A few things to keep an eye on in Friday night's trio of pivotal Game 3 showdowns:
Can Houston do anything to slow down LaMarcus Aldridge?
In case you hadn't heard, the Blazers' All-Star power forward spent the better part of Games 1 and 2 stomping the Rockets defense so viciously and summarily that we can only assume it was some sort of viral marketing for the "Godzilla" reboot.
He has scored 89 points in 81 minutes of floor time, shooting 59.3 percent from the floor by both splashing jumpers over all manner of Rockets defense and using his quickness and strength to get to the front of the rim (and to the free-throw line, where he's 17 for 21 through two games). He has beaten Terrence Jones:
... and Dwight Howard:
... and Omer Asik:
... and he has done so repeatedly, playing a force-of-nature brand of basketball that has often seemed indefensible en route to leading the Blazers to a commanding 2-0 series lead. So, how do the Rockets defend it?
It's tempting to consider this a case of a player performing way, way, way over his head and to wait for a little bit of regression to the mean to kick in, and that's probably going to come to pass at some point; you wouldn't expect Aldridge to continue to put up 44 points a game on 60 percent shooting ad infinitum. But it's not like Aldridge's explosion comes out of nowhere — he averaged just under 27 points per game on 45 percent shooting against Houston in four regular-season meetings this season, and 30 points per game on 56 percent shooting against Kevin McHale's club over four regular-season matchups last season. Even if he cools off from his engulfed-in-flames start to the postseason, it's a reasonable bet that he will continue to roast this defense if left to his own devices.
One option for McHale — albeit something of a radical one — might be starting Asik alongside Howard rather than bringing him off the bench midway through the first quarter. Aldridge has still gotten buckets when defended by Asik, but the big Turk has been marginally more effective in one-on-one coverage (23 Aldridge points on 50 percent shooting, according to SportVU's matchup data) than Howard (23 points, 66.7 percent) and Jones (24 points, 62.5 percent).
Lineups featuring the Howard/Asik twin towers alignment have been far stouter (allowing just 87.1 points per 100 possessions over the first two games) than the Rockets' D as a whole (112.5-per-100), but the duo's only seen 12 minutes, due in large part to McHale's concern about how having two non-shooting big men on the floor gums up Houston's offense. It's a valid concern — Howard-Asik lineups scored just 88.6 points-per-100 during 104 regular-season minutes (which would have been miles worse than the Philadelphia 76ers' league-worst offense) and have scored at an even more pitiful 77.1-per-100 clip through their microscopic 12-minute sample. Still, given the hemorrhaging Houston has suffered at Aldridge's hands, going big and burly early to, if nothing else, prevent Aldridge from getting warmed up so easily in Game 3 might be worth some extra lurch on the offensive end.
Another option worth trying, as floated by Red94's Michael Pina in an excellent breakdown: change up the pick-and-roll coverage to avoid the sorts of hard hedges and high traps that wind up getting beaten by quick pitch-backs from Damian Lillard that leave Aldridge with all sorts of room to collect and fire:
If Howard and Asik continue to show and hedge that’s … fine, but only as long as everyone else supports them with perfect help rotations. Those aren’t likely on a team featuring Harden, [Chandler] Parsons, and Jeremy Lin. Houston should experiment with a little bit of everything on defense, including switching pick-and-rolls (only with Howard, even though he’s been slow of foot lately) and reverting back to the conservative “drop down” approach that helped make this a top-10 defense all year long.
One thing the Rockets probably don't want to do, as ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh notes, is start double-teaming Aldridge:
[...] here's why you don't throw multiple bodies at him: That's exactly what the 3-point-slinging Blazers want you to do. They're built to take advantage of the Aldridge overplay, flanking him with elite 3-point shooters Wes Matthews (39.3 percent), Damian Lillard (39.4 percent) and Nicolas Batum (36.1 percent). The result is that the Blazers are the third-most efficient spot-up shooting team in the league, behind the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs.
Beyond that ... um, I don't know. Pray? Because if Aldridge is shooting on Friday like he shot in the first two games in this series, the Rockets are going to need a power quite a bit higher than Superman to prevent an 0-3 deficit.
Which team can get off the schneid from deep?
As we noted in our Nets-Raptors series preview, these are two teams that loved to bomb away from deep this season. After Jan. 1 — right around the time when the Nets' post-Brook Lopez-injury small-ball identity began to coalesce, and shortly after the Raptors got acclimated to life without Rudy Gay — Brooklyn (33 percent) and Toronto (just under 30 percent) ranked first and fifth in the league in share of field-goal attempts generated beyond the arc, with the Raptors ranking fourth in the NBA in team 3-point accuracy in 2014 (38.4 percent) and the Nets ranking ninth (36.8 percent).
