Who has been the biggest star of the 2014 NBA playoffs? We asked Basketball Insiders’ interns to weigh in:
LaMarcus Aldridge elevated his play in the postseason to a point that the Portland Trail Blazers not only defeated the Houston Rockets in six games, but has them thinking they could ultimately go deep into the playoffs.
What made Aldridge’s 29.8 points per game against the Rockets even more impressive is he often had Dwight Howard, Omer Asik or Terrence Jones guarding him. Aside from Game 5, when he had just eight points on 3-of-12 shooting, Aldridge was able to drop at least 20 points a game against a combination of Howard and Asik. In that lone off game, Aldridge picked up two fouls early on and was out of rhythm for the remainder of the night.
For the Trail Blazers to continue to have success in the playoffs, Aldridge has to be able to continue to get touches, and shooting just 12 a game isn’t going to cut it. After his 12 attempts in Game 5, the next fewest attempts he had in a game were 22 in Game 3 when he scored 23 points. While he made just eight of those 22, the Trail Blazers’ best chance to win happens when he gets his shots. During Game 3, the Rockets made some adjustments and inserted Asik into the starting lineup to double-team Aldridge. The result was to drive him to the baseline with Asik, where he would then meet Howard with the help defense.
Credit needs to go to Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts in making adjustments of his own to be able to get Aldridge better looks in Games 4 and 6. Working under Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle in 2008, Stotts used a similar approach working with Dirk Nowitzki. Stotts creates a variety of different pick-and-roll situations where Aldridge can get the ball or create an opportunity for another player to get open. Stotts carried a lot of the Mavericks’ offense to the Trail Blazers to create ball movement and spacing for shooters like Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.
Aldridge benefited from having Stotts make adjustments for him and as a result, he raised his points per game from the regular season to the postseason by 6.6 points, going from 23.2 to 29.8. In the playoffs, Aldridge has taken three shots more on average and has managed to convert a higher percentage of his shots compared to the regular season. In the regular season he converted 46% of his shots, while he has made 48% of his shots in the postseason.
Aldridge just proved that no player the Rockets threw at him could guard him. The Rockets seemed to have capable players that could handle such a task with a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Howard, a proven defender in the seven-foot Asik and an athletic six-foot-nine forward in Jones. The impressive part for Aldridge, or the most embarrassing thing for the Rockets’ bigs, was he took the majority of his shots from the left side of the court. There was never a question of where Aldridge would take his shot, and the Rockets were still defenseless. Whether it was in Game 1 where he went to work in the paint or Game 2 when he made the Rockets pay from mid-range, Aldridge torched the Rockets all series long. Only two other players scored 40 points or more in the first two games of a series on the road – Michael Jordan and Tracy McGrady.
– Cody Taylor
It should come as no surprise to anyone that LeBron James and the Miami HEAT rolled the Charlotte Bobcats in four games. They are more talented, more experienced and hungry for another title, while the Bobcats were just getting their feet wet in the playoffs. Miami was a clear favorite and took care of business as they should. While James may not have faced the toughest opponent, he still did exactly what he needed to do and that was dominate.
This year’s Bobcats team certainly wasn’t elite, but they also weren’t the laughingstock that they had been in previous years. They possessed solid athletes on the wing in Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both of whom are very capable defenders. While Kidd-Gilchrist was able to force LeBron into some difficult looks, he just didn’t have the strength to keep him out of the paint or the size to prevent LeBron from knocking down mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper. The problem for the Bobcats, like many teams, is that there really just isn’t a good matchup for LeBron.
James was able to impose his will from Game 1 on, carrying his dominance through Game 4 as the HEAT quickly sent the Bobcats home. For the series, LeBron averaged 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists. His 30 points a game makes him the leading scorer in the playoffs thus far. The most impressive part of his play may be just how effective he has been on his two-point field goal attempts. For the series, he averaged eight makes on 12.5 attempts per game from two, good for a 64% two-point percentage. A percentage that high is usually reserved for big men who get most of their points on dunks and lay-ups, but LeBron continues to show why he is widely considered the best player in the world. He does have some room for improvement going forward from three, as he shot 35% from long range on an average of five attempts a game. Not terrible by any means but one area he can look to get better.
The scariest part about LeBron is his lethal ability to pass the ball. When you shoot 64% from two, you are going to draw a lot of attention, but LeBron is so unselfish that if he is doubled he will quickly find a cutting teammate for a lay-up or a guy like Ray Allen or James Jones spotting up from deep. He takes a lot of pressure off the guys around him just from the respect he commands from opposing defenses. It puts them in a pick-your-poison scenario where they must decide if they want cover LeBron one on one, let him get his and shut down the supporting cast or try to force the ball out of LeBron’s hands and hope Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh don’t have great nights.
Defensively, LeBron was strong as usual. His unmatched combination of size, quickness and strength allows him to cover multiple positions and allows the HEAT great versatility. He was able to snag 2.3 steals game, converting many of those into fast break points as the HEAT looked to push at every opportunity.
