Western Conference First Round Matchup Picks

1.Spurs/Clippers

Clippers Offense/Spurs Defense

Clippers Offense

The Clippers offense is a fairly straight forward efficient juggernaut principled on pace and motion with the following basic actions: Paul middle pick and roll to capitalize on his elbow shooting, Redick floppy actions (often times for misdirection) and Griffin elbow post up actions where he can either facilitate or score. LA’s “floor” for every possession is a Griffin long two, usually via a pocket pass from CP3 out of pick and roll when bigs zone up the action, creating open spacing for Blake. The Clippers also take a lot of threes, commonplace for a present day elite NBA offense. Quietly, the Clippers don’t drive much and are largely perimeter oriented, but still draw fouls at a high rate.

Spurs Defense

The Spurs defensive tenants are preventing middle penetration and corner threes. As part of a more conservative scheme, San Antonio encourages midrange shooting, preferring to drop big men back in a zone scheme in middle pick and roll. Typically, the Spurs ice side pick and rolls, and are fantastic on the defensive glass.

Matchups

With Splitter (tightness in left calf) banged up and questionable to start the series, Diaw will likely garner the majority of minutes matched up against Griffin, with Baynes earning spot duty there. Diaw is strong with deceptive quick feet, and while Blake will undoubtedly still get his, Diaw has the frame to make him work. Duncan will usually mark Jordan, as he typically takes the less mobile big and stays closer to the rim for rim protection. Duncan understandably struggles some against hyper-athletic and strong leapers at this stage of his career. Jordan can duck down and seal off Duncan close to the hoop effectively. Jordan can also give Duncan problems on the glass as he’s difficult for Duncan to box out with his athleticism.

On the perimeter, the Spurs usually start Parker on Paul, Kawhi on Redick (Kawhi is an expert screen navigator) and Green on Barnes, but with quietly the league’s best defensive starting wing combo, the Spurs have a lot of versatility here. Both Leonard and Green are capable of switching onto Paul for significant stretches (and have done so in their matchups this year), and the Clippers do not have the wings to counter by punishing Parker on the post, who can be hid on Barnes.

Analysis

The Clippers have the most efficient offense in the league with Paul running the show and Griffin playing second fiddle. This team is going to score regardless of the defense, so the emphasis is on making the Clippers’ star players work for shots. The Spurs’ two main advantages here are defensive versatility in being able to stick longer wing defenders on Paul and Duncan’s cleverness as a pick and roll defender. Duncan is probably the best big man pick an roll defender in the league along with Marc Gasol, as he always has solid positioning and really keeps ball-handlers guessing in space. San Antonio has the perimeter defense to switch some, which could stall some of LA’s motion actions, but overall, there is no full-fledge stopping this Clippers team offensively. Expect Kawhi to guard Paul in crunch time and for the Spurs to really entice Blake into those long two pointers.

Spurs Offense/Clippers Defense

Spurs Offense

The Spurs patented motion offense features four main components: space (create gaps for Parker to drive), ball movement (ball doesn’t stick, move defenses on reversals), misdirection (EX: Hammer action), and pace (early offense: drag screens etc). Parker is the engine of the offense with his dribble penetration, where the Spurs thrive in a drive and kick setting. The Spurs aren’t dependent on high pick and rolls, having the versatility to move the ball side to side and hit cutters efficiently. The Spurs also have the highest spot up frequency in the league and are notorious for maximizing the shot clock to find the best shot.

Clippers Defense

The Clippers defense is schematically aggressive. DeAndre and Blake typically show hard in pick and rolls, attacking far out on the floor to mask deficiencies of their wing defenders. The objective is to stop the lead ball-handler. In this process the bigs sometimes switch assignments in recovery. The Clippers do mix up some coverages, sometimes icing side pick and rolls, and sometimes allowing middle. Overall, the scheme requires high degree of communication and help, as parts are consistently moving and teams who can pass the ball can create 4 on 3 opportunities where timely defensive rotations are crucial. The Clippers also bail out on the offensive glass to get back in transition defense, limiting transition opportunities.

