On May 2, 2017, the Golden State Warriors will host the Utah Jazz for Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals. The Jazz come into the match up after closing out the Los Angeles Clippers in a commanding Game 7 victory on the road at Staples Center. In contrast, the Warriors long ago finished a sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers on April 24.
In all time head-to-head match ups, the Jazz have won 104 of 177 total regular season games. Consider this to be the only place where the Jazz can claim just about any sort of edge between the two franchises. In the playoffs, the Warriors have won two of the three series match ups. The last time two franchises met, they also played in the Western Conference Semifinals in 2007. In that match up, the Jazz defeated the Warriors in five games and took down the “We Believe” Warriors, who had just upset the first-seeded Dallas Mavericks. In a quest to avenge the past as the team marches forward, the Warriors will be hosting many players from the “We Believe” team and honoring their historic upset of the Mavericks (before being eliminated by the Jazz).
Ten years later the two teams meet again and this time, the Jazz are the severe underdogs. In fact, the odds are out from Vegas and they are astonishingly bad for the Jazz. Notably, the Warriors come into this series after winning each of their regular season games against the Jazz by an average of 18 points.
Of all playoff teams so far, the Warriors have the league’s lowest turnover percentage, the highest true shooting percentage, the second-highest team assist percentage and are third in offensive rating. In addition, the Warriors currently sport a dominating plus/minus of 18 in four playoff games. The team does a great job of executing their sets, moving the ball without turning it over and scoring a lot of points efficiently. Simply put, they win and they win by a lot.
Based on plus/minus, the Warriors possess the top three two-man lineups — including combinations of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — the top-two three-man lineups if you add in in Zaza Pachulia and the top five four-man lineups when you add in Kevin Durant to the mix. The starting five for the Warriors, in almost any combination, has been unstoppable.
Although the majority of the Warriors’ best players are perimeter players, the team as a whole does a great job of getting to the rim and scoring. In the playoffs, they shoot 30 shots a game at the rim (five feet or less, and ranked 2nd among teams still in the playoffs) and are shooting 60.8 percent (tied for 4th) on those shots. That is in addition to their hot shooting on perimeter shots (3rd place on shots from 20-24 feet and from 25-29 feet). The Warriors score all over the floor, which includes getting to the rim at a high rate. That puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses, which Portland experienced firsthand in the first round.
After only needing four games to dispatch the Trail Blazers, the Warriors come into this series well rested and presumably well prepared. They are hungry to avenge their stunning Finals collapse last season and are ready to quickly dispatch any team on their way to a presumed rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers for a historic third Finals match up in a row.
It’s clear that the Jazz are not only the underdog in this series, but are over-matched talent wise and face astonishingly bad odds in this series. So what can the Jazz do to maximize their odds? Follow Head Coach Quin Snyder’s game plan and execute their offense at their usual methodical pace. As stated above, the Warriors haven’t played since April 24. If the long layoff causes the Warriors to have a slow start to Game 1, perhaps the Jazz can take advantage and jump out to an early lead.
In the regular season, the Jazz played at the league’s slowest pace and the Warriors played at the fourth fastest pace. In the playoffs, of the teams remaining, only the San Antonio Spurs play at a slower pace than Utah so far, while the Warriors play at the fastest pace. In sum, there is a huge contrast in style between these teams. The Warriors want to run up and down the floor and if given the chance will blow a game wide open and look to run up the score, while the Jazz will try to muck up the game with defensive pressure.
In the regular season, the Jazz posted the league’s third-best defensive rating, just behind the Warriors and Spurs, which helped make them a sleeper choice for playoff success. While the Warriors have maintained their overall excellence (first among all playoff teams) with a net rating of 18.3, the Jazz have fallen off their pace (seventh of all playoff teams) with a net rating of 1.8.
Even if the Jazz can execute on offense and slow the game down, they will need to return to the high level of defensive excellence that marked their regular season play. However, part of that formula may be out of their control. The Jazz were able to rely on a healthy Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Rudy Gobert in 81 of 82 regular season games. Although he has since returned from a hyper-extended knee in Game 1, Gobert has continued to look less than 100 percent with his scoring, rebounding and mobility at least slightly compromised. If Gobert can play up to his regular season level, look for the Jazz to attempt to play one-on-one defense on the perimeter, stay home on shooters and allow Gobert to protect any penetration at the rim. The Jazz have a roster especially built for this as they have a plethora of capable wing depth. This will allow Utah to disrupt passing lanes, force Golden State into contested jumpers and could lead to easy baskets in transition.
Although the Jazz have seemed to settle on a strategy where Gobert and Derrick Favors mostly alternate at center, Gobert getting into foul trouble in Game 7 allowed Favors to shine as he pulled down 11 rebounds and scored 17 points on 8-11 shooting. If either of these players can be especially effective down low, look for Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green to shift down low to help contain. Warriors’ centers Pachulia and Javale McGee can be effective but less dominant on defense. Having Green focused on the interior can prevent his devastating roving abilities, help defense, which can wreak havoc on opposing offenses, and will keep him from hounding Utah’s perimeter scorers.
