The Fundamentals: Knicks stand to be biggest challenger to the Heat in the East
For much of the season, I've maintained that the Pacers were the Eastern Conference team with the greatest chance of upsetting the Heat in a potential playoff series. That thinking was based primarily on the following assumptions:
1. An elite defense would seem to be an absolute necessity in contending with the Heat's brutally efficient offense, and the Pacers have been the best defensive team in the NBA this season (96.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). Indiana also excels at defending both the paint and the corner three-pointer, two hugely important assets of Miami's offense.
2. On a player-by-player level, the Pacers seem to match up with the Heat about as effectively as an opponent could. Paul George gives Frank Vogel a first-tier defensive option on either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade; Lance Stephenson could at the very least hound Wade or Mario Chalmers while generally maintaining good defensive position; and Roy Hibbert is as effective as at-the-rim defenders come. Throw in sound defenders in George Hill and David West to round out the starting five, and the Pacers could at least plausibly give the Heat some problems.
3. The postseason will allow Indiana to rely on its starters more and its bench less, mitigating some of Miami's advantage with the second unit.
The Pacers are a very good defensive team, making them a tough out. But as steady as the Pacers' defense is, all that consistency is likely to earn them in a matchup with the Heat are consistent losses. Miami just makes for a better and more dynamic team, and against an opponent of that caliber, a safe, solid-at-best offense isn't likely to gain the necessary ground. There's no question that a series between the Heat and Pacers would prove physically exhausting for Miami, but there's not much potential for an actual upset.
For any team in the East to beat the Heat, things are going to have to get loopy. Chaos is the most promising engine behind a potential Miami upset, and chaos is an enterprise in which these Pacers don't often trade.
That's where the Knicks -- those shining examples of game-to-game variance -- come in. New York may not be as good or as reliable as Indiana in a general sense, but no team offers more room for explosive performance. The Knicks could be undone in the postseason by the flip side of that same token, but their potential to drown any opponent in three-point attempts creates the possibility for astonishing results. Besting the Heat will take smart execution, a dose of overconfidence and talent aplenty, but it will also require a team capable of reaching an incredibly high offensive ceiling.
It would be tempting to declare Carmelo Anthony's scoring a defining factor of a potential series with the Heat, and though there's some truth to that thought, let's not overstate his function simply because of his star power. Anthony's high scoring output will be vital for the Knicks this postseason, but New York's offensive comings and goings are far more dependent on the shot creation of Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith -- the two far less reliable ball handlers who are capable of maximizing Anthony's production. The pair can't match Anthony in scoring, but they're essential in shifting the Knicks on the whole toward the balanced offense that opens up New York's array of three-point shooters.
Living by the three-pointer may come with its implicit risks, but the heightened value of that shot also brings the potential for a team to score beyond its means. That worked out rather brilliantly for the Knicks in their season series against the Heat, when they won three of four games (their long-range shooting was particularly abysmal in their one loss to Miami, 99-93 in New York on March 3) on the basis of launching threes whenever possible. In the Knicks' 112-92 win over the Heat on Dec. 6, New York hoisted an amazing 44 three-point attempts -- the second highest total by any team in a game this season -- and beyond that, New York averaged a whopping 34 in the four meetings (up from its season average of 28.9).
Miami allows its opponents to shoot more three-pointers per game than all but five other teams, a tendency that creates volatility in games against those foes as eager to fire up threes as New York. The Heat have gone 3-4 when opponents hit 14 or more threes, according to Basketball-Reference, with the Knicks accounting for three of those losses. The most prolific three-point-shooting team in NBA history, the Knicks are 14-3 when they make 14 or more threes. There's no assurance that such concerted chucking could keep New York competitive against Miami over the course of a series, but that strategy remains the most convincing longshot option for any Eastern Conference foe to catch the Heat off guard.
On the other side of the ball, the Knicks would need to rely on marginal defensive gains stemming from factors all over the court. For one: If Anthony were able to draw James on a potential defensive assignment, he could at the very least force LeBron to uphold his focus and energy on both ends, inviting some level of exhaustion. Given the way that Anthony pounded Shane Battier the last time these two teams met, this seems like a vague possibility.
Furthermore, the slow-footed Knicks may not have much luck getting back on defense to stop the Heat break, but they also lead the NBA in turnover rate. There's no audacious point guard throwing high-risk passes that Miami could convert into fast breaks -- merely calculated kick-out work from Anthony and Felton and an array of swing passes that get the ball on the right side of the floor. That combination allows the Knicks to maneuver their offense without risk of an open-court onslaught -- an important consideration.
Beyond that, the Knicks' statistically average defense is at least a few shades better than it appears on the whole. This team has dealt with a ton of injuries and fielded plenty of strange lineups, but Tyson Chandler still does some really nice work on the back line while his perimeter teammates make for a good core of cross-court scramblers. That combination hasn't been good enough to even barely rival the Pacers' lockdown work, but the Knicks should improve on their mediocre defensive numbers if given time to prepare and focus on a specific opponent.
