NBA Playoff Things Week 1: Capela, Boban, and a Playoff Fallacy

The answer is no. No, my first NBA playoff article is not going to be about the potential collapse of my own Philadelphia 76ers. Rather, I’m doing something that I’ve wanted to for a while now. I read many NBA columns, but even then, I still miss a few when I deem them to be not in my highest interest. However, there is one weekly column that I read religiously: Zach Lowe’s 10 Things

How do I properly describe this column? It’s a haven for basketball nerds, free from any of the impurities of social media, pro-player bias, off the court antics, and anything that at times takes away from the focus of the game. Lowe is ESPN’s top NBA writer and has the exact job that I would dream of: He watches just about every NBA game possible, then he writes about what he has watched. He doesn’t write hot takes about why a star player is overrated, about why he thinks something will go down in free agency, or how we should take a break from analyzing basketball to talk about funny topics. He writes about the game of basketball and things he notices while watching it. His 10 Things column comes out weekly and is a list of observations he had that week while watching basketball, either positive or negative. To give you an idea, here are some of the things he noticed this season: The Twisting Goodness of Paul Millsap, The Heady Game of Bryn Forbes, The Quality of Nikola Vucevic’s Passes, Gary Harris’s Heroism being Rewarded by the Sports Gods, Tobias Harris being too Upright, CJ McCollum as an NBA Running Back. I think you get the idea. This is what I want. I want to know all the funky quirks of how guys play around the league.

So for the playoffs, I will be doing the same thing, writing a column each week about the things I’ve noticed. No guarantee that I’ll be able to get to ten or that I’ll be able to restrict myself to ten. So without further ado, here is my first edition of NBA Playoff Things!

  1. The Pat Beverley Overreaction

 

As soon as Doc Rivers unveiled the strategy to have the undersized but gritty Pat Beverley guard 6’11” Kevin Durant, fans took to Twitter and message boards praising Doc for his genius and heralding Beverley as Defensive Player of the Year. I took offense to this, as it does not take much intuition to see the glaring flaws in Bev on KD.

In Game 1, Beverley’s antics only hurt the Clippers. His bulldog attitude made him over physical, as he barked at the officials after any call went against them. Everyone in the league knows that Golden State gets some favorable calls at home, so the last thing you want to do is let the bad calls get you angry and off focus. Bev has an infectious personality, and his ref-yapping rubbed off on Lou Williams and the other Clippers in Game 1. Bev guarding someone as confrontational as KD threw off the Clippers’ calm.

You know what else happened in Game 1? Steph Curry went off for 38 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists. Not too surprising when you realize he was defended by the inexperienced rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet all game. He was also defended by Garrett Temple, who is about an average defender, but not someone you want responsible for guarding the best point guard in the league. Wouldn’t it make sense to have Curry defended by the Clippers’ best defender–Pat Beverley himself.

Also, can we address how arrogant this is of Doc? Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great coach, but this is not some new idea he came up with. He used the same method for Durant in the 2014 Playoffs when he had Chris Paul guard him. It was the same concept: the gritty CP3 can get under KD, prevent him from dribbling at will, and force him into contested mid range shots. Durant would go on to average 33.9 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 5.3 assists as the Thunder beat the last great Lob City team in six games.

Of course, Bev did a much better job guarding Durant in the Clippers’ improbable 31 point comeback win in Game 2. However, Beverley did not solely guard KD in this game, but spent most of his time chasing Curry after Steph went crazy in the first half. He was sprinkled in as an occasional defender of KD, which served the Clippers well. Beverley cannot be a full time defender of KD if the Clippers want to shock the world and upset the Dubs.

 

  1. Boban’s Mid Range Game

Every die hard NBA fan knows that 7’5” giant Boban Marjanovic is not a bench scrub due to lack of skill. Boban is a victim of the modern NBA, as his slow plodding feet make it impossible for him to guard anyone of the court when an opponent goes small-ball. As a devoted Sixers fan, I can confidently say I have never seen a perimeter player drive on Boban and not score.

