After a long regular season full of snaps and strains, travails and terrors and 715,973 canned arena demands that “ev-ry-bo-dy clap yo hands,” the NBA’s postseason is set to tip off this weekend. With that in place, the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each first-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
Which team do you think will win the series, and in how many games? Vote here to let us know what you think.
Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
There will be some NBA observers who cannot wait to remind you that the Milwaukee Bucks, for whatever reason, seem to have the Miami Heat’s number. They will infer that, amongst all the mediocre NBA teams out there (and after finishing the season at 38-44, smartening up the Bucks to the ranks of the mediocre is pushing it), that Milwaukee has a good chance of extending their first-round deal with the defending champs.
These people are incorrect, in their glassy-eyed, half-full hopes.
This isn’t some ploy to draw eyes toward what could be a snoozer of a one-sided series, but just the natural optimism that comes from talking yourself into thinking that a solid basketball team full of pretty good players could have a chance to manufacture a competitive series against one of the better NBA teams of all time. Milwaukee comes correct with two potent scorers in the backcourt in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, waterbugs who would seem to be oblivious to LeBron James’ defensive whims in their hotter moments, and the Bucks feature enough plucky frontcourt athletes to match the Heat’s small-ball attack.
This is all bollocks, of course. Because it took the Heat just the second half of the 2012-13 season (starting on Jan. 30, for the defending champs) to rack up as many wins as the Bucks have in a campaign that started on Nov. 2. The idea of a “gentleman’s sweep,” a nouveau term designating a one-sided five-game series, seems like the safest way to go until you realize that the Bucks have to actually beat Miami while working in Milwaukee sometime on either next Thursday or next Sunday. The ancient NBA axiom that holds downing any pro team four times in four tries as some sort of monumental accomplishment still sustains — but let’s not forget that the 2012-13 Heat are a walking, talking monumental accomplishment.
An accomplishment working with assurances, and confidence, as the Heat take to games 83 through 86. Milwaukee doesn’t have that same luxury, and while I don’t like playing a pop psychologist and anticipating a frayed team, all the signs are there.
Jennings will be a restricted free agent this summer, and the Bucks have given him no assurances that they’ll match any offer he receives on the open market, much less offer their young point guard a contract extension full-stop. Ellis could decide to test a seller’s market this summer after a fantastic March (April? Not so much) and opt out of the last year of his contract. And the Bucks front office has made no lasting commitment to interim head coach Jim Boylan after his 22-28 run as Bucks lead man — a step down from the 16-16 work that Scott Skiles turned in to start the year.
This isn’t to say that the Bucks will fall apart and go into conniptions as a 24-foot chucking heap the first time Dwyane Wade springs from the weak side to block a layup attempt. Still, it could mean that Milwaukee may have issues keeping concentration against a Heat team that demands you play just about every possession perfectly on either side of the ball, lest one slip-up (a bad pass on offense, a turned head on defense) result in that eventual easy dunk.
The Bucks certainly have enough talent, depth, and temerity to possibly take a game or even two from the Heat over the course of the first round. That’s the case with most NBA teams, though, and that didn’t stop Miami from peeling off a 37-2 record to finish their regular season. Miami knocked off 37 ducks in 39 tries, including a series of lame-duck teams that the Bucks somewhat resemble.
If a 3-0 deficit arises, it’s worth expecting that these Bucks will start to look extremely lame duck, in anticipation of what could be a tumultuous offseason. That timing is irrespective of the Heat’s influence. Miami’s just around to make things worse.
PREDICTION: Heat in 4.
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements — a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. — that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos" comes from the song "Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
Miami Heat: Just keep doing what you’re doing. All of it.
When you’re as good as Miami is, and facing an opponent as likely to be overwhelmed as Milwaukee is, X-factors don’t really enter into the equation too much. In terms of chaos, though? Miami’s standard operating gear ought to bring more than enough chaos for the Bucks.
Miami’s tops in the league in overall points scored per possession, effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the fact that 3-pointers are worth more than 2-pointers) and True Shooting percentage (which also factors in the value of free throws), according to NBA.com’s stat tool.
They’re No. 1 in points produced on isolation possessions, post-ups, plays finished by roll men in the pick-and-roll game, spot-up shots and off-ball cuts, and No. 2 in points produced in transition, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s play-tracking data.
