals.
Isiah Thomas led a team to a championship almost a quarter of a century ago, but his Detroit Pistons teams were known for their defense. If we're truly going to usher in an era of small-ball offense, one of these point guards will have to do it.
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