That said, Boban is still worthy of his minutes each game. He shoots a respectable 58% from ten to sixteen feet and 75% on free throws. I get that he is not a threat off the dribble, but why oh why do opponents sag off of him when he catches the ball in the middle of the key? It’s not like he’s Joakim Noah or (gulp) Ben Simmons. I’ve seen other teams do the unwise Boban sag, but not to the extent that Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis are going to. Just watch this atrocious defense.

The Nets’ game plan has been brilliant, whether it be face guarding JJ Redick, luring Tobias Harris into ineffective drives, or passing around Philly’s defense to get wide open threes. This, however, is not working. Boban is averaging 14.5 points per game through the first two games, up from his season average of 7.3 ppg. He nailed about four of these free throw jumpers in game 2. I’m perfectly fine with the Nets helping my Sixers, but in the name of basketball purity, the Nets need to respect Boban’s midrange.

  1. Clint Capela being kind of Robert Parish-y

Kevin McHale pointed out during Game 1 of the Rockets-Jazz series that, “Clint Capela has played up to the level and even outplayed star centers Karl Anthony-Towns and Rudy Gobert in playoffs the last two years.” That immediately took my mind to McHale’s former Hall of Fame teammate, Robert Parish. Parish received nine all star selections and four All-NBA nods on his way to a twenty one year career. He peaked in the 80s as the rim-running, shot blocking center of the Celtics. Most importantly, though, was his role as a neutralizer. Parish played great enough defense coupled with a “you can’t just ignore me” offensive skill set that he consistently played guys like Kareem and Moses Malone to a standstill. When he faced off against lesser bigs, he didn’t really dominate them because that just wasn’t the way he played. He took advantage of being in the perfect situation, and took his level to that of his opposition.

Now think of Capela. Rim-running? Check. Shot blocking? Check. Playing in the perfect situation? How about we ask Capela as James Harden throws him a perfect lob for an easy dunk. Capela isn’t skilled enough to put up gaudy stats against weaker teams to earn him anything close to an all star selection, but the best teams know how good he is. They know that Capela on the floor basically means they have no advantage at the center position, which means they sometimes revert to small ball, i.e. exactly what Houston wants.

I know it’s a bit of a stretch. Capela has a long ways to go till he’s at the level of Parish, and comparing KAT and Gobert to Kareem and Moses is like comparing the PB & J you had for lunch to an all you can eat buffet. But just take a look at this.

Robert Parish’s Peak Season (1981-82): 19.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.4 blocks

Clint Capela’s 2018-19 Season: 16.6 points, 12.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks

Still room to grow, but I like where Capela is heading.

  1. Stupid Reach Arounds

My high school team knows how annoying this is. One of our rivals would always coach their entire team to play lazy defense, allowing opponents to drive straight buy them, only to wrap their arm under the driver as they trail them in hopes of poking the ball free. It’s almost always a foul, this team team always complained when it was called a foul, and worst of all it’s just bad basketball to rely on a stupid quirk like that.

It saddens me then that I’ve seen this happen three times in just four nights of NBA playoff action. Even worse, two of the three perpetrators were in my top five of favorite players: Nikola Jokic and Steph Curry (no offense to our third guilty subject, Mason Plumlee).

This clip of Steph reaching around from a few seasons ago was the best illustration I could find

Curry simply lets his defender right by, and rather than moving his feet, he lazily hopes he can poke the ball free. This really sucks because I’m in the “Steph Curry is actually a quality defender” camp. I was disgusted when I saw this old habit resurface against the Clippers, as Williams beat Steph off his close out, and Steph once again went for the reach around. All this does is put a player at risk of getting a dumb foul. Just ask Nikola Jokic, who picked up a cheap one on Tuesday when he tried to reach around after getting beat by LaMarcus Aldridge. In the name of basketball purity, please stop compounding your mistake with a stupid reach around foul.

