Monday, May 5, 2014

All The Things I Was Wrong About In Round 1

Jeff Teague almost led the Hawks over the Pacers. I never saw it coming.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

The first round of the playoffs is supposed to be the easiest to predict, right?

So much for that idea.

Of the eight series, I only picked the correct winner in five of them, and in four of those five series, I predicted them to end in four or five games, when in fact they went to seven. The only series I nailed exactly was Miami over Charlotte in a sweep. Everything else I was moderately to incredibly wrong about (For all of my complete picks, with the case for each team to win the series, check the sidebar to the right). Here’s where I messed up:


I Am An Idiot – I Was Totally Wrong About:

Pretty much everything. I grossly over-estimated Indiana’s ability to “flip the switch” (so to speak) and return to their early-season form despite slumping heavily down the stretch. I also grossly under-estimated the degree to which Atlanta would largely abandon their regular season profile and draw heavily from David Strategies (those being templates for underdogs to beat favorites). This series saw Atlanta shoot 230 threes in seven games, over 32 per game, up from 25 per game in the regular season, which was already second-most in the league. Shooting 32 threes per game would pro-rate to almost 2700 over an 82-game schedule and would unequivocally shatter the previous record (2371, set last season by the Knicks). In Game 7, they set an NBA Playoff record by hoisting 44 threes in 48 minutes.

Atlanta took “spreading the floor” to a new level in this series, spending a near-ridiculous amount of time with four or even all five of their offensive players beyond the three-point line. They rendered Roy Hibbert almost useless by constantly attacking him in the pick-and-roll, but never actually attacking the basket, where his size and ability to stay vertical make it difficult to score. They’d force him to retreat into the paint, but Atlanta’s ball-handlers would either drop floaters and short jump shots from the free throw line area, or they’d stop there, collapse the defense, and then kick out to any of the four shooters on the floor. They won Game 5 this way, with an unbelievable barrage of threes – they made 15 of 27 (56 percent) – and led by 30 at one point. They would have won Game 7 if they had shot better than 25 percent from three (they made just 11 of their record 44 attempts), but that comes with increasing the variance. Some games you’ll be on, some you won’t.

But Come On – I Was Totally Right About:

Not much. I didn’t think home-court advantage would matter much, and it turns out it didn’t – Atlanta won Games 1 and 5 in Indiana, Indiana won Games 4 and 6 in Atlanta. Granted, I meant it to mean that Indiana would just sweep through the series at Atlanta having home games would be irrelevant, but still. I was right in saying that home-court advantage didn’t play much of a role. When I wrote Atlanta’s best-case scenario, I said “Indiana inexplicably can't find ways to score against Atlanta's not-so-great defense,” which ended up happening. Indiana had more trouble scoring than I ever would have predicted, mostly due to a jarring inability to pass the ball accurately. We’ll see if this crops up in Round 2.


I Am An Idiot – I Was Totally Wrong About:

Actually, not much. I pretty much nailed this one. Maybe if Al Jefferson doesn’t have to play hurt, Charlotte picks up a win, but I’m going to ignore that and bask in the glow of my one 100% correct pick of Round 1.

But Come On – I Was Totally Right About:

Miami was just better, man. Not sure what else to say. Only one of the games was even that close (Game 2), but even in that game, Miami never trailed after taking an 11-10 lead in the first quarter, and led by as much as 14 in the fourth quarter before the Bobcats made it respectable.


I Am An Idiot – I Was Totally Wrong About:

Brooklyn really could just “flip the switch,” which Indiana obviously couldn’t. Brooklyn pseudo-tanked at the end of the season, preferring to play Toronto, and it turned out to be a good decision for them. I thought Toronto’s speed would overwhelm the older, slower Nets, but it turned out that Brooklyn’s size was the biggest advantage in this series, especially for Joe Johnson, who Toronto had no answer for from the get-go. Toronto ended up turning to John Salmons, which ended about as well as you might expect.

But Come On – I Was Totally Right About:

The “playoff experience” thing didn’t really matter. Yes, Brooklyn stole Game 1 and Game 7 on the road (not an easy task), but they almost blew Game 7 after a turnover on an ill-advised inbound pass with under 10 seconds remaining. Something else that was never mentioned under the “playoff experience” umbrella was that Jason Kidd is a rookie coach and Dwayne Casey won a championship as an assistant with Dallas, and in this instance, Kidd (the one without experience) probably out-coached Casey.


