NBA playoff basketball is finally here! With things kicking off
on Saturday, I decided to highlight an X-factor I'll be keeping
tabs on for each first-round series. Let's dig in, shall we?
(For deeper thoughts on each series, listen to Part I and Part II of our series previews
at The Dunker Spot.)
(1) HEAT VS (8) HAWKS: STAR SWITCH BATTLE
Any hope of an Atlanta Hawks upset begins with the virtuosic
creation ability of Trae Young. He's one of the NBA's best
pick-and-roll creators, blessed with the ability to bend defenses
to his will with a blend of pull-ups, floaters, stop-on-a-dime
foul-drawing and every pass in the book.
Enter the Miami Heat, who do a tremendous job of flattening out
offenses with switches. And that discussion begins
with the versatility of Bam Adebayo.
The Hawks score on this possession, but look at how much work it
takes. Double drag? Nope. Running to a handoff to create an
advantage? Nope. Forcing a favorable switch (Tyler Herro will have
his work cut out for him) and hoping to attack? Nope, here comes a
Only two teams — the New Orleans Pelicans (0.847 PPP) and the
Sacramento Kings (0.722 PPP) allowed fewer points per possession
against Young-led ball screens than the Heat (0.851 PPP), and Miami
faced more picks (182) than those two teams combined
There's a reason for that. The Heat have the personnel and
scheme versatility to make Young's life difficult.
(2) CELTICS VS (7) NETS: BRUCE BROWN'S
"We got to be physical with them. Now they don’t have Robert
Williams, so they have less of a presence in the paint. We can
attack Al Horford and [Daniel] Theis. Them not having Rob Williams
That was Bruce Brown following the Brooklyn Nets' victory over
the Cleveland Cavaliers in Round 1 of the Play-In Tournament on
Tuesday night. Kevin Durant had to put out the fire shortly after,
but the message rang loud: We think we have another
avenue to attack your defense.
I think a lot about this possession from their most recent
The Nets opened the quarter with Spain pick-and-roll (!!!) and
Boston switched every bit of it. That led to an Al Horford-Kyrie
Irving matchup, but Williams felt comfortable trapping Kyrie to get
the ball out of his hands. Brown has been making hay as a
short-roll threat in 2022, and does so here by nailing a
How often will those advantages be there for Brown? With no
Williams, the Celtics will have to decide which of their frontcourt
guys — Horford or Theis — will take the Brown assignment. And from
there, what coverage will they go with? Will they switch, possibly
throwing Horford or Theis on Kyrie or Kevin Durant in space? WIll
they trap from there?
If so, the Nets may have a way to create some advantage
situations aside from their stars.
(3) BUCKS VS (6) BULLS: KHRIS MIDDLETON LEADING THE
This doesn't seem like a great series for the Chicago Bulls.
Quick hat tip to Matt Moore for detailing just how much of a mismatch — on
paper, at least! — this matchup projects to be.
If there's a Milwaukee Bucks thing to keep an eye on, it's the
Khris Middleton-led stuff. The Bucks swept the season series, but
Middleton wasn't his best self. He shot a shade under 28% from
three and, for the purposes of this section, averaged nearly 4
turnovers per contest.
For the brilliance that Middleton can provide with his
shot-making, his handle has long been a weak point against the
peskiest of defenders. He's likely to see a steady dose of Ayo
Dosunmu and Alex Caruso, guards who don't mind getting in his
If Middleton isn't able to get to his spots comfortably — or
worse, turns the ball over — the Bulls may have an avenue to junk
up the Bucks' half-court attack.
(4) SIXERS VS (5) RAPTORS: JAMES HARDEN'S
I think James Harden's hamstring has been talked about enough.
I'm not a doctor; I simply hope he's good to go because he's
freaking awesome when he's healthy. It unlocks the full breadth of
Regardless of which version of "Harden, The Driver" we get, he's
going to need this shot.
Harden made one of his eight stepback-three attempts against
Toronto this season, and has converted just 31.6% of his stepback
threes this season (roughly 4.0 attempts per game) via InStat
tracking. That's a wild dip from last season (36.7% overall on 4.3
attempts) and the year before that (34.7% on 6.5 attempts).
I don't have to explain why shooting under 32% on an
already-tough shot isn't ideal. The layer beyond that shot is the
real issue; the nature of the shot, and location of the shot, makes
Harden one of the last lines of defense in transition. The Sixers
have been bad at getting back — they rank 20th or worse in
every transition defense stat, per Cleaning The Glass — while the
Raptors have been incredibly fruitful when they're able to run.
