How teams are managing weaknesses (Part II)
The NBA playoffs are, more than anything else, an exercise in the management of liabilities. Team weaknesses are well established by this point in the season, and being able to focus on one opponent for an entire series allows clubs to hone strategies based on those corresponding weaknesses. As such, successful playoff teams aren’t just the ones that can best impose their will but also mitigate potential pitfalls. Every coach is searching for ways to make his team’s flaws more tenable.
With that in mind, let’s zoom in on one problem facing every remaining team while assessing the means through which those teams have — or could — address their faults. For this installment, let’s address the four teams in action on Saturday. To see analysis on the weaknesses of the Spurs, Warriors, Heat and Bulls, check out Part I.
Oklahoma City Thunder
If Thursday's headliner on the list of playoff disappointments wasn't enough of a clue, the Thunder's biggest problems lie with their biggest players. Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison have each struggled in their own ways, but the larger limitation comes from starting center Kendrick Perkins, who is severely damaging the offense. In two games against Memphis, the Thunder's starting lineup has scored only 64.7 points per 100 possessions -- miserable, miserable output from one of the best offensive teams in the league. Things are obviously more challenging for OKC without Russell Westbrook, but Perkins' presence puts the Thunder at something akin to a 4-on-5 disadvantage against an elite defense.
Memphis has no reason to take Perkins seriously on the offensive end, freeing up Marc Gasol to trap harder on pick-and-rolls, crowd Kevin Durant as needed and generally help his teammates even more then usual. Here he gives Perkins a 12-foot cushion without much risk at all:
That's a problem, to say the least. When Gasol is free to roam, he can disrupt far too many play actions and wall off far too many opportunities for any opponent to maintain a steady flow of scoring. Getting all the way to the rim then seems like something of an impossibility, as it would require beating the initial man, navigating through traffic, somehow getting by Gasol and possibly finishing over yet another wave of help defense. What was already challenging then becomes hopeless, all while the Grizzlies virtually taunt Perkins and the Thunder by leaving the center so open. He can catch and finish on occasion, but I suspect Memphis would love for a swarmed Durant to make that pass down to Perkins, if only so that he might do something like this:
There's not much the Thunder can do because there's not much that Perkins can do. He's not a threat to shoot, isn't a great offensive rebounder, has clumsy hands and doesn't present a lob threat. One can only imagine that Perkins will play less and less as this series rolls on, particularly if Ibaka and Collison improve their play to a degree that allows Brooks to justify using them even more.
It should be noted that the same limitations apply to backup center Hasheem Thabeet, who played 13 minutes in the Thunder's Game 2 loss. Desperation would seem to be the only valid explanation for his bump in playing time (he had logged nine total minutes in the team's first seven playoff games), but he's unfortunately no more useful than Perkins.
The Grizzlies have their own offensive liability, albeit a far more tolerable one. Guard Tony Allen is by no means a shooter, scorer, reliable passer or steady ball-handler. But his speed as a cutter requires opponents to keep slightly closer tabs on him, and Memphis has scored slightly better with Allen in the game in the playoffs compared with when he's not. Part of the reason for that is because Allen largely plays with lineups stacked with the Grizzlies' best offensive players, but that's precisely the point: By building more balanced five-man units, coach Lionel Hollins walks the fine line of playing Allen as much as possible without straining his team's defensive potential. The Grizz are hardly an elite offense, but the problems presented by having a non-shooter on the floor are tempered by smart spacing and other, more versatile players.
For Perkins' part, he has little choice but to hang near the rim. If he were to wander out to the three-point line, that would only give the Grizzlies' big men even more room to ignore him and an added freedom in defensive coverage. But Allen -- though no more reputable a three-point threat than Perkins, frankly -- makes opponents a bit more tentative, as he can dart into action to either receive a pass or snatch up an offensive rebound. These are minor threats, truly, but defenders still give Allen only a few steps of space as they look to help elsewhere.. That, coupled with Allen's cross-court positioning from the ball, makes it tricky for his man to really influence Memphis' post-up threats (in this case, Zach Randolph on the right block with Allen on the left wing):
Plus, if Allen's defender does slide into the lane, Gasol and Randolph are well equipped to handle a pack-the-paint strategy. Both can bully their way into prime post position but are also great face-up shooters from both the high- and mid-post. Here's Randolph, when faced with a bit of a crowd in the paint, just shooting over Ibaka:
And similarly, Gasol has such a size advantage over Perkins, Collison and Ibaka that the Grizzlies can find him in the lane merely by lofting the entry pass over the defense:
Because of those advantages, Memphis can still run its post-centric offense without penalty. Things would definitely be simpler if Allen were a reliable three-point shooter, but he's well worth having on the court for his defense and is a manageable nag on the Grizzlies' spacing.