They’re No. 1 in the league in field-goal percentage inside the restricted area, No. 1 in the league in corner 3-point attempts, No. 2 in the league in 3-point percentage, and are capable of compromising even elite defenses with movement, precision and preternatural gifts.
Also, they do stuff like this. Like, a lot:
Yeah, you’ll bring more than enough chaos for the Bucks, I think.
Milwaukee Bucks: Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra decides to play neither LeBron James nor Dwyane Wade in Games 1 through 4.
This would definitely introduce some chaos into the opening round.
Maybe LeBron asks for a few days off to take care of some wedding planning stuff. Maybe Wade’s editor’s on his case about turning around the final revisions for the paperback edition of “A Father First” and he’s got to beg off to pull an all-nighter or two next week because dammit, man, you can’t just keep missing deadlines. Maybe Spo looks down his bench and says, “Something something trust something something process something something passion,” and decides to roll with a Jarvis Varnado-Chris Andersen-Rashard Lewis-James Jones-Mike Miller lineup out of the gate in the interest of building togetherness. If that happens, I think Milwaukee can really make a run at this thing.
Sorry, Bucks fans. I’m just having a hard time seeing an honest-to-goodness series-shifting switch your squad can flip to reverse the polarity of this series that doesn’t involve the Heat’s top two options not playing. (Please do not take this as an endorsement of star-centric vigilantism. I am adamantly anti-taking-pipes-to-legs.)
That said, since Wade played (and played well) in Miami’s season finale and it seems unlikely that Spoelstra will keep LeBron on ice, the Bucks’ best shot at mixing things up is probably going to be to try to force turnovers like crazy.
Milwaukee doesn’t really do much well offensively. They ranked among the league’s bottom 10 teams in points scored per possession, field-goal percentage, free-throw rate and percentage, effective field goal and True Shooting Percentage throughout the course of the season. Synergy identifies pick-and-rolls and transition opportunities as the only kinds of offensive plays in which the Bucks finished in the top half of the league in points produced per possession.
Their offensive numbers have nosed up a bit since the J.J. Redick trade, but we’re still talking about a below-average offensive team heavily reliant on scoring explosions from Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, two notoriously inconsistent 40-percent shooters. So it doesn’t seem likely that the Bucks are going to hang very long just by running their stuff and relying on a lower-tier offense. So, instead, let’s look at their D.
They force turnovers on 16.4 percent of opponents’ offensive possessions, which ties them with the New York Knicks for the fifth-best mark in the league and just barely trails the Heat (16.5 percent) for fourth. They score 18 points per game off said turnovers, which ties them (with the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves) for fifth-best in the league, just a tick behind the Oklahoma City Thunder (18.2) and a little more than a tick behind the Heat (18.6). Both of those numbers are down since the Redick deal, but they’re still (roughly) a top-10 team in terms of forcing miscues and capitalizing off them.
In the one game Milwaukee won against Miami this season — a 104-85 win at the BMO Harris Bradley Center back on Dec. 29, 2012 — the Bucks forced 21 Miami turnovers, scoring 25 points off them, which proved to be a massive difference in a game in which neither team shot particularly well (43.4 percent for the Heat, 40.8 percent for the Bucks). Well, “forced” might not be totally accurate — a number of the cough-ups came courtesy of the Heat playing at half-speed or walking through possessions — but still, those are the kinds of opportunities Milwaukee must seize.
If Mario Chalmers throws a lazy entry pass to the post, his defender’s got to make a well-timed reach. If Dwyane Wade or Ray Allen steps a bit too wide or slowly on a dribble handoff up top, Milwaukee’s defenders have to be ready with a precise poke. When that five-out, acres-of-space ball movement Miami’s so famously favored this season triggers a cross-court skip pass, the Bucks must be ready to shoot the gap and come up with a deflection or a steal. Their primary perimeter defenders are gamblers anyway — might as well turn into the skid and let them loose.
Overplay passing lanes, have your hands up and out at all times, contest the ball every time it goes in the air and concede nothing, and you might give your O more chances to get buckets by increasing the number of possessions you create against one of the NBA’s best defenses (and its best in points allowed per possession since March 1). Even if you don’t create turnovers every time, you might disrupt the metronome-precise timing of the NBA’s No. 1 offense, forcing them to trigger secondary actions and momentarily bumping them off course. It could upset the wrecking-crew rhythm Miami’s been in for the past three months.
