The 2014 NBA playoffs tipped off Saturday with a quadruple-header. The Point Forward has coverage of all four games: Nets-Raptors, Clippers-Warriors, Pacers-Hawks and Thunder-Grizzlies. Read on for analysis, highlights and more from a good opening day for the road teams and an alarming Game 1 performance from top-seeded Indiana.
Hawks 101, Pacers 93
By Matt Dollinger
• The Pacers' free fall from bona fide contender to blue-and-gold dumpster fire has been more abrupt than a Gregg Popovich interview. Did Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum throw off the team's peerless chemistry? Did the players' newfound success go to their heads? Did a team reliant on teamwork become selfish to a fault? Yes, yes and yes. Indiana came unhinged with an 8-10 March, and the Pacers have yet to recover. Many gave them the benefit of the doubt and assumed that the slumbering No. 1 seed would wake up come playoff time, but Saturday's Game 1 loss to the Hawks proved that the team's issues are alive and well.
Jeff Teague brought the NBA's top-rated defense to its knees, getting into the paint at will and finishing with a career-playoff-high 28 points. But the eighth-seeded Hawks didn't do as much right in Game 1 as the Pacers did wrong. Indiana had trouble keeping Atlanta off the boards, even though the Hawks ranked 27th on the glass during the regular season. It turned the ball over 15 times, shot just 41.9 percent from the field and went 16-of-23 from the free-throw line. It looked disjointed on offense, disinterested on defense and exactly like the vulnerable team that has been masquerading as a contender for weeks.
A lot of attention has been paid this season to the Pacers' prospects in a conference finals rematch with the two-time-defending champion Heat. Now, though, it's fair to wonder if they can avoid the embarrassment of one of the biggest playoff upsets in history. Since 1984, only five No. 8 seeds have won their first-round series. The Hawks would be a particularly improbable addition to that list: They have been without their best player (Al Horford) since December, went 2-10 in February and finished 38-44. Their general manager admitted that making the playoffs as the eighth seed wasn't a "goal," yet they now have a 1-0 lead against a team that was once 46-13.
• Just how bad was Roy Hibbert's night?
Remarkably, Hibbert's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad game didn't end with being rejected by Kyle Korver. He got rejected again by Korver in the second half. The Pacers' All-Star center finished with a -11 plus/minus rating. He managed just eight points (the same as his counterpart, Pero Antic). He went 0-for-2 at the line. He collected five fouls and committed four turnovers. And, just for good measure, he totaled more three-point attempts (one) than blocks (none).
Hibbert's Game 1 performance is just an extension of the end of his regular season, when he shot 23.5 percent in six April games. Mired in the worst slump of his career, Hibbert has gone 14 straight games without shooting at least 50 percent. Rather than rest him in the meaningless season finale, coach Frank Vogel played Hibbert against the lowly Magic in hopes of raising the big man's spirits. Instead, he shot 1-of-7.
And as inviting as the 38-44 Hawks appeared as a first-round opponent to the Pacers, Hibbert probably preferred a different matchup. In four games against Atlanta this season, Hibbert averaged just five point (on 28.1 percent shooting) and 3.8 rebounds in only 21.7 minutes.
His struggles were as abundant as ever in Game 1. The 7-foot-2 center looked uncomfortable on both ends, often being forced to defend on the perimeter with Antic hovering around the arc. Hibbert's wandering led to countless uncontested layups from the Hawks. Hibbert's frustrations were apparent on the court and with miserable body language on the bench.
It's no coincidence that Hibbert and the Pacers are playing their worst basketball of the season at the same time. Indiana needs its All-Star center to be the anchor of its championship-quality defense, not a liability when the Hawks spread the floor. Indiana is talented enough to win in spite of Hibbert occasionally, but not consistently. If Hibbert doesn't exorcise his demons, the Pacers won't either.