Of course, when the Heat are that opponent, things can get a bit tricky. Jason Kidd and Felton both struggle to keep up with opponents on the perimeter and, as a duo, come to test the limits of what Chandler can make up for as a help defender. One can only imagine what havoc Wade could wreak in a playoff series against those two, much less how the Knicks might also be compromised by James' work against Anthony (not to mention the flood of supplementary offense that can result from those initial breakdowns). Even if New York could defend better than advertised, the degree of difficulty inherent to controlling such a dominant offense could render those gains irrelevant.
All of which bears an important reminder: For the Knicks to achieve the hypothetical conditions on both ends of the court necessary to win such a series would require the fulfillment of the most minute probabilities. In all likelihood, the Heat would run over either the Knicks or Pacers while conceding a game or two at most, and they would do so without exhausting either their principle stars or their playbook. But in sorting out which team might be able to beat the unbeatable, I'd elect the team that more openly courts improbability, even if that team also has the greatest chance of dropping the series in a sweep. Such is the inevitable case with the Knicks.
• This portion of the season is typically littered with odd statistical occurrences courtesy of unexpected players on bad teams surging against weary or resting competition in their first dose of heavy playing time. It makes for a fun diversion, but this year we're running relatively light on the typical crop of April revelations. As I mentioned last week, Tobias Harris and Moe Harkless are filling this role admirably for Orlando, and in recent weeks Milwaukee's John Henson and Phoenix's Wesley Matthews have erupted for a few particularly productive outings.
But my favorite statistical turn of this weird portion of the season: a bizarre 11-point, 15-rebound double-double from Johan Petro, which very nearly turned the tide in Atlanta's narrow loss against San Antonio last week. April is the only time of year in which that sentence makes even the vaguest amount of sense, as if the calendar month were some kind of cypher for the outlandish. Still, enjoy your minute in the sun, Johan -- I don't suspect opportunities like that one to come too often.
• Toronto has taken plenty of heat for the Rudy Gay trade, but one point in the Raptors' favor needs to be noted: Among NBA lineup combinations to log at least 300 minutes, Toronto's top unit of Gay, Amir Johnson, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas ranks seventh in efficiency differential. That's by far the best mark among lottery teams is comparable to some of the better lineups of the Heat, Pacers and Thunder. The fact that this Toronto lineup squeezes in just over the minutes threshold (308) makes me very leery of drawing many conclusions from the data. But of particular interest with that group is that it's held opponents to just 90.6 points per 100 possessions, addressing some of the warranted concern over how such a lineup might defend.
• There are still a few games left to be played, but it's safe to crown LaMarcus Aldridge as the czar of the mid-range for the 2012-13 season. The Trail Blazers' power forward has taken an amazing 738 shots from outside the paint and inside the three-point line. That number puts him more than 100 attempts ahead of the second-place finisher (DeRozan) and marks the highest number of mid-range shots attempted in a season since 2010.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. The simple joys of Nate Robinson
Though he means well, Robinson has to rank as one of the most exasperating players in the league to coach -- especially for Chicago's Tom Thibodeau, who is reluctantly reliant on the 28-year-old guard to give his offense a dose of the dribble-drive creation it's so badly missing without Derrick Rose. I'm legitimately surprised that Robinson hasn't given Thibs -- a micro-managing perfectionist to his core -- an aneurysm, but I suspect that even a process-driven coach like Thobideau appreciates the curiously positive results of many Robinson-driven possessions.
That's been particularly true of late, as Robison has put up some tremendous numbers in big minutes to help keep the injured Bulls afloat. Robinson has scored in double digits in each of the last 12 games and produced overall averages of 19.3 points (on a 54.7 effective field goal percentage!) and 4.2 assists in just 30 minutes in that span. That ranks as Robinson's best stretch of the season (though he also had a nice run bridging January and February) and it's made the Bulls a spectacularly entertaining team throughout the final month of the regular season.
Robinson can be incredibly frustrating at times, and he very well could be the leading cause of head shaking and/or eye rolls in the Chicago area over the last six months. But when he's on, the outrageousness of every possession makes him one of the most engaging watches in the entire league. Here's hoping all of this late-season magic somehow spills over into the playoffs.
2. The gradual return of Eric Bledsoe
It's tough to make any definitive claims about Bledsoe's play, given that he's just a few games into a return from a calf injury. But it's good to see him running the court more effectively and pushing the Clippers' second unit in the same way he did early in the season. Bledsoe made for one of the most tantalizing X-factors of the 2012 NBA playoffs, and I'm hoping that he can do so again -- both as a transition weapon for the reserve brigade and a backcourt complement to Chris Paul. His performance of late -- specifically, the way he's looked on the break -- certainly suggests that a solid postseason sprint could be in the cards.
