After another epic between the Grizzlies and Clippers on Monday, every remaining first-round series stands at 3-1. And in a weird scheduling quirk, four teams have a chance to close out 4-1 victories tonight, a scenario that would leave us with one fait accompli in Miami and one remaining hope for real on-court drama in Memphis. Here’s one key factor to watch in each of the four games:
PACERS VS. MAGIC
The power forward matchup: We knew going in that Orlando lacked the size to match up with the behemoth Roy Hibbert, but David West’s old-man game has been just as big a problem — and perhaps a bigger one — for Ryan Anderson, Earl Clark and (in fewer chances) Glen Davis. Indiana has outscored the Magic by 55 points in the 158 minutes that West has logged in this series, while the Magic have won the remaining 39 minutes — with West sitting — by a mammoth 19-point margin.
This all peaked in the third quarter of Game 4, when the Pacers built a huge behind West doing a little bit of everything — slipping screens to create penetration, drawing double-teams in the post, ducking in for post-up chances behind Hibbert pick-and-rolls and firing solid passes to open shooters. He overpowered Anderson and Clark, and his play, coupled with Anderson’s disappearance, has been perhaps the largest swing factor in this series. It got so bad that Stan Van Gundy went small in the second half of the fourth quarter, with Hedo Turkoglu at power forward, a move that seemed to unnerve the Pacers for a short stretch.
But in the long run, or what’s left of it, the Magic need Anderson to make this matchup something close to a wash. He’s just 10-of-31 from the floor so far, and the secondary skills he brings — offensive rebounds, two-point shots, the occasional free throws — have vanished in this series. Orlando has a huge speed advantage at the big-man positions, and it can (and has) hurt Indiana by running West in multiple pick-and-rolls and targeting Hibbert as the last man in quick-hitting, staggered screen plays, knowing Hibbert will sag back and concede a jump shot. Anderson needs to make some of those jump shots, and the Magic need to find a way to limit West on the other end without compromising themselves fatally elsewhere. That’s a huge challenge given the roster limitations here, but Van Gundy, working what might be his last game in Orlando on Tuesday, has coached his tail off in this series. Does he have some tricks left?
HAWKS vs. CELTICS
The Hawks’ rotation choices: With Al Horford and Josh Smith back but slightly hampered, I’m not sure any coach left in the derby has as many bewildering lineup choices as Larry Drew does with this weird, flexible roster. Atlanta and the Knicks are the only teams not to have used a single five-man group across all of their playoff games so far, and though Smith missing Game 3 with a strained patella tendon obviously plays into that quirk, it still speaks to the roster confusion going on here.
The Hawks have been by far the worst offensive team so far in these playoffs, averaging only 86 points per 100 possessions, which is far below what the pitiful Bobcats produced this season. Basically, everyone outside the Joe Johnson/Smith/Jeff Teague core has been completely unproductive, with the exception of your weekly Tracy McGrady outburst in Game 3. Boston has gleefully ignored all of Atlanta’s centers, save for Horford, allowing Kevin Garnett to rove around the floor and disrupt everything else.
And when Atlanta has gone small, it has often been via bench units lacking any player capable of creating offense. Marvin Williams (5-of-23 in this series) and Kirk Hinrich (5-of-14), two key components in various small lineups, have provided little other than convenient places for Boston to hide an undersized shooting guard or Ray Allen.
With Horford back, Atlanta in Game 4 finally rolled out the Teague/Johnson/Williams/Smith/Horford lineup that plays both big (at the guard spots) and small at once, and would seem equipped to give Boston some issues. Swap McGrady for Williams, and Drew might have something, though it’s hard to tell given the health status of the team’s two best big men. Good luck, coach.
BULLS vs. SIXERS
The free-throw battle: We looked at Chicago’s search for scoring on Monday, so I won’t belabor that crucial point here, except to say I’ll be paying very close attention to coach Tom Thibodeau’s lineup choices Tuesday. Beyond that, one key thing to watch is whether Philadelphia can continue getting to the line at an astonishingly high rate, something that has allowed the Sixers’ sputtering offense to produce at a league-average rate against the league’s best defense. And for Philly, league-average scoring in this series is a massive victory — enough to propel them to a surprising 3-1 lead.
Only three teams have gotten to the line as often, per field-goal attempt, as the Sixers in these playoffs. That is a borderline miraculous turnaround, given the Sixers in the regular season posted the lowest free-throw rate in the history of the NBA. Some of the Sixers’ phobia of the stripe has to do with a league-wide decline in free throws both in the long-term and especially this season, but they were still a giant outlier.
Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young have all dramatically upped their per-minute free-throw rates, with Holiday doubling his and Turner nearly tripling his. Coach Doug Collins deserves credit for allowing his two young guards to be a bit more aggressive in the pick-and-roll and in isolation (especially when Turner finds Richard Hamilton on him) after having them on short leashes all season, but the two guards have done the work to seize their chance. Holiday has been much more assertive going north-south on pick-and-rolls after irritating the organization with his tendency to dribble nowhere or side to side. He has even challenged the impenetrable Omer Asik when Asik sags back to contain him, and though the drives haven’t always produced pretty field-goal percentages, they have resulted in more free throws and some clever passes. Turner has shown a knack for creating in tight spaces, and he has brutalized both Hamilton and Kyle Korver one on one.
Chicago has to find a way to defend without fouling, something it was great at in the regular season, when only two teams — the Spurs and Lakers — sent opponents to the line less often per shot attempt.
LAKERS vs. NUGGETS
The Ty Lawson factor: This feels like the series where we are most certain about the teams’ central strategies. We know Denver is going to send hard double-teams at Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol (though less aggressively and not as consistently at the latter) and generally force Steve Blake, Devin Ebanks and Matt Barnes — and even Ramon Sessions — to beat them. We know Bynum will have one or two bad turnovers against those double-teams, when he waits too long or turns his back to the floor, making it impossible to see potential passes.
We know the Lakers have to be careful on transition defense, where they slipped down the stretch of Game 4, including two late possessions in which Kobe Bryant allowed Danilo Gallinari to get out ahead of him. We know the Nuggets essentially have to play a real center at all times, though Nuggets coach George Karl has snuck the small-ish Gallinari/Kenneth Faried/Al Harrington trio on the court during brief stretches in which Jordan Hill replaces one of the Lakers’ star bigs.
We know the Lakers can score pretty consistently as long as they run their sets, heavy on post-ups and screening action designed to free Bryant up in his favorite spots. We know Denver has to create a little chaos out of those double-teams, clogging passing lanes and forcing turnovers that lead to precious transition chances.
The thing to watch might be Lawson, and whether he and the Nuggets have the patience to get the right kinds of looks on pick-and-rolls. Lawson can get mid-range shots whenever he likes against Bynum in the pick-and-roll, and he should be able to turn the corner on Gasol, especially when Denver runs Gasol through two consecutive pick-and-rolls.
Lawson also had success in Game 4, drawing switches by dribbling toward Bynum and then veering horizontally toward the foul line, almost forcing Bynum to follow him up top. If Lawson can attack in the right ways, the Nuggets can get good shots in the half court. The Nuggets need at least one big game, and probably two, from the Lawson/Arron Afflalo/Gallinari trio in order to win in Los Angeles. Will they get it?