Matchups

Paul is the best defensive lead guard in the league, and really the only player on the Clippers who has the lateral quickness, screen-navigating ability and instincts to stay with Parker both on and off the ball through the Spurs’ myriad of actions. Barnes will draw Kawhi, especially with the latter’s emerging post game, and Redick will take Green. Inside, Griffin will check Diaw/Baynes, leaving DeAndre on Duncan.

Analysis

The Spurs are tailor-made to exploit aggressive defenses like the Clippers that rely on heavy rotations. We saw that with the Heat in the finals last year. The Clippers don’t employ precisely the same blitzing tactic that the Heat did, but the concept is pretty similar. The Clippers are the worst team in the league defending the roll man, and that’s a direct result of scheme: if you move the ball quickly, you can create 4 on 3 opportunities with the Clippers’ backline defender having to choose between guarding the dive man and the weak side shooter. Against the Spurs, that scenario is lethal. The Clippers also don’t have the length on the perimeter to challenge perimeter shots effectively.

The Spurs will undoubtedly involve whoever is guarded by DeAndre in the pick and roll to get Jordan out of the paint to take away his rim protection. In drawing him out, San Antonio will then use quick passing to create 4 on 3 opportunities going to the rim. Against Miami in the finals they pulled a wing to the same level as the ball on traps, and used a quick series of passes to beat the trap.

Bench

The Clippers’ lack of depth has been noted excessively, and deservedly so. Crawford, though coming off injury, is the Clippers’ only productive bench player, and he’s a one-dimensional contributor. The Spurs on the other hand utilize their bench consistently throughout the season to keep their starters’ minutes down and inspire confidence in the second unit. The Spurs have a sizable advantage here, especially if Patty Mills can return to his offensive exploits. The Clippers don’t have the depth to play backups sizable minutes because not only can they not hold leads but there is huge net negative point differential potential. Expect the Spurs to capitalize here by pushing the pace and really exploiting the slow-footedness/defensive deficiencies of Hawes, Davis, Crawford, Turk, and Rivers.

Overall

There are just a plethora of factors working against the Clippers here scheme wise and with individual matchups. The Spurs utilize Parker a lot off the ball in various actions such as “the loop.” Considering Paul is really the only perimeter defender who can check Parker and Paul will have to log heavy minutes with the Clippers’ deficient bench, Paul will have to work hard on both ends of the floor, increasing the likelihood of fatigue. San Antonio will run Parker off screens to make Paul work.

Because Barnes is only an average shooter, the Clippers sometimes go to a three-guard backcourt with Paul, Redick and Crawford to enhance floor spacing. However, they can’t do that against the Spurs with Kawhi in the game because of his expanded post game. This could be a lineup to look for if the Spurs trot out a non-Kawhi three guard lineup, but I expect Popovich would immediately counter by inserting Leonard.

The Clippers are playing well right now, which triggers some recency bias in overlooking their flaws. I’d like them in several other matchups in the West, and in a vacuum they are probably the third best team in the West talent wise, especially when factoring in current injuries. But this is the worst case matchup for them, where San Antonio has the scheme advantage offensively countering the Clippers’ aggressive trapping with passing and the matchup advantage individually. The Clippers have some advantages such as Jordan’s athleticism and activity on the glass taking a physical toll on Duncan, as well as Griffin post creation especially if the longer Splitter misses significant time. They also have Chris Paul, which helps against the high-IQ Spurs. But the advantages skew heavily in San Antonio’s favor, furthered by the bench differential and the looming hack a Jordan impact.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this series only went 5. I’d be shocked in the Clippers won.

