Roy Hibbert's late-season struggles have continued early in the playoffs. (Darron Cummings/AP)
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Assessing the early returns from the playoffs after each team has played two games. (All stats and records are through April 23.)
1. What is wrong with Roy Hibbert? Should the Pacers bench their All-Star center?
Golliver: There are a number of issues to dissect with Hibbert, but the conversation should take place within the context of the drastically raised expectations that came with the Pacers' run to the 2013 Eastern Conference finals and their incredibly strong start to this season. Much like a talented freshman who decides to return to school rather than turn pro, Hibbert's emergence as the face of the league's top defense -- and the Pacers' second-half struggles -- have subjected him to far more scrutiny than he's seen in previous years.
Many of the things that frustrate people about Hibbert -- his modest scoring numbers for an All-Star, poor field goal percentage, weak finishing ability in the basket area, underwhelming rebounding numbers for a 7-footer and a lack of mobility -- have been issues throughout his career. This is the 27-year-old Hibbert's sixth season; spending too much time screeching about any of those issues becomes a waste of breath at this point. The magic potion needed to transform him into the player critics want him to become hasn't arrived yet, and it's probably not coming.
Even giving Hibbert the benefit of those doubts, there are some concerns. As this season has progressed, his shooting numbers and shot selection have declined sharply. Before the All-Star break, 63 percent of his shots came in the basket area; since Feb. 18, that number has fallen to 52 percent. Simultaneously, Hibbert's shooting has dropped from 46 percent before the All-Star break to 39 percent, and he's shooting a pathetic 42 percent in the basket area. To put this directly: No starting center with trends like these should ever publicly call out his teammates for being "selfish dudes." That assessment might have been true, as Lance Stephenson's dwindling assist numbers suggest, but Hibbert is doing plenty of damage on a nightly basis by failing to finish his opportunities and by getting lax in his shooting discipline.
The much bigger deal for Indiana, though, is the nature of Hibbert's defensive ability. He is the poster child for "verticality" and "2.9-ing," or staying in the lane as long as possible without drawing a three-second violation. Hibbert's effectiveness as an individual defender, a help defender and a defensive rebounder decreases in direct proportion to his distance from the hoop. The Al Horford-less Hawks clearly present a tough matchup in this regard because they have perimeter-shooting big men who can draw Hibbert out of the paint. Given that Hibbert is unable to punish smaller matchups on the other end, Pacers coach Frank Vogel is smart to rethink Hibbert's role in this series.
That said, keeping him in the starting lineup is the right play for now. Atlanta is not exactly a potent foe that requires wholesale changes, and Hibbert's value to the Pacers could trend upward significantly depending on the matchups. There seems to be a mental component to his struggles, as he's made clear with his comments and often sulky body language, and Indiana has no hope of unseating Miami in a potential conference finals matchup without an engaged Hibbert. My approach would be to continue to start him and encourage him to cut the fat out of his shooting diet, but I'd also be ready to dig into the bench if the Hawks get hot. (Hibbert played 30 minutes in Indiana's Game 1 loss and 24 in its Game 2 victory, including none in the fourth quarter when the outcome was already decided.) The Pacers are capable of beating the Hawks without Hibbert, given their overall talent advantage, but I don't think such a drastic approach is necessary.
Mahoney: I'm very much in agreement with Ben. For a player whose weaknesses have generally centered on physical factors (a lack of mobility in a league based on quickness chief among them), so much of Hibbert's tailspin seems rooted in something deeper. He has made his frustrations plain, both on the court and with the media. One can see the desperation in Hibbert's game when he finally does get the ball on the block; he seems so eager to score that he forces the issue and refuses to kick the ball out for a re-post when things get dicey. That none of his shots are going down betrays some other problem -- a lingering injury? A crisis of confidence? -- but it's all connected in a way that would make me a bit wary in my response.
This matchup is rough on Hibbert, to be sure. But if Indiana makes it out of this series alive, he'll again be crucial in eating up space and defending the rim against the Wizards or Bulls. "Benching," to me, sends a message that might not bode well for his performance in such a series -- all when the functional equivalent can be achieved without so dramatic a move. To take Hibbert out of the starting lineup is to feed his discontent. As much as I can appreciate the underlying strategy, it would be wisest for this one-time contender to exercise the foresight that a long playoff run demands. Instead, Vogel should continue to curtail his minutes as a starter, allowing Hibbert to keep his dignity while Indiana still fully respects the matchup problems these Hawks present.
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2. What's the key to the No. 7 Grizzlies pulling off a series upset against the No. 2 Thunder?
Golliver: The Point Forward has noted that the Grizzlies' elite defense since Marc Gasol's mid-January return from a knee injury, their strong second-half record and their postseason experience combine to make them much more dangerous than your average "underdog." After Memphis' Game 2 victory, Tony Allen rightly drew a lot of attention for his dogged defense on Kevin Durant. The Grizzlies don't have the firepower to keep up with the Thunder if Durant is at his best. Making the scoring champion work, even if that stills means 36 points on 28 shots, is a must.