This Indiana team is, by design, short on this very kind of liability. The Pacers are a balanced bunch of helpful scorers and strong defenders, built to rely on one another wholly on both ends of the court. That strategy works brilliantly on defense, where most every Pacer can be trusted to keep his man in front of him and Roy Hibbert can be leaned on to help when that initial line of defense does break down.
On offense, though, the Pacers' lack of an elite, go-to creator can cause considerable problems in their play initiation. Indiana knows where it wants to go with the ball and has some nice actions and sets. But even the slightest pressure on the perimeter can cause the entire team to seize up because George Hill, Paul George and Lance Stephenson are not capable of wringing points out of a botched set. The Pacers were the worst isolation team in the league this season, according to Synergy Sports, for that very reason; each of those three players is solid enough to contribute to the offense of a winning team, but not quite dynamic enough to generate consistent offense off the dribble.
New York appeared to catch on to this weakness in Game 2, when guards Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert and Jason Kidd (in particular) pressured the ball more often. The post was denied or doubled, the Knicks scrambled back into place, and the Pacers were left with long, tough shots like this one, from Hill:
The Knicks' most successful defensive stretches in Game 1 came through that same formula. Unfortunately for the Pacers, there's no real adjustment to be made. The Pacers can fight through the pressure and look to make passes to beat the coverage, but they will have problems in this series whenever the Knicks can strike a perfect balance of pressure and recovery.
New York Knicks
The Knicks have their problems, most of which can be boiled down to the fact that their sources of shot creation in the playoffs have been incredibly narrow. Because of that, the Knicks have suffered from various trickle-down losses, beginning with the marginalization of center Tyson Chandler.
I've already explained Chandler's Game 1 struggles in detail, but the gist is this: Static offense coupled with Indiana's preventative defense (led by Hibbert) made it incredibly difficult for Chandler to register any kind of offensive impact. Because of the conservative way in which Hibbert was guarding pick-and-rolls, Chandler was effectively banished to float out on the perimeter -- unable to roll because of the crowded paint and unable to shoot from outside because of his lack of range. He was stuck, and appeared listless as he struggled through possessions.
That changed significantly in Game 2, even without Chandler's hitting double digits in scoring. For one, the Knicks varied their pick-and-roll angles to at least allow Chandler the room necessary to roll through the paint. That's a minor shift, but an important one; Hibbert had done such a fantastic job of guarding those straight-ahead pick-and-roll sequences that a change was sorely needed, and thus New York incorporated a few similar sets initiated from difference spaces on the floor. Those sequences didn't always end with a finish for Chandler or even a score for the Knicks, but they did create good looks on the basis of Chandler's rolling threat.
New York also did a great job of getting into some of those pick-and-rolls more quickly, eliminating the early delays in its sets by running down the court and looking to execute immediately. Chandler doesn't finish this particular play, but because of the quick pick-and-roll he executes with Felton, the Pacers are so scrambled defensively that they lose track of Shumpert in the left corner:
Chandler also was incorporated as a more frequent off-ball screener, a strategy that makes a ton of sense given the way Hibbert is lingering in the paint to protect the rim:
Carmelo Anthony also broadened his offense into something far more constructive, especially considering the way he barreled into the paint (and into Hibbert) in Game 1. In the series opener, Anthony was clearly attempting to create contact at the basket by rushing his way to the rim, but his failure to finish plays or draw fouls rendered those sequences painfully empty. Getting to the hoop was a nice idea, but Anthony missed chances to kick the ball out to open teammates or finish with more finesse as a result of trying to muscle his way through contact. He identified those chances far more consistently in Game 2 and was able to lure in the Pacers' perimeter defenders like so:
The Knicks also got a big boost from Pablo Prigioni, who further diversified the offense with his scoring out of the pick-and-roll. Prigioni's ability to pull up for jumpers and runners allowed him to take advantage of the way that the Pacers' pick-and-roll defense retreats to protect the basket:
All of which has helped to transform a bland, inefficient offense into something closer to the Knicks' regular-season form. This series will naturally allow for some give and take on both sides as two equal opponents tweak their approaches, but the Knicks have the clear advantage for the moment after finding the means to redeem their deeply vulnerable Game 1 offense.