Pick: Spurs in 6

2.Portland/Memphis

Current Incredibly Expansive Injury Report:

Memphis

Mike Conley (right foot strain)

Tony Allen (strained left hamstring)

Portland

Wes Matthews (achilles)

Aaron Afflalo (right shoulder strain)

Dorell Wright (fractured bone in hand)

Nicolas Batum (right knee contusion)

CJ McCollum (sprained left ankle)

Chris Kaman (lower back)

Portland Offense/Memphis Defense

Portland Offense

Flow Offense: Lillard high pick and roll, Aldridge post-ups, and pace and space with emphasis on threes. Overall, a lot of off-ball movement with quick passing and spacing around Lillard and Aldridge, who are enormous threats shooting form the perimeter.

Memphis Defense

Predicated on ball and man pressure (enables steals in passing lanes), off-ball positioning, Gasol operating in 2.9 and calling out plays before they happen. Emphasis is on limiting dribble penetration, forcing perimeter jump shots, limiting free throw attempts and creating turnovers. Gasol and ZBO combine drop backs and hedging in P&R. Perimeter players will switch, especially on side actions.

Matchups

Both sides are obviously ravaged by injuries. Conley typically takes Lillard because he’s one of the best lead guards getting over picks in the league, and Portland’s conventional starting lineup with both Matthews and Batum doesn’t leave Memphis another choice, as Matthews especially is a bully as a wing post player. If Conley can’t go Udrih would likely get the start and check Lillard, a blow to Memphis’ defense obviously. With Allen expected to play he’ll likely be deployed on Batum, given he has superior size to Lee, rendering Lee on the shiftier McCollum with Afflalo expected to miss at least game 1. Inside, Randolph usually guards Aldridge in conventional starting lineups, while Gasol will shift over to LaMarcus if Koufos is in. Gasol’s role as a back-line defender calling out plays is critical to Memphis’ success, as is his rim protection, thus he’s usually slotted against traditional close to the basket centers, in this case Lopez.

Analysis

Memphis is content leaving the less mobile ZBO on Aldridge to keep Gasol closer to the basket. As a result, Aldridge has had success getting his patented mid range jumper off effectively against ZBO, and because of his mobility advantage in combination with his go-to hard turn over his left shoulder one dribble pull-up to create separation, LA should have a big series. It will be interesting to see if Memphis sends help via a double at LaMarcus, though Portland has the surrounding shooting to capitalize on that.

Conley’s status is obviously huge for Memphis as his ability to get over Portland’s high screens to track Lillard is of paramount importance. While Memphis has a capable backup defensive oriented point guard in Calathes, he’s not nearly the same offensive player. Memphis has a lot more flexibility to switch if Afflalo does not play, as he’s Portland’s predominant wing post up threat.

Overall, Portland’s offense is straight-forward and runs through premiere threats Lillard and Aldridge. Bending Memphis’ defense to create open threes will be key in this series, as will be pushing the pace to get transition opportunities before Memphis sets its defense. Afflalo’s post game is something to watch for as an x factor, if he indeed plays close to normal capacity. The Blazers had some success in their last outing with Memphis with their second unit going small with Dorell Wright at the four. However, Wright is out for the playoffs, which limits a potential quickness advantage as there is no one else on the roster capable of filling that role.

Memphis Offense/Portland Defense

Memphis Offense

Memphis’ offense is inside-out based and centered around either Gasol operating at the elbow or a Randolph post-up, while throwing in some Conley/Gasol two man pick and roll action as well. Because of limited spacing Memphis relies on weak side motion with Allen slashing to open spaces near the hoop and Lee doing the same on the perimeter (as well as Green).  The Grizzlies do opportunistically push the ball, but are largely a slow pace team.  Issues with shooting and spacing are prevalent.

Portland Defense

Portland’s defense is similar to Chicago’s conservative pick and roll scheme, where Aldridge and Lopez (and other bigs) drop back and zone up the pick and roll. Portland thus keeps their bigs closer to the basket, facilitating midrange jump shots, and stays with shooters on the perimeter instead of having perimeter defenders collapse down in the paint. As a result, Portland thrives defending the three.  A downside Portland’s conservative scheme is they don’t create a lot of turnovers and easy transition opportunities.