Or, y’know, you might gamble and lose, give up even easier buckets than if you’d hung back and tried to just man up. That, too, is very possible. But when you’re as outmanned and outclassed as the Bucks are in this 1 vs. 8 matchup, you might as well go down throwing haymakers.
PREDICTION: Heat in 4.
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
Dwyane Wade: It goes without saying that Wade’s lofty standing in the NBA will not be affected much by a first-round series against a weak Bucks team. Yet, if the 2012 postseason serves as an example, his overall performance from mid-April to what we assume will be mid-June should change the broad perception of his abilities. Last spring, injuries, the natural loss of some of his generationally great athleticism, and LeBron’s ascendance conspired to drop Wade to clear second-star status below the best player in the league. And while that doesn’t mean D3 is not a superstar, the old question about whether the Heat belong to him or James is a moot issue.
Wade is a great player, and his 2012-13 stats show that he’s adapting his game to fit the changes that come with age, becoming efficient in new, if less bombastic, ways. But there’s a big difference between seeing a player as a star and as one of the leading lights in all of basketball. No matter what happens this postseason, Wade will still be one of the few players capable of leading a national ad campaign by himself. Consistent play, with a few games in which he rescues the Heat from disaster, would ensure that he remains in the conversation as one of the four or five best players in the league for another year.
Mario Chalmers: Watch any Heat game and you’re likely to see James and Wade yell at Chalmers half-a-dozen times after missed rotations and turnovers. At times, it seems as if Chalmers is blamed for every mistake the team makes, as if his mere presence were the only thing standing between Miami and a flawless 82-0 season.
That’s obviously not the case, because Chalmers’ stellar spot-up 3-point shooting and improved decision-making are big reasons the Heat appear to be bigger favorites to win the title this season than they were a year ago. Look past the needling from James and Wade, and Chalmers appears to be growing into the kind of essential role player who helps superstars become champions. If Chalmers continues to play that part and the Heat see more team success, he could build that reputation. With one more year left on his contract, it could also be the accomplishment that puts Chalmers out of the Heat’s price range in the summer of 2014.
Monta Ellis: Offensive efficiency becomes more widely acknowledged as paramount with every passing season, and Ellis’s reputation has declined accordingly. For all his talent and scoring ability, Ellis can’t escape the fact that he takes lots of bad shots. After eight seasons, he is who he is, and it’s not worth expecting him to reverse all his habits simply because the league values certain traits more than it used to. The good news for Ellis is that his type isn’t totally absent from the league — they’re just not suited to be the primary option on a good team. As Jamal Crawford has shown in his stints with the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers, a volume shooter can play a major role on a solid squad if he contributes enough in other areas to justify his profligacy.
Ellis hasn’t quite earned that belief from the vast majority of NBA observers, but his several double-digit assist games following the Bucks’ addition of J.J. Redick suggest that he has the capability. While there’s virtually no chance that the Bucks will win this series, Monta can attract a quality suitor in free agency if he manages to fill the stat sheet in several games against the Heat. He doesn’t even have to win a game — he just has to show the ability to contribute to what the majority views as winning basketball.
Brandon Jennings: Based on his current standing with the Bucks, it’s hard to believe that Jennings was (very momentarily) the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year honors in the first few months of the 2009-10 season. Jennings has never shot 42 percent from the floor, hasn’t developed into a particularly great facilitator, and often disappears on defense. Worse yet, he’s become the most convenient target for criticism on a team with no clear identity. It’s as if his failure to develop into a star has retarded any long-term plans for the franchise. (Never mind that management allowed now-deposed head coach Scott Skiles to enter this season as the most obvious lame duck in recent history, or that the team acquired Monta knowing full well that he replicates many of Jennings’s best attributes.)
If Ellis is a player who can forge a new path for his career, then Jennings looks like someone with a dwindling number of options. It’s possible that no matter how well he plays in this series, the Bucks’ near-certain defeat will be seen as a reflection of his limits.
PREDICTION: Heat in 4.
More first-round previews from Ball Don’t Lie: