Now that the 2016-17 NBA regular season is over with and the Western Conference standings are set, we can finally turn our attention to the postseason.
For the third season in a row, the Warriors enter the playoffs with the best record in the NBA. They are the overwhelming favorites to beat a Trail Blazers team in the first round that scrapped and clawed their way to the No. 8 seed. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are having their best seasons yet, but they don’t have quite enough firepower to take down a Warriors team featuring Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant.
The rest of the Western Conference isn’t as easy to predict. The Spurs finished the season with 61 wins and have an MVP candidate on their roster, but they have a history with the Grizzlies that hasn’t always worked in their favor. It’s a similar case for the Clippers, who started the season on fire only tofind themselves trying to answer the same old questions by the season’s end. It doesn’t help that the Jazz match up with them as well as any other team in the league. And then there’s the Rockets and Thunder, which has all the makings of a classic given how James Harden and Russell Westbrook performed this season.
With so much up in the air, let’s take a look at one key factor in each series, ranging from Chris Paul’s pull-up 3-pointer to the Warriors’ stingy perimeter defense.
(Deciding factors for the East bracket can be found here.)
NBA playoff bracket
The Jazz need an answer to Chris Paul’s pull-up 3-pointer
Rudy Gobert emerged as the best rim protector in the NBA this season. Not only did he lead the league with 2.6 blocks per game, he also defended the most shots at the basket. He allowed opponents to shoot 43.9 percent when they got there, according to NBA.com, which was a number only Green, Kristaps Porzingis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Embiid and Dewayne Dedmon could come close to matching.
That’s why Paul’s pick-and-roll prowess will be the key to the Clippers winning the series. It’s not that Gobert can’t wreak havoc outside of the paint, but Paul has the potential to draw him out of the paint more often than he’d like. To put into perspective how good Paul is in the pick-and-roll, 44.7 percent of his points came as the ball handler this season, and he ranked in the 83.3 percentile with 0.96 points per possession. Much of his success in that department has to do with his pull-up — only Westbrook scored more points per game off of pull-ups and Paul knocked down 46.1 percent of his attempts.
With the way the Jazz guard pick-and-rolls, Paul will have opportunities to pull-up from midrange and the perimeter if DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin set screens for him beyond the 3-point line.
We’ve seen those screens used for Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard in the past. Even though Paul didn’t shoot as many pull-up 3-pointers as them on the season, he made 39.1 percent of those opportunities. Of the 27 players who attempted at least 2.0 pull-up 3-pointers per game this season, only Kyle Lowry (42.1 percent), Eric Gordon (40.5 percent) and CJ McCollum (42.9 percent) made then at a higher rate . If Paul looks for his shot more than he does in the regular season, it could crack one of the best defenses — and one of the best defenders — in the NBA.
The Rockets need an answer to Russell Westbrook in transition
Westbrook is a one-man wrecking crew in transition. He led the NBA this season with 6.8 transition opportunities per game, and he turned those opportunities into 6.7 transition points per game. It made up for 20.2 percent of his offense in total, which played a big role in the Thunder scoring more points than all but five teamson the fast break: Wizards, Cavaliers, Rockets, Suns and Warriors.
As Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight pointed out, there are pros and cons to the way Westbrook pushes the ball in transition. The Thunder are the quickest team in the NBA at getting off shots after a turnover, and they rank fifthin the NBA with their average possession lasting 11.5 second after a defensive rebound, according to Inpredictable. The problem is the Thunder also rank 21st in points per possession following a defensive rebound and 28th in points per possession following a turnover. That’s largely because Westbrook ranks in the 31.2 percentile himself in transition efficiency with 0.99 points per possession.
So while Westbrook can pull of moves like this in the open court…
... turnovers like this, which happen 22.4 percent of the time, play a big role in his inefficiency:
Even so, that doesn’t change the fact that Westbrook is a volume scorer in transition, and it makes up a huge portion of the Thunder’s total offense. Plus, the Rockets gave up the sixth most transition pointsthis season in addition to ranking in the 24.1 percentile in transition scoring defense. For a team that likes to get out and run themselves, it’s going to be hard to prevent their series from becoming the track meet Westbrook wants it to be.
The Grizzlies need an answer to Kawhi Leonard’s open shots
Kawhi Leonard is in a unique position. Despite being one of the leading scorers in the NBA this season, almost half of his shot attempts were open or wide open. When compared to the other scorers in the top 10, Leonard led the way by a large margin. While some of it has to do with Gregg Popovich’s tried and tested system, it’s Leonard’s ability to score efficiently in a variety of waysthat makes him so unpredictable when he has the ball in his hands.
For example, it’s hard for the defender to predict what Leonard will do next when he can do this...
...and this offthe same set.
Leonard can basically take whatever the defense gives him. Cut underneath the screen, and he’ll shoot a 3-pointer with ease. Try to take away the 3-pointer, and he’ll coast to the basket for a layup or dunk. It’s not necessarily bad defense, either. Leonard ranks in the 90th percentile in scoring out of the pick-and-roll and on spot-ups. He also ranks in the 89.2 percentile in transition scoring, the 79.5 percentile in post-up scoring and the 72.2 percentile in isolation scoring. There’s no right way of defending him anymore.
That’s going to test a Grizzlies team that finished 6th in defensive efficiencymore than anything in their matchup with the Spurs. They have a number of wing defenders to throw at Leonard to make his life as difficult as possible in one-on-one situations as well as the rim protection behind them to stop Leonard from getting open layups and dunks when their primary defender overplays. Striking the balance between loading up on Leonard while not giving his teammates open looks is a fine one, but it’s what the Grizzlies need to figure out if they want to haveany chance of winning.
The Blazers need an answer to the Warriors’ 3-point defense
The Blazers were one of the higher volume 3-point shooting teamsduring the regular season. While they ranked 10th in 3-point attempts per game, they finished eighth in 3-pointers made and were tied with the Clippers in terms of success rate. Lillard and McCollum were the obvious leaders in that category having combined for 5.2 made 3-pointers per game.
There’s just one problem: Golden State defends the 3-point line better than any other team in the NBA. Opponents shot 35.4 percent from the perimeter in general against the Warriors during the regular season, but that number dropped to 32.3 percent on contested 3-pointers. The only teams that came close to posting a similar differential during the regular season were the Celtics (-2.4), Spurs (-1.4) and Heat (-1.4). With their combination of length, speed and versatility, the Warriors can easily swarm dynamic playmakers in the pick-and-roll and recover in time to prevent wide open 3-pointers on kickouts.
Just ask Harden, who had some of his worst games this seasonagainst the Warriors.
Lillard has had some success against the Warriors in the past, though, like when he scored 51 points against them with nine 3-pointers during the 2015-16 season. He followed it up by dropping 40 points against them in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, although he struggled in the four games the Blazers lost. If Jusuf Nurkic can return to the lineup at full healthand be the sort of inside presence the Warriors have had issues against in the past, he could help create the space Lillard and McCollum desperately need to get going from 3-point range.
It might not be enough to upset the Warriors either way, but it could make for a more competitive series.