I Am An Idiot – I Was Totally Wrong About:

Again, just about everything. I thought Chicago’s team defense would be able to bait Washington into bad shots, but what ended up happening was that Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza were on fire from three and Nene was able to push around the Defensive Player of The Year, Joakim Noah. Neither of those things were possibilities that I even remotely considered (especially Nene out-playing Noah after the season Noah had), and it’s the primary reason that Washington won all three games in Chicago. Even Game 4, with Nene suspended, saw Washington flip the script and have their best offensive game of the series despite Drew Gooden playing 26 minutes (not a typo).

But Come On – I Was Totally Right About:

Here’s what I wrote about Washington’s best-case scenario:

“Tom Thibodeau is too stubborn to go away from Boozer and Hinrich, despite how clear it is that the combination doesn't work. John Wall abuses Chicago's guards and gets into the paint over and over again. Noah is waiting for him, but his creativity around the basket and ability to find shooters with seemingly reckless passes keeps Washington's offense afloat. Chicago's offense sputters as the Noah Point Center gimmick can't sustain itself under the scrutiny of playoff coaching. The Wizards steal two games on the road and win in five.”

I mean, COME ON! That’s exactly what happened! I had Washington’s case for winning nailed exactly, I just picked Chicago because, again, I’m an idiot.

San Antonio-Dallas

I Am An Idiot – I Was Totally Wrong About:

Dallas played better defensively than I ever would have imagined for a team that finished 22nd in defensive efficiency during the regular season. Ironically, their two best defensive performances (Game 1 and Game 4) were both losses. Their three wins came from insane offensive explosions, thanks in large part to Monta Ellis, who had a much better series than I thought he would. He was their leading scorer in all three wins, and in classic Monta Ellis fashion, was mostly a non-factor in three of their four losses. He’s been an up-and-down player for pretty much his entire career, he just had two more “ups” in this series than I was expecting him to have against the league’s 3rd-ranked defense.

But Come On – I Was Totally Right About:

Parker and Ginobili did basically whatever they wanted off the dribble in this series. In a close playoff series, it often comes down to which team has The One Thing They Can Do Better Than The Other Team’s One Thing. San Antonio’s One Thing was Parker and Ginobili attacking off the dribble, and Dallas had no defensive answer for it.

Oklahoma City-Memphis

I Am An Idiot – I Was Totally Wrong About:

Never in a million years would I have expected Durant to have so much trouble scoring against Tony Allen. I know Allen is a spectacular defensive player, but Durant is about 6-11 and Allen is generously listed as 6-4, so I figured Durant would just shoot over him. But Allen was able to get up underneath Durant and held him to just 37 percent shooting from Game 2 through Game 5 (three of four were Memphis wins). Durant finally shook loose in Games 6 and 7 to the tune of 34.5 points on 56 percent shooting, both convincing Thunder wins, but that turnaround took far longer than I expected.

Memphis came damn close to winning the series outright. They probably would have, too, if not for an explosion from Reggie Jackson (of all people) in Game 4. Jackson was (somewhat hilariously) Oklahoma City’s best player in the game by a substantial margin, completely bailing out Durant and Westbrook, who combined to shoot 11-for-45 in the game. The Thunder escaped by the skin of their teeth, but if they lose, they’re down 3-1, and Memphis won Game 5. In seems redundant to say that a series with four consecutive overtime games was close, but this series was *close.*

But Come On – I Was Totally Right About:

When they’re at their best, Oklahoma City is near-unbeatable. That’s what they looked like in Games 6 and 7. After treading water for five games, Durant and Westbrook finally laid the smackdown on the Grizzlies in Game 6 in Memphis (36 and 10 for Durant, 25-9-5 for Westbrook) and came back and followed that up with an even more impressive Game 7 (33 and 8 for Durant, 27-10-16 for Westbrook). When both of those guys are on, Oklahoma City is the best team in the West and I’m not even sure there’s a close second. I expected them to put together four games like that in short succession and take the series in five. Instead, they only had three (they were both pretty good in the now-forgotten Game 1) that were spaced out, and needed to be saved by Jackson in a fourth win. Lack of consistency is their weakness.

Los Angeles-Golden State

I Am An Idiot – I Was Totally Wrong About:

In all honesty, I’m not even sure. This was a series near-impossible to judge because of all the distractions that surrounded it. Games 1, 3, 6, and 7 were decided by a combined 12 points, and each team took two of them. Game 2 was a blowout for the Clippers, Game 5 was a comfortable win, and Game 4 was a Warriors blowout, but that was also the game immediately following the events surrounding Donald Sterling. Really, you could say that Golden State’s only convincing win occurred because the Clippers were distracted by controversy, and you wouldn’t be totally wrong. You could even back yourself up by saying Golden State only won Game 1 because Blake Griffin spent most of it on the bench with foul trouble. In fact, you know what? ….

