First Round Midcap (EAST): Here Come the Wizards!

Joe Johnson attacks the basket. Demar Derozan pretends to care.

A few weeks ago, I put those first round predictions on Twitter. I didn't have the time to do a huge piece explaining all of them, but I figured it made sense to scribe them down and revisit the predictions when reality had rudely awakened me to the dire mortality of my reasoning. Strangely enough, they haven't actually been that bad -- one in particular will haunt me for the rest of my days (... OK, no it won't), but for the most part my original reasoning has proved to be some combination of apt and silly. Given that all seven series currently have two games in the books, I felt like this would be a good time to do some revisiting. Reflect on what we've learned in the first two games, revisit my original thoughts, revise predictions when necessary. All fun things. We have a lot to get to, so let's get to it. Let's start in the east. I'll work my way westward tomorrow.

• • •

INDIANA (1) vs ATLANTA (8) -- Tied up at 1-1

Original prediction: INDIANA IN 4

Well... I was wrong about that. Look, I'm all for respecting a team that suffered injury trouble, but let's not overstate things. This Atlanta team won 38 games this year. They were outscored on the season by about half a point a game (... although, come to think of it, two other playoff teams were outscored by more), and they sport roughly two NBA-caliber high rotation players in Millsap and Horford. Jeff Teague is a marginally below league-average point guard and Kyle Korver is an excellent tertiary piece with his silky quick shot. Both of those mean something, but having those two as your 3rd and 4th best players (2nd and 3rd with Horford out) is a really bad look for an NBA team. Their offense and defense are well-designed but not well-executed, for the most part, and they just aren't that hard to gameplan. I figured that nothing Indiana did would override the fact that Atlanta is simply not a good basketball team.

Alright, yeah. I was wrong. Indiana's absurd inflexibility (as expertly noted by Zach Lowe) hurt them when Coach Bud chose to use Antic as a floor-spacing center and play "come-at-me" defense in a way that would reinforce George's worst tendencies. The Hawks romped Atlanta in Game #1 and as the series moves back to Atlanta it's an open question whether the Pacers can get it together and win the road game they need to retake home court. I still think they will, but lord almighty... how do you handicap this Pacers team? If they play to their worst tendencies they will lose to everyone. Literally everyone in America. The Kentucky Wildcats? They upset the Pacers. The Washington Generals? They upset the Pacers. Your little league team? They upset the Pacers. It's ridiculous! How can a team with such a refined command of the crisp grime (like: Memphis!) play like this without any real driving factors? Cripes.

The only thing keeping me from picking Atlanta at this point is that I can't fathom a world where Atlanta is actually a good enough team to beat this Indiana squad. I refuse to believe that's going to happen until I see it happen. Plain and simple. The Antic gimmick is a strong play by Coach Bud, but I have to believe the Pacers won't be quite so befuddled over the course of a long series that they won't be able to gameplan it out. I have at least a little bit of faith in Coach Vogel. Don't let me down, Frank. Still, it won't be a short series -- my guess is 6 or 7 games, simply because the Pacers have been rubbish on the road recently and expecting them to sweep the two games in Atlanta necessary to finish it in five is a fool's errand.

• • •

MIAMI (2) vs CHARLOTTE (7) -- Miami leads 2-0

Original prediction: MIAMI IN 5

It kind of hurt me not to make the original sweep prediction here. I'm pretty sure that this is the worst Miami team of the last four years -- even if we're accounting for the "pedal off the medal" factor, this team just isn't quite as crisp or clean as any of the last three Finals-bound iterations. LeBron isn't slower, but he's lazier. Wade is markedly worse than 2011. Bosh has been a bit of a disappointment this year, too. Not terrible, mind you, but certainly not up to the standards we'd expected. I don't think I'm alone in saying that I expected Bosh to take the reins a bit more as Wade cycled into a late career preservation phase. He hasn't, really, and although his defense has been solid his general game has been a big disappointment for me. He's a max player who's playing like a 12-13 million dollar man. Still a great player, but not quite up to snuff. And outside of the big three, this hodgepodge of declining aged roleplayers doesn't elicit nearly the teeth-gnashing fear of Miami's 2012 or 2013 group.