Through the first two games of the postseason, though, it's been an absolute rock-fight from the perimeter. The Nets have gone 11 for 48 (22.9 percent) from deep in the series, while the Raptors have gone 10 for 39 (25.6 percent), with the worst offenders on either side being wings Paul Pierce (2 for 11 from long range, including a couple of critical misses late in Game 2) and Terrence Ross (1 for 9 from deep). Making matters worse, as NBA.com's John Schuhmann notes, many of these looks have been open:
According to SportVU, 58 of Brooklyn’s 87 jump shots (67 percent) have been uncontested, and they’ve shot just 19-for-58 (33 percent) on those uncontested jumpers, down from 40 percent on uncontested jumpers in the regular season.
“We’ve had good looks,” [Deron] Williams said Thursday. “We just got to stay confident and keep doing what we’re doing. We’re moving the ball. We’re getting open looks. We just got to knock them down.” [...]
The Raptors could say the same thing. Their numbers haven’t regressed quite as much as Brooklyn’s, but they shot just 10-for-39 (26 percent) from 3-point range and just 18-for-48 (38 percent) on uncontested jumpers in the first two games, according to SportVU.
As William Lou of Raptors Republic sees it, the Raptors desperately need sophomore Ross — who shot 39.5 percent from deep during the regular season, and whose icy turn on the perimeter (combined with some foul trouble) has led to him being largely a non-factor through the first two games — to get warmed up in the hostile environment of the Barclays Center:
The Nets’ shooting woes are bound to end, it’s just a matter of when. In essence, it’s a matter of arbitrage — can players like Terrence Ross snap out of their funks before the Nets end theirs? Ross has only managed to score 5 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the field, and the Raptors have found much more success with him off the court, rather than on. Ross will invariably struggle with Johnson on offense, but he has to help his cause by doing a better job of running Johnson through a maze of screens on the other end. The Raptors can ill-afford Ross’ slump to persist.
Expect both teams to ratchet up the defensive intensity to take away some of those open looks in Game 3, but if the opportunities continue to present themselves — whether as a result of the Raptors generating penetrate-and-pitch chances out of the pick-and-roll, or the Nets creating looks via post-ups leading to kickouts — expect whichever team can pry the lid off the basket first to find themselves in the driver's seat for a 2-1 advantage.
Will Tom Thibodeau be willing to juggle his lineup in search of offense?
The Bulls head coach is famously loyal to the guys who sell out for him, who give him everything they can, and who do the things he asks of them on the defensive end. Through the first two games of this series, though, his preferred rotation has proven largely unable to finish games — Chicago's been outscored by an average of 32.3 points per 100 possessions over 24 fourth-quarter minutes this series, mustering a sub-Howard-and-Asik level of offensive efficiency of 77 points-per-100 while shooting just 35.3 percent from the floor and going 0 for 9 from 3-point range. (The numbers for overtime in Game 2 were even worse.)
Thibodeau, Joakim Noah and the rest of the Bulls rushed to defend guard Kirk Hinrich after his disastrous missed free throw late in Game 2, but he's a -25 in 61 total minutes over the first two games of this series, he's missed six of his eight 3-point shots, and as Blog-a-Bull's Ricky O'Donnell noted, his insertion for Mike Dunleavy Jr. in the fourth quarter of Game 2 allowed Wizards swingman Trevor Ariza to slide over and guard D.J. Augustin, all but taking the Bulls' offensive point guard out of the game down the stretch.
Getting Dunleavy — a 38 percent shooter during the regular season, hitting at 36 percent through two playoff games, a threat off the catch-and-shoot who also has the size to see over the top of the defense and the passing acumen to make a play off the bounce — back on the floor might have helped unlock the Wizards' clamp-down defense and given the Augustin-Noah pick-and-roll more room to operate. But the lineup with which Thibodeau closes games was the lineup with which Thibodeau closed the game, and the result was an offensive drought that sunk Chicago and sent the Bulls to D.C. down 0-2.
Thibodeau is famously loathe to make major midstream personnel adjustments, but with the Bulls' backs against the wall, he's got to do something to gin up more offense. He's limited Carlos Boozer to first and third quarters as a means of reducing the damage Boozer's defense can do, but he might need to at least dust him off for a spell and see how it works. Dunleavy should see more time, and it might not be a bad idea to give rookie Tony Snell — a capable catch-and-shoot option with some athleticism and, above all else, fresh legs — a bit more spin in hopes of striking a combination that can string together positive offensive sequences.
We wouldn't expect Thibodeau to reinvent himself overnight, but to hear Taj Gibson talk prior to Game 3, there could be some mix-and-match in the works, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
[...] Gibson offered a surprising, unsolicited comment about the Bulls’ late-game rotation following Friday’s morning shootaround at the Verizon Center.
“I look forward to seeing a lot of different guys in the lineup late in the fourth,” Gibson said. [...]
“We’ve been having good looks,” Gibson said. “We just couldn’t knock them down. Normally, guys like myself, Kirk and D.J. we knock certain kind of shots down. In the playoffs, it’s been different. There are no excuses. We have to handle business. We know a lot of different plays with Thibs.”
It's time for Thibs to break out every last one of them, because if he doesn't, his tough and resilient group could be 48 minutes away from an early vacation.
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