(1) SUNS VS (8) PELICANS: WHO DEFENDS CHRIS
Herb Jones is one of the best defenders in the sport. My pals
and I landed on him as the NBA's best screen navigator
already. His nimbleness and persistence will bother someone in this
That's the thing though: He's only one dude.
If Jones gets the Devin Booker matchup (a reasonable guess),
who's defending the other All-NBA caliber guard for Phoenix? That
might land on nominal point guard CJ McCollum, who hasn't had the
best luck at defending Paul.
Paul-led pick-and-rolls with McCollum as the primary defender
have generated well over 1.5 points per possession over
the last three seasons, per Second Spectrum. That number drops to
the 1.3 PPP range when filtered for drop coverage, but, like,
that's still pretty absurd.
The Pelicans will have some options. Chief among them: Switching
screens between Paul and Deandre Ayton, then tasking Jaxson Hayes
(likely to defend Jae Crowder) with saving McCollum by executing a
Of course, the Suns have counters to that counter; don't be
surprised if Crowder is used as an off-ball screener to occupy
(2) GRIZZLIES VS (7) TIMBERWOLVES: WHERE IS JAREN
Let's take a look at two possessions. Ja Morant-led
pick-and-rolls, the Minnesota Timberwolves in their base "two to
the ball" pick-and-roll coverage. Two missed shots. Keep an eye on
Jaren Jackson Jr. for both.
That's JJJ chilling at the left wing, with Jarred Vanderbilt
stunting at the roll from Steven Adams before retreating. D'Angelo
Russell is now tasked with making the rotation as the low-man.
On this one, Jackson is chilling in the dunker spot after
clearing the left side of the floor. The Memphis Grizzlies are
setting up a screening action for Desmond Bane — a smart counter to
the Wolves sending two players to Morant — but look at Vanderbilt.
He's able to peel over early while Karl-Anthony Towns works his way
back to Adams. Russell tasked with dropping down to Jackson if a
full rotation from Vanderbilt is needed.
When I say "Where is JJJ.?", you can take that in a "Will he
show up?" context. He will need to knock down threes, and his
mobility will be needed against Towns in space when he's asked to
play the 5.
But it's important to note Jackson's literal location on the
court. Where he's stationed can lead to some tough rotations for
the Wolves if they continue to defend aggressively.
(3) WARRIORS VS (6) NUGGETS: FINDING THE BLEND WITH
Nikola Jokic has improved quite a bit as a defender over the
past three seasons. He's firmly good as an at-the-level defender,
and he made real strides as a drop defender this season. Arguing
for an All-Defensive team selection is a bridge (or two) too far,
but the liability talk should've died a while ago.
With that being said, the Golden State Warriors pose some real
trouble for him. The Stephen Curry-Jordan Poole-Klay Thompson
triumvirate has the pull-up chops to abuse drop coverage. Kevon
Looney screens and hand-backs could also create open threes.
With Draymond Green (or Gary Payton II when he's out there), the
Warriors have the short-roll playmaking chops to beat a
We get both coverages from Jokic on this possession. He starts
in drop, with Monte Morris doing a fine-enough job staying attached
to Poole. The ball swings to Thompson, and Jokic plays higher up.
Two screens, two coverages, two solid results for Denver.
Then the third action happens, which also
coincides with Poole jetting to the right corner and Aaron Gordon
being occupied with Andrew Wiggins. Jokic is in another drop but he
can't beat Thompson to his spot, nor does he have help on the
What do you do with that?
Probably not drop.
The Warriors generated north of 1.3 points per
possession (!!!) when facing Jokic in drop coverage during
their regular season meetings, per Second Spectrum. Playing Jokic
to the level will be a tough task, especially considering the
offensive workload he'll have to carry, but that may be the easier
poison to deal with.
(4) MAVERICKS VS (5) JAZZ: SPENCER DINWIDDIE'S
With no Luka Doncic for at least Game 1, more offensive
responsibility will fall into the hands of Spencer
He's been a godsend for the Dallas Mavericks, averaging 16-3-4
while shooting over 40% from three since joining the team. He's
been a great complement to Doncic; naturally, some of Dinwiddie's
success is due to Doncic drawing the best perimeter defender on the
That may shift to Dinwiddie now — I doubt we're going to see,
like, Royce O'Neale on Jalen Brunson for extended stretches. It'll
be up to Dinwiddie to puncture defenses and start the chain of
rotations. He hasn't had much success against Utah this season;
he's shooting just 44.4% off of drives against the Jazz, and he's
paired that with a paltry 8.5% assist rate.