Other bright spots for Utah include forward Gordon Hayward’s play. If you remove the food poisoning game, Hayward has averaged 28 points, eight rebounds and four assists on 48 percent shooting from the field, 46 percent from three and 96 percent shooting from the free throw line. The strong play from the first time All-Star has been supplemented by the well-documented clutch performance from veteran Joe Johnson, who absolutely crushed the Clippers playoff hopes in multiple games. As a team, the Jazz have faced many close game situations already this postseason, whereas the Warriors haven’t played in any high-pressures games since the regular season.
What else can possibly hinder the Warriors? The team has yet to announce when head coach Steve Kerr might return. His ongoing back issues continue to hang over the franchise. Kerr has had to remove himself from coaching in the playoffs so far due to the reoccurrence of severe back pain related to complications from his back surgery and there has even been speculation that his ongoing condition could force him to retire. There have been no issues yet but perhaps the substitution of assistant coach Mike Brown might eventually disrupt some of the Warrior’s usual tendencies and dominant flow. At least former fill-in assistant coach Luke Walton had half a season to step into Kerr’s shoes. Contrast this uncertain coaching situation with the strong coaching performance of head coach Quin Snyder, who did an admirable job of adjusting and readjusting to all of the Clippers’ moves in the opening series.
Additionally, though he has returned to action and has played well, there is still some trepidation as to how forward Kevin Durant will hold up throughout the playoffs after returning from a February 28 knee injury. A subsequent calf strain limited Durant to 20 minutes in the Game 4 close out against the Trail Blazers. Although it hasn’t been an issue yet, the Warriors are under pressure to not only win a championship this season but to do so convincingly. If any of the above factors come into play, perhaps a bit of that pressure negatively affects their play.
In sum, the Warriors will most likely win this series and do so in dominating fashion. However, if some combination of potential issues listed above come into play, perhaps the Jazz have a chance, however slim, to make this a competitive series and possibly shock the world.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.
Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”
Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.
The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.
Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.
With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.
One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.
“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”
Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.
“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”
In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.
“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”
Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.
While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.
Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.
“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”
The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.
Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.
“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”
Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.
NBA Daily: The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr. is an elite prospect, but questions surrounding his back will determine his landing spot in the NBA.
The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
While some of the highly thought of college players have made their intentions on declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft known, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr still hasn’t made his proclamation. Most people in NBA circles believe he’ll be in the 2018 NBA Draft class—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think he’s in.
Back in November, the Missouri staff was somewhat vague and guarded about Porter’s condition until it was announced that he’d have back surgery on a couple of problematic discs in the lumbar area of his spine. The procedure is called a microdiscectomy and by all accounts was a success.
Porter missed virtually all of his college season but opted to play in the post-season for Missouri, who got eliminated fairly quickly.
There were certainly a lot of ugly things about Porter’s game. He looked out of shape, and certainly wasn’t the overwhelming dominating force he’d been in high school. Some executives applauded his decision to play, even though he wasn’t at a 100 percent. Some pointed to that fact that too many college players play it safe and that’s not always viewed positively. Almost no one Basketball Insiders spoke with was holding the less than stellar outing against him. In fact, most had far more positive things to say than negative. There was one resounding theme from the NBA executives who spoke about this situation—none of it matters until they see his medical.
Assuming Porter does as expected and hires an agent and enters the draft, the next challenge he’ll face is how open he wants to be to teams looking at drafting him.
In recent years, NBA teams have not shied away from using high draft picks on injured or recently injured players. Once a team can get a sense of how the player is recovering, they can make a value judgment.
Agents often use this information and access to the player to help steer their client to the situation they deem most favorable. While fans and outsiders often get caught up in the pick number a player ultimately lands at, more and more agents are concerned with fit, especially for a player that may need time to get back to 100 percent.
Most agents would want to steer their client to a team with favorable medical staff, a team with a proven track record of patience or more importantly, a team with the best chance at a long and fruitful career.
This won’t be good news for some team that could end up in the top 10, as it’s more likely that Porter isn’t made available to everyone. NBA executives will tell you, they can certainly draft him if they wanted to, but most teams won’t draft a player if their medical staff doesn’t sign off, and without information and access how can they do that?
There is a significant financial difference in going third in the draft ($5.47 million) and 10th ($2.964 million) – but several agents commented that the short-term money shouldn’t drive the long-term decision, especially if the player isn’t 100 percent. The fit and situation typically trump everything in these situations.
Another concept to consider is while Porter did play, there are questions about whether he’ll host a pro-day, take part in private team workouts or simply let his body of work drive his draft value.
Almost no one who spoke about this situation believed Porter would take part in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, as he’d have to subject himself to the medical testing that’s part of that event.
The common perception on Porter is he’s a top-five talent, although it seems more likely that his camp is going to try and work the process to ensure he lands in a favorable situation. That could mean he falls out of top-five selections, simply because he and his agents choose to.
There is still a lot that needs to play out for Porter, including his announcement that he will enter the draft. But given where things stand with him, it’s more likely than not he’s coming into the draft, and it’s more likely than not he’ll have a lot of questions NBA teams will want to understand before his real draft position is clear.
The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago this year and is scheduled for May 15th. The annual Draft Combine, also in Chicago, gets underway on May 16th.
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