Seven things we’ve learned from the NBA playoffs so far

NBA Playoffs, Giannis Antetokounmpo

People like to say playoff basketball is better than the regular season because the players try harder. Maybe that’s the case to an extent, but the real reason the playoffs are so much more intense is because there is heightened scrutiny about every little detail.

Coaches have more time to gameplan for specific opponents, therefore every crack becomes a full-fledged break in the dam. Everything is looked at with a microscope for the sole purpose of finding something to exploit.

During last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers were going under Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan on pick and rolls, taking advantage of his inability to hurt them with his outside shot. The Raptors countered by re-screening and flipping the direction, putting Cleveland’s defender too far underneath to stop a DeRozan drive or midrange pull-up jumper.

Minute adjustments can make a series competitive or turn it into a romp. The little stuff matters.

Of course, other things are a little more obvious. You don’t have to study film to see that the Boston Celtics are getting beaten down on the boards by the Chicago Bulls. You don’t have to be a die-hard fan to see that the Golden State Warriors could very well romp to a title. If little advantages can give you a leg up in a series, big ones can end it altogether.

We’ve had at least two games in each series, still a small sample size, but enough to discern some strategic tidbits and lessons. This list examines seven of them to help paint the picture we’ll see completed in June.

1. Size Matters

Courtesy of USA Today Images

In the small-ball era, it’s easy to be dismissive of big men, especially in the postseason when guys like Enes Kanter are practically unplayable because they get roasted on the pick-and-roll. We tend to eschew offensive rebounding for transition defense in the analytics era, a trade-off that works most of the time. However, that trade-off makes second chance points all the more impactful when they do happen.

The Chicago Bulls, through two games, have rebounded a stunning 38.6 percent of their own misses against the Boston Celtics. It’s only two games, but over the regular season, it would have ranked first in the league by over 10 percent. The Bulls are simply dominating the glass thanks in part to massive size advantages over the Celtics.

Robin Lopez is a better rebounder than any Celtic. Rajon Rondo, for all his flaws, is the best rebounding guard in the league who didn’t average a triple-double this season. If Jimmy Butler were traded to Boston, he’d easily be their best wing rebounder. The Bulls have scored 18.5 second-chance points per game in the series, more than enough to wipe out Boston’s transition advantage (the Celtics are scoring 11.5 fastbreak points per game).

When it comes to size, the Celtics have other issues as well, namely 5-foot-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas. As good a scorer as Thomas is, his size makes him an easy attack point for any offense in the postseason. Sure enough, the Bulls have made him defense pick and roll ball handlers ten times, per NBA.com. On those 10 possessions, Chicago has a 71.4 field goal percentage and is scoring 1.20 points per possession.

With the little guy on court, Boston has a 110.5 defensive rating. Ironically, that’s better than their defensive rating with him off the court, but there’s a massive minutes disparity as Thomas has played 80 of 96 minutes in the series. Thomas is struggling offensively (though it’s tough to fault him after the death of his sister), making him a major liability for Boston in the series. Unless he turns his scoring around in a major way, the Celtics may not be able to survive Chicago’s size advantage. And this is just Round One.

2. The Cavs are vulnerable

Caption: Apr 2, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) in the second quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

After Game 3 tonight, it’s clear the Cavs do have some sort of a fifth gear. What isn’t clear however, is how often they can get there. It took them 2.5 games to do it and a Herculean effort by LeBron James. If a few things had gone differently, this series could very easily be 3-0 in the other direction, and better teams won’t make the same mistakes as the Pacers.

Through two games against the Pacers, the Cavs had allowed a 115.3 defensive rating — significantly worse than their regular season mark, which was already pretty bad. In that time, they are the worst playoff team against pick-and-roll ball handlers, and late-game defensive lapses have allowed Indiana back into both games. We also saw them allow the Pacers to score 74 points in the first half Thursday night.

Seventy-four points. In a half. Against. The. Pacers.