But Come On – I Was Totally Right About:

I’m claiming a win for this series. Even if I said Clippers in 5, and it took them seven, this series wasn’t *that* close. The Clippers were still +31 for the series, and that even includes Golden State’s 21-point Game 4 win. DeAndre Jordan had a monster series (just like I thought he would), the Clippers defended the three-point line reasonably well (Golden State shot just 36.4 percent from three in the series, Curry and Thompson combined for just 37.6 percent, compared to 42.0 percent in the regular season), and Golden State cost themselves by sticking with traditional, two big man lineups for too long.

Jermaine O’Neal started Game 1 and was a -11 in 25 minutes. Golden State won anyway, but it got worse. He started again in Game 2 and was -11 in 15 minutes. In Game 3 he was -12 in 16 minutes, and that was a game Golden State only lost by two. For the series, Golden State was outscored by 53 points in the 82 minutes he was on the floor. They didn’t adjust quick enough, and it was the difference in the series.


I Am An Idiot – I Was Totally Wrong About:

Most of it.

Houston’s offense was fine, until they got into the fourth quarter of close games, when they started posting up Dwight Howard on every possession instead of running their offense. Dwight Howard post-ups are fine when they come off the old Stan Van Gundy set. Howard sets a high screen in what looks like a pick-and-roll, but it’s really misdirection that leads to a post-up when Howard seals his man, the ball reverses to the weak side, and all of a sudden Howard is a foot from the rim with a wide-open passing lane. Dwight Howard post-ups are not fine when the team dribbles down the court and dumps in an entry pass to Howard on the block that everyone sees coming and the defense is able to push him 12 feet from the basket with double-team help ready to come at a moment’s notice.

Houston’s defense was… not fine. LaMarcus Aldridge destroyed them in Games 1 and 2 and that was that. Winning in the playoffs is hard. Winning in the playoffs is impossible when you lose Games 1 and 2 at home and have to win four of the next five with three of them being on the road. There’s a reason only three teams have done it in history. Aldridge torched Terrence Jones in Games 1 and 2 (46 and 18 in Game 1, 43 and 8 in Game 2), forcing Houston to insert Omer Asik into the starting lineup. That worked well, as Aldridge shot just 39.8 percent from the floor for the rest of the series, but Damian Lillard picked up where he left off, averaging 26 points per game and shooting 54.5 percent from three for Games 3 through 6.

Not helping matters was that James Harden was a train wreck on both ends. Wesley Matthews guarded him admirably, and Harden forced bad shot after bad shot, especially late it games. Between Harden’s poor shot selection and the unfounded insistence on posting up Dwight Howard, there really wasn’t any way that Houston was going to win a close series. This series had five coin-flip games and one comfortable win (a 10-point Houston win in Game 5 that they led nearly the entire game). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Portland won four of those five games because Houston couldn’t get out of their own way on offense in crunch time. Yes, they needed a Damian Lillard buzzer-beater in Game 6 to end the series and prevent a Game 7 back in Houston, but even on that play, there was inexcusably poor communication and execution by Houston that led to a wide-open look for Lillard. This series was about as close as it gets (the total combined score was Houston 672, Portland 670), but Portland deserved to win.

But Come On – I Was Right About:

After Game 1, I said that Portland needed LaMarcus Aldridge to have the game of his life (the 46 and 18) and they still only won by two in overtime. Well, Aldridge but up 43 and 8 in Game 2 and they won again. So I was right about the fact that Portland would win if Aldridge played the game of his life, again.

Houston’s late-game offense has been an issue all season. My assumption would be that they’d be able to either (a) figure it out against Portland’s mediocre defense, or (b) it wouldn’t matter because they’d have a few more comfortable wins like they had in Game 5. Once it became clear that pretty much every game was going to be a coin-flip, it became obvious that Houston was going to have some trouble.

The case I made for Portland winning the series was that their balance overwhelmed Houston’s star system. That was true to some degree, but it was mostly that Portland’s stars outplayed Houston’s stars. Aldridge out-played Howard (although not by much from Games 3 through 6 – Howard actually played really, really well, averaging a 26-14 for the series), and Lillard badly outplayed Harden. Portland’s strength has always been their starting five, and playing those guys even more minutes in the playoffs gives them even more of an edge. That was the difference in the series.

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