  1. Irrational Confidence

Dion Waiters has long been the president of the irrational confidence club, a club which inspires below average players to shoot nearly unmakeable shots on the regular. Waiters’ followers include Marcus Smart, Jordan Clarkson, J.R. Smith, Reggie Jackson, Gerald Green and Terry Rozier. Players with irrational confidence are playoff wild cards, as they’re not afraid to win you a big game, but they’re also not afraid of completely shooting a team out of a game. That’s why I think we should keep an eye on the two newest members of the irrational confidence club: Fred VanVleet and Will Barton.

VanVleet is a smart and defensively stout sixth man, which usually are not the traits of an irrational confidence guy, but just watch the Raptors for a little bit. If ever DJ Augustin goes under a pick and roll with VanVleet as the ball handler, he will shoot the pull up three no matter how far out he is. He will even shoot deep threes after his big man corrals the three VanVleet just missed. In his mind, it’s the right play for a great shooter to take a three when he has a sliver of daylight, and he’s confident that he’s a great shooter. Hate to break it to you Fred, but 37.8% from three is only slightly above average. Regardless, VanVleet does bring other stuff to the table, and he has shot well enough that his irrational confidence hasn’t killed the Raptors.

Will Barton, on the other hand, has been so irrationally confident that he almost single handedly lost game 2 for the Nuggets. Barton has shot an astonishingly horrible seven for twenty five in the series, good for 28% from the field and (look away Denver fans) 9% from three! Barton’s mechanics are awful, as he bends his elbow sideways and flings like it a crappy catapult. He’s shooting corner threes way too early in the shot clock and has even taken some pull up threes that clank off the rim so hard that the fans in the front row are literally in danger of being killed by one of his misses. Even worse, Barton doesn’t bring other things to the table like VanVleet. He’s not a distributor that you can run the offense through, and his defense isn’t as steady. I know players are taught to not lose confidence in their shot, but if Barton doesn’t stop shooting quick off the dribble threes, the Nuggets will lose this series. If I’m the Nuggets, I might look at starting Malik Beasley or Torrey Craig instead.

  1. The Struggles of LaMarcus Aldridge

It may seem weird that I’m writing about something the Spurs need to fix when they were only one bonkers quarter from Jamal Murray away from taking a 2-0 lead back to San Antonio. But hear me out.

The Spurs have been playing great. They’re hitting threes, forcing the right players on Denver to shoot, and Derrick White has been playing out of his mind. Aldridge himself had a poor fifteen point outing game 1, but rebounded by dropping twenty-four in game 2. However, any plus Aldridge brings with his scoring has been canceled out by his defense on Jokic. The Joker’s stat line may not reveal Aldridge’s struggles, but just take a look at this clip. 

That’s only one instance of something that Aldridge did probably five times in game 2. Whenever the Nuggets cross screen for Jokic, Aldridge seems to forget that the Serbian is a very dangerous shooter, especially with open space. LaMarcus had never been very quick foot of either, so if he tries to recover after this misread, he will most likely just give up a Jokic drive to the rim, which is even more dangerous due to his playmaking.

Aldridge is even struggling in simple post defense, as he doesn’t have the strength to keep Jokic from bullying him in the paint, and he doesn’t have the length and athleticism to contest his crafty fadeaways (0:38-0:45)

I’m not sure what the answer is for San Antonio. They could play Aldridge at power forward and instead have defensive minded center Jakob Poeltl guard Jokic, but it’s not like Millsap is a player you can just hide a bad defender on. The Spurs could also just flat out bench Aldridge for more minutes, as one of the most fascinating stories of the year for analytics nerds has been that the Spurs do much better when Aldridge and DeRozan are not on the court. They could also get weird and have Aldridge guard the currently incompetent Will Barton ala the 2015 Warriors putting Bogut on Toney Allen, but I’m guessing Mike Malone would be more than happy to sub in Malik Beasley if Barton started bricking. The most likely thing that will happen is that the Spurs will just hope Jokic misses his jumpers and that Aldridge can just score enough on the other end to balance things out. A strategy based on hope is not usually a good thing.