To sustain success against Oklahoma City, though, Memphis needs to get big bench contributions like it did in Game 2. Cach Dave Joerger got basically nothing from his reserves in Game 1, as Allen was moved into a de facto starting role because an ill Tayshaun Prince logged only four minutes, but the story changed on Monday. Mike Miller stepped up to hit three threes and Beno Udrih had 14 points, his highest-scoring game since Dec. 27. In fact, Udrih, who is only playing because backup point guard Nick Calathes was suspended 20 games for violating the NBA's anti-drug policy, single-handedly matched the Thunder's entire bench scoring.
The Grizzlies eliminated the Thunder last year by turning Durant into a one-man team and then beating him collectively. They stand a shot at repeating that achievement if they continue to receive unexpected contributions from their role players while the likes of Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler and Derek Fisher all fail to match that production. If the two benches play closer to a draw, you have to like Oklahoma City's chances.
Mahoney: Given that grinding out points will be an uphill battle for the Grizzlies throughout this series, it's important that they find ways to create more possessions. Memphis, with its strong front line and scrappy play, ranked second in offensive rebounding during the regular season, while Oklahoma City was near league average. Why, then, have the Thunder posted the better offensive rebounding percentage in this series? There are bound to be some rebounding concessions when players like Kevin Durant can activate Memphis' help defense (and thus draw potential rebounders out of position) so easily, but the Grizzlies could boost their chances by handling the glass on both ends.
Ditto for the turnover game, which is admittedly more complicated within the scope of Memphis' defense. It's hard to deny, contain and get into an opponent to force turnovers, particularly when Durant and Russell Westbrook are already so skilled at creating foul-worthy contact. Still, the Thunder have been uncommonly stingy with their possessions -- a trend that leaves the Grizzlies at risk of being outgunned over the course of this series. Memphis has done a marvelous job of guarding its own scoring chances (its 7.8 team turnover rate is the lowest in the playoffs) and defending against the Thunder's, but more has to be done to compensate for OKC's explosive potential.
3. Is Stephen Curry vs. Chris Paul the best position battle of the playoffs? If not, what is?
Golliver: Curry vs. Paul is unique in terms of pitting truly elite players against each other. Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge have put on one hell of a mano-a-mano show, but they're not quite directly matched up in the Trail Blazers-Rockets series. Durant vs. Allen has been great television, but that's really only providing entertainment on one end of the court. Many of the league's other biggest names either don't have a great individual foil in the first round (LeBron James, Paul George, John Wall) or haven't yet had the chance to leave a true mark on their series (Blake Griffin, James Harden, Dirk Nowitzki). Perhaps Russell Westbrook vs. Mike Conley is the closest we can get to Curry vs. Paul?
The showdown between big men Nene and Joakim Noah -- the contrasting body types and styles -- has been appointment viewing in the Wizards-Bulls series. Noah will never, ever back down from a challenge, but Nene (20.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, three assists, 63.3 percent shooting) has succeeded in establishing himself inside in a way that not too many people expected. The back-and-forth fourth-quarter heroics between Paul Pierce (in Game 1) and DeMar DeRozan (in Game 2) have also highlighted an intriguing set of perimeter matchups between Brooklyn and Toronto.
Mahoney: No question, from both a pure entertainment perspective and in terms of importance to a series. Between Games 1 and 2, Clippers coach Doc Rivers tweaked his team's defense of the pick-and-roll and wound up the maniacally competitive Paul to chase Curry over every screen. Since that point the entire series has shifted -- witness the Clippers' 40-point evisceration of the Warriors on Monday. Such an explosive margin won't likely carry over into Game 3, but the turn in the pick-and-roll matchup -- after Curry had made the "right play" against the trap so many times in Game 1 to great effect -- adds even more underlying intrigue.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images Sport
4. Which coach needs to make the biggest adjustment before Game 3?
Golliver: I'm not sure there's an answer if he continues to shoot this well, but LaMarcus Aldridge's dual outbursts (46 points in Game 1, 43 points in Game 2) demand some sort of adjustment (or continued tinkering) from Rockets coach Kevin McHale. Houston tried to let Aldridge go one-on-one in the post in Game 1 and got burned; it attempted to dissuade him from the paint with extra defenders in Game 2 and he took advantage by launching from the perimeter. He's a true inside/outside force, and defending him is an even trickier proposition because Aldridge is not only a versatile, well-oiled scoring machine but he's also an able and intelligent passer.
Stopping the Blazers' balanced offense is often a game of Whac-A-Mole, especially when their shooters have it going and the ball is moving quickly around the perimeter. It's time for Houston to risk death via Portland's auxiliary options because the alternative is a continuous onslaught from Aldridge, who is making the most of his postseason opportunity.