• This will sound like a backhanded compliment, but it's meant purely as an innocent observation: Atlanta isn't a great team, but it's good enough to beat Indiana. The teams split their season series 2-2, and Indiana needed six games to beat the Hawks in the playoffs last season. The loss of Horford was a significant blow to the Hawks, but it also enabled them to insert Antic into the starting lineup and spread the floor more, giving the Pacers fits on defense with their unconventional looks. Game 1 showed just how out of sync Hibbert can look when trying to defend a capable perimeter shooter. Without the Defensive Player of the Year candidate protecting the rim, Atlanta attacked the paint without fear, leading to easy baskets and repeated trips to the line (24-of-29 from the stripe).
The Hawks now have a blueprint to beat Indiana and a 1-0 lead to boot. The Pacers have been pressing the snooze button on their wake-up calls for weeks. We'll find out in Game 2 on Tuesday if this latest one finally stirred them.
Warriors 109, Clippers 105
• Warriors vs. Clippers had all the makings of a thrilling first-round playoff series: a spate of star players, including Chris Paul and Blake Griffin for Los Angeles and Stephen Curry for Golden State; the teams’ well-documented history of mutual distaste; and entertaining styles of play. The matchup lost some of its luster when center Andrew Bogut, Golden State’s defensive anchor, went down with a fractured rib days before the start of the playoffs, but a consensus remained: This series was going to be extremely entertaining. With so much hype, at least some measure of disappointment seemed inevitable.
On Saturday, though, Golden State and Los Angeles staged an intense contest worthy of the “must-watch” expectations. There was physical play on both ends of the floor, a number of questionable foul calls that elicited priceless reactions from offending players and a ridiculous, buzzer-beating bank-swish from half court . Both teams struggled to find their groove in the first half, but the intensity ramped up after the break, as the Clippers and Warriors traded big shots. In the end, Golden State held off Los Angeles' late charge with some keys plays down the stretch.
• With just over 11 minutes remaining, center Jermaine O’Neal dunked off a feed from Klay Thompson to put the Warriors up by 11. Having weathered the Clippers’ early scoring barrage – L.A. started the game on a 12-1 run – and taken a double-digit lead, Golden State seemed in control. But the Clippers, with their league-leading offense and the game’s best point guard, fought back to push Golden State to the wire. Paul's three-pointer with 3:30 remaining brought the Clippers within three, and they tied the game at 102-102 when Paul drilled another trey about a minute later. The Clippers looked in position to take over.
That’s when Warriors second-year forward Harrison Barnes -- who has regressed after playing a key role in last season's playoffs -- orchestrated a crucial end-to-end sequence. With the Clippers leading 103-102, Barnes blocked Paul's layup and nailed a three on the next possession to give the Warriors a 105-103 lead with 1:42 remaining. His reaction, a stare and strut that conveyed “I’m a boss,” was appropriate. The Clippers pulled even when Griffin hit two free throws, but Draymond Green knocked down tow of his own to put the Warriors ahead 107-105 with 24 seconds to play. And despite some shaky free-throw shooting, including two misses by Green with 10 seconds left that would have sealed the game, Golden State made just enough plays, and got just enough lucky bounces, to survive.
• One of the biggest questions facing the Warriors in this series was whether they’d be able to match up with the Clippers’ frontcourt. With Bogut sidelined, how would Golden State manage to keep Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in check? The Warriors’ situation seemed even more dire when Green injured his knee in the first half. Golden State benefited from Griffin's getting into foul trouble -- the Clippers’ star forward played just 19 minutes before fouling out and finished with 16 points and three rebounds – but that hardly diminishes the Warriors' quality effort. Coach Mark Jackson deserves credit for devising a game plan to help his team overcome an obvious area of weakness, and David Lee, Jermaine O’Neal, Marreese Speights, Barnes, Green and other frontcourt contributors should be commended for executing.
Lee, who had been battling a back injury, turned in a huge game, scoring 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting and grabbing 13 rebounds. His contributions seem even more important given that Curry, Golden State’s leading scorer and primary offensive weapon, had a rough shooting game; He scored 14 points, well below his season average (24), on 6-of-16 shooting overall and 2-of-6 from beyond the arc. To have any chance at beating the Clippers, the Warriors needed Lee and their other forwards to step up. They did. It would be a mistake, however, to take Saturday’s performance as evidence that Griffin and Jordan (who had 11 points and 14 rebounds) won’t go off for bigger games later in the series.
