Zach Lowe on NBA playoff Game 2, what to watch in Round 1


Stray thoughts on three Game 2s:

Blazers-Pelicans

Anthony Davis, at 25, has reached that magical point where separate small improvements, cobbled over multiple years, coalesce to transport a player onto a higher plane. Davis has achieved unguardability. Poor Jusuf Nurkic might as well be broadcast in standard definition trying to track Davis beyond the paint.

Portland knows this. On a few possessions, the Blazers shifted Nurkic onto Nikola Mirotic so that Al-Farouq Aminu could guard Davis. Mirotic is in some ways an even worse matchup for Nurkic — a quick-release shooter who ventures even further outside Nurkic’s natural habitat.

Too many teams spot a problematic matchup and let it simmer for a few possessions, hesitant to deviate from their normal offense as if doing so is a sign of weakness. Alvin Gentry and the Pelicans attacked the Mirotic-Nurkic matchup immediately every time they saw it, zipping Mirotic through screens until Nurkic lost touch:

The Blazers downplayed the matchup issue. They noted that they held New Orleans to 98.6 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have ranked dead last in the regular season, and that Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum won’t miss everything for an entire half again.

Fair. But New Orleans was plus-12 in 32 minutes with Mirotic and Davis on the floor, and it scored about 107 points per 100 possessions in that time — a solid mark that could have been even better. Portland’s options are limited.

Ed Davis played his usual fierce two-way game and is quicker than Nurkic. Zach Collins had a solid postseason debut, including three minutes as Portland’s nominal center in the third quarter. Collins in that stint defended Mirotic, so Aminu could chase Davis.

Aminu is easily Portland’s best option on Davis. If Portland had its full wing contingent — with Maurice Harkless — Terry Stotts would probably experiment some with Aminu at center. But Harkless is hurt, though upgraded to questionable for Game 2. Collins is a rookie. Nurkic is important on both ends.

• Davis was ridiculous on defense. I mean, look at this 12 seconds of hell:

Do you know how many big men Lillard has buried with his lefty hesitation dribble? Davis sticks with him and then swallows Lillard’s shot.

Lillard and McCollum could not get comfortable attacking Davis in the pick-and-roll. He intruded into their space, and even when he was perhaps a step too far toward the paint, Davis closed like a demon with those preposterous arms.

It is no coincidence Lillard got his cleanest off-the-bounce looks when Davis rested. New Orleans didn’t even play bad defense on those shots. Lillard just has more room, and cleaner sight lines, when Mirotic or Cheick Diallo is the one lunging at him.

• Related: Gentry has to be careful sitting Jrue Holiday and Davis together! New Orleans was minus-4 in two such minutes in Game 1.

• Maybe Portland could get its guards going by using someone other than Davis’ man to screen for them. That’s what they did to generate this clutch McCollum 3-pointer:

That might have been happenstance. Nurkic is Portland’s most frequent screener, and Davis for whatever reason was guarding Aminu instead. Going that route also leaves Davis as a backline helper, ready to wreck stuff at the rim. But Aminu is an experienced screener, and the Blazers mixed in some solo Aminu picks in Game 1.

• Another reason McCollum popped open there: Aminu looped from the corner to the top of the arc instead of standing still. That freaked Ian Clark into drifting toward him for a split second — all McCollum needed:

The placement of Aminu and Evan Turner will be a key running theme. New Orleans, like all Portland’s playoff opponents in this era, isn’t guarding either of them. Lillard and McCollum ended the game 8-of-19 from deep — 42 percent. Aminu, Turner and Collins — a disaster outside the corners — were 3-of-13. Aminu will do better, but the Pelicans are just gonna let those dudes shoot:

Stotts caught New Orleans off guard out of a timeout in the first quarter by sliding both Turner and Aminu to the strong side of a Lillard-Nurkic pick-and-roll — the side to which Lillard dribbled — and leaving McCollum as the lone shooter on the weak side.

Defenses help from the weak side as a rule, and so E’Twaun Moore – who was fantastic on defense in Game 1 — sloughs off McCollum here. New Orleans will be ready for this. Expect it to scrap these dictates and help off Turner and Aminu, regardless of where they are. That only puts more pressure on Portland to get creative and put those guys in motion as cutters and screeners

• Portland got a ton of mileage in the regular season out of having Aminu and Nurkic improvise double picks for Lillard just as they all cross the half-court line. We saw that only a few times in Game 1.

• All of this highlights the importance of Harkless, who shot 37.5 percent from deep combined over the past two seasons. Without him, Portland can juice the spacing by playing Lillard, McCollum and Shabazz Napier together — or perhaps by bumping up Pat Connaughton‘s minutes.