This is now an issue, especially with J.R. Smith dealing with with a left hamstring issue. Smith is one of their better perimeter defenders and is good enough offensively to play at this level. His potential absence down the line should be very concerning for Cleveland. Iman Shumpert isn’t a good enough offensive player to get big minutes and Kyle Korver isn’t a good enough defensive player. Unless Tyronn Lue wants to play Richard Jefferson at shooting guard, which may cramp their spacing anyway, Smith is the only two-way option at the position.

The Pacers are shooting 43.2 percent from three in the series, and though Cleveland’s rim defense has been just good enough to get by, that won’t work against better teams. The Pacers are not a particularly good offensive team. If they can stay in games by shooting threes, wait until the Cavs have to play the Wizards, Bucks or Raptors.

3. Washington’s starters can run with anyone, its bench can run with no one

Wizards point guard John Wall has his Washington Wizards in title contention.

The Wizards’ starting five — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat — have played 40 minutes together this series, the most of any Washington lineup. Over that time, they have outscored the Hawks by over 40 points per 100 possessions.

With those five, everything just works. On offense, there’s enough space for Wall to get going downhill and wreak havoc. Morris and Gortat are solid pick-and-roll finishers, and though Beal and Porter are struggling from the field, they remain strong threats from outside. All five guys are solid defenders, and in transition they can fill lanes while Wall goes Keyser Soze on the Hawks. On 13 Wall transition possessions, the Wizards are scoring 1.69 points per and shooting 88.9 percent from the field. Those five guys can compete with anyone in the league.

The problem is that Washington’s bench is a dumpster fire. Kelly Oubre gives good effort — 10 deflections over two games is eye-popping — but the Wizards’ defense has struggled with him on the floor. Brandon Jennings and Jason Smith get toasted on the pick-and-roll and Bojan Bogdanovic is 3-of-15 from the field. Brooks tried taking Wall and Beal off the floor for five minutes in Game 1 and the Wizards’ offense grinded to a halt. They barely made it over 0.5 points per possession before Brooks put an end to that fateful experiment.

With the Cavs yet to look truly dangerous, the door is open for another team to sneak into the Finals. That team could be the Wizards, but they have to stop the bleeding when the starters are off the floor.

4. The Bucks are dangerous

Milwaukee outplayed the Toronto Raptors in the first two games of their series, both in Toronto. At home, they put on a defensive clinic of a stunning variety. They’ve stifled Toronto’s offense with length and made All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry look timid. Lowry habitually avoided the paint in Game 1 for fear of having his shot blocked. He only ventured there carefully in Game 2, depending on who the Bucks were playing at center. Thursday night, nobody had a chance in the painted area.

Defensively, the Bucks are downright scary. They recover from trapping the pick-and-roll better than any team in the league because their length makes it easier to cut off passing lanes. In the regular season, Milwaukee forced more turnovers from pick-and-roll ball handlers than any other team for this reason. They were in the 93rd percentile defending pick-and-roll ball handlers and haven’t slowed down in the postseason. If you can stifle the bread-and-butter play of the entire league, you are a threat.

Much has been made of Milwaukee having the best player in the series: Giannis Antetokounmpo. But with Lowry struggling, the Bucks have the best two players in the series. After returning from injury, Khris Middleton has shot 43.3 percent from three with five rebounds and four assists per 36 minutes in the regular season. In the Game 3 blowout, Middleton scored 20 points, assisted seven and was a monster on defense. Thus far, he’s been the second-best player in the series and it hasn’t been particularly close.

Oh, and Giannis isn’t half-bad himself. The Bucks have been the best team in transition during the playoffs by points per possession thanks in large part to him. He’s averaged 23.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per 36 minutes thus far in the postseason, cementing himself as the second-best player in the East. Toronto managed to escape Game 2 with a win, but make no mistake: the Bucks should be favored in this series.

5. Coaching is still one of the most important factors in every series

To say it in the nicest way possible, Nate McMillan has been an absolute trainwreck on Indiana’s sideline. To put it frankly, he’s the single biggest reason the Pacers are down 0-3 and not up 3-0 — or at least 2-1 — in their series against the Cavs.