In sum, it's just really hard to get a feel for this Miami squad. It's a very uneven team, and while they're probably the most likely champion (even now), it's tough to predict them sweeping. So I didn't. But I kind of felt like they would. Even against Charlotte, a team that I've really enjoyed watching. As I noted yesterday, the step the Bobcats took this season has been one of the more heartwarming stories of the year. Their ceiling isn't through the roof or anything, but they're a respectable basketball team that might be even better next year as Clifford's tendrils take root. And I'd give them a puncher's chance at a competitive series against Indiana, Toronto, or Chicago. But Miami is just an absolute nightmare matchup for them. Al Jefferson (especially as balky as he's been) can't dominate against Miami's stout front-line defense in the same way he can against most of the league. Kidd-Gilchrist can't hide on offense against Miami's pressure D, and it's just incredibly hard for Charlotte's cut-based system to find daylight when Miami deigns to play its game.

So, what have we learned? Not a ton, so I'd probably maintain my Heat-in-five thoughts. Yes, Miami won both games, but they just barely won last night's contest and the first game was exceedingly close until the end. This isn't like last year, where Miami roundly obliterated the Bucks in the first two games (by 23 and 12 point margins). Or even the year before, where Miami completely stunted on the New York Knicks (by 33 and 10 point margins). It's more like the 2011 Sixers than anything else in Miami's history, who lost a tight game one contest by 8 points and a more lopsided game two by 21 points. That Sixers team went on to lose in 5 games, which is probably the most likely fate for the Bobcats now that we've got a better sense of where these two teams stand. Miami's too sloppy to sweep these next two games in Charlotte. Right? (Please?)

• • •

TORONTO (3) vs BROOKLYN (6) -- Tied up at 1-1

Original prediction: TORONTO IN 5

The way I visualized this series in my head had Toronto dominating Brooklyn on the boards and crushing them in the paint, with Jonas and Lowry and Amir rocking rims and finishing calmly over Brooklyn's not-so-stout interior defense. I didn't really think Brooklyn would be able to fight back from that without some incredible three point shooting and a lot of forced turnovers. And Garnett would need to have a throwback series, obviously. Two games in, and... well... pretty much all of Brooklyn's needs have come to pass, and they've totally outclassed the original matchup issues that I thought would swing the series Toronto's way. To wit, through two games:

  • Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 16-16 on 55% shooting. Beastly numbers. Less beastly: he's turning the ball over on 30% of his possessions, which is astonishingly bad. He's averaging 6 turnovers a game. Bad news bears, kid.
  • Amir Johnson is shooting 75% at the rim, as expected. Unfortunately for Toronto, he's barely ever getting there, as Garnett and Plumlee have done an expert job keeping him off the glass and away from the rim.
  • Kyle Lowry is doing his normal Kyle Lowry thing, averaging 16-7-7 on 13 shots a night. One adjustment Casey might want to consider? Entreating Lowry to do his Kyle Lowry thing on defense, against Joe Johnson this time. Johnson has completely torn the Raptors defense up in the two games to date, mostly matched on Demar DeRozan. Maybe a different look with Lowry could trip him up.

Yikes. It's not a lost cause for Toronto yet -- 1-1 isn't a death knell, and there are certain adjustments the Raptors could do to change the game a bit against Brooklyn's unconventional lineups. But the Raptors clearly don't outclass the Nets as much as I thought they did (if they even do at all), and my five-game gentleman's sweep seems like an extremely unlikely dream right now. I'd still pick Toronto, but after those two games, I'm thinking this series probably goes the distance. On a somewhat unrelated note, it'd be nice if Terrence Ross could do anything. He's made 2-12 shots in 21 minutes a night so far, and he's turned the ball over almost as many times as he's snagged a rebound. Get it together, Ross.