On the other end, McHale needs to find ways to make life easier for James Harden, who has struggled from the field (29.8 percent in two games) and took only four free throws in Game 2. The Harden one-on-five forays are not bearing enough fruit, and Houston's ball movement has dried up. A dominant Dwight Howard won't be enough, by himself, to help the Rockets dig out of their 0-2 hole. Harden must rediscover his outside-shooting touch, take better care of the ball and become more opportunistic, and McHale needs to do his part to aid those efforts.
Mahoney: Warriors coach Mark Jackson. Overreacting to one lopsided game can be dangerous, but in this case it's hard to frame the Clippers' two-way successes in Game 2 as anything short of a legitimate breakthrough.
Golden State has to decide its approach to the pick-and-roll and Curry's involvement in every play. During Game 1, the Clippers schemed to get the ball out of Curry's hands. Their default defense was to trap whenever Curry worked around a ball screen, an effort that took control away from the All-Star guard but pitted a few zoned-up defenders against the Warriors' sharp interior passing. The breakdowns were many, as the Clippers never seemed to make the secondary rotations necessary. In Game 2, L.A. instead relied on Paul to fight over every pick while using its big men in a more standard hedge. Despite a few instances in which Curry was able to split the two defenders, the tweak was a marked success. The game was decided by halftime, at which point Curry had shot just 1-for-6 and the Warriors trailed by 26.
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Through that defensive arrangement, the Clippers force Curry to be aggressive while denying him the ability to use the three-point line to his advantage. Part of what makes Curry so tricky to guard is the way he dances around the arc. At any moment he could step back into a great three-point look, a threat that compels opponents to give up other angles and bite hard on certain fakes. A well-executed hedge, though, either stalls Curry's movement along the perimeter or funnels him inside. He'll still trouble the Clippers with smart passes and hard drives (particularly if given the benefit of the doubt on potential fouls), but every action is more contested than under L.A.'s Game 1 strategy. The onus is on Jackson, then, to figure out a suitable response.
As if that weren't challenging enough, L.A.'s offense went into overdrive in Game 2 with Blake Griffin doing a full night's work -- a continuation of a similar trend from the regular season. When Griffin actually plays, the Clippers are golden in this matchup. They then have the means to alleviate Paul from complete ball-dominance, attack the Golden State from different angles and set their spacing around Griffin's work in the post. When Griffin sits, the Clippers tend to struggle a bit more for scoring.
Jackson, first and foremost, has to keep the Griffin-infused Clippers offense from hitting its extra gear so consistently. Managing that without Andrew Bogut in the lineup will take some doing. Little has worked so far: David Lee's one-on-one matchups with Griffin have been predictably disastrous, while smaller lineups have been overpowered and outworked on the glass by the Griffin-DeAndre Jordan tandem. It will be interesting to see what the Warriors cook up for Game 3, particularly given how much Griffin's presence helps role players such as Matt Barnes and Darren Collison. Opponents can cheat away from those players to a point, but Griffin's passing and L.A.'s greater willingness to move the ball make it harder to dedicate additional defenders to the Clippers' stars. Let the games begin.
The Thunder still fell in Game 2 despite Kevin Durant's miraculous four-point play. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Sport)
5. What has been your favorite playoff moment so far?
Golliver: For pure intensity, nothing has topped the end of Game 1 between the Rockets and Blazers. There was just so much going on: strange officiating decisions, huge shots by both teams, the presence of the Hack-a-Howard strategic wrinkle and some rare three-point shooting from LaMarcus Aldridge, among other developments. I suppose a 17-minute stretch of hoops (the fourth quarter and overtime, which took approximately three hours in real time) might not qualify as a single "moment," though.
If we're trying to boil things down, I have a bunch of favorites that are all essentially tied. Kevin Durant's incredible fallaway four-point play would be the clear winner, except Memphis prevailed in overtime of Game 2 to (somewhat) diminish the shot. I also really enjoyed the powerful chest bump shared by John Wall and Bradley Beal after their Game 2 victory over the Bulls, as it carried the promise of another 10 years of amazing backcourt play from that duo. Other, more whimsical moments: Masai Ujiri's "F--- Brooklyn" declaration, Drake's "lint rolling" from his courtside seat and cutaways to Maple Leaf Square in Toronto, where thousands of fans were watching the Raptors' games at outdoor viewing parties. That type of fan support is enough to give you goosebumps.
Mahoney: I'm a sucker for a miracle shot like Durant's, if only because it so completely defies the internal logic of crunch time. The survival rate of teams trailing by five points with under 20 seconds remaining is astonishingly thin. A quick two-pointer is of no use in some cases, as it can be so quickly undone by an opponent's free throws. Many defenses, then, will concede the middle or foul intentionally to avoid surrendering an open three-pointer.
Even in the cases where an underdog does manage to hit a three without burning too much time, the leading team will then have a chance to extend their advantage back to four -- and seemingly out of a single possession's reach -- with free throws. The comeback process then begins anew, with the trailing team racing the clock to catch up.