• Nurkic passed up a couple of layups when he caught the ball just outside the restricted area, with only a small help defender in his way. He has a maddening habit of going up soft and bonking those shots. Dude, you’re huge and weirdly balletic. Just go up with force.

• Posting Turner up against Rajon Rondo — when the Pelicans hide Rondo there — is not a bad idea. This implicates Portland’s spacing issues too, though. Turner bullied Rondo all the way to the rim in the third quarter, only to find Davis waiting to vaporize his soul. Davis roved away from Nurkic because he knew the defender behind him — Mirotic — would ditch Aminu to cover for him.

• Also a good idea: New Orleans posting up Holiday when the Blazers play McCollum, Lillard and Napier together.

• New Orleans has always been skittish about Holiday’s playmaking instincts. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, he made several puzzling decisions — forcing drives just as Davis popped open behind him, jacking long 2s off-the-bounce instead of probing further, that crazy full-court pass.

Rondo flung up a couple of his own awful shots late, but the offense somehow felt more stable in his hands than in Holiday’s. Of course, it felt most stable in Davis’ hands. Give him the ball. And when Rondo rests — leaving four shooters around Davis — just run spread pick-and-roll after spread pick-and-roll.

Cavs-Pacers

• Cleveland might want to write this off as a “make or miss league” loss. Cleveland shot a hideous 8-of-34 from deep. Hit their average mark, and this is probably a close home loss against a fifth seed that didn’t exactly rain fire either. So … hooray?

What a listless, disengaged effort. The Cavs played as if this were Game 83, starting with LeBron. He drifted off Darren Collison several times in the first quarter; Collison led the league in 3-point percentage. Trevor Booker scooted right around James for an offensive rebound on a free throw. He let Turner sneak behind him for a layup. He sulked. He didn’t get back on defense.

Ty Lue is crowing about a secret best five-man lineup the Cavs didn’t use in Game 1. Umm, the playoffs started. The Pacers smacked Cleveland with a level of intensity these Cavs have never displayed. Might want to ratchet things up, guys.

• The Cavs will get a dunk, layup or 3-pointer on a huge majority of possessions — like, almost all of them — when LeBron posts up Bojan Bogdanovic or Lance Stephenson. Those guys have no chance. (That’s no slight. Bogdanovic played LeBron well. No normal wing has a chance when LeBron decides it’s time to work.)

This is classic LeBron: He knows this, but he rarely cares to exploit it on an almost-every-possession basis until he has to. And don’t lean on the “he just wants to get other guys involved” trope. His post game is, first and foremost, a vehicle with which to get other guys involved.

Jeff Green was awful, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Lue yanks him from the starting five, or at least pulls him earlier. The Cavs can’t run an optimal spread pick-and-roll with Green on the wing, because the defense ignores him. He’s not an accomplished pick-and-roll screener, so they can’t adjust by using him that way. The Pacers are hiding Myles Turner on him, which has the ripple effect of slotting two like-sized players — Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young — on LeBron and Love, neutering that pick-and-roll combination.

If anything, Turner paid Green too much respect. Cleveland hurt Indiana clearing one side of the floor and having a guard screen for LeBron:

The Pacers might want to shift Turner across the paint, onto LeBron’s side, or at least prime him to scoot over earlier.

Green has limited utility if he’s not making open 3s. It’s tempting to suggest the Cavs have Green defend Turner, so they could switch the Victor Oladipo-Turner pick-and-roll. But that would mean Love on Young, a tricky screener himself. And it’s unclear if Green would fare all that well switching onto Oladipo anyway.

Larry Nance Jr. did a decent job switching onto Indy guards, though Oladipo drilled a couple of stone-cold jumpers in his face. If Nance can hang — and he is hit or miss on switches — the Cavs might as well just start him over Green. He is a better defender and rebounder, and the Cavs can use him as a screener to unlock LeBron’s spread pick-and-roll game:

• If Kyle Korver is healthy enough, he should play more. Korver’s effort has been a rare constant amid Cleveland’s endless melodrama. He’s not a stopper, but he tries, he’s in the right place and he has knack for deflections and gang rebounds — the little plays that galvanize lethargic teams. Also, he can shoot.

• Lue continues to have Love trap pick-and-rolls 25-plus feet from the rim, even though doing so opens holes everywhere. The Cavs were so worried about Turner slipping behind Love, they parked a third guy at the foul line — Jordan Clarkson here, about 30 feet from his actual man — to help before the pick-and-roll really even got started:

You’ll never guess what happened:

You can understand this: Make anyone but Oladipo beat you. Cleveland allowed less than a point per possession on trips when Love defended the screener — a stingy mark, per Second Spectrum.