By Rob Mahoney
• The first game of the 2014 NBA playoffs was a bout of stunted offenses. On one side the typically balanced, versatile Nets played much of Game 1 utterly reliant on Deron Williams (24 points, including 18 in the first half) and Joe Johnson (24 points on 8-of-13 shooting, eight rebounds, four assists) for shot creation. The Raptors, on the other end, stalled in their execution to a point that made rushed shots and forced passes uncomfortably common. Both teams eked out periodic runs, though it was Brooklyn -- or really, Paul Pierce -- that sealed the game with one final push. The Nets led 77-76 with 3:45 left when Pierce took over. He scored or assisted on Brooklyn's next 11 points to stretch the lead to 88-81 with 51 seconds remaining.
He did so with the usual guile and audacity, as Pierce's 2-for-9 shooting to that point didn't deter him from taking vital, series-altering shots. Finally they went down: first an open three-pointer, then a layup (which, frankly, should have been whistled as a traveling violation), then two shorter jumpers. Pierce wasn't guided by an aura of experience but by the willingness to shrug off his earlier struggles and keep firing. It's because of that nerve that Brooklyn was able to make a powerful opening statement and seize home-court advantage in what's sure to be a competitive series, no matter its horrid three-point shooting (4-of-24, 16.4 percent) and intermittent dry spells.
• Toronto's tense offense will undoubtedly be attributed to playoff inexperience. I suspect there's something more specific in play here, though. For one: Brooklyn played really stout defense, namely by crowding the ball as much as possible and forcing DeMar DeRozan (14 points on 3-of-13 shooting) to be a playmaker. The first-time All-Star has improved that aspect of his game, but passing is still not his strongest suit. It's evident in DeRozan's every move that his instincts default as a scorer. To throw additional pressure his way forces him to override those instincts, and in this case took Toronto out of its natural rhythm as a result. DeRozan committed a manageable three turnovers for the game, but his passes out of pressure were often conservative drops to a nearby teammate rather than feeds that might take advantage of the the Nets' coverage.
Kyle Lowry (22 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, five turnovers) faced similar crowds, and his reaction was often to drive into or through double teams to initiate contact. That tactic didn't pay off consistently enough to shift the balance of the game, instead resulting in a few too many wild flings at the basket or wholly unnecessary turnovers. Those two guards, in particular, have to better manage and exploit Brooklyn's zoned-up back line. That's easier said than done when the Nets excel in eating up space and edging into passing lanes, but an off-day review should help illuminate when and how the Raptors' creators can best attack.
The Raptors are far from doomed. Jonas Valanciunas (17 points, a franchise-playoff-record 18 rebounds, six turnovers) played remarkably well in his playoff debut, though on most nights he'll convert a higher percentage of his put-backs and tip-ins. Toronto got some really nice minutes out of Patrick Patterson, who matches up well defensively on Pierce and can help push through some of the Raptors' offensive stalls. Terrence Ross (1-of-4 shooting, three points in 16 minutes) won't likely be so invisible again in this series, and DeRozan should be able to feel his way to better efficiency. There's a season's worth of tape testifying to the fact that the Raptors are capable of calmer, better play. They let this one slip, but it's well within their power to settle into offensive competence.
• As if the opening game of the postseason wasn't eventful enough between a tight margin, an unexpected expletive and some Kevin Garnett-instigated chippiness, much of the second half was conducted without a working on-court clock. A malfunction in both the above-the-basket shot clocks and their replacements forced both teams to play through the third and fourth quarters blind to the time. As a contingency, Toronto PA man Herbie Kuhn had to announce when there were 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock and perform the full countdown from the five-second mark, as informed by an official timer armed with a stopwatch. The entire episode was a bit surreal. Fortunately, there were no glaring issues of timing that need be revisited -- save perhaps the Raptors' odd hesitation in fouling while trailing with less than a minute left in the game.
The official explanation, per MLSE (via Ryan Wolstat):
“We experienced a signal path failure midway through the third Q of today’s game. Our backup system relied on the same source."