Some may say that LeBron did what he was supposed to do against Charlotte. However, it should not be discounted how important the HEAT sweep may be, allowing for the HEAT to have valuable time off before their next series. In a postseason where going seven games seems to be the norm, LeBron was able to dispatch the Bobcats in just four games. Considering how hard the rest of the East has had to fight to advance, it could prove to be very beneficial.
LeBron continues to play at a level that has rarely been reached before and sometimes it seems to be taken for granted. This year’s playoffs have shown that nothing will come easy but the HEAT made it look exactly that. LeBron must continue his dominance for Miami to win another title, but after the first round he shouldn’t be short on confidence.
– John Zitzler
The first round of the NBA playoffs has been spectacular so far. From LaMarcus Aldridge putting up over 40 points in consecutive games, to Troy Daniels coming out of nowhere to hit a clutch three-pointer to put Portland away in Game 3, to Tony Allen’s tough defense against Kevin Durant, there has been no shortage of great individual play. But no one has been bigger than Damian Lillard.
Lillard, in his second season and playoff debut, has risen to the occasion. He averaged 20.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 0.8 steals in the regular season – solid numbers from one of the best young point guards in the league. However, in round one against the Houston Rockets, Lillard increased his per game averages to 25.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.3 steals.
There were doubts about how well Lillard would perform in his first postseason appearance. Lillard quickly proved that he is not afraid of the big moments by putting up big numbers and giving Houston all it could handle throughout the series. It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering Lillard’s upbringing in Oakland.
“He (Lillard) doesn’t get rattled,” Gary Payton told SI.com earlier this season. That quality comes from Oakland, from the neighborhoods, from going into other gyms and getting challenged.”
It seems that Payton knew what he was talking about.
Lillard has done his damage in many different ways. He is driving to the basket more in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, according to the NBA’s SportsVU player tracking system. He is shooting at a higher percentage, and finishing on clutch plays at the rim (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35cgR8TeFfY) rather than repeatedly settling for pull-up three pointers. His drives are also creating more opportunities for his teammates to score around the rim and on open looks from beyond the arc, which in part explains Lillard’s increase in assists over his season averages. He is also shooting a blistering 48.9 percent from three point range, making 23-of-47 from beyond the arc in the first round. In Game 6, he shot 6-of-10 from three-point range, the last one being the series winner.
Lillard’s buzzer-beater is about as rare of a shot as there is. There are game-winning shots, and then there are series-winning shots. Ralph Sampson of the Houston Rockets made a series-winning shot in 1986 against the Los Angeles Lakers to advance to the NBA Finals. Michael Jordan hit “The Shot” in 1989 against the Cleveland Cavaliers to advance to the second round. John Stockton hit a series-winning three-pointer against the Houston Rockets in 1997 to advance to the NBA Finals. Now, Damian Lillard has one against the Rockets, ending a 14-year playoff drought in Portland.
Portland entered the postseason with some momentum, but it came after a long stretch of inconsistent play. Most NBA fans and experts predicted that the Rockets would take the series behind the star power of James Harden and Dwight Howard. Lillard, Aldridge and the Blazers proved them wrong. Now, Lillard and the Blazers wait to play either the San Antonio Spurs or Dallas Mavericks. Both Texas teams are playing well. Both teams feature championship coaches and Hall of Fame players. The Spurs will be favored, and the Mavericks- if they advance- will have a big edge in terms of postseason experience.
Coaching, experience, championships, Hall of Fame players, it may not matter. With Lillard and Aldridge playing at such a high level, Portland can compete with anyone in the Western Conference. They still are not a great team defensively, giving up 109.8 points per 100 possessions, but their offense is currently leading all playoffs teams at 111.8 points per 100 possessions. With 40-point performances from Aldridge, and Lillard shooting close to 50 percent from three point range, driving to the rim and dishing out more assists, this team is a threat to beat anyone. Houston found that out first-hand. Whether it is the Spurs or Mavericks that advance, round two looks to be just as fun as round one, except for maybe Rick Carlisle or Gregg Popovich, who will have to figure out how to slow down Lillard. Good luck.
Honorable mention goes to Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors. With Andrew Bogut injured, David Lee slumping and now Jermaine O’Neal injured, Green has been huge for the Warriors. He is not hitting game winners like Lillard, or putting up 40-point games like Aldridge. However, Green has jumped into the starting lineup for Mark Jackson and delivered hard screens to give Stephen Curry some breathing room, slowed down Blake Griffin, hit timely shots and secured the biggest rebound of Game 6 on Thursday, outworking DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford. With Paul dealing with an injured hamstring, and Collison unable to fight through Green’s tough screens, Curry has found his stride in the series. Green isn’t a star, but the Warriors probably would not have made it to Game 7 without him.
– Jesse Blancarte
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”