  1. Debunking a Playoff Fallacy

We have a surprising amount of series tied at 1-1, four in total. All the time we hear that, “A series doesn’t start till someone loses at home,” or, “Your goal as a road team is just to split the first two.” No. That is so dumb. You know what happens when you let the higher seed win one of those first two home games? THEY ALMOST ALWAYS WIN THE SERIES IN THE END BECAUSE THEY WERE THE BETTER TEAM THAT WHOLE SEASON! Sorry, I’ll deactivate my Stephen A. Smith mode.

In all seriousness, my gripe is that most agree that a team should be content if they can just steal a game on the road. NBA home court advantage is important, but it’s not like this is football. An NBA arena doesn’t have over 50,000 fans screaming non stop, and the road team never has to deal with unfamiliar turf and weather conditions. If you feel like having home court advantage in a series is an absolute necessity for your team, then that team isn’t good enough in the first place.

Just think about last year, when the marquee upset was the six seed Pelicans sweeping the third seeded Portland Trail Blazers. The Pelicans came out and just destroyed the Blazers from the opening tap, establishing that the Blazers would just not have enough to come back against them. That’s what we expect the teams that were good enough to get home court advantage to do. Come out and dominate the first two games so you can wrap everything up in four or five games. Why would it help a lower seed to have this mentality of ,”Oh, we’ll just try to do what we can to steal some games,” rather than coming out like gangbusters and taking a stranglehold on the series.

One of the best things I ever heard a player say was back in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant, then a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder team that had just taken a 1-0 lead on the Golden State Warriors, was asked about the team’s mindset going into game 2 now having the 1-0 lead. Durant responded, “This is the most important game of the series, this is a must win game for us.” Thank you KD. In the playoffs, every team (except the Pistons) is really good, and you don’t want them to string together multiple wins against you. Teams that go up 2-0 have won 182 out of 202 playoff series where that has happened. That means going up 2-0 gives you a 93% chance to win the series. It’s of vital importance that the road team wins both of the first two games, as you don’t want to be tied with what is probably a better overall team. KD and the Thunder probably wish they would’ve won game 2 and swept the series against Golden State in 2016. It’s not like just splitting the first two on the road isn’t much better than going down 0-2, but it still shouldn’t be something that’s celebrated.

  1. The Bittersweet Play of Jayson Tatum

Tatum played very well in both of Boston’s wins over Indiana. In game 2, he finished with a stellar line of twenty-six points on eleven of twenty shooting, which was capped by his go ahead corner three with under a minute to go in the tight game. Yet, I still have many gripes with his game.

His shot form bothers me. It’s like he has it in a comfortable, natural position above his head, only to pull it back behind his head, then jerk it forth like something just startled him and he’s just launching a nearby projectile. Even that game winning three did not look right to me as it left his hand.

I have a rule to determine whether I think a player is a good three point shooter or not. Being that threes were a huge part of my own game, the only times I ever thought I shot a shot correctly was when I swished it. If it was something other than a swish, I usually felt like I messed something up just ever so slightly. Now that minor mistake is not always enough to cause a miss, but it does indicate whether or not one can be consistent as a shooter. So, if a guy does not swish many of his threes, but rather usually rolls them in off the rim, I don’t have full confidence in his shot. I said this same thing about Dario Saric before the season when expressing my concerns about the Sixers, and Dario’s poor outing this season was pretty good proof of my theory.