• • •

CHICAGO (4) vs WASHINGTON (5) -- Washington leads 2-0

Original prediction: WASHINGTON IN 6

This was one prediction where quite a few people called foul. But I maintain now what I maintain then -- Nene is a terrible matchup for Noah. Noah is a fantastic defender, but like most great big man defenders, he doesn't operate well when the opposing offense drags him too far from the paint and makes an active effort to force him to guard too much space. A weapon like Nene forces Noah to guard a massive chasm of offensive activity, and it's simply exhausting. Washington has some of the best cutters in the business, too, which makes Nene's matchup difficulty doubly tough for Chicago to wrangle. But the Bulls still have a stout defense -- having one or two interesting offensive quirks like Nene's versatility that can squeeze out a few more points over the course of a game are ridiculously useful, but you don't beat the Bulls on that alone.

No, you beat the Bulls by suffocating their already-stagnant offense to "failed autoerotic asphyxiation" levels. And the Wizards are doing that well -- in spots, at least. Mostly in the second half of games. Noah, Gibson, and Dunleavy are the only Bulls that have gotten anything going offensively, and they're generally carrying the team right now. Due to red-hot starts (or, well, whatever Chicago's approximation of "red hot" can possibly be called), Chicago's offensive rating over the full series (roughly 107 points per 100 possessions) is actually a vast improvement over their season-long 102.5 mark. But that covers up the fact that Washington's stout defense has effectively shut down Chicago over the late period in both games to date. In fact, in Tuesday's win, Chicago went scoreless for almost four minutes of overtime, only able to generate offense when it was essentially too late to matter.

Honestly? I could see Washington pulling it out in 4 or 5, but I've got a suspicion the Bulls are going to win one of these close ones eventually. And on-the-ropes home teams rarely lose game 5 to a roadster. Wizards in 6 still sounds like the most likely scenario for me.

Examining the 2014 season's best Statistical Curios

heat at sixers

curio, n. -- a small and unusual object that is considered interesting or attractive

No, I didn't just misspell "curious." I promise! I'm referring in plural to the singular "curio", the definition of which can be seen above. It's usually used to describe tchotchkes and baubles. In this case, I'm referring to those little statistical factoids that interest the multitude of NBA nerds among us. The general point of the matter is that there are a lot of interesting statistical oddities that we've been person to in a substantially strange 2014 season. Many have gone widely reported (Durant's point streak, Corey Brewer's 50 point explosion, Indiana's collapse). Others haven't. Some of them are more interesting than others, and some of them are especially fun for me. In this post, I'll examine my seven favorite oddities. Let's get to it.

1. No Spur has played over 30 MPG

Let's start by taking a look at their overall minutes chart.

spurs minute chart

This may not surprise you. We all know the drill: the Spurs are known league-wide for their minutes management tactics and their general strategic resting. So why would it be surprising that no Spur has played over 30 MPG? Simple. This is the first time in the history of the NBA that a team has gone without a 30+ MPG player. And not by a close margin, either. There are very few who are even remotely close -- Hubie Brown's 2004 Grizzlies almost did it, with their only 30 MPG player being a 23-year-old Pau Gasol. The 2012 Spurs were similar, with Parker's 32 MPG being their only transgression. But that's it. The actual accomplishment -- arbitrary though it may be -- has only been achieved by these Spurs.

Look, I get it. This is the Spurs! They do this! Except that what they did this season isn't just quirky and strange, it's completely historically unprecedented. Even last year, they had THREE players who averaged over 30 MPG. Portland had five this year. Every other team has a handful. The Spurs may not win the title -- getting out of the West is going to be a hell of a task, regardless of who they face. But in keeping their minutes so equal, the Spurs have grasped a substantially strange accomplishment that makes them the first team ever to even their regular season minutes to this extent. It's pretty impressive, and it lends them historical notoriety as a strange footnote in NBA history.