3. Mike Conley, finding his way without the Rudy Gay safety net
The Gay deal has better positioned the Grizzlies for the long run, largely by erasing a huge obstruction from Memphis' cap sheet. But at the time the deal was struck, even those cheeriest in their assessment of the Grizzlies' decision saw the move as something of a lateral deal at best and one that would potentially cause problems in games against high-level competition. For all of the justifiable criticisms of Gay's inefficient game, there is value to his volume, and certainly a payoff for his ability to handle the ball and make shots.
Gay also drew the attention of defenses -- whether warranted or not -- and in that regard helped create space for an otherwise cluttered offense. That seemed especially true for Conley, who had struggled to generate offense for himself whenever Gay was off the floor. Before the trade, Conley shot just 35.7 percent (and 28.6 percent from three-point range) when he played without Gay compared with 44.1 percent (and 37.9 percent from deep) when Gay was in the lineup. That was a troubling precedent for a team that still had hopes to contend after trading their leading scorer.
But since the deal, Conley has looked incredibly comfortable operating in a far more open offense, filled with the kind of cutting and fluidity that gives Memphis a good chance to score at an above-average level. Conley has converted 45.3 percent from the field (and 35.4 percent from three) while curbing his turnovers to just 2.5 per 36 minutes (compared with 3.3 per 36 without Gay on the court earlier in the season). That improvement is vital now that he is assuming an even bigger role in Memphis' offense and it helps make the Grizzlies a better team overall.
4. Lance Stephenson, as crucial as ever
I wish I had room on my make-believe ballot to slot Stephenson in the top three for the Most Improved Player award, but I ultimately couldn't justify bumping him ahead of a crowded field on the basis of my surprise alone. I'm typically not fond of even nominating players for the honor in their first three NBA seasons, given the volatility of minutes, role and development, but Stephenson stands as a rare example of how a third-year player might qualify for such an honor. He's taken brilliantly to a role in the Pacers' starting lineup, helping to keep that group operating at an incredible level through the prolonged absence of Danny Granger.
But now the real fun begins, as the Pacers' offense will be tested against more rigorous and informed competition in the playoffs. Indiana will adapt to that challenge by tightening its rotation and relying further on its highly effective starting lineup, but that option requires Stephenson maintaining his savvy work as a helpful ball handler and situational scorer for even more than the 29.2 minutes he has averaged this season. I'm eager to see if Stephenson is capable of handling such a tall order.
5. Corey Brewer going bananas
Some of the momentum of Brewer's recent high-volume streak has been sapped by a weird 1-of-5 performance against Portland on Sunday night, but even that kind of showing can't erase the absurdity of seeing the Nuggets' swingman function in such a massive role. In a four-game swing against exclusively Texas teams (Dallas twice, San Antonio and Houston once apiece), Brewer averaged an unbelievable 21 field-goal attempts and 6.7 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes -- numbers that produced a six-percent increase in his usage rate compared with his season average.
6. Cordially invited to the postseason
Just a friendly reminder that the following players figure to play regular minutes in the playoffs: Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Anthony Randolph and Jordan Crawford. Blatche, in particular, has been rather essential for the Nets. It still feels strange to both carry that thought and type that sentence, given how horrible Blatche had been in years past, but his fit in Brooklyn has been apparent since the season's opening month and there's no use for denial at this stage.
7. Slow and unsteady development for Bismack Biyombo
Bobcats general manager Rich Cho opted for intrigue and potential when he selected Biyombo with the seventh pick in 2011, and the two seasons since have more or less offered the kind of meager immediate return that Cho undoubtedly expected from the big man. Drafting a talent this raw calls for an order of patience and development, and to the Bobcats' credit they've seemed to be generally accommodating of the fact that Biyombo won't soon set the league ablaze. He'll have the time necessary to establish a solid foundation in the NBA, and given his slight progress over the past two seasons, that's great news for all involved.
Biyombo has had his show-and-tell developmental moments this season with the odd jumper or hook shot, but he's only subtly improved from the untempered prospect who debuted for the Bobcats a season ago. I'm still curious to see what Biyombo might make of his length and bounce in the long run, but for now he's a similar player showcasing only the slightest of improvements.
8. A fond farewell to Dirk Nowitzki's beard
Dallas finally reset its season record to .500 on Sunday night, freeing Nowitzki from his beard-growing bond and earning him an overdue date with some clippers. He didn't wait; Nowitzki retreated to the locker room immediately after the game to shave the rug he had been growing over the last few months. Mavs personnel were on hand to document the transformation:
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why the NBA -- and specifically, why teams like the Mavs -- are better at managing social media and their online brand than any other collection of professional sports teams on the planet.
Elton Brand also capped the entire episode rather beautifully, via Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
https://twitter.com/DwainPrice/statuses/323729609466204160 Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.