Beyond just the way he shoots, Tatum also has stylistic problems in his game. It’s been wide documented that he constantly takes long, contested pull-up shots from mid range over catch and shoot threes that are glaringly better shots. No proof to the theory that Kobe Bryant intentionally sabotaged the Celtics by convincing the young phenom to take these high difficulty shots during their off season conversations. Tatum also fails to attack the rim as much as he should, averaging only three free throw attempts per game, which is pathetic for a player of his attacking ability. Tatum has only shot one free throw in the first two games, and even that free throw was off a give away and-one with the game’s outcome already decided.

9. The Kanter Sag

Everyone knows that Enes Kanter played very well in game 1, finishing with twenty points, eighteen rebounds, and an awkward, slow-striding lefty bank shot that sealed the win. However, Kanter only played twenty minutes in game 2, as the Blazers cruised to a blowout win.

 

Terry Stotts likely benched the Turkish big man due to his poor coverage of the Westbrook and Adams pick and roll. Kanter has a reputation as one of the league’s worst defenders, and for much of game 1, the Thunder exposed that weakness. Once Adams’ screen had cleared Lillard out of the way, Westbrook would gallop down hill, as Kanter would simply hang near the rim, offering no resistance whatsoever. Once Westbrook had gotten all the way to Kanter, all he has to do is shovel if off to Steven Adams for his patented floater, getting easy buckets every time. I get that Kanter will just get blown by if he comes up to try and stay in front of Russ, but by sagging down so much, he just lets Westbrook sprint to the middle of the paint and peruse for open passes, i.e. Westbrook’s greatest strength.

For some reason, Billy Donovan didn’t run this pick and roll in the closing time of game 1, a bad coaching decision to say the least. The Thunder attacked Kanter again in game 2, getting out to a decent first half lead, only for Stotts to counter by switching Kanter for Meyers Leonard and Rodney Hood, both of whom helped contribute to the Blazers’ dominating third quarter. I know that many people love Kanter’s skillset as a devastating rebounder that can also spread the floor, but the Blazers will be much better served with Meyers Leonard taking most of the minutes as center, or going small ball and playing Aminu at the five spot.

  1. Brett Brown and Kenny Atkinson’s Chess Match

I was impressed when Kenny Atkinson unveiled his plan to face guard JJ Redick. It was proof that he actually watches a lot of film rather than basing his strategy on the opponents’ perceived strengths. The Sixers have a lot of trouble creating good pull up jump shots. Simmons can’t shoot at all, Embiid can make them out of post up but struggles in the other areas, Tobias Harris does not have the quickness or slick handling necessary to get himself open for good looks off the dribble, and Jimmy Butler often hangs too long in the air for his shots to go in.

The only shooter any Sixers fan actually trusts is JJ Redick. He runs that handoff with Embiid to perfection. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player better use his own momentum going into a shot. The Sixers depend on this greatly as it’s really the only thing they can use to generate shots outside of the paint. Atkinson saw this and had Joe Harris all up in JJ’s grill to start the game. By taking this away, the Sixers were left to burp up threes by poor shooters and bang for low efficiency hook shots in the paint. Brett Brown looked lost and confused, unable to counter Atkinson’s genius.

Sixers fans won’t believe this, but, Brett Brown actually made a very wise adjustment in game 2. Multiple time they had Redick fake that he was going for the handoff, only to then flare out with his defender taking a step in the wrong direction, getting him good open looks from three. Sure, it’s not his favorite shooting area, but it’s more important for the Sixers that you just get your best shooter some more looks, no matter how you do it. Brown also took advantage of the Nets’ strategy to back off Simmons by having Redick throw the ball to Simmons on the perimeter, then sprint to Simmons who would wall off the Redick’s defender while pitching the ball back to JJ. With Simmons’ man all the way in the paint, there was no one present to contest these deadly jumpers.

Along with the Nuggets and Spurs, the Sixers-Nets series is shaping up to be the best of the first round. As a Sixers fan I am both terrified and interested to see how the Brown vs Atkinson chess match plays out.