2. The Clippers Solved Offense

This one isn't quite as historically unprecedented as my last one. Nor is it quite as stark as the Pacers were earlier in the season. Still interesting, though. The league-leading offensive rating the Clippers put up over the whole season (an offensive rating of 112) was bettered by two teams in 2013 (the Heat and the Thunder, respectively, with 112.4 and 112.3) and by virtually every iteration of Steve Nash's Suns. So... how exactly did they "solve" offense? Simple. Very few teams have finished the season with a league-leading offense despite losing key pieces for the majority of the year. The Clippers were able to accomplish it because whenever their full complement of offensive players have played together, the results have been absolutely terrifying.

Check out the top two offensive lineups in the league this year. I'll wait. ... Yep. The two best offensive lineups in the NBA were LAC lineups. And what's more? Other lineups weren't even close. The Paul/Crawford/Barnes/Griffin/Jordan lineup scored at a rate of 117.5 points per 100 possessions. When Crawford wasn't available and they had to use Darren Collison, the same lineup produced at 117 points per 100 possessions. The third place lineup was 4 points per 100 possessions worse on offense, roughly equivalent to the distance between the 3rd place lineup and the 17th place lineup.

Los Angeles has a half-decent defense this year, but don't fool yourself into thinking that the defense is going to drag them to the Finals. If they make the finals, it's going to be because nobody in the league can stop their core lineups from filleting their defense. Plain and simple.

3. Miami went 1-2 against the 76ers

I can't get over how funny this is. Yeah, I know -- they were resting LeBron and Bosh for the last game of the season. Obviously. But Wade still played 23 minutes and Miami's supporting cast isn't THAT bad. In the last game of the season, Miami's obscenely permissive defense allowed the Sixers to shoot 53% (their 3rd best field goal percentage of the season) with an offensive rating of 109.8. It was one of Philadelphia's best games this year. And that's despite Michael Carter-Williams going 3-of-10 in a forgettable 12-6-4 performance.

So, it begs the question. Has a defending champion ever had a losing record against a team that ended the season with a point point differential of -10 or worse? There have been 16 teams in NBA history who have been outscored by the requisite margin. So that gives us 16 champions to look at.

MIA vs PHI hilarious

Oh. Oh wow.

So, the funniest part about this? The 1988 Clippers -- who beat the Lakers once in 6 tries -- only won that game in overtime by a single point. Philadelphia's first game of the 2014 season is the first win by a team that got outscored by 10+ points per game over the course of a season has beaten the NBA's defending champions in regulation... ever. And their two wins against Miami this season doubled the number of wins that their 15 previous counterparts accumulated over FORTY EIGHT previous tries. Seriously. 1-47. That's the total record of sub-10 point margin teams against the defending champs, until now. Am I the only person who can't stop laughing about this? The Heat have as much of a chance as anyone of winning the title, but this factoid has me keeled over.

4. Spurs starters paced the league... on defense, again.

A lot of ink was spilled in the early season about how the Spurs -- despite a decent record -- were underperforming with their "core five" starting unit of Parker-Green-Leonard-Duncan-Splitter. In 2013, the unit was one of the NBA's best, obliterating the league with a league-best defense and a near-best offensive attack. Midway through this current season, results with the their starting lineup were decidedly negative, and savvy Spurs fans were starting to wonder if Duncan's absent shot and Danny Green's initially tepid defensive season had made their core lineup lose its bite.

Of course, then the post all-star break happened. And for the second year in a row, the Spurs have the league's best defensive lineup. Keep in mind that the Pacers spent most of the season with one of the best defenses in league history. And, indeed, they're second. But once Leonard returned to full-form, the Spurs blitzed the league on defense in the second half to such a degree that completely overwrote their poor play in the first half. Pretty excellent result for the Spurs, and -- frankly -- the biggest reason Spurs fans feel better now than they did entering the break.