Matchups

Most of the matchups here will mirror the opposite side of the ball, especially inside. However, the Blazers typically hide Lillard when they can to mitigate his deficiencies getting over picks in pick and roll and around screens, and instead utilize wings such as Batum to guard the opposing lead guard. Lillard might start out on Conley but will eventually, and especially in crunch time, shift over to defend either Allen or Lee (or the other point guard if Memphis goes with a two point guard lineup). Memphis does not have any imposing post-up wings other then Green (who isn’t really), so Lillard can be hid often times and Portland can switch side screens when necessary. If McCollum draws the start in Afflalo’s stead, he’ll likely guard Lee to mitigate cross-matches.

Analysis

Conley has really exploited Lillard’s defense in their matchups this season and has been Memphis’ leading scorer in those matchups, so if he can’t go or isn’t operating at near capacity, that hurts the Grizz. Schematically, with how Portland defends the pick and roll in dropping bigs back, coupled with Lillard’s troubles getting over screens, Udrih, an elite pull-up midrange shooter would have a nice matchup on paper if he gets the start.

The Blazers don’t defend post-ups very well, and both Gasol and Randolph have had success inside against Portland. Expect a heavy dose as usual from the Grizz in pounding the ball inside to their bigs, while relying on both Lee and Green to create the requisite spacing in converting open looks from outside.

Bench

McCollum has really emerged for the Blazers this year (always been a big fan) as a shot creator with the ball and lethal spot-up shooter. For the first time, Portland had a scoring punch off the bench, even after Matthews achilles injury. But now with Afflalo battling a shoulder injury McCollum could be relegated to a starter, diminishing Portland’s depth.   Most lineups Memphis rolls out will enable Lillard and McCollum to play at the same time, which will only help Portland’s offensive efficiency. Blake’s shooting in spot minutes behind Lillard will also be crucial.

Memphis’ typical bench unit has an array of versatility, with Udrih, Calathes, and Carter all able to surround Green at the guard/wing spots. Green’s contributions in this series, especially if Portland goes small in some capacity which as discussed above they’ve had success with, will be critical. He has to knock down corner threes, and opportunistically get out on the break in transition.

Down low, Koufos v. Kaman should prove to be an interesting battle of defense v. offense. Kaman’s shot-making should add a desperately needed scoring punch to Portland’s bench, and will be countered by the quick-footed Koufos whose size and verticality at the rim is an asset for Memphis. Similarly, the potential Green v. Leonard matchup is notable. Memphis’ bigs don’t like to guard the three point line, and on multiple occasions this year have left Leonard specifically wide open on the perimeter by design to shoot. Leonard is quietly a proficient three-point shooter, and can’t be left without a contest. The mobile Green is a good counter for Leonard’s floor-spacing if the lineups permit.

Overall

Both teams have significant injury question marks, which makes it difficult to predict a specific endgame. It sounds like Afflalo will likely miss at least game one, which really impacts Portland’s wing depth. If Conley plays (Allen is expected to), the Grizzlies receive a sizable upgrade. We wont know until Sunday.

Most have written off Memphis over the last two months based on offensive decline (Gasol), injuries (Conley, Allen), the Jeff Green lineup tinkering and Lee’s (the teams only reliable wing shooter outside of Green in the corners) shooting demise. However, if this team gets healthy their playoff suited approach can wear teams down with physicality and pace control. Portland has been a different team with Matthews out, and even with herculean efforts from Aldridge and Lillard, I don’t think they have enough to beat even a semi-functioning Grizzlies team, the latter of whom has home court advantage in spite of seeding.   In what I expect will be a slower paced, defensive oriented series, I’ll lean conservative in  picking a competitive series with all the uncertainty.

Pick: Grizzlies in 6

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