But this is surrender masquerading as aggression. The Cavs have no faith in Love, no matter what strategy they use, so they’re loading up behind him. When Love hung back in semi-garbage time, Oladipo zoomed right around him:

Some of the numbers back Lue up. Even so, this strategy feels exploitable for any team prepared to take what the defense gives.

And that, more than anything, is what the Pacers do. They have a lot of clever, versatile players. They adapt.

One great example: With about 10 minutes left in the game, Cleveland switched against the Cory JosephDomantas Sabonis pick-and-roll, leaving Clarkson on Sabonis in the post. Joseph entered the ball. LeBron saw the mismatch, hustled across the paint and dragged Clarkson off Sabonis — and onto LeBron’s original assignment, Booker.

What happened? Booker ducked under the rim with Clarkson on his back, and Sabonis dumped him the ball for a layup. The Pacers have been opportunistic like that all season — a delight to watch.

Bucks-Celtics

• Game 1 went about as well as could have been expected for us saps who picked Milwaukee to win this series. The Bucks (mostly) ditched the hyperactive trapping defense and formed a shell around the paint, daring the Celtics to find a way inside instead of gifting them one.

Boston struggled to score and ran aground late. The Celtics subsisted on bailout jumpers, random offensive rebounds and some embarrassing Milwaukee mistakes. The Bucks even switched some, benched Thon Maker and played most of crunch time with Giannis Antetokounmpo at center. Those lineups are not as good we’d all like to think. They bled points in the regular season. Milwaukee and Boston tied in 11 minutes with Antetokounmpo at center in Game 1.

But when Al Horford is at center, the Celtics don’t have the heft or manic rebounding to hurt smaller Milwaukee groups. Any counter by Brad Stevens to play Aron Baynes and Greg Monroe more is probably a win for Milwaukee. The Bucks should be open to more Giannis-at-center in Game 2.

There is no real counter for Antetokounmpo attacking Horford from the 3-point arc with four shooters around him.

• One wrinkle in which Milwaukee’s old (bad) habits showed up: fronting Boston post-ups as if they were urgent threats. Boston’s entry passers digested that and drove right at the front, using it as one giant two-man pick:

Horford was more beastly than usual in Game 1. I like when he gets a little mean. But I’m not convinced a steady diet of Horford-on-Giannis post violence constitutes a real danger — beyond the possibility of luring Antetokounmpo into foul trouble. (He might pick up ticky-tack fouls just as easily jostling to front Horford.) I’d brave a few Horford jump hooks one-on-one before fronting or sending any help.

• Boston doesn’t have the superstar shot creator to generate easy looks for everyone else. Its motion offense can open up little slivers of space, but no wide paths. All three of Boston’s core young perimeter guys left standing — Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown — bullied their way through those slivers, and they produced just enough points to win.

Rozier hurt John Henson on switches. Tatum and Brown caught the ball on the move, burrowed into the chests of their defenders and just kept on burrowing until they were at the rim.

It was a gritty performance. It was the clichéd “finding a way.” It also is encouraging on lots of levels. That they can make those kinds of plays now suggests they will be able to make more dynamic ones as they hit their primes. And when Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward bend defenses away from them to give them more of a head start? Watch out.

• On the flip side: yeeeeesh, Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker. We will all remember Rozier turning Bledsoe to stone on his shoulda-been game-winning 3, but Bledsoe defended with Phoenix-era sloth the entire game. He smashed into picks and gave up on plays. He lost Rozier for another pivotal triple:

Forget the five turnovers and 4 of 12 shooting. That happens, though Milwaukee has to be more careful with the ball. This series could swing on how many easy transition points Boston steals. Whenever Bledsoe lazed on defense in Phoenix, we blamed it on the situation: “Wait ’til he gets on a better team.” He’s on a better team. Barring an unknown ailment, this kind of stuff just can’t happen anymore.

And good luck figuring out Parker as he heads to free agency. One on possession, he’ll run a nifty pick-and-roll and hit a Milwaukee center with a lob. On the next one, he’ll do whatever the hell this is:

Joe Prunty benched Parker late, and he was right to. Milwaukee will not win this series with Bledsoe and Parker playing at that level.

Parker is fascinating — undeniably explosive, yet frenetic. He seems to twitch in every direction at once. He plays with his own speed and timing — accelerating suddenly, from weird locations on the floor, and pulling up just as suddenly. He is utterly unpredictable, and I’m not sure that is a good thing.

• Something that is predictable: Milwaukee barfing up long 2s off the dribble with 12 on the shot clock after one desultory action. Sad!

• Good things happen whenever the Bucks use Antetokounmpo as a screener in the pick-and-roll or have their point guards — Brogdon especially — screen for him. More, please.



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