5. Grizzlies are on-track for a fourth straight OKC/LAC/SAS draw

I have absolutely no idea how I should go about quantifying how weird this is. So I won't. But the Grizzlies have played seven playoff series over the last 4 years -- two in 2011 (vs SAS, OKC), one in 2012 (vs LAC), and three in 2013 (vs LAC, OKC, SAS), and at least one in 2014 (vs OKC). This year, they're starting out vs OKC, and they may well lose that matchup. But am I the only person who's a bit weirded out by the fact that they're on track for a fourth straight year of facing OKC/LAC/SAS, if they make a deep run? If the Grizzlies make the conference finals and the other seedings play out as they'd be projected to, their draw this year would be to start in OKC, play LAC, then play SAS. That would be four years and nine separate playoff series played against just three teams. Every once in a while a franchise gets caught in a trap where they only play a team from a small shortlist, but I can't for the life of me remember a time when a team has the ability to make consecutive conference finals without facing a single new lineup. The last time the Grizzlies played a non-OKC/LAC/SAS team, Pau Gasol was a Grizzly. Just saying.

6. Mike Miller played 82 games, but Ramon Sessions played more!

On first glance, that's not a particularly surprising result. Each NBA season has somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 players who play every single game. But look at Mike Miller's career. He's only played 82 games ONCE before -- his rookie year. He hasn't played more than 60 games since 2009, when he was in his late 20s. He's had back surgeries and medical maladies that would make most people's knees weak. Despite that? He played more games than every single player on the Grizzlies, and would've tied for the league lead... if the league lead was 82. Yes, despite playing every regular season game, Mike Miller did NOT lead the league in games played.

That honor goes to Ramon Sessions, who ended up suiting up for 83 games this season due to his midseason trade to Milwaukee. It's the first time since 2011 that a player has managed to play over 82 games in a single season. Sessions joins a list of 40 players who managed the feat, with five of those coming in the last decade. The all-time leader in single-season games played is Walt Bellamy, who played 88 games in 1969 after being traded from New York to Detroit. My question for cap experts: do players who end up playing extra games due to trades get paid extra for the extra work? It depends on how the NBA distributes their salary, I'm guessing, but where does the money come from? Does their per-game salary just drop slightly after the trade to accommodate the additional games? I tried figuring the answer out myself, but I'm honestly not sure I've found it yet.

 7. Charlotte -- CHARLOTTE! -- made 'the leap'

Credit to Nathan Walker's Twitter feed for bringing this one to mind for me. If there was a most improved team award for the team that improved their efficiency differential the most, the Bobcats would've won it (with a close second place finish from the Phoenix Suns). A lot of people have talked about how impressive Phoenix's rise has been, but I feel like Charlotte's got a bit of a short stick given their Eastern allegiance. But make no mistake -- watching Charlotte this season has been a joy. They haven't been one of the league's best teams, certainly, but they've been exceedingly solid. Respectable. Decent, even! Their offense is simple yet effective, their defense structurally sound though unrefined. Much of this has been attributed to first time coach Steve Clifford, and that's a fair assessment in a lot of ways. His system has been a vast improvement over the puzzling wares of Mike Dunlap,  and they've put together a legitimately competent NBA defense without a surfeit of defensive talent. That takes gusto. But the men on the court are the ones who play the game, and fetishizing improved coaching strategy at the expense of the very real progress made by Charlotte's young guns would be a bit of a mistake.

Kemba Walker has broken out from a marginal journeyman into a legitimate rotation piece, and Gerald Henderson has been a minor steal on his recently resigned meager deal. Michael Kidd Gilchrist is approaching mastery of NBA defense (although his offense is still a bit grotesque) and Josh McRoberts had an unexpectedly strong comeback. Of course, no Charlotte appreciation could be written without an appreciation of the incredible season Al Jefferson's put up. He's been roughly the same as he's always been, offensively, but he's worked within a team defense better than he's ever done before. Clifford deserves a lot of credit for putting him in the right spots, but Jefferson deserves a lot too -- it's hard to wash out an entire career of bad defense in a single season. He put in the work and became passable. That's a huge achievement.

Although Charlotte's likely to find themselves run out of the building in the remainder of their series against Miami, don't sleep on what they accomplished this season. Many talk about the leap between a roleplayer and a star on an individual. Fewer talk about the leap between a hodgepodge of lost souls and a real honest-to-goodness basketball team. More should. And Charlotte, bless their hearts, managed to make that leap and drag their downbeat fanbase into a few exciting playoff games. Good work, kitties.