Thunder 100, Grizzlies 86
By Ben Golliver
• Memphis' first-half house of bricks. The Grizzlies' hopes for an upset in this series follow a straightforward formula: 1) muck things up with a defense that's been elite since Marc Gasol's return from a knee injury in January, and 2) hope that their offense, which is the worst of the eight West playoff teams, can do enough to get by.
Needless to say, scoring just 34 points in the first half is a far cry from "doing enough to get by" against an Oklahoma City team led by scoring champ Kevin Durant -- not to mention that Russell Westbrook guy. When it comes to perimeter offense, no one is going to confuse Memphis with Houston or San Antonio, as the Grizzlies shot the least number of threes in the league this season and connected on a below-average 35.3 percent. Their struggles from distance over the first two quarters, though, were horrific even by their own standards.
The Grizzlies shot 12-for-48 overall from the field and 1-for-19 from outside the paint, with the only make coming on a pseudo-desperation three-pointer just before halftime.
"We were embarrassed in the first half," Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said after a 6-for-16 shooting night. Memphis' shot chart was as red as it gets.
The halftime deficit -- or damage, if you prefer -- was 22 points. That's more than a hole; that's a canyon. After holding off a desperate third-quarter Grizzlies comeback, the Thunder cruised to the double-digit victory, becoming the only one of four homes teams to win Game 1 on Saturday.
• Kevin Durant's opening statement. Memphis was a tempting upset pick because of its strong defense, quality postseason showings in recent years and an excellent second-half record during the regular season. Although he wasn't infallible on Saturday, Durant served notice that he remains a (Larry David voice) pretty, pretty, pretty big roadblock for any underdog to overcome. The MVP-to-be totaled a game-high 33 points (on 13-for-25 shooting), eight rebounds and seven assists, and he really put the game on ice midway through the fourth quarter.
With the Grizzlies starting to tire, Durant kicked into overdrive, scoring 11 points in a six-minute stretch. As he often does, Durant did it from everywhere: knocking down a three-pointer, mixing in a mid-range jumper, getting to the free throw line and leaking out for two baskets in transition.
The standout play from the sequence encapsulated why Durant is such a terrifying entity. Running ahead of the action, Durant stretched for an overthrown pass by Reggie Jackson and corralled the ball at full speed; he then took one step before jumping off the wrong foot to finish an "easy" layup. How many players his size have that type of dexterity? How many players with the necessary length to complete the catch also have sufficient coordination to make the basket? Those are rhetorical questions.
• Missing Memphis links. Saturday brought the second wave of reaction to Grizzlies backup guard Nick Calathes' out-of-nowhere drug suspension. The first wave consisted of "What the hell?" and "Can this somehow be rescinded for the playoffs?" and "Why would an NBA player need to reduce his estrogen levels?" Once Game 1 began, all those questions were put on hold, as the rotation implications of Calathes' absence were pushed to the forefront (The answer, by the way, is the banned substance in question is a masking agent for anabolic steroids that can actually raise estrogen levels).
Although Calathes averages just 16.5 minutes per game, he's played an important role since Jerryd Bayless was traded to Boston in January. Knicks castoff Beno Udrih finished with just three points (on 1-for-4 shooting) and one assist filling in for Calathes, and the Grizzlies' bench was further stretched by the absence of starting small forward Tayshaun Prince, who left the game early in the first quarter because of an illness. Tony Allen stepped in as a de facto starter -- he finished with 13 points (on 6-for-12 shooting) and six assists and showed off his typical hard-nosed defense -- but coach Dave Joerger was left with virtually nothing to work with from his other reserves.
Joerger's response? To ignore his reserves entirely. The first-year coach played his starters (with Allen instead of Prince) for the entire third quarter and the first three minutes of the fourth. That didn't seem like a sustainable move as it was unfolding and it crumbled, predictably, as the fourth quarter pushed forward. Joerger admitted afterwards that he saw fatigue setting in.
Overreacting to the Game 1 result would be foolhardy, but the takeaway for Memphis is fairly clear: If it can't get some level of meaningful bench production, this series will be over more quickly than we might have expected. An appearance from Mike Miller (who finished with three points on 1-for-6 shooting and was a minus-21 in 20 minutes) would be a great place to start.
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