His gaffe at the end of Game 1 has been rehashed a million times, but it remains inexcusable nonetheless. Not only did McMillan call a timeout, blowing a Pacer chance in transition with the team down one point with 20 seconds to go, but he completely failed to draw up anything. The Pacers ran a Paul George isolation at the top of the key. The Cavs double-teamed him. The Pacers, not ready for the double, were bailed out by a Richard Jefferson foul. On a second straight sideline out of bounds, the Pacers did the exact same thing, and their best answer for the Cleveland double-team they knew was coming was for George to give the ball to C.J. Miles and then complain about not getting it back.

McMillan had not one but two chances to figure this out after blowing the transition chance. Not only did the Pacers fail to score but George ended up calling out Miles in the postgame presser.

That’s a coaching failure.

Then came Game 2. With 4:43 left in the third quarter, Lance Stephenson entered the game, and it was immediately recognizable that the Cavs had figured out how to exploit him. Cleveland completely ignored Stephenson when the Cavs were on offense, opting to use a roamer (more on that strategy in a bit), and Indiana had no answer. The Cavs forced a turnover because they were able to swarm the ball handler, Jeff Teague, then Kevin Love matched up with Stephenson in transition, getting strong post position and an easy bucket.

On Indiana’s next possession, the same thing happened, culminating in the same transition duck-in and bucket for Love. Then, next time down the floor for Cleveland, Love got an offensive rebound and putback over Stephenson.

At this point, it was more than clear that Stephenson had to be taken out of the game, so what did McMillan do? He put in C.J. Miles for Kevin Seraphin. Stephenson played the rest of the game.

Compare that to Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder. Less than a minute into Game 1 of Utah’s series against the Los Angeles Clippers, star center Rudy Gobert went down with a knee injury, which has kept him out of the series to this point. Snyder still helped Utah turn out a defensive gem in Game 1, in part because of smart strategy on pick and roll defense (discussed in great detail here).

At the end of the game, Snyder was faced with a similar situation to McMillan — the Jazz had the ball off a made shot from the Clippers. Snyder, unlike McMillan, did not call timeout, preventing the Clippers from making defensive substitutions and forcing them to play with Jamal Crawford on the floor instead of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Sure enough, Joe Johnson ended up isolated against Crawford and hit the game-winner.

6. The “roamer” strategy is beatable

Andre Roberson

When Steve Kerr first decided to completely ignore Tony Allen on defense in the 2015 playoffs, propelling the Warriors to a victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, it seemed like a long-term game-changer. How could you play a defensive specialist without shooting ability if the opposing defense would force you into 4-on-5 offense as a result?

Well, now we know that you can get away with it. A well-timed cut or screen makes it impossible for teams to completely ignore a player. Sure, defenses will help aggressively off guys like Thunder forward Andre Roberson, but Roberson will make defenders pay if their heads aren’t on a swivel. Just look at him putting Houston Rockets guard James Harden to shame Wednesday night.

Yes, that’s against James Harden, but Roberson was doing this last season against Golden State in the conference finals. Here, the Thunder used him as a screener early in the play then took advantage when Draymond Green overhelped, resulting in a layup for Roberson.

Billy Donovan isn’t the only head coach to have figured this out. Mbah a Moute got free for a well-timed layup on Tuesday night when the Jazz stopped paying attention.

Expect Celtics head coach Brad Stevens to find a way to punish the Bulls for ignoring forward Marcus Smart as well.

7. The Warriors are still prohibitive favorites

For all of this analysis, the obvious remains. Golden State beat the Blazers by 29 points Wednesday night with their best player out. Not only were they missing Durant, but Shaun Livingston and Matt Barnes — two key bench players who may have started in his place — were hurt as well.

If you thought there were cracks in Golden State’s facade after an uncomfortably competitive Game 1, you were wrong. Betting markets give the Warriors a whopping 70-percent chance of winning the title. FiveThirtyEight’s model pegs them at 61 percent. Unless Durant’s injury is worse than anyone is letting on, Golden State should cruise to a title. Even if he’s out for the rest of the season, they have a fighting chance.

David has beaten Goliath before, but right now it